Cambodia is a small but colorful country, and it has its own customs, holidays and festivals, which we will get acquainted with in this review.
Buddhist holiday Meaka Bochea
Meaka Bochea is an important national and religious holiday for Cambodians.
The festival takes place on the full moon, the third month from the beginning of the year according to the Khmer calendar (late January, February to early March).
The holiday is dedicated to the last sermon of Buddha, in which he formulated the three basic principles of Buddhism: the abhorrence of all evil, doing good deeds and the purification of the mind. According to legend, the sermon was delivered in the month of Magha (meak), one of the days of the full moon. On the same day the Buddha predicted the date of his death (passing into nirvana) and the date of his rebirth, which is also celebrated in Cambodia as the national holiday of Visak-Buchea.
In Buddhism, the full moon is considered a holy day when one should repent of sins and do good deeds. On this day, all the temples and pagodas of Cambodia are open and colorful ceremonies full of spiritual mystery can be observed. It is possible to view the ceremonies from outside, and in some temples on this very day, non-Buddhists are allowed to observe closed ceremonies. Processions of worshippers are accompanied by the scent of aromatic sticks and lotus blossoms, which are carried three times around the temple (in honor of the Buddha, his teachings and the monastic life).
The scope of the festivities depends on the location: in the Udong Mountains, north of Phnom Penh, hundreds of monks and officials gather on this day. They greet the misty dawn in the mountains by clutching lotus flowers and holding lavish rituals dedicated to the Buddha and Meak Bochea.
Chnam Mai or Chaul Chnam literally means “entrance into the new year” in Khmer. Notably, the Khmer New Year coincides with the traditional solar new year in parts of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. The holiday lasts about 3 days, each with its own meaning and name.
During New Year’s Eve celebrations, the streets are crowded with cheerful and dressed-up companies who spend time dancing and playing games. On these days, flowers and incense are brought to the pagodas and temples, holiday sermons are listened to and each other are congratulated on the beginning of the new year.
The first day (Chaul Say Thmay Kran) usually falls on April 13-14, the end of the harvest season, before the start of the rainy season. The day signifies the end of the year and the beginning of a new year. During this time, new festive garments are put on, candles and perfume sticks are lit in front of the faces of the saints, and members of each family pay their respects by kneeling before the Buddha’s image. For good luck, it is customary to wash with holy water in the morning, wipe one’s face with it at noon, and wash one’s feet before going to bed.
The second day of the holiday is Wanabat. On this day colorful processions are held near the temples, and it is customary to do charity, giving things and money to less successful fellow citizens, the poor, and servants. It is also a day of commemoration of the ancestors, for which families travel to temples and monasteries.
The third day of the New Year is Vearak Loeng Sak, the day of “bathing the Buddha. On this day believers wash images of Buddha with scented water as a symbol of the destruction of all bad events. For children and tourists it is a fun day, similar to the Slavic Ivan Kupala: pouring water on each other at this time is believed to bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life.
Visaka Bucea or Wan Pra Yai commemorates three major events in the life of Buddha: his birth, enlightenment and death (nibbana). This day has been celebrated by believers for many centuries, but was officially recognized as a holiday after the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950.
Today, Visaka Bucea is one of the major holidays in the world of Buddhism and is even recognized by UNESCO as “World Cultural Heritage Day.”
The holiday lasts almost a week and almost always falls on the day of the full moon of the sixth lunar month (May) according to the lunar calendar. On this day, the entire population of Cambodia in smart and colorful clothes goes to temples decorated with flowers for special ceremonies, where they listen to sermons and make offerings. During this festival, followers of Buddhism arrive at the sacred pagodas before dawn with candles lit with the obligatory procession around the main temples: three times clockwise, holding incense sticks, lighted candles and lotus buds.
At the end of the sacred prayers, parishioners serve festive refreshments and gifts to novices and monks in obedience to the Buddha’s instructions to honor the monastic community as a jewel.
