Daily Life :: Festivals & Celebrations

The two largest festivals are the Khmer New Year and Pisakh Bochea.

Khmer New Year (Bonn Chaul Chhnam) - The Khmer equivalent of Songkran in Thailand and Pi Mai Lao in Laos. The celebration lasts for three days in April.

  1. On the first day, people dress up in their new/best clothes, light candles and burn incense sticks at shrines. They pay homage to Buddha by bowing, kneeling and prostrating themselves three times before his image. For good luck and happiness, people wash their face with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet in the evening before they go to bed.

  2. On the second day, people contribute to charity and the less fortunate. Children give their elders gifts; and families also attend a dedication ceremony to their ancestors at the monastery.

  3. On the third day, devotees cleanse the Buddha statues with perfumed water. They believe that bathing the Buddha images will bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life. On this day, the people also build sand stupas in the temple grounds.
Water Festival (Bonn Om Tuk) - Festival of the Reversing Current

Dragon Boat Race during Bonn Om Tuk
During the rainy season, the Mekong overflows its banks and water backs up into the Sab River and flows into the Tônlé Sap Lake causing the lake to swell to about five times its dry season size. However, during the dry season, the water level in the Mekong subsides and water in the Sab reverses its direction and flows back into the Mekong. As a result of this annual phenomenon, the Tônlé Sap is rich in freshwater fish and the surrounding farmlands rich in sediment.

The three-day festival, at the end of the rainy season (mid-November), celebrates the river's reversing current. It draws tens of thousands of people to the river banks who come to watch dragon boat races, lighted flotilla and fireworks.

Each dragon boat (up to 20m long) is paddled by 40-50 rowers who are kept in time by a skipper who beats a rhythm using a ceremonial paddle. Then for three days, the boats race against each other in pairs until a final winner is declared.

As the sun sets on the last day of the festival, all the boats line up and the most beautifully decorated vessel then sails calmly out alone into the centre of the river where it performs the "cutting of the string" ceremony. The string symbolizes a gate that retains the water. The cutting symbolizes the reversal of water flow, marking the end of floods and the start of the fishing season as large quantities of fish are ushered back into the Mekong as the water empties from the Tônlé Sap Lake.