HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS IN CAMBODIA
At the end of the rainy season, it is said, a man dressed in a costume who rides a stick-pony-like deer enters homes to bring good luck. The deer symbolizes the dry season because deer are see most then. In a ceremony the deer is killed. This symbolizes the end of the rainy season and hopes that the coming rainy season will bring lots of rain.
Hair in Cambodia is considered a favorite hiding place for evil spirits. A rite of passage into dulthood for both boys and girls is getting a haircut. Elaborate thrones, supported by stilts and shaded with a red umbrellas, are built for the ceremony. Children have their heads shaved except for one lock of hair. When a child reaches puberty, a date set by a fortune-teller, the lock of hair is cut by monks. The child is now an adult and is free finally to grow his or her hair as long as he or she wants. [Source: John Ambercrombie, October 1964]
Cambodian Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year. Katum Festival features giving money to temples and monks.
Cambodians are one year old by reckoning of their calendar year.
Choul Chhnam Khmer (Cambodian New Year)
The Chol Chnam Thmay Festival (Khmer New Year) is held from the 1st to the 3rd day of Chet month (according to Buddhist calendar, equivalent to the 12th to 15th day of April by solar calendar). The traditional Tet (New Year) of the Khmer community, it is a time to see off the old year and welcome the New Year and pay respects to the God of the New Year, Buddha and ancestors. During these three days, Khmer people go to visit each other and wish good health, good luck and prosperity to each other. They also join in fun activities.
Cambodian New Year (Chaul Chnam Thmey, literallyeaning "Enter New Year" in the Khmer language) is held at the end of the harvesting season, when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor before the rainy season begins. Khmers living abroad may choose to celebrate during a weekend rather than just specifically April 13 through 15th. The Khmer New Year coincides with the traditional solar new year in several parts of India, Myanmar, Thailand and SriLanka. Cambodians also use Buddhist Era to count the year based on the Buddhist calendar. For 2012, it is 2556 BE (Buddhist Era). [Source: Wikipedia]
According to Tourism of Cambodia: “Some people have believed that for a period of one year the people always face the problems like diseases or serious obstacles to make them unhappy. When the one of the year they all had celebrated a great festival called "HAPPY NEW YEAR" and the people always prepare them-self, clean the house, and take food to offer the monks. They wear new clothes and play popular games. The festival usually is in 3 days period. The first day is "MOHA SANGKRAN" the second day is "VORNBORTH" and the third day is "THNGAI LIENG SAK". For that time they start to change the old year when the angle comes to get the duties from the former angle were schedule clearly. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia =]
“Since the period of Norkor Thom, the Khmer people used the Lunar calendar, that why they dated Mekseh (name of the first lunar month, from mid-November to mid-December) as the Khmer New Year's month, and is the first month of the year. And Kadek (name of the last Lunar month) is the second one. After that, they turned to use the Solar calendar as the most, and they dated the Chetr (5th Lunar month) is the New Year's month, when the sun gets to the Mes Reasey. The Khmer New Year's day is often celebrated on the 13th April (Chetr), but sometime it is celebrated on the 14th April, because of the Solar calendar. The almanac which is base on the Solar calendar is called "Simple arrival or Sangkran Thormada. And the almanac which is based on the Lunar calendar, because the Lunar calendar is relevant to the Buddha's speeches. =
“Khmer New Year's day that is based on the Lunar calendar isn't regular, because we sometimes celebrate it in the night of the waxing moon (Khneut), or in the night of the waning moon. However, we usually celebrate it around one month. It means that we don't do it before 4th Keut of Khe Pisak (name of the Solar day) of Khe Chetr and not after 4th Keut of Khe Pisak (name of the 6th Lunar month), so that some of the Khmer people celebrate their New Year's day in Khe Chetr, such as the documents written by Mr. Chio-Takran, Khmer people celebrate this celebration with playing the hand-scarf-throwing game and they gather the statues of Buddha from everywhere to bath. In the other hand, the inscription in stone at Preah Khan is also stated this. =
