P’chum Ben is the Cambodian ancestor’s holiday, which lasts for about two weeks, but really heats up the last weekend. American’s Memorial Day may be the closest thing we have to it. The celebration involves an excess of food, relatives, prayers, chants, and blessings. Some Peace Corps Volunteers have posted blogs relating experiences with their host families at dawn’s light, praying and chanting with monks for hours, giving food offerings, burning incense. Others related particular recipes, making special sweet rice wrapped in banana leaf. For some the holiday involved travel to see relatives in other provinces. It is serious spiritual business once a year, a duty to acknowledge ones’ dearly departed in this way. For me, in Siem Reap province, P’chum Ben brought to light two main themes: gender roles and the importance of doing nothing.
Days before our weekend guests arrived, the younger children cleaned cabinets, swept floors and set the house in order. The boy even taped little rag rugs to the tiles. The house sparkled. When the older girls arrived home from school on Thursday, the women began cooking. It was a three-day on-going project. Fried pork, beef, chicken, and fish, even snake was on the menu. Spicy side dishes of shredded vegetables and mounds of fruit were laid before the family altar. Meanwhile, my host dad stocked up on Angkor Beer.
We trouped to the wat three times over the weekend to deliver various offerings: rice, Coca Cola, cigarettes, and money. By we, I mean me, as the lone foreigner in the crowd, plus most of the extended family, cousins, aunts, grannies, and a few young jolly uncles. Most of the women dressed in what looked like wedding attire: lacy rhinestone studded bodices over brocade sampots, and fancy sandals. The kids had their hair slicked down, girls in dresses. Most of the men stayed home and drank beer in the shade.
On Sunday it looked like the entire village town was at the wat. Every pagoda had monks and families chanting. The air was blue with incense smoke. We knelt on rice mats and bowed three times. When the monk gave his blessing, we each touched the arm or back of the one ahead. In this way we received direct transmission. Later, after the feast was consumed and cleared away, the card games began in earnest. By earnest, I mean for money. Turns out my host mom is a card shark. She raked it in. Waves of tiny barefoot children ran round and round the house, alternately screaming and laughing as the sun set. The old women continued their card games. The men continued drinking beer.
The day after the big feast, with the offerings complete and family still lingering, I accepted an invitation to sit with the men, but declined a beer. “How often you drink?” asked an uncle. “Once a year,” I replied. That got a laugh. I asked the men why they did not go to the wat. One answered for the rest. “We don’t need to go,” he said. “My son goes, my wife goes, I receive blessings through them.” That’s how we spent most of the day. Lingering. Receiving blessings, doing nothing.