Pchum Ben Day or Ancestor Day

Pchum Ben, also known as Ancestor's Day, is a half-month period (fifteen days: from one Roach to fifteen Roach) of remembrance for dead family members, which traditionally begins between September and October (the tenth month of the Khmer Calendar). Pchum Ben is believed to be a time when the souls of our ancestors that passed away may come back to us. The course of their journey will be decided by their karma and by the offerings made by their living relatives during Pchum Ben. 

Khmer Pchum Ben Day or Ancestor Day © Behance
Khmer Pchum Ben Day or Ancestor Day © Behance

Pchum Ben is one of the main traditional festivals of the Cambodian people. The festival is a tribute to the spirits of seven generations of ancestors who have passed away. Buddhists have been celebrating it for a long time. This festival is divided into two parts:

Bon Kan Ben: The 14 days from one Roach to fourteen Roach are known as "Kan Ben" or in Pali called Vora Phoat. The Buddhists at the nearby pagoda take 14 turns to hold Ben. The children prepared gifts and other items for their parents, grandparents, or elders to enter Ben in their respective pagoda. At this time, people will have the opportunity to develop their Dharma, Samathan (recite the precepts), and fulfill various merits, such as serving monks and cleaning pagodas, temples, monk's quarters, etc. In each shift, at night, drinks are given to monks and elders who practice 8 or 10 rituals. After that, worship the Preah Rattanatray, recite the precepts, invite the monks to generate the merit (Preah Parit), and offering-transference ceremonies. In the early hours of the morning, after worshiping the Buddha and progressing in prayer, the monks recite the Prabhupada Sutra, or the melancholy sound, in Pali, such as Prabhupada Borisam (by Prabhupada). After that, the Buddhists offered Yaku to the monks and at noon, the Buddhists offered offerings to the monks, with the genealogy dedicated to the spirits of the ancestors, seven relatives, and the ancestors who had passed away.

Bon Pchum:  The day 15th of the lunar month is a big holiday for Ben Thom. Children who do not pay their respects to the spirits of their ancestors and seven relatives during the 14 days of Ben must travel to their hometowns on the day 15 or a day before to celebrate Pchum Ben with family and friends in the traditional way. On the morning of the 15 Roach, people dressed up beautifully, and hold the Chan Srak (a series of lunch boxes) filled with food, along with desserts, Num Ansorm, and Num Korm to be handed over to the monks at the pagoda and the ancestral shrine dedicated to the ancestral spirits. In the evening in some areas, ancestral ceremonies are held. On the morning of the first day of the month of Assoch, they prepare food, fruits, beans, sesame, and salt, put it in a small boat made of banana peels, and light incense and candles to float on the water to send the Preta back.


Pchum Ben Festival in the Buddhist era

This festival in the Buddhist era is not called Bon Pchum, but it also has the same pattern called Sangkhapot Varaphat, which is done every day to support the monks entering the Vassa or Rains Retreat or Buddhist Lent for the three-month rainy season (roughly from July to October). In the Book of Preah Uruvela Kassapa explained to the laypeople to understand the merit of entering the Buddhist Lent as follows: Entering this Buddhist Lent is the best opportunity for monastics to receive personalized education and guidance about the Buddha. Moreover, monastics can also avoid stepping on earthworms and insects that come out on the ground when it rains. The philanthropists also support the monastics during this rainy season, by generously supporting the daily food during this three-month rainy season.

The Following Timeline of Pchum Ben

During Angkorian Period, people followed animism, although people now follow Buddhism, respect for elders was a practice they continued to follow. Based on the Inscription K297c, Pchum Ben Festival was called the "Srath Festival (បុណ្យស្រាទ្ធ)". This inscription gives us further during the reign of Yasovarman I (889-910 CE), He ordered his subordinates to hold the Bai Ben ceremony at the Yashodharatataka (the East Baray) to generate merit for those who had died of misfortune to be reborn. During the second phase of the Golden age of the Khmer Civilization, 1181-1218 reigned by King Jayavarman VII, it is said that reign of King Jayavarman VII, a monk came back from hell unscathed. He brought the message from the deceased that they could be freed from suffering if their relatives offered food and alms to monks.

The Grande Inscription d'Angkor. also known as K.301 or IMA-3, dated to the 18th century (1701), described the Pchum Ben festival which is called "Saratakal (សរាទកាល)" and "held the Tbat Twea Tous Saben (តប៌្បណទ្វាទសបិណ្ឌ)". The term "Saratakal (សរាទកាល)" refers to the time or period of holding the "Sratth Festival (បុណ្យស្រាទ្ធ)". "Twea Tous Saben (តប៌្បណទ្វាទសបិណ្ឌ)" is the 12th Ben for the King to hold the royal ceremony to dedicated to the royal ancestors. "Tbat (តប៌្បណ)" is a ceremony to quench the thirst with water pouring, and today the King held the royal ceremony of "pouring coconut water to the deceased ancestors" and has prepared all kinds of offerings, as well as a floating ceremony to send them back.


