When I first saw the Flying Foxes of Cambodia, I was overwhelmed by their size and strength in numbers. Being bats, they sleep during the day but as it starts getting dark in Siem Reap, they all wake up and need to feed. With thousands of them living in the trees of Royal Independence Gardens, I could only imagine what kind of a blood bath it must be when they all get munchies. Afterall, that’s what bats feed on, right – blood. At least that’s what bats are known for? But if these Cambodian Flying Foxes feed on blood of living creatures, there must be a major carnage happening somewhere each night. There are thousands of them in those trees and they are huge. Or could it be that they don’t feed on blood? But if not, then what do flying foxes eat?
I first wondered about what Flying Foxes ate when I strolled through the Royal Independence Gardens with Ha. I was on a mission to take some pictures of them flying during daytime hours and as I kept being focused on how many of them there are, I couldn’t help but search for signs of blood bath these presumed blood suckers cause in the neighborhood every night. And I really didn’t have to go far to stumble across dozens of dead birds scattered across the greens of the gardens.
From the beginning, I was pretty darn sure that all those dead birds were the work of flying foxes but when I noticed the sales of live birds taking place behind the Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine and saw what happens to those birds after release, I have quickly ditched my initial guess. No, those dead birds in the garden were not the doing of Fruit Bats, those died because of selfish human behavior.
In my continuous search for answers to the “What Do Flying Foxes Eat?” question, I realized that perhaps there is a reason why Flying Foxes are also known as Fruit Bats. Could the word “Fruit” just before “Bats” signify what these flying foxes eat? It sure could and it does. Flying Foxes don’t feed on blood of living creatures. Flying Foxes eat fruit, hence the name “Fruit Bats”. Jungles of South East Asia are full of mango trees, banana trees, guava trees or papaya trees. Fruits from these trees are a staple of their diet.
When night falls on Siem Reap and you look up, you will see swarms of Flying Foxes filling up the sky as they are migrating towards their feasting grounds. There are endless clouds of them flying against the darkening sky. Now I understad that this is their daily (or should I say nightly?) rite. They don’t sleep where they eat. They prefer to fly the distance to munch on fresh fruit and then fly the same distance back to spend the day sleeping atop the trees of downtown Siem Reap. They don’t care about insects, birds or other living creatures. That’s perhaps the reason why none of the locals heed them in any way. Despite their intimidating size, they are harmless to humans. They are harmless to all living things. The only people who don’t like Flying Foxes are farmers who are not amazed when their fruit gets eaten overnight. And because of their size, one flying fox can down several fruits in one sitting. But it’s the numbers of bats in each colony that makes them a nightmare for farmers. It doesn’t matter how many fruit trees you have, if it gets marked as feeding grounds by a colony of flying foxes, you could find your trees stripped of all fruit overnight.
I found this extremely disturbing and saddening. I don’t know how live birds sales go together with principles of Buddhism, but Cambodian Buddhists take great pride in trapping live animals, keeping dozens of them cramped in small cages and selling them for profit to other Buddhists who come to the Buddhist temple to worship the statues of Buddha. From what I’ve noticed, people buy these live birds, keep them clenched between their palms and close to their mouth while they silently utter their prayers (or wishes?) and release them with a beaming smile afterwards.
This act of release is what matters, I suppose. You can see the obvious spark in their eyes as they are doing it, however what they don’t realize is that in order to release the bird, that poor animal needs to be caught and caged first. But the saddest part happens shortly after the release. These birds have been kept in overcrowded cages, having no room to stretch their wings, often bleeding, suffocating or getting trampled by other birds – all that on top of starvation and dehydration because they are not fed which renders them unable to properly take flight after the release. As a result, you see those birds released, they take off and attempt to fly but hit the ground very quickly. Defeated and at the end of their strength, they helplessly die shortly after release. Only few are well enough to actually go and enjoy the freedom again. Those are presumably the lucky ones that get purchased before they are in the cage for too long.
Short walk across the fields surrounding the temples offers clear picture of what happens to the majority of the birds upon release. You can’t take two steps without stepping on a dead bird. It’s a very sad sight that makes whole purpose of “releasing” a life into the wild a complete joke.
I have seen young boys walking around with long stick, poking them with great thrusts into bushes. Then I saw the same boys walking towards the women sitting at the temple with cages full of live birds for sale, delivering another captive to join the others. I don’t know how they catch those birds with just the sticks, but they must have the means. The thought of hurting an animal is very saddening to me so I never actually wanted to see this in action. However I do think those birds suffer some trauma during the capture which could also be the cause of excessive bleeding in the cage and premature death.
The worst thing about this whole ordeal is that Cambodians take great pride in “releasing” those live birds. Nobody seemed bothered by the fact that those living creatures suffer a great deal while they are kept in horrible conditions which affect their ability to fly and result in near certain death. Shockingly enough, aside from having live birds for sale, women with cages also sell other live animals, such as turtles. I don’t know what exactly is done with turtles after they are sold, but I don’t expect much. They are likely starved to death as they are piled in buckets on top of one another without water or food. I am not a Buddhist expert, but whatever divinity the Cambodians are trying to impress with these acts, I’m pretty sure that it’s not working. If anything, it has the opposite effect. Live and let live, the principle on which Buddhism was founded is directly breached and crapped upon by everyone who buys or sells a live bird like this. You don’t have to be an expert to understand this.
