The holiday may not be listed on the official Cambodian calendar, like Khmer New Year, but thanks to a prominent Chinese and ethnic Chinese-Cambodian population in the Kingdom, Lunar New Year continues to be an annual festival celebrated widely across the country.
Beginning on New Year’s Eve, the 30th day of the last month of the lunar calendar, and lasting until the 15th day of the first lunar month, Lunar New Year is about celebrating with relatives in the hope of bringing good luck in the coming year.
Also known as the Spring Festival in modern Chinese, Cambodians and visitors alike ring in the New Year across the capital Phnom Penh and other major cities by hanging bright red decorations like paper lanterns and gathering together for big family meals.
As the festival approaches, many Chinese-Cambodian shop owners offer discounts to share their wealth with customers, and some even give away drinks and cookies to regular patrons. People also hand out red envelopes – which they call ang pau – containing cash gifts during the festival. Firecrackers, although banned by authorities, are also a part of the celebration to welcome in the New Year.
Colorful, costumed lion and dragon dancers and their rowdy drumming entourages perform on the streets in front of city landmarks, homes and businesses for several days surrounding the festival. The traditional dancers are meant to scare away evil spirits and keep away bad luck.
While Chinese immigrants have been moving to Cambodia for more than a thousand years, the vast majority of Khmer-Chinese settled between 1910 and 1950.
Today, Cambodians with Chinese ancestry hang red and yellow lanterns and banners along city streets and outside homes and workplaces, and festival revelers typically pack out restaurants. Feasts include delicacies such as red roast pig and duck, rice cakes, dumplings, noodles and fruit, especially the symbolic orange, which is often given as a gift during the holiday. Blossoming plants including yellow-flowering shrubs called angkea sel, are also displayed at the homes of many Cambodian-Chinese families. The plants are thought to bring good luck if they bloom during the start of the New Year.
On New Year’s Eve, some believers head to local Chinese temples to make offerings, casting off the bad luck of the previous year, and praying for good fortune in the next. Meanwhile the Buddhist pagoda of Wat Phnom, to the north of the capital’s centre, has become a highly popular location to visit on this night, especially just after midnight. While offerings are usually made to ancestors or the gods of the household in Chinese culture, the Chinese-Cambodian version of the festival dictates that offerings can be made to the monks of the pagoda.
Lunar New Year is rooted in Chinese tradition, but it has been adapted to Cambodian culture, with the festival allowing for tourists and locals with no Chinese heritage to join in the celebrations.