It is called “Khmer” New Year because Khmer are the dominant ethnic group within the nation. Ninety-five percent of Cambodia’s 15 million people follow Theravada Buddhism, which is also the official religion. The calendar they follow is deeply steeped in their Buddhist religious traditions. The Cambodian New Year falls on either the 13th or 14th of April, depending on the dictates of an ancient horoscope reading called “Maha Sangkran.”
Khmer New Year arrives just after the harvest has been gathered and safely stored, which is significant since the majority of the population are still involved in agriculture. In fact, an earlier lunar calendar was abandoned in favour of the present solar-based one in order to ensure the holiday fell just after harvest time and before the rainy season.
The celebrations begin on New Year’s Day, but they last for three consecutive days. On the first day of celebration, Cambodians dress in fine clothes, go to family shrines with lit candles and incense to burn, and thank Buddha for his teachings by bowing to the ground to his image three consecutive times. To bring good luck on this day, the Khmer wash their faces with holy water in the morning, wash their chests at noontime, and wash their feet just before going to sleep.
On the second day, great attention is given to helping the poor through charity. A special dedication ceremony to family ancestors is also attended at a monastery. On the third and final day, the images of Buddha are washed in a mixture of water and perfume, which is meant to symbolize the washing away of evil deeds. Elders are also washed in this way, and doing this is thought to bring good luck, happiness, and long life. Good advice is also sought upon washing parents and grandparents in this manner.
Some of the Cambodian New Year customs include:
- Erecting a sandy mound on the grounds of a temple. The mound is formed so as to represent the Buddha in the centre and his four favourite disciples all around him.
- Among many special foods prepared this time of year is kralan, a cake of steamed rice, coconut, coconut milk, beans, and peas. It is pressed inside a hollow stick of bamboo and slow-roasted over a fire.
- Numerous games are played, both by children and adults. Street corners are crowded with people dancing and playing these games, and passers-by often have water thrown at them.
Things to do
Four things you may wish to do if in Cambodia for Khmer New Year celebrations are:
- Play some of the many Khmer New Year’s games. Try Chol Chhoung, a game in which two groups of 20 children each throw a “chhoung” back and forth. Another game, Chab Kon Kleng, involves a person who acts like a hen, chicks whom she guards, and a crow who tries to snatch the chicks away.
- Attend the Angkor Sankranti youth-sponsored event in Siem Reap. Cambodians and foreigners alike join in a wide array of unforgettable experiences.
- Explore the capital, Phnom Penh. Be sure to see the Central Market, Royal Palace, and the National Museum with its many historical and archaeological exhibits.
- Visit Angkor Wat, a gigantic stone temple in northwest Cambodia. It was built in the days of the ancient Khmer Empire.