The Cambodian Buddhists believe that every year, Hell releases the souls of their ancestors for 15 days. Pchum Ben, on September 16, marks the start of the journey of souls to Purgatory, that in-between place that is neither Heaven nor Hell.
Upon arrival to Purgatory, the souls are in the form of hungry ghosts. The course of their journey will be decided by their karma and by the offerings made by their living relatives during Pchum Ben. This festival begins at the end of the Buddhist Lent. During this time, foods are cooked for the monks to generate merits that will benefit the dead.
Pchum Ben timeline
An ancient legend
Legend has it that during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, a monk came back unscathed from Hell. He brought the message from the deceased that they could be freed from suffering if their relatives offered foods and alms to monks.
- 802 AD
Origins in the Angkorian Period
Pchum Ben dates back to the Angkorian period when people followed animism. Buddhism replaced animism, but since respect for ancestors was also a Buddhist belief, this custom remained.
- 1st Century BC
Similar to the Ghost Festival
Pchum Ben bears many similarities to the Taoist Ghost Festival that originated during Mahayana times and is still celebrated in many Asian countries.
How to Observe Pchum Ben
Visit pagodas and make offerings
The custom during Pchum Ben is to visit pagodas and offer food, prayers and money. If you do your part, you will erase any bad karma for your ancestors on their spiritual travels.
Plan a family outing
Take advantage of the three-day public holiday. Spend time with your family while you are still in the land of the living.
Learn more about your ancestors
Ask your older living relatives about your ancestors or look up your family tree. Get to know more about the family to which you belong.
5 Colorful Facts About Pchum Ben
It's one of Cambodia's most important holidays
Ancestors' Day is one of the major holidays when families travel great distances in order to be together.
It's a time to feed hungry ghosts
The souls visit their living relatives as hungry ghosts with enormous appetites — but mouths no bigger than a pinhole!
Not everyone agrees to throwing rice balls
In recent times, the custom of throwing rice-balls for the dead has stirred up a controversy. Many monasteries feel that this is a waste of food and it also attracts rats and stray dogs.
Ghosts are set free for 15 days
During Pchum Ben, ghosts are set free from Hell so that they can come back and visit their relatives and repent for their sins.
Who becomes a hungry ghost?
It is believed that a jealous and greedy person will become a hungry ghost in their afterlife — and food offerings during Pchum Ben can satisfy their hunger and decrease their suffering.
Why Pchum Ben is Important
Cambodians pay respect to their ancestors
Praying for ancestors is important for all Cambodians who follow the Buddhist faith. During Pchum Ben, the faithful pray and cook meals as offerings for seven generations of deceased relatives.
It's a show of respect to the monks
During the first 14 days of Pchum Ben, people cook food for the monks and also offer them alms. By doing so, the faithful believe they can bring good karma to their ancestors.
It's a 3-day public holiday
Pchum Ben is a time to gather with your family and close relatives. Sharing a communal meal, meditating and helping the ancestors during their spiritual journey, brings the family together.