Chinese New Year, or Chinese Spring Festival as some call it, is not one of the official holidays in Cambodia but it is still one of the most celebrated festivals during the year. The Festival is mostly celebrated by Cambodians with Chinese descent and ethnic Vietnamese but many Cambodians and other foreigners living in Cambodia will also join some parts of the celebration even though they do not have any relation to it.
In 2014 the New Chinese Year will start on the 31st of January and will be celebrated for 12 days ending with Lantern Festival. This year the year of the Snake will come to an end and the Year of the Horse begins.
Many of the Cambodians with Chinese descent work with commerce, having their own shop or stand at the market, so during Chinese New Year you will notices that a lot of shops and businesses in Phnom Penh are closed during this period.
The days before the New Year people are busy with cleaning and decorating their house with “Good Wish” banners in red, hanging couplets on their walls and preparing festive displays for offerings. They are also preparing food and buying presents and new clothes.
The Chinese New Year is a holiday that is celebrated with family so some people will return to their birth place in the country side of Cambodia to celebrate with their families, grandparents or friends. But you will still be able to spot quite a few traditional “Lion and Dragon dancers” performing on the streets in front of someone’s house or businesses across Phnom Penh for several days around New Years Day. And hear people say “Gong Xi Fa Cai!” to each other, which means “Happy New Year” in Chinese.
On the night of New Year’s Eve people gather at the pagodas to make offerings. Wat Phnom is one of the busiest and most popular pagoda in Phnom Penh, especially on New Years Eve at midnight.
People flock to buy yellow-flowering bushes called Angkea Sel. They believe that if the trees blossom during the first three days of the New Year, the year will bring good fortune.
Cambodia has 26 days of public holidays per year and during these days most schools, local companies and administrative authorities are closed. Most schools and local companies work Monday to Saturday but Saturday is only a half day. The administrative authorities on the other hand are only open Monday to Friday and if any of the Public Holidays occur during the weekend they will have holiday on the Monday after instead. The two most important holidays during the year are Khmer New Year in April and Pchum Ben in end of September or beginning of October. These holidays are normally celebrated with family at home and at the local pagoda. The biggest festival is theWater Festival that take place in November, this festival is celebrated on the streets near the river in Phnom Penh.
To have 26 days of public holidays can seem a lot if you compare it to the average of 10 days that the Western countries have, but in Cambodia most local companies do not offer their employees any vacation in excess of the public holidays. Many of the western founded companies and organizations operating in Cambodia will not follow all the public holidays instead they make a mix of the most important Cambodian and Western Holidays and then offer vacation on top of that. For example some western founded companies in Phnom Penh that we have talked to have chosen to have holidays during International New Year (1 January), Khmer New Year (13-15 April), Pchum Ben (14-16 October), Water Festival (27-29 November) and Christmas Day (25 December).
In excess to the Cambodian Holidays some Cambodians with Chinese origin also celebrate Chinese New Year (23-25 January), Qingming Festival (2-4 April) and Mid-autumn Festival (30 September), and might want to have vacation during these holidays.
Cambodia also have a Muslim minority that celebrate the Islamic holidays, the two biggest holidays for Cambodian Muslims are Eid-Ul-Fitr (End of Ramadan, 19 August) and Eid-Ul-Adha (Festival of sacrifice, 26 October).
Victory over Genocide Day (National Holiday Day) is celebrated on January 7th of every year in Cambodia. The Victory over Genocide Day commemorates the Vietnamese assault on Cambodia which brought an end to the Khmer Rouge’s bloody regime. From 1975 to 1979 Cambodia suffered from one of the most brutal murderous ultra-communist regimes under the government of the Democratic Kampuchea. Under the Khmer Rouge or red Khmers, almost two million Cambodians or a fourth of the country’s population died by arbitrary execution, starvation, exhaustion from overwork in labor camp, and untreated illnesses. The plan was to turn Cambodia back to Year Zero where the country will turn into large agricultural communes. Laborers were forced to work in labor camps from five in the morning well into the night, for 12 to 14 hours a day. On January 7, 1979, commemorates the end of the Khmer Rouge regime and get the freedom.
