Chaul Chnam, the Khmer New Year, is the most important festival in Cambodia. During this time, traditional ceremonies are arranged to attract the good luck for the coming year. People in cities and villages of Cambodia loudly celebrate the arrival of the New Year, dancing and splashing water on one another.
If you arrive to Cambodia, and you are approached by the children that pour water all over you, if there is no escape from loud music of ringing bells in the city and on the countryside, if dance parties seem to never end, if you meet crowds of playing teenagers everywhere, if it is so hot that you feel as if the earth turned into a glowing furnace, and if temples are full of Cambodian families cheerfully praying, then you can be sure: it is the Cambodian New Year, the Chaul Chnam Thmey .
In Sanskrit, Chaul Chnam Thmey means “to enter the new year.” This is the largest Cambodian festival. It lasts three days, during which Cambodians visit pagodas and pray for the deities and ancestral spirits to get a good luck for a whole year. Chaul Chnam was originally celebrated according to the Brahmanical rite, while it was a dominant religion among the elites; nowadays, the celebration goes along the Buddhist tradition.
On the first day, that is named Moha Sangkran, Cambodian families prepare offerings, clean their homes, and go to the market to buy lotus flowers, fruits and drinks that they will later bring as an offering to the deities of the New Year. In the morning of the next day, at dawn, they will go to the pagoda to pray together with the monks.
When the pagodas start to vibrate from the beat of crashing drums, it means that the country entered the New Year. Nowadays, the sound of drums can also be heard from the sound systems installed in Cambodian houses, so the prayer could reach everyone. The date of the New Year is set around the 15th of April, according to the Lunar calendar. In the past, Khmer New Year took place in the end of November, right in the middle of the rice harvesting period. For the predominantly rural population of Cambodia, November was not the best time to celebrate. Therefore, the festival was moved to April, the time when the earth rests before the beginning of the new rainy season.
The second day of the New Year festival is the Wanabot day, the day of worship. On this day, Cambodians offer presents to their family members, monks and the poor: another meaning of Wanabot is “a gift”. In pagodas, people set up small mounds of earth and rice that symbolize the spirit of the ancestors, and ask the monks for blessings for the family. On this day, the Prime Minister of Cambodia extends his New Year wishes to all Cambodians.
Finally, on the third day (Leung Sakk), people wash Buddha statues and children start to pour water on anyone passing by the street. Besides these traditional ceremonies, Khmer New Year is also accompanied by a huge celebration in each Cambodian family. In every village, in every house, young and old people get together to eat, to drink and to dance Roam Wong, traditional a group dance, where dancers move their hands just the same way as the ancient Apsara dancers used to do.
The temples of Angkor are full during the days of New Year Festival. Khmer families come here to pray and to enjoy a picnic near the temple. Angkor Wat is not only a majestic monument, but also a sacred place for Cambodian people and the symbol of national unity. Visiting Angkor during the New Year festival is also a way to ensure the spiritual protection from the country’s glorious ancestors.
If you happen to be in Cambodia during the Khmer New Year, simply approach the people – and you will be immediately invited to join the party. Cambodians love to share the moments of joy. But be careful, when you dance Roam Wong: despite apparent simplicity of this dance, legs can easily become tangled! But even if you fall over, your friendly hosts will offer you some food, and of course, a few refreshing drinks to recover your spirit!
Have you ever celebrated the Khmer New Year in Cambodia? Share your experience with us!