November 1. Todos los Santos, Araw ng mga Patay, undas. We Pinoys remember our dead loved ones, offer a prayer and light candles in the cemetery.
In Cambodia, it’s called the Pchum Ben, or the commemoration of the spirits festival and this year it started on the first day of October.This annual commemoration of the dead is one of the most important events in the Khmer Buddhist calendar.It lasts 15 days and is divided into 2 parts. In the days leading up to the full moon of Bon PChum Ben or the first 14 days of this Buddhist festival are called Bon Dak Ben, or the offering of the food to the monks. Buddhists troop to their temples and make offerings in memory of their dead relatives. On the 15th day of the ceremony- the day of the full moon- is called Bon Pchum Ben, or the collection of the bens (offering),the temples come alive with music and celebrations in honor of the dead. In the countryside, an evening of dance is held inside the pagoda. If relatives of the departed do not make offerings, it is said that the dead will not be able to rest and haunt them in the forthcoming year.
Tevika, my officemate, told me that in Buddhist beliefs, when a person dies he or she is not immediately reincarnated, but instead they go to a place somewhat similar to a purgatory. There is nothing to eat in that place, and so the souls of the dead are released during Pchum Ben for 15 days to go to earth in order to eat. And so, many people gather at the pagodas bringing loads of food for the dead. For the fanatics, they travel far and wide and offer food to seven different pagodas in seven days to appease the spirits and to earn merits for their next life.
I went to a pagoda before and saw how it was done. It has something like a fiesta-atmosphere to it, very similar to undas in Philippines. In the Philippines, the tombs are cleaned and adorned with flowers, here pagodas are decorated with banderitas. While masses are held in the cemeteries in the Philippines, Buddhist monks chant prayers over loudspeakers. Men, women and children dress to the nines and strut their wares in the cemetery, here locals, particularly the women, are dressed in their traditional costume. Instead of lighting candles, Cambodians light incense or joss sticks. Same-same, but there’s something a little different. It’s something new for me back in 2000. I feel sad now that a lot of religious groups have penetrated the country and have started converting the locals. I believe in diversity. Diversity of culture, religion, way of life… Otherwise, the world will just be one boring place.
P.S. Yes, the Cambodians believe in ghosts, monsters, etc., very much like us Filipinos. I wanted to watch the Halloween episode of MGB over TFC, but changed my mind. I live alone and I have a very active imagination. Mahirap na.