Cambodia's Festival of the Dead enjoys surge in popularity

Carrying three sticks of incense and a burning yellow candle, Cambodian Chan Sokrath tosses sticky rice balls to the roaming spirits of her dead ancestors as saffron-wrapped monks chant ahead of dawn.

The 20-year-old student is among hordes of young Cambodian Buddhists turning out in force at pagodas in Phnom Penh to celebrate the annual Festival of the Dead, or Pchum Ben, as the 15-day event enjoys a surge in popularity.

During the uniquely Cambodian festival which ends Wednesday, people visit pagodas to toss special sticky rice balls as offerings to their dead ancestors to ensure their own prosperity in the year ahead.

This is the first time Sokrath has completed the full festival ritual, arriving in the early hours of the morning to make three loops around the temple, crammed with hundreds of other devotees.

"The feeling of throwing the rice into the air, it really makes me feel different -- like I'm releasing my worries and the stress of my study and other things. It's a good feeling," she said.

Afterwards, she and a dozen friends were to join the throng building miniature mountains of sand and rice they would decorate with paper cutouts to represent the spirits, hoping to ensure a long life blessed by prosperity.

The elderly have always dutifully marked the festival, but the young have long seen the period as just another holiday -- until recently, says Him Tat, a 63-year-old nun taken aback by its resurgence.

"The young didn't care much about this tradition before but over the past four years I have started to see a change that's hard to believe," she said at Monkolvan pagoda, a typical temple on Phnom Penh's outskirts.

"It's a big change. These young now come to the pagoda to join in the procession and throw 'bay ben' to the dead during their three circumnavigations of the temple in the early hours of the morning."

Bay ben is a mixture of sticky rice, black beans, sesame and coconut milk.

"They also stay for a long time in the pagoda, listening to the monks preaching," says the thrilled nun.

Cambodia's Buddhist institutions are still recovering after the devastation wrought by the genocidal 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which left up to two million people dead from starvation, overwork, disease and execution.

The fanatical ultra-Maoists headed by the tyrant Pol Pot ruthlessly abolished religion, along with property rights and money as they pursued their futile dream of an agrarian utopia.

Ven Khy Sovanratana, a professor at Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University, says the festival dates back centuries to the period when the world-renowned Angkor Wat temple complex was built.

While it is also celebrated in mainland China and Taiwan, the professor says that in Cambodia, and a few areas across the kingdom's border with Thailand, it is more complex and runs for longer.

He believes the refreshed interest in the festival, a blend of Buddhist, Hindu and animist beliefs, is a result of young Cambodians tapping into their own traditions after being bombarded by western culture.

"They seem to realise that they should not allow the globalisation of culture to destroy the nation's own cultural identity."

Regular devotee Pik Bunratana, a 21-year-old student, says he has noticed more and more young people attending.

"I am concerned though that not all of them really know the ritual. Some of them just throw the sticky rice balls all over the temple grounds, making it so messy," he complained.

The balls are only supposed to be thrown in eight compass point directions.

However, he's pleased that more people are interested in learning about Cambodia's traditions.

"Though I've sacrificed my shirt and T-shirt, which got burned twice from the incense -- too many people, I think," he said, shaking his head and laughing as the crowd elbowed past.