by Greg Jorgensen
Cambodia’s complicated history is full of tragedies and triumphs in equal measure. From the riches of a vast Khmer empire, to-and-fro wars with neighbors, and protection as a French colony, to independence, war, poverty and recovery, the Cambodian people are a product of a tumultuous past. But the future looks increasingly bright, and the one thing you can always count on in Cambodia is the locals’ pride in their heritage and culture, which shines throughout the country and especially during the many festivals they celebrate. Here are some of our favorites:
Sort of like a reserved cousin of the more raucous celebrations in Thailand, the April new year festival is based on the ancient lunar calendar, and sees Cambodians throughout the country literally cleaning house – tidying up, decorating and making sure everything is in order. There’s also temple visits, making merit and listening to sermons, which is capped by celebrations on the final day that sees lots of water splashing and fun in preparation for a new year ahead, full of promise.
Royal Ploughing Ceremony
Like many of the countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s past, present and future owe a lot to agriculture. In early May, this ceremony – which dates from Hindu ceremonies about 800 years ago – is meant to give everyone a good idea of what the coming year will hold as (holy) cows are used to plough a field and then given a choice of food to eat. Based on their choice, they will know whether to expect floods, drought, famine or a rich bounty. There’s not a ton of pageantry, but at the very least it’s an interesting photo-op, and a unique peek into a lesser-known yearly ritual.
Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day)
This is actually the last day of a larger holiday called Dak Ben, which is held during the last week of September. Much like the well-known Mexican Day of the Dead, Cambodians pray, light candles and make offerings to their ancestors in order to guide them home. It also takes on a more personal and tangible meaning for many Cambodians who lost loved ones during the Khmer Rouge occupation in the late 1970’s, some of whom simply disappeared and were never seen again. Celebrants usually visit at least seven different temples during the period, and some even more than that.
Although they don’t have an alien invasion movie based around this holiday, Cambodians celebrate it on November 9 with the same pride and fervor that Americans do. As a colony of France from 1867-1953, Cambodia gained independence after a series of monarchal wranglings in which King Norodom Sihanouk prevailed. Nowadays the event is celebrated most vividly in Phnom Penh, when the King lights a flame in a ceremony attended by royalty, politicians and VIP guests. There are also parades and fireworks to mark the event.
Bon Om Touk (Water Festival)
Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake is a vital part of the economy and ecology of the kingdom. But during the end of the rainy season in November a strange thing happens – it begins to empty, causing the Thonle Sap River to reverse direction and flow towards the capital Phnom Penh. When the waters finally recede, the lake is packed to the (ahem) gills with fish, a boon to surrounding communities. The event is celebrated with parades, boat races and fireworks, mainly in Phnom Penh. Huge crowds party, music is blasted in the street, and the merriment is hard to avoid. And you guessed it, around June when rains begin to fall again and run-off from snow melt in the Himalayas comes, the river reverses direction again and fills the lake!