From late September to mid-October, most Cambodians participate in the Pchum Ben Festival, celebrating the remembrance of the deceased. On average, the celebration lasts about 15 days, during which residents return to their homeland and visit pagodas and temples, making offerings to the dead. It is believed that if you ignore the festivities, the spirits of departed relatives will curse and disturb the relatives throughout the year.
The final day of the festival and is called Pchum Ben. At this time, celebrants gather in temples dressed in traditional mourning colors (white for Cambodia). After circling the temple three times, the dressed-up worshippers with flowers in their hair go inside. Family elders light candles and incense, inviting the dead to a feast. Large quantities of food are brought to the pagodas to facilitate the transition of the deceased to the next stage of their journey. Food is one way of doing this as a symbol of repayment from evil spirits. The transfer of food is mediated by monks: it is believed that by satiating the novices, it is possible to alleviate the karmic fate of their ancestors.
Being in Cambodia in the day of remembrance of the dead, and wishing to visit the pagoda must get up very early and dressed in accordance with local traditions or simply in white. Tourists do not need to bring food, but it is recommended to bring some coins of any denomination to leave as a donation to the temple.
The coronation of His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia, was once declared a national holiday. It is officially a non-working day on which Norodom Sihamoni gives a solemn festive speech to his subjects and the faithful visit temples to make offerings.
The celebration usually takes place at the Royal Palace, where members of the royal family and high-ranking officials are present.
Thousands of people under national and royal flags gather in front of the Royal Palace to celebrate, see and hear the king speak.
Siamoni was not brought up in court circles, has no background in politics, and spends much time away from Cambodia. He was chosen as a compromise among his siblings.
The king performs his ceremonial role admirably and it serves Cambodian national unity. The monarchy is popular with the rural people, the urban poor, and has the support of the church.
Although the King of Cambodia has no power, he is highly respected by the people as a man, a politician and a representative of the cultural world (Norodom Sihamoni is a former ballet dancer). The King is actively engaged in humanitarian activities, helping the poor and those affected by natural disasters.
On this day in the capital, administrative offices and even most of the stores are closed, His Majesty’s portraits are visible everywhere, and welcoming and congratulatory posters are hung in parks, gardens, and Independence Square
Sometimes there is a ceremony in front of the Royal Palace to donate food and other necessities to Buddhist monks, who will also offer prayers in honor of the king afterwards.
The people of Cambodia are unusually grateful people, they remember the good deeds done for them by both ordinary people and members of the royal family. Thus, the residents of the capital celebrate the birthday of Norodom Sihanouk – king-father, who ruled from 1922 to 2004.
This man did a lot for his country, and most importantly, during his reign Cambodia gained independence and ceased to be a colony of France.
The celebration is very fun and with a great scope. Phnom Penh is decorated with portraits of the king-father, holiday lights are lit on the buildings, and the streets are full of well-dressed citizens of all ages with national flags, who walk and praise the king-father. Members of the royal family are no strangers to merriment either – it is customary here not only to sit in on the festive festivities, but to participate in the chants and dances along with everyone else.
Throughout the capital, on the waterfront and, of course, in front of the Royal Palace, fireworks are lit, and the palace itself is open to residents and visitors.
The festivities begin very early, starting at 6:30 a.m. Students, scouts, police, and uniformed military hold flowers, flags, and portraits of kings as they greet members of the royal family and officials. National music is played everywhere, officials are addressed, and the ceremony itself takes place in a very warm atmosphere.
For Cambodians, the Festival of Water (Bon Om Touk or Pie Race Festival) in Phnom Penh is one of the most magnificent festivals, celebrated in October or November each year. For three days, Phnom Penh citizens as well as tourists and visitors from different provinces gather in the capital to party day and night. On the one hand, the festival celebrates the end of the rainy season and the local bodies of water that give a good catch every year.
The Festival of Water also has its own long prehistory. The water festival ceremony itself resembles the preparation for a battle. According to history, the Festival of Water celebrates the victory of the Cambodian navy in the XII century. Khmer kings have always been honored by sailing competitions. The winner received the title of Champion of the sailing battle – many images of the ancient Khmer are dedicated to this.
