In Cambodia, Meak Bochea Day is an important public holiday and religious festival.
It is observed on the full moon in the third month of the Khmer calendar, which generally lands it in later February or early March.
Meak Bochea Day commemorates the final sermon given by Buddha, in which he summarized the “heart of Buddhism” in three principles: ceasing from all evil, doing only what is good, and cleansing the mind. The group that assembled that day, around 2,500 years ago now, to hear him preach are sometimes called the “Fourfold Assembly” because of four factors that were in place: the 1,250 listeners were all “enlightened ones,” they were all ordained by Buddha himself, they came, according to the tradition, without being summoned, and it was a full moon in the month of Magha.
It is also said that, on this day, Buddha correctly predicted the day of his own death, which occurred three months later. The day of his death was also the day of his birth and of his professed enlightenment experience. It is also celebrated in Cambodia as Visak Bochea Day.
In Buddhism, a full moon day is considered a holy day and is considered the perfect time to repent of sins and “make merits.” The added historical significance of the full moon on Meak Bochea Day turns it into a day of penitence, of doing good deeds for merits, and of remembering the teachings of Buddha. To these ends, many attend local temples and pagodas on this day to perform merit-making acts. They also strive to purify their minds, avoid all sins, and to adhere to all of the Buddha’s commands. Those commands include avoidance of drinking alcoholic beverages, killing, stealing, and lying. Many who have broken these precepts will seek forgiveness on Meak Bochea Day.
Should you be visiting Cambodia on Meak Bochea Day, some activities you may wish to take part in include:
- See a Buddhist temple ceremony. There will be processions in which candles, incense sticks, and lotus flowers are carried around the temple three times. The first time is meant to honor Buddha himself, the second to honor his teachings (Dharma), and the third to honor monastic life (Sangha). You can view the ornately decorated temples and watch the worshipers. In some cases, you may be permitted to view the ceremonies and the inside of the temple.
- At Oudong Mountain, hundreds of monks and government officials gather to perform Meak Bochea Day rituals. It is like the ceremony mentioned above but on a grander scale and of special significance. Oudong is located about 28 miles north of the capital city of Phnom Penh.
- While in Cambodia, you should not neglect to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. If Meak Bochea Day is a day of national repentance, then the crimes chronicled in this museum will fit the mood of the day. The museum building was originally a high school, but it became an execution center during the infamous days of the Khmer Rouge. It was the most well known of the 150 such centers all over the country, and about two million, 25 percent of the total population at the time, died at these execution centers. This is a somber tourist stop, but like the holocaust museums in Europe, it can be sobering to visit.
- You may also wish to visit the Cambodian Cultural Village, a theme park in Siem Reap. You will find miniature replicas of many of Cambodia’s historically important buildings. You will also be exposed to the cultures of 19 local ethnic groups and be able to tour 11 cultural villages.