Cambodian New Year: The Biggest Celebration in Cambodia

Cambodian New Year: The Biggest Celebration in Cambodia

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When I was younger, and working multiple jobs, I avoided looking at the clock. I fear the slow passing of time that will only seem slower if I watch it progress. Now, I avoid looking at my calendar. I fear the quick passing of time that will only seem faster if I watch it progress. It’s funny how memories and time work. It felt like yesterday that I said goodbye to my parents at the Phnom Penh airport, but I don’t even remember what we talked about, or what they wore, what I wore. But I know, it’s been almost two years since I’ve seen them in Takeo, celebrating Cambodian New Year at our family temple. Sadly, this will be another year, I won’t be able to celebrate the New Year with them, a three-day family festival, much like Christmas or Thanksgiving. However, even If I can’t celebrate it with them in person, there’s no reason I won’t be celebrating it with them online. Thank you technology. I might not like how time passes too quickly now, but that’s one more reason why I should make as many memory as I can because Cambodian New Year is coming, and it holds a very special place in my heart. 

Interesting Fact: The Chinese inhabitants of Cambodia celebrate Chaul Chnam Chen (Chinese New Year) between late January and mid-February. Chinese New Year is usually celebrated for 23 days. This is important when choosing a travel date for your Cambodia excursion because many of Phnom Penh’s businesses are run by Chinese. Commerce grinds to a halt during Chinese New Year day, especially in Phnom Penh as there are dragon dances all over town. To celebrate Tet Nguyen Dan, as it is the most important celebration of Vietnamese culture, many Vietnamese living in Cambodia return to their homeland for a week or more.

Cambodian New Year: The Biggest Celebration in Cambodia

Chaul Chnam Khmer (Khmer New Year), is a three-day festival starting around the 13th or 14th of April, depending on leap years, to celebrate the New Year. It is like Christmas, New Year, and birthdays all rolled into one, as everyone is out on the streets saying “Sus’Dei Chnam Thmei” (Happy New Year in Cambodian), and wishing each other, and their families’ success, peace and happiness. It is a very lively time if you are in Cambodia, as everyone would be dressed up in their traditional outfit to make offerings at wats, cleaning out their homes, exchanging gifts, and just going wild with water and talcum powder. It’s fun to watch them go wild in the city of Phnom Penh, turning random expats into bemused looking plaster-cast figures. As expected, during this time, many Cambodians flock over to Angkor, so if you think it’s crowded during normal daytime hours at Angkor, you will definitely be in for a shock. It is absolute madness during Chaul Chnam. So, if you’re looking for a quiet, reflective/meditative Angkor experience, it would be best to avoid hotel Siem Reap booking or going to Siem Reap during this 3 days celebration. However, cities, especially the capital Phnom Penh, are very quiet during the New Year celebration, as most people that live and work in Phnom Penh are not born there. They come from other provinces, such as Battambang, Kampong Cham, Kompong Thom, Svay Rieng, Takeo, Siem Reap, and others.

Interesting Fact: During Angkor times, New Year was celebrated 4 months earlier on the 1st day of the first lunar month. After the Angkor era, the lunar calendar was abandoned as the solar calendar gained popularity and was adopted. The main reason for the change was practically; people had more time to celebrate during the start of the rainy season. Farmers had finished their field work, harvested their crops, so they have more time to prepare for the festivities. Therefore, one of the kings decided to change the New Year festival to the month of April, to follow the solar calendar.

Moha Songkran

On the first day of Khmer New Year, called “Moha Songkran”, a new god or angel is appointed to protect the world for the year ahead. So, to welcome him, people would clean, decorate their houses, and dress appropriately to make sure that the New Year does not start with bad luck or unhappiness. Each home prepares a traditional offering station to welcome the new god or angel individually by offering a table full of fruits, desserts with candles, incense sticks decorated with hand ornated flowers and flashing light to ensure that the house and the family are protected for the rest of the year.

Cambodian traditional offerings usually consist of:

                1. A Buddha statue
                2. 5 incense sticks, and 5 candles
                3. 3 kinds of fruits, prepared into 2 trays
                4. A pair of decorated young banana tree
                5. Every offering is decorated with small jasmine flower braids

Cambodian parents are very conservative when it comes to the interactions of their daughters, but around New Year, it is the only time when young Cambodians are allowed to meet and engage in a mixed play with the opposite gender, so many young men take this opportunity to look for potential brides. That’s one of many Cambodian traditions. So, beware girls, if you’re a traveler and you notice the male are a little wild and frisky in comparison to other days.

Wanabat

The second day of the New Year is called “Wanabat”, the day of giving. As part of a tradition, gifts are usually given to your parents, grandparents, and the elderly to show your appreciation and love. In the evening, at the wat, monks chants to give blessings.

Tanai Lieang Saka

On the third day of the New Year, called “Tanai Lieang Saka”, a new beginning, we are once again at wat, seeking the blessings of the monks, and lighting incense to wish prosperity and joy to families and friends on this new beginning.  In the afternoon, a joyful farewell celebration is held in the streets, and in public places, people pour water on each other to wash away their “bap”, sins. Children and teenagers throw baby powder and flour at each other. To us, New Year is very much a family celebration, so people that usually work far away from their family in other provinces would take a day off to come celebrate with their family. To watch the many traditional plays being showcased, to enjoy Khmer traditional dancing, rope pulling contests, and many other games with their family and friends.

I love the reflective aspect of Canadian New Year. To look back and see how many of the goals you’ve set in the beginning of the year has been accomplished by the end of the year.  But, I also love the light and playful Cambodian New Year; the family gathering, and especially, the food, food, and more food. How do you celebrate your new year?

Cambodian New Year
Traditional Cambodian outfit usually worn during festivals and celebrations.

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Khmer New Year is Cambodia’s biggest event, much like Chinese New Year, as everyone is out celebrating, saying Sus’Dei Chnam Thmei, Happy New Year in Cambodian.
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