In the Buddhist era, there were no words for Kan ben and Pchum Ben, only the support for the four requisites or Pa Vaara Naa Pa Chai (including Clothing, Food, Lodging, and Medicine). As in the Dharma Book, there is a story about the Buddha and the monks who enter the Rains Retreat. And there are laypeople who support the four requisites for a quarter period. As for Kan Ben, it is not limited to 14 days, but the Buddhists of that generation started holding Ben from the day of entering the rainy season until the day of leaving the rainy season.

The words "Bon Pchum Ben" and "Bon Ben Pchum" have different meanings, with the word "Ben Pchum" referring to the Dak Ben ceremony, in turns or in groups, from Ben 1 to Ben 14, or the so-called Bon Dak Ben. While, the word "Pchum Ben" refers to the day 15th of the Phôtrôbât (Khmer Calendar month), also known as Bon Pchum. Collectively, these two words together are called "Bon Pchum Ben", meaning the meeting of the laypeople who held Dak Ben in each turn together or gather together regardless of the turn of anyone, to hold in one day.

Ben refers to a piece of rice that is placed on a plate or pot and is used to put the rice into the monk's alms bowl which is arranged in a row or double rows. Moreover, Ben does not refer only to rice, but also to food or offerings.

Bai Ben does not refer to rice that is used to put in the monk's alms bowl or offer to monks, it is a plate of rice that has collectively with rice, food, desserts (sometimes it is made of sticky rice and sesame, and often add coconut cream to make it taste better). This plate of rice is offered to ghosts at dawn, which People believe ghosts with heavy sins cannot receive food during the day. Bai Ben is traditional rice cooked with coconut paste and mixed with various ingredients according to the preferences of the locals in each area.

Bai Bort Bo or Bai Bo is not rice; it is a pure fruit or Khmer cake to supplement the richness of the offerings. Bai Bort Bo is the same as that of Bai Ben, but it is shaped like a cone and covers the top with a banana leaf, piercing the top with candles, incense, and flowers. They place the Bai Bort Bo on a small cup in the middle of the Bai Ben. In some areas, Bai Ben is placed in 8 boxes made from bananas, surrounded by Bai Bort Bo. In each box, there are 1 to 15 Bay Ben balls. When hearing the drum sound from the nearby pagoda, the old ones prepare rice, Num Ansorm, Num Korm, and fruits of all kinds and put them together in baskets or large trays or metal plates, and place the flowers or flags in the middle, they light incense and dedicate to the merit. While at the house, they also prepare a portion for the monks. Therefore, the word "Bai Bort Bo" or "Bai Bo" is an item that complements the richness of Ben Bat's food.


The sacrifice of Kantong Rice

The Kantong Rice is a kind of small rice bowl made of leaves used as a container for food, tobacco, betel nut, etc. the rice is shaped in pieces from 1 to 15 pieces, representing 1 day to 15 days. Then, they offer these offerings on the corner of the road or at the corner of the pagoda fence, which is supposed to be rice, representing a three-way street or a four-way street to summon various ghosts to help find their deceased relatives to help guide their deceased relatives to their living area as fearing that their relatives would not able to find them in at least 7 pagodas and cursed their generations for various misery.

Sand Mountain Sacrifice Ceremony

In some pagodas, the sand ceremony (it is called Sand Mound Ceremony or Poun Phnom Khsach), which is celebrated during the Khmer New Year, is confused with the one in the Pchum Ben festival. However, the Twelve Months Ceremony book stated that the sand ceremony during Kan Ben is called the Sand Mountain Sacrifice Ceremony (Bom Bous Phnom Khsach).

Sand Mountain Sacrifice Ceremony (Bom Bous Phnom Khsach) according to the ancient Khmer tradition, the sand is transported and piled in a mountain-shaped in terms of the height and size of the mountain as needed, and they often bury the earth pot at the top of every mountain sand-made to look like real stupas. Then, they made fences around the stupas, leaving only four entrances and exits. Eight deity houses are placed in all eight directions, with another deity house representing the Yamaraj house placed in the east, with an umbrella and three flags representing the three denominations/sects of Buddhism, including:

1.     The first flag represents the Mahayana sect

2.    The second flag represents the Hinayana sect

3.    The third flag represents the Sastra or Theravada sect

All the flags were hoisted and offered with flowers, perfumes, and Slar Thoir (a section of a banana leaf stem or green banana fitted with a stand and decorated, with betel leaves, areca nuts), etc. After they prepared the utensils as described above. They lit candles and incenses, hoisted the various color of flowers, and place crocodile flags of different colors on the tops of the stupas. There is an abbot who led the Buddhists to circle for three rounds, and they recited the Preah Ratanatray Samathan Sil, wrapped a white cloth around the stupas, and prayed at the stupas as called "Bom Bous Phnom Khsach" by the locals. When the Bom Bous Phnom Khsach ceremony has been baptized, in the evening, the ceremony of defrocking the sand mountain was carried out by removing the pot buried on the top of the sand stupas and reciting for defrocking at Sala Chan (gathering hall). The pagoda’s abbots will call the Buddhists to sit together, and there is a person who raises one hand on the sand stupa and the other Buddhists must touch each other to achieve merit.

