Sunday, 14 October 2012

# 8: Pchum Ben..

I decided this little background piece deserved a post of it's own..

Today was the final day of Pchum Ben, a 15 day long religious festival to honour the Ancestors..for up to 7 generations.

 CCT arranged to send all the kids who do have family members, back to their villages for this special holiday.
 Since these are the families who were deemed to be either a threat to their children or just incapable of looking after them in the first place, usually because of alcohol &/or drug abuse &/or mental illness, or just plain meanness, we had to send each group with a member of staff who will stay with them at all times. Some of the families found this very insulting, one of the boys saw it as a reflection on  his 'manhood', on his ability to look after himself - he's only 15.
 CCT explained to them that it's either this or the family can come into Battambang for a supervised visit. These children are now our responsibility and we will not put them at risk... ever. Given that option, the recalcitrant families came round and our 'man-child' accepted that these rules are only there because we love him too much to let anything happen to him, even if he can take care of himself.

 The festival itself sounds like a harmless, even praiseworthy ritual until you realise just what it really means to the desperately poor, superstition-laden Khmer people. They scrimp and save all year, sometimes even at the expense of feeding themselves and their children, so that they'll have an 'acceptable' amount of money and food to give to the ghosts of their ancestors (via the monks, of course.....), believing this 'good deed' will ease their own time in Naraka as well as that of these long dead spirits/ghosts. More or less equated to hell or purgatory, one's time in Naraka is determined by the accumulation of Karma - once the karmic debt is paid, it's reincarnation time.

 If they are unable or unwilling to make these 'gifts' to their ancestors, the Khmer believe they will suffer terrible consequences and everything bad that happens in the coming year will be put down to this 'failing'.
 Apparently, last year, one of the CCT boys managed to get enough work to save US$300 and gave it all to the monks in the belief that it would bring him good luck in the coming year - to put this in some perspective, the average teacher's salary is $45/mnth...
He then worked hard, studied hard and, when he did well at school, put it down to the gift of that hard-earned $300, rather than as a result of his own efforts.

 One of the Khmer staff at CCT, an educated, intelligent man, swears he was once grabbed by evil spirits and dragged into a cupboard and he won't cross the river bridges at night because he's honestly afraid of the water demons...

 I have my work cut out for me trying to encourage critical thinking rather than blind acceptance in these children, let alone the Khmer staff and House Parents who are raising them, without suggesting that their fundamental, cultural beliefs are ridiculous or that every adult they've ever known and respected, has either lied to them about the existence of evil spirits and demons or has just been plain stupid ! 

 I definitely don't want to repeat the mistakes made by centuries of colonial masters, all of whom tried to 'remake' the Khmer into replicas of themselves: from the introduction of Theravada Buddhism by Sri Lankan monks in the 13th century,through 600 yrs of being fought over by the Thai and Vietnamese,(who attempted to force the Khmer to adopt Vietnamese customs) and culminating in becoming a French protectorate for 100 yrs, until 1953, when they finally gained their independence, it seems everyone has tried to change the identity of the Khmer people

Then, of course, there was Pol Pot..ask any Khmer how long Pol Pot ruled Cambodia and they'll tell you "..3 yrs, 8 months and 20 days.."
- It's the one (and often only) piece of Khmer history they all know.
He tried to remake his own countrymen by going on a genocidal rampage through the ranks of the educated, leaving only the very poor and the very rich (who could afford to either bribe there way out of persecution or flee the country).

While I don't want to change the Khmer identities of the children I'll be teaching, I do intend to address these indoctrinated habits of superstition and to encourage them to look for real evidence to support these beliefs, rather than automatically accepting them all because it's what their elders have 'always' believed.

 On a purely selfish note, there is one aspect of Pchum Ben that I love:
THE FOOD !! Everybody cooks as much as they can and I have feasted non-stop for 2 days, thanks to my delightful neighbour, Jendar.

Forgot to snap my breakfast: Khmer noodles with 'wafer thin' slices of buffalo, served with  the ever-present chili sauce...delicious!

But here's lunch: 
Dumplings made with rice flour 'pastry',  filled and then steamed in banana leaves - picked from my garden the day before and soaked overnight. Some were filled with curried rice, some with assorted veges and some with sesame chili couscous (loved those ones)

Finishing with Dumplings filled with couscous and apricots...

I'm guessing Dumplings are someone's favourite as that's what they do on this holiday.

Who knew you could get the monks to make house-calls. Seeing how much money he had in his satchel, I guess there's enough incentive...

This is the tomb in our front yard - and Jendar's extended family.



  1. Very insightful and a true indication of just how difficult but necessary the work you are doing is.
    LOVE the look (and sound) of those dumplings. Mmmmm

  2. It's certainly going to be an interesting journey...
    and the dumplings were awesome !!

  3. Agreed ma, I think because we tend to tread so lightly around discussing and questioning religious values, you're right to say it'll be tough to encourage critical thinking rather than blind acceptance, even of what you are telling them.

    Of course noone sees it as reasonable for a person to be hugely offended when the failures of their favoured band are pointed out, but we do allow for someone to be incredibly offended at the suggestion that their belief is rubbish (or indeed that they chose the wrong denomination?!), so we tend to pussy foot around the issue, thus putting religion beyond reproach (except behind closed doors) and affording it false status in doing so.

    1. Perfect analogy Dear Boy, I can't think of any other subject where criticism is so totally taboo !
      This attitude really does leave those without adequate education at the 'mercy' of self-serving religious fanatics - Whether they represent a major religion or a cult.

  4. Ethical dilemma to say the least ...... ! Will be interesting to hear about the relationships you will build and the trust you will inspire, to see just how far that goes......... A challenge you're definitely fit for, and one I'm sure will be extremely tough, yet extremely rewarding. It's important work you're doing there, that's for sure, Di x x x x x