When the Gates of Hell Open

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Every year in Cambodia, the gates of hell open for 15 days. The spirits of the dead come out, and they’re hungry.

During this festival, called Pchum Ben, Cambodians offer the spirits sticky rice and fruit to satiate them. One morning, I join some locals at a pagoda in Battambang, a small city 250 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh.

Dead spirits do not like sunlight, so the ceremony to feed them takes place before dawn. It’s 4:30 a.m. when Untac meets me at my house. He shakes his head at the oranges and mangosteens I bought; everyone knows spirits can’t peel fruit. Fortunately monks can, so they will be able to take my offering.

We bike to the pagoda, the air cool and heavy around us. When we arrive, Untac buys two plates of sticky rice, the rice arranged around a candle in the middle of each plate. Now we fit into the crowd, all wearing white shirts and holding a plate of rice.

Untac explains that spirits are sent to “the bad place” based on the state in which they die. If a person dies while they are angry or suffering, they go to hell. This belief makes the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, only a few decades removed, even more heinous. Death does not provide relief for their victims, whose suffering passes from this life to the next.

We kneel in front of the temple to listen to the monks’ chants, broadcast to us through loudspeakers, and then we rise to circle the temple silently. Candles glow on everyone’s faces, making it feel like a vigil. We stop periodically to place balls of rice into large dishes, and after three trips around the temple, our rice is gone. People leave to go home and make a large meal with their families.

Free from family obligations, Untac and I instead go to the abandoned airport to sit on the tarmac and watch the sun make its slow ascent. We didn’t give our fruit to the monks, but Untac shrugs this off. He doesn’t think much of the monks at that pagoda, who stayed hidden in the temple for the entire ceremony.

Where we began the morning feeding dead spirits, we end it feeding live ones. We toss orange peels beside us and bite into the oranges’ flesh. We break into the purple shells of the mangosteens and discard the ones that have gone bad alongside the orange peels. As we hop onto our bikes and cycle away, I wonder if any of the dead spirits have braved the daylight to pick through the orange peels in search of the discarded mangosteens.

They may be overripe, but I’m not sure how particular the spirits are. After all, in a few days the gates of hell will close, and it will be another year before the spirits’ descendants will kneel at a pagoda offering them rice, candles dimly illuminating the scene.

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