The annual Pchum Ben festival period, a traditional observance steeped in reverence for ancestors, has evolved. Communities now unite in philanthropy, affirming the festival period’s role as a time of giving.
Chhort Bunthong, head of Culture, Education, and Tourist Relations at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, highlights Buddhists providing food and alms during the Kan Ben and Pchum Ben festivals.
Children offer essentials to their elders, and some financially able individuals also share alms with those in need.
“The Kan Ben and Pchum Ben festivals are deeply rooted traditions that our Khmer ancestors upheld,” says Bunthong.
“They serve as a way to unite people in acts of sharing, community development, and engagement in various activities. These customs promote goodness among the Cambodian people,” he states.
Kan Ben and Pchum Ben, spanning September 30 to October 15, involves visiting pagodas and offering food to monks to reach ancestors’ spirits and bless the living.
Pchum Ben fosters acts of kindness and community outreach, allowing everyone to give back.
Som Sakona, the marketing director of Ly Hour Leasing, recently shed light on the company’s initiatives during last year’s Pchum Ben.
Beyond the company’s charitable endeavours, the president, management team, and employees embarked on a journey to a pagoda in Kampong Speu.
“We made offerings of food, money, and essential materials to the resident monks as a gesture of reverence and generosity,” Sakona told The Post.
Tradition of Philanthropy
Pchum Ben is not only about the spiritual but also the acts of kindness and community outreach.
This belief is followed by generations of Cambodians who view the festival as an opportunity to give back to their communities.
Buddhists and monks adapt traditional practices, extending offerings to the underprivileged in orphanages, hospitals, and prisons, preventing waste and aiding the less fortunate.
Venerable Phat Sophearoth, chief monk of Kampong Popil Pagoda, organises meals for children in need and provides food packages for their parents, following the tradition of sharing despite limited resources.
“After the Kan Ben and Pchum Ben festivals, we distribute alms like rice and non-perishable food to the needy, regardless of the number of families,” stated Venerable Sophearoth.
Challenges and Variations
Not all pagodas can redistribute offerings, and some may need assistance during the 15-day ceremony.
The ability of pagodas to carry out charitable acts varies due to factors such as size, resources, and location.
Venerable Prom Samnang, the chief monk of Serey Mongkulea Ram, known also as Wat Phnom Krouch in Krouch village, Damrey Phong commune, Chhlong district, in Kratie province, explained that due to the remote location and limited Buddhists among approximately 200 families most of whom are Muslim, his pagoda can’t store food received during the festivals for further distribution.
“Receiving food for 15 days is enough for the three resident monks and participants in Kan Ben. On regular days, the monks travel a considerable distance for alms,” Venerable Samnang shared.
Organisations across the country channel community generosity towards those in need during Pchum Ben.
Ngouv Chhiv, founder of Les Restaurants Des Enfants (LRDE), welcomes various donations, from finances to groceries, meals, supplies, and educational materials.
“We aim to provide support in the form of food, meat, vegetables, especially for children with good intentions, whether it’s for 50, 100, or 200 children,” Chhiv shared with The Post.
As the steward of over 250 children at the centre he emphasises the constant need for assistance, especially during festivals, to enable impoverished children to join the celebrations.
He mentions that philanthropists can arrange events like birthdays and anniversaries at LRDE, enhancing the joyful atmosphere for the children.
The Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), led by Kate Ginn, senior communications editor, uses modern technology and collaboration to maximise their Pchum Ben campaign’s impact.
They work with ABA and leverage social media to reach a wider audience.
Charitable giving in Cambodia has increased, including financial contributions and in-kind donations.
“Technology like ABA Pay and mobile banking simplifies donating to local charities like CCF in Cambodia. Child sponsors also contribute money for rice, stipends, and transportation,” Ginn explained.
Traditional Significance of Num Ansom Cakes.
Cambodia’s traditional num ansom cake holds deep significance during Pchum Ben. These rice cakes, wrapped in banana leaves, connect to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and pass down centuries-old traditions.
Families making num ansom pay homage to ancestors and ensure customs endure.
“While some customs, like the traditional practice of crafting num ansom cakes, may have waned due to time constraints and convenience, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the essence of giving and sharing with our relatives, neighbours, and monks remains absolutely vital,” Bunthong emphasises.
Regarding alms distribution, he notes changes over time but highlights the core principles of generosity and communal support.
He states that these cakes represent our resilience, cultural pride, and the enduring spirit of unity during Pchum Ben.
The Essence of Giving
In the past, people shared leftover food with monks at the temple before returning home to prevent waste, a practice originating when there were no orphanages or prison distributions.
“Today, certain pagoda committees have altered the distribution approach by providing food to beggars, orphanages, hospitals, or prisons. Witnessing an abundance of food and fearing spoilage, some of our relatives prepare dried food items like dried fish, noodles, canned fish, and rice, which can be stored by the monks for an extended period,” Bunthong elaborates.
Participation in traditional festivals benefits the elderly and underprivileged children, providing alms, food, and essentials.
“Kan Ben and Pchum Ben are moments of kindness and extensive charitable activities,” he says.