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Bon Pchum Ben

Mary has lived in Cambodia for a few months each year, working on education projects.

Bon Pchum Ben: Honoring the Dead in Cambodia

Each year, 15 days are devoted to honor the part of the family that is here but no longer here. Tradition dictates that every year, around September or October, depending on the Buddhist calendar, must be devoted to making the family of previous generations happy.

Every Buddhist visits at least 3 pagodas (wats) each to bring food, money and other favourite things of the dead relations for fear that when these relations come to the pagoda for a visit, if they don't find this evidence of memory, they will put a curse on them.

For many, visiting at least 7 pagodas within the 15 day period is the goal. Who needs more curses with the world's bankers doing a job on all of us. As the pagodas in the big cities get most of the donations, rich people with cars try to visit the remote and faraway ones so the monks there can get a share of the bounty, and big city ghosts that take a side trip won't be disappointed.

Pchum Ben Celebration

Pchum Ben at Wat Langka

Pchum Ben at Wat Langka

Pchum Ben Celebration in Khmer Culture

Pchum Ben or Bon Kan Ben or Bon Dak Ben as this festival is referred to, is very colourful. With thousands of Monks in saffron robes, it couldn't be otherwise. Some explain the distinctions: Day 1-14 is referred to as Bon Kan Ben and the last day which is the most important and every Cambodian Buddhist is expected to be in the pagoda is referred to as Pchum Ben. Pchum means gathering and Ben means ball of rice.

It looks like this ritual is only celebrated by the Theravada Buddhists of Cambodia as other countries practicing Theravada Buddhism like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand do not do this. In fact, this has been practiced in Cambodia as early as the 9th century when Theravada was as yet not practiced in the then Khmer Empire.

It was not until Jayavarman VII took over the Angkor throne in 1181 that this practice was integrated into Buddhism. So, Pchum Ben has deep roots into the Khmer culture which has special place for ancestors.

Pchum Ben in Wat Langka in Phnom Penh

Pchum Ben in Wat Langka

Pchum Ben in Wat Langka

Temple Visit During Pchum Ben

Wat Lanka is one of the oldest temples in Phnom Penh and worth a visit during Pchum Ben. Join the locals pray with the monks, light incense in honour of their dead relatives.

Be there for the early morning procession to welcome the dead. If you stay close to a temple, you will hear the clanging of cymbals and other kinds of noise. The louder the noise, the more scared the evil spirits are so they go away. The monks also chant and throw balls of rice around the Wats to drive away these evil spirits.

The Gates of the Temples on Bon Pchum Ben - Flowers for sale and other offerings

The Gate of Wat Langka on Pchum Ben

The Gate of Wat Langka on Pchum Ben

Bon Pchum Ben

Khmer Honor their dead Ancestors

Phnom Penh streets are empty and almost all of the houses are closed as most Khmer go home to their ancestral homes to honor their dead ancestors.

It is believed that on this day, the gates of hell opens and ghosts freely roam the place. Offerings are prepared and brought early to the temple so some of their ancestors who may now have finished their purgation deserve to be honoured and those who still have to go back to serve more suffering need to be fed. Other souls who have no relatives have to be remembered, too.

The monks on the day designated for the opening of the gates of hell chant overnight. The temples and pagodas are full of offering and containers of rice are lined up for the people to spoon their rice offering into.

The end of this is referred to as Pchum Ben.

Interested to visit Cambodia during Pchum Ben?

Offering at Pchum Ben - Baskets of Fruits

Offering at Pchum Ben in one of the oldest wats in Phnom Penh.

Offering at Pchum Ben in one of the oldest wats in Phnom Penh.

The 15-day Pchum Ben Ritual

These days, the wats or temples in Cambodia are full of people honoring their dead and giving alms to the poor. On our usual Saturday walk, we would see cars line up outside the temples and people dressed appropriately (women in white tops) go and pray with the monks.

