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Oct 06

Feeding The Hungry Ghosts During Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival

Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival, Cambodia.

It was probably because we’d spent several hours cycling through the lush countryside and sleepy villages around Cambodia’s little city of Battambang and I’d worked up an appetite that as we whizzed by a pagoda my senses alerted me to the mouthwatering aromas of a soup or curry simmering on a stove.

Following my nose I spotted several men stirring colossal woks and realized they must be preparing food not for a family feast but for offerings for Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival.

When the tantalizing fragrances first wafted my way and I noticed the large gathering out the corner of my eye – just as our guide Nyphea did and suggested we stop for a look – I forgot for a moment that Cambodia’s most important Buddhist Festival, Pchum Ben, also known as Ancestors Festival or Hungry Ghosts Festival, was underway and thought that the food being prepared must be for a wedding or other celebration.

Elsewhere in Cambodia, we’d only seen people carrying small aluminium pots and tiffin boxes of sticky rice to the temples. We hadn’t yet witnessed a feast of such proportions being prepared for generations of dead loved ones and the monks who would ensure the food reached the lost souls.

Pchum Ben is often compared to other festivals of ancestor veneration such as Christianity’s All Souls’ Day, where the dead who didn’t achieve the moral perfection required to reach heaven before passing are helped along by prayer.

It is also like Mexico’s Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, held on November 2, where families build altars of photos, memorabilia, marigolds, candles, and sugar skulls, to honour the dead and take their favourite foods and drinks to their graves. Although celebrated on All Souls Day that commemoration has been traced back to an indigenous Aztec festival that is dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, whose role is to watch over the dead.

The rituals of Cambodia’s Buddhist festival have closer ties to Japan’s Buddhist Bon Festival, Korea’s Chuseok, and China’s Qingming or Tomb Sweeping Festival and Ghost Month – also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival – where offerings are made to comfort the dead in the afterlife to discourage them from haunting the living.

Pchum Ben also has some similarities to Phi Ta Khon, the Ghost Festival held in Dan Sai in the Loie province in Thailand, which we wrote about here. Although Dan Sai’s Ghost Festival is held at the start of the monsoon season and is partly about calling for rain, whereas Pchum Ben takes place over 15 days towards the end of monsoon.

In Cambodia, the period marks the end of Buddhist lent and the end of the monks’ monsoonal retreat, during which most will remain at the temples to receive offerings, unlike the rest of the year when they do their early morning rounds to collect alms.

As we parked our bicycles inside the pagoda gates, all eyes turned toward us. The people were apparently as fascinated by us, and our curiosity, as we were intrigued by the rituals and customs of Cambodia’s unique festival.

Dedicated to the spirits of the dead – ‘preta’ or ‘the departed ones’ in Sanskrit – the 15-day Pchum Ben period culminates in a three-day national holiday, which this year took place on 3, 4 and 5 October. While ceremonies occur throughout the two-week period, most of them occur over the last three days when all Cambodians get time off work so they can travel back to their villages and hometowns and to spend the time with family, living and dead.

During the 15-day period, towns and cities across Cambodia begin to hum from as early as 4am when the sound of monks chanting the ‘sutta’ starts, and rituals take place such as walking circles around the wat and throwing rice-balls into the air or into an empty field to feed the hungry ghosts. Buddhists ask the monks to pray for their ancestors and in turn they sit and listen to the monks’ sermons and chants.

Mid-morning, the wats bustle with crowds to a background soundtrack of xylophone music and Buddhists visit to make donations of money and offerings of food that they have lovingly prepared. Sometimes the food is left on a long table, at other times it is passed directly to the monks in a more elaborate procedure that involves reading out the names of generations of deceased relatives.

Soon after we reached the Battambang gathering of an extended family and their friends and neighbours, as our guide Nyphea would soon learn, spaces were cleared for us on the shaded, ramshackle wooden platform where the women were assembling round trays, painted with flowers, each holding several identical bowls for the food the men were cooking – a hearty herb soup, a chicken and vegetable stew that was somewhere between a heavy stir-fry and a light curry, and, of course, rice.

