Once a year, Cambodian faithful believe the gates of hell open, allowing the souls of their dead ancestors to be released. If the living have improved their deceased relatives’ merit over the course of the year – through good deeds and offerings – the spirits may be freed from the underworld and have the ability to reincarnate. If not, the ghosts must return to their suffering and punishments for past sins.
During Pchum Ben, a Buddhist “festival of the dead” and one of Cambodia’s most important holiday periods, families gather for a 15-day ritual of redemption for as many as seven generations of ancestors. Many Cambodians return to their home villages to reunite with family and friends.
Pchum Ben, which roughly translates to a “gathering together of sticky rice balls”, starts on the first day of Pheaktrobot, the tenth month of the Buddhist calendar, which usually falls in September or October.
Bay ben, balls of sticky rice, sesame and coconut, are arranged on elaborate plates with candles, incense and other food and offered to monks, who become karmic vehicles to deliver the rice balls from the living to the dead. The offerings are placed at pagodas or thrown in fields for spirits to find in an effort to relieve their hunger in the afterlife.
Cambodian Buddhists seek to honour their forebears and feed the “hungry ghosts”, who are believed to have empty stomachs and pinhole mouths, the reason they are unable to consume enough nourishment. If offerings are not made and dedicated to the spirits, it is believed the souls will be cursed and will haunt their descendants.
To pay their respects to ancestors, large crowds visit pagodas in Phnom Penh and across the country. If you wish to view a religious ceremony during the festival, which include processions around Buddhist temples while monks perform rituals inside, ask a local and they will likely invite you to join them.
It’s best to dress formally and respectfully – males should wear long-sleeved shirts with trousers, while females should wear sleeved tops (preferably white) and ankle-length skirts.
You don’t have to bring a food offering, but leaving a donation at the pagoda would be in good taste.
Some traditional foods eaten during the festival include num onsam – a cylindrical rice cake, which comes in savoury or sweet varieties, the former made with pork and sometimes beans, the latter with banana and coconut milk. Another dish to try is num korm – steamed, pyramid-shaped sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. These also come in two types: a sweet one consisting of a mixture of coconut and palm sugar, and a salty one made from beans.
During three days of public holiday, government buildings and many local businesses and restaurants close to allow Cambodians to visit family. The last day of the 15-day period is the actual day of Pchum Ben, the most important festival day. Whole communities come together for a collective offering, prayers and a resolution to the bereavement felt by those who have lost a relative during the previous year.
Pchum Ben, which looks to the past as a means to honour the departed, continues to be an important festival for Cambodians to reunite and grieve in the present.