Bun Veasna says spirits walk among the living during Pchum Ben.
Mr Veasna, a National Committee for Organising National and International Festivals assistant, says Pchum Ben celebrations begin on the 15th day of the tenth month in the Khmer calendar. It ends with the Buddhist lent.
“When the rainy season arrives, it is Buddhist tradition to offer food to monks at pagodas. Buddhists take turns in bringing food,” Mr Veasna says.
There are about 5,000 pagodas across the country, with more than 50,000 monks occupying them, according to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Aside from food offerings to monks, Cambodians believe ancestor spirits roam the living world to receive food from descendants during Pchum Ben, or Ancestor’s Day, which is widely celebrated in Cambodia.
Pchum Ben is one of the most culturally significant holidays in Cambodia as the days are dedicated to blessing the spirits of the dead.
During the first fourteen days of Pchum Ben, or Dak Ben, Cambodians flock to pagodas to offer food to monks and spirits.
On the last day of Dak Ben, families take turns to bring their offerings to pagodas in preparation for Ben Thom, considered the most important day of Pchum Ben.
Mr Veasna says long ago Cambodians celebrated Pchum Ben for three months. However, due to modernisation, people have reduced the celebration to 15 days.
“Monks stayed in pagodas for up to three months during the rainy season because it was difficult for them to receive food donations from villagers,” he says.
Him Hemalai, a committee member at Tuol Tompoung pagoda in Chamkar Mon district, says that Pchum Ben is also the longest religious festival in Cambodia.
Mr Hemalai says during Pchum Ben, the gates to the afterlife open for hungry spirits to roam the living world. The hungry spirits receive food from the living at pagodas early in the morning as monks chant suttas, or religious teachings, leading up to the opening of the gates.
Preta, or hungry spirits, are pitied among the living. Depictions of the Preta would often show huge empty stomachs and pinhole mouths; their necks thin, unable to eat and hungry.
It is widely believed that those who have committed greed, envy and jealousy will be reincarnated as Preta.
These spirits are grotesque and fear committing more sin. They stand crying as they beg for food from their relatives before returning to the afterlife during sunrise. If the relatives fail to offer food, the malignant spirits impose curses.
Mr Hemalai says every year, people come to his pagoda to throw food to the hungry spirits.
He says Buddhists come to pagodas at about 4am with incense, candles and balls of rice. They gather outside of the pagoda throwing rice balls on the ground to feed hungry spirits.
Mr Hemalai explains that the rice ball, or Bay Ben, is a mix of sticky rice and sesame seeds. Some also add coconut cream or fruits.
Bay Ben is offered to the hungry spirits at dawn due to a belief that sinful spirits cannot receive food during the day.
“I see our people throw Bay Ben to Preta in the early morning hours, most of the people are young people,” he says. “I think they do not know clearly the meaning of Bay Ben, they only follow their friends or relatives.”
During the festivities, Cambodians concoct traditional rice cakes called num ansorm and num korm to be distributed to monks, family and friends.
Sambo Manara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, says num ansorm embodies value, respect and thanksgiving for elders.
“Num ansorm is about showing gratitude,” Mr Manara says. “It is a tradition that we have to give steady value to and it was written in ancient texts.”
He says that the meaning of num ansorm and num korm is lost due to modernisation. Many Cambodians have begun to neglect teaching their children how to make num ansorm and num korm, Mr Manara adds.
“The making of num ansorm and num korm during Pchum Ben doesn’t happen incidentally,” he says. “It is a tradition linked to our society and economy.”
Hom Sothun, a young Buddhist worshipper, says he throws riceballs to the spirits during Pchum Ben every year. He says the ritual has not lost meaning among younger Cambodians.
“It’s not difficult for me to prepare Bay Ben – I always make it myself and go to a pagoda with my relatives early in the morning,” Mr Sothun says, noting that not every spirit has relatives to give it offerings. “They are homeless ghosts and they do not get offerings. So we throw Bay Ben to those homeless ghosts. I believe that what I am doing counts as a good deed.”