At the moment, Cambodia is in the midst of Pchum Ben. This is a fifteen day festival that leads up to Pchum Ben day or Ancestor Day.
During Pchum Ben, the gates of hell are opened temporarily. If, in life, the person accumulated a lot of bad karma, or died a violent or unexpected death, they would end up in hell. This is the time of year when they wonder the earth. Some of the ghosts may escape purgatory and their suffering will stop or some may have to return for another year of punishment. When the ghosts are freed, they tend to be a bit hungry (having had a diet of blood and pus for the rest of the year). Therefore, this is an opportunity for the ghosts to eat.
There is no way for the living to tell if any of your deceased relatives from up to seven generations before made it to heaven or to hell, so in order to hedge your bets you offer food anyway (especially as many people had relatives die during the Khmer Rouge). At about 4 am, everyone wakes up, makes rice-balls and offers it to their deceased relatives (either by taking it to a local Wat or throwing them in fields). If you are particularly devout, you will visit up to seven different Wats in this period.
By helping your dead condemned relatives, you earn merit, which will hopefully prevent you from finding yourself in hell. If you don’t do it, angry ancestors will curse you. Also, by giving food to be eaten by monks or the poor, you can earn merit as well.
Throughout the two weeks, the monks chant prayers throughout the night and then they perform rituals, receiving the offerings of food, money and clothes.
Then, the country closes down for a four day national holiday. Everyone returns to their hometowns and celebrate with their families. From what I’ve gathered from my Khmer friend, this involves a lot of food and drink.
This is a very simplified version of the festival and beliefs. A quick Google will tell you more from more informed people than myself. It’s interesting because this festival predates the arrival of Buddhism so is very ancient, hence why it has some animist elements in it as well.
I am a bit concerned about how much will be open of the next few days but I am grateful for an opportunity to rest from language learning. Although it’s the only thing I’m really doing, it is very mentally draining. I’ve reached a point where my mind seems saturated, so hopefully the break will enable me to learn more efficiently during the last two weeks I’m at the school.