Pchum Ben Festival in Cambodia

Image of people on Ton le sap at boat race in Phnom Penh

Pchum Ben Festival or Festival of the Death is a Cambodian traditional festival which is celebrated annually. It is one of the most important holidays in the year for Cambodian Buddhists.

The word “Pchum” means gathering, and “Ben” means balls of rice. The Pchum Ben festival is thought to have originated in the Angkorian era when people followed animism religions before Buddhism.

People traditionally celebrate Pchum Ben to dedicate merits and bless dead spirits, who may have become hungry ghosts (preta) after passing away. The gifts and merits offered at this time could release them from hell and allow them to take their next birth.

The Festival

The first 14 days of the Khmer month Pheakta Bot are called Kan Ben and the 15th day is called Brochum Ben or Pchum Ben Day. During Kan Ben, people give Buddhist monks gifts of food and at night Buddhist monks recite a protective prayer whilst musicians play traditional instruments such as yike and lakhon basac. Pchum Ben Day is the biggest celebration when villagers come from all around to prepare their local pagoda on the night before the celebration.

The History

Pchum Ben festival means a lot to Cambodians. The cultural activities have been practised from one generation to the next for centuries. Young people, elders and everyone in between participate in the traditional rituals of the ceremony.

One popular activity is throwing rice balls and going to pagodas to make offerings so that they will understand about the culture and continue to practice it in the same way for the future sake of their family.

These traditional practices are not generally practised by Cambodian Christians, Muslims and people from other religious backgrounds in Cambodia. The balls of rice (Bay Ben)) are offered to ghosts at dawn. People believe ghosts with many sins cannot receive food during the day, hence why they are offered at dawn and dusk. Bay ben is made from sticky rice and sesame seed and sometimes with added coconut cream.

Buddhist Institute consultant Miech Ponn said:. “By giving rice to the poor, people also can get more merit than only giving it to ants,”

During the holiday, most Cambodian Buddhists are ready to attend the Pchum Ben festival in pagodas throughout the country. Most Cambodians leave the city for their hometown during the holiday which has made the Phnom Penh atmosphere much calmer than usual.

What is remarkable is that Phnom Penh, which is usually home to some 2 to 3 million people, is in a much more serene environment during the festival. Roads that are normally crowded with traffic congestion are empty. Private establishments, restaurants and shopping malls are almost completely closed.

Leaving the capital, however, is a different story. Almost all of the roads were congested by people filled with cars from town to town. Although the provinces are popular, not every residence in Phnom Penh has abandoned their homes as some people prefer the quiet city for a change or are worried about local security concerns.

Phnom Penh police have recently deployed more than 3,000 mobile forces to prevent fire problems and keep people safe during the ceremony. At the same time, the Prime Minister also asked the police to strengthen public order and security in pagodas and resorts so that compatriots and tourists can celebrate and enjoy the Pchum Ben festival.

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