Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 6 – Sunday at the Field, the Monks’ Ceremony

The spirit house was up, though not yet running, and the only thing left to do was return to the market to purchase all the items we intended to give away on our final Sunday at the village. At one time, I enjoyed dealing with the market women, but as I written in the past, the older market ladies are too tough for me, they survived the Khmer Rouge and have no trouble deflecting my request for the Khmer price. Once again, it was time to send in Cinnamon.

It was Saturday when Donald and I met Cinnamon and the three of us headed out to the market on Route 6, called the New Market to distinguish it from the Old Market in the center of Siem Reap. I have often written about this place, frenetic activity beneath a ceiling garlanded with ancient cobwebs and insect corpses. If it was not for the people in our village, I would never set foot in this place, where the air is hot and stale and the humidity so high that it shrink wraps you into a film of sweat. The aisles are very narrow and you constantly have to watch your back to avoid being run down by maniacal drivers of over loaded motos and shirtless workers recklessly wielding hand carts as they attempt to deliver merchandise or take it away.

In addition to the usual purchases, we needed to buy those items necessary for the spirit house to function and the things the monks would need during the ceremony. We followed Cinnamon to the wholesale side of the market where stalls are filled with bundles of assorted clothing stacked up in rows. If inventory is a sign of prosperity, then these people were doing well. After Cinnamon introduced us to one of her aunt”s friends, we sat down on small stools and waited patiently while they talked, hoping the subject matter was the cost of the merchandise. The prices we were offered may not have been the best, but they were good enough. Time had now passed and the while heat of the morning, having breached the walls of the market, weighed heavily on us, we began to make our selections. As large flies buzzed above us, we gathered up merchandise with one hand and swatted the flies with the other. Finally, Donald and I counted out ninety-six children”s shorts in assorted sizes, ninety-six children”s tee shirts in assorted sizes, twenty-four lengths of material used by the women as sarongs and twenty-four long pants for the young girls. Looking around, I realized the flies were being supplied by the butcher in a nearby stall and even now as I write about this I can still see the head of a pig sitting on his counter as flies crawled in and out of its nose and ears. Sometimes, Cambodia is not for the squeamish.

After the clothing section, we found the people selling shoes and after another discussion, we settled on the price and bought thirty-six pairs of shoes. This was followed by a visit to the woman who sold bars of soap. Last year, I bought Lux soap for twenty-five cents per bar and this year I refused to pay the new price of thirty cents. When this woman offered the soap at twenty-seven cents, we agreed to buy one hundred bars. After this we bought from her one hundred bags of soap powder along with one hundred bottles of cooking oil. We bought twenty-five pounds of rice for Tuit”s mother and upon Cinnamon”s advice we bought rice from Battambang Province. Located in northwest Cambodia, this rice is reputed to be the best rice in Cambodia and in their attempt to build a brand name, it may soon be marketed in the United States. By this time both Donald and I had all we could take and were ready to leave. Happily, Cinnamon told us she would consult her friend, a young woman who was a Buddhist monk, as to what was needed for the spirit house. We gave her money to buy whatever was needed and agreed to meet her the next morning behind the police station at 10:00. She would come there on her motor bike and then, according to my plan, Eddie would drive her to the monastery to pick up the monks. I suggested she should bring her friend, after all, you cannot have too many monks. As a paraphrase on an old joke, if you want Cambodians to laugh tell them you are making plans which include their being somewhere on time.


This trip to the village included taking Tuit with us. Last year, Donald had written a lengthy article for Ultralight Magazine in which he described his experiences flying in Cambodia and along with a series of photographs, he included one of Tuit holding his model of the ultralight. Donald gave Tuit a copy of the magazine and now he was returning home after five days of school, dressed in new clothing and carrying a photo of himself in an American magazine. We were sure he had many stories to tell and he seemed very happy when we picked him up in front of his school at 9:00 Sunday morning. Before going to the field, we stopped at Tuit”s house and due to the lack of a shared language, I do not know if he was seen as the returning hero but his mother seemed happy to receive the large sack of rice. As family members crowded around us, we did not disappoint them and breaking out a bag of shoes, we made sure each person received a pair. Hopefully, they would no longer have to share shoes amongst themselves. Eddie and I got back into the car and Tuit and Donald, with a found child now riding on his shoulders, led a procession to the police station a short distance down the road.


The Sunday before, when the spirit house was installed, we asked Tia and her mother, Lam, to please spread the word that we would be there the following Sunday. We would hand out the usual “goodies” and there would be a monk to bless the spirit house. I was wondering if they would show up because in the past, the villagers would come to the field when saw the plane in the sky and now the plane was grounded. I should have known better and trusted their own version of the coconut telegraph because when Eddie and I pulled around to the back of the police station, as the countryside widened around us, we found an enormous crowd of people, anxiously awaiting our arrival. Not ever taking ourselves too seriously, over the years we know we can attract a crowd because we are giving away everyday necessities and in addition to Donald patching them up, they know we would provide a trip to the hospital if their children were really sick. Nevertheless, a certain perspective should be included, some of these people, who have become like a primary group, actually like us and look forward to our just being there. They grab hold of Donald”s arm, they try to hold his hand all the time speaking directly to him as if he should understand what they are saying. Eddie pantomimes and jokes with them and makes them laugh. When the fruit lady, called this because we have never known her name, hugs me and presents me with coconuts and palm sugar, I know she is being genuine. It is the fact that they give back to us, that which they can, like coconuts and palm sugar, that we know they do not see us as solely the source of a bar of soap or a tee shirt for their kids.

