Khmer New Year, or ‘Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei’ in the Khmer language, 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”, 2014 it starts on 14th of April. The majority of the Cambodians are still farmers and Khmer New Year marks the end of the harvest season when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor and relax before the start of the rainy season.
Most of the Phnom Penh residents will pack their bags and get ready to head out to the countryside to celebrate Khmer New Year. Phnom Penh will be left seemingly pretty quite during these days so if you want to experience the celebration you should also pack your bag and head out to any of the villages on the country side.
In the villages the people engage in traditional Khmer games, they paly games such as the Bas Angkunh ‘seed throwing’, Chaol Chhoung ‘twisted-scarf throwing’, Leak Kanséng ‘twisted-scarf hide’ and dance to traditional Khmer songs.
The first day of Khmer new year 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.
Pchum Ben, the ancestors’ festival, is a Cambodian religious festival celebrated by Buddhists. It is one of the longest festivals in Cambodia, lasting for 15 days. A Ben is an offering. The first 14 days are called Kan Ben, where villages take turns making offerings, and the last day is Ben Thom, great offering, where all families make offerings. Pchum Ben is celebrated every year in the beginning of the 10th month, Phutrobot, of the Khmer calendar. (Around October in the western calendar.)
During the fourteen days of Kan Ben villages take turns bringing food to the temples and the pagodas.
The last four days of Pchum Ben are public holidays in Cambodia and most Khmer people will visit the province where they were born for family reunions.
The fifteen day, Ben Thom, is the special day when all families bring overflowing baskets of flowers, and children offer food, sticky rice cake and presents to the monks.
It is a colorful festival and everyone is dressed in their best clothes, women wear bright colored silk scarves, blouses and dresses. During the festival special rice offerings are made that are called ‘Bay Bens’. Bay Bens are balls of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with various ingredients depending on local customs.
Cambodians celebrate Pchum Ben because they believe that after death they become ghosts whose earthly actions shape their appearance and that they walk the earth at this time. Everyone prays to help their ancestors pass on to a better life. According to Khmer belief, people who do not follow the practices of Pchum Ben will be cursed by angry ancestors. The living relatives ease their sufferings by offering them food. People also make offerings of money, dresses and other items to the monks in the temples. The offerings made are shared by the poor and the disabled during Pchum Ben and the donors acquire merit to cancel out past sins.
In this year Pchum Ben is on Friday to Sunday, 26 to 28 September 2014
Makha Bucha Day is a Buddhists holiday, celebrated on the full moon of the third lunar month in the Buddhist calendar. Makha is the name of the third lunar month and Bacha is the act of worshiping the Buddha. In Cambodia faithful Buddhists celebrate Makha Bucha day by gather in local temples to honor the Buddha and his teachings and to participate in traditional religious ceremonies.
The origin of Makha Bucha comes from an event that occurred nine month after the Enlightenment of Buddha when 1 250 of Buddha’s followers gathered without prior notice and listened to the Buddha. At this event Buddha elaborated on some of his most important teachings and laid down the three main principles of his religion, which are: 1. Give up evil and refrain from sinning, 2.Cultivate good, and 3. Cleanse one’s mind. This event is believed to have taken place on the full moon of the third lunar month.
The date of Makha Bucha Day changes from year to year since it follows the Buddhist calendar that is astrological in nature.
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.
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.
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.