Pchum Ben – the Festival of Ancestors – is, along with Khmer New Year, the most important in Cambodia’s Buddhist calendar. No matter how busy people are, they will spend time preparing food and going to the pagoda with family and friends.
“The word Pchum in Khmer means ‘to meet’ or ‘to gather’,” explains Phal Lean, an elderly monk at Puok pagoda, which is situated 10 kilometres from Siem Reap city. “And the word Ben refers to the balls of rice. So, in other words, Pchum Ben means to collect food to give to the monks.”
The monks, who are intermediaries between this world and the next, fulfil a vital role at Pchum Ben, the 15-day festival that marks the time when the spirits who are residing in hell – the pret spirits – return to the world of the living in order to receive offerings from their relatives.
“But the spirits have only 15 days before they have to go back,” says Lean. “That is why people come to the pagoda to get a blessing from the monks and a dedication for the spirits.”
The difficulty for families is that they do not know whether their deceased relatives – who could be a grandparent, parent, brother, sister, daughter or son – have gone to heaven or to hell. If they are in hell, then Pchum Ben is the only time in the year that their spirit can escape its tortures of fire, pain, no food and no water.
And it is vital that the living placate the pret spirits.
“The dead suffer terribly and are tortured [in hell], and they have nothing to eat or to wear,” says Lean. “Pchum Ben is the only time they can be free of hell, and can return to see their living relatives and to get a blessing so that perhaps they can gain some relief and be reborn.”
The returning spirit will go to the pagodas looking for offerings from its relatives. If the spirit finds that its family has not been to a pagoda by the end of the 15 days, it will cry out and curse its living relatives. That is because the spirit realises it has not been provided with food offerings, says Lean, and the monks will not have been chanting its name during the blessings.
“But if it sees its relatives have offered food to the monks and have dedicated prayers in its name, then the spirit will bless the family with happiness,” he says.
For that reason, most Cambodian Buddhists do their utmost to attend the pagoda during Pchum Ben. Among the older people, many go every day; the younger generation might go only a few times during the festival – each day to a different pagoda. By doing this, says Lean, they show respect to their ancestors.
Fifty-eight-year-old Ma Ching is one of those visiting Puok pagoda. She is here to visit the monument to her son who died in a road accident several years ago. Today she has come with rice, fruit, desserts, water and juice for the monks – which, when the monks eat, will transmute to her late son, too.
“I came to offer food to the monks,” she says. “I hope my son will see what I have done for him, and I pray that his next life will be a long one filled with happiness.”
Coming to the pagoda, says Ching, and having the monks deliver a blessing dedicated to her son, “makes me feel so peaceful and happy, and I hope he feels the same as I do”.
Sok Ngek, 63, lives near Puok pagoda, and assists the monks on each day of Pchum Ben.
“It is our tradition, and I think it is as special to Cambodia as Khmer New Year is,” he says, adding with a broad smile that he wishes Pchum Ben would come sooner every year because it’s an occasion for him to see his children.
“Pchum Ben is an important festival for me as an older person,” he says. “My children are so busy with their jobs and families, and they live in other provinces, so I don’t see them often. But when Pchum Ben comes, they take a break from work and come with me to the pagoda. It gives me great happiness to see my children’s faces.”
Pchum Ben, Ngek points out, is not the only festival at which food is offered to the dead, but it does mark a special opportunity for families to come together at the pagoda to do good deeds so that they might meet again in the next life.
Those who do not attend the pagoda during Pchum Ben, he says, “do not know the value of the love of family and do not respect and offer gratitude to their ancestors”.
Each day starts well before dawn when young and old dress in their finest and head to the pagoda. There, after the monks have prayed over the bowls of bai ben – small balls of sticky rice, sesame seeds and fruit – to dedicate the food to the ancestors and to those spirits who have no families, the living begin the process of bos bai ben, or throwing the rice balls.
The rice balls are small, because the pret spirits have small mouths, and the ceremony of throwing the balls takes place before sunrise, because the spirits cannot be out during the day. “Bos bai ben is a must-do activity during the festival,” says Lean. “You are offering rice balls at dawn to any spirit with heavy sins who cannot receive offerings from its relatives during the day time.”
And so, before sunrise and under the gaze of all of the pagoda’s monks, the families walk outside where laymen like Ngek have set up a ceremonial space where, amid the scent of incense, relatives can throw bai ben to the eight compass points around the temple.
Then, on the final day of Pchum Ben, families decorate small boats made from banana leaves and freighted with rice, desserts, fruit and money, along with lit candles and incense.
They take these ceremonial vessels to the river and send them on their way, each boat a farewell to their ancestors that carries the wish that their next life will be better.