Don’t be surprised by the blog posts that I’ve done one after the other. Thanks to the long holiday, the Bon Pchum Ben, my husband and I are enjoying, relaxing, and doing things together without the usual stress that goes with our normal routine.
I have written about Bon Pchum Ben long time ago, but I’m happy to share with you again what this celebration is all about.
Bon Pchum Ben is the annual commemoration of the spirits. It is one of the important celebrations, and one of the grandest religious holidays, in Cambodia. I’d like to think it’s somewhat analogous to the Philippines’ Todos Los Santos. While our Todos Los Santos lasts only for one day (some stay up until midnight), the Bon Pchum Ben lasts 15 days, and is divided into 2 parts. This year it started on the 24th of September and ended yesterday, 8th of October. The first 14 days leading up to the full moon of Pchum Ben are called Bon Dak Ben, or the offering of the foods to the monks. Cambodians troop to wats (temples or pagodas) 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 (offerings). It is the day when the temples come alive with music and celebrations in honor of the dead. In some villages in the countryside, an evening dance is held inside the pagoda.
Buddhists believe that when a person dies, he/she is not immediately reincarnated. Instead they go to a place somewhat similar to what the Catholics call the 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. According to Tevika, my Cambodian friend and source of information on Khmer traditions, as Buddhists, they are expected to visit at least one wat every Pchum Ben. For the more fervent Buddhists, 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. 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. Now that is a scary, eh? This is something that Cambodians don’t want to happen – because they are mortally scared of ghosts and creatures – and so, even if they barely had enough for their own consumption, it is amazing that they are still able to hand out a little something for the monks and prepare food to offer their departed loved ones.
Years ago, my husband and I befriended a young monk in Kep. He was, at that time, the head monk of Wat Kampong Tralach and he invited us to observe and gave permission to take photographs, too. Here are some of the photos I took:
Visiting a wat during the Pchum Ben feels like going to a Philippine fiesta. The wats are decorated with banderitas (buntings) and chants of Buddhist monks are carried over loudspeakers. There’s so much electricity in the air with all the people coming in and out of the wats. It was really great to be able to observe this tradition up close, giving us a closer look of one slice of Cambodian tradition and culture. It is great to see that this tradition is still alive and practiced – despite the years of the Khmer Rouge rule, and in the recent years, the noticeably growing number of religious groups entering Cambodia.