Pchum Ben – A Cambodian Festival

This past week, Little Hearts, like everyone else in Cambodia, celebrated Pchum Ben, an important religious festival commemorating and honouring seven generations of one’s ancestors. The 15-day festivity culminates on the 15th day of the tenth month of the Khmer Buddhist calendar.

It is believed that during this period the souls of our ancestors are temporarily released from the afterlife. These spirits are drawn to pagodas, where they hope to receive offerings from their living relatives. Cambodian families, therefore, flock to their local pagodas, visiting as many as seven, and leave donations of food and drink to the monks in lieu of their deceased parents and grandparents.

For Little Hearts residents, too, this is a yearly tradition. One morning last week we visited the nearby pagoda in Arey Ksat as a group to leave offerings and pray together. For the children living at the Little Hearts, Pchum Ben is particularly poignant; as they are orphans, most of them are praying for ancestors they have never met, or whom they don’t remember. They nevertheless recognize the festival as an important moment in the religious calendar, one that reminds them of the personal and social connections that bind us all together.

But the kids also associate Pchum Ben with some good fun. For starters, they get the week off from school – something that’s always worth celebrating! And on the afternoon after they have paid their respects at the pagoda, Little Hearts becomes an arena for entertaining outdoor games. The kids play some of their favourite Cambodian and international party games, starting with vai kaam (hit the clay pot), which is not unlike the piñata-smashing contests seen in North America. A clay jar filled with candy and confetti is suspended from a high rope, and a blindfolded player must try to locate it and smash it with a bamboo rod to release a cascade of sweets that everyone races to collect. Then there was the no-hands watermelon eating contest – a juicy if messy affair – followed by a game of tug-of-war and finally several heats of lot bav, a race in which the kids must hop from one end of the field to the other while keeping their feet inside an empty sack.

For the kids of Little Hearts, Pchum Ben thus brings both thoughtful reflection and healthy entertainment, teaching them to look for a balance of the two in all their endeavours.

Happy Pchum Ben, everyone!

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