I had wanted only to observe, to watch what was being made and make some notes, and Terence – the cook in our household who once contemplated becoming a chef, who was impressed with the vast quantities of ingredients being combined in these huge wok-like pots over rustic wood-fired clay ‘stoves’ – had simply wanted to make beautiful photos of the vibrant food: yellow capsicum, red chillies, fresh green herbs.

Instead, after admiring the cooks’ culinary achievements with their rudimentary apparatus, which we acknowledged with a thumbs-up and smiles and translations through our guide, we found ourselves being treated as guests. An elderly woman with the shaved head and crisp white shirt of a devout Buddhist got up, gesturing for a few other women and raggedy-clothed children to follow, and invited us to take their place on the wooden platform.

The trim old lady would soon tell us she was 81 and still loved to dance and would later ask Terence to take her portrait by the gold stupa that contained her ancestors’ ashes, but for now she was eager to know what we thought of the big bowl of stew that had been thrust into our hands to try.

I at first hesitated, because our guide had told us that nobody could eat the food on the trays, let alone even touch the plates, before the ritual had been performed in which the monks would bless the offerings, enabling the food to be sent onto the famished spirits. To touch the plate might interfere with its journey to heaven.

Once the ceremony was underway, the monks could eat the food, and after it had finished the family, friends and neighbours could sit together and feast on what was left – hence the massive portions. For some reason, however, an exception was being made for us.

Could it be that the cooks, their assistants, their family and friends, somehow knew we were passionate about food? Because it seemed more than a gesture of hospitality or goodwill – they genuinely appeared to want us to eat and were eager to find out what we thought of their food.

Terence and I each tried a little of the bowl given to us to share. It was good. It was very good. In fact the both the stew and the soup were better than most meals we’d had in restaurants in our three months in Cambodia.

The chicken pieces were beautifully cooked – soft and succulent, not chewy and overcooked as they are in most restaurants – and the juices, both the broth for the stew and the herb soup were light yet complex and perfectly balanced, not overly sweet as they tended to be here. It was fantastic.

We each ate a couple more mouthfuls, just enough to show we were appreciative and had made an effort, but not too much, as we didn’t wish to appear greedy or disrespectful of the occasion. We offered the rest to our guide Nyphea, and after he was done, to the dirty little urchins that were the sweet kids who had gathered around us. For it has to be said that while these people had been generous, they were by no means well-off.

Some women and men wore crisp, laundered white shirts and freshly pressed trousers and long skirts and slipped off sandals at the entrance to the pagoda. Yet there were just as many people, if not more, who wore ragged clothing that hadn’t been washed in some time and recycled flip-flops made from recycled rubber tyres and children who were positively filthy who ran around barefoot.

With smiles and thumbs-up we showed the cooks that we had indeed loved the food that they had so lovingly and expertly made, and then we shared our bowls and spoons with those dirty little kids who followed us around practicing their English. Those hungry ghosts were going to have a very good feed that day.

How to experience Pchum Ben
* In 2014, the 3-day public holiday should take place from Friday 26 to Sunday 28 September, although rituals will occur at pagodas over twelve days leading up to the holiday. Note: there are conflicting dates as to when this holiday will occur, so check again in mid-2014.

* Visitors are welcome at temples, but do respect customs such as removing shoes and leaving them on the steps and wearing long sleeved shirts and long skirts/trousers. If you sit down, fold your legs beneath you to ensure you don’t point your toes at others and especially not at the Buddha image.

* If you’re presented with a tray or plate, you’ll be expected to make a donation, and even if you’re not, do look for a box so you can make a small donation.

* If you’d like to participate in a ceremony then do so with a guide or befriend a local. Don’t attempt to do so on your own as there are rituals that are important to get right, such as the way you handle the food you’re presenting to the monk and how and when to touch the bowl. Also, some pagodas schedule days and times for particular families to visit for the ceremony during the holiday, so you could be intruding on an organized event – as we did!

* Bear in mind that for the three days of the national holiday, government offices, banks, and all but the most touristy restaurants, cafes/bars and shops will be shut as staff are given leave to return to their hometown to spend time with their family. Plan to eat at the hotel, relax and laze by the pool, and get hotel staff to call ahead to make sure restaurants are open before going out.

