July 30, 2016
San Don Ta Festival
A beautiful tradition that embodies the people of the region, their centuries of contact with their Cambodian neighbours and a time to remember those lost in the Killing Fields
When: 30 September – 1 October 2016 (19-21 Sept 2017).
Where: Phraya Krai Phakdi Sinakorn Lamduan Park in Khu Khan District, Si Sa Ket Province Eastern Thailand
The San Don Ta Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 10th month, of the Khmer lunar calendar, with celebrations spilling over to the day before and after.
The province contains many Khmer ruins, which show it must have been important to the Khmer empire at least by the 12th century, move on a century or two and present day Si Sa Ket is now home to a diverse mix of Thai ethnic culture, language and traditions and is a melting pot of people from China, Cambodia and Laos, including the ancient Kuy, Pearic and Mon people.
The two day festival of San Don Ta is a time when the Khmer descendants of this province, pay homage to their dead ancestors; in the 2000 census it was reported that 26.2% of the population are capable of speaking Khmer. This is down from the 1990 census when it was reported that 30.2% of the population were capable of speaking the same ancient language. While the majority of people in the province speak Lao.
The importance of the festival to the Khmer People
The Festival is known as ‘Ancestors’ Day (Pchum Ben)’ or the Khmer Festival of the Dead, in neighbouring Cambodia. This annual event is actually the culmination of a fifteen-day observance called Dak Ben. Throughout which Khmer people, are encouraged to visit at least seven pagodas, to make offerings to dead ancestors and light candles, which are there to guide the spirits of the dead to these offerings.
The first fourteen days are called Kan Ben (“observed celebration”); the 15th day is called Brochum Ben or Pchum Ben Day. During Kan Ben, people give Buddhist monks gifts of food and candles. At night Buddhist monks recite a protective prayer; it is possibly the biggest annual event on the Khmer calendar
Observant Khmers, will also throw a sesame-rice mixture onto temple grounds, called Bai Ben, which is left for lost souls or those who have no relatives alive to send them offerings. This observance helps feed the spirits, of the ancestors who roam the world on Pchum Ben and are consequently, hungry from not having eaten all year.
The 15th and final day is possibly the most important and is centered around those souls, who may have bad karma while they were alive, or ‘Priad spirits’, as this is the only day that they may receive offerings. It is said that they could benefit from the good karma going around during the previous 14 days. Priad spirits are afraid of light and will only make connect with their living relatives during the darkest day of this lunar cycle, the day of Pchum Ben.
Death and Buddhism
The Khmer, (as do most Buddhists in Thailand), believe that after death they become ghosts, whose earthly actions shape their appearance and that they walk the earth at this time. According to Khmer belief, people who do not follow the practices of Pchum Ben will be cursed by angry ancestors. People also make offerings of money and other essential items to the monks in the temples; this meritorious act is one of the oldest and most common rituals of Buddhism.
There are four kinds of ghosts: those eating pus and blood, others who known as burning ghosts who are always hot, hungry ghosts and lastly the Pakrakteaktopak Chivi, who can receive food through the monks.
“Hungry ghost” is one of the six modes of existence in the ‘Wheel of Life’. Hungry ghosts or ‘Preta’ which means ‘departed ones’ in Sanskrit, are pitiable creatures with huge, empty stomachs and pinhole mouths; their necks are so thin they cannot swallow, so they remain hungry. It is believed that beings are reborn as hungry ghosts because of their greed, envy and jealousy in their prior life.
A reminder of the killing Fields
This Cambodian National holiday is especially poignant for the descendants of those killed by the Khmer Rouge, who pray at pagodas that house unidentified remains from those dark days.
San Don Ta Festivities
The event includes the ancestor- offering parade, featuring people in their finest individual traditional attire, accompanied by traditional (some would call Isan) music. There are also a number of contests, demonstrations and folk art performances and of course a huge range of local food, drink and handicrafts to feast upon.
Some traditional favourite Khmer foods for Phcum Ben:
- Nom ansom chreuk – a delicious savory sticky rice dish wrapped in banana leaves with assorted fillings. ‘Chreuk‘ is with pork.
- Nom ansom cheik – also a delicious sticky rice dish wrapped in banana leaves. This one is sweet and filled with bananas.
- Nom kom – a tasty sticky rice and bean dish, wrapped in banana leaves with either sweet or savory fillings
- Nom kmei – similar to nom kom, but with filled with grated coconut and palm sugar
- Amok – a traditional and hugely popular fish dish steamed in banana leafs with a variety of mixed spices and herbs
- Bai ben – sticky rice molded into balls with sesame seeds
Similarity with other festivals in Thailand
This event has a number of similarities to other festivals held around the Kingdom in August and September, they are The Festival of the Tenth Lunar Month, which is mainly a southern festival, the biggest held in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Southern Thailand.
The Por Tor Festival or ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’, which has its roots in Chinese folk lore and is held annually across Thailand. The Tiggkrahad ritual is also similar to the purely Thai event; Festival of Offerings to the Dead (Sart Day วันสาทรไทย), which is held all over the Kingdom, around the same time.
There are also a number of uniquely ethnic festivals that also contain the same principles of praying to dead relatives they include the Mon people who celebrate, The Mon Floating Boat Festival and their neighbours in Kanchanaburi, the Karen people who have their festival of Khao Ho or Ang Mi Thong.
Reincarnation is deeply rooted in Buddhist culture, and Pchum Ben is a time of reunion, remembrance and celebration, it is when families have the opportunity to show appreciation for one’s ancestors and demonstrate their love for them. The offerings of food and good karma is there to aid lost souls and guide them back into the cycle of reincarnation.
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