During these 15 days, Kam Ben. Khmer go and pray in as many pagodas as they can visit. Some make it a point to go out to far pagodas as they know many people hardly go there so the monks have very little. They make offerings of food to the spirit world and this is believed to alleviate the suffering of their dead relatives. The Khmer believe that if you fail to show up in the temple and make offering, your dead relatives will curse you so, everyone goes just even once.

In the rural villages, each of these 15 days is sponsored by a rich man or a group of families in the case of tiny villages. These sponsors buy the food to feed everyone who come and visit the wats as well as give the alms for the needy. A good way to share blessing with everyone. Today, there are tables and chairs set up beautifully in the temple we visited as the sponsor is a Minister.

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The last day, Pchum Ben, is for everyone to bring food and alms.

Offering at the Wat on Pchum Ben

Pchum Ben Lighting Incense in the Temple

Pchum Ben Lighting Incense in the Temple

Visiting the Pagodas

The pagodas during this celebration are decorated with Buddhist flags which have every vibrant colour you've ever seen. Offerings fill the place. People are there preparing their offering of food. Money changers with wads of riel (Cambodian money) in 100 or 500 denominations provide the much needed service, and monks are on hand to pray with the families to make sure the message gets through to the heavenly wanderers.

Tourists are welcome to visit the pagodas at this time and if you have a good smile on your face, you'll become part of the program. It is a great experience learning about the rituals and watching how others keep peace with history and try to leverage a bit of luck for the future.

One monk we were chatting with said some tourists are hesitant to go in and peak around the corners like guilty puppies. Just follow what others do such as covering up properly as a show of respect and taking your shoes off when you go inside. The pagodas are thoroughly cleaned and matted for this occasion.

Pagoda on Pchum Ben - Families Offering and Asking for Blessing

Families Asking for Blessing on Pchum Ben

Families Asking for Blessing on Pchum Ben

Early Morning Procession

The rites start as early as 4 a.m. The Procession around the Temple starts. The Khmer light incense, throw balls of rice around the temple and call out loudly the names of dead relatives for seven generations. Three times, they pace around the pagoda throwing rice balls with the Aja, the monk leading the ceremony, reciting scripts from the Dharma. This ceremony must have come from people's experience in the past when around this time, food would have almost run out.

After the procession, the Khmer families gather to pray for their dead relatives. Everyone go to the temple for fear that their dead relatives will haunt them if they fail to do so. Beyond that, of course, is the great respect Khmer have for their ancestors.

When you happen to be here in Cambodia, you must go early to the temple and witness the procession at about 4 a.m. Led by the monks, the Khmer light incense, throw balls of rice around the temple and call out loudly the names of dead relatives for seven generations.

Monks Chanting on Pchum Ben at Wat Langka

Wat Langka Pchum Ben

Wat Langka Pchum Ben

Vendors are happy during Pchum Ben - Vendors Outside the Temple on Pchum Ben

Temple Gates on Pchum Ben

Temple Gates on Pchum Ben

As you can see the money changers are busy manning the gates. Small change is much needed as locals leave money for each bowl lined up by the monks.

Families Praying with the Monks

Praying with the Monks

Praying with the Monks

Offering of Rice and Money at Pchum Ben - Wat Langka

You can see the Khmer offer rice at the bowls provided by the monks.

There is also the money plate beside the bowls. Thus, the money changer in the picture is busy. She is poised and ready to change money for the thousands of Pchum Ben wat visitors.

Rice Bowls in the Temple - Khmer offer Rice for the Dead

Offering of Rice on Pchum Ben

Offering of Rice on Pchum Ben

Table for the Rice Bowls

Every pagoda puts out long tables where the monks bowls are placed as surrogates for the family dead. Asians are much too smart to let gifts to the ethereal be wasted.

