How religious are you? In Cambodia, 90% of the population are Buddhists, since this religion became a national religion as stated in Cambodian constitutional law. A big festival, known as “Phchum Ben”, was held in Cambodia from 13 to 27 of September this year. It is an annual festival which celebrated from the first to the fifteenth (dark moon) of Pektrobut (the tenth month of Lunar calendar).
This month is “darkest” month of the year, when it’s convenient for the evils or spirits to come out. Old people constantly say that during the 15 days of the festival, thousands of hungry ghosts and spirits from the hell are released to the mid-land (land of the living) by the king of hell. These hungry ghosts and spirits come to find their relatives in order to ask them to bring food to the pagoda for them. Normally if these hungry ghosts and spirits walk the 7 pagodas, and do not see their relatives bringing food, they will curse them to live unhappily and unsuccessfully for the whole year.
Because this belief, all kinds of Cambodian people always make sure to bring food including rice, meats, soups with meat, fish, drinks and other various dishes for monks. The monk symbolizes the religion whose followers including ordinary people, high ranking officers, and the king.
At 4.00 am, before sunrise, the sounds of praying can be heard from any part of the pagoda. It is the sound from the monks and other people who are praying for their dead ancestors in front the Buddha statue in the hall.
After praying, these people walk with candlelight to the edge of pagoda where the darkest site is. With the candles’ light and trays of rice balls, around a hundred people walk in groups and throw rice balls into the darkest site. It is believed that the hungry ghosts or spirits are afraid of the light and stay in dark places, waiting to collect rice balls from people. The spirits who come to take the rice balls are those who don’t have family, and they did bad things while they were alive. This activity is practised from the first day to the last day of the whole festival. After the cocks cry in the morning before sunrise, those ghosts return to their place where the sunshine can’t reach them.
Around 6.30 am, almost every household opens their doors, and people carry packages of food to the pagoda. They have to arrive at the pagoda before 7.00 am when the monks have breakfast. When they arrive, some people pray with incense in front the Buddha statue and some put their food on plates to offer to the monks. As per the tradition, before monks accept or eat the food, they have to pray, dedicating the meal to the dead who live in another world.
If some people miss breakfast time at the pagoda, they can go at 11.00 am to provide food for lunch. Most Cambodians prefer to go at lunch since they are likely busy in the early morning. Most people always bring food to at least seven pagodas during the festival because they are worried that their dead ancestors can’t find them.
Young people also never forget this annual festival. They normally gather with their friends bringing food and drinks to the monks to dedicate to their parents, grandparents or other ancestors who have died. After providing food to the monks, those young people play small traditional games in the pagoda or enjoy the themselves by visiting some places and having lunch together.