Volunteer Experience: Prue, Ally, and Jonny spend Pchum Ben festival with Chiva and his family, in Kompong Cham province.
Pchum Ben, the religious ‘Ancestors’ Day’ festival is one of the pinnacle celebrations of the year for Khmer people. Phnom Penh empties as its inhabitants clog the major roads to head back to their “homeland’s”- villages spread across Cambodia’s 25 provinces. When Chiva, an employee of the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) invited myself, and fellow volunteers Ally and Jonny to join this exodus and spend the holiday with his family in his village in Kampong Cham Province, we naturally jumped at the chance. The opportunity to celebrate cultural holidays within a local context is a rare gift and one we weren’t going to pass up.
However, despite our excitement to be included in the local celebrations, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the epic adventure we were about to undertake. We had only a few clues as to how the next few days would unfold – we would stay around three days and we would live with Chiva’s family. How to pack for this, how much money to bring and what supplies we would have access too remained a mystery, but that’s usually half the fun, right?! So off we went, with open minds and a fairly entrenched sense of confusion that was to last the entire trip.
We got a ride with local drivers down dirt roads, past vibrant green rice paddies and into Chiva’s village. Whilst we didn’t know what to expect, the village was a fairly typical representation of how most rural Cambodian’s live, with a local school, several Pagodas, a volleyball net, wooden stilt houses and a wandering assortment of water buffalo, cows, dogs and chickens. We were taken to his family’s land, a large area spanning one of the village’s main roads, including a shop and a small restaurant. Here, we were introduced to our new village family, a large group including grandmother and grandfather, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and what seemed to be random ring-ins! The nuances of this are something I’m still trying to figure out, but one thing was apparent immediately and it was the sense of community and familial bond they all have with one another, regardless of their position in the family.
Immediately, we were asked to sit down, given cold water and a meal of fried noodles. It was clear very quickly that English was a limited commodity in the village and whilst Jonny has a better command of Khmer than Ally or myself, conversation certainly wasn’t flowing. However, rather than being awkward, we all sat around grinning at one another, their kindness and welcoming nature shining through regardless. From that moment, we had been adopted into their family unit, a position we were lucky enough to occupy for the next three days.
The only holiday at home I could compare Pchum Ben with would be an extended Christmas, where everyone travels to be with their family and celebrates together at home. We rose at 5am on our first morning to attend the Pagoda, where the local Khmer made offerings to the Monks and prayed for their deceased ancestors. With that completed, the celebrations really kicked off. For three days, people share meals and drinks, catching up with people they grew up with, but haven’t seen in months or years. A lot of younger people that had returned to the village are factory workers in Thailand now, so the chance to come home and reunite with family and friends enhances the celebratory excitement of the festival.
Our Pchum Ben experience included cheering super competitive volleyball games, sharing endless meals and snacks with a constant flow of local characters, swimming with lotus in a flooded field (and pretending not to think about snakes!), singing Bruno Mars and Enrique Iglesias on the back of motorbikes, rapping 90’s music at a dinner party, lots of Khmer karaoke, just one beer (okay, maybe two), playing with puppies, going to a ridiculous number of parties with the biggest sound systems ever, dancing in circles, being filmed and photographed constantly and so many other wonderful, odd and crazy moments! It was an experience I will always struggle to put into words and I am very grateful to have had Ally and Jonny to laugh through it with and share the memories with after!
It always amazes me how easy it is to fall in love with new people, and not be able to imagine your life without them when days before, you didn’t know they even existed. Saying goodbye to our village family definitely drove this home. Their kind hearts and generosity towards us, random foreigners who had stumbled into their village, was humbling and heartwarming. They housed us in their best bedroom, fed us their best food and graced us with welcoming and encouraging smiles every time we wandered out looking unsure. Whilst Chiva’s family certainly wasn’t the poorest, their wealth was comparatively little to what we experience at home and yet they were constantly giving to us and expecting nothing in return. All I can say is how profoundly this touched all three of us and how much affection and gratitude we feel towards every single person we were encountered. Particularly, to Chiva, thank you for opening you home to us. I hope you know just how lucky we feel for this adventure we will certainly not forget anytime soon!