There are two big red X’s on every Cambodian calendar, one for the Khmer new year, and the other for Pchum Ben. Pchum Ben is a national holiday celebrated by all of Cambodia, which can be as exciting as it is regimented. Let’s look at what we can do to get the most out of the Pchum Ben span of public holidays.
What is it about?
Pchum Ben has been celebrated as long as any Khmer can remember. It is a Buddhist festival for relatives who have passed away.
It is believed that those ancestors may be suffering in hell, and that the festival gives living relatives a chance to offer them some relief.
They do this through offerings, and especially with food, therefore the name (see photos). ‘Ben’ means to portion rice into cups or a ball of food, and ‘Pchum’ means ‘to meet together’.
Those that participate may be honoring ancestors as far back as seven generations.
How is it celebrated?
Pchum Ben is a time of remembrance. The festival is to honour deceased relatives and ancestors, as well as a chance to return home and see living relatives. It is as much a cultural festival as it is a religious one; open to everyone, Buddhist or otherwise.
The first 14 days of the festival are call Dak Ben. Those that celebrate Dak Ben will return to the provinces that they came from to worship at pagodas.
During this time, the monks who live in the pagodas stay up all night chanting Buddhist scriptures called suttas.
Participants come early and cook food for the monks, as well as throwing rice into the air or into fields for the spirits to consume. They must come early because the monks do not eat after noon.
The last day of the festival is the most important. Almost everyone in Cambodia will get at least three days off for the last day of the festival to have a chance to travel back to their hometown.
This year, that time is between the 27th and the 30th of September.
How can I participate?
If you plan to participate in Pchum Ben, it would be best to go with some Khmer friends who can help show you what to do. You will need to head to the nearby pagoda early.
During the final day of the festival the pagodas will be busy, so it’s important to be patient and respectful of others.
Finally, be sure to dress for the occasion, most Khmer people will be wearing traditional clothing, and it would be inappropriate to wear revealing clothes at a pagoda. If you don’t have and Khmer traditional dress, try to wear white.
What else does this exodus mean?
No traffic jams? Construction of buildings grind to a total halt… Since this is a national holiday celebrated by most Khmer people, city folk will be leaving Phnom Penh to head back to the provinces.
Even if someone’s hometown is Phnom Penh, they will likely be off for those three days anyways. Most restaurants and shops will be closed for the holiday.
It will be wise to stock some of your favourite food and snacks at home for TV movies during this time, as well as water and what-else you want to catch up on.
For non-Buddhists, the expat community, tourists and foreigners who are not celebrating, there are two options.
Enjoy a long weekend in and camp out until things (like cafes and hot spots) open up again or troop out for a vacation.
That said, there will surely be a few inviting places open during the long Pchum Ben weekend, in case you really can’t hold out, to chill out.