Ty Reaksmey took a few days off earlier this week to prepare his family for the increasing spread of the coronavirus in Cambodia. That didn’t stop him and his family from going to the Wat Kol Tor Teng, on the outskirts of the city and along the Bassac River, to take part in a nationwide blessing ceremony.
The Cambodian monks’ council last week called for all pagodas in the country to beat drums and chant prayers to bless all Cambodians, as they deal with the viral pandemic.
Reaksmey and his family attended the ceremony, diligently wearing face masks. They joined the dozens of monks to meditate and chant prayers.
“According to Dharma, we will all eventually die. I am trying to cope with the panic in me so that it doesn’t reduce my quality of work or standard of living,” Ty Reaksmey said.
Small spray bottles filled with alcohol are seen all around the pagoda, routinely used to sanitize hands. Apart from the Ty family, there no more than a dozen people participating in the ceremony.
Chief monks across the country had asked the public to not attend these blessing ceremonies because the government had banned religious gatherings.
At the wat, monks dressed in saffron robes and laymen and laywomen in pristine white garbs sit in neat rows chanting Buddhist prayers. All the while, smartphones livestream the proceedings to the believers across the country.
Outside the central hall of the pagoda, more monks and laypeople, of all ages, sit on purple squares of material on the white stone floors, again in well-distanced rows chanting along.
“Every pagoda does this to pray for happiness and to sweep away that disease, making it disappear,” said 70-year-old laywoman Saing Yoeun.
Being a relatively modest pagoda, the monotonous, punctuated sound of a small copper bell reverberates across the wat’s premises. For the next hour, all that can be heard at the pagoda is the drone of dozens of voices, chanting in unison.
Chief of Monk Venerable Phoung Sovann said the prayers and drum beating were only for inner peace and to help people deal with the pandemic spiritually.
He added it was important people follow instructions of the Ministry of Health and other global recommendations for staying safe against COVID-19, especially maintaining good hygiene.
“In Buddhism, the Buddha taught us to keep good hygiene for healthy living,” said the chief monk of Wat Kol Tor Teng. “The monks also have to clean the surrounding environment they live in.”
Venerable Phoung Sovann said the weekly Buddhist holy day gatherings had been cancelled for now and if the government did not cancel the upcoming Khmer New Year holidays, the wat would take measures to ensure the safety of visitors.
“For visitors, we will have to ask them to clean their hands with alcohol, and probably we will need to wear masks too,” said Venerable Phoung Sovann. “Besides that, we have to ensure Buddhist believers who visit the pagoda have to maintain social distancing.”
As of Thursday night, Cambodia had confirmed 98 cases of the respiratory disease, while imposing partial restrictions on large gatherings, such as religious meetings, theaters, beer gardens and karaoke bars. Schools and Universities have also been closed indefinitely.
As Cambodians wake up to daily increases in the local coronavirus tally, a few beliefs that were last seen during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s have resurfaced.
Social media posts reveal a number of rural households placing scarecrows outside their homes this week, to ward off the disease. Some of these scarecrows were seen with menacing faces or holding weapons, such as knives.
Chhum Vann, a 63-year-old farmer from Kampong Lvea village in Kandal province, said a number of neighbors put up the scarecrows and he did not want to be left out. So, he got his own scarecrow installed.
“We just follow it and don't know how effective it is,” he said, speaking of the “ancient custom.”
In other villages, residents seemed to have lit bonfires in front of their houses, as seen in videos shared on social media application Tik Tok, to allegedly help stop the spread of coronavirus.
The videos seemed to have made their way to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who this week asked people to stop the practice because there was a high risk of setting off a bigger fire.
“Moreover, I appeal to not use spiritual belief to ward off COVID-19,” he said, speaking to volunteer doctors in Phnom Penh.