Khmer New Year is the greatest traditional festival and national holiday in Cambodia, and the celebration last for three days.
Khmer New year starts on April the 13th, 14th or 15th depending on the ancient horoscope “Maha Sangkran”. The majority of the Cambodians are still farmers and they work with sowing, maintaining and harvesting their rice and fruit fields all year long except in April when it is too hot and dry. Therefore, the farmers rest during April and celebrate the New Year.
The first day is called “Maha Sangkran”, Sangkran means movement and refers to that the sun is moving into a new Zodiac sign and Maha means great. Some say that Maha Sangkran means welcome to the new spirits. In the morning the Cambodians will go to the temple and offer food to the monks and receive blessings. During this time the Cambodians clean and decorate their homes and prepare fruits and drinks on a table or in their spirit house to welcome the new spirits. Elderly people like to meditate or pray the Dharma because they believe that any spirit that comes to their home will stay with them throughout the whole year and take care of their family.
The second day is called “Wanabot” and it is the day that they offer gifts to parents, grandparents and elders. In the evening of this day many Cambodians will go to the temple and build a mountain of sand to remember their ancestors who have passed away and have the monks give them blessings of happiness and peace.
The third day is called “Leung Sakk” and this is the first day of the new year. In the morning the Cambodians go to the temple and perform a ceremony where the mountain of sand gets blessed. The last ceremony is called “Pithi Srang Preah” and the purpose of this ceremony is to honor and to give a special cleansing to Buddha Statues, the monks, elders, grandparents and parents. During this ceremony the participators apologize for any mistakes they have made during the last year.
The Khmer New Year is not only a great festival it is also an opportunity to pass on the Cambodian traditions to the next generation.
The Water Festival is the most festive festival in Cambodia, people from all over the country gather in Phnom Penh to see the boat race, the illuminated boats and the fireworks. The city is filled with people, food stands and live concerts.
The celebrations of the water festival dates back to the 12th century and was from the beginning a celebration to honor King Jayavarman VII and his marine army who defeated the Cham people. The Cham people are a Muslim ethnic group in Southeast Asia and they had occupied Angkor in 1177.
Today the Water Festival also marks the remarkable natural phenomenon of the reversal of the current of the Tonle Sap River and the start of the dry season. During the rainy season the Tonle Sap River floats north to the Tonle Sap Lake and during the dry season Tonle Sap River floats south and joins with the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.
The Water Festival is a 3-day long festival that occurs in November. All three days there will be boat races on the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh with colorfully decorated boats that hold 40 rowers. The final of the boat race will be held in the afternoon of the last day.
During the Water Festival the Cambodians also celebrate the 12th lunar month full moon by lighting lanterns containing offerings with flowers incense sticks and candles and let them float on the river. They will make their wishes before releasing the lantern and it is believed that sincere praying could become true. The biggest lantern is the Royal Lantern which will be released at the riverside in front of the Royal Palace exactly at 12 midnight of the full moon night.
At night time there will be a lot of fireworks that the Cambodian Government has sponsored and you can see beautifully decorated and illuminated boats called Loy Pratip on the river. And people will be eating special rice with banana or coconut juice called Ork Ambok.
Wat Phnom is the oldest and the tallest religious structure in Phnom Penh, it was built 1373 and it stands 27 meters. Wat Phnom means “Temple of the Mountains” or “Mountain Pagoda” and it is a Buddhist Temple.
Legend says that a wealthy widow, Daun Penh, found a large koki tree in the river. Inside the tree she found four bronze statues of the Buddha. Lady Penh constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill to protect the sacred statues. Eventually this became a sacred site and sanctuary where people would make blessings and pray.
Today, many people come here to pray for success and good luck. It is also one of Phnom Penh’s many tourist attractions so you will find a lot of beggars and women and children selling drinks, souvenirs and birds in cages. You buy the birds to let them free but the birds are trained to return to the cage afterwards.
You can also take a short elephant ride around the temple if you want.
You can find more detail about it’s address on Wat Phnom venue.