Cambodian loves a good celebration and festivals provide the opportunity for family members scattered across the country to reconnect and reassert their sense of togetherness.
Many of Cambodia’s festivals, such as Bon Chol Vassa and Meak Bochea, are based on lunar cycles. Thus, dates for these festivals change from year to year.
Apart from being solemn religious occasions, these festivals present rural Khmers with an excuse to return home to visit family. Celebrations are often followed by partying, funfairs, and fireworks.
Cambodia has three seasons – hot, rainy, and cool – which influence several festivals, especially in rural areas since agriculture is the main livelihood for a majority of the population.
Cambodia’s Dry Season
Temperatures ratchet up in February, which is the start of the hot season, and keep rising until April, which is the hottest month. April also marks the end of the harvest. The sweltering heat and high humidity can test visitors’ endurance.
Victory Day – January 7th, nationwide. This holiday commemorates the victory of the Vietnamese over the Khmer Rouge’s bloody regime. Celebrations are marked by exhibitions and remembrance services.
Chinese New Year – end of January/early February), nationwide. This exciting, vibrant festival sees the city’s streets thronging with colourful dragon dancers and processions, along with firework displays at every corner.
Although this is not a national holiday, it is a widely celebrated festival and many Chinese commercial businesses shut down for its duration. There is a large population of Chinese in Phnom Penh, along with a significant number of Vietnamese who also celebrate Tet (New Year) at the same time.
Wealthy families eager to flaunt their fortunes organize elaborate private firework displays.
Meak Bochea end of January/early February full moon), nationwide. The name of this festival means Big Prayer and it is one of the holiest and most important ceremonies in the Buddhist religion. Candlelit processions commemorate the 1,250 disciples who gathered to witness the last sermon delivered by the Buddha before his death in northern India 2,500 years ago.
Families visit their local wat (temple) during the full moon to venerate the five precepts of Buddhism and the great teacher himself, lighting candles and making offerings of food and money in order to gain merit.
Women’s Day – March 8th, nationwide. Celebrating the role of women in modern society and highlighting issues such as rape, domestic violence, and inequality, this is a vital festival in a country where women are often abused and subjugated.
UNESCO Phnom Penh has supported this important day over the past few years by sponsoring the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Cambodia. Parades are held in various parts of the country and T-shirts highlighting women’s rights and messages against domestic violence are distributed. Drama shows and workshops are organized, which are often attended by the prime minister.
Cambodian New Year – April 14th–16th, nationwide.
This festival is better known as Chaul Chnam Thmey and lasts for a period of three days. Khmers see it as a time to go wild in a nationwide water fight as well as applying talcum powder to each other’s faces.
The festival has its roots in Hinduism, the country’s primary religion before the arrival of Buddhism. The best place to be is Wat Phnom, where free concerts are held at night. The last day of the festival involves worshipers bathing Buddha statues with water and apologizing to monks, elders, and grandparents whom they may have offended during the year.
This ritual is known as pithi srang. It is also celebrated in a similar fashion in Laos. Visitors are likely to have water and powder such as ground up chalk or talcum powder thrown at them during this period.