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This Year, Costly Rice for Hungry Ghosts

In the provincial darkness of an early morning last week, the traditional "Song of Crying Souls" blared from a loudspeaker lashed to a coconut tree. The song was a call to the "pret," ghosts condemned to hell who cannot walk the earth by day, to Russey pagoda, in Battambang province, to receive offerings of rice and sugarcane.

This time of year, during the Pchum Ben festival, relatives of the dead amass at pagodas like this one to throw rice to hungry ghosts. And this year, more than others, that ceremony is getting expensive. In the face of high prices and an estimated 25 percent inflation rate this year, devotees seem undeterred, throwing an immeasurable amount of rice in the dirt.

Around 300 people travel to Russey pagoda—one of more than 5,000 in Cambodia—each night during Pchum Ben, a 15-day Buddhist ceremony that culminates Monday and Tuesday.

Venerable Ratanak Pho, a senior monk at Russey pagoda, explained that the souls of criminals who have robbed or killed, or those who maltreated their parents or eaten monk's food before monks, will become pret. (An even worse hell is reserved for the souls of those who kill their parents, incite violence among monks, or, traditionally, shed the blood of the Buddha.)

These souls cannot eat from traditional alms plates, but must eat rice offerings from the ground, he said.

"We don't put the rice on plates to offer them because those whose souls are born as pret cannot eat food from plates or any clean material," Ratanak Pho said. This process is called "bayben."

Bayben is signaled to the pret by the sounds of drums, and at Russey pagoda, the howls of dogs accompanied pre-dawn drumming. People began to throw their rice-ball offerings on the ground, along with sugarcane and cakes.

Behind them walked five young boys, the hungry living. What the boys didn't get, the neighborhood dogs snatched.

One of those who offered rice was Ung Reaksmey, from a nearby village, who said he would spend seven mornings at the pagoda, making offerings to his grandparents, uncles and aunts, who all died nearby under the Khmer Rouge.

"We cook one can of rice to share among four or five or us," he said.

Across Cambodia, millions will follow this pattern, at a time when the price of rice has steadily risen, costing up to 3,500 riel, or $0.87, per kilogram, a rise that prompted an export ban by Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this year.

Yang Sang Koma, director of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, warned that people should reduce some of their bayben offerings this year.

"I think we should save rice from the ceremony, because we should feel sorry for the loss of rice," he said. "The production of rice is getting harder than before. Cambodian tradition holds that everyone should go to at least seven pagodas, but I think once is enough for the ceremony. It appears extravagant to go so many times."

If only 4 million of Cambodia's 14 million people threw bayben just once over the ceremony, it would amount to 250 tons or rice for ghosts.

"Everyone thinks it's a little, but if we add it together and multiply by many days, it would be too much," Yang Sang Koma said. "We should realize that at present, there are many people who starve and cannot buy rice to eat."

Such conservation might be a tough sell. During Pchum Ben, Cambodians make offerings of bayben because they are unsure if their loved ones have become pret. They throw rice just in case, and if their ancestors are not pret, at least some pret will eat.

The area around Russey pagoda, in Battambang's Morng Russey district, is full of ghosts. It was the regional security headquarters for the Khmer Rouge, making it an enormous prison. Thousands of Cambodians, evicted from their homes, were brought here for interrogation. Some were murdered by cadre of the regime; others starved to death.

"They were brought here for questioning at the temple," said Yurk Pheung, chief of Russey pagoda, who had just finished early-morning bayben chanting. "They went missing after questioning. We don't know where they were sent, or went to. Wives and children could only wait. Some lost fathers. Others lost mothers."

The Khmer Rouge of nearby Boeung Bei village were notoriously cruel, he said, killing hundreds of families, perhaps as many as 20,000 people.

"Some were smashed to death," the monk said. "Others were not, but died of starvation. Some died from overwork and lie down in the rice fields. In 1979, I came to look for gold buried with the dead. I saw skulls here and there."

Before dawn scattered the souls of the departed, Chhay Chan Theany, who lost her mother, four siblings, a grandfather, grandmother, and four uncles and aunts, placed her own rice in the grass, to keep the dirt off.

"Well," she said simply, "they died of starvation at Boeung Bei village."

It was her first bayben ceremony this year, she said, adding, "If I have a chance, I will come again."