The monk emerges. He has an ivy bush of scar tissue running along his neck. He looks at me, raises a fist to his lips and coughs a smoker's cough.
"The Buddha never said we couldn't smoke," he once said.
I kneel on the polished stone tile floor and he sits on a throne-like chair. Outside, a clergyman's incantation resounds from dusty, crackling speakers. The temple consists of two large halls - one housing an appropriately enormous Buddha statue - a dining hall and the head monk's gaudy mansion. It is surrounded by palm groves.
After bowing three times I hand him a packet of Pepperidge Farm cookies. Granted, it's an unusual gift but I know he likes "foreign cakes" because, for most of 2013, I lived at his temple in Baray village, Takeo province, in southwest Cambodia. I came as a volunteer but when the NGO I was working for folded, I stayed on alone, teaching English to the monks.
These days I live in Phnom Penh but, like my Cambodian friends, I return to my "home village" on festival days, such as Pchum Ben. Every time I return, I pay my respects to the head monk with American baked goods.
Pchum Ben is also known as "Bhjum Pinda", which means "the gathering of the rice balls", according to Erik W. Davis, associate professor of religious studies at Macalester College, in St Paul, in the United States. Cambodians believe that, during the fortnight of the festival, ghosts are allowed to roam the lands of the living, so rice balls and cakes are made and offered to the dead relatives. The 15th and final day of the festival, Pchum Ben Day (it was October 13 this year), marks the start of a two-day public holiday in Cambodia.
Pchum Ben, the second most important festival on the Khmer calendar, bears some similarities to the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Cambodians believe that hungry ghosts exist on a savage plane where the sun rises only to scorch the moaning souls as they rub their grossly distended bellies. Their mouths are pinholes so they can never satisfy their need. By feeding them during Pchum Ben, Cambodians hope to transform their hungry ancestors into benevolent spirits who will bless their rice fields.
When I arrive there is little evidence of a hellish menagerie floating in between the hovels of Baray village. The lotus-studded lake has been excavated to create an ugly but essential reservoir, the dirt roads are mercifully intact after the downpours of the rainy season and emerald rice fields stretch away in all directions, framed by palm trees.
The monk puts the cookies to one side and intones a chant that confirms my gift has created "good merit".
"By receiving gifts from the faithful [the monks] can then dedicate this merit to the dead," says Davis. Merit allows ghosts to "level up" like a mushroom-fed Mario. They are given a new body and return as smiling deities to bless the living. Farmer Supon's house is decorated with creepy paper dolls that flap in the breeze created by a rattling fan. They are hanging from wires above a feast of shiny grapes, freshly killed chicken and "num Pchum Ben": phallic-shaped rice cakes that experts believe are relics of earlier fertility festivals.
Supon, a muscular man, gathers with his wife, brother-in-law and elder relatives around the offering. They press their hands together and erupt in a chant that fills the soft wooden room. The sound is incoherent and everyone seems to be saying something different. There is a feverish quality to the act, as if, for a moment, they are touched by ancient hysterias.
"We were praying to our ancestors to accept the food," Supon explains later.
On Pchum Ben Day, families visit up to seven pagodas in the morning, paying particular attention to temples in which the ashes of ancestors are kept in stupas. They pay respects to those ancestors by chanting and later share food in a communal hall.
The festival's roots are old but not quite ancient. The earliest reference to Pchum Ben is carved onto the stone of an "enormous, now dry, reservoir to the east of the ancient city now called Angkor Dham", according to Davis. "King Yasovarman built the [reservoir] around AD900, and inscribed the wall with references to [Pchum Ben]."
The festival was revived in the mid-19th century by King Ang Duong (ruled 1840 to 1860). The new celebration was influenced by a number of cultural sources, including Chinese Buddhism, according to Davis.
That night is spent on an overly soft mattress on the floor of Supon's wooden home - a single room on concrete stilts about the size of a small hall. His extended family lay sprawled on bamboo mats. Below us, a rooster starts crowing long before dawn.
I awake in time to see Supon's father-in-law snatch up the paper ghosts and attach them to a small wooden boat laden with portions of food and 100 riel (20 HK cents) notes. His journey is a solo one, from the family home, through tree-enclosed meadows out into the vastness of the rice fields. Finding his own field, he kneels slowly and releases the ghost boat into the sky-reflecting water.
He stands up and smiles. With any luck, the ghosts are smiling, too.
Getting there: several airlines fly from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh, from where Baray is a two-hour drive south. A taxi from the Cambodian capital costs about US$40.