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine blew my mind right out because of the unprecedented circumstances surrounding my discovery of it. The presence of thousands of Cambodian Flying Foxes that circled over Royal Independence Gardens where the shrine is located gave it the movie-like feel. Subtle but pronounced illumination of shrine’s edges and distinct roof draws eyes of passers-by after dark and since it was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine was enveloped in a haze of smoke from hundreds of burning incense sticks which is part of Khmer ritual surrounding the Festival of the Dead. There was no other temple or shrine anywhere in Cambodia that would leave me with profound impressions similar to those I felt after visiting Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine.
History of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
As its name suggests, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is dedicated to two Buddhas: Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm. Two standing statues located inside depict these two Buddhas: Preah Ang Chek is the taller Buddha and Preah Ang Chorm is the shorter Buddha. Local Cambodians believe that Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine provides protection for entire town of Siem Reap. Legends have it that when Khmer Rogue, who were on a mission to destroy religion in Cambodia, entered Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine and attempted to remove both Buddha statues, these were growing heavier by the second until they’ve reached such weight that Khmer Rogue cadres were unable to move them. Aside from beliefs of its indestructibility, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is also believed to bring good fortune to newly married couples and is therefore frequently visited by newlyweds on their wedding day.
Inside Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
As soon as I was done admiring heart-stopping Fruit Bats I proceeded to pay the visit to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. The place was incredibly busy with whole families coming in and out all the time. There were Buddhists praying at every part of the shrine, whether it was inside before the statues of two Buddhas or outside by large pot where devotees put their burning incense sticks.
Pilgrims and Beggars
From what I found out, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is a place of great reverence for pilgrims and beggars. It was easily noticeable that all visitors entering the gates of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine gave the beggars some money. There were quite a few of them and from my independent observation, they were cashing in big time. Out of hundreds of families I saw come in, virtually every members would give them some. They probably made more cash there in one day that all those families see in a year.
Despite my solid and well reasoned philosophy that I don’t give to the beggars, I caught myself breaking my own rule on the steps to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. There was this boy who was incredibly crooked. He was crawling around the ground with all limbs and facial features crooked really badly. He was obviously not faking his condition and it seemed pretty bad, however as I have observed later, he was not disabled enough to safely grab at handed money and store it in his large pockets. He truly needed massive pockets to store all those bills that were coming in large numbers from everyone entering the shrine. My beef with him was that he came chasing after me as I was walking in, and did the same as I was walking out. I told him I gave him already and just because he sees me again, it doesn’t mean I was gonna give him again. I did not have this type of budget, no matter how much I would like to help. He was extremely hard to get rid of as he knew real well how to use his disability to his advantage.
Street Vendors at Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
The area along National Road #6, on south west corner of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine houses several street vendors selling flowers, decorated coconuts, incense sticks and live birds. These items could be bought by the Buddhists heading to the shrine and used as offering for the Buddha statues inside. Most of these made good sense to me, except from live birds. I don’t know how they capture these beautiful, wild birds, but somehow they do and keep them in small cages where many of them are cramped together. Bottoms of these cages are sprinkled with dead birds who suffocated in confined space, or were trampled by too many other birds inside, or simply beat themselves to death trying to escape.
People who buy these birds, hold them between their palms they keep locked together as if in a player, often close to their mouth with eyes closed while they utter a prayer in their minds and then they release them. This is an extremely sad sight for me as I feel strongly for the animals and while some of those released birds take off happy to be returned back to their wild homes, many try to fly but go straight for the ground. Their wings are too crippled from being caged for so long, or they’re broken from overcrowded cages, or they are otherwise disabled and can’t fly anymore. You can find these dead birds sprinkled all over the grassy padding of the Royal Independence Gardens and it’s truly a sad sight. I couldn’t believe this abuse of birds was happening and that local Khmer people think it’s really awesome. They think Buddha likes it when they release the birds in the wild, but they don’t take into account what birds go through in order to be available for sale and subsequent release. Very sad 🙁
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine on Pchum Ben Festival
The shrine was so alive it was breathtaking. The shriek of thousands of bats above was dubbed by chatter of hundreds of people below. There was a traditional Cambodian band playing traditional Khmer music on the right hand side of the terrace, several Buddhist Monks were kneeling on the left to accept offering from devotees and give them blessings. The inside of the shrine was getting filled up with offering from devoted Buddhists. It was dark outside but the smoke from incense sticks and the lights of the shrine created a peaceful and mellow atmosphere in which anyone could enjoy themselves by just sitting and observing. Which is exactly what I was doing. I found Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine to be a magical place and visited it often. Besides, the Fruit Bats were the coolest thing in all of Cambodia.