“The reason that cause to finish the old year for the are that: There have been some people believe that there is a story as following one time there were a person "KABEL MORHAPROHM" who asked three questions to "THORM BAL KOMA, the millionaire's on, who had known the three percepts of "TRAI VITH" and ail kinds of the animal's languages. They all had promised to cut the head of the person who failed the exam "THORM BAL" have no way to find the solution, he felled very hopeless, fortunately, there were two eagles which had spoken about these questions to make "THORM BAL" could find the way to settle the problems. The time of gambling arrived "THORM BAL " had spoken that: 1. In the morning, the happiness is on the face that is why all people have to wash their face. 2. In the afternoon, the happiness is on the breath to make the people take water to wash the breath. 3. In the evening, the happiness is on the foot to make the people wash their food in the evening. =
“The result had broken out "KABEL MORHAPROHM" had to cut his head to give to the oldest had take it go around PRAS SOMERU mountain about 60 minutes after they all bring it to put in the center of KUHA KUNTH MALAY of KAILA mountain. In the end of the year the 7 females angles had changed their turn to take the head and go around the mountain every year till the present. This is the reason to cause "SANG KRAN" or changing the old year into the New Year. =
Celebrating Choul Chhnam Khmer
A few days before the Khmer New Year's day, they prepared some food, clean their house, bought some news and so on. When the New Year's Day comes, they prepare something such as 5 candles, 5 incenses, a pair of 5 Baysey, a pair of Baysey Baklam, a pair of Slathor (a ceremonial ornament made with a banana tree trunk bake), a tray of cigarettes, some flowers and some fruits to sacrifice to the new heaven. When every is ready, they sit together near that place and light the candles to pray for happiness from the new heaven and start to pray before breaking each other. On the other hand, we have different celebrations during these 3 days of New Year's Day. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia =]
On the first day, they take some food to offer the monks at the monastery in the evening, they gather the sand to build up a sandal mountain around the pagoda or around the bany tree in the early evening, and they some drink to the monks and invite them to bany. On the second day, children give some new clothes and money to their parents and grandparents. They also give some gift to their maids and poor people. In the evening, they go to build up the sandal mountain and start to bany that they consider it a Cholamony Chedey and ask the monks to bony and offer them the food to dedicate this sin to the spirit of the ancestor. =
In the morning of the third day, they also invite the monks to bany for the sandal mountain. And in the evening, they bath the monks and statue of Buddha. During this third day, the people also play some traditional games such as the hand-scarf-throwing game, they kick the nuts game, the tug of war game, trot dancing (Battambang, Siem Reap). They also dance some traditional dancing such as Rorm Vong, Rorm Khbach…. etc. =
Three Days of Chol Chnam Thmay Festival
The Khmer people’s new year festival lasts three days and four days in leap years. Each of these days has its own name. Apart from worshipping the Buddha, Khmer people believe that every year the heaven sends a god called Tevoda to the earth to look after human beings and their life. At the end of the year, the god returns to heaven and another one will replace him. Therefore, in the new year’s eve, every family prepares a party, burns incense and lights up lamps in a ceremony to see off the old Tedova and greet the new one. They also pray to this god for good luck.
Khmer people always prepare for the new year ceremony very carefully. They clean and redecorate their house and buy necessary food for the holidays. They stop all farm work, relax and set free their cattle. The three official festival days are held in a joyful and exciting way.
The first day is for the ceremony to receive the great calendar. Moha Sang-Kran is considered a calendar which gives a detailed account of dates and festivals in a year and a forecast of rainfall so the villagers can foresee if they get a good or bad crop that year. On this day, at a selected hour no matter it is in the morning or afternoon, people take a bath and put on their best clothes in anticipation of the new year. They take incense, lamps, flowers and fruits to a pagoda where they do the great calendar-receiving ceremony. At the pagoda, Moha Sang-Kran, put on a red-lacquered, gilded tray, is placed on a palanquin and carried three times round the main sanctuary. This rite is to welcome the new year and wait for omens for a bad or good new year. Then the official ceremony is carried out inside the sanctuary. After that, every participant prays to the Buddha and chant prayers for a happy new year. Young males and females walk out to the pagoda yard and join in fun activities until late at night.
