Marking the first day of Pchum Ben, two women light incense at Wat Koh in Phnom Penh. The annual ceremony to appease ancestor spirits kicked off September 19. The festival continues for another two weeks and ends October 4.
Laden with food, Buddhists across Cambodia marked the start of Pchum Ben celebrations
on September 19 with early morning visits to local pagodas.
One of Cambodia's most sacred religious holidays, Pchum Ben means "to gather
together to make offerings." For Buddhists, it provides an opportunity to do
good deeds on behalf of their ancestors. Festivities typically commence in mid-September
and go on for 15 days.
Buddhists believe that the poorest spirits among the ancestors, called preth, are
freed to visit living members of the family during this time. By offering food and
prayers to preth and other souls, living relatives help calm their misery and guide
them back into the cycle of reincarnation.
Prak Prom, 71, is head of a festival committee at Wat Langka. He said that Cambodian
Buddhists believe that some of the most miserable souls are banished to hell due
to bad karma in a previous life. Trapped, they have no chance at a better rebirth.
"During the dark of the moon, preth are released into the human world to look
for their living relatives," Prom said, noting that the dark souls fear the
It is believed that these unseen, cursed spirits spend the 15 days during Pchum Ben
searching for food and blessings left by living family members at pagodas.
For the first 14 days of the celebration, referred to as kann ben, people take turns
preparing the food for the offerings.
For someone hosting a meal during kann ben, preparations begin at the temple the
prior afternoon. The host must ensure that the ancestors' urns are polished and brought
to the main temple.
As it is believed that spirits cannot receive offerings unless they are first called
to do so, living family members must also draw up an invitation list with the ancestors'
At the pagodas, most people arrive before noon to light incense and say prayers.
Many offer food to the monks.
In the evening, monks gather in the temple, where they are joined by the host family
for meditation and chanting, as well as Buddhist teaching.
On the fifteenth day of Pchum Ben, families dress in fine clothes for a final visit
to the pagoda.
Starting around 4 a.m., they arrive to the pagoda carrying flowers, incense, candles
and trays loaded with bai ben, balls of steamed sticky rice mixed with sesame seeds.
The ceremony opens with chanting, and then people walk slowly around the main temple
three times. They throw bai ben into dark corners and shady spots, as it is believed
that hungry, forgotten souls lurk there.
Oeurm Savann, 23, was among the crowd at Wat Toeuk Tla early on the morning of September
22. So far, it was his second visit to a pagoda during Pchum Ben.
"I'm very happy when seeing crowds [like this] celebrating Pchum Ben,"
said Savann, adding that he thinks it's one of Cambodia's finest traditions and should
be observed by future generations.
But for Savann and others like him, Pchum Ben also presents a chance to ward off
one's own bad karma.
"I believe in Buddhism, [and] I believe I'll get what I do," he said, explaining
that, for better or worse, people eventually get what they deserve. Savann also noted
that hungry preth and those who have no living relatives still want offerings and
Female inmates in Banteay Meanchey offer rice to monks during a Pchum Ben ceremony September 19.
"I intend to go to as many as seven pagodas if possible," he said.
According to Prak Prom, preth search for food and blessings among their living family
members in seven pagodas.
And if the preth are left empty-handed after visits to all those pagodas?
"[Living] relatives will be cursed by their angry ancestors," Prom said.