Pchum Ben is Cambodia’s most important Buddhist festival. Also known as Ancestors Festival or Hungry Ghosts Festival, Pchum Ben takes place over 15 days near the end of monsoon. Pchum Ben festival marks the end of Buddhist lent and the monks’ monsoonal retreat with a 3-day holiday from 13-16 October 2023. This is a taste of Pchum Ben with tips for travellers in Cambodia during Pchum Ben.
Pchum Ben began in Cambodia today. Here in Siem Reap, we were woken the wee hours of the morning today to the sounds of gongs, tinkly music and monks chanting from nearby pagodas. The 15-day Pchum Ben festival starts on the fifteenth day of the tenth month of the Khmer lunar calendar, culminating with a 3-day national holiday mid-October.
Cambodia’s Pchum Ben festival marks the end of Buddhist lent and the monks’ rainy season retreat. During the wettest months of the monsoon season, monks remain at the temples to receive offerings, unlike the rest of the year when they do their early morning rounds through local neighbourhoods to collect alms.
Dedicated to the spirits of the dead – ‘preta’ or ‘the departed ones’ in Sanskrit – Pchum Ben is a time when the spirits of the ancestors of Cambodian Buddhists return to wander the earth and the living must ease their suffering by offering the hungry ghosts some food to eat.
Many businesses close during this period, although closures and opening hours can vary dramatically from business to business. Check ahead if you’re planning a trip to Cambodia around restaurants, for instance. We have more tips for travellers visiting Cambodia during Pchum Ben at the end of the post.
While Buddhist ceremonies and rituals occur throughout the 15-day period, most take place on the first day and on Pchum Ben Day, during the three-day national holiday when most Cambodians get time off work so they can travel back to their villages and hometowns and spend time with family — living and dead.
Annually updated, we first published the following account of our first experience of Pchum Ben in Battambang in October 2013, soon after we moved to Cambodia.
Pchum Ben in Cambodia When Cambodians Feed their Ancestors During the Hungry Ghosts Festival
It was probably because we’d spent several hours cycling through the lush countryside and sleepy villages around Cambodia’s riverside 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 simmering soup or curry.
Skidding to a stop and following my nose I spotted several men stirring colossal woks and realised that they must be preparing food not for a family feast or wedding but for offerings for Pchum Ben.
Until the tantalising fragrances wafted my way and I noticed the large gathering out the corner of my eye, I’d momentarily forgotten that Cambodia’s most important Buddhist Festival, Pchum Ben, also known as Ancestors Festival or Hungry Ghosts Festival, was underway.
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 fantastic proportions as we had that day in Battambang being prepared for generations of long-departed loved-ones and the monks who would ensure the food reached the lost souls.
The Buddhist festival of 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 away are helped along by prayer.
Pchum Ben is also similar to Mexico’s Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, held on November 2nd, 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, the commemoration of Day of the Day 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 Pchum Ben 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 similarities to Phi Ta Khon, the Ghost Festival held in Dan Sai in the Loie province in Thailand’s Isaan region, which we have also written about. Although Dan Sai’s Ghost Festival is held at the start of the monsoon season and is partly about calling for rain, 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’ wet season retreat, during which most monks will remain at the temples to receive offerings, in contrast to the rest of the year when they do their early morning rounds of local neighbourhoods to collect alms.
Our guide Nyphea suggested we head into the pagoda grounds for a look. As we parked our bicycles inside the gate, all eyes turned toward us. The people were as fascinated by us, and our curiosity, as we were intrigued by the rituals and customs of this Cambodian 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. The period from day one to fourteen is called ‘Dak Ben’, or ‘Kan Ben’ by some, beginning on the first day of the waning moon and lasting until the fifteenth day, Pchum Ben Day.
While ceremonies occur throughout the whole 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 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 3am or 4am when the sound of monks chanting the ‘sutta’ starts.
Rituals that take place including 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. ‘Pchum’, by the way, refers to a gathering while ‘ben’ is a ball of rice.
