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Festivals and Events in Cambodia

Cambodia offers many opportunities for joining in joyful celebrations throughout the year. Holidays are a unique opportunity for appreciating the charm of Cambodian culture, resulting from the mixture of millennial Buddhist culture and the past glory of the Khmer Empire.

Greatly influenced by Buddhism, the festivals in Cambodia have rich traditions and customs: each holiday is an occasion for celebrating a good way of living, the gifts of nature, the ancestors, and the family.

If you’re travelling in Cambodia, celebrating at holiday-times will be an unforgettable experience: see the Buddhists’ celebrations in the temples, the parades on the streets, the decorations in the houses and on the streets, and much more!

Highlights

  • Understand and appreciate Cambodian culture through its holidays
  • Take part in fascinating Buddhist ceremonies
  • Celebrate New Year in the fascinating surroundings of Angkor Wat
  • Pay your respects to victims of genocide
  • Assist in a carnivalesque boat race in Phnom Penh

Meak Bochea

When: January or Early February

Makha in the Khmer language is the third month of the lunar year, while bochea means “to venerate”. This holiday is extremely important to Buddhists: ten months after the enlightenment of the Buddha, four extraordinary events happened on this one day:

  • 1,250 disciples came to see the Buddha without being summoned;
  • All of them were Enlightened Ones;
  • All were ordained by the Buddha;
  • It was a full-moon day.

On this day, Buddha also summarized the principles of Buddhism and predicted the day of his death.

A full-moon day is something special in Buddhism, a day for making merit. People go to the temples for a special ceremony (also held at Oudong Mountain, but on a bigger scale): they carry incense and candles and go around the temple three times to honor the Buddha, his teaching and his monastic life.

On this day, people repent of their mistakes and sins, so a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum may be particularly appropriate.

Khmer New Year

When: April 14th-16th

Khmer New Year, the most important holiday in Cambodia, lasts three days. It is held to celebrate the end of the harvest season, when farmers can enjoy some rest with their families before the rainy season begins.

On the first day, called maha sangkran, people pay homage to Buddha by bowing three times before his image and burning candles and incense. Throughout the day they wash their whole body for good luck.

The second day is called vireak vanabat and is dedicated to charity. Charity is an important part of Buddhism: people help the poor with donations and volunteering.

Vearak loeng sak is when the New Year starts. Buddhists pour water on the elderly to receive their blessing and wash Buddha images for good luck and to wash away their sins.

The best places to experience the Khmer New Year are the big cities. In Siem Reap you’d be well-advised to join the celebration of the Angkor Sangranta Festivals: people celebrate in the countryside around Angkor Wat with music, dance, traditional games and street food.

Visak Bochea

When: April 8th

On this day, visiting a pagoda is the best way to experience the holiday and its customs. The holiday celebrates the birth, enlightenment and Nirvana of the Buddha. All these events occurred on a full-moon day of the sixth lunar month, called Visak.

Visak Bochea is an important day for making merit: people go to the temples to pay homage to Buddha, offer food to monks, meditate and sing hymns. Buddhists usually decorate their houses and streets with flowers and flags. Everywhere there are flickering candles to symbolize the enlightenment of the Buddha.

Victory over Genocide Day

When: January 7th

Cambodia is a beautiful country which in its recent past has been plagued by civil war. During the 70s, the Khmer Rouge took power and began the Cambodian Genocide: over a span of five years, about 2 million people died.

On January 7th 1979, Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia and defeated the Khmer Rouge.

The celebrations revolve around paying homage to the many victims of the genocide. Exhibitions and cultural shows recall the dark history of that period. In Phnom Penh, there is a gathering to remember the moment when the Khmer Rouge Party fell.

Royal Ploughing Ceremony

When: May 3rd

This holiday, an ancient royal rite, marks the beginning of the rice harvest, and is usually presided over by the monarch.

The ceremony comes from both Hinduism and Buddhism: it involves two oxen attached to a plough. They plough a channel while a priest sows rice. After three times round the fields, the oxen can feed freely. The food they eat predicts the success of the harvest in the coming year.

To assist in this ceremony, it is recommended you go to Phnom Penh where it will be held near the Royal Palace or in front of the National Museum. There will be agricultural exhibitions and a huge crowd wearing traditional Khmer clothing.

Independence Day

When: November 9th

The Cambodian National Holiday celebrates the anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France on November 9th 1953.

Cambodia had been a French protectorate for 90 years: after World War II, prince Sihanouk declared independence.

People celebrate the day with concerts, parades and fireworks. The main celebrations are in Phnom Penh, with a formal ceremony involving colorful floats and bands starting from the Independence Monument and reaching the Royal Palace.

In the evening, there is a huge firework display near the riverbank close to the Royal Palace.

If you are in Siem Reap, you can visit the Cambodian Culture Village: a huge park where you can learn more about Cambodian history and culture.

Bon Om Tuk

When: November

Maybe the most important holiday after New Year, Bon Om Tuk lasts three days and is known as the Water Festival of Cambodia. It celebrates the end of the rainy season.

During this holiday, there is a fascinating carnival atmosphere: the biggest celebration, held in Phnom Penh, revolves around a boat race on Sisowath Quay, the river that goes through the city.

The festival attracts millions of people. There are concerts all over the city, with lots of street food. The city is adorned with colorful banners, and the Royal Palace is lit with lively lights. There are fireworks, Ferris wheels, flotillas and much more!

The day coincides with the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk: in the countryside people gather to offer special food to the moon. People light candles and incense sticks, offering fruit and other food to everyone.

Festival tips

Being part of a country’s culture through its festivals is truly an amazing experience, but it can be challenging without adequate preparation. Here are some tips to help you enjoy the Cambodian festivals fully:

  • Book accommodation in advance: booking accommodation beforehand will save you a lot of trouble.
  • Plan transport ahead: planning how to get around the country will be essential. A lot of people will be traveling during those days.
  • Check the festival schedules: this way, you can experience the best of the festivals and not miss anything.
  • Beware of scams and pickpocketing, especially in crowded areas.
  • Respect local customs: paying attention to etiquette is a good way of respecting the locals and their celebrations.

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