*Many of the centuries-old practices depicted and described herein will be identical to those from last year’s post – perhaps without as much of the childlike obliviousness and wonder but with more splendid footage and overall depiction, especially of the more modern activities.
I invite you to once again recall the excitement of an approaching state fair or circus for all its color, sounds, and treats. This year as last, the village capped off Kathen season in style. Most communities host both traditional as well as modern activities to attract the aged and the young alike, though many a Khmer-granny will bob in earnest to electronic dance music and most grandkids will jump at the chance to help march with weighty offerings. The village swells with voices and music during Kathen as city-dwelling relatives drain from offices and schools to reunite with family in the countryside for fun from sun-up to sun-down.
Described as something roughly equivalent to the end of “Buddhist Lent,” Bon Kathen is meant to signify the end of wet season during which monks were traditionally prohibited from leaving their home pagodas. Although the actual span of the season has shifted somewhat in recent years due to climate change and the exact dates depend on the Khmer Lunar Calendar, the beginning of the rainy months begin in July/August with the celebration of Bon Johl Vosaa (“festival of entering the rainy season”) and end with Bon Kathen in October. The belief is that Buddha himself began the tradition of Bon Kathen to create an occasion for community members to garner merit with the local monks by donating supplies and fresh robes, all of which likely became depleted during their muddy, pagoda-bound months. While monks are now permitted to travel beyond the pagoda during the day so long as they return to sleep in their own bunk at night, rain still begets mud begets filthy robes begets monks plenty receptive of gifts. During a period of two weeks each of Cambodia’s 3,000+ pagodas will take turns on the commune-level to host their own Kathen festivities. On the day of a village’s Kathen, a traditional parade or “March of Kathen” will proceed through the residential streets and end at the pagoda where they will circle the community hall thrice and then climb the steps to be received by the waiting monks. A jai-yamm band and various performers can be rented to attract donors and lead the march of community members through town with glinting gifts in tow.
Another celebrated facet of Kathen is the aggressive effort made on the part of each household to force-feed their loved ones, acquaintances, and complete strangers until the brink of death by curried noodle. The famed dish for Kathen is soft Khmer rice noodles called num banchok (literally “the cake that feeds”) mixed with a litany of Cambodian veggies, flowers, and herbs and made to swim in fresh coconut curry broth with cuts of duck or fish. With more developed skill in the realm of polite-decline and no ambition to best last year’s curry record (12 plates in one day), I managed this year to impose myself in Yaay’s kitchen and become more familiar with the labor of curry love. Yaay, her daughter, granddaughter, and I each adopted tasks from picking blossoms and tender mint leaves off the stem, kneading shredded coconut with water to create coconut milk, and mashing up turmeric, ginger, rehydrated paprika peppers, etc. The special noodles are produced in most provincial towns and delivered throughout the countryside from the back of motos as families (read: women) prepare their broth and fixings, each broth differing slightly in consistency and complexity of flavor but delicious to all.
As most victims suffer politely through their ump-teenth bowl of noodles, preparations for nighttime activities at the pagoda are made complete. Many community members in both the village hosting Kathen and those surrounding it will have been made aware of the various attractions at this year’s carnival – an outdoor movie screening, carousels and bouncy castles, trampolines, pop-up dance clubs, and every treat you can imagine. Some will attend the sermons being held in the sala chan (“hall where the monks eat”; community hall) but most only long enough to satisfy grandma and the ancestors beyond, for there is fun to be had on the ground.
The good-times roll on through the night and into the following morning as Kathen begins to draw to a close. This is often when visiting relatives, especially the elderly, will head over to make their donations and partake in communal “welcome rice.” Officiating priests and uncles will receive donors who will then have their names and the amount or nature of their donation announced over the loudspeaker so that your ancestors and neighbors alike can know of your unrivaled generosity.
Grampa, I hope you can convince Aunt Teresa, dad, or any youngin’ with a smart phone to share these videos with you, as I know your printed copies don’t serve as a proper video-medium. Though we have no monks to which you can donate I know you to be a dedicated chalky-chocolate-bar-fundraiser patron as well as a boycotter of franchises who infringe on their workers’ rights (looking at YOU, Hobby Lobby), thus I am not terribly concerned for your overall karma for lack of a Kathen-equivalent back home. May you enjoy some residual merriment from the safe perch of your couch, leagues away from the curried gastric onslaught which has destroyed us all over here.
Love you all the time,