Pchum Ben in Cambodia: The ceremonies
Every year Cambodia celebrates the Pchum Ben day. Many call it the ancestors day, because the main activity is to offer food to the ghosts of the dead relatives. Officially the festival is 14 days long, but most families leave it with the last three of four days. In Phnom Penh it is common now to just go to the temple for one day. The capital is quite empty because many who work here leave the city and go back to their hometown. The word ‘Ben’ in Khmer means to collect; ‘Ben’ also means to cup or mould cooked rice into portions. To ‘Ben Baht’ means to collect food to give to monks. The word ‘Phchum’ means to congregate or to meet together.
How does a day during Pchum Ben look like?
Our team member Thyda explains the activities with her family.
“One day before the main Pchum Ben celebrations, my mother goes to market to buy meat and vegetables. Wer are very traditional, that means we cook a lot of different dishes.
On the day when we are going to the pagoda, all family members get up at 5:30 am. They gather in the kitchen and start preparing the food and cook. Usually it takes around one and a half hours to cook all the different dishes. There is no rule in what to cook. Some prefer more expensive food like duck and beef, some care more about decoration, and others worry about the ghosts health and offer vegetarian food. After cooking, we arrange the dishes in small containers (in khmer called Chansrak) together with rice and some fruits as well as Khmer sticky rice. Also, we have to bring candles and even some money for the monks and the pagoda.
Some people go to seven pagodas
The family then usually drives to the temple next to their home. There is also a tradition that families have to visit 7 pagodas within 7 days. Everyone goes to the pagoda because they don’t want the spirits of dead members of their family to come to seek offerings at pagodas in vain. It is believed that wondering spirits will go to look in seven different pagodas and if those spirits can not find their living relatives’ offering in any of those pagodas, they will curse them, because they cannot eat food offered by other people.
The women dress in a traditional skirt, often woven from silk, and a white blouse. Over the shoulder they wear a white scarf. Girls can also dress the same way, The men have a nice shirt and trousers.
Feeding the ghosts
We have to make sure we arrive at the temple before 11 am. It is tradition in Buddhism, that monks are not allowed to eat after 11 am. So we arrive at 8am at the pagoda and offer the food to the monks. One reason is to support the holy men with food, during Pchum Ben it is also a way, to feed the ghosts. The monks are mediators between the real world and hell. It is said that during Pchum Ben the gates from hell are open and the hungry ghosts come out. The offerings are meant to make them full and calm the ghosts down. After placing the food containers in the dedicated place, we queue up in a line of many people to put rice in bowls on a very long table. some decades ago rice was thrown on the floor to feed the ghosts, but it changed to bowls and plates so it can be eaten later.
Another beautiful tradition follows the offerings. Monks have build huge sand piles, and we start creating small hills from it and decorate with flags and ornaments. This activity is only seen during Pchum Ben. It is unclear where the tradition is coming from, and some pagodas have only one sand mountain while other have several in different sizes.
[UPDATE: Not available in 2020] Join us for a authentic experience in Pchum Ben day
Once the activity at the sand piles is over, we sit with others in the pagoda and have a meal together. Since there is way too much food for the monks and the ghost don’t really eat it, it would be a waste to leave it. Some pagodas share the food with poor people in the neighborhood.”
Thydas mother Phanny is a really good cook, and offers to take travelers to the pagoda during Pchum Ben. We have a special package that includes:
- Cooking the food together at the home
- Drive to the pagoda
- Offerings, explanations, prayers and meditation
- Drive back to the home
- Have lunch at home (or pagoda, if desired).
Authentic Khmer food on the menu
The menu is a set menu (the ghosts really like it too):
CHICKEN FOREST SOUR SOUP (SAMLOR MACHOUPREY SACHMIEN)
It is a kind of hot-soup which was named from a forest. It is cooked with a combination of chicken and varieties of fresh vegetables like colorful tomato, green pepper, and sweet pepper, mixed with Khmer Kroeung and tamarind. For Khmer Kroeung, she uses lemongrass stalk, Kaffir lime, Galangal, Rhizome, and garlic. To make a yellow Kroeung, she added turmeric a bit over than others to get color and flavor. Finally, the soup is added with holy basil known as M’rah prov.
FRIED SWEET GOURD (KHUO NORNAOENG)
A very fresh fried tropical vegetables mixed (gourd and sweet corn) with chicken egg will bring you an unforgettable experience of Khmer food. After cooking, she added Kampot pepper and spring onion over the fried.
GRILLED PORK RIB (CHHA-EUNG CHHUMNY CHROUK-ANG)
A common right dish for every time meals such as breakfast, lunch or dinner. She could make it special by marinating the pork ribs with Kampot pepper (a special pepper from the southwest part of coastal of Cambodia), a little salt and sugar, oyster sauce and garlic, etc. Its smell will make you hungry!
COCONUT JELLY (CHA-HUOY DOUNG)
Hot and steamy would be a good way to describe the weather in Cambodia. Therefore, the coconut jelly is a popular dessert to help you cool down the heat inside your body. Mixed gelatine powder with coconut water and let it stand for a few minutes. After that top up it with coconut milk and leave in the fridge to set.