It lasts 15 days determined by the lunar calendar, with the formal name for the last day of the festival called Prachum Benda. Most Khmers call the entire festival by its colloquial name, Pchum Ben; in English, it’s called Ancestor’s Day.
Pchum Ben is an exclusively Cambodian religious festival, based on their belief in karma and reincarnation. Although most people are believed to be reincarnated at death, those with bad karma can be trapped in the spirit world, unable to be reincarnated. At Pchum Ben time every year these souls are released from the spirit world to find their living relatives and repent. Cambodians use this time to visit pagodas, pray for the souls of their dead relatives and in one of the most interesting twists, feed them.
During Pchum Ben Khmers cook food, from the simple to the elaborate, and bring it to pagodas. They believe that offering food to the souls of their relatives eases their suffering. These souls are seen as hungry ghosts, with enormous appetites but pinhole mouths (a true torment). It is believed that being greedy, envious or jealous in one’s life can lead to one becoming a hungry ghost after death. Most Khmers believe that preparing food for the Buddhist monks is an act that transfers merit to the hungry ghosts, while many believe that the food itself is transferred from the monks to their ancestors. Some believe that during Pchum Ben the food offerings are transferred directly the dead, and you’ll see people throwing sticky rice into fields for the ghosts during this time.
Formally, the holiday runs from September 12 or 13 to 27 or 28, depending on which calendar you believe, but businesses stay open until Monday, September 26, which is a public holiday, as is Tuesday and Wednesday. Many Khmers choose to take the Thursday and Friday off as well so they can return to their family homes, but businesses that deal with tourists will remain open for the duration. It will be more difficult to find motos and tuk tuks during this time.
If you’d like to observe some of the Pchum Ben traditions, you can visit any of the pagodas in Phnom Penh or its surrounds. Cambodians are always very happy to share their traditions with interested, respectful visitors. If you tell five random Khmers that you want to visit a pagoda for Pchum Ben, I promise that at least one (if not all five) will invite you to join them when they go to pay their respects. If that’s not your scene, feel free to go on your own.
Please remember to dress respectfully — shoulders and legs should be covered. Do not wear shorts or singlets! Khmer men wear dress pants and a white dress shirt and women wear long skirts and a white shirt (white is the funeral colour in Cambodia). Shoes are removed when entering pagodas. Small donations of money at the pagoda are appreciated — often donations are as little as 100 riel so do not feel compelled to give large amounts.
Previously, Lina has been based in Oakland, California, New York City, Dublin and London. Lina spends most of her time thinking about food, travel and synthpop. She's currently based in Siem Reap.