Mid-morning, the wats bustle with visits by locals dressed in their best clothes, to a background soundtrack of xylophone music. 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 a shaded, ramshackle wooden platform.
Here, women assembled the offerings for the monks on pretty round trays, painted with flowers, each holding several identical bowls of the food that the men were cooking – a hearty herbaceous soup, a chicken and vegetable curry-like stew, and, of course, fluffy steamed rice.
Impressed with the vast quantities of ingredients being stirred in the massive woks and pots that sat on enormous wood-fired clay braziers, I had wanted only to watch what was being made and make some notes, and Terence simply wanted to make beautiful photos of the vibrant food: yellow capsicum, red chillies, fresh green herbs.
Instead, while we gawked at the cooks’ culinary feats, which we acknowledged with a thumbs-up and smiles and translations through our guide, we found ourselves being treated as guests.
An elderly woman in a crisp white shirt and the shaved head of a devout Buddhist got up, gesturing for a few other women and their cheeky little children to follow. They invited us to take their place on the wooden platform.
The trim old lady would soon tell us that she was 81 and still loved to dance. She would later ask Terence to take her portrait by the gold stupa that contained her ancestors’ ashes. For now she was eager to know what we thought of the big bowl of curry 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 their journey to heaven and I didn’t want that.
Once the ceremony was underway, the monks could eat the food, and after the ritual had finished the family, friends and neighbours would 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 these food-loving locals had detected how excited we were by the opportunity to observe the cooks? Because it seemed more than a gesture of hospitality. They genuinely appeared to want us to taste their food and were eager to find out what we thought.
Terence and I each tried a little of the dish in the bowl handed to us to share. It was good. It was very good. In fact both the stew and the soup were better than most meals we’d had in restaurants in our three months so far in Cambodia.
The chicken pieces were tasty and succulent, and the soup and curry were rich, complex and deeply flavoured. It was all fantastic. We each ate a couple more mouthfuls, just enough to show we were appreciative.
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 the giggling little kids who had gathered around us.
The adorable kids were little urchins. For it has to be said that while these people had been generous, they were by no means well-off.
While most men and women wore crisp white shirts, freshly pressed trousers, long silk embroidered skirts, and sandals slipped off at the entrance to the pagoda, many of the little kids wore ragged clothing and looked like they’d spent the morning playing in the dirt.
Nyphea explained that Pchum Ben was also a time for better-off Cambodians to demonstrate generosity and kindness to the less fortunate of the living, as well as the dead.
With more 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 little munchkins who followed us around practicing their English.
Those hungry ghosts were going to have a very good feed.
How to Experience Pchum Ben in Cambodia
- Pchum Ben dates shift each year. In 2023 the 15-day Pchum Ben festival starts on 1st October and culminates in Pchum Ben day and the 3-day national holiday on 13-16 October. Rituals occur at homes and pagodas throughout the period.
- As a visitor to Cambodia, you’ll have more opportunities to see rituals in the bigger cities of Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap.
- If you want to get out into the villages to observe or experience some ceremonies and rituals, just ask your tuk tuk driver or guide to take you.
- Visitors are welcome at pagodas, but do respect customs such as removing shoes and leaving them beneath the pagoda 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 tuk tuk driver 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.
- If you are on a tight schedule and only in Cambodia for a few days, when you’re doing a guided tour, ask your guide if you could stop at a pagoda to see a Pchum Ben ritual if there’s something on while you’re here.
- Keep in mind that some pagodas schedule days and times for particular families to visit for ceremonies during the holiday, so you could be intruding on an organised event – as we did!
- Keep 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 probably be closed as staff are given leave to return to their hometown to spend time with their family.
- Plan to eat at your hotel, relax and laze by the pool, and get hotel staff to call ahead to make sure restaurants are open before going out.
- Angkor Archaeological Park will be open throughout Pchum Ben including Pchum Ben Day and the 3-day public holiday.
- Take extra care with valuables when wandering around the streets of Phnom Penh during the 15-day period. Unfortunately, bag snatches and robberies increase during this time.
Updated on 30 September 2023 with new dates and more detailed information.