Khmer New Year in Cambodia 2023
The Khmer New Year – Choul Chnam Thmey in the Khmer language – is one of Cambodia’s major holidays. Communities with roots in the Khmer culture, which includes most Cambodians and the Khmer minority in Vietnam, stop work for three whole days to return to their home communities and celebrate.
Unlike many Asian holidays that are set to the lunar calendar, the Khmer New Year follows the Gregorian calendar and is celebrated for three days, taking place every year from April 13–15. Neighboring Buddhist countries like Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos celebrate their respective New Year celebrations on or around the same date.
Note: ‘Khmer’ and ‘Cambodian’
When seeing or hearing the word “Khmer” such as Khmer New Year, Khmer Community, or Khmer Temple, many people are not familiar with the word and they ask what “Khmer” is? In practice, the two words, “Khmer” and “Cambodian”, can be used to replace each other. For example, one might say Khmer New Year or Cambodian New Year; Khmer People or Cambodian People. The exception is when talking about “Khmer Rouge” (it is not correct to use the word Cambodian instead of Khmer in this case). (For information about the Khmer Rouge see: Cambodian Cultural Profile)
The word “Kampuchea” means a country of Khmer people. Kampuchea can be translated as “Khmer country”. The French call Kampuchea “Le Cambodge”; the Khmer male is called “Le Cambodgien”; and the Khmer female is called “La Cambodgienne”. A bit different from French, the English name for the country is “Cambodia” and the Khmer people are called “Cambodian.” However, the full definition of what is Khmer and what is Cambodian remains a large topic of discussion among Khmer or Cambodian intellectuals.
Why Do Khmer Celebrate the New Year?
The Khmer New Year marks the end of the traditional harvest season, a time of leisure for farmers who have toiled all year to plant and harvest rice. April represents a rare break from the hard work, since it’s the hottest and driest month of the year, making it all but impossible to work for long in the fields.
As the harvest season winds down, farming communities turn their attention to the rites of the New Year ahead of the rainy season that arrives in late May.
Until the 13th century, the Khmer New Year was celebrated in late November or early December. A Khmer King (either Suriyavaraman II or Jayavaraman VII, depending on who you ask) moved the celebration to coincide with the end of the rice harvest.
The Khmer New Year is not strictly a religious holiday, although many Khmer visit the temples to commemorate the holiday.
The legend of Khmer New Year
Once Upon a time, there was a young man named Dhammabal Koma. As the son of a rich father, he had successfully completed his studies of the three Vedas. He could also speak and understand the language of all birds. Dhammabal Koma was famous throughout the country for his knowledge. And so, it came to pass that one day the King of the Gods Kabil Moha Prum learned of the extraordinary cleverness of Dhammabal.
This made the King of the Gods very jealous, he decided to descend to Earth and challenge Dhammabal with a riddle. The King was sure that he would win and declared that the loser should lose his head. Dhammabal was certain in his knowledge and agreed to take part.
The riddle of King Kabil Moha Prum consisted of these three questions:
- What is happiness in the morning?
- What is happiness in the afternoon?
- What is happiness in the evening
Dhammabal had seven days to solve the riddle. But try as he might, even after six days he had still not worked out the answers. Dhammabal was without hope and in desperation he decided to go deep into the forest and kill himself.
After spending many hours going deeper and deeper into the forest, he rested, exhausted, under a large palm tree. But suddenly whilst he was half asleep he noticed a pair of vultures talking to each other. The female vulture asked her husband what they should eat the next day.
The male vulture replied that they would have Dhammabal Koma’s flesh for the next day, and for the days that followed that.
For Dhammabal will die because he cannot solve the riddle. The female vulture became curious and she asked her husband what the riddle was. Her husband answered her with these three questions:
- What is happiness in the morning?
- What is happiness in the afternoon?
- What is happiness in the evening?
The answers to the riddle
And then the vulture gave his wife the answers to the questions:
- Happiness in the morning is on the faces of the people as they wash their face before they begin a new day.
- Happiness in the afternoon is on the breast of the people as they swim to cool their bodies from the afternoon heat.
- Happiness in the evening is at the feet of the people, as they clean their feet after a whole day of work and prepare themselves for the night’s rest.
As soon as the vulture had uttered these answers, Dhammabal recovered from his fatigue, and hurried back to the palace. There he waited for the King of the Gods to answer the riddle.
The King of the Gods kept his word, since he had been defeated. But before he was beheaded, he called his seven daughters to him and ordered them to take care of his head. His head could not come into contact with the earth, for it would burn it. Contact with the air would evaporate the rain, and contact with the sea would make all the oceans dry up.
New Year – and every year an angel comes down to earth
After these terrible warnings, Kabil Moha Prum cut off his own head and handed it to Tungsa, his eldest daughter. Tungsa placed her father’s head on a metal plate and took it to Mount Someru. Tungsa and a trillion other angels circled around the Someru mountain before she brought her father’s head to the Kuntheakmali Temple in Heaven.
There, the angels created a magic meeting place where they could meet every year at Mount Someru. Each year since that day, on the Cambodian New Year (Sangkran) one of the seven daughters takes the father’s head in a ceremonial circle around Mount Someru to bring happiness and good weather for a good harvest to the earth before returning it to the Kuntheakmali temple in heaven.
You will find it quite similar with the legend of Songkran in Thailand, Lao New Year, or Thingyan Festival in Myanmar
How Do the Khmer Celebrate Their New Year?
The Khmer mark their New Year with purification ceremonies, visits to temples, and playing traditional games.
At home, observant Khmer do their spring cleaning and set up altars to offer sacrifices to the sky deities, or devodas, who are believed to make their way to the Mount Meru of legend at this time of year.
