The chanting has commenced, the gates of hell have opened, the spirits of ancestors long past are out & desperate to be fed and the Cambodian community is obliging, rice balls and other food offerings being delivered to the temples by the tiffin tin load for the ghosts to consume before being banished once more to purgatory for their mortal sins.
We’re slap bang in the middle of the National Holiday known as Pchum Ben here in Cambodia – a time when Cambodians remember their ancestors and, as I’ve alluded to in the paragraph above, feed those who because of transgressions during life are banished to hell and starved.
This time last year I made my first ever visit to my now hometown of Kampot to spend the three day break relaxing and exploring and as a result getting my first taste of how the Cambodians do holidays during a day trip to the local coastal town of Kep which you can read about here if you want.
That experience, along with exposure to subsequent holidays including the ultimate that is Khmer New Year has increased my awareness of the rituals (traditional and modern) inherent in Cambodian holiday culture and so, since returning I’ve been watching the anticipation build as those rituals unfold with both interest and amusement.
Traditionally, visits to the temple are a massive part of any and all Cambodian holidays and with a 15 day festival like Pchum Ben there’s lots of it to be done. Families pile onto the back of motorbikes, dressed in their finery (for the women this means a white blouse and traditional Khmer skirt, for the men a shirt and trousers) clinging gingerly to their silver tiffin tins laden with goodies to feed the ghosts and monks alike as they bounce along dirt tracks to their local temple to deliver the offerings and receive blessings.
The final three days of Pchum Ben are the national holiday, allowing Cambodians to return home to visit their family and to pay respects at their home temple. For many this involves a visit in the early hours of the morning on the first day of the three day holiday, and thanks to my friend insomnia I was able to experience the sense of anticipation as motorbike engines hummed to life, gates creaked open, dogs barked and brakes squealed to mark the dark hours procession to the temples prior to the chanting starting at 3.15am and the regular, rhythmic drum banging commencing shortly thereafter. By sunrise it was all over, chanting ceased and 1st day of the holiday proper was in full flow.
On the more modern end of the scale, sales of pyjamas go through the roof in the run up to Pchum Ben. Not in a new PJs for Christmas Eve night way you might experience as a family in the West, but because pyjamas are the outfit de rigueur for day tripping Cambodian women and girls. Market stalls full of the ridiculously garish, teddy bear emblazoned creations have been appearing on the river road in Kampot and on roads around the country as locals flock to buy their essential holiday garb.
And speaking of market stalls, the Thai market has come to town. This fabulous spectacle visits Kampot periodically on its journey around Southeast Asia, bringing with it a plethora of plastic tat, comedy clothing, electronic gadgets galore and more mattresses than one nation could ever make use of, thus offering Cambodians a holiday opportunity to engage in consumerism on an ever growing scale.
The roads become busier as more and more people head home, or off on trips, vehicles bursting at the seams (16 in one car is the record so far this holiday, with a bum hanging out of a minivan window getting the prize for most bonkers vehicular related spot to date– thanks to Linda for both of these insights) as they chug along in convoy to the popular day trip destinations.
Sadly for some, anticipation is all they have when it comes to road trips. This morning when I first got up at 6 I wandered the terrace at home to discover a coach parked up in the lane and a couple of people hanging about. Assuming it was a day trip about to start I gave it no more thought and went about my day. A couple of hours later and the coach was still there, more people had arrived and Linda and I were trying to ascertain, in pigeon Khmer, where they were heading. Another hour passed and still no movement (other than another large coach squeezing past along the lane in the opposite direction) and then that second coach returned and all became clear, Our ‘resident’ coach had actually broken down on route to who knows where (we failed at the pigeon Khmer Q&A in case you hadn’t already guessed) and for the past 3.5 hours the poor, hapless day trippers had spent their precious holiday time wandering the lane outside our house, snoozing on the dead as a dodo coach and basically doing nothing whilst they waited for a miracle to occur. On leaving the house at 10 there was still no movement other than arm to mouth action of men who had cracked open the bus beers and were squatting in a sheltered corner behind the bus whilst puzzled drivers gazed at the open engine compartment in despair.
For foreigners in town the build up to Pchum Ben is marked by conversations about what and when local amenities will be closed. The town has slowly been closing down over the last week, food options have become limited and today’s request for lemongrass and mint tea thwarted by the local supplier of lemongrass having forsaken his usual market pitch for the chance to head home and kick back in a hammock over the holidays (don’t worry too much though, I managed to get a lime mint cooler instead and there’s still an abundance of good strong coffee available so it’s not quite the end of the world #phew!).
And as Pchum Ben comes to an end I anticipate merriment. Tomorrow, the final day of the holiday, was unpoetically described as beer drinking day by a local travel agent when explaining the lack of taxi options available on the day. No doubt copious amounts of alcohol will be consumed on top of that already drunk (that constant day tripping convoy of the past few days has been replete with cases of beer by the dozen) and I therefore anticipate there’ll be more than a few sore heads as people return to the normal hum of daily life over the coming days.