The worshippers come and put a spoonful of rice into each of the bowl. When they reach the last bowl, they do not use spoons but use their hands instead as this last bowl is for those whose families do not remember them, or have no families left, not unusual with this country's recent history. And because they are not family members, spectral partners might not want to use the family utensils so their rice is placed using the hands.

Building Mounds of Sand or Rice

The Khmer also build mounds of sand or rice in the temple to honor the dead. Building a temple is the highest honor one can give an ancestor but not all can afford it so with some rice or sand, the locals build these mounds looking like temples in the pagodas. You can seein the picture some halloween decorations already seeping in.

Remembering the less fortunate on Pchum Ben - To demonstrate compassion


Compassion for the Poor

As this celebration is not just for the dead relations but also to demonstrate compassion for the poor, in the pagodas or wats, there are also separate bowls for money and wads of 100 or 500 riel are distributed into these bowls as well. Boxes are there, too, for donations to specific causes such as the construction of a library, the health of the monks, the poor, and the maintenance of the pagoda. People save money for this occasion so they can perform merit by showing generosity and compassion for the less fortunate. When religions bring out the best in people, they deserve support.

The Pagoda on Pchum Ben - It is a Big Festival

Pagoda on Pchum Ben

Pagoda on Pchum Ben

Chanting of the Monks

On the last day of Pchum Ben, Khmer Buddhists rise very early to go to the pagoda and listen to the chanting of the monks of the Barabhava Sutta, the discourse of ruin. After this, still before sun rise, they throw Bay Ben, sticky rice, as they believe that souls are set free at this time to roam around and search for food.

People come and bring offerings. For these offerings to be effective, they have to be up close and personal, with promises to practice good deeds in daily lives. The Monks have a solid role here catching the precise drone in their prayers that the ghosts can surely hear. The supplicants, dressed in their finery, sit in front of the holy men and ask them to pray for the invisible part of the family. In the temples of their gods, they pray for ashes of history.

Watch how Pchum Ben is Celebrated

Buffalo Races to End Pchum Ben

Bamboal Krobei in Vihear Sour

Buffalo races usually end the celebration of Pchum Ben but no one can beat this village in their show. For generations, thousands of Cambodians flock to Vihear Sour village in Ksach Kandal Province to watch the water buffalo races that closes the celebration of Pchum Ben. Horses are used to round up the buffaloes. Both horses and buffaloes come out with their brightly coloured headgear and for abour 45 minutes race back and forth from the pagoda to the spirit house a few hundred meters away. The locals believe that this is good entertainment for the ghosts who are visiting and staying at the temples during the pchum ben celebration.

The race usually starts at 6 a.m. and already a dozen buffaloes and horses have been registered by their owners to join the race. There will also be demonstrations of strength by the buffaloes which will be followed by wrestling and Bokkator matches.

The Principles of Therava Buddhism - Life and death in this world are intertwined

95% of Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism. Its main teaching is that life and death in this world are intertwined. Centered on the concept of reincarnation, Cambodian Buddhists believe that depending on how they live their lives in this world, they will come back in the next life as higher or lower beings.

If you live a life of merit you will have good karma and will come back a higher being. So, Cambodians try to do merit in their everyday lives. And their religious festivals serve to remind them of the principles that Theravada Buddhism espouses:

Living a Life of Merit in Buddhism

  1. Have right thoughts
  2. Have right goals
  3. Speak right words
  4. Perform right deeds
  5. Earn a living the right way
  6. Make the right effort
  7. Meditate
  8. Be alert in mind

© 2010 Mary Norton

Share with us what you think of Bon Pchum Ben - Or just leave your comments

Robert Sacchi on May 05, 2019:

This is a very interesting custom. Thank you for writing about it.

Mary Norton (author) from Ontario, Canada on May 24, 2018:

Yes, the offerings especially during the feast are amazing and everyone, rich or poor, do it.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 23, 2018:

I will never get a chance to visit Cambodia so appreciate learning about it and their honoring of the dead customs thanks to you writing this and showing us your photos.

