Before the sun rose on September 25, “para peak veaksot” was heard everywhere in Cambodia. It was to mark the beginning of a religious festival that has been practiced for centuries. Families and relatives gather at pagodas to offer food and prayers to dead ancestors and making merits to save themselves from bad karma. On September 25, the time for remembering the dead began.
Pchum Ben or Ben Thom is a Buddhist celebration that is observed for the dead loved ones. It is observed for 15 days, with the first 14 days being called “Ben Touch.” People go to local pagodas and throw rice balls, light candles and listen to monks chanting.
According to Khmer Civilisations book, Pchum Ben is celebrated every year. But its origin is yet to be proven.
During the 15-day festivity, people believe that the gates of hell open and ghosts of the dead come out in search for food. Thus, the throwing of rice balls.
But more than offering food for the dead, Pchum Ben is also seen as one of the most important national holidays in Cambodia as it gathers families across provinces to eat and pray together after a long separation.
Min Samneang, a junior International Relations student, said, “personally, I am not a religious person. However, since we are a part of the society, pagoda somehow plays an important role in directing people to do good things and always have gratitude towards their loved ones. I also see it as a way to calm down, break free from stress and anger as well.”
When people offer food to pagodas through the monks, they believe that food reach their dead ancestors, giving them a way out of their suffering in hell.
Sophomore student Thon Phallavattey said, “I went to Toul Tom Poung pagoda and believed that through the monks, I did not just offer food but prayers for my own ancestors.”
Normally, students and workers take days off to return to their hometowns and be with their families. Vattey, for one, will be going to Kompong Thom province, to visit her relatives and celebrate Pchum Ben day with them.
But apart from the usual rituals people do during the 15-day Ben Touch and Pchum Ben, the festivity really means fully understanding the purpose of the teachings of Buddhism and following each of them as religiously as possible. It is also about remembering the souls of our departed loved ones and praying that they rest in peace.
“People should do good, make merits because that’s what Buddha taught us,” said Samneang.