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Pchum Ben: Why Ancestor’s Day matters

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Seeing everything that Cambodia has to offer is the key to ensuring you have a great time, whether you’re visiting for a few days or months. After all, the country has a rich culture and history that will take more than months to completely appreciate. This goes for the temples, cultural arts and activities, and festivals that celebrate the glory of the Khmer empire and its people. Among the festivals you need to know about is Pchum Ben, a religious festival that celebrates ancestors.

Show respect and appreciation when you celebrate Pchum Ben like a local after learning everything about it below here at IPS Cambodia.

What is Pchum Ben?

Commonly known as “Ancestor’s Day”, Pchum Ben is a religious festival that honors up to seven previous ancestors for 15 days. It’s celebrated annually, usually 15 days after the tenth month in the Khmer calendar.

In Khmer, “Pchum” means to gather together and “Ben” simply means a ball of food. This is a perfect representation of how Cambodians celebrate this Buddhist festival by meeting their family members and giving an offering of food to their elders. 

Ancestor’s Day emphasises the belief in Cambodia that when someone dies, they will continue to walk on earth, taking on an appearance according to how they acted when they were alive. To lessen their agony, living relatives can offer food and prayers. If they don’t, there’s the belief that these ancestors can curse them. 

Additionally, during the celebration, Buddhist monks chant their suttas in the Pali language since it is believed that the deceased are more active at this time and the gates of hell open. Food offering can sooth the suffering and can either end it at this time or after the festival, go back to endure further.

The first 14 days of Pchum Ben is referred to as “Kan Ben” or observed celebration. At this time, everyone is expected to offer food and candles to Buddhist monks. Villages also have their own turns to bring offerings of food to pagodas and temples.

The fifteenth day called “Ben Thom” signifies the end of the festival, where families bring baskets of flowers, give more offerings to monks of food and more. Additionally, everyone dresses to the nines on this day with mostly bright colored clothing and accessories. While the last day of the festival is the highlight, the last three days of Pchum Ben are considered a national holiday.

History of Pchum Ben

Pchum Ben began back in the Middle Ages during the Mahayana period in first Century B.C. In the Angkorian period in 802 AD, the festival was still celebrated despite the belief in animism that swept the country. The celebration of ancestors even strengthened during the reign of King Jayavarman VII where a monk claimed he came back from hell. According to the monk, offering alms and food to other monks can help ease the pain and suffering of dead relatives.

Commemorating the dead has been part of Cambodians’ culture for centuries and this festival has only strengthened the culture over the years.

Celebrating Pchum Ben

Honoring the ancestors and joining the celebration with family and other locals is the right way to participate in Pchum Ben. Here are top three things you need to do during the festivity:

1. Go to a pagoda for offering

Since this festival remembers ancestors, you have to go to a pagoda to offer your gifts to your relatives that have already passed away. If you’re not a local, going to a pagoda to remember and honoring the deceased is also respectful. 

2. Prepare something for your elders

One of the biggest things in Cambodian culture is respecting the elders, whether they’re your parents or grandparents. This is mainly because they’re considered as special gods who lead the home. So when celebrating Pchum Ben, children commonly prepare lunch and other things for their parents and grandparents to honor them.

3. Prepare Bay Bens

Bay Bens are a common food created and shared during Pchum Ben. It’s a sticky ball of rice made with coconut milk. It’s a big part of the festival since it’s given as an offering to ghosts at sunrise for those who died with heavy sins. Since it’s believed that these kinds of ghosts cannot walk the earth while the sun is out, they’re only given at dawn.

Celebrate Safely!

Make sure you start coordinating with your friends and family to celebrate Pchum Ben. This year, the last three and biggest days of the festival will be from October 5 (Tuesday) to October 7 (Thursday). Start preparing the ingredients you need for offerings and spending time with your relatives so you can celebrate Pchum Ben properly.

Whether you’re a foreigner or a local, it’s best to honor the deceased and celebrate that they’ve made their own memories and mark in the world when they were alive. For this year, being with those you love will also be a great way to enjoy the festival together. 

Have a fantastic Pchum Ben festival and make sure you celebrate safely despite the ongoing pandemic!

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