As the Pchum Ben festival concluded, Seab Phanith reflected on her experiences during the celebration.
In the serene surroundings of Ondong Preng Pagoda on the 14th day of Kan Ben – the eve of the pinnacle day of Pchum Ben – the native of Kampong Chhnang province graced the scene in traditional attire, exuding the essence of the occasion.
In her traditional mauve and cream dress adorned with intricate patterns, complemented by a delicate golden belt cinched around her waist, Phanith held a silver tiffin lunchbox, symbolising her heritage and demonstrating her deep respect for Pchum Ben traditions.
And despite changing dynamics, Phanith shows that respect for tradition among youth and the resilience of the Kingdom’s culturally rich heritage remain strong.
“I visited five pagodas to offer food to the monks. At times, I was joined by my family, and on other occasions, I was accompanied by friends and colleagues,” Panith, aged 22, shared with The Post.
During the festival period, she prepared her offerings, which included steamed rice, popular Khmer dishes and desserts.
Upon arriving at each pagoda, she commenced the rituals by bowing in reverence to the Buddha statue and the monks.
Following these customs, she proceeded to the designated area where monks chanted blessings.
As the chants filled the air, imbuing the environment with spirituality and reverence, Panith offered her alms, bowing deeply to express her sincere faith and dedication to traditions.
Phum Sokhim, a prominent figure at the Kien Svay Krao Classical Theatre, commends the enthusiasm shown by today’s youth for their participation in traditional festivals, particularly Pchum Ben.
She notes that young Cambodians display a genuine dedication to preserving age-old customs.
“They wear traditional and modest attire when visiting pagodas, demonstrating deep respect for both the monks and their elders.
“They often attend these sacred places with friends and family, enhancing the spiritual fabric of their communities,” Sokhim says.
She also acknowledges the constraints of modern life, as many people find themselves entangled in schedules that limit their participation in activities within pagodas.
She said she anticipates a shift in priorities among the younger generation, with some giving precedence to showcasing their festival experiences on social media over engaging in the intricate rituals associated with the event.
Homage to the ancestors
Pchum Ben, deeply rooted in Khmer history and culture, holds profound significance.
The traditional period is a time when Khmer Buddhists pay homage to their ancestors, offering food and prayers to the spirits of the deceased.
It is believed that during the 15-day observance of Pchum Ben, the boundary between the living and the spirit world becomes thin, allowing the spirits of deceased relatives to temporarily return to Earth.
Families gather at pagodas to make offerings and dedications, seeking to ensure the peaceful transition of these souls to the afterlife.
Pchum Ben’s historical importance lies in its role as a unifying force, reinforcing familial bonds and the shared heritage of the Khmer people.
It is a time when the past converges with the present, celebrating a legacy that has endured for generations and continues to shape the cultural identity of the nation.
However, the negative impact of some young people is evident in their rowdy behaviour and inappropriate attire in pagodas.
Some people state that this sacred event, dedicated to honouring deceased ancestors and seeking blessings for the living, is marred by disruptive activities such as a lack of respect for religion, monks and the elderly.
These actions not only diminish the festival’s solemn atmosphere but also reflect insensitivity, undermining the sanctity of these spaces and events.
Tong Soprach, an independent researcher in public health and former columnist for The Post, drew comparisons between Pchum Ben, Halloween and Qing Ming, all linked to ghost festivals.
He noted that Halloween encourages enjoyable activities that appeal to young people, which differs from Cambodian culture where adorning homes with ghostly items is viewed negatively and focuses primarily on spiritual ceremonies.
While Halloween involves parties and ghost-themed decorations, Qing Ming sees Chinese families paying respect at their ancestors’ graves by tending to them and offering incense.
“I’ve noticed that many young people often accompany their families to pagodas, and only a few attend with friends or colleagues,” remarked Soprach.
He pointed out that a significant number of young individuals view these ceremonies as primarily for the elderly, often lacking a deep understanding of their importance in Khmer culture.
He added that many youths appear to prioritise more immediate rewards, like academic achievements, rather than participating in these enduring traditions.
“This has had an impact on our culture, which hasn’t been widely promoted, and practitioners often act without restraint, despite Buddhism being the state religion,” commented Soprach – known for his work on youth-related matters – in a conversation with The Post.
He said some people have mistakenly associated one particularly significant religious ceremony, where families and friends come together, with excessive alcohol consumption.
Preserving cultural heritage
However, many young people continue to uphold their participation as Buddhist practitioners in traditional religious ceremonies.
Chheang Yuki Lisa says while her demanding work schedule limits her consistent participation in many religious practices, she makes an effort whenever she has an opportunity and visited two pagodas in Phnom Penh with her family.
“I’ve noticed many young people actively participating in religious ceremonies and demonstrating reverence for good practices.
“ They attend pagodas dressed in traditional clothing and appear to be genuinely focused on the ceremonies,” Lisa shared with The Post.
Chhort Bunthong, the head of the Culture, Education and Tourist Relations department at the Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC), provided insights into how Cambodian youth perceive their involvement in Kan Ben and Pchum Ben traditions.
He noted that these festivals are intended for people of all ages, and it’s common for students and workers to participate in Kan Ben together.
“Pchum Ben is indeed a wonderful festival, much like the New Year, and it’s an occasion where Buddhists of all ages can participate,” Bunthong remarked.
He noted that while in earlier times, children had limited school attendance, today they often start at kindergarten, with some youngsters having to work during high school or college, leaving them with less free time.
“While people are occupied and may not partake in all 15 days of Kan Ben, they contribute as much time as they can.
“So I view it positively that young people remain engaged in their faith despite busy schedules,” he said.
Soprach emphasised the crucial role educational institutions play in preserving and passing on cultural heritage to the younger generation.
Many schools and pagodas include lessons and activities to educate students about the importance of traditional festivals, such as Pchum Ben.
Soprach explained that this educational approach ensures that the importance of festivals like Pchum Ben is understood and appreciated by younger generations, nurturing a sense of pride and continuity in Cambodia’s cultural identity.
“Integrating these teachings into the curriculum and directly imparting cultural knowledge to young people not only fosters cultural awareness, but also motivates them to engage in time-honoured traditions,” he said.