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Buddhists flock to pagodas to sate Pchum Ben spirits

Buddhists flock to pagodas to sate Pchum Ben spirits

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.