Today, in addition to the regatta itself, the water festival also includes three main ceremonies: Loy Pratip, Sampeas Preah Khe and Ork Ambok.
The ceremony lasts for three days to give all applicants the opportunity to compete and on different types of vessels: pirogues and rowing boats. Each boat is manned by 30 to 40 men or women. Winners of the race are symbolically rewarded with alcohol, money, clothing, rice, etc.
At night (from 7 p.m.) under the full moon, the river is illuminated by lights on the boats, which move slowly and smoothly on the surface of the water. At the end of the holiday, numerous colorful fireworks appear in the sky to loud applause.
Cambodia is famous not only for the pristine ocean coast and excellent beaches, impenetrable jungle, or unique sites of historical value. Those who are interested in the culture and traditions of the eastern kingdom, probably will attract the opportunity during the trip to visit one of the holidays in Cambodia, and get a closer look at the life of the country. At first glance, there are not many dates in the calendar of Cambodians, but if you personally visited the popular festivities in their honor, you will surely get a memorable vivid experience.
Before you take your plane tickets, consult the list of the most important dates in Cambodia to plan your trip. These include both public and religious holidays dating back centuries.
Public Holidays in Cambodia
Cambodia’s public holidays are usually celebrated on a smaller scale than religious holidays, but are also a weekend and are usually accompanied by mass festivities. The most important of these are:
- New Year’s Day. It is celebrated on January 1 and marks the beginning of a new year according to the Gregorian calendar. The locals do not celebrate it especially solemnly: this New Year is just a symbol of the inclusion of Cambodia in world culture. However, Khmers are also happy to give each other gifts, only before or during the holiday, not the next morning. The facades of houses and streets instead of toys are decorated with imitation spruce sprigs and flowers. It is not forbidden to make noise and have fun, as well as drink hot drinks.
- Victory over Genocide Day. It is celebrated on January 7. On this day in 1979, Phnom Penh was captured by the Vietnamese army. Cambodia even has a genocide museum, Tuol Sleng, whose exhibits tell the story of the Pol Pot regime.
- International Women’s Day. As in other countries, it is celebrated on March 8. Many cities in the country have exhibitions, fairs, theater performances, boat parades. In Phnom Penh, a fair of products made by Cambodian women (mostly scarves and silk handbags). It also shows villagers their own hand-grown and organic fruits and vegetables. Not far from the Angkor Wat temple complex, a demonstration is held where women hold a variety of slogans and posters.
- Labor Day. The holiday is set for May 1 to honor workers and the economic and social improvements in their lives. Demonstrations, with many people coming out, are an integral part of the festivities on this day.
- King’s Birthday. The date of May 13-15 is a tribute by Cambodians to their once beloved King Norodom Siamoni, born May 14, 1953. All offices, institutions, and most markets are closed on this day.
- Birthday of the Mother of the King of Cambodia. Celebrated on June 18 (birth date of the Queen of Cambodia).
- Constitution Day of Cambodia. It is celebrated on September 24, the day the country’s first constitution was adopted.
- Coronation Day. It is celebrated on October 29, the day on which the King of Cambodia ascended the throne.
- Birthday of the King of Cambodia’s father. Cambodians so venerate the family of their monarch that the date of October 31, when Norodom Siamoni’s father was born, is also considered a holiday. On this day there are especially bright and cheerful celebrations with fireworks, with many previously inaccessible rooms of the Royal Palace being opened to the public.
- Independence Day. Celebrations on this occasion take place on November 9, the day Cambodia became independent from France in 1953.
- Human Rights Day. Celebrated on December 10. This date is significant because on this day the Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. On the main avenues and highways of the country hang large banners from which everyone can learn more about human rights. In the center of Battambang province, there are celebrations organized by the regional office of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Also, the local office of the United Nations, together with the French Embassy, opens a festival of Cambodian culture in Phnom Penh at the Chaktomouk Theater, where one can get a closer look at the folk music and dance art.
