Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Dead in Sihanoukville

As I reported this morning on Travelfish, we’re right in the middle of the Pchum Ben season here in Sihanoukville. I say “season” because although Pchum Ben falls on the 15th day of the waning moon in the 10th month of the Cambodian calendar, it actually lasts for over two weeks. Sometimes translated “Festival of the Dead” and sometimes “Festival of the Ancestors,” a lot of Westerners liken it to Halloween and others to All Souls Day. I like to avoid such comparisons, though, because Cambodians and other cultures don’t see the world through Western eyes.

Wat Krom, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Wat Krom

Pchum Ben is a big event in our household every year. When the day approaches, the family gets a stack of 100 and 500 riel notes, cooks a ton of food and sets out for not just one, but up to five wats. This is after having gone to all three of our local wats individually in the two weeks leading up to the big day. Often, we pitch in with the neighbours, pack into rented trucks and go to distant wats.

On the way back from Wat Phnom Tuit, Pchum Ben, 2008

This year, Pchum Ben is of even more significance to my family and neighbours than usual, if that’s possible. The reason is because a lot of people died last year. Most recently, a village neighbour died. Her death highlights the difference between our Western perception of reality and the average Cambodian villager’s well. To us, there’s a yawning gap between life and death; to Cambodians just a thin veil. Just days after her death, her immediate family started seeing her wandering around the upstairs sleeping area of their house. They became so frightened, they all started sleeping together downstairs. Since then, many of our neighbours have seen her walking up and down our street after dark.

I’m not going to speculate about “superstition” or “hallucination” versus reality because in my opinion, reality is largely a matter of perception. What’s noteworthy to me is that observing Pchum Ben is as important to the average Cambodian as income tax time is to the average Westerner. Just as income taxes are taken seriously because of the consequences of not paying them, Pchum Ben is taken seriously because of the consequences of not appeasing deceased relatives, friends and acquaintances.

The income tax analogy is only half the story, though. Pchum Ben is not just about appeasing the dead; it’s also about honouring the dead. One of my most egregious oversights in the eyes of my Cambodian family has been in failing to hang photographs of my deceased parents on the wall of our home. To them, it’s as if I’ve turned my back on my family. I’m making up for it this year by getting some photos printed up today.

Pchum Ben at Wat Samathi near Ream, 2009

Pchum Ben at Wat Samathi near Ream, 2009

If the idea of seeing the dead and believing they are as real as you and I seems primitive or superstitious to you, consider this story. We had a housekeeper living with us during my first year here. She was a sweet girl until one day she was possessed by the spirit of her dead sister. Of course, we awesomely wise Westerners would call it something else, like multiple personality disorder. Call it what you like, her personality changed so much that one day she threatened me with a knife. In my Western way, I tried to “reason” with her. Fortunately, Sopheak stepped in. After whacking me across the head and telling me the obvious, that it wasn’t Sokha I was trying to speak to, she called in her brother and some of the guys who were building my house. After subduing her, one of the workers performed a ritual his father had taught him. That temporarily appeased the sister and she withdrew. It took a few visits to exorcists to finally get the sister to leave for good, but whatever they did, it worked. Compare that to the success rate of shrinks trying to treat “multiple personality disorder” and you can see why I have a lot of respect for traditional “psychology.”

As much as I wish I could have used some of this week’s windfall from some pre-Christmas work I’ve picked up towards buying a Kindle ereader, the money is going to go towards appeasing the dead over Pchum Ben. I don’t resent it, though, because I’ve seen for myself that the “festival” is not just an excuse to take a day off work or go trick-or-treating. It’s deadly serious.

Related posts:

Bon Pchum Ben or Festival for Ancestors

The Trouble with Travel Blogs about Sihanoukville


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About Rob Schneider

Rob Schneider is a writer based in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he has lived since 2006.

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