The second day is for the ceremony to offer boiled rice and heap up a sandy mountain. On this day, every Khmer family cooks rice and offers it to Buddhist monks at the pagoda in early morning and at noon. The monks chant prayers to thank those who make the food and bring it to their pagoda and say good luck to them. On the afternoon the same day, people start to heap up a sandy mountain in search of happiness and luck. They make small mountains looking to eight directions and one in the middle which represent the universe. This custom originates from an age-old legend. It displays people’s aspirations for rain.
The third day is for the ceremony to wash the Buddha’s statue and Buddhist monks. After giving boiled rice to the monks in the morning, they continue to listen to Buddhist teachings. In the afternoon, they burn incense, offer sacrifices and use scented water to wash the statue in order to pay tribute and gratitude to the Buddha. This is also to get rid of the old year’s misfortunes and wish all the best for the new year. The monks do a ceremony to pray for peace in the dead’s souls. After that, the people return to their house and wash the Buddha’s statue at home. They offer dishes, confectionery and fruits to ask for happiness for their parents and grandparents and being forgiven for their mistakes made in the old year.
Spirits, Possessions Mark End to Chinese New Year
Hei Neak Ta parade in Phnom Penh's Meanchey district to mark the end of the Chinese New Year. During the 'Parade of Mediums' holy men dressed in royal red and yellow chant prayers and go into trances—some say with the help of opium and wine. Spirits then come down from heaven and inhabit their bodies. Some mediums try to spill blood on the spirits by doing things like slicing their tongues with a spear or piercing their cheeks with a spike. After this they ride through the streets on a bed of nails which is placed on top of a chariot. To the sound of drums and gongs the chariots are wheeled through the streets for two days.
Dene-Hern Chen and Chin Chan of the Cambodian Daily wrote: “Surrounded by hundreds of cheering children and adults, the procession of Chinese spirits wailed in the distance. As trucks decked with colorful dragon flags and makeshift altars snaked through the narrow roads of Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, Sok Mean, 73, a rotund man flanked by two sweaty helpers, was the first of the possessed spirit mediums to descend onto earthly soil. Channeling the Chinese spirit of Koma Sok Meas, or Golden Haired Child, Mr. Mean approached an altar outside a home in Chbar Ampov commune as dozens of women, men and children sank to their knees and prayed. Dene-Hern Chen and Chin Chan, Cambodian Daily, February 27, 2013]
Considered a good spirit, Golden Haired Child, or Mr. Mean, smiled benignly as he threw sweets to the children and sprinkled sacred water on the many supplicants from a red plastic bucket. Four other spirit mediums dressed in the similar finery of ancient Chinese lords and ladies—amber, baby-blue, onyx and white regalia—followed Mr. Mean. One of the spirits, dressed in onyx with red wine dripping down his mouth, received particular attention as he downed alcohol and spat it out at people. When the medium returned to his spirit truck, he sat upon a chair of nails, but leaned heavily upon one of his helpers to prevent his whole weight from bearing down on the sharp spikes below his bottom. Teenagers nearby filmed him with their smartphones.
According to Mr. Mean, who spoke by phone after the Golden Haired Child spirit had left his body at around 6:30 p.m., spirit possession is a family affair. His father and grandfather both experienced the same possessions. He said the spirit of Kong Pheng, a Chinese war commander, chose members of his family to embody the spirit.
“I don’t know from what century” Kong Pheng hails, he said, adding that his body was overtaken by the Golden Haired Child early yesterday morning. “During the spirit parade, my soul stays in the incense in the front of the truck, and the spirit stays in my body so I can’t feel anything,” Mr. Mean said. “For old people like me, the spirit does not stay in me long, maybe for only 10 hours. But young people can be possessed for an entire day.” “Not all the spirits are angels. Some are ghosts, some are soldiers, and the bad ones would possess people and cheat the public,” he added. “They do not really take care of the people.”
