Khmer New Year

The Khmer New Year is one of the most important holidays in Cambodia. It usually falls on April 13th or 14th, and it is convened to celebrate the Lunar New Year and the end of the harvesting season.

The celebrations are a unique opportunity to enjoy the traditions of Cambodian and Buddhist culture. If you’re planning to visit Cambodia during Khmer New Year, you can find here all the information you’ll need.

Khmer New Year traditions

Khmer New Year is celebrated on three days:

  • Day one – Maha Sangkran: On this day, the old year ends and a new one begins. People spend the day in their best clothes, praying together and paying their respects to Buddha by bowing three times before his image. Incense sticks and candles burn in every house. Monks usually receive food and give their blessing to families and individuals.
  • Day two – Virak Vanabat: The second day is dedicated to charity: people help those who are less fortunate through financial gifts or other gestures of charitable service. At the end of the day, there is a solemn celebration dedicated to ancestors, and people usually give gifts to children, teachers and the elderly.
  • Day three – Vearak Loeng Sak: This day is dedicated to washing images of the Buddha with perfumed water: by doing this, Buddhists wish to wash away all their sins of the past year, and bring joy and prosperity into their lives for the year ahead.

Where to celebrate

The two biggest cities in Cambodia Phnom Penh and Siem Reap celebrate New Year in quite different ways.

Phnom Penh

The capital of Cambodia is very quiet during the New Year, as most people return to their hometowns to celebrate the holiday with their families. New Year might give you an opportunity to visit the city without its usual crowds.

If you’re planning to visit Phnom Penh during these days, remember the big exodus that happens on the days immediately prior to New Year: planning your trip well in advance will be important.

A lot of local shops are closed, except for those in the most popular tourist area along the river. Finding a good restaurant or hotel is still easy. The Royal Palace and the Cambodia National Museum are open as well. On the third day a royal procession is held, which includes elephant and horse races.

The best place to visit in Phnom Penh during this period is Wat Phnom: here you can find a lot of local people playing traditional games and throwing talcum powder at each other.

Siem Reap

The New Year is particularly fascinating in Siem Reap. All the streets are filled with life: everywhere there is music, food and dance. The Pub Area along the riverside and the Royal Gardens are animated by parties going on all night long.

But the biggest crowds can be found in the countryside. Around the temples of Angkor Wat, you can take part in the Angkor Sangkranta Festival (from 8:30 am to 9:30 pm). Here people spend their time playing traditional games – such as tug of war, giant chess games, and ox cat[Is this a misprint? Not clear. Cat racing?] and buffalo racing – and practicing traditional Khmer martial arts.

And of course, a celebration is not a celebration without food and music. Street food is a big part of the Cambodian culture, and this is a wonderful opportunity to eat some traditional dishes you can only find during this time of year.

During the night, don’t miss the opportunity to join the huge crowds of locals enjoying big concerts – foreigners are more than welcome!

New Year customs

Khmer people celebrate the New Year with purification ceremonies, food, and traditional games.

Cambodian people try to renovate themselves and their houses: it is believed that angels may come to visit, so Khmer people scrub the floors, put fresh flowers everywhere, and place Buddha statues on shrines, honoring them with fresh fruit and jasmine flowers. The smell of incense is everywhere.

Since purifying the soul is the most important aspect of the holiday, one of the most important traditions is the Sraung Prea (held on the third day): people of younger generations pour water on their parents, hoping in return for happiness, longevity and good advice.

The religious aspect is extremely important: monks in pagodas welcome curious tourists who want to experience traditional Buddhist ceremonies.

On the temple floors, monks build five hillocks representing stupas (hemispherical structures containing relics): usually, the big one in the center is the stupa where the Buddha’s hair and diadem are buried; the four small ones around it are the stupas of the Buddha’s favorite disciples.

The traditional New Year food is kralan, a cake with sticky rice and red beans, sugar, and coconut milk, slowly roasted inside a pipe made of bamboo.

Games are an important part of the celebrations. They can be an insightful and fun experience for every tourist. Some of the most important games are:

  • Chab Kon Kleng: this game imagines a hen protecting her chicks from a crow.
  • Leak Kanseng: a group of children sit in a circle, while another child walks around them, trying secretly to place a stick behind one of the children sat on the ground. If the sitting kid notices the stick, he/she must use it to beat the kid sitting next to him/her.
  • Chol Chhoung: two large groups of people try to hit each other with a chhoung (a ball made of cloth, with a little tail). If someone in one group is hit by the chhoung, his/her group has to dance to get the chhoung back while the other group sings.

History of the Khmer New Year

During the Angkor empire, Sus’Dei Chnam Thmei was celebrated for 4 months. Celebrations would end on the 1st day of the first lunar month.

After Angkor, Cambodia adopted the solar calendar and this kind of celebration was abandoned when a Khmer king (maybe Suriyavaraman II, 1113 AD – 1150 AD) shifted the celebration so it coincided with the end of the rice harvest.

Agriculture in Cambodia is extremely important. With the coming of the New Year, farmers can finally relax, enjoy the fruits of their labor and celebrate with their families, before the arrival of the rainy season.

Important festival tips

Visiting Cambodia during New Year can be tricky. Here are a handful of useful tips:

  • Plan in advance: book your hotels and transportation as early as possible.
  • Remember that a lot of local businesses, banks and embassies will be closed.
  • Be aware of possible scams and pickpocketing, especially in crowded areas.

Visit Cambodia with Asia Highlights

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12-Day Cambodia and Vietnam Highlights

14-Day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Tour

5-Day Siem Reap Tour at Depth

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