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Holiday in Cambodia: Celebrating the Richness of Khmer Culture

A little girl in Cambodia performs namaste as a friendly salute

For many travelers, the mention of Cambodia may evoke the haunting history of the Khmer Rouge and the devastating toll it took on the country's people. But beyond its troubled past, Cambodia is a vibrant and beautiful country, rich in culture and tradition. And what better way to experience things to do in Cambodia than by exploring its holidays?

From the colorful celebrations of Khmer New Year to the serene offerings of Pchum Ben, Cambodia's holidays offer a window into the country's deep spiritual roots and enduring resilience. As the punk rock band Dead Kennedys once sang, 'It's a holiday in Cambodia,' and indeed, there's much to discover and celebrate in this enchanting land.

A list of holidays and observances in Cambodia for each month of the year

Holidays in Cambodia
New Year's Day (January 1st)
Victory over Genocide Day (January 7th)
Meak Bochea Day (February 19th)
International Women's Day (March 8th)
Day of Remembrance (March 18th)
Khmer New Year (April 13th-15th)
International Labor Day (May 1st)
King Norodom Sihamoni's Birthday (May 14th)
Royal Ploughing Ceremony (date varies)
Queen Mother's Birthday (June 18th)
Buddhist Lent (date varies)
National Day of Remembrance (August 9th)
Constitution Day (September 24th)
Pchum Ben Day (date varies)
Water Festival (date varies)
Independence Day (November 9th)
Human Rights Day (December 10th)

Please note that the date might vary slightly. Remember to research the accurate information before you go. Now let’s have a look at several traditional and vital holidays in Cambodia.

1. Victory over Genocide Day (January 7th)

Every 7 Janurary, people of Cambodia remember the Victory over Genocide Day

Victory over Genocide Day is a public holiday observed in Cambodia on January 7th every year. The holiday marks the day when the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown by Vietnamese troops in 1979. This event ended the genocide that claimed the lives of an estimated 1.7 million people, including intellectuals, professionals, and people associated with the former regime.

On Victory over Genocide Day, the Cambodian government and people hold ceremonies and events to remember and honor the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. The day is also an opportunity to celebrate the country's progress in recovering from the genocide and to reflect on the lessons learned from that dark chapter in Cambodian history.

The main ceremony takes place at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, a former Khmer Rouge execution site, and other sites of mass killings, where people lay wreaths and light candles in memory of the victims. The day is also marked with speeches, prayers, and cultural performances.

2. Khmer New Year (Chaul Chnam Thmey): A Time of Joyful Celebration

Khmer New Year weapons: Water and baby powders

Khmer New Year, or Chaul Chnam Thmey, is one of the most anticipated holidays in Cambodia. This three-day celebration, which usually falls in mid-April, marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the Cambodian New Year.

1) The first day of Khmer New Year, called Moha Sangkran, is a time for Cambodians to pay homage to their ancestors and to Buddha. They visit pagodas and temples to offer prayers and blessings, and many participate in traditional ceremonies such as the pouring of water on Buddha statues.

2) The second day, called Virak Wanabat, is dedicated to giving back to the community. Cambodians donate food and other essentials to the less fortunate and participate in charitable events such as blood drives and tree plantings.

3) The third and final day of Khmer New Year, called Tngai Leang Saka, is all about fun and celebration. Families gather together for feasting and merrymaking, enjoying traditional games, music, and dance. Cambodians also engage in the playful tradition of throwing water and powder on each other to symbolize washing away the old year and ushering in the new.

3. Visakha Bochea (Buddha's Birthday): Celebrating the Birth of the Buddha

Visakha Bochea, the candlelit procession

Visakha Bochea, also known as Buddha's Birthday, is a special holiday celebrated by Buddhists around the world, including in Cambodia. The holiday commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha and falls on the full moon day of the sixth lunar month, typically in May.