Known as the Hei Neak Ta, or Spirit Parade, the festival is held each year to mark the official end of the Chinese New Year celebrations in a uniquely Khmer manner. While the holiday is known as the Lantern festival in other parts of Asia, and is celebrated solely on the 15th day of the lunar calendar, festivities in Cambodia can go on for three to four days and often feature elaborate parades with a wide range of spirit mediums.
“The spirits came here to bless this street and I have taken part in this ceremony for almost 30 years,” said Ly Yung, 62, whose home on Street 367 was blessed yesterday by Mr. Mean. Lin Li Tan, director of Fujian Ming Sheng Chinese School, which houses a Chinese temple visited by hundreds each year who pray for the spirits to enter their bodies, explained that spirit mediums will often prick their tongues with needles and then lick their blood onto spirit money for good fortune.
“Sometimes, when they put the blood on the [spirit money], it’s for extra protection,” Ms. Li Tan said. As the procession left her street, Ms. Yung remarked that the spirit parade was growing smaller each year. “In previous years, there were more spirits and the people that the spirits entered were all old. But this year, the spirits have entered some new young people” Ms. Yung said. While yesterday’s Hei Neak Ta had hundreds participating in it, another parade scheduled to travel from Takhmao City along National Road 2 this afternoon will attract even more revelers and will feature more spirit mediums, and likely more bleeding from the mouth after having their tongues pierced with a needle.
Pchum Ben Day
Prachem Bem, the Buddhist Day of the Dead, is one of the biggest holidays of the year. Large crowds gather at temples and make offerings of rice, bananas, chicken, fish, bread and eggs to deceased relatives while monks chant their names in the temples. As one Cambodian man explained to National Geographic, “All the dead come to the pagodas on this day to find their families. If the relatives can’t be found, they will be scolded by the spirits and won’t be successful in business.” Prachem Bem is a festive occasion with families eating picnics, sometimes including the offerings left on temple floors and grounds.
According to Tourism of Cambodia: “October is the month when Cambodian people celebrate the festival of Phchum Ben. Together with Khmer New Year in April, Phchum Ben is the most important festival in the Khmer religious calendar. Cambodians have faithfully observed the festival every year for as long as anyone can remember. The word 'Ben' in Khmer means to collect; 'Ben' also means to cup or mould cooked rice into portions. To 'Ben Baht' means to collect food to give to monks. The word 'Phchum' means to congregate or to meet together. Regardless how busy they may be during the fifteen days of Phchum Ben.” [Source: Tourism of Cambodia =]
Cambodian people try not to miss a visit to the pagoda to dedicate food and offerings to the dead. The festival's final day, September 28th, is the actual day of Phchum Ben, when people traditionally meet together at the pagoda, said the Venerable Ly Sovy of Lang Ka pagoda. By doing this, Cambodians show respect for their ancestors. Everyone goes to the pagoda every year to honor this tradition, and nobody complains. "According to [Buddhist] belief, people feel sorry for and remember their relatives who have passed away," Ly Sovy said. "They may be their parents, grandparents, a sister, a brother, daughter or son."=
Story Behind Pchum Ben Day
Om Sam Ol, a monk at Steung Meanchey pagoda, explained more about the beliefs behind the festival: "During Phchum Ben, souls and spirits come to receive offerings from their living relatives," he said. "It is believed that some of the dead receive punishment for their sins and burn in hell - they suffer a lot and are tortured there," he added. "Hell is far from people; those souls and spirits cannot see the sun; they have no clothes to wear, no food to eat," Om Sam Ol continued. "Phchum Ben is the period when those spirits receive offerings from their living relatives and perhaps gain some relief. Relatives consecrate and dedicate food and other offerings to them." [Source: Tourism of Cambodia =]
