A HOLIDAY TO REMEMBER
Cambodia has two main holidays in its Khmer religious calendar: Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben Day. Both these traditions are faithfully followed by Khmer people every year.
Pchum Ben Day, in the simplest explanation, is a holiday to remember and take care of our beloved departed ones; somewhat similar to the main purpose of Mexico’s Día de los Muertos or Latin America’s Día de los Difuntos (o Fieles), for example.
The Khmer name Pchum Ben literally means: to congregate or get together to give offerings to the monks, and even though it’s popularly known as Pchum Ben “Day”, it’s not a 1-day but actually a 15-day celebration, with three main days.
Just like the meaning of its name, during Pchum Ben we visit and “get together” with our families and relatives, which most of the times live outside Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, in the so-called “provinces”: small towns, cities or the countryside.
Once together, we start preparing special dishes in the evenings, like curry soup and fried Misure, that besides being eaten, will also be taken to the pagodas or Buddhist monasteries the next day and offered to the monks.
In the morning, people wake up very early, around 4 or 5am, to get ready. We warm up the food that was prepared the night before or cook new one if it wasn’t previously done. A special rice, mixed with sesame seeds, a little bit of salt and, sometimes, coconut, is placed on a plate with a small white flag (symbolizing people who passed away), incense, candles and money.
Later on, everyone dresses up, but especially women, who wear their best traditional dress, typically made of silk, embroidered blouses and scarves.
After everything is ready, people leave their homes and head for the pagodas. We must visit at least seven monasteries during the whole Pchum Ben season.
Upon arrival at the pagoda we must take our shoes off and keep them by the front gate, before entering. Then we may go to the monk and turn in the offerings: food, cake and money.
Praying and calling the names of our departed ones is the cornerstone of the day. We ask for God’s blessing and invite their souls to come back and have food at the pagoda.
Once the monk has given out his blessings, people take the plate of special rice, walk around the pagoda and scatter the content all over the surroundings, while thinking and calling down our departed family and relatives, who sinned and are living in hell, to come and eat. The rice must be sprinkled in its entirety, till there is no more rice left on the plate.
All this must be done before sunrise and without turning to look back, otherwise people will be frightened by the scariest of ghosts.
There is a great variety of dishes that Cambodians make for Pchum Ben Day, but the two main ones that people never forget are:
A delicious soup made from beef, chicken, pork and vegetables with several other Khmer typical ingredients. This soup is traditionally eaten with bread, rice or Khmer noodles.
Another important dish that we never forget to make. It’s made of dried noodles, dried shrimps and meat. We cook this meal because we believe that we all have at least a couple departed family members who did wrong in their lifetime and now wander in hell. Because their mouths are small, they are not able to eat anything else, but Fried Misure.
Num Onsam and sweet Num Korm
Steamed cakes wrapped in banana leaves. They are taken to pagodas during the festival to be shared among participants.
The Num Onsam is a kind of cylindrical cake of glutinous rice, wrapped around a mixture of pork, salt and other ingredients.
The Num Korm is a shaped like a pyramid and made of rice-flour and filled with a coconut and palm sugar mixture.
Money offered to monks goes towards the construction or renovation of pagodas and community development programs such as the construction of bridges and schools, tree planting, or as donations to needy families.
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