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Sunday, September 17, 2006


P'chum Ben festival

For a total of 15 days, we in Cambodia are currently celebrating the P'chum Ben festival. I ask what it is about and am told it is a time when people pray to their ancestors. My Lonely Planet Cambodia tells me that respects are paid to the dead through offerings of paper money, food and drink passed through the medium of the monks. (Cambodia only has paper money.) Perhaps it is a way to make donations to the monks and passing the merit onto the ancestors.

I am trying to make sense of all this without getting involved although I have been invited to speak at Wat Xam—I do not expect I will go.

When I was in Malaysia—not sure if it was this time of the year—the Chinese celebrated what Soon called the Hungry Ghost festival. For weeks before, many of the shops in town—I lived in Melaka's Chinatown—were full of paper replicas of houses, cars, money and people. These were to be burned to be used by the ancestors in heaven (or perhaps hell).

In my efforts to understand the Khmer people I have been reading one or two history books. They tell me that Cambodia is on the border of where the Indian and Chinese cultural influences meet in Asia. This doesn't entirely make sense to me. As China has Buddhism—which came from India. Yes, I understand that the Chinese are eclectic and have adapted Buddhism to fit with their earlier beliefs. This has also happened in the countries where Theravada Buddhism is practised, ie the ones with the 'Indian' influence, but perhaps staying more closely to the original Buddhism.

The books say that Cambodians have rejected Chinese influences which come to them via Vietnam. Cambodians are said to not like the Vietnamese. And I can confirm that this attitude is common. But somehow this practice of ancestor worship, which as far as I can tell is a Chinese concept, seems to be enthusiastically integrated into Cambodian Theravada Buddhism. In Thailand, another Theravada country, to my knowledge this Chinese practice exits only among the Chinese community. This suggests that it is not a Theravada practice and supports my theory that it has come to Cambodia from China via Vietnam.

I would observe that the ancestors being worshipped must have two qualities that I have become well aware of: 1. they are earlybirds and 2. they are deaf. I say this because the Cambodian version of this festival starts at 4 am every day for 15 days and is broadcast, as is the Cambodian habit, over large loudspeakers. It can be heard anywhere there is a wat. That's everywhere. And if there are two wats within hearing distance they compete with each other to gain the ancestors' attention. I think the only way to escape it is to leave the country. I have chosen to stay and use it as a challenge to retain my tranquility.

I have to qualify what I wrote in the previous paragraph. 'Everywhere' perhaps excludes Phnom Penh. My experience when staying overnight during two weekends of P'chum Ben is that from my guesthouse at 5 am (I guess I'm waking by habit now) I can hear nothing. Perhaps getting up at 4 am is a habit of people in the country, as country people in Australia are also earlybirds. City people are not such early risers.

Happy P'chum Ben. May your ancestors be blessed.


I paid my second visit to the dentist and had the crown fitted. So far I am happy with the work that has been done. If anything goes wrong, I'll let you know.

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