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P’Chum Ben (Festival of the Dead)

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 18 September 2008 | Views [3430] | Comments [1]

This morning I woke up at 630am so that I could join the children and staff for a visit to the nearby monastery. In Cambodia, the local people call it ‘Pagoda’ and the word is used slightly differently from the way we use it. Here, the monks live in these pagodas and Buddhists pay a visit to ofer food to monks and pray to ancestors for health, happiness and good luck, much like the Buddhists who go to the temples back home. Buddhism is the state religion and most Khmers practice Theravada Buddhism – where attaining nirvana is the ultimate goal.

If you think this was an excursion for the kids, you’re dead wrong. Today is the 4th day of the P’Chum Ben (Festival of the dead) which falls in Sept/Oct annually. It’s similar to our Qing Ming Festival. P’Chum Ben lasts for 15 days and during this period the locals pay respects to their deceased relatives through offerings and prayers at wats. They also offer food and donations to the monks. The only reason why these 80 kids get to go is because they have to pay respects to their deceased parents. These children from FLOW are all so young, from 7 to 18, and they’ve lost their parents at a young age. When I spoke to them yesterday about today’s visit, they told me they “go to the pagoda because my parents die”. More than one told me the exact same thing with a straight face. I had to avoid showing any shock or sympathy on my face – that would be the last thing they need. So I just comfort them by holding their hand or smile and pat their backs. They were very excited that I was joining them though.

Pic – Top row from L to R:

At the pagoda, all the visitors sit on straw mats on the floor after they are done burning incense sticks and offering rice and donations in the bowls. Two of the boys show me how they do it and I follow suit. When we’re done we pose for the camera!

2nd row:

All visitors bring food and they huddle around their pots, waiting patiently for the prayers to start. On the far right you can see me with Chancy, who is only 4 days younger than me. She’s been accompanying me for lunch and dinner everyday (probably afraid that I would get bored dining alone) and it’s a fantastic cultural exchange talking to her about local customs and lifestyles.

3rd row:

Basins are placed in a circle outside the pagoda and people place uncooked rice into each of the basins | Inside another temple where the story of Buddha’s 10 lives before he attained nirvana is painted on the walls | Burn in hell should you sin!

4th row:

Monks making their way to the pagoda | The prayers lasted for about 15 min | All the women dress in white shirts, long skirts and tie a scarf around their torsos. Also note the way they’re seated – one foot crossed underneath and the other by the side. All must sit in this way be it young or old, male or female. I committed my 1st cultural booboo today by sitting cross-legged. One of the boys then told me that I should sit like the locals as sitting cross-legged is a sign of disrespect. If you realize, pictures of Buddha always show him cross-legged and hence as mere mortals, we aren’t supposed to sit cross-legged in the wats! Opps! Thank goodness he pointed it out to me. I later read in Lonely Planet that it’s rude to point the bottom of your feet towards others and the locals never ever point them towards anything sacred, especially Buddha. Now I know…| After the prayer session, the monks tuck in first and when they’re done, it’s our turn! The entire floor of the pagoda is transformed into a huge dining hall where everyone sit in groups and have their lunch.

Tags: cultural, firsts



Thank you for your detail report about Festival of the Deads in Cambodia. It is refreshing and a lot of helpful information for people like us living outside of Cambodia. May Buddha be with you!

  Julie Sep 23, 2010 1:35 AM

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