Every year, the Pchum Ben festival empties cities around the kingdom – especially Phnom Penh – as Cambodians flock to their home towns to pay their respects to deceased relatives. The festival emerged from the Pali canon, which specified that once every year the gates of hell would be opened and the barriers between this world and the next would be eased, allowing people to make offerings to loved ones who have passed away.
The religious festival starts today and will last until Tuesday; but what will you do if you’re left in a big city that’s turned into a ghost town?
One option, if you don’t mind a trip, is the water buffalo race.
Roughly 40 kilometres from Phnom Penh, in Vihear Sour Cheung village, Ksach Kandal district, Kandal province, water buffalos are raced every year as part of the Pchum Ben festivities.
The race, called Bamboal Krobei in Khmer, is held at 6:00am, and draws spectators from all over Kandal province, as well as people from Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham and Kampong Chhnang.
Tha Thang, a member of the committee that organises the race, told 7Days that a dozen water buffalos and several horses have already been registered for the race, and plans have been made to expand the occasion.
“This year, we will make the event a bit bigger. We will not just race the buffalos but also have demonstrations of strength,” he said. The race will also be followed by wrestling and Bokkator matches.
But while more acts are on the ticket, the number of buffalos entered has sadly been dwindling over the years – in 2009, there were about 30 buffalos in the contest, but last year the number dropped to 14.
“Some buffalos in our village got sick. I hope they will recover before September 27, the most important day of Pchum Ben, so they can join the race,” said Tha Thang.
The race is ostensibly organised for the entertainment of the spirits who have come to Earth, who are required to remain inside a Buddhist pagoda for the duration of the festival. That’s why, before the race begins, the jockeys go to the pagoda to pray.
“When I asked my parents about the race, they said that they hold it to keep the tradition alive,” said Tha Thang. “And also to show devotion to the spirits.”