Khiri’s pick of some of the best Cambodian festival experiences

Our Pick of Cambodia's Finest Festivals

Cambodia has three main festivals each year, starting in April with the Lunar New Year. In Khmer this is known as Chaul Chnam Thmey and typically runs for three days from around the 14th April. The actual festival days are quiet in Phnom Penh as locals tend to take this time to visit their homelands; however the party starts well before the new year starts.The week leading up to Khmer New Year sees lots of gatherings and friends getting together to eat, drink and be merry.

Like in many countries around the world where companies and organisations hold Christmas parties, this happens for Khmer New Year but with a couple of twists. Firstly, the party starts with a traditional feast of local fare and then the silly but fun party games start. This is followed by the giving of ‘kado’, which means ‘gift’ in English. Usually, each business partner donates a gift to each partner they work with and every guest leaves the event with anything from a rice cooker to a flat screen television in hand. The night finishes with traditional dancing which entails forming a circle where you take two steps forward and one step back, with gentle Apsara-like hand movements. Siem Reap puts on a big party for Khmer New Year – however, be warned! If you wish to participate in the festivities be prepared to be soaked with water and more than dusted with flour.

The next significant festival is Pchum Ben, which has adopted some strange alternative names such as the Festival of the Hungry Ghost or the Feeding the Ancestors Festival. It is a Buddhist festival and occurs on the 15th day of the 10th lunar month, so typically in September or October. This symbolic festival marks a time where the gates of heaven and hell are opened and the dead are welcomed back to enjoy a celebration. Food and drinks are offered to the ghosts as well as paper money, houses and, in our modern world, even items like computers and mobile phones. On the last day of the festival these paper items are burned in order for the ghosts returning to heaven or hell to take these gifts with them.
Cambodian people will start to visit their local pagoda about a month before the festival starts to pray and make small offerings to their ancestors. Like Khmer New Year the major cities are quiet as this is another time that is spent with family in the homelands.

The third and most exciting festival to be part of is Bon Om Tuk or Water, Moon and Floating Light Festival. Whilst not a religious festival the date is determined by the lunar full moon and occurs either late October or early November. It signifies many occurrences but namely the end of the monsoon season and the change in the flow of the Tonle Sap river, the only river in the world that changes direction due to a swell in the Mekong River which the Tonle Sap runs into and out of.

It is also the time of year where bananas, yams, coconuts and sweet potatoes are in full season and in abundance. This festival is nothing short of spectacular and there is an exciting vibe in the air – unlike the other festivals, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are where all the action is. The population of Phnom Penh doubles as local people travel from the provinces to partake in the celebrations. There is a real carnival atmosphere and it feels like the city does not sleep for the full three-day duration of this festival.

The two major events are dragon boat racing during the day and the simply breathtaking illuminated floats that parade up and down the river at night. Thousands of people fill the banks of rivers throughout the country to witness the dragon boat races and the finals are held on the last day. The typical dragon boat will have 20-22 paddlers facing the bow of the boat and one drummer or caller at the helm. They row in unison and can reach some very impressive speeds of up to 20 kmph.

The city is filled with stages where live music is performed and each evening is capped off with a dazzling fireworks display. If you want to experience a unique and memorable Cambodian festival then Bon Om Tuk is the one – it’s crazy but it really is like no other festival on the planet.

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