Pchum Ben. Ancestors’ Day.

(Photograph by kind permission of Regis Binard who runs excellent photo tours around Siem Riep. © Régis Binard
If you have been here at least a year then you will have heard of Pchum Ben as the religious thing which gives you a nice long holiday,  but what is it really? Well it is a festival which is essentially unique to Cambodia although similar things can be witnessed in Sri Lanka and Taiwan, it is a time to venerate and give offerings to your ancestors, but let’s get into some more detail shall we?

Ok so first we need to realise that While Cambodia is a strongly Buddhist country they also have very clear visions of heaven and hell, it kind of works like this. When you die, your Karma, or how you have behaved in your life, is taken into account and  you are reborn to either a higher or lower form of life. 

If only it was this simple.

Before you are reborn you may have to suffer some form of punishment or even waiting time, a kind of purgatory, in hell. During Pchum Ben the gates of hell are opened for fifteen days and the souls within are thereby allowed to roam the earth again in an effort to curb their suffering. This period is from the first to the fifteenth of the tenth month of the Khmer calendar, Piotrbotre.

As a Cambodian family then it is very important to take this time to ease the suffering of ones relatives, this is done by offering gifts of food or money at temples at 4 am, 8am, 10am and 5-7 pm on each of the fifteen days. Such offerings are also made outside homes all over the country, I can smell the smoke of the burnt ghost money (loy chmoa) as we speak as this is the fifth of September and so the beginning of Pchum Ben. The tenth month in the Khmer and Gregorian calendars do not always coincide by the way so to experience this you have to check for dates locally or online.

“These ghosts I talk about now are prevalent throughout the cambodian society, buddhism shares it’s space with ancestor worship, or Neak ta.  Several types of supernatural entities are believed to exist; they make themselves known by means of inexplicable sounds or happenings. Among these phenomena are khmoc (ghosts), pret and besach (particularly nasty demons, the spirits of people who have died violent, untimely, or unnatural deaths), arak (evil spirits, usually female), neak ta (tutelary spirits residing in inanimate objects), mneang phteah (guardians of the house), meba (ancestral spirits), and mrenh kongveal (elf-like guardians of animals). All spirits must be shown proper respect, and, with the exception of the mneang phteah and mrenh kongveal, they can cause trouble ranging from mischief to serious life-threatening illnesses. An important way for living people to show respect for the spirits of the dead is to provide food for the spirits. If this food is not provided, the spirit can cause trouble for the offending person. For example, if a child does not provide food for the spirit of its dead mother, that spirit can cause misfortunes to happen to the child. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]”

The visits to pagoda can be tiring I am sure, here is the timescale in more detail.

“”At 4 am large numbers of people visit the temples with offerings of rice which they toss on the ground for the spirits. At 8:00 AM, people return to the temple, with offerings for the monks. “They don’t just give food,” explains Mey Sameth, who was a monk for seven years. “They bring money and other things as well. As a monk we looked forward to this period all year long, because we could get new clothing and good food.”

At 10:00 the people return with more food, which will be shared between monks and poor people. Os many of the Buddhist traditions seem to relate to feeding the poor. Disabled people also crowd around the temple tat is hour, begging alms. To give help to the less-fortunate, particularly during Pchum Ben, is to acquire merit. Many people explained that the offerings they made during the festival were to cancel out past sins.

Between 5:00-7:00 PM there will be more prayers for the dead. “At 8:00 we monks had to go to bed,” laughs Sameth, fondly remembering his days of obedience and simplicity. “Because the people would be coming back to the temple at 4:00 the next morning, we had to be up at 3:00.”

Most modern Khmers will say that the festival lasts fifteen days, ending on the fifteenth of the month. In actuality, the ancient, traditional festival lasted three months, ending on the fifteenth day, of the tenth month of the year.

Mey Sameth, explains more about the festival. “The Buddha commanded that the monks remain in doors and do nothing for these three months,” he says. “It was a good time for monks to pray and meditate, and go deeper into their practice of Buddhism. But it also had a practical effect. In the past, poor people were invited to plant crops inside of the temple grounds, to supplement their diet. If the monks were active, walking around, they could destroy the young plants. So, they were commanded to stay in doors.”

For the monks, the festival represents a special time of reflection, during which they could concentrate on purifying their minds. “We want to be free of vice. And remember the commandments.” The commandments include: Do not do harm (kill), No sex, Do not lie, No Alcohol, and no stealing. “If the young monks committed an infraction during the festival, then we would not be permitted to take part, which would mean that we wouldn’t get any offerings.”

The last four days of the festival were public holidays in Cambodia. Most Khmers visited the province where they were born, where they had family reunions.”souce:

It is wise to think about the type of rice offered too as sometimes a punishment for past sins can be to become a ghost with a small mouth, for this reason it seems that sticky rice is often preferred.

I like Pchum ben as it reminds me of similar practices in other parts of the world which I have always been fascinated by such as Dias de los muertos and Halloween or Sawain.

Enjoy the next fifteen days respectfully kids.

Lucien Grey.

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