Cambodia’s rainy season is characterized by short, intense bursts of rain, which leave the land glistening and remote roads difficult to pass. This is a good time to explore temples as there are relatively fewer people around.
Visak Bochea – May full moon, nationwide. The Buddha’s birthday, his enlightenment, and admission to Nirvana are celebrated with candlelight processions to the local wat, most notably at Angkor Wat.
International Labor Day – May 1st, nationwide. Traditionally a day when workers march for their rights, such as the improvement of minimum wages. Their achievements are also celebrated.
Genocide Day – May 9th, nationwide. This day commemorates the many lives lost to the Maoist-driven Khmer Rouge. It is a pensive occasion for every Khmer. Without exception, every family was torn asunder by the bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge.
King Sihamoni’s Birthday – May 13th, nationwide. Although there are no mass celebrations or processions on this day, firework displays take place at the Tonlé Sap lakefront late at night.
Royal Ploughing Ceremony – late May, Phnom Penh. Also known as Bon Chrat Preah Nongkol, this festival celebrates the first planting of rice for the coming harvest. Locals dress up in colourful traditional attire and participate in a lively procession.
The procession is led by the king and other royals outside the National Museum and Royal Palace, where a sacred ox is fed with a selection of food and drink. A Brahmin priest then predicts the kind of harvest that can be expected, according to what the