The 15-day Pchum Ben festival of the dead culminates today with Buddhists visiting pagodas and marking the holiest day of the year by offering rice, incense and flowers in honor of their ancestors.
The gifts of food and drinks offered to monks are believed to then pass on to departed relatives, and doctrine states that only during the festival are the dead allowed to eat.
Forgotten ancestors are said to starve and forgetting to honor one’s forefathers with food at this time of year may well evoke ill will from the otherworld.
Before dawn, starting at around 3 am, many families gather at the pagodas and throw rice into the dark corners of the temple.
At Phnom Penh’s pagodas, Pchum Ben is also a time of contrasts.
At Wat Botum on Wednesday, beautifully clad women and children mingled with destitute children under the watchful eyes of military police working for tips.
One wealthy woman rolled down the window of her Toyota Land Cruiser to give tips to police officers while, nearby, amputees and mothers with babies begged the visiting crowds for money and rice.
For the least fortunate, Pchum Ben can be a relatively plentiful time.
Wat Saravan is one of the poorest in the city and on Tuesday, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema delivered a ton of rice to monks and poor students living there.
Recognizing that in past years, food given to monks rotted while the poor went hungry, City Hall issued a Sept 12 order to pagodas to deliver the extra food to hospitals and orphanages.
“You see more and more beggars in the wats in Phnom Penh but this is because they know that there is food there during the festival. There is a lot of food and a lot of it is wasted,” said Chea Vannath, former director of the Center for Social Development.
Rich patrons tend to flock to rich pagodas, so around the corner from Wat Saravan, Wat Ounalom was packed on Wednesday morning with better-off worshippers.
Everyday, trucks take the wat’s donated food to hospitals and orphanages. So great is the excess at Wat Ounalom that street children crawled through locked gates to steal the rice left for monks.
“[Pchum Ben] is a reunion of the whole community, living as well as ghosts,” said Miech Ponn of the Buddhist Institute.
To build on that community spirit, said Miech Ponn, pagodas throughout the country should adopt a policy of delivering excess food to the needy.
“All pagodas should kindly donate traditional sticky rice cakes to the army at the border instead of pilling them up in a mountain until they rot and destroy the atmosphere of the pagoda,” he said.