Every autumn, the Pchum Ben festival provides Cambodians with a time to visit their homelands and honour their ancestors, especially the spirits who are lost. Writing by Erin Hale; photography by Charles Fox.
The scent of incense hangs heavy in the air as a sea of white – the traditional Cambodian colour of mourning – surrounds the pagoda entrance. Men, women and children clutch baskets overflowing with flowers and food as they wait to offer them to the monks that sit inside.
This is a typical sight across the country when Cambodians mark the 15-day Pchum Ben festival, which this year starts on Sep. 30.Considered the second most important festival in the Cambodian calendar, after Khmer New Year, Pchum Ben is a more solemn time when families come together to pray for the spirits of their deceased relatives.
Cambodia has a rich tradition of ghost and spirits that dates back centuries. These beliefs are reflected in the ubiquitous sprits houses placed outside most homes, as well as in many folk tales about ghosts and spirits causing all kinds of trouble.
Pchum Ben, however, is specifically concerned with the Buddhist ghost preta, or hungry ghost, rather than an animist or traditional folk spirit.
Hungry ghosts are spirits of the dead who have been unable to find peace in the afterlife because they committed sins in a previous life, such as being greedy, jealous or envious, or died a violent or traumatic death.
A variation on the preta are the spirits of women who die during childbirth, and may end up as malevolent ghosts in the afterlife. It is important that they are also appeased.
There are many variations on “ghost” festivals that can be found across Asia. Mahayana Buddhist countries, such as Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, all observe a ghost month when spirits are believed to roam Earth looking for gifts at family altars. Japan has its own variation called Bon, which similarly honours the spirits of deceased ancestors.
The holiday has also spread across Southeast Asia within Chinese diaspora communities, but Cambodia’s ghost festival is unique amongst Theravada Buddhist countries and is observed as a national holiday.
Belief in ghosts and spirits is widespread across Southeast Asia, particularly in rural communities. Every country has its own pantheon of spirits, from Myanmar’s nat spirits to Malay ghosts and Indonesian demons. Many of these beliefs developed alongside Hinduism, which was the region’s dominant religion until 1000 AD, and also hail from ancient folk and animist traditions.
Pchum Ben gives Cambodians the chance to help the spirits of friends and relatives.
Taking into account the country’s recent violent history, it has taken on a special psychological significance in Cambodia, as it is a way to appease the victims of the long civil war, and bring closure to survivors and descendants. The festival is viewed by many as important for the living as it is for the dead.
Preta are quite terrifying looking by all accounts: the spirits have thin necks and pinhole mouths so they are unable to eat or swallow. Starving, they develop huge empty stomachs and live a tortuous existence in hell. Families and friends, however, can intervene and come to their aid during this special time of year when Yama, god of the underworld, lets the spirits out for a brief sojourn on Earth.
“There’s the idea that for 15 days your ancestral spirits, if they are hungry ghosts, are roaming the land, going back to their birth villages and looking for gifts from their descendants. Usually they will go to seven temples,” said Erik W. Davis, an associate professor in religious studies at Macalester College in Minnesota, during a trip to Phnom Penh to promote his book Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia.
Pchum Ben is a great responsibility for Khmer people, one that even the younger generation with their modern views still take seriously, says Sao Sereun, a monk at Wat Ounalam, near Phnom Penh’s riverside. “Still the young, the old, on Pchum Ben day, they come here to buy rice, sell rice, and give to the monks,” he adds.
As indicated by Sao, rice is central to festivities. Families travel to their local pagodas to make two distinct kinds of offerings to preta. The first sees them bring food, particularly rice, for monks to eat during the morning. This is considered a way to make merit for preta, as the monks can transfer the good deed to the ancestor.
“You give them gifts and, boom, they become non-hungry ghosts, and they can give blessings to their descendants,” explains Davis. “But if they go to seven temples and they don’t find anything, they will curse their descendants for the year. So it’s very important for Cambodians to go back to their natal villages and give gifts at the temple.”
The transformation of the hungry ghost to a non-hungry ghost is viewed as a kind of “rebirth” for the spirit, according to Davis. It is also the only time in Cambodian Buddhism when this transformation is made without a physical rebirth.
Pchum Ben can be quite a solemn occasion at the pagoda as it’s a time to remember deceased family and friends. Khmers bring offerings in the form of rice and other food to pagodas to be eaten by monks, which is considered an important way to make merit for their relatives. They also bring candles and gifts of money to earn extra merit.
