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.