PCHUM BEN TRAVEL OPTIONS & PLANS
By Jitka Markova
What are your Pchum Ben travel plans? With Pchum Ben holidays in less than a week many first-time visitors and expats living in Cambodia are wondering what to do, and where to go during the Pchum Ben holidays.
SO, WHAT IS PCHUM BEN HOLIDAY?
Pchum Ben (Khmer: បុណ្យភ្ជុំបិណ្ឌ; “Ancestors’ Day”) is a 15-day Cambodian religious festival, culminating in celebrations on the 15th day of the tenth month in the Khmer calendar, at the end of the Buddhist lent, Vassa. It is also a 3-day public holiday for most Cambodians.
WHAT DOES PCHUM BEN FESTIVAL MEAN IN BUDDHISM?
In the Khmer language, Pchum or Brochum means “a meeting or gathering”. Ben means “a ball of something”, such as rice. The Pchum Ben festival originated in the Angkorian era when people followed animism, before Brahma or Buddhism.
Both Buddhism and animism reflect Khmer respect and remembrance for their ancestors. Pchum Ben is also a convenient way for Buddhist monks to receive food during the heaviest part of the rainy season while they stay in the pagodas to follow their moral principles.
HOW IS IT CELEBRATED?
Pchum Ben is an exclusively Cambodian religious festival, based on their belief in karma and reincarnation. Although most people are believed to be reincarnated at death, those with bad karma can be trapped in the spirit world, unable to be reincarnated. At Pchum Ben time every year these souls are released from the spirit world to find their living relatives and repent. Cambodians use this time to visit pagodas, pray for the souls of their dead relatives and in one of the most interesting twists, feed them. If you are staying in a hotel or home stay close to a pagoda, you might find yourself woken at 4am with chanting and singing by the monks who perform special morning ritual for the 15 days of Pchum Ben.
HOW SHOULD I CHOOSE MY PCHUM BEN TRAVEL PLANS?
For anyone wondering what to do, and where to go, during the Pchum Ben holiday period there are fundamentally 3 options. Which one you choose depends on your interests and aspirations for your holiday.
Option 1: Stay in Phnom Penh
Most Cambodian takes the opportunity to celebrate Pchum Ben with their families and take several extra days of annual leave to travel back to their provinces. This means that Phnom Pen often ends up being very quiet and many local expats love to stay at home and just enjoy the very still town for few days. Remember, many restaurants and bars might be closed as the owner gives their staff time off to travel to the provinces.
Option 2: Visit community-based tourism sites close to towns and join in during Pchum Ben celebrations
If you’d like to observe some of the Pchum Ben traditions, we would recommend you stay in a local homestay in a rural community. This will give you the opportunity to visit a few of the local pagodas. Cambodians are always very happy to share their traditions with interested visitors. If you tell your hosts that you want to visit a pagoda for Pchum Ben, I promise that at least one of the family members will invite you to join them when they go to pay their respects.
Please remember to dress respectfully — shoulders and legs should be covered. Do not wear shorts or vest tops! Khmer men wear dress pants and a white dress shirt and women wear long skirts and a white shirt (white is the funeral colour in Cambodia). Remove your shoes when entering pagodas. Bring 100 Riel bills with you, or change a small dollar bill into Riel at the entrance.
Option 3: Spend some time away from all the hustle and bustle that surrounds the Pchum Ben holidays
Travelling in Cambodia during the Pchum Ben holidays can be tricky. There are thousands of Cambodians travelling to provinces to visit their relatives as well as expats living in Cambodia who take several days of annual leave to make it into a week’s holiday. As result many bus companies are overbooked. You might find it difficult get a seat on a coach or be able to book long-distance taxi at last minute, so book ahead so as not to be disappointed!
One of the other challenges of traveling during Cambodian public holidays is in finding a peaceful and quiet place to relax. Many of the normally almost deserted tourist destinations suddenly become busy with loud music and late-night parties. This is a special holiday for most Cambodians, so there is a reason to celebrate… karaoke music, local socializing and Angkor beer are all part of it. So, if you are after a blissfully quiet rural local location choose carefully!
From our experience, any place with an easily accessible river, waterfall or lake, will turn into party central with music and tons of single use plastic. If this is what you are after, you are at the right place, however if you are after something else you might find this very frustrating. The most remote sites seem to work better at this time of the year.
Here are some places you might enjoy visiting:
Seima Protection Forest https://impactexplorer.asia/project/seima-protection-forest/