It Takes a Village to Feed Cambodia’s Ravenous Ghosts

When the gates of hell open on Pchum Ben, communities gather to feed returning ancestors with sweet and savory rice cakes.

Rotanak Ros woke to feed the ghosts before dawn. By the time the sun’s first rays began creeping over the rooftops of Phnom Penh, it would be too late—the spirits cannot stand the light. During Pchum Ben, the Khmer Festival of the Ancestors each year in September and October, the gates of hell open. With no fewer than 32 realms, the Cambodian version of hell would leave even Dante’s Virgil aghast. When the spirits of the dead slip through the porous barrier into the world of the living, they’re desperate for a reprieve. And they’re starving.

“We believe that in hell, they’re very hungry,” Ros explains. Better known to her online followers as Chef Nak, Ros is the author of Nhum—Recipes from a Cambodian Kitchen. For 15 days, spirits search for their living relatives in temples and graveyards, hoping for acts of service that prove their families have not forgotten them. As long as the living do their part, the spirits will bring blessings upon them. If their relatives fail to provide the requisite offerings, the spirits will return to their respective torments at the end of Pchum Ben—and, in their despair, pass on their misfortune. Ros says that if the spirits don’t find their relatives in the temples and graveyards, “we, the living people, will get cursed by them.”

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