October 9, 2010

Cambodian Festival - 'Pchum Ben'

"Hope you are enjoying Pchum Ben this weekend!" was what a fellow Khmer tweeter tweeted to me this morning.  You would think that a nice message like this would better my day and bring a smile to my face, but it only made me sad.  This is not her fault in any way and I really do appreciate the message (THANK YOU), but it just brought this sense of sadness to me.


'Pchum Ben' is a Cambodian festival better known as 'Ancestors Day' or 'Festival of the Dead'.  It is believed that during this time, the spirits of our ancestors walk the Earth looking to be fed by their family members and relatives who are still living.  Since I was young, I would refer to this festival as the Cambodian Halloween.  You can see how trick or treaters walking around asking for candy can correlate to dead ancestors waiting and wanting to be fed by their families.  The festival would last about fifteen days in Cambodia and many traditions and rituals are practiced during this time.  Though I cannot remember them all, I do recall getting up early to go to the temple with my Family to feed the Monks and to pray, just like how it is done during most Cambodian festivals.  On this holiday in particular, we would also make offerings to our ancestors and remember them as we pray for them to continue their journey into reincarnation to better lives in the future.  My Family would also take part in hosting the ceremonies (providing food to the Monks and guests who visit the temple on those days).  My Mom never wanted any of our relatives to be considered "abandoned souls", which are the souls that do not have family members to remember them and make offerings to them.  She always tells us that this is the most important holiday (festival) in the Cambodian traditions... and it is the one holiday that you must not forget or "skip".

Thinking about this festival makes me miss my Family back in Washington so much.  Though my in laws here in California hold some traditions and believe in the same religion, I admit that it is not practiced within the household as it was back at home.  Part of the reason is probably because my Parents are older and are closer to the Cambodian community... especially with the elders and the monks at our beloved temple in Tacoma.  My Grandmother (who passed away in 2003 and is still to this day loved and missed) was a big part of the temple.  So were my two wonderful Uncles who are no longer with us since last year (2009).  One was actually the Vice President of the temple and the other was a well known Cambodian spokesperson in the Washington area (a lady from Georgia whom I met last week even knew and remembered him).  My point is that my Family is very involved in the temple and these festivals, and its times like these when I miss my Family so much.

Knowing that the festival was around the corner, I cried to myself last week... thinking and praying to my loved ones who are no longer living.  I wished that I was back at home with the rest of the Family praying and making offerings to them like I should be.  Its hard to do it here in California when I don't know anyone who still practices these traditions and take part in the festivals.  I did go to the temple with my Mother in Law, however,  to pray and make offerings to my ancestors.  But I still felt like something was missing.  I missed seeing my Parents up early in the morning running around trying to prepare everything that they needed to for the temple.  I miss seeing all of my many relatives in the temple with their palms together praying to all of our late relatives... together.  I miss being in the temple that I have known all my life and grown so used to.  I also miss seeing the smiling pictures of my relatives along the walls of the temple.  Everything about being with my Family during these times, I miss so much.

I confess, I have never appreciated these festivals and traditions before as much as I do now.  Those times that you spend with your family members are so precious.  We never know what tomorrow holds, so we have to cherish all the moments that we have with our loved ones because there is going to be a time when all we have left is the memories of the past. 

I want my ancestors to know that I always miss and think of them and that they are always remembered.

With that said, like my fellow tweeter, I hope you are enjoying your Pchum Ben this weekend.

NOTE:  Though I am ashamed, I must admit that I do not know all of the traditions, rituals, and history of this festival.  I speak only of what I know and remember, and of course, my feelings.

Photos Courtesy of ki-media.blogspot.com


  1. Jai,

    It is a Buddhist tradition that dates further back to the Vedic period (way before organized Indian religions). In Buddhist context, there are various existence (Devi, Human, and others). The one that is most important here are "hungry ghosts" or Praet. Not only do we honor our ancestors, but we make merit for those in our family who might have been born into this existence. They themselves cannot make merit. Monks eat the food, and in turn you make merit which you offer to your ancestors.

    It might be coincidental that it happens to in the same season as Halloween, but then again maybe not. The Vedic period highlighted the time of the people called the Aryans. Supposedly they are one of the first people of civilization and there are many evidences which links people of India to people elsewhere in the world. I can continue with this forever, but I am glad to see that you are doing well.

    I went to Pchum Ben two weekends in a row here in Virginia. I have a Khmer godmother here, so I still get to practice Buddhism.

    Good luck and stop crying,


  2. Leroy, haha... this is exactly why I had to say that I do not know everything about it, but I did speak from what I do know and what I thought of it. You are absolutely right though, and I can always count on you to enlighten me and correct me on these type of things.

    You're such a great kid... and I still see you (and myself) as kids. Crazy, right? I love you, Man... and I am glad to hear that you are doing well over there too. You should visit soon if you can.

    I just miss our Family... and I really do feel lonely here at times without them. I was watching my Washington wedding video the other day and it made me even more sad. Our Family is crazy, but I wouldn't trade any of them in for the world! Ahhh... take care of yourself, kiddo. I love you!

    -Jai (yes... the one who used to wanna kill you. lol)