Blessed Birds
By: Moul Jetr. Picture by:Nathan Dexter. ( September, 2001 Volume 1 No.4 )

They start arriving early in the morning near Wat Phnom and on the riverfront in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh _ hawkers with large domed cages full of small birds. These people are not so different from any other hawkers selling anything from food to sunglasses, but their birds _ usually common sparrows or swallows but occasionally other species of small birds have a special significance. They are not being sold to keep, or to eat, but to be used as religious offerings, for Buddhists believe that paying a small sum to set these birds free earns a person merit. It is a ritual every person can observe, no matter how important they are or where they come from.
Every T'ngai Pinh Bor (full-moon day) and Sabbath Day at the Royal Palace, King Sihanouk takes part in a Buddhist ceremony which involves listening to a monk's sermon and making donations to the poor before releasing two cages full of these birds, each containing 50 birds. During their release the King prays for peace, happiness and prosperity for his countrymen and his kingdom. The ceremony is always screened on the national television station, TVK. Venerable Monk Ya Leung, an Assistant to the Chief of Samrong Andet Pagoda, half a kilometer north of Pochentong Airport, said the quality of compassion is intrinsic to Buddhist philosophy and illustrations of this can be found throughout Buddhist parables and legends.
"A cage of birds is akin to a group of people who suffer phal (effects) as the result of past actions or karma (cause). Therefore, to save a life, whether of a human being or an animal, is righteous," he said. Near the two sacred pantheons at the riverfront, opposite the eastern gate of the Royal Palace, a bird hawker called Mr Heng finds some shade for his lively wares and gets ready for another day helping passersby earn spiritual merit. Originally from Kampong Cham, he is one of six sellers of sparrows who frequent this spot and has been working here for six years now.
"I am happy with my business," he said. "I often sell out _ that's about 200 birds a day.

Sales might even double or triple on T'gnai sel (the Sabbath day). But I can expect to lose quite a lot of birds if it rains hard. Sometimes, even under a plastic cover, dozens of them will die after rain." Not only local people buy his birds, he said. In fact, many of his customers are not even Buddhist. "My best customers are American-Khmers," he said. "Sometimes they will buy and release a whole cage at once. But I get a lot of tourists buying, too." "The birds cost me between 1200 and 1500 riel a pair and I can sell them from 2000 to 3000 riel, depending on demand and supply. The bulk of my birds come from Prey Veng province. If there is a good supply of them there, the wholesale price for me drops. The business works well. "Buyers' motives vary from pity for the birds to superstitious reasons and religious beliefs. "Khmer and Sino-Khmer customers usually release birds in pairs. They often come to buy them after they have consulted with a fortuneteller." Fortunetellers sometimes advise clients to do a good deed such as releasing birds for romdoh kruos (avert danger) _ to avert some bad luck like a minor accident which the clairvoyant has foreseen for them in the future with a good deed. "European tourists buy birds or sometimes the more expensive alternative of lucky turtles because they feel sorry for them," Mr Heng said. Turtles cost about 10,000 riel (US$2.50) a pair. Over at Wat Phnom, six other bird hawkers are trading. Many Cambodians go to Wat Phnom to pray for luck.
"I can sell about 100 birds a day here," said a hawker called Mrs Phalla. "But I lose about 30 a day if the temperature drops abruptly, like it might after rain." A devout Buddhist, Mrs Phalla does not believe that she is sinning by selling the birds and having some die in her care. "I am not committing a sin at all. I help them," she grinned, adding that they might be eaten if they were not bought by her at the market to be released, or would be free eating farmers’ crops. At the eastern foot of the hill, a primary school boy called Narith is busy getting permission from his mother to release a pair of birds.
"I would like to follow the good deed of mutual assistance I learned from my textbook in the story of the ant and the elephant," he said. The story is one routinely taught to schoolchildren in Cambodia and tells of an ant which falls into a fast flowing stream in wet season. He is about to drown when an elephant sees him and throws him a piece of straw and saves him. Later, the ant sees a hunter about to shoot the elephant. He remembers the elephant's previous kindness and bites the hunter on the ankle, saving the elephant's life. And as the birds flutter to freedom, the boy smiles and the hawker tucks 3000 riel away. Everybody, it seems, is happy.