Cambodia Through The Year



Cambodia Through The Year

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Cambodians love a good celebration and festivals provide the opportunity for family members scattered across the country to reconnect and reassert their sense of together- ness. Many of Cambodia’s festivals, such as Bon Chol Vassa and Meak Bochea, are based on lunar cycles. Thus, dates for these festivals change from year to year. While most secular holidays follow the Gregorian calendar, a few, such as Bon Om Tuk, or the Water Festival, date back to the days of Angkor. Apart from being solemn religious occasions, these festivals present rural Khmers with an excuse to return home to visit family. Celebrations are often followed by partying, funfairs, and fireworks. Cambodia has three seasons – hot, rainy, and cool – which influence several festivals, especially in rural areas since agriculture is the main livelihood for a majority of the population.

Hot Season

Temperatures ratchet up in February, which is the start of the hot season, and keep rising till April, which is the hottest month. April also marks the end of the harvest. The sweltering heat and high humidity can test visitors’ endurance. However, areas such as Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces in the northeast, which have the advantage of higher elevations, enjoy cooler weather.


Victory Day (Jan 7), nationwide. This holiday commemorates the victory of the Vietnamese over the Khmer Rouge’s bloody regime. Celebrations are marked by exhibitions and remembrance services.

Chinese New Year (end Jan/early Feb), Phnom Penh. This exciting, vibrant festival sees the city’s streets thronging with colorful dragon dancers and processions, along with fire- work displays at every corner. Although this is not a national holiday, it is a widely celebrated festival and many Chinese commercial businesses shut down for its duration. There is a large population of Chinese in Phnom Penh, along with a significant number of Vietnamese who also celebrate Tet (New Year) at the same time. Wealthy families eager to flaunt their fortunes organize elaborate private firework displays.

Meak Bochea (end Jan/early Feb full moon), nationwide. The name of this festival means Big Prayer and it is one of the holiest and most important ceremonies in the Buddhist religion. Candlelit processions commemorate the 1,250 disciples who gathered to witness the last sermon delivered by the Buddha before his death in northern India 2,500 years ago. Families visit their local wat (temple) during the full moon to venerate the five precepts of Buddhism and the great teacher himself, lighting candles and making offerings of food and money in order to gain merit.


Women’s Day (Mar 8), nationwide. Celebrating the role of women in modern society and highlighting issues such as rape, domestic violence, and inequality, this is a vital festival in a country where women are often abused and subjugated. UNESCO Phnom Penh has supported this important day over the past few years by sponsoring the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Cambodia. Parades are held in various parts of the country and T-shirts highlighting women’s rights and messages against domestic violence are distributed. Drama shows and workshops are organized, which are often attended by the prime minister.

Cambodian New Year (April 14–16), nationwide. This festival is better known as Chaul Chnam Thmey and lasts for a period of three days. Khmers see it as a time  to go wild in a nation- wide water fight as well  as applying talcum powder to each other’s faces. The festival has its roots in Hinduism, the country’s primary religion before the arrival of Buddhism. The best place to be is Wat Phnom, where free concerts are held at night. The last day of the festival involves worshipers bathing Buddha statues with water and apologizing to  monks, elders, and grand- parents whom they may  have offended during the year. This ritual is known  as pithisrang. It is also celebrated in a similar fashion  in Laos. Visitors are likely to have water thrown at them during this period.

Rainy Season

This season is characterized by short, intense bursts of rain, which leave the land glistening and remote roads impassable. This is a good time to explore temples as there are relatively fewer people around.


Visak Bochea (May full moon), nationwide. The Buddha’s birthday, his enlightenment, and admission to Nirvana are celebrated with candlelit processions to the local wat, most notably at Angkor Wat. International Labor Day (May 1), nationwide. Traditionally a day when workers march for their  rights, such as the improvement of minimum wages.  Their achievements are also celebrated.

Genocide Day (May 9),  nationwide. This day commemorates the many lives  lost to the Maoist-driven Khmer Rouge. It is a pensive occasion for every Khmer. Without exception, every family was torn asunder by the bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge.

King Sihamoni’s Birthday (May 13), nationwide. Although there are no mass celebrations or processions  on this day, firework dis- plays take place at the Tonlé  Sap lakefront late at night.

