Every year, Cambodia celebrates one of its two major annual festivals - Pchum Ben, known as the ‘Festival of the Dead’. A 15-day festival, culminating on the 15th day of the 10th month of the Khmer lunar calendar, Pchum Ben is a time when Cambodians pay respects to their deceased relatives of up to 7 generations.
During Pchum Ben much of Cambodia shuts down as people return to their home towns and villages, in order to attend special rituals at their local family pagoda (Buddhist temple). Monks chant sutras in the ancient language of Pali throughout the night, without rest, in preparation for the opening of the gates of hell, when the spirits of the dead are thought to be especially active.
Dressed in white, Cambodians attend the pagoda to make offerings of food, intended to placate the dead and relieve their suffering in the afterlife. Gifts of food for the dead are made via monks, with some schools of thought believing the hungry ghosts can be directly nourished by the offerings, where more orthodox canon states that the merit gained by donors only indirectly benefits the dead.
At many pagodas, the orthodox merit-gaining plates and hampers of food received by the monks are accompanied by direct feeding of the ghosts in the form of rice balls thrown into the air at the temple, or rice grains thrown into an empty field in more rural areas.
Pchum Ben is considered unique to Cambodia within the Southeast Asia region, although there are similar festivals celebrated in both Sri Lanka and Taiwan. With the Khmer Rouge era so recent in living memory, the festival is especially poignant to many Cambodians, who are keen to appease the souls of the many who died.