Pchum Ben is a public holiday in Cambodia that follows the period called “Vassa,” a kind of “Buddhist Lent,” and has been kept with great devotion by the Khmer people for longer than anyone can remember.
In essence, Pchum Ben is a time to remember, venerate, and present food offerings to one’s deceased relatives. Ancestors are honoured going back as far as seven generations, and offerings are also brought for those without living descendants or in place of those who could not attend the ceremonies. Celebrants rise early in the morning to cook rice balls and other food items, which they bring to the monks at temples and pagodas. The monks chant suttas (Buddhist scriptures) all night without sleeping, then conduct the colourful and complex food offering ceremonies. Some Khmer give the food to the priests, while others leave it at pagodas for their deceased relatives to eat or cast it into a field for them to find. The first fourteen days see many offerings made, but it is the final, fifteenth day, that is the grand culmination of the whole period.
Pchum Ben is also the time when the “gates of hell” are supposed to open and let out those imprisoned there to travel to the land of the living to receive food from their relatives. Some are let out only temporarily, while others are thought to gain permanent relief. Offerers believe they receive merits by helping the dead and blessings from them but curses if they fail in their familial duty.
Cambodians all over the country will travel to their home provinces for Pchum Ben, and there are services in many towns and villages. Most ceremonies involve processions around temples and crowds that wait outside with lit incense in hand as the monks perform rituals inside. There are also symbolic events where five mounds of sand or rice are formed and decorated in an effort to point to Mount Meru, where various Buddhist gods are thought to reside.
Those who find themselves in Cambodia during Pchum Ben may want to take part in activities such as the following:
- See the Pchum Ben festival in Phnom Penh. You will see large crowds dressed in bright, new clothing streaming to the pagodas and temples in the nation’s capital. If you ask a local family, you will likely be invited to visit a pagoda. It is best not to dress down for this occasion, and you will do well if you dress in white. You can also attend smaller celebrations in practically any part of the country.
- Visit the Silver Pagoda adjacent to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Here, you will find a host of golden, bejewelled Buddhas housed in an amazing architectural achievement. Especially look for the famed Emerald Buddha, a a miniature green-crystal statue, and the big-as-life golden Maitreya Buddha, which is decorated with 9,584 glittering diamonds. Also take time to see the Royal Palace and the mural-covered wall that surrounds the compound.
- Tour the Cambodian Cultural Village in Siem Reap. This interesting innovation combines elements of a theme park with those of a museum. It presents mini-versions of numerous Cambodian historical landmarks, has 11 “villages” that give you a glimpse of Khmer cultural diversity, and even exposes you to local dances, games, wedding customs, elephant shows, and more.
If in Cambodia for Pchum Ben, there will be no shortage of things to do. The challenge will be to select the best events and to fit it all into your schedule. For this, you may wish to consult an expert Cambodian travel agency.