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Ten Things You Need to Know About Khmer New Year

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he most popular Cambodian holiday is just around the corner, so mark your calendars for Khmer New Year (KNY) from April 14 to 16th this year. KNY is one of the biggest holidays celebrated in Cambodia, many families gather in the countryside to celebrate the New Year and honor their ancestors. Running from Thursday, April 14, to Saturday, April 16, in 2022, KNY celebrations return after its two years hiatus.
Here are 10 things to remember in celebrating the Cambodian New Year.

Celebrated Internationally

KNY is called “Choul Chnam Thmey” in Khmer and is the traditional celebration of the solar new year in Cambodia. The three-day public holiday marks the end of the harvesting season before the rainy season and begins on April the 13th, 14th or 15th depending on the ancient horoscope of “Maha Sangkran”. This holiday is also celebrated by other Buddhist countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

First Day – “Maha Sangkran”

The first day of Khmer New Year is called “Maha Sangkran”, which indicates a great movement of the sun’s position into a new zodiac sign. Traditionally, people will travel to the temples to offer monks food in the morning and receive blessings. For good luck, people wash their faces with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet in the evening before they go to bed.

Traditional Clothes

On the first day of Khmer New Year, people wear new clothes to welcome the “angel” of the new year that comes on the day. Traditionally, the “sampot” or “sarong” is a fabric wrapped on the lower body style popular among men and women. “Chang Pong” is a cloth of any color, worn across the shoulder over the upper area of the woman.

Guardian Angel of the New Year

This is also the day when people celebrate the rising of the new angel(“Tevida”) of the new year. The new angel is decided depending on the day and time of the first day of the new year changes based on solar calendars. Preparations for the angel’s favorite foods are usually arranged on a table and people will light incense when the angel rises on an auspicious time. There are different angels that represent each of the seven days of the week. This year falls on Thursday, so expect Keriny Tevy, who is adorned with a Mondea flower tucked behind her ear and an emerald around her neck. She loves beans and sesames as a treat and will arrive on an elephant carrying a harpoon and a gun.

Second Day: “Veareak Vanabat”

The second day of Khmer New Year is a time for charitable acts, many do so by helping the poor and less fortunate, some may travel with their families to monasteries to pay respect to their ancestors. On the evening of this day, many people will build a mountain of sand surrounded by four smaller mounds to represent Buddha and his diciplies to honour their ancestors of the past. Monks will bless them with happiness and peace.

Third Day – “Leung Sakk”

On the third day of the New Year celebrations, people will wash and clean Buddha statues with scented water in a ritual called the “Pithi Srang Preah” ceremony. Bathing the Buddha images is a symbolic way to wash away the bad deeds of the past year and is traditionally done to bring luck to Cambodia on receiving the water it needs for the year. It is also seen as a kind deed that will bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life. By washing their grandparents and parents, the children can receive good luck for the rest of the year.

Songkran Water Fights

Although the water blessing is steep in cultural traditions, the ceremony has evolved into fun water fights for the younger generation. Siem Reap is known to hold the Songkran celebrations, where everyone celebrates with water fights and loud music. These offerings of water and baby powder can develop into fun street battles engaged in water guns, throwing water balloon bombs, and splashing buckets of water on each other. Many people will shower each other with white powder (talc powder or flour) both for fun and as a symbol of cleanliness.

Special Foods

The Khmer New Year is also a time to prepare unique dishes of egg rolls, “ya-hon” (Khmer hot pot), Kralan (steamed rice cake mixed with beans, grated coconut, and coconut milk that’s stuffed inside a piece of bamboo and roasted), “Lort Cha” (noodles), “Num Pang”(baguette sandwiches), and Khmer Fish Amok (steamed curry). One of the most prized dishes, “Nom Ansom”, is typically served as a sweet sticky rice dessert with banana, but it can also be served savoury with pork and a potato-like starch filling.

Dancing at Night

Expect to see everyone celebrating with traditional and modern dance, often in a circle around a table or with a vase of flowers in the center. At the setting of the sun and as the day cools into the night, locals revel in the celebration of the new year with music and dancing.

Leak Kanseng game at Khmer New Year, photo: Lyheng

Traditional Folk Games

In the villages the people engage in traditional Khmer games, they play games such as the Bas Angkunh ‘seed throwing’, Chaol Chhoung ‘twisted-scarf throwing’, Leak Kanséng ‘twisted-scarf hide’ and dance to traditional Khmer songs.

● Leak Kanseng: Similar to the westernized children’s game of “duck, duck, goose,” this is a game played by a group of young people sitting in a circle. Someone holding a “kanseng” or “krama” (Khmer towel or scarf) 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. Once chosen, the person marked must pick up the “kanseng” and tag the person sitting next to him or her or and run to find a place to sit. The song imitates a hen protecting her chicks from a crow. The hen must protect the chicks, while another person is 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.

● Donderm Sleok Cher: players are divided into two groups and stand 30 feet from each other. A referee will call a number of a member of each team. The two members will try to be the first to grab the tree branch in the middle.

● Teanh Proat: a tug-of-war game with teams of boys and girls pitting their strengths by pulling on the rope.

● Chol Chhoung: The Chhoung game is made up of young men and women in Cambodia divided into two groups – one male and one female group. There are 10 or 20 people standing in front of each other, separated by about 8 or 10 meters. They take a scarf or towel (Krama) that’s tied into a ball with knots, leaving a little tail. This is called “Chhoung”. Each group takes turns throwing the “Chhoung” while singing and dancing while throwing, and the other group has to catch and throwback while singing and dancing. If one member misses the Chhoung, he or she has to perform some kind of comedy act.

Written by Sotheavy Nou

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