One international list that Cambodia tops is the country with the most holidays. The Kingdom has 28 public holidays per year. Many of these public holidays are Buddhist occasions. However, there are also celebrations for Independence from France, Human Rights Day or International Labour Day to name a few. Many of the latter public holidays often pass by without much ado. Yet, there are others where Phnom Penh and towns throughout Cambodia, either empty or fill up. The Cambodian countryside comes alive with festivities and there are fireworks. It is also a good time to be in-country and experience the Khmer way of life.
Festivals and Holidays in Cambodia
Happy New Years | Cambodian Style
Cambodia has not one, NOT TWO but three New Years: Khmer New Year, Chinese New Year and International New Year. The traditional calendar in Cambodia is the Khmer calendar is a lunar one. This means that the many holidays are subject to change every year.
Khmer New Year
Usually the Khmer New Year, or Chaul Chhnam Thmey starts on either April 14th, 15th or 16th. The Khmer New Year is, along with Ph’chum Benh and the Water Festival, one of the most important and popular holidays of the year. The Khmer New Year holiday lasts for at least three days. The holiday celebrates the end of the harvest, so farmers can enjoy the bounty of their work. Khmer New Year starts before the rainy season begins.
The Khmer New Year event is festive with parties and visits to the pagoda. In the days and weeks leading up to the New Year holiday, children play special holiday games in the streets.
New Year’s Eve offerings of food, drink and incense are set on tables bedecked with palm leaves in front of homes. The New Year happens at an hour set by the lunar calendar, which is not necessarily when the clock strikes midnight. New Year is also traditionally accompanied by throwing water and powder on friends and passers-by. Powder and water throwing is frowned upon in Phnom Pehn; however, the area around Wat Phnom experiences a lot of aqua-vivre on New Year’s.
Chinese New Year in Cambodia
Chinese New Year is not an official holiday in Cambodia; however, it is widely celebrated because of Cambodians with Chinese descent and ethnic Vietnamese. Depending on the lunar calendar, the celebration is held sometime between January and February. During this time, the lucky and auspicious red and yellow colours are on display.
Walking around Phnom Penh or other towns and villages, you will see homes and businesses decorated with red banners with gold Chinese characters and tables full of offerings such as red pig, drinks, fruits, cigarettes and other treats. “Lion dancers” can be seen performing at homes and businesses, accepting a wad of cash after performing at an establishment. On the night of New Year’s Eve people crowd pagodas to make offerings. Wat Phnom is a busy place during this time.
Meak Bochea (Magha Puja Day)
Meak Bochea falls on the day of the full moon of the third lunar month, and it commemorates a meeting between Buddha and some monks in which there were four significant events. It is where Buddha gave a speech laying out the principles of his teachings. Meak Bochea is an important Buddhist holiday though it is not as conspicuously celebrated as other holidays. As you can imagine, the pagodas are very busy and colourful on this day.
Visaka Bochea Day
Visaka Bochea Day, which falls on April 29th, is often referred to as ‘Buddha’s birthday’. The occasion celebrates the birth, enlightenment and passing of Buddha; the complete life cycle. It is a time when Cambodians go to the pagoda, make offerings and perform kind, generous and charitable acts, and reverent behaviour to earn merit.
Royal Ploughing Ceremony
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, or the Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal, marks the beginning of the rainy season and the planting season. In a ceremony led by the King or other high official, highly adorned sacred cows plough a furrow and then are led to trays containing rice, corn, beans and other food. Predictions about the next crops are made based on the how much and in what order the cows eat the food. Traditionally, ceremonies were held next to the Royal Palace. However, the ceremony is now held at different locations.
Bonn Pchum Ben
One of the most important holidays in Cambodia is Bonn Pchum Ben, which almost closes the country down. This is a great time to enjoy places such as Phnom Penh when it is quiet and traffic-free. There is also an air of spiritual reverence and holiday expectation throughout the country. One of the most important Khmer holidays of the year, it is a time to honour and care for ancestors, whose spirits are said to return to earth during this time. People travel far and wide to visit pagodas and make offerings of food, incense and money. All government offices and many businesses close for the holiday.
Cambodian Water and Moon Festival
Bonn Om Touk, also known as the Water Festival and the Boat Race Festival, celebrates the reversing of the current in the Tonle Sap River and marks the beginning of the fishing season. Traditional long-boat races are held on the Tonle Sap River centred in front of the Royal Palace. Dozens of colourful boats compete for prizes and honours.
Fireworks and a water-borne parade of festooned barges cap events in the early evening. People and vendors pack Riverside to watch the races and the whole area takes on a carnival atmosphere. The best views are from hotel balconies and the restaurants such as the FCC overlooking the river. Another great spot is the Phnom Penh Port.
The King’s Birthday Holiday(s)
The monarchy is held in high regard by many Cambodians and, as such, there are many commemorative days celebrating the royal family.
From May 13th to 15, Khmers celebrate the birthday of the King. This is followed by the birthday of former Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk. Cambodians also remember the late King Norodom Sihanouk’s birthday on October 15th.
And finally, on October 29, it is the anniversary of Coronation Day for the current King. At this time, the Palace is lit up at night and looks spectacular.
Other Holidays in Cambodia
There is also a slew of other holidays in Cambodia, which can be a raucous affair or pass by without much ado.
January 7th is Victory Day over Genocide Day, or liberation day. This day commemorates the fall of the Khmer Rouge on January and remembers those who were killed in the genocide and those who lost their lives in retaking the country. There are ceremonies held at Independence Monument.
There are also several holidays that pass without much fanfare and they are International Women’s Day on March 8th, International Labour Day on March 1st, International Children’s Day on June 1st, Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia on October 23rd, Independence Day on November 9th. On this day, ceremonies are held at Independence Monument in the morning and fireworks by Riverside in the evening. Finally, there is Human Rights Day on December 10th.
Always remember that whenever travelling to Cambodia or within the Kingdom, take note of any public holidays; it will make your time in the country more enjoyable.
List of holidays in Cambodia with dates
|International New Year||January 1st|
|Victory Day over Genocide Day (Liberation Day)||January 7th|
|Meak Bochea Day||Date depends on lunar cycle|
|International Women’s Day||March 8th|
|Khmer New Year||Date depends on lunar cycle|
|Visaka Bochea Day||April 29th|
|International Labour Day||May 1st|
|Royal Ploughing Ceremony||May 3rd|
|Birthday of the King (KING NORODOM SIHAMONI)||May 13th to 15th|
|Day of Remembrance||May 20th|
|International Children’s Day||June 1st|
|Former Queen’s Birthday (HER MAJESTY NORODOM MONINEATH SIHANOUK)||June 18th|
|Constitution’s Day||September 24th|
|Bonn P’chum Ben||October 8th to 10th|
|King Sihanouk Commemoration Day||October 15th|
|Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia||October 23rd|
|Coronation Day Anniversary (KING NORODOM SIHAMONI)||October 29th|
|Independence Day||November 9th|
|Water and Moon Festival||November 21st to 23rd|
|Human Rights Day||December 10th|
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