Cambodia’s Ethnic Holidays
Religious celebrations in the country are always colorful and on a grand scale, so to visit at least one of them and get acquainted with Cambodian culture is worthwhile. Noteworthy among them are:
- Magha Puja . Celebrations for this occasion are held in February. The exact date depends on the date of the full moon. This holiday has religious significance: the monks gathered on this day to listen to sermons of the Buddha. Now, clerics and laypeople come to special ceremonial halls and read sutras recounting the life of the Buddha. This is sure to be credited to all present in the afterlife, and if you can listen to the entire text of the sutras (they contain 1000 verses), then all your wishes are sure to come true. It is very important to do good deeds on this day as well, so the locals treat the monks and release birds and fish.
- Vesak . It is celebrated in April or May. On this day, according to legend, Gautama Buddha was born and on the same day his enlightenment and death occurred. Today on this date, the Khmer people bring expensive gifts to the temples for the monks. Because the church calendar is linked to the lunar calendar, Vesak is celebrated on a different day each year. On this holiday, the monks hold a solemn procession with candles. In the temples, they perform the Cham dance ritual and recite sutras. Since the Buddha’s enlightenment took place under the shade of the badyan tree, this tree must be abundantly watered. Temples are solemnly decorated, and Cambodians give each other cards depicting the most important moments of the Buddha’s earthly existence. In the evening, candles and lanterns are lit throughout the country.
- Royal Ploughing Ceremony . This date is the boundary after which you can start sowing. It is celebrated in May, and the peculiarity of the celebration is the solemn procession led by a pair of oxen decorated with flowers and harnessed to a plough.
- Pchum Ben (Ancestors’ Day) . Cambodians remember their ancestors in September or October. For most of them it is a very important date. It is believed that on a certain day the ruler of the kingdom of the dead, Yama, releases the souls of the dead to earth. The spirits go immediately to the pagodas where their families reside, and if there are no rice offerings there, they may curse their relatives.
- Bon Om Tuk (Water Festival) . Rowing competitions are held in November when the rivers change direction. They take place near Phnom Penh on the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. It is a truly colorful show, involving 21 (the number of provinces in the country) brightly colored boats up to 20 meters long.
It comes to the house of every local resident on April 13-15 or 14-16 and is considered one of the most important holidays of Cambodia, symbolizing the national traditions. The locals believe that on this day the spirit of God comes to earth. In the local language, the name of the New Year is Chaul Chnam. The celebrations last for three days.
On the first day, Moxa Sangkran, Cambodians thoroughly clean and consecrate their homes, because this is when the angels come down to earth and they must be properly greeted. The idol of Buddha is placed in the most honorable place in the house – the altar. It must be decorated with flowers, candles, food and drinks, and perfumed with perfume sticks. For monks and priests on this day, a special meal is prepared and served free of charge.
The second day of the holiday is called Vanabot. If you are in Cambodia on this day, follow the example of the locals and make gifts to loved ones and give generous donations to those in need. Some Cambodians in April even reward their subordinates with cash bonuses.
The third day of the New Year is called Leung Sakk. At that time, you are supposed to wash the idols of Buddha with holy water so that the next year will have a good harvest and abundant rainfall. This ceremony is called Pithi Srang Preah. It is also customary to show deep reverence for the elders: as a sign of obedience, the younger members of the family wash their feet with holy water, receiving a parental blessing in return.
It is on the Cambodian New Year begins the monsoon season, and the harvest is completed. Traditionally, all the faithful locals go to the temple, where they are blessed by the clergy. Usually a sand hill is built on the temple grounds on this date, adorned with 5 religious flags. They symbolize the five beloved disciples of Buddha. The tradition of sprinkling the holy water has its own characteristics: the face is wet in the morning, the chest in the daytime, and the feet are poured in the evening. The water is also often dyed in different shades: pink, yellow and blue. This is done to attract luck and prosperity in the coming year. At the end of religious ceremonies is also not forbidden fun and various active youth games.