October is the month when Cambodian people celebrate the festival of Phchum Ben. Together with Khmer New Year in April, Phchum Ben is the most important festival in the Khmer religious calendar. Cambodians have faithfully observed the festival every year for as long as anyone can remember.
The word ‘Ben’ in Khmer means to collect; ‘Ben’ also means to cup or mould cooked rice into portions. To ‘Ben Baht’ means to collect food to give to monks. The word ‘Phchum’ means to congregate or to meet together. Regardless how busy they may be during the fifteen days of Phchum Ben.
Cambodian people try not to miss a visit to the pagoda to dedicate food and offerings to the dead.
The festival’s final day, September 28th, is the actual day of Phchum Ben, when people traditionally meet together at the pagoda, said the Venerable Ly Sovy of Lang Ka pagoda.
The meaning of Pchum Ben Day
By doing this, Cambodians show respect for their ancestors. Everyone goes to the pagoda every year to honor this tradition, and nobody complains.
“According to [Buddhist] belief, people feel sorry for and remember their relatives who have passed away,” Ly Sovy said. “They may be their parents, grandparents, a sister, a brother, daughter or son.”
Om Sam Ol, a monk at Steung Meanchey pagoda, explained more about the beliefs behind the festival: “During Phchum Ben, souls and spirits come to receive offerings from their living relatives,” he said.
“It is believed that some of the dead receive punishment for their sins and burn in hell – they suffer a lot and are tortured there,” he added. “Hell is far from people; those souls and spirits cannot see the sun; they have no clothes to wear, no food to eat,” Om Sam Ol continued. “Phchum Ben is the period when those spirits receive offerings from their living relatives and perhaps gain some relief. Relatives consecrate and dedicate food and other offerings to them.”