Royal Ploughing Ceremony (late May), Phnom Penh. Also known as Bon Chrat Preah Nongkol, this festival celebrates the first planting of rice for the coming harvest. Locals dress up in colorful traditional attire and participate in a lively pro cession.  The procession is led by the king and other royals outside the National Museum, where a sacred ox is fed with a selection of food and drink. A Brahmin priest then predicts the kind of harvest that can be expected, according to what the ox has eaten. This is a significant festival for many Cambodians as their fortunes are linked to the land that they farm. The presence of the king also reaffirms the importance of this ceremony.


Bon Chol Vassa (Jul full moon), nationwide. Held to coincide with the eighth  full moon of the lunar calendar, this festival marks the  beginning of the three-month Buddhist Lent, a time of fasting and strict meditation.  This is also the time for young men to be ordained as monks. Traditionally, the newly ordained monks would spend the entire rainy season  with in the temple, but nowadays this period can be as  little as three weeks.

Cool Season

As the rains retreat toward the end of October and early November, a cool breeze sweeps over the land. The  Tonlé Sap, having been rejuvenated, abounds with fish.  The best time to visit the country is between November and January, when humidity levels are lower than usual.


Bon Dak Ben (Sep–Oct full moon), nationwide. Dedicated to the spirits of the dead, this is one of the most traditional of Khmer festivals.  Influenced by elements of animism,  the festival is celebrated over a period of 15 days, beginning on the full moon. Food and drink are offered to monks so that they may assist people in blessing the souls of their ancestors. People throng to temples to listen to sermons and make offerings of respect to their ancestors. They believe it is vital to keep the spirits of the dead appeased; these spirits are believed to protect the living.

Bon Pchum Ben (Sep/Oct), nationwide. This festival of the dead is equivalent to All Souls’ Day. Khmers make offerings of boiled eggs, paper money, food, and drink to the dead in order to avoid being haunted.

Bon Kathen (variable), nationwide. Starting at the end of the Buddhist Lent and continuing for a month until the next full moon, this festival marks the emergence of monks from their retreat with offertory robes and slow public processions to the local wat. Donations are given in order to receive merit, thereby improving karma (fate) for the next life.

King Sihanouk’s Birthday (Oct 31), nationwide. This day celebrates the country’s influential and mercurial leader, the former king, Sihanouk, who managed to endure both Colonialism – eventually achieving Cambodian independence – as well as the Khmer Rouge.  It is believed that under- standing his psyche is the key to comprehending the complex soul of Cambodia and the compromises it has had to make in order to survive. Processions take place in front of the Royal Palace and many loyal followers of the former king return to Phnom Penh to celebrate.


Independence Day (Nov 9), nationwide. Cambodia’s independence from France is marked by processions of elaborate floats in front of the Royal Palace. A special day for all Khmers, fireworks and parades are arranged across the country and bunting strung across narrow streets. The main festivities, however, take place at the famous Independence Monument at the junction of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards in Phnom Penh.

Bon Om Tuk (Nov), nationwide. This three-day event, also known as the Water Festival, celebrates the victory of Angkor over the Chams in the 12th century. It also observes the natural phenomenon of the Tonlé Sap reversing its flow and emptying back into the Mekong River, thus marking the end of the rainy season. (It is the only waterway in the world to reverse its flow at different times of the year.) Along with the Cambodian New Year, it is the most important festival in the Cambodian calendar. Boat races and a carnival atmosphere on the Tonlé Sap attract millions from across the country. More than 400 boats take part in the boat race of Bon Om Tuk, with oarsmen and their vessels coming from far and wide and bringing with them thousands of supporters from  their villages. A smaller fes- tival also takes place around  Angkor Wat, but the real heart of the celebration lies in Phnom Penh, on the Mekong.

Legends of Angkor Wat Festival (variable), Angkor Wat. This festival of performing arts is held at Angkor Wat. Epic stories of Khmer myth are enacted, accompanied by traditional dances, costumes, and musicians, with the temple providing a stunning backdrop. The royal family often attends the event, which makes for a truly memorable evening.


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