In this country, where Buddhism is the national religion, there are two exceptionally long holidays.
The first that I encountered, last spring, was Khmer (or Cambodian) New Year, which officially lasts for three days. Many citizens find a way to extend that period to a week or so, enabling them to spend time with their families in the provinces.
This week, I’ve had the twofold pleasure of experiencing another long holiday. Pchum Ben technically lasts for 15 days, but it peaks during its final three days, ending this year on Wednesday. Despite the time period, folks often stretch their days off for much longer.
Ancestors’ Day (as the holiday may be translated) is taken very seriously by Buddhists, who usually try to journey to what they call their homelands to be with their kin. Many make a point of traveling to as many as seven temples to make food offerings to monks, donate money, engage in ceremonies overflowing with symbolism and honor the memory of the generations that preceded them.
That highway fatalities soar during the holidays is hardly surprising in a country where drinking, daredevil driving and a level lawlessness on the roads is endemic.
Surviving as both a celebration and a way to ensure the well-being of relatives long dead, the holiday goes back many centuries.
One of the two pleasures that I have been able to enjoy in connection Pchum Ben is a relatively empty and notably quieter Phnom Penh. The second, on Sunday, was unexpectedly engrossing.
“My” Khmer family had insisted that I join them at one temple in the outskirts of the city to witness the ceremony at a temple and what I’ll oxymoronically call the informal pageantry that occurs. They continually ask me to go on excursions with them, knowing I tend to have things I would rather do, especially if the trips mean hours in a car in difficult traffic on problematic roads.
So, I was understandably pleased that the ride lasted less than an hour and that the day turned into one filled with new sights, sounds and insights.
Although activities were centered in an open tin-roofed shed adjacent to temples in the complex, food and flower vendors outside the shed had a field day selling flowers as well as food to supply picnics at the tables inside and, I think, for offerings to the monks.
The photos here and below will give you some idea of what I had the privilege of seeing.