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Pchum Ben: honouring the ancestors

Cambodian monk during Pchum Ben in Kratie, CambodiaBonn Pchum Ben is the festival held for commemoration of the spirits of the dead. The highlight is on the 15th day of the waxing moon during the tenth month of the Khmer calendar, called Pheaktrobotr.

The festival does not just begin and end on one day. In fact, it lasts 15 days, each of which is called a day of Kan Ben. A Ben is an offering. The word of Ben is derived from Sanskrit pinda, or balls of rice to be offered to the souls of the dead.During the first 14 days, people take turns offering food to the monks of their local pagoda in the hope that their offering will reach the souls of their ancestors by virtue of the monks’ sermons.

Date in 2015: October 11-12-13

Ancient traditions

Inscriptions in stone left by King Yaçovarman (889-910) tell us that he built numerous monasteries during that period, and that pinda were offered on a monthly basis, not only to “abandoned souls” – souls with no family to make offerings to them – but also to souls of combatants who had died for their country.

Rich and poor

The present-day Ben are balls of glutinous rice, cooked in coconut milk and mixed with various ingredients according to local customs. The way a Ben is held also differs slightly from locality to locality.

The final day of Pchum Ben is the most important for all followers. On this day, at every pagoda around the country, the mass collection of offerings (Bens) is dedicated to the souls of ancestors.

If this duty is ignored, it is believed that the soul is cursed and will haunt the neglectful descendents for the rest of the year.

Pchum Ben offerings

Pchum Ben: Visit a pagoda

Women sorting the food offerings during Pchum Ben at a pagoda in Kratie, ambodia

In the early morning of the last day of the Pchum Ben Festival, visitors can join the throngs at the pagodas and take photos of local people of all ages in traditional costume. Women especially, don their best traditional dress, and come wearing their silk, embroidered blouses and scarves, bearing offerings, candles and incense.

Num Onsam and sweet Num Korm (steamed cakes wrapped in banana leaves) are taken to pagodas during the festival to share among participants. Num Onsam is a kind of cylindrical cake of glutinous rice wrapped around a mixture of pork, salt and other ingredients. Num Korm is shaped like a pyramid and made of rice-flour and filled with a coconut and palm sugar mixture.

Money offered to monks goes towards the construction or renovation of temples and community development such as the construction of bridges and schools, tree planting, or as donations to needy families.

Khmers believe that fraternal feelings are fostered with the exchange of food and Num Onsam and Num Korm cakes. This ensures that visitors to any pagoda during the Pchum Ben festival will be warmly welcomed and invited to taste these cakes and enjoy the festivities.

See pictures of Bonn Pchum Ben in Tonle Bati.

See also a video of Pchum Ben in Kampong Speu.

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