Khmer New Year or “Cambodian New Year” is the greatest traditional festival and the national holiday in Cambodia, lasting for three days. In Khmer language, it is called “Chaul Chnam Thmey”, which means ‘enter the new year’. Khmer New Year starts on April 13th or 14th (Gregorian calendar) depending on the ancient horoscope “Maha Songkran”. Khmer New Year 2019 starts on the 14th of April. It is marked by the time the sun entering the sign of Aries.

khmer new year festival indochina tours

History of Khmer New Year

This special event was traditionally closely related to the Vernal Equinox. In ancient period, the dates of the sun entering Aries as well as the Vernal Equinox would have been much closer, but they have shifted due to the procession, where the Earth wobbles on its axis more than a 25,000 year for a period. In Cambodia, it makes the end of the harvest before starting the rainy season.

How to Celebrate Khmer New Year

Day #1 of Khmer New Year: Maha Songkran

The first day of Khmer New Year is called “Maha Songkran”, ‘Songkran’ means government and refers to that the sun is moving into a new Zodiac sign and ‘Maha’ means great. According to legend, Maha Sangkran means welcome to the new spirits. In the morning, local people will go to the temple and offer food to the monks and receive blessings.

During this time, it is said that a new god or angel is appointed to protect the world for the upcoming year. To welcome him, people clean and decorate their houses, prepare new clothes to make sure that the New Year does not start with bad luck or unhappiness. Each home “competes” to welcome the new gods or angels by offering a table diverse fruits, a cake with candles, incense sticks together with flowers, and flashing light chains to make sure all family members are protected all around the year.

offering in Khmer New year

The time around Khmer New Year is the only time when young Cambodians are allowed to meet and participate in “mixed” plays. It is also the opportunities for young men to look for potential brides. That’s a unique tradition!

Day #2 of Khmer New Year: Virak Wanabat

It is a day of “Wanabat” which closely means “Day of Giving”. Traditionally, the second day of Khmer New Year is a time to think of the less fortunate. On this day people often do charity by helping the poor, servants and homeless. They also give gifts to parents, grandparents, and elders in their family. In the evening, many Cambodians will go to the temple and build a mountain of sand to remember their ancestors who have passed away. Also, at that time, the monks in the pagodas are asked to give a blessing of happiness and peace.

Virak-Wanabat-khmer-new-year

Day #3 of Khmer New Year: Tarak Loeng Sak

The third day of Khmer New Year is called “Loeng Sak” and it is the first day of the New Year. In the morning, Cambodians often go to the temples and perform a traditional ceremony where the mountain of sand gets blessed. After seeking the blessings of the monks in the morning, a joyful farewell celebration held in the afternoon is waiting to be explored. In the streets and in public places, Cambodian people pour water on each other. Children and young people will throw baby powder and flour at each other. Also, those who usually work far away from their families in other provinces make it a point to return o their families to celebrate the New Year together.

Cambodia temple khmer new year

The last ceremony is called “Pithi Srang Preah” and it aims to honor and give a special cleansing to Buddha Statues, the monks, elders, grandparents, and parents. During this ceremony, the participators apologize for any mistakes they have made during the previous year.

Although in Khmer New Year Celebration, it is more common for children to enjoy these games, adults often join in the fun too. Some are traditional while others have been incorporated from diverse cultures and customs.

Khmer New Year Traditions

Khmer New Year Foods

Cambodian New Year is considered hearty feasts. The common ingredient in most dishes is kroeung, a spice sharing some similarities to Thai curry paste but being less spicy. It is used to make the traditional fish amok. Fish seasoned with kroeung is packed inside banana leaves and then steamed for hours. The meals in Khmer New Year is served for all family members including a bowl of soup, dishes of spring rolls, barbecue, steamed fish, fried rice, and desserts of fruits.

khmer new year food

Khmer New Year Games

Khmer New Year Games #1: Clay pot prizes

This is one of the most popular games held in Khmer New Year occasion. Thin clay pots containing flour and a small prize (usually a sweet) are strung up on a rope between trees. Those participating in the games will be blindfolded and spun around. They are given a long sticking with which they have to try and smash one of the pots. They follow the direction of the shouting crowd to try and line themselves up and connect the stick with the pot. If they still fail after a few attempts, the next person has a turn. Provided that they are successful, the pot breaks shower them with flour as well as deposits their treat on the ground!

khmer new year game clay pot

Khmer New Year Games #2: Ongkhun

Ongkhun is a type of Cambodian vine which produces round, flat seeds of about 2 inches in diameter. It is pressed into the ground as targets and participants stand a few meters away, try and knock the targets out of the ground with their collection of Ongkhuns. One who hits the most targets will be the winner of this traditional Khmer New Year game.

Khmer New Year Games #3: Chhoung

This is a very traditional game in Cambodian New Year, particularly popular with children and teenagers as it usually revolves around which boy like which girl and vice versa. The game is arranged with a big group of people (between 10 and 20) split into boys and girls. The “chhoung” is a tied-up scarf thrown among the two teams. The teams stand face-to-face in opposite lines. They start the game by one team throws the chhoung high in the air towards the other team. If a member from other team catches it, they will throw it quickly to a person in the opposite team they want. If the chhoung hits the person, then the whole team – led by the person who was hit – sings, dances and returns the chhoung to the other side. When the chhoung has been returned, the process restarts.

khmer new year games

In short, Khmer New Year is a very traditional and special time of Cambodia. Many families host parties and hire a large set of speakers to play dance music and entertain their guests and neighbors. Bosses will often throw parties for their staff as well as give presents to them. With the tragic events of the Khmer Rouge and the following civil war still living memory, the opportunity for spending time with family, celebrating peace, long-life, and prosperity is very important for many people. It is common for families to open their houses to tourists to join their celebrations. Locals are often are delighted to have international guests sharing in their Khmer New Year holiday. Plan an Indochina tour in April to join this amazing festival.