Kan Ben Ceremony

Kan Ben Ceremony is a ceremony of the Pchum Ben Festival divided into 14 days of Kan Ben, starting from the 1st day of Roach to the 14th day of the lunar month or (half a month). While the Royal Kan Ben Ceremony, there are only 5 days, from 11 Roach to 15 Roach Pchum Ben. To start the Kan Ben ceremony, Buddhists need to have a 60-centimeter-high Ben flower (an ornament made of zinc, wood, and a set of large and small flowers from the bottom to the top). There are five levels of this flower, each of which is about the size of a finger. Attached around the five levels of the wheel are plugs made of copper, and at the bottom of the layer are attached five crocodile flags made of bamboo. In addition, there are four Nagas with a common tail as a base of the flower and in the month of each Naga, there is a picture of the Bayan leaves, which shows the Nagas supporting the Ben flower (Neak Tro Phka Ben). There is a square-shaped wooden box thick of 15 cm as the pedestal to Phka Ben. The difference between Ben Batr (food offering) during the Kan Ben period and ordinary Ben Batr is the main meaning of this Ben flower which represents the sacrifice to the Késaa(hair) of Samma Samputa, which is the Buddha cut off his hair when he left the throne to enter the monkhood.

Baing Skool Ceremony (a chanting ceremony to transfer merit to the spirits of the dead)

Baing Skool is a commemorative service to dedicate the merit, pay tribute, and relieve the suffering of their ancestors, whether relatives share the karma or animals they kill for meat to earn the living. This ceremony also contributes to the washing away of their sins, through the dedication of this ceremony. Baing Skool is usually held at the gathering hall (Sala Chan) or at the monk's hut, regardless of the circumstances in which the initiation of the festival is related to this ceremony.

Bai Ben Throwing Ceremony

The Bai Ben throwing ceremony is a ceremony held between 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning, where people have to take the Bai Ben and throw it to the ghosts around the temple to liberate the ghosts’ sin and dedicate the food for those ghosts as well. In the Patavatthu book, there are many descriptions of Preta (ghosts) who were born as human beings and committed many sins while still alive and fell into hell, being imprisoned in hell. When their merits are diminished, they cannot be reborn and cannot remain in the human realm like other souls. Even relatives who have dedicated food in the spirits' name still cannot receive the consecration. The spirits cried, whimpered, moaned, and wailed. The sorrowing sound reached the Buddha’s disciple, the Avalokitesvara or Guanyin, who descended directly to hell and appeared in a virtual form of rice balls to the spirits. Before eating the rice ball, the spirits show them to the Yamaraj for purpose of liberating and alleviating their sins and to be reborn in a better realm.  As the story of these spirits just mentioned above, resulted in the Bai Ben ceremony. Moreover, putting Bai Ben in the proper place is not accessible to the spirits who are relative with thick karma, therefore, they have to throw it out. Throwing Bai Ben must walk around the temple and throw it outside the temple fence because it is believed that each temple is buried on the boundary line with the sacred protection that all souls and spirits cannot violate the fence of the temple. So every citizen should pay homage to the spirits to calm their sorrows and calm their anger in order to bring peace to all of us.

Ancestor Farewell Ceremony or Ancestor Rite

On the 15th Roach of the Phôtrôbât (Khmer Calendar month), which coincides with the last day of Pchum Ben, Cambodians believe that the spirits of their relatives will come and say goodbye to their families on the last day, which is called Pchum Thom (Big Meeting). At 6:00 pm, they will prepare a plate of food for the sacrifice to invite the spirits of the relatives to have a proper meal at their homes. On the day of the sacrificial offerings, another small plate prepares for the two demons, identified as the White Ghost and the Black Ghost, who watch over the activities of the spirits. The preparation of the offerings to the demons is consist of chicken head, bacon, salted egg, a bowl of salt, and a cup of wine to apply. In the early days of King Ang Duong, the ancestral rites were made by floating small ships floating made of wooden or other floatable stuff. Until the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era, this ceremony was canceled due to the water environment concern. As result, the tradition of floating the ship to farewell the ancestral has been less practiced and abandoned until today.


