While October in the States means Halloween preparations, pumpkins, falling leaves, and all things autumn, in Cambodia, October means it’s time for the Phchum Ben Festival!
Aside from April’s Khmer New Year, Pchchum Ben is the most important festival on the Cambodian calendar. Curious about what the holiday means? Well, it’s all the meaning of the Khmer words! In Khmer “Ben” means “to collect,” but it also means to separate out portions of rice. It also has roots in the term “Ben Baht,” translating to “Giving food to monks.” “Phchum” means to gather together. Any guesses as to what the festival might mean?
The Festival actually lasts for two weeks, and during that time, Cambodians visit their local Watts to give food and other offerings to the monks, in honor of the dead. On the calendar day of the “official” festival, the Khmer community gathers at the Watt to celebrate the memories of their departed ancestors and loved ones. It is a time of solemn mourning but also a celebration of the lives of those who were once close to them. The goal is to honor the memory of the dead by giving offerings to the monks and the Watts — and to meet the souls of those who have passed who wish to collect the offerings from their relatives.
Phchum Ben also offers relief for those souls who greatly sinned during their lifetimes. Often, the souls condemned to hell cannot eat, sleep, or wear clothing — so bringing the offerings during Phchum Ben gives them at least some relief. It’s especially important to attend the festivities at the Watt so as not to disappoint waiting and wanting relatives from the other side. Souls can travel to up to seven different temples to find food directly from a relative, but if they have no one to offer them food, they become cursed for eternity.
Everyone goes to the pagoda because they don’t want the spirits of dead members of their family to come to seek offerings at pagodas in vain. It is believed that wondering spirits will go to look in seven different pagodas and if those spirits can not find their living relatives’ offering in any of those pagodas, they will curse them, because they cannot eat food offered by other people,” the monk said. In exchange for the food, the past souls bless their living relatives.
The story of the first Phchun Ben happened when King bath Pempeksa ate before the monks did at a religious ceremony. They became evil spirits in the afterlife, constantly taunting enlightened monks and Buddhas about when they could be allowed to eat. They had to wait to eat until their relative, King Bath Pempeksa, dedicated food and offerings to them. Once this happened, the souls were allowed to enter paradise.