Pchum Ben, Ancestors’ Day


The crematorium of Lower Pagoda (Wat Kraom) in Sihanoukville.


Pchum Ben or the Ancestors’ Day, is a Cambodian Buddhist and Brahmanism festivity where Cambodians of those religions pay a respect to the spirits of their ancestors and deceased relatives. In harmony with this cultural-religion tradition, the Cambodian Catholic Church has also its annual All Souls Day that is universally celebrated on November 2, but in the Cambodian Catholic communities it is during the traditional Pchum Ben.

The Pchum Ben takes places during the lunar month of Pot-bot. Although it is called the Ancestors’ Day, it is actually three days. By the Gregorian year of 2010 – that in the Cambodian Buddhist calendar is 2554, – the Pchum Ben is celebrated between October 7 and 9 that is 14 and 15 of Pot-bot and 1 of Asoch (these the lunar months.) However, 15 days before the families follow a rite of  ‘feeding the ancestors’ that are believed to walk through the earth this month. The sign of the food is intended to easy their passing.

It is a very familiar festivity. Most Cambodians go back to their birth places, joining the extended family to pay honor to their decease relatives and ancestors. Schools, offices and commerce are closed during the three main days of the festivity. The deceased that are considered without living relatives, are also remembered in the pagodas. Early morning the families prepared a special sacred food made of sticky rice. The family goes together to the nearby pagoda and offers the food to the ancestors. They walk around the temple three times in prayerful attitude with incense and chants. They offer also money and other gifts that are used by the bonzis either for their own maintenance (that is not too much of course) and for the poor. If you notice, in many pagodas there is often a small troop of orphans that are actually feeding and educated by the bonzis. Giving money to the pagodas is actually a good social action.

At midday the families return to the pagoda to present more offerings that will help in cancelling your own sins and helping the poor. The last day of the Pchum Ben is the most special, with everybody dressing in their best clothes and the family going to the pagoda with flowers and other special presents for the bonzis. They dedicate the last prayers to their ancestors helping them in their travel through a better ‘life.’ According to the traditions, those who do not pay respect to their ancestors, will be cursed by them.

Cambodians believe that small sins are punished by small punishments, for example, you can get a small mouth that will make you difficult to eat, or you can get not mouth at all (which other hell you need?) Big sins get you big punishments. As most Cambodians believe in reincarnation, it can be in any thing on the universe, from a stone or a tree to an insect or a cow, according with your present life. If you behave well, you can get a superior next life as a human (though it also depends which kind of human you deserve to be) or a god.


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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X39xwdGtVXI) and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (http://www.colombia.co/en/culture/colombians-that-are-making-this-a-better-world.html).

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