Pchum Ben is the Cambodian Festival of the Dead! It is packed full of aged and long lasting traditions rooted in the spirit of animism, superstition and paying respects. It originated in the Angkorian Era when it was widely accepted that all creatures possess a spiritual essence, while alive and dead there are still needs to be met. During this time, Cambodians are able to feed their hungry ghost ancestors to help them find peace. It is a celebration that brings people together and honors all loved and lost ones.
This is a two week festival which is the end of the Buddhist Lent. The first 14 days people will give gifts of food, money and candles. Cambodian people will get together and give offerings to their ancestors and the monks during the month of September or October (based on Khmer calendar and varies). It is a joyous time that the locals look forward to getting together with their loved ones celebrating life and death.
September and October are some of the rainiest times of the year it is a great time to think about the spirits of our ancestors, while sometimes weather won’t permit much to be done. It is also an important time to think about the monks who usually walk the streets to gather alms. During this time of the year it makes it possible for monks to receive survival supplies while they are in prayer and meditation within the Pagoda walls. For 14 days people will give gifts to their ancestors and the monks at dawn and dusk the monks will pray and bless the people. It is believed that by giving alms to the monks it would stop the suffering of any unforgiven sins their ancestor’s souls may be experiencing. Pchum means “to gather” and Ben is a ball of something, in this case rice. After 14 days I’m giving gifts, praying and remembering, the 15th there will be a huge celebration! Locals will go and decorate the pagoda the night before and there will be a huge celebration for everyone in the village!
The legend comes from some complicated scriptures that describe a story about hungry ghosts that negotiated with servants and soldiers that were going to war for the king. They were suffering and troubled and instructed the servants and soldiers to give food to the most moral among them and call them by the name of the deceased beings while doing so. By doing this they stop the suffering of the hungry ancestors. It is said that the devil released the ghosts to find family members that would give them food. The ghosts must reach a specific moral level before they can receive the food by repentance and forgiveness for their sins. They cannot accomplish this if they’re living loved ones do not remember them during this time. Some other fun and interesting believes include that the ghost cannot eat during the day, that they only have tiny mouths to eat and that we must throw the food in the air to offer it to spirits and when it comes back to earth it is for the monks.
This is a great incentive for the to make the wrongdoings right before they can receive the food from their loved ones. The offering of “Bay Ben”, sticky rice, coconut cream and sesame seeds are put into balls and offered at dawn. They can also share these treats with poor people to increase their good fortune.
The festival of the dead is a wonderful time to comfort ancient relative’s souls and to make them and each other happy. It is a Buddhist tradition that honors lost love ones. We can receive blessings from the monks and celebrate with those we still have here in the flesh. Even if the spirits were bad we need to bless them so they know they are loved and they have the motivation to be forgiven and do good in the future. The hungry ghost festival is a wonderful and fun time here in the wild wild east. It is a time to open your mind to other ways of thinking, get involved with the locals and enjoy the experience of being alive.