One dozen saffron robes resembling those worn by Buddhist monks had already been placed on the forest floor near the tall wild trees before a few hundred campers assembled at Prey Lang where a tree ordination ceremony was taking place this past February 14.

This year’s tree ordination ceremony was celebrated with Ministry of Environment officials, provincial authorities, staff members from civil society organization and NGOs, environment ministry forest rangers, monks, students and citizens from a diverse array of backgrounds as well as reporters from various media outlets.

This year, to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day – once a minor Catholic religious observance, but now widely observed internationally as a day dedicated to love – around 300 people were led to Prey Lang wildlife sanctuary in Chhroy Banteay commune in Kratie’s Prek Prasap district by Neth Pheaktra, Secretary of State and spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, to celebrate the tree ordination.

Surrounded by an amazing expanse of wilderness, the participants in the tree ordination ceremony organised by the environment ministry as part of their “Fall in Love with Prey Lang on Valentine’s Day” camping event sat on the ground quietly with two hands pressed together in an act of prayer together.

Five Cambodian Buddhist monks then performed sacred chants and blessed the saffron robes they had tied around some of the trees, in the hopes that this ceremony would save the trees from being chopped down.

“Our belief is that the ceremony ordains the trees as monks and makes them holy. It gives the forest religious properties as it serves as a habitat for all creatures – both people and animals,” said Venerable So Senath, one of the five monks carrying out the ritual.

Given that Buddhism is the majority religion in the Kingdom – followed by roughly 95% of the population – it is hoped that the symbolic ordination of the trees will increase people’s respect for them and make them think twice before cutting them down.

The practice of tree ordination has been going on in Cambodia for the past few years and it is an expression of respect for nature and a show of support for government and NGO wildlife and forest conservation efforts by the Buddhist religious establishment.

Participants pay respect to the ordained tree as it is now symbolically a ‘monk’. More than 300 participants camped out in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary on February 14 to witness the ordination ceremony. YOUSOS APDOULRASHIM

“As people have started to value [trees] and understand the benefit of keeping them, tree ordination was recently developed to help Cambodians express this widely held regard for the forests and the natural world,” he tells The Post.

“The tree has always been a part of our daily lives, but it has also played an important role in our religion. Buddha sat meditating under a fig tree for 49 days before reaching enlightenment. So we should plant trees and protect them just as they in turn have always given shelter and sustenance to our people and our religion,” Venerable So Senath explains.

Senath, chief monk of a pagoda, says the benefit of ordaining the trees comes from the fact that Cambodian Buddhists are taught to respect whoever wears the monk’s garment and so if the trees wear the robes of a monk and are ordained as such, they may be accorded greater respect and left alone by loggers.

It is hoped that the symbolism of tying a monk’s robe around the trees will be powerful enough to convince some people not to harm the trees with the monk’s robes on because they are now sacred.

Senath says that the tree ordination ceremony can be done to any type of tree, but usually they choose the biggest and tallest trees in the forest that provide a lot of shade, like tropical species of the Dipterocarpaceae family – known as Chheuteal in Khmer.

The tree ordination on February 14 began with monks chanting, followed by the rest of the assembled crowd. After they finish their chanting, the monks told people to unfold the monk’s robes before taking them out to tie around the trees.

People stand in a line with each holding a monk’s robe and then they step forward and tie one robe around each tree. After the robes are all tied to trees then the monks continue with another round of chanting and blessings.

“I am honoured to be a part of this amazing event as I am able to help spread this message [about conservation] to others and even more delighted to see that people are willing to attend this event for the sake of sharing their love of nature,” Senath says.

The Ministry of Environment first held tree ordination ceremonies in 2019 according to Phok Hong of the Prey Lang Provincial Committee of Preah Vihear Province.

“The purpose of the tree ordination was to preserve religious traditions and to commemorate the forest that helped to preserve and nurture the people as well as encouraging people to participate in forest conservation and protection of biodiversity in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary,” Hong states.

Pheaktra, the environment ministry spokesman, says that the daily demands of basic survival for some Cambodians living near the protected areas is one of the things that force people to engage in illegal logging.

Participants take a photo before the tree ordination ceremony on February 14. Tall trees are usually chosen to ordain, especially the tropical Dipterocarpaceae or Chheuteal in Khmer. SOUS CHANTHY

After the ceremony was finished, Pheaktra gave a speech to the assembled crowd saying that he hopes that this act will be an inspiration to many people in other parts of the country.

“Prey Lang has 430,000 hectares spread across four provinces – Kratie, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom and Steung Treng.

“However, though we’ve held this event here, I hope that through social media our actions here today provide an example to whole nation. Our country has peace now but now we must protect and conserve our forests and wildlife.

“Our Valentine’s Day celebration this year in Prey Lang is an attempt at raising the consciousness of all Cambodians,” Pheaktra says.

Senath then mentions that this is the second time that he has been invited to this event with the environment ministry in Kratie province.

“As [Pheaktra] has mentioned, we have come to celebrate Valentine’s Day here in order to write a new history for our people so that they remember to have affection for nature and to understand that they must never destroy the environment.

“Now we need to try to do better and to help each other to protect the trees that remain and to replace those that have been lost,” Senath says.