It has been a long while since I was back in the villages and I certainly miss seeing all my friends, families, students and teachers. In fact, this is the longest 14 months that I have been away from the community I serve and the people I care deeply about.
I like April as it is one of the most festive months of the year where the Cambodians celebrate their New Year. I was fortunate enough to share a few New Year celebrations in the past hence the curiosity to dig a bit deeper to understand the customs behind and how things have evolved over the years.
This year, the Khmer New Year is from 14th to 16th April and in the middle of a 2-week school holiday. Khmer people form the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia with 97% presentation of the country’s 15.9 million population, hence it is commonly called Khmer New Year. In the Khmer language (the second most widely spoken Austroasiatic language), it is called 'Chaul Chnam Thmey' (ចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី) and that means 'Entering the New Year'.
Majority of the Khmer People follow Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism, which is also the country official religion. Khmer New Year is based on the traditional solar new year, that was observed in parts of India and Asia. It falls on either April 13th or April 14th each year depending on the dictates of an ancient horoscope reading. In Cambodia, it also marks the end of the harvest before the beginning of the rainy season.
Khmer New Year is full of traditions and rituals and it is commonly celebrated over 3 days and interestingly, each day of the festivity has a special significance:
As a senior (not by age but by status 😉) in the village, I was offered to be bathed by a group of my students and children. For sure, I was embarrassed at first as I haven’t had a public shower before nor being bathed by anyone but my own parents! But I felt very at ease quickly as I absolutely can feel the well wishes and intent, not to mention the fun of splashing water at one another.
In addition to these traditions during the 3 days of the New Year celebrations, there are also some very special customs. For example, there are sand hillocks mounded on the grounds of the pagoda which represent the stupas of the Buddha's favourite disciples.
Nowadays, the most common game is anything to do with water! Without any exceptions, you get completely soaked if you happen to be in Siem Reap city during the New Year. As many of the Khmer people love to line up on the streets with their blessing (WATER) ready to throw at anyone passing by with their water pistols or even just buckets!
Khmer New Year is also a time to prepare special dishes and one of the typical food eaten at New Year is ‘Kralan’, a cake made from sticky rice, beans, and coconut milk. When it comes to Khmer dishes, my favourites are Beef Lok Lak with Kampot Pepper Dipping Sauce and Banh Chev (Khmer Savoury Pancake).
I long to return to the village and experience the authentic beautiful Khmer culture again. Let me know if you have that desire too?