At first, I thought all was going well. We had a crowd, the blue tarp and plastic chairs had been set up, this time in front of the spirit house. I placed all the coconuts and palm sugar I had received as gifts by the spirit house and noticed the burnt incense sticks which had been placed in a plastic water bottle cut in half then filled with sand and was pleased that someone had acknowledged its existence. Donald had set up his clinic and his “patients” were lining up and Eddie was joking around with the old ladies, making them laugh as usual. Then I looked at my watch. It was 10:30 and Cinnamon and her friend had not yet arrived and they were bringing all that was needed in order for the monk to make the proper ceremony. Dr. Gene and his wife, Thea, had come out to the field just to see what was going on and she reminded me there was an urgency. According to monastic rules, Buddhist monks have to eat all their daily meals by 12:00. It was approaching 11:00 which meant we had only an hour left and still no Cinnamon. The people knew what to expect and they had all gathered around the spirit house and in their usual manner were waiting patiently. As time passed the urgency was turning into a crisis and like the White Rabbit, I was constantly checking my watch and still no Cinnamon.

Thea came to the rescue. She volunteered to drive to the monastery to pick up the monk and suggested I give money to one of the villagers and send him off on his motor bike to buy incense at one of the road side stands. All of a sudden it was as if I was looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars and what I was trying to achieve seemed more in the distance than in the present. I wanted this Sunday to be special and so far, the high tide of the past eight years was crashing onto the shores of nothingness. The métier of Cambodia always seems to include an aspect of uncertainty and just when I was about to give up, Thea returns with not only one monk but two, the village kid roared in with a sack full of incense and right behind him, Cinnamon and her friend arrived. Without any orchestration on our part, the people gather around the monks and they begin their chanting, their ceremony.


It is said that from within the eyes of the Buddha all things can be seen. I am not sure what he saw but I saw two monks stepping out of Dr. Gene”s SUV looking like they had been sent by central casting. I was happy, I now had more than what I had ordered. The older one we had seen the previous Sunday sitting under a tree smoking a cigarette and he brought along a younger one. Each had a shaved head and their traditional saffron robes were wrapped around them Buddha style with one arm left bare. The bag slung over their shoulders was part of their monk kit as well as the yellow umbrella they carried. They had left their begging bowls back at the monastery probably figuring the pickings would be slim at the village.

As they approached, a hush went through the crowd and when they sat down on the plastic chairs with the blue tarp assuming the role of a red carpet, the villagers gathered around in respectful silence. The young policeman with the roving eye, who now had shed his sarong for proper pants, took off his shoes, walked across the blue tarp and bowed low before the two monks and then, as if following their own narrative, the monks began to chant prayers. Cinnamon and her friend had also taken off their shoes and placed themselves on the tarp. They had arrived with the proper offerings of incense sticks, canned milk and lotus and were busily wrapping five dollar bills around bundles of candles, all rather generous from a young woman who makes fifty dollars a month and is supporting herself and her mother. Lotus represents Buddhist purity and incense is important in all ceremonies. Villagers, bowing in front of the monks, came forward offering coconuts and green bananas and as if out of nowhere, villagers present each monk with a brightly colored pillow as if they should be made more comfortable.

The puja, religious ceremony, was in full swing and the monks kept chanting which gave me the idea we were getting the full version of whatever was going on. Donald and I stood on the sidelines to watch and caught up in the moment I felt a welcoming breeze floating through the air rearranging the stifling humidity. Thea tapped me on the shoulder, she needed water from the water bottle I was holding to fill the bowl one of the villagers was contributing to the ceremony. I gave her my water, someone else contributed the bougainvillea blossoms which floated on top and then it was given to the older monk. The fruit lady encouraged Donald and I to sit on the mat and knowing our etiquette, we took our shoes off and placed out feet to the side, as it is improper to show a monk the bottom of your feet, and raised our hands, clasped in prayer. We sat down just in time for the water sprinkling part of the ceremony. Just like we had seen the previous Sunday, the head monk with his whisk, the ancient symbol of authority, waved it over the bowl turning my bottled water into holy water and then while chanting, sprinkled water on all of those he could reach. At this point, Cinnamon pulls out a small figure, one of the Chinese gods representing prosperity, and offers it up to the proffered water, so it too would be blessed. This was the little figure which would be placed in the spirit house” s inner sanctum. I actually think this was a Tao image but Buddhism or Taoism, it just did not seem to make any difference. The fact that she had forgotten the figurine at home was the reason she was late, all of which I hoped had no reflection on the efficiency of its future powers. The young monk performed his duties in a rather businesslike manner but the old monk was having a good time. Up close, he had a kindly face, just like you would expect, and if there is such a thing as a twinkle in your eye, then he had that too. He was thoroughly impressed with Cinnamon”s friend, the lady monk, who chanted the sutras along with him.

The ceremony concluded a few minutes before 12:00 and Eddie rushed the monks back to the monastery where I assume they took their noontime meal. But before leaving, they made sure to collect all their gifts. I know the incense was for the spirit house and the lotus is the Buddhist symbol for purity but would have to find out the religious significance of the milk. I am not sure if heaven laid a little closer to the earth but the various actors had played their parts and in the villagers came together as a group.

Once set in motion, everything seemed to progress without our input making it apparent to us, as it should to every do gooder NGO, that when dealing with people in a developing country, you do not have to do it for them, you should go no further than being an enabler and they will do the rest for themselves and if you are fortunate they will include you. As for the monks, they were there in 2002 to bless the plane before Donald and Eddie started flying and they were there at the end to bless the spirit house and the people when the plane had been grounded. There is perfect symmetry there somewhere.

Now that the ceremony was over, all eyes returned to us and it was time to get practical. No one had forgotten our car was loaded down. It was now time to hand out the goodies.


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