Khmer New Year is the most celebrated festival in Cambodia since the Angkorian era – based on the carvings found on temple walls. It is the time to mark the end of the old, and the start of a new year in the Khmer Chhankitek Calendar (Khmer lunar calendar). It is also when farmers in Cambodia finish their harvest, and enjoy the beginning of their free time before the rainy season commences.
The festival is officially celebrated nationwide for three days, and this year the celebrations start on the 14th. The first day is called Songkran, the second, Vonabot, and the third, Laeung Sak day. Each year is represented by an animal (12 in a full cycle) which is the sacred vehicle of a reigning deity. On Songkran, Khmer people believe there is a change of the deity who is to govern the kingdom. This year, the new deity will ride a goat as her sacred vehicle. Khmers prepare a tableful of food, seasonal fruits and soft drinks to welcome and ask for blessings from the New Year’s deity.
We also have our own version of the New Year count-down. Instead of celebrating with drinks and dance, we light incense and pray for a new year of prosperity and happiness (wait for the celebration later!). Television and radio will air the countdown event with elaborate details of the new deity, and the fortune for everyone’s animal birth year, and of the kingdom under the new sacred power.
Cambodians travel the most during the Khmer New Year. The capital Phnom Penh, becomes deserted with most residents returning to their hometowns in the provinces. Traditionally we go to at least one monastery (but three is best!) to offer food to the monks. We believe the merits will be passed on to our late ancestors through this act of kindness. After hours of praying rituals and alms offering at the monasteries in the morning, young Khmers celebrate the occasion with water fights, folk music and dance, and traditional games. It is also the rare chance for young couples to openly court in public – and the time when parents are looking for marriage prospects for their children (a practice which is still followed even today).
Each day is also marked by generous feasts, drinks and visits to friends’ homes. Loud music and long chat late into the night is quite common as relatives try to make up for lost time having not seen each other for a full year or longer.
If you’re in Siem Reap over the Khmer New Year, the third annual Angkor Sankran celebrations will take place in front of Angkor Wat, Bayon temple and the Elephant Terrace. Concerts, trade fairs, and traditional games and dancing are featured. Prepare for the crowds though; last year’s attendance was about 380,000 and is expected to be close to 500,000 this year. – By Tola Sann