The Kingdom of Cambodia has a wealth of traditional and cultural festivals dated according to the Cambodian lunar calendar. All of these festivals are influenced by the concepts of Buddhism, Hinduism, and royal cultures. The festivals, which serve as a source of great joy, merriment and Cambodia’s national colors, play a major role in influencing tourists’ opinions, behaviors, and options.
Most of these are a time of great rejoicing for the predominantly urban and the rural populace. Nowadays the whole nation unites in understanding its cultural values and traditions. On this page, are some of the important celebrations organized during the year.
MEAK BOCHEA - February
Meak Bochea Day which is known as “Fourfold Assembly” or “Sangha Day” is one of the most important Buddhist celebrations falling on the full moon day of the third lunar month (about last week of February or early of March).
It marks four historic occasions which happened nine months after the Enlightenment of the Lord Buddha at Veluvana Bamboo Grove, near Rajagaha in Northern India. In history 2500 years ago, four events, which are considered miracles in Buddhist doctrine, took place. The first was the spontaneous getting together of 1,250 enlightened disciples or arahats of Buddha. They had heard through the grapevine that Buddha was going to be present at the Veluwan temple in what is now the state of Bihar in Northern India. Secondly, Buddha had personally ordained each of these monks. Thirdly, each monk turned up without making a prior appointment. Lastly, all these happened on the day of the full moon during the third lunar month. Buddha gave the assembly a discourse “Ovadha Patimokha” laying down the principles of His Teachings summarised into three acts, i.e. to do good, to abstain from bad action and to purify the mind.
KHMER NEW YEAR – April
Khmer New Year (Bonn Chaul Chhnam) – The Khmer equivalent of Songkran in Thailand and Pi Mai Lao in Laos. The celebration lasts for three days in April. On the first day, people dress up in their new/best clothes, light candles and burn incense sticks at shrines. They pay homage to Buddha by bowing, kneeling and prostrating themselves three times before his image. For good luck and happiness, people wash their face with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet in the evening before they go to bed.
On the second day, people contribute to charity and the less fortunate. Children give their elders gifts; and families also attend a dedication ceremony to their ancestors at the monastery. On the third day, devotees cleanse the Buddha statues with perfumed water. They believe that bathing the Buddha images will bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life. On this day, the people also build sand stupas in the temple grounds.
ROYAL PLOUGHING CEREMONY – May
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, or ‘Bon Chroat Preah Nongkoal’ in the Khmer language, is solemnly celebrated at the beginning of the sowing and planting season. Every year in May, this cultural ceremony takes place at the park in front of the National Museum (next to the Royal Palace). Cambodia has deep connection with earth and farming. There is a deep astrological belief that royal oxen known in Khmer as Usapheak Reach, have an instrumental role in determining the fate of the agricultural harvest each year.
Traditionally, the King Meak, representing the king of Cambodia, ploughs the field whilst the Queen, the Preah Mehuo, sows seeds from behind. The field is ceremoniously ploughed three times around. The royal servants then drive the royal oxen to seven golden trays containing rice, corn, sesame seeds, beans, grass, water, and wine to feed. The royal soothsayers interpret what the oxen have eaten and predict a series of events including epidemics, floods, good harvests, and excessive rainfall. At this festival, both men and women wear brightly colored Khmer traditional costume.
PCHUM BEN DAY OR ALL SOUL DAY – September
Running for 15 days, usually from the end of September into October, this festival is dedicated to blessing the spirits of the dead and is one of the most culturally significant in Cambodia. The exact date defers year to year as determined by the lunar calendar. Each household visits their temple of choice and offers food to the monks.
Offering of food is a meritorious act and is one of the oldest and most common rituals of Buddhism. During the Pchum Ben festival, people bring food to the temple for the monks and to feed hungry ghosts who could be their late ancestors, relatives or friends. Pagodas are usually crowded with people taking their turn to make offerings and to beg the monks to pray for their late ancestors and loved ones. Many remain behind at the temple to listen to Buddhist sermons.
Footnote:- “Hungry ghost” is one of the six modes of existence in the ‘Wheel of Life’. Hungry ghosts or ‘Preta’ which means ‘departed ones’ in Sanskrit, are pitiable creatures with huge, empty stomachs and pinhole mouths; their necks are so thin they cannot swallow, so they remain hungry. It is believed that beings are reborn as hungry ghosts because of their greed, envy and jealousy.
Cambodians leave food offerings on altars and around temple grounds for hungry ghosts. Pchum Ben is a festival that features food and entertainment for such hungry ghosts.
WATER FESTIVAL (Bonn Om Tuk) – November
The Water Festival, a spectacle to behold, is probably the most exorbitant festival held each year in November. It is usually celebrated for three days, i.e. the 14th and 15th of the waxing moon and the 1st of the waning moon of the month of Kadek. The 15th of the waxing moon is the last full moon day.
The festival ushers in the fishing season, marks a change in the flow of the Tonlé Sap and the ebbing-water season, and is seen as thanksgiving to the Mekong River for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish.
At the height of the rainy season, the water of the Mékong River forces the Tonlé Sap to reverse its current and to flow up to the Tonlé Sap Lake. As the water of the Mékong River begins to subside, the swollen Tonlé Sap Lake flows back to the Mékong River through the Tonlé Sap and empties into the sea, which leaves behind vast quantities of fish. This, indeed, is a remarkable phenomenon of the Tonlé Sap.
ANGKOR FESTIVAL – December
This festival is a showcase of performing arts with Angkor Wat as a backdrop. Performers from all over Asia attend this festival performing great epic stories from myths and legends, including the Ramayana, with their own national dance costumes and musical and rhythmic interpretations. Former King Sihanouk often attends when he is in residence in Siem Reap and other dignitaries come to witness this wonderful spectacle. In Khmer the annual Water Festival is called Bonn Om Toeuk. The festival marks the changing of the flow of the Tonle Sap and is also seen as thanksgiving to the Mekong River for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish. It is at this time when the river flow reverts to its normal downstream direction. The remarkable phenomenon that is the Tonle Sap sees the river flowing upstream during the rainy season and then changes direction as the rains cease and the swollen Tonle Sap Lake empties back into the Mekong River leaving behind vast quantities of fish. Over three days starting with the last full moon day in October or the beginning of November up to a million people from all walks of life from all over the country flock to the banks of Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers in Phnom Penh to watch hundreds of brightly colored boats with over 50 paddlers battle it out for top honors. The boat racing dates back to ancient times marking the strengths of the powerful Khmer marine forces during the Khmer empire. In the evening brightly decorated floats cruise along the river prior to and complimenting the fireworks displays. There is often a parallel festival at Angkor Wat and although it is smaller in scale it is just as impressive due to the backdrop of Angkor Wat.