Bon Choul Chhnam Thmei (literally: ‘Festival of Entering the New Year’) is the most important event in the Cambodian calendar. Spread over three days, beginning with New Year’s Day or Maha Sangkran, festivities mark the end of the harvesting season when farmers can enjoy the fruits of their labours before the rainy season begins. It just so happens that this is also when really hot season takes hold, with the highest temperatures of the whole year.
The festival marks revival – homes and pagodas are spring cleaned and richly decorated, purification ceremonies are performed and specially prepared foods are offered to monks and under-privileged members of society. A good deal of older Khmer don’t know their exact day of birth so in the olden days Khmer New Year was celebrated as everyone’s birthday!
Capital Phnom Penh becomes virtually a ghost town as most of its inhabitants return to their hometowns in the provinces to see in the New Year with all the family.
Meanwhile, the Angkor Sangkranta festival, held inside the Angkor complex and selected locations around Siem Reap “aims to showcase the ways of life of previous generations of Cambodians to the youths of today, as well as foreign visitors,” said Som Ratana, head of public relations for the organising committee. It includes live dance and music performances such as historic masked dance Lakhon Khol and the construction of ‘My Village’, an entire traditional wooden village, lavishly decorated to create a living museum of day to day life with rural Cambodian folk. In 2017, an oversized chapei measuring 10 metres long was on display here, just south of Bayon temple.
Past editions of Angkor Sangkranta have seen Guinness World Records set, with as the production of a two-ton sticky rice cake (“kralan’) and thousands participating in a mass rendition of the Madison, a traditional line dance popular at weddings.
Trees grant shade to sticky celebrants, with bottled water available throughout and medical teams and centres on standby just in case, with further refreshment provided by water trucks giving crowds periodic cooling spray downs. “We really encourage international tourists to come,” said Ratana, “even though it’s very hot.”
Each of the three days has its own ritual significance and ceremonies:
Day by day
Day 1 Maha Sangkran
People spring clean their homes, and prepare special food offerings, including kralan to be blessed by monks in local pagodas, which are the centre of the action. Members of each family turn out to light candles and incense at shrines, prostrating three times to images of the Buddha. In the evening, people make highly decorated sand hillock-like stupas in the grounds, and some stay to drink to the monks, while others, especially younger generations, begin to play traditional games which fortify physical and mental strength as well as bringing people long separated back together in a spirit of fun. The game Chol Chhoung involves male and female teams lining up opposite each other singing traditional songs and throwing a balled scarf or krama at their love interests.
Day 2 Vireak Vanabat
Children give new clothes and gifts of money to their parents and grandparents, and poor people where they are able. Most importantly, families attend dedication (‘bang scole‘) ceremonies at the pagoda to honour and commemorate their ancestors.
Day 3 Thgnai Loeung Sak
The sand stupas are blessed by monks and devotees perform ablutions of statues of the Buddha in Pithi Srang Preah ceremonies. Family elders and monks are also ceremonially washed with perfumed water, asked for forgiveness for any wrongdoing during the year and for their best wishes and advice to live well in the coming year.
Khmer New Year Games
Throughout Khmer New Year, street corners often are crowded with friends and families enjoying a break from routine, filling their free time dancing and play. Typically Khmer games help maintain one’s mental and physical dexterity. The body’s blood pressure, muscle system and brain all are challenged and strengthened in the name of Why not try them for yourself?
A game played especially on the first nightfall of the Khmer New Year by two groups of boys and girls. Ten or 20 people comprise each group, standing in two rows opposite each other. One group throws the “chhoung” to the other group. When it is caught, it will be rapidly thrown back to the first group. If someone is hit by the “chhoung,” the whole group must dance to get the “chhoung” back while the other group sings.
Chab Kon Kleng
A game played by imitating a hen as she protects her chicks from a crow. Adults typically play this game on the night of the first New Year’s day. Participants usually appoint a person with a strong build to play the hen leading many chicks. Another person is picked to be the crow. While both sides sing a song of bargaining, the crow tries to catch as many chicks as possible as they hide behind the hen.
Boy meets girl
A game played by two groups of boys and girls. Each group throws their own “angkunh” to hit the master “angkunhs,” which belong to the other group and are placed on the ground. The winners must knock the knee of the losers with the “angkunh.” “Angkunh” is the name of an inedible fruit seed, which looks like the knee bone.
A game played by a group of children sitting in circle. Someone holding a “kanseng” (Cambodian towel) twisted into a round shape walks around the circle while singing a song. The person walking secretly tries to place the “kanseng” behind one of the children. If that chosen child realizes what is happening, he or she must pick up the “kanseng” and beat the person sitting next to him or her.
A game played by throwing and catching a ball with one hand while trying to catch an increasing number of sticks with the other hand. Usually, pens or chopsticks are used as the sticks to be caught.
A game played by two children in rural or urban areas during their free time. Ten holes are dug in the shape of an oval into a board in the ground. The game is played with 42 small beads, stones or fruit seeds. Before starting the game, five beads are put into each of the two holes located at the tip of the board. Four beads are placed in each of the remaining eight holes.
The first player takes all the beads from any hole and drops them one by one in the other holes. He or she must repeat this process until they have dropped the last bead into a hole lying beside an empty one.
Then they must take all the beads in the hole that follows the empty one. At this point, the second player begins to play. The game ends when all the holes are empty. The player with the greatest number of beads wins the game.
Guide to visiting
Although spectacular the country over, the ceremonies at Angkor Wat make Siem Reap the place to be during Khmer New Year. By night, Pub street is full of younger Khmers delighting in splashing and spraying water and talcum powder about.
In Phnom Penh, locals gather at Wat Phnom and at the Vietnamese Friendship park opposite Wat Botom to play traditional games, watch performances and splash water over one another.
For visitors, Khmer New Year can be a joyous celebration or a dismal nuisance depending on one’s outlook. To be prepared for all eventualities, you need to know:
Khmer New Year is the best time to sample the delicacy “kralan“: a cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, freshly grated coconut and coconut milk, which is stuffed inside a bamboo stick and slowly roasted.
Khmer are required to visit pagodas under pain of ghostly visitation from ancestors. For those in attendance, the greater the donation to monks, the better the “grateful” hell-born ancestors’ (who receive these gifts) wishes will be for givers.
This may explain why the run-up to festivities is also “robbery season” when city dwelling Khmer take an extra interest in personal belongings which can be sold for cash or given for merit. Don’t carry anything you’re not prepared to lose or leave valuables in plain sight.
The return to people’s hometowns- with the exception of Siem Reap and Battambang – means most cities are all but deserted. Embassies, banks and local restaurants close for up to a week, sometimes more. Meanwhile the more out-of-the-way places and smaller hubs- especially along the coast- are awash with expats and locals on holiday.
Everyone and their dog (or chicken) hits the roads- expect traffic jams, vehicles stuffed to the rafters and sporadic “tolls” by day and all manner of reckless driving at night. Consider this to be the worst time of year to be on Cambodia’s roads. If you have to travel, plan ahead, be prepared to cough up to cover hiked prices and avoid night buses at all costs.
Raise a smile by wishing all a happy new year: Sours’dei Chnam Thmei!