Cambodians are world leaders when it comes to holidays and religious festivals, as we’ve said before. One of the biggest, Pchum Ben (also called Bon P’chum Ben), falls on the 15th day of the waning moon during the Cambodian month of Pheaktrobotr, so mark it on your calendar. Not content with having more holidays than the rest of us, though, Cambodians generally get things started a couple of weeks early. Pchum Ben, for example, officially starts on 14 October this year, but the Pchum Ben holiday season begins two weeks earlier.
Sometimes translated as “Festival of the Ancestors”, Pchum Ben is of major religious importance to Cambodian Buddhists for two reasons, both of them revolving around food. Traditionally, Buddhist monks are not allowed to leave their monastery grounds throughout the rainy season, so two weeks prior to Pchum Ben, families start the holiday with what some sources call Pchum Touch (small festival) and take food offerings to the monks. This continues throughout the two weeks leading up to Pchum Ben.
Food offerings are even more important during Pchum Ben proper, because this is when Cambodians go to their local and, if possible, ancestral wats to offer food to their ancestors and departed friends. Sometimes called “hungry ghosts,” these are spirits who still have attachment to this plane of existence. Appeasing them with food — and sometimes cigarettes and beer — helps make their transition easier and is considered to be a meritorious deed.
In Sihanoukville, Pchum Ben marks the beginning of the end of the rainy season slowdown in tourism as thousands of visitors from Phnom Penh pour in to take advantage of their time off work. Of course, they don’t forget their duties to their ancestors while they’re here, so our normally peaceful wats become the centre of attention throughout this period.
The weekend between Pchum Touch and Pchum Ben is a wonderful time to visit Sihanoukville’s Wat Krom. By road, Wat Krom is only about a kilometre or two from Victory Hill, but in all other respects, it’s in another world.
When you enter the grounds, you’ll be tempted to think the area around the main temple is all there is to it. As nice as it is there, you’ll be missing out on what I consider the best part if you don’t find the park just below the main grounds. Part playground for children and part serene walking track, it never fails to remind me that the real spirit of Cambodia lies hidden behind the scenes of its hectic tourist centres. Even Angkor Wat, as much of a must-see as it is, doesn’t convey this spirit to me.
Wat Leu is arguably the best known wat in Sihanoukville, but since its expansion over the past several years, Wat Krom seems to have taken centre stage among Cambodians. Wat Otres, a few kilometres inland from Otres Beach, is also definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re staying in the vicinity. I recommend paying a visit to all three, but if you only have time for one, you won’t regret paying your respects to your ancestors at Wat Krom.
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