This morning, hundreds of ethnic Chinese across Phnom Penh will pack up scarlet suckling pigs and pastries, bundles of play money and sticks of fragrant incense.
By car and motorbike, share-taxi and truck, families will bounce over a long dirt road off Route 4, west of Pochentong Airport.
They will motor past dozens of beggars, many missing arms or legs and all hoping for a bit of cash as the Chinese go to honor their ancestors at Cambodia’s biggest Chinese cemetery.
Today is the central day of the Cheng Meng Se holiday, when Chinese families honor their ancestors by visiting their graves.
Some come a long way to do it.
“I’m here to visit my mother,” says Ong Mau, a 32-year-old tool-and-die maker who traveled 19,000 km from his home in Montreal, Canada, speaking as if she is with the small gathering outside the grave. For a moment, it seems she must be sitting behind him, sipping soda with a dozen other family members.
But then he says she died in 1988 at the age of 58, two years after he left for Montreal. It is her tomb that the family is visiting, a stone monument with earth mounded over it.
Thousands of similar mounds stretch in all directions, most covered with fresh earth. Chinese believe that heaping new earth on a family tomb each year brings good luck and prosperity.
Dozens of villagers who live near the cemetery patrol it with hoes on their shoulders, ready to pile on dirt for a few thousand riel. Scores of brightly colored strips of paper are pressed into the soft soil covering each mound to flutter gaily in the breeze.
Ong Mau has brought his new wife to his mother’s tomb, so that they can, in a sense, meet.
He says he doesn’t really know if his mother knows they are there, but he feels as if she does. “We miss her, and we say to her, ‘We have come to see you.’”
And it makes the family feel better, he says.
Chinese families believe they should visit the tombs of their ancestors once a year, unless they are prevented by serious circumstances. Some bring tents, chairs and tables, and make a day of it; others prefer smaller, quieter celebrations.
Everybody brings a feast of cold food, which is usually eaten later, at home, with family.
The holiday stems from one of the most remarkable accounts of loyalty ever written, the story of Chea Chu Thuy and what he did 2,400 years ago.
It was spring in northern China, and the people should have been happy that the ice was melting and they would soon be able to work the land.
But a war was also raging, and a king of China was driven from his throne into the forests, accompanied by his loyal official, Chea Chu Thuy. The men faced certain starvation.
Chea Chu Thuy cut the flesh from his own leg and cooked it for the king to eat. Revived, the king was able to regain his throne; but the now-crippled Chea Chu Thuy ignored his monarch’s pleas to return to court and remained alone in the forest.
The king, infuriated, ordered the forest burned to the ground, and Chea Chu Thuy died horribly in the flames.
Grief-stricken, the king tried to make amends for his rash and cruel act. He declared a great holiday on April 5, the beginning of the growing season; in Chea Chu Thuy’s honor, no fires could be lit to cook food.
Over the centuries, the holiday became known as Greatest Man Day, or Cheng Meng Se. Chinese families began to honor their own greatest ancestors on that day.
The tradition became more elaborate, with hot food banned for three days before April 5 and three days after. Today many Chinese families believe that honoring their ancestors and Chea Chu Thuy today will bring luck and prosperity all year.
The ceremony seems to bring everyone closer to his or her lost relatives. Cheng Neang, 34, came with five family members to visit her father, who died in 1988.
“Each year, someone in the family dreams of him, and he tells us what he would like to eat,” she says with a smile. This year, the order was for roast pork.
Ly Kung Huy says he may not believe every word of the traditions, but he still values them. “I believe about 80 percent in the souls of dead people and that I must pay respect to my grandparents and my parents,” he said.
He doesn’t think missing a year here or there will create serious problems. “But if any Chinese doesn’t visit [his ancestors’] tomb for many years, that means that person is a bad child and Chinese society will criticize him, saying he will have no luck in life.”
Bun Hong, who is half Chinese, said he does not believe that the souls of the dead survive, but he visits his family tombs religiously.
“I have to go every year, following my wife,” he said. “The ceremony reminds us to be grateful to the people who fed us when they were alive.”
Some of the 400,000 ethnic Chinese in Cambodia face added problems in properly celebrating the holiday.
The Chinese cemetery contains 10,000 Chinese tombs. Between 1975-79, however, Khmer Rouge cadre desecrated at least 6,000 additional graves, digging up the coffins for firewood and throwing the human bones aside.
Eighty-year-old Taing Eam Hour, who administers the cemetery for a group of Chinese associations, says the bones were carefully gathered together and buried in a large central mound.
Those ancestors, who will now never be positively identified, are honored as a group in special ceremonies each year, he said.
He said there is another option for families whose relatives were killed by Khmer Rouge and whose bones can’t be found.
“They can build a shrine in their home, and paint [the missing ancestors’] names on it,” he said.