* Take extra care with valuables when wandering around the streets of Phnom Penh during the period. Unfortunately, bag snatchings and armed robberies increase during this time.

14 comments

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  1. Tasmania Tours

    It has been nearly ten years since I visited Battambang (now settled comfortably back at home in Tasmania!). It is one of the most stunning areas of the world. Thanks so much for posting and bringing back memories :)

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Richard – Tassie hey? The only place in Australia we haven’t been. Ye, Battambang is a beautiful part of Cambodia, albeit with a tragic past and considerable social problems, but there are a lot of organizations there doing great work to improve things. More posts to come on Battambang and Cambodia. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Olga

    I must admit your blog is amazing, I simple love it. You have to come to Poland one day )
    I just started to write my, it is mostly about Europe. If you like to have a look you will find me here; upandroundtheworld.blogspot.com
    I would very much appreciated some advice, how to make it better as I am now in blog world.
    With my bet wishes

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks, Olga. We’ve been to Poland a couple of times. If you check our destinations you’ll see posts on Krakow.

      The best advice we can give you is to write about your personal experiences of travel and places and your particular way of seeing the world, experiencing places and engaging with people. The world doesn’t need another general travel blog but people like yourself, who share the same way of seeing, taste, and style of travel will be interested in reading your blog. Best of luck!

  3. Carmen

    Great post and brilliant tips at the end. We are going to be in Asia around that time next year so I certainly want to try and get to this festival because it looks amazing.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thank you! Or ‘okun’ (seeing we are in Cambodia). The great thing about it is that it’s not hard to experience – just make a habit of dropping into pagodas around 10am each morning during the period! If you do get to it next year make sure you come back and share your experiences and leave a link to any posts you write on it :)

  4. Paula McInerney

    I like Cambodia a lot, particularly Phnom Penh and have enjoyed your articles to date. Battambang does indeed have a chequered past and I still think there are considerable issues there, as we experienced with gangsters ruling the town when we went. However Pchum Ben allowed you to meet the real people and experience their life. A great post that echoes how we like to travel as well. Thank you, Regards, Paula

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks, Paula! We’ve spent a lot of time on and off in Battambang in recent months and, yes, it has a lot of social problems, but I have to say we haven’t seen any ‘gangsters’. Do you mean the gang of little boys addicted to glue-sniffing? There are about half a dozen of them and they do stagger around the streets, and it’s very sad to see, but they’re pretty harmless – too stoned to do any real damage. That aside, Battambang is a wonderful place, with lots of special people living there. More posts to come on it. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Alex | Partial Parallax

    Sounds like a very interesting festival to be a part of. I’m sure the food was amazing and the whole atmosphere must of just been great and something very different to the norm, sounds like a great time!

    1. Lara Dunston

      The food was really delicious – it still amazes me how such simple home-cooked food can be so much better than much of the restaurant food. That’s not always the case.

      The ‘festival’ itself isn’t that spirited. It’s a fairly low-key affair but it’s fascinating to observe the rituals and listen to the monks chanting.

      Thanks for visiting us :)

  6. Rashad Pharaon

    I experienced the Hungry Ghost phenomenon when I was in Taiwan last year, how cool that it’s in Cambodia too. When I came outside of my building the streets would be filled with little tables offering fruit and treats to the “hungry ghosts.” There was also paper burning in large metal trash bins, I think – I never found out exactly what that symbolized. thanks for a great post!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Rashad, I’ve since discovered that there are more variations on the festival around Asia than I first thought. The offerings of fruit, incense, cigarettes, etc, arranged on tables that you see are not confined to the ‘hungry ghosts’ festivals either, but is an ongoing form of ancestor worship for Buddhists that usually occurs on the day of every new and full moon. Paper being burnt is part of the same ritual and is generally paper money. Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Eric Dunes

    Hi Lara. Your post is great. I cant help but read until the very end. I like the festival and maybe wanna try it someday! Been to some festival before but this one looks interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Eric – it’s definitely an interesting one to experience, because it’s so local – it’s part of the religious calendar in contrast to a festival on the tourist calendar. Thanks for dropping by!

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