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A Taste of Cambodian Culture

Attending a Buddhist Remembrance Ceremony

Cambodian Buddhist monks in red garb worshipping at a temple with in from a reclining red female statue.
Cambodian Buddhist monks in garb worshipping at a temple.

Time no longer has any meaning. It feels like I’ve been sitting here for days. Kneeling. My legs awkwardly cocked out to the side, hands pressed together in front of me praying. The screaming pain in my knees has long ago drowned out the sound of the monks chanting with their melodic singsong intonation. This position is unnatural to my western body to say the least.

I am at a Cambodian remembrance ceremony called “Taaykeetna Nupatien” to honor and pray for the deceased. I’ve been invited by a good friend of mine to experience a true Cambodian cultural event. Unlike many other religions’ day of remembrance, this is not an annual ritual or even regularly scheduled, but rather what a family does when they have the money to put together an elaborate event. Looking around, I understand why. It seems as if the whole town has been invited. Throughout the two-day ceremony, at least 500 people came and went.

Cambodian Buddhist prayer ceremony with worshippers on their knees before a priest inside a temple.
Cambodian Buddhist prayer ceremony inside a temple.

A Ride in Cambodia is an Adventure

The adventure started two days ago in the capital of Phnom Penh where I was jam-packed into a rented minivan along with ten other adults and five screaming children. Thankfully, we only had 45km (27 miles) to go and it didn’t take much more than an hour to reach our destination. The highlight of the ride being when the 4-year-old sitting next to me look at me groggily for a moment before vomiting on my leg. Good times, eh?

A Cambodian road trip generally consists of multiple stops to purchase fruit, snacks, and drinks. We must have stopped at least four times along the way on our short little journey. Sometimes I think Cambodians might keel over and die of starvation if they don’t eat every hour. It certainly makes me wonder just how they stay so skinny. Talk about a quick metabolism.

Arriving at our destination, a small, middle-of-nowhere town named Banteay; we pile out of the minivan and are welcomed by my friend’s aunt and uncle who live there. At first, they seem mildly taken aback to see me, but they overcome their surprise instantly and I am warmly welcomed. “Chum reap soua,” I say in the traditional greeting of respect when meeting elders in Cambodia or in times of formality. Other than my friend and a couple of his relatives who came with us from Phnom Penh, there are no English speakers here. My Khmer lessons are paying off handsomely as the family living in the area is delighted I can communicate with them; albeit in basic sentences akin to what you might expect from an eight-year-old.

After a lot of greetings and smiles, we are lead into the basic 2-story wooden structure where we will all be staying for the next two nights. Picture 20 people sleeping on large woven mats spread out on the hard wooden floor with multiple mosquito nets strung up around the room. Welcome to the Banteay Hilton. Luckily, it’s the rainy season and there was a nice breeze blowing of the rice fields throughout the night keeping us cool.

With not a lot of time to spare, as the ceremony will be starting in just over an hour and a half, everybody busies himself or herself with getting dressed and ready to go. The men all looking similar in basic white t-shirts and black or grey pants. The women elaborately dressed in beautiful, traditional, silk skirts with elaborate, hand-made, white tops; hair painstakingly bundled up into intricate braids or buns.

It’s not long before it’s time to cram back into the minivan, with a few new passengers, for the short ride to the temple. Upon arrival, I can see about twenty women gathered in a large group, gossiping, and all helping to prepare the afternoon’s meal. What’s that saying about it taking a village? Well this is living proof. There are no catering companies here. Everybody pitches in to help.

The Meal before the Ceremony

The temple complex is beautiful. Sprawling out with multiple buildings all exquisitely decorated and well maintained by the monks. About 20 or more tables have been set up under a large, covered area and a number of people are already eating.

Cambodia Buddhist statue.
Cambodian Buddhist statue.

Worshippers dining before a Cambodian Buddhist ceremony.
Worshippers dining before a Cambodian Buddhist ceremony.

Something you’ll notice about Cambodian events is that there is generally no set schedule for anything. People arrive, eat, and leave at random times. Whether it’s a wedding, remembrance ceremony, or any type of event; you’ll usually feel as if you arrived late because there will always be a number guest already halfway through their meal.

Sitting down at one of the large round tables, food is immediately placed in front of us. Lunch today is a traditional dish called curry noum bun jock; basically vermicelli rice noodles you sprinkle with a mix of chopped herbs and cucumbers, then ladle a few spoonfuls of red curry sauce over the top of it all. The dish is enjoyed at room temperature, and the exotic mix of herbs and fragrant curry give it a wonderful flavor.

A sample Cambodian meal with a large fish and side dishes of noodles with vegetables and red curry sauce.
A sample Cambodian meal with a large fish and side dishes of noodles with vegetables and red curry sauce.

Ceremonial Prayers and Rituals in the Temple

After we’ve eaten our full, we head into the temple to join others already inside praying. Monks are sitting lined up near the wall of the temple chanting. A hundred guests responding in equally singsong intoned voices chanting harmoniously, following the lead of the monks as they alternate turns. After praying for roughly thirty minutes or so facing the direction of the Buddha statue, everybody shifts position to face the monks and the chanting continues. This process is repeated a couple of times.

Cambodian Buddhist monks chanting during a ceremony.
Cambodian Buddhist monks chanting during a ceremony.

Periodically throughout the ceremony, an ancient looking man dips a bundle of leaves into holy water and splatters the assembled crowd with it. At one point, the monks grab handfuls of sweet-smelling jasmine flowers and toss them over the guests. No matter your religious beliefs or lack thereof, it’s hard not to feel awed by the ceremony and the conviction of the believers surrounding you. I find myself lost in the moment praying fervently with the rest for their ancestors to be reborn into a good life, as reincarnation is central to Buddhists belief. If you were a bad person, Buddhists believe that you will be at best reborn as an animal of some type.

Cambodian Buddhist worshippers praying during a ceremony.
Cambodian Buddhist worshippers praying during a ceremony.

Buddhist teens in orange walking on carpets during a ceremony.
Buddhist teens during a ceremony.

After the Remembrance Ceremony

When the chanting comes to an end, I try to stand and almost lose my balance as my knees seem incapable of supporting me. Slowly I try to stretch them out to return some feeling to my feet and ease the pain a bit. I ponder how the older guests can remain kneeling like this so long. I can only assume that, having done it from the time they were young, their bodies’ have grown accustomed to the awkward angles in which their legs are splayed.

After about an hour of socializing with the assembled guests, it’s time to head back to the house to relax; some of us sitting on the floor, others finding a spot on a large, baroque table about the height and size of a king-sized mattress, while the eldest sits in the lone chair the house has to offer. The evening is spent with the whole family gathered around chatting and eating. As the night grows later, the woman and children slowly disperse upstairs; the kids playing games and the women gossiping. A bottle of Chivas Regal scotch is brought out along with a deck of cards. The ensuing drinking and gambling continues late into the night until we are finally chastised by the women for being too rowdy.

Up early at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, it’s off to the temple to start the ritual all over again.   

Brett Dvoretz

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