Everyone goes to the pagoda because they don't want the spirits of dead members of their family to come to seek offerings at pagodas in vain. It is believed that wondering spirits will go to look in seven different pagodas and if those spirits can not find their living relatives' offering in any of those pagodas, they will curse them, because they cannot eat food offered by other people," the monk said. "When the living relatives offer the food to the spirit, the spirit will bless them with happiness", he added. =
According to the monk, legend has it that Phchum Ben came about because relatives of King Bath Pempeksa defied religious customs and ate rice before the monks did during a religious ritual. After their death, they became evil spirits. He explained that later when a monk known as Kokak Sonthor gained enlightenment and became a Buddha on earth, all those evil spirits went to ask him "when can we eat?"The Buddha said "you have to wait for the next Buddha in the Kathakot Buddhist realm. In this realm, evil spirits cannot eat." =
When the next monk, Kamanou, achieved enlightenment and became a Buddha, all the evil spirits came again to ask the same question, and he gave the same answer as the previous Buddha. Later another monk, Kasakbour, achieved enlightenment and became a Buddha, and the hungry evil spirits again asked him the same question. The Buddha told them the same thing - to wait for the next Buddha. The final Buddha, Preah Samphot - also known also as Samanakkodom - said to the evil spirits, "Wait for your relative, King Bath Pempeksa, to offer merits and dedication. When the dedication is made, the food will be yours to eat." =
King Pempeksa finally made an offering, but he did not dedicate the offering to the spirits of his relatives. All the spirits that were related to him cried that night. And when King Bath Pempeksa went to the Valovan pagoda to visit the Buddha, he was told by the Buddha that, "All the spirits of your relatives are crying, demanding food. The spirits should get food in the realm of Kathakot. Although you offered food and did good deeds, you did not dedicate the food and good deeds to them." So King Bath Pempeksa made another dedication and offering, and this time he dedicated the food and merits to his relatives. The evil spirits received the dedication and were finally reborn into paradise. =
"It is believed that some of the dead receive punishment for their sins and burn in hell - they suffer a lot and are tortured there," he added. "Hell is far from people; those souls and spirits cannot see the sun; they have no clothes to wear, no food to eat," Om Sam Ol continued. "Phchum Ben is the period when those spirits receive offerings from their living relatives and perhaps gain some relief. Relatives consecrate and dedicate food and other offerings to them." =
Royal Ploughing Ceremony in Cambodia
The Royal Plowing Ceremony (Pithi Chrat Preah Neanng Korl in Khmer) is an ancient royal rite held in Cambodia and Thailand to mark the traditional beginning of the rice-growing season. The ceremony is also practiced in Thailand and was and was practiced in pre-colonial Burma until 1885 when the monarchy was abolished. The traditional date of the Burmese royal ploughing ceremony was the beginning of the Buddhist lent in the Burmese month of Waso (June to July). In 2009, the ceremony was held on May 11 in Thailand and on May 12 in Cambodia. The date is usually in May, but varies as it is determined by Hora (astrology) (Khmer: , hourasastr; Thai: , horasat). [Source: Wikipedia]
In the ceremony, two sacred oxen are hitched to a wooden plough and they plough a furrow in some ceremonial ground, while rice seed is sown by court Brahmins. After the ploughing, the oxen are offered plates of food, including rice, corn, green beans, sesame, fresh-cut grass, water and rice whisky. Depending on what the oxen eat, court astrologers and Brahmins make a prediction on whether the coming growing season will be bountiful or not. The ceremony is rooted in Brahman belief, and is held to ensure a good harvest.In Cambodia, both King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen have overseen the rite.