In some regions in Cambodia, specifically in Vihear Sour commune Khsach Kandal district of Kandal Province, during the Pchum Ben Festival, there are several traditional games to be held, including:

Buffalo racing ceremony

In Buddhist belief, Buffalo represents the vehicle to Yamaraj (King of all the devils). This racing is part of the Cambodian tradition from ancient times till today. This buffalo racing is held during the Kan Ben period, which starts from 9 am to 11 am or from 2 pm to 4 pm, this buffalo race follows the number of buffaloes is more or less. 

Wrestling Ceremony

This wrestling match is made with the consent of the wrestling instructors of each team, who come from different villages or nearby villages. This match does not measure the size or weight, it depends on the contestants, whether they dare or not. Each teacher or team always wants to show the strength or tactics of the students in their respective teams.


According to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Buddhism is the state religion, so Cambodians and foreigners working in public and private institutions are allowed to take time off to go to Pchum. Bon Pchum has three meanings:

1.    Respect for ancestors and It's a show of respect to the monks: Dedicate merit to seven generations of the ancestors who have passed away and are reborn. During the first 14 days of Pchum Ben, people cook food for the monks and offer them alms. By doing so, the faithful believe they can bring good karma to their ancestors.

2.    Make happiness, prosperity, and glory born of its benefits

3.    To create the unity of the nation: It's a 3-day public holiday when is a time to gather with your family and close relatives. Sharing a communal meal, meditating, and helping the ancestors during their spiritual journey, bring the family together.


Cambodians all over the country follow the ancestral tradition of celebrating Kan Ben or Ben Pchum from the 1st of Roach to the 14th of Roach of the Phôtrôbât and Pchum Ben on the 15th of Roach the Phôtrôbât annually. This Pchum Ben festival is considered by the Khmer Buddhists as one of the great festivals of their ancestors for a long time, and relatives and children who live near and far away often always return to their hometown to meet their relatives on this day. This is a testament to the ingenuity and purpose of our Khmer ancestors, who named this festival Bon Pchum: Pchor must Moom, Pchum must come (ភ្ជរត្រូវតែមុំ ភ្ជុំត្រូវតែមក).

In Cambodian tradition related to Pchum Ben, parents are viewed as special gods or living gods. Before attending the pagoda, Cambodian children prepare meals in terms of breakfast or lunch for their parents. A common saying “What you have at home is more powerful than the god in the pagoda. Who are the gods in your house? They are your parents.” Parents are precious gods for Cambodians because they give life, take care of, and worry about their children. What happens when we don’t respect our parents? That would be very rude and disrespectful. We can say that, if we bring happiness to our parents, we have happiness in our lives, and our children will respect and love us in the future also.

Moreover, a few days before the main festival starts, people usually buy clothes, food, and fruit to hand to the elderly people in their respective hometowns. Somehow, people also contribute some cash to them. During this festival, Cambodians visit many pagodas, traditionally at least 3 or 7 pagodas (but now people can visit at least one pagoda depending on their availability) and the places where their ancestors passed away to pray and make offerings for their deceased ancestors via offering-transference ceremonies conducted by the monks. It is to be noticed that the time to bring the food to the pagoda is no later than 11 am as in the Buddha Discipline the monks will not eat after 12 pm. After this time, the monks do not eat any food and drink only soft drinks or tea until the end of the day.

Early in the morning around 4 am, people of all ages, specifically the elderly people, either in the shift or outside the shift, generally gather with their neighbors to prepare food, fruit, and rice. Cambodia cake, etc in ball-shaped on a plate and go to the pagoda. When at the pagoda, they light the candles, and incense, and pour a little water to invite the soul of their dead relatives and friends to come and eat the food by placing the balls of food just outside the monastery. It is believed that some of their ancestors, those who committed sins when they were alive, cannot enter the temples, even as ghosts. And they can only eat food that is prepared by their descendants. So this food is for them. People believe that if these spirits don’t see their relatives bringing food for them, they will get angry and wish their relatives bad luck.

The 15th day is the most important day of Pchum Ben and also the last day of the ceremony. Cambodian people have three days for public holidays in October to have a chance to visit their hometowns and gather with their families. To celebrate, numerous Cambodians wear white suits and cook meal offerings to the monks at nearby temple buildings. Besides going to a pagoda, they usually have a quick visit somewhere nearby with family and have meals together.

Pchum Ben is considered unique to Cambodia. It is a traditional ceremony to remind people to bring food to the monks. Moreover, the festival reminds people to remember their ancestors who have passed away. They always go to the pagoda on their ancestor’s anniversary or someone’s birthday. This is the way to show high respect even on days that are not the Pchum Ben festival. The festival educates younger people on how they should give respect to their relatives.