My husband and I visited a Buddhist temple here in Houston once and it was very interesting. Bowls of fruit and other foods were placed on tables in front of the different gods. Incense sticks are also lit when people come to honor their gods.

WriterJanis2 on October 14, 2013:

This is so cool to know about. I appreciate all of your wonderful photos.

Rob Hemphill from Ireland on October 01, 2013:

I have a friend who will be visiting Cambodia in a few months time, wish I was going too!

dellgirl on September 02, 2013:

Thanks for sharing this beautiful and interesting lens. The photos are amazing! This really is a wonderful way to honor ancestors who have passed on.

KimGiancaterino on May 12, 2013:

We have a friend who will be visiting Cambodia soon. What a beautiful place to visit and learn from. Nicely done, as always.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on March 19, 2013:

Cambodia truly is an amazing country. The temples and other buildings are so very beautiful.

WriterJanis2 on November 02, 2012:

All I can say is wow to a fantastic lens and blessed.

Mary Norton (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 21, 2012:

@wattyan: It must be the same as in your country.

Mary Norton (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 21, 2012:

@Melissa Miotke: Yes, it is such a wonderful way of honoring ancestors who have passed on.

Melissa Miotke from Arizona on October 20, 2012:

Such vibrant and beautiful pictures! This seems wonderful!

wattyan on October 20, 2012:

Very informative! I used to have this experience when i was child.

Mary Norton (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 05, 2012:

@anonymous: It is a long celebration to give each one a chance to go and honor all their dead and visit as many pagodas as possible.

Mary Norton (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 05, 2012:

@anonymous: Thanks Tipi. I know but the dates are not set yet as it depends on the monks' declaration.

Mary Norton (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 05, 2012:

@rawwwwwws lm: Yes, it is something similar to our Halloween.

rawwwwwws lm on September 30, 2012:

Great lens! Enjoyed it!

anonymous on September 26, 2012:

I like this Bon Pchum Ben lens. Came back again this year to refresh the blessing. - BTW, the countdown module needs to be reset for next year. - I'll be back. :)

anonymous on August 26, 2012:

The 15 day ritual is filled with rich customs and faith that it will help the relative to attain peace, though it is quite lengthy, it really helps one to get detached from the worldly pleasures. One day, each one of us has to leave this world and proceed to the next step of this journey, these rituals do remind us of that - in order to ensure that we remain aware and focused.

Mary Norton (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 08, 2012:

@Redneck Lady Luck: Thank you so much for picking up that interesting detail.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on February 29, 2012:

What a very fascinating ritual of the rice bowls to honor the dead. The last bowl and the placement of it's rice is very unique and quite a curious but honorable custom to participate in. Cambodia is a country rich in heritage and traditional customs. You cover your topic excellent as always.

Mary Norton (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 20, 2011:

@anonymous: Thank you so much for visiting this lens. We are lucky to have this opportunity to be part of a people's celebration.

anonymous on September 19, 2011:

What a wonderfully beautiful and reverent presentation of Bon Pchum Ben and how special that you had the opportunity for first hand experience. I loved the puppy peaking reference and the advice you five for joining in.

anonymous on March 29, 2011:

Fantastic write up about interesting things in Cambodia. All your articles even add more meaning to the slogan, "Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder". Million thanks

anonymous on January 10, 2011:

Not only did I learn a lot about your traditions but I also realized how great a lensmaster you are. This article is so very well done. Thank you for sharing.

GrowWear on October 13, 2010:

My first time learning of Bon Pchum Ben. Thank you.

anonymous on October 13, 2010:

An interesting topic. Thank you.

nort43 on October 12, 2010:

I was there. You really catch the spirit (s). What other festivals are there. This makes tourism interesting...not just shopping.

Bus Stop Toy Shop on October 05, 2010:

Really interesting introduction to the festival - great read :)

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