According to Tourism of Cambodia: “Although there are various other scientific methods to forecast the weather and to determine harvests, Cambodians have their methods to foretell the future. Through traditional rituals that are often ceremoniously celebrated nationwide, Cambodians are warned of calamities, assured of good harvest and so forth. The Royal Ploughing ceremony, and the Festival of Water and Full Moon Salutation (Pithi Bonn Om Touk and Ak Ambok Sampeah preah Kher in Khmer) are such ceremonies. Predictions gleaned from these traditional ceremonies for the coming year are taken very seriously. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony predicts the weather, epidemics and farming conditions. By observing what feed the royal oxen choose after the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, Cambodians believe they can predict a range of events including epidemics, floods, good harvests and excessive rainfall. The Royal Ploughing Ceremony has been observed for many centuries at the initiative of an earlier Khmer king who had paid great attention to farming conditions of the people. Traditionally, the Pithi Chrat Pheah Neang Korl is performed in the month of the Khmer calendar and marks the beginning of the rainy season in Cambodia. When asked, most Cambodians stand staunchly by these traditional methods of predicting the future and vouch for their accuracy. It is comforting to believe that the angels are still watching over us. As they say in Cambodia, long live the Khmer traditions. Long Live Cambodia
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony was on May 9 in 2012 at the Veal Preahmein Square, situated across the road from the northern perimeter of the Royal Palace. At the end of a symbolic Ploughing procession before His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk, the royal oxen were relieved of their harnesses and led to seven golden trays containing rice, corn, sesame seeds, beans, grass, water and wine to feed. The royal oxen chose to eat out of only three trays this year and because their feast consisted of varying percentages of rice and corn while they largely ignored the trays of sesame seeds, grass, water and wine, prognostications were as follows: Farmers would enjoy a moderate output for their rice harvest but good yields in secondary crop production, especially corn and beans. Because the royal oxen only sniffed on the tray of water and turned away from the wine, the prediction was made that farmers would not suffer any serious floods.
Every year, Cambodian farmers anxiously await the predictions at the end of this ritualistic ceremony, which they observe with strong faith and belief. Most Cambodians today still consult traditional manuals before making any major decisions regarding business matters or meeting important persons, etc. In 2007, the sacred oxen predicted the worst harvest in a decade.
Water Festival and Boat Racing
The Water Festival (The Pirogue Racing Festival) in Phnom Penh is a popular traditional festival. For three days Phnom Penh citizens, foreign tourists and peasants from various provinces gather in the capital to celebrate this festival night and day. Events include the regatta, the illuminated float (Loy Pratip) and moon salutation (Sampeas Preah Khe) ceremonies and the eating of special new rice with banana or coconut juice (Ork Ambok).
The water festival has its origins in army training exercises and preparing for battle. In ancient times water battles were sometimes key to winning wars and water competitions were used to pick the best sailors. Bayon Temple, Batteay Chhmar in the Preah Bat Jayvarman VII all depict water battles lead by Jayvarman VII. The water festival is celebrated every year in November to honor the victory of Cambodian Naval forces in the reign of King JayvarmanVII at Angkor in the 12th century. In addition the festival expresses thanks to three Buddhist symbols: 1) Gods and holy things which helped us and agriculture field; 2) an opportunity to pray for our lord for happiness; 3) and sufficient rain for rice cultivation.
According to to Tourism of Cambodia: “The ceremony last three days to provide opportunity for people to by part in competition that there were to types of boats from near and far of provinces, taking part in the races, the pirogue and the rowing boat. Each boat was manned by about thirty to forty men or women. The boat with a man or a woman dancing softly and gracefully to the rhythm of the drums on the bow as an encouragement to the rowers moved swiftly through the water. Race winners are rewarded with lots of goods such as: drink, money, clothes, rice, cigarettes and the commission of the boat racing day must seek donations in order to provide this prize for participants.
During the nighttime at about seven o'clock the river is lit by jazzy illuminated boats, which float slowly, and smoothly on the water's surface. Each of them is equipped with thousands of flashy neon lights arranged in different colorful, fancy patterns representing state institutions, ministries and services. After a little time fireworks and multi color are set off to entertain people. Some people make loud noises. They burst into different shapes and colors in the sky under the clapped and cheered with joy each time at the sight of the fireworks.
The Festival of Water and Full Moon Salutation is celebrated usually in late October. Drippings from burning candles predict rainfall distribution to provinces across the country.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014