CAMBODIA’S SPECIAL FESTIVALS AND EVENTS
Cambodia has a wealth of traditional and international festivals. Most of these
are a time of great rejoicing for the predominantly rural populace, many of whom
flock to the capital to join in the celebrations and witness the organized
fireworks displays which accompany the festivals. It is at these times the
nation unites with a shared common understanding of values and traditions and
they are looked forward to with great expectation. Even in times of hardship
people try even harder to make these times special. All the traditional
festivals are influenced by the concepts of Buddhism, Hinduism and royal
cultures. The following are the most important of the celebrations organized
throughout the year.
Water Festival (October or November)
This vast festival is probably the most extravagant festival in the calendar.
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 the 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 strength 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
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 down
stream direction. The remarkable phenomenon that is the Tonle Sap sees the river
flowing upstream during the rainy season and then change direction as the rains
cease and the swollen Tonle sap lake empties back into the Mekong river leaving
behind vast quantities of the fish.
Pchum Ben (September)
This is the most culturally and religiously significant event of the year and is
celebrated in September. This festival of souls concentrates on blessing the
souls of ancestors, relatives and friends who have passed away. All Buddhist
temples, especially Wat Phnom, are the focal points for this festival and most
Cambodians visit the temples to make traditional offerings and pray.
King Sihanouk’s birthday celebration (October 31st)
This celebration revering the country’s influential king takes place in late
October or early November. People from all over the country come to the capital
to join in celebrations and festivities held throughout the capital. Often the
King’s birthday and Water festivals coincide resulting in a mammoth celebration
in front of the Royal Palace and along the riverfront. Provincial villagers who
would ordinarily have no reason to visit Phnom Penh will save up and make this
occasion their sole visit to the capital.
Khmer New Year’s Day (Mid April)
Celebrated at the same time as the Thai New Year all over the country this
festival marks the turn of the year based on the ancient Khmer calendar and also
marks the end of the harvest done during the year. Cambodians decorate their
homes to please the ‘Heaven God’ and many people can been seen on the streets
armed with small bags of water and water pistols to ‘bless’ people passing by.
This festival is one of the happiest times of the year with joyous smiling faces
everywhere you turn. Cambodians do recognize International New Year on 1 January
but there are no celebrations then.
This festival is held either in November or December and 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. King Sihanouk often attends when he is in residence in
Siem Reap and other dignitaries come to witness this wonderful spectacle.
Royal Plowing Day (May)
Cambodia has a deep connection with the Earth and farming, and there is a deep
astrological belief that the Ox has an instrumental role in determining the fate
of the agricultural harvest each year. Every year, in May, this cultural
ceremony takes place in the large park next to the Royal Palace and in front of
the National Museum. The King plays a key role in driving the Ox and depicting
real plowing activities in the process of growing rice. The Ox is given a
selection of foods and beverages to consume and the royal soothsayers interpret
what the Ox has eaten. For this festival both men and women can be seen wearing
brightly colored traditional Khmer costume.
This important ceremony takes place on the 9th of November at the site of the
Independence Monument at the junction of Norodom and Sihanouk Boulevards. This
ceremony celebrates Cambodia’s gaining of independence from France in 1953. All
over the city flags adorn the shop fronts and bunting stretched over all the
main thoroughfares as a sign of national pride.
Chinese New Year (January or February)
Due to the large number of people of Chinese descent who run much of Cambodia’s
business enterprises and Vietnamese immigrant communities, the Chinese New Year
is widely celebrated, especially in Phnom Penh. No Chinese festival would be
complete without fireworks and this time of year is no exception with many
wealthy families organizing their own private displays which light up the skies
for all to see.
National Day (January 7)
One of the more recent additions to the festival calendar, this day marks the
end of the Khmer Rouge regime. However for many Khmers it also marks the start
of the Vietnamese regime seen as another period of foreign occupancy.
International Half Marathon (Late December)
This International Half Marathon is held at Angkor Wat and attracts competitors
from all over the world. Thousands of people come to see this international
event held in the spectacular setting that is Angkor.
Other Holidays and Festivals
Cambodia also celebrates other special days including: International Women’s’
Day (8 March), International Workers’ Day (1 May), Genocide Day (9 May), Vesak
Buchea Day - the anniversary of the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha
(Late May), Plowing the Holy Furrow (Late May), Chol Vassa - Buddhist Lent
(July), and International Human Rights Day (10 December).