One of the most iconic events of Visakha Bochea in Cambodia is the candlelit procession. Devotees carry candles and lotus flowers as they walk around the temple or pagoda, circling the main stupa three times in a clockwise direction. This symbolizes the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Another significant tradition during Visakha Bochea is the bathing of the Buddha statue. Buddhists pour scented water over the statue, representing the purification of the mind and body. This is often accompanied by the recitation of Buddhist scriptures and the offering of flowers and incense.

4. Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Preah Reach Pithi Chrot Preah Neangkol): A Celebration of Agriculture

A drawing of the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in Cambodia

Another holiday in Cambodia that offers a glimpse into its rich culture is the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, or Preah Reach Pithi Chrot Preah Neangkol. This ancient tradition dates back to the Angkor era and marks the beginning of the agricultural season. The ceremony is presided over by the king or a high-ranking member of the royal family, who leads a procession of oxen as they plow a field.

The ceremony is steeped in symbolism, with the plowing of the field representing the start of the farming season (in May, also during the rainy season in Cambodia climate) and the abundance of the harvest to come. After the plowing is complete, Buddhist monks offer blessings and prayers for a bountiful crop, and samples of rice, corn, and other crops are distributed to the crowd.

For visitors to Cambodia, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony offers a unique and fascinating insight into the country's agricultural heritage. It's a chance to witness an ancient ritual that has been performed for centuries and to experience the deep connection between the Khmer people and their land.

5. Pchum Ben (Ancestors' Day): Honoring the Ancestors

Local Buddhist monks prepare to eat food made by villagers and donated as offerings to the dead 

One of the most important holidays in Cambodia is Pchum Ben, also known as Ancestors' Day in October. This 15-day event is a time for Cambodians to pay their respects to their ancestors and deceased loved ones by offering food, prayers, and other offerings at temples and pagodas.

The holiday is based on the Buddhist belief that during the 15 days leading up to Pchum Ben, the gates of hell open, and the spirits of the dead are released to wander the earth. Cambodians believe that during this time, it's essential to honor and appease the spirits of their ancestors to ensure their well-being and protection.

During Pchum Ben, families gather together to prepare offerings of rice balls, sticky rice, and other traditional foods. They bring these offerings to pagodas and temples, where they offer prayers and seek the blessings of the monks. Many Cambodians also make offerings of money and other items to help support the upkeep of the temples.

6. Water Festival (Bon Om Touk): A Spectacular Display of Boats and Fireworks

Happy Khmer Water Festival

The Water Festival, or Bon Om Touk, is one of the most spectacular events in Cambodia's cultural calendar. This three-day festival celebrates the end of the rainy season (November) and the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River, where most of the floating villages in Cambodia settle down. The festival is a time for joyous celebration, as locals and visitors alike gather along the riverfront to watch the colorful boat races and fireworks displays.

The boat races are a highlight of the festival, with hundreds of brightly decorated boats, each with their own team of rowers, competing for glory. The boats are decorated with colorful flags and streamers, and the teams wear matching outfits, making for a truly stunning sight. The races take place on the Tonle Sap River, which is transformed into a sea of color and sound as the boats race past.

As night falls, the festival truly comes to life with a dazzling fireworks display. The sky is lit up with explosions of color and light, as locals and visitors alike gather to watch the show. The fireworks are a symbol of the joy and hope that this festival brings, and it's hard not to be swept up in the excitement of the moment.

Related itineraries recommended to Cambodia

3 Days Siem Reap Tour with Tonle Sap Lake

7 Days Cambodia Tour from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville

15 Days Exploration Tour of Cambodia

In conclusion

Cambodia's holidays offer a unique and unforgettable experience for travelers looking to immerse themselves in the country's rich culture and traditions. From the joyful celebrations of Khmer New Year and the Water Festival to the solemn rituals of Pchum Ben and the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, there's something for everyone to experience and enjoy.

So if you're planning a trip to Cambodia, be sure to schedule your visit around one of these incredible holidays and discover the magic of this fascinating country for yourself.

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