Another part of the festival sees Khmers head to pagodas before dawn to throw rice balls into the air. This part of the holiday is a bit more joyous and intended for both hungry ghosts and other wandering ghosts, says Sao.
“When we throw rice, we give it to ghosts who have no relatives,” he says. “They cannot go to eat anywhere, so they just come here and take the rice around the pagoda.”
The last day of Pchum Ben – Pchum Ben Day – is considered the most important, and is when the most elaborate offerings are given to monks.
However, the monks spend every night of the festival continuously prayers in Pali, the traditional Indian language of Theravada Buddhism, on behalf of the spirits.
A Changing Tradition
Pchum Ben has been celebrated in its current form since King Ang Duong, who ruled Cambodia from 1840 to 1860 and is credited with reviving an older version of the holiday. Now a staple in the Cambodian calendar, it provides a cultural and psychological service.
The violence that ravaged Cambodia from pre-independence guerrilla fighting, through the Khmer Rouge, and then skirmishes continuing into the 1990s, resulted in hundreds of thousands of violent and untimely deaths across the Kingdom of Campodia.
Additionally, many survivors and descendants never learned the fate of family members and friends as they were split up during the decades by fighting and government policies.
The banning of Buddhism by the Khmer Rouge also meant the regime’s victims failed to receive a proper burial, which is seen as an important step in guiding the spirit towards its transformation and rebirth in the next life. This in turn has given survivors a second troubling concern: the fate of their family member in both life and afterlife.
This concern has manifested itself in recurring, violent nightmares for many of the survivors, where the spirits of dead family members visit them, claims Inger Agger, a Danish psychologist at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, in her paper Calming the mind: Healing after mass atrocity in Cambodia.
“In Cambodia, it is recognised that healthy grieving involves maintaining a good relationship with the dead, and perhaps assisting the dead towards rebirth. The spirits of those who died a violent death or whose bodies were not ritually handled by monks may continue to experience distress and unfulfilled needs even after death and they may continue to disturb their surviving relatives,” she states.
Working in cooperation with Cambodia’s Transcultural Psychology Institute to study uniquely Khmer methods for overcoming trauma stemming from the era, Agger found an important method was “making merit for the dead”.
While it is not unusual for Cambodians to regularly make offerings to relatives at home shrines or by lighting incense at pagodas, Pchum Ben is a dedicated time set aside to honour relatives and appease their spirits.
“I think Pchum Ben can be a very significant help for survivors towards closure and healing. Any religious ritual can become an important path towards psychological healing,” Agger says. “We saw how this ritual could help survivors to gain a sense of closure and transformation and link traumatic memory to a positive memory state.”
As memories of the war fade, so does the psychological service it provides.
With 65 percent of the population under the age of 30, according to United Nations statistics, Cambodia’s youth are propelling the country into a new era no longer defined by the war.
However, in a country that deeply values its cultural traditions and family ties, the festival shows no signs of disappearing into the 21st century, as a new generation of Cambodians take hold.
Pchum Ben, still gives families time to come together and remember and celebrate the lives of all of their departed loved ones.
The days leading up to Pchum Ben Day – Sep. 30 to Oct. 02 this year – are also a public holiday, so the cities empty out as Cambodians return to their home provinces.
Be aware that many businesses, including restaurants, close or operate different opening hours during this time. More traffic is also on the roads, making this a notorious time of the year for the deadly accidents that plague the country.
Like many Cambodian holidays and traditions, foreigners are permitted to attend, but remember to be respectful, says Lina Goldberg, author of Move to Cambodia.
“Locals are always very happy to include foreigners in the Pchum Ben festivities – ask any of your Cambodian friends or neighbours and they will happily let you join them on their visits to the pagoda,” she says, the importance of respecting traditions.
“Remember, the holiday is essentially a funeral for all of your ancestors, so dress smartly. Cambodians will wear white shirts or blouses, the Cambodian colour of mourning. You’re also welcome to bring food and/or 100-riel notes, both of which will bring merit to your ancestors.”
Regular rules for visiting pagodas also apply: take off your shoes when entering a pagoda, when sitting don’t point your feet towards other people, and make sure monks are sitting at a higher level.
Women should also not touch monks, and it is considered polite to cover shoulders and wear knee-length skirt or trousers.
Despite its somber history, Pchum Ben offers an excellent chance to see Cambodia’s religious traditions in action. While it may seem like a sad festival, it can still be an enjoyable time, and festivities are high.
It also offers a great opportunity to visit a pagoda and make an offering to ancestors, whether they are Buddhist preta or simply peaceful spirits.