At the temples, entrances are garlanded with coconut leaves and flowers. Locals visit the pagodas and bring offerings of food, desserts, and other everyday items to appease their deceased ancestors.
The temple courtyards also become playgrounds for the Khmer, who play traditional Khmer games during this time of year. A game called angkunh, for example, uses large inedible nuts that are tossed and knocked about by opposing teams.
Modern Khmer New Year Day Celebrations
The celebration of Khmer New Year has evolved over the years and is now characterized by crowds of people, including tourists, roaming around and soaking each other. This involves gathering along the streets using water pistols, water hoses, and super soakers, throwing buckets of water, and basically soaking anyone they can see around them.
Although the celebration of Khmer New Year may have evolved, a lot of Cambodian people still use this holiday as an opportunity to head to their hometowns and spend time with their families and relatives. Buddhists, on the other hand, visit temples and pour water on the images of Buddha and on the hands of Buddhist monks as a sign of respect.
How Long Does the Khmer New Year Festival Last?
The Cambodian New Year is celebrated for three whole days, each with its own ritual significance and ceremonies.
Day 1: Maha Sangkran (មហាសង្រ្កាន្ត)
Maha Sangkran, derived from Sanskrit Maha Sankranti, is the name of the first day of the new year celebration. It is the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. People dress up and light candles and burn incense sticks at shrines, where the members of each family pay homage to offer thanks for the Buddha’s teachings by bowing, kneeling and prostrating themselves three times in front of his image. For good luck 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.
Day 2: Virak Vanabat (វិរ:វ័នបត)
Vireak Vanabat is the name of the second day of the new year celebration. People contribute charity to the less fortunate by helping the poor, servants, homeless, and low-income families. Families attend a dedication ceremony to their ancestors at monasteries.
Day 3: Vearak Loeng Sak (វារៈឡើងស័ក)
T’ngai Loeng Sak in Khmer is the name of the third day of the new year celebration. Buddhists wash the Buddha statues and their elders with perfumed water. Bathing the Buddha images is a symbolic practice to wash bad actions away like water clean dirt from household items. It is also thought to be a kind deed that will bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life. By washing their grandparents and parents, the children can obtain from them best wishes and good pieces of advice to live the life for the rest of the year.
New Year’s customs
In temples, people erect a sand hillock on temple grounds. They mound up a big pointed hill of sand or dome in the center which represents Valuka Chaitya, the stupa at Tavatimsa where the Buddha’s hair and diadem are buried. The big stupa is surrounded by four small ones, which represent the stupas of the Buddha’s favorite disciples: Sariputta, Moggallana, Ananda, and Maha Kassapa. There is another tradition called Sraung Preah: pouring water or liquid plaster (a mixture of water with some chalk powder) on elder relative, or people (mostly the younger generation is responsible for pouring the water).
The Khmer New Year is also a time to prepare special dishes. One of these is a “kralan”: a cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk. The mixture is stuffed inside a bamboo stick and slowly roasted.
Cambodian New Year Food
Khmer New Year is a time to party, and it is also a time to feast. During Khmer New Year, many families prepare special dishes. One such special dish is called kralan.
Kralan is a cake made by mixing steamed rice, beans or peas, grated coconut, and coconut milk. This sweet and sticky mixture is then stuffed inside a bamboo stick and slowly roasted.
Cambodia is home to a variety of games played to transform the dull days into memorable occasions. These games are similar to those played in Manipur, a north-eastern state in India. Throughout the Khmer New Year, street corners often are crowded with friends and families enjoying a break from routine, filling their free time with dancing and games. Typically, Khmer games help maintain one’s mental and physical dexterity.
A game played especially on the first nightfall of the Khmer New Year by two groups of boys and girls. Ten or 20 people comprise each group, standing in two rows opposite each other. One group throws the chhoung to the other group. When it is caught, it will be rapidly thrown back to the first group. If someone is hit by the chhoung, the whole group must dance to get the chhoung back while the other group sings to the dance.
Chab Kon Kleng
A game played by imitating a hen as she protects her chicks from a crow. Adults typically play this game on the night of the first New Year’s Day. Participants usually appoint a strong player to play the hen who protects “her” chicks, while another person is picked to be the “crow”. While both sides sing a song of bargaining, the crow tries to catch as many chicks as possible as they hide behind the hen.
The simple style consists of just throwing the Ongkunhs to hit the target Ongkunhs. The extended style adds five more stages in addition to the throwing stage. Both styles end with a penalty called Jours-activity that the winning team members get to perform on the losing team members. The Jours-activity is performed by using the Onkunghs the hit the knees of the losing team.
A game played by a group of children sitting in a circle. Someone holding a “kanseng” (Cambodian towel) that is twisted into a round shape walks around the circle while singing a song. The person walking secretly tries to place the “kanseng” behind one of the children. If that chosen child realizes what is happening, he or she must pick up the “kanseng” and beat the person sitting next to him or her.
A game played by two children in rural or urban areas during their leisure time. Ten holes are dug in the shape of an oval into a board in the ground. The game is played with 42 small beads, stones or fruit seeds. Before starting the game, five beads are put into each of the two holes located at the tip of the board. Four beads are placed in each of the remaining eight holes. The first player takes all the beads from any hole and drops them one by one in the other holes. He or she must repeat this process until they have dropped the last bead into a hole that lies besides any empty one. Then they must take all the beads in the hole that follows the empty one. At this point, the second player may have his turn. The game ends when all the holes are empty. The player with the greatest number of beads wins the game. It is possibly similar to congkak.
Khmer New Year Songs
For the song during new year, you have 2 options: classic & new one.
Here is the classic option
If you want a ‘little’ shake, here is your option