Cambodians Remember Their Dear Departed

In the early morning hours this week, while most of Phnom Penh was still asleep, vendors gathered in front of Wat Lanka to sell plates with fruits, sticky rice and paper cuttings vaguely resembling human beings in different colors.

A woman holds a plate with offerings of sticky rice, fruits and a paper cutting during a Bos Bay Ben ceremony at Wat Lanka. (Siv Channa)

One of the vendors, a girl of about 12 years old wearing short jeans and a pink T-shirt, was standing on Sihanouk Boulevard, holding up one of the $2 plates with her right hand while trying to cover her yawn with her left.

It was 3:30 a.m., and since October 1, the first day of the annual 15-day-long Pchum Ben celebration, Buddhists have flocked to pagodas across the country hours before sunrise to honor their ancestors—by feeding them sticky rice.

In Cambodian Buddhism, Pchum Ben marks the time of the year when the ghosts of seven generations of ancestors walk the earth again, and both good and bad ghosts have to be pleased with food offerings, which must be blessed in the Bos Bay Ben ceremony first.

It took almost one hour for the roughly 200 people to gather in front of Wat Lanka’s main Buddha statue. Sitting along a low, room-long table topped with big baskets of fruits, a few people who prematurely lit incense sticks were admonished by a monk.

“Don’t light your incense before we go outside to throw the sticky rice, otherwise the whole room will be filled with smoke,” said Chhun Rithisak, who has been a monk for more than 20 years.

“You might even set your own clothes on fire, then you will be upset and blame it on the pagoda. Also, our carpet is very expensive,” the monk continued, speaking through a microphone.

While the mood among younger people in their 20s appeared to be easygoing and fun, making jokes with their friends, the older ones were taking Bos Bay Ben more seriously and made sure that their plates looked just perfect. But as about 30 monks entered the room, all went quiet, awaiting the beginning of the ceremony. For most of them, coming to the pagoda so early was primarily tradition.

“I came here with my uncle and three friends, just to follow and practice our traditions. It’s the way my parents have showed me, but it doesn’t make me feel any different,” said 23-year-old Thay Huoycheng who lives near the city’s Kandal Market. She added, with a smirk, that she did not believe in ghosts.

For 55-year-old Kien Serey Phal from 7 Makara district, Bos Bay Ben serves multiple purposes, although she does not believe that pleasing ghosts is one of them.

“It’s important to bring the younger generation here and teach them about Buddhism and about how to be grateful to your parents,” she said, looking at her two nieces next to her. “Also, coming here is an emotional support for me, because it reminds me of my childhood,” when Ms. Serey Phal celebrated Bos Bay Ben with her parents. “They died during the Khmer Rouge, and coming here brings back good memories.”

Dok Narin, secretary of state for the Ministry of Cults and Religion, said that this was exactly the spirit of Pchum Ben.

“It’s a time of the year when families come together and remember their deceased parents or grandparents and the seven generations of ancestors,” he said, adding that Pchum Ben was typically Cambodian.

“It’s unique and special to Cambodia, it’s our tradition,” Mr. Narin said, pointing out that other Buddhist countries do not follow such a tradition.

Sombo Manara, a historian and expert on religion at the Royal University of Phnom Penh confirmed, in fact, that Pchum Ben is not a Buddhist rite.

“It dates back somewhere between 4,000 B.C. and the first century, when people showed their respect and gratitude to their ancestors in a ceremony,” Mr. Manara said, adding that when Buddhism was introduced in Cambodia, the original ceremony was simply adapted to the new belief.

“That’s the reason why other Buddhist countries don’t celebrate it.”

The ceremony at Wat Lanka began with the lead monk chanting into a microphone.

As the other monks repeated his words, the devout placed the palms of their hands together in prayer, facing the golden Buddha statue.

Ms. Serey Phal adjusted her plate of sticky rice—one of the few that were homemade—as a young monk in one of the back rows, wearing gold-framed glasses, yawned continuously.

“I am a Buddhist, so I believe in ghosts,” said But Bun, 74, who lives at Wat Lanka and works there as an achar—an older man who has acquired a lot of knowledge on Buddhism and helps the monks with carrying out ceremonies as a layman.

“I once saw a ghost in a pagoda, when I was about 10 years old. It was really big and scary, but when I screamed, my friends came running and the ghost disappeared,” he said.

As the second prayer began, the worshippers turned to face the lead monks, who chanted together with a group of achars sitting at the head of a long table that separated the two groups, one side dressed in orange monks robes, and the other side, members of the public, were dressed in light-colored shirts and shiny white blouses.

At the end of the chanting, everyone yelled the names of their ancestors—as many as they could remember.

“You have to do it very loud,” said Chhun Rithisak, the lead monk. “It’s like when you send a letter, you also have to write the correct address very clearly, or it will not reach the recipient.”

Then, under the watch of all the monks, people flocked outside, where the achars had set up a circle of chairs with bowls on them all around the temple.

Carefully, people opened the plastic wrappers on their fruit plates and rice bowls, lit incense, and started to make their ghost offerings by placing in each receptacle a little bit of sticky rice or fruit.

Later, the ghosts of their ancestors come and dine from the bowls.

“We believe that ghosts and spirits are afraid of the sun light, so we celebrate Bos Bay Ben before sunrise,” Chhun Rithisak said.

After walking three rounds around the pagoda, as is tradition, some of the worshippers left to have breakfast.

Others stayed a bit longer to pray or to donate money to a wooden ship, which people believe takes them and their ancestors to a better life.

Ms. Serey Phal said that believing that the spirits of the dead returned during the Bos Bay Ben ceremony was up to the individual. And just like her two nieces, they can decide for themselves later.

“I brought them here for the ceremony, but I am not forcing a belief on them,” Ms. Serey Phal said.

“They can choose what they want to believe in, whether it’s Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam,” she said, before returning to her prayer.

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)

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