Pchum Ben festival is one of the two biggest religious festivals in Cambodia held to honor the dead. During the festival days, many people especially older people go to pagodas everyday, and make donations and pray for their ancestors and relatives who already passed away.
The festival lasts for 15 days and it is held every year in Octobers but the last day is the prime time of the festival.
Traditionally, many people believe that Hell is open during the festival period and the spirits are released at that time. Some people refer it “the festival for ghosts” but it can also be considered as the festival for ancestors. In case their ancestors have been happened to be in hell for any reasons, with the purpose to get reborn in a better life soon, people go to pagodas and do as many good donations as possible for them.
During the four days vacation for the festival, I went with one of my co-workers to her native town, Koh Kong, the Cambodia’s southern border town with Thailand. And I joined her family’s visits to pagodas on the last day of the festival. I prayed for all spirits locked up in Hell but Pol Pot’s.
One of the unique activities of the festival is throwing sticking rice to the ground at the pagodas’ compounds on the last day of the festival. Thousands of people across the countries line up at pagodas since at dawn and throw small piece of sticking rice to the designated spots on the ground along the line. The Khmer national television live broadcasted the event since 4:00 am showing royal families and higher government officials participating in the rice throwing event and making donations at pagodas for the dead. And in addition to that, families also bring lots of foods, you can see in the pictures; rice, rice cakes, different curries, fruits etc., to the pagodas and donate to monks to pray for their ancestors.
There are almost no families in the current Cambodian society who have not lost their family members by the brutality of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot in the 1970s- some tragically died directly by the Khmer Rouge regime’s brutal interrogations and torture to dead, some of them literally starved to dead after being sent to work at the re-educating camps run by Khmer Rouge regime, some shot to dead while they tried to escape from the camps. People like Dith Pran, the photojournalist and the interpreter to the reporter from the New York Times, most of us have already known their ordeal through one of the historic Cambodian genocide movies, The Killing Fields, who could manage to escape the camps or who could come out from the camps alive after the regime was overthrown were very few percentage of the population sent to the camps.
Even in my friend’s family I was visiting, I saw one black and white picture of cute toddler among the pictures hanging on the wall at her house. My friend told me – she was her aunt – the younger sister of her mother. She told me that she was a young victim of the Pol Pot regime, “The toddler was too young to adapt to the situation of the family underwent at the camp of Khmer Rouge regime– no or mere food to eat although other older siblings could gradually cope with the new situation and survived with a mere food.”
My friend, who is the first generation of the newly rebuilt Cambodia, already learned the lessons from the past and practical enough to leave its Khmer culture out if it is not supporting to the challenges many people in Cambodia nowadays are still facing. She did not agree with the Cambodian tradition throwing sticking rice to the ground. She criticized the action as “wasting”. And she already comes up with some statistics. “A household throws at least a half kilogram of rice to the ground for nothing. You can imagine how much the wasted rice would be since thousands of households across the country are participating in it every year. That is a good enough amount of rice to feed many poor families.”
I can agree with her reasoning. However, who knows how many of those families are doing it for their relatives and people killed by the Khmer rouge regime? It can be almost all of them. So, I also hold an empathetic feeling to the families who themselves still living with an income under the poverty line, but would like to donate, in that case, throwing rice to the ground, for their family members forced to end their precious life prematurely and tragically. They may want to pray for them to have a better life, and they may want to donate lots of lots foods for them – not to have the kind of similar experience again– starved to death – they faced in their previous life. Most of the families in Koh Kong region, which is a fishing community, are poor. However, people are donating the best foods they have at the pagodas but many families may not be certain that there are still left enough food for dinner even on that day when they get back home.
While I was picturing long lines of the bowls of foods donated at the pagodas, I remembered what Warren Buffett, who is one of the world’s billionaires and made the pledge with Bill Gates to donate their wealth for good causes, said in one of his speeches urging other fellow billionaires of the world to donate their wealth away while assuring them it won’t hurt them. He said that even though he pledged to donate eventually up to 99 percent of his wealth, his enormous philanthropic actions did not cost anything that he enjoy in life. He needs to sacrifice nothing in his life for his charitable pledge and he could still get anything he wants in life – he could still buy the best possible things in this earth he needs with his remaining one percent wealth.
Many of us can be critical against the worthiness of the donations, made by many poor Cambodian families, which is stimulated by their spiritual reasoning. However, it is hard not to be empathetic to them and not to give them credit for their ‘great’ sacrifice – donating foods, for many families, which would be their only foods for that day they could barely make with their income. Compared to the donations to the world’s philanthropic billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who pledged to donate up to very high percentage of their wealth to the humanitarian causes around the globe, of course, no doubt, those of fishermen families are, incomparably, tiny and not benefited to many people like Bill Gate and Buffett’s foundations did. However, no body can say the amount of sacrifice that they made to donate for their late ancestors is less than that of Bill Gate and Warren Buffett have.
Even after making ourselves see the sacrifices involved in and the reason behind the donations, there may be many people like me and my friend, who were still questioning to the worth of those donations to religious places and spiritual purposes. However, a report I read at the Phnom Penh Post on the day after the festival about the left over food and rice cakes at pagodas in some provinces are collected by the progressive community members and distributed to poor families in many areas. Some are even sent to prisoners and struggling families of soldiers who are lowest ranking in armies. Indeed, the article made my “nonspiritual mind” somehow enlightened and satisfied. I hope it does to that of my friend’s.