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Buffalo races cap festival for the dead

The P'Chum Ben festival in Vihear Suor commune brings young and old

together to honour fallen ancestors with games and fellowship


IT is 7:30am in Vihear Suor commune, Kandal province. The air is cool, and local residents are wearing their holiday best: women in elegant silk sarongs and fine lace blouses; men, a little cleaner than usual.

They have assembled for the buffalo races, a hallmark of the commune's celebration of P'Chum Ben, a three-day festival in which the dead are said to visit their living relatives. Food and other offerings must be made to ensure the spirits' ease in the afterlife.

"We celebrate the festival because we want the younger generations to remember what the ancients have done in the past," said Pen Kong, commune chief and organiser of the buffalo race.

Eighteen-year-old buffalo jockey Chap Cinn is more excited than most as he contemplates winning this year's race. He will pit his skills against 35 other riders.

"I have been riding buffalo since I was five years old. My father taught me," he said, his crooked mouth breaking into an easy grin.

"It is not difficult to ride him, but when the crowd claps their hands to cheer for me he sometimes gets scared and refuses to move," he said.

Chap Cinn lives in a nearby village and says buffalo racing is a way of giving thanks to the spirits who look after the animals.

The bells that adorn the beasts clang jarringly through the rising crowd noise as owners attempt to soothe the buffalo with gentle caresses and whispered words of encouragement prior to the race.

Tep Li, 85, a holy man at the local pagoda, says he has attended the festival here ever since he can remember.

The festival attracts many people to this neglected part of the country, Tep Li said.

He takes in the spectacle in a mood of quiet reflection.

"I worry about the young people," he said. "I do not think they know how to pay the proper respect anymore. They come here only for the fun and make many mistakes about customs because they do not know the rules."

After the buffalo have been safely stabled and the riders have celebrated victory or opined defeat, the wrestling begins.

Competitors dressed in red or blue longyi grapple on a padded plastic mat. The crowd erupts in laughter when the slightest scrap of undergarment peaks through in the heat of battle.

The largely adolescent combatants crouch low and circle each other, twirling gracefully or leaping high into the air to land savage slaps on their thighs as they descend.

The tournament ends when the professional wrestlers appear, spearing each other into the ground with mock fury and theatrical blows ill-disguised as true aggression.

Despite the frivolity and excitement, the deeper meanings of P'Chum Ben are not forgotten.

"If we don't celebrate this festival, the traditions will be lost forever," commune chief Pen Kong said. "Since we started celebrating the festival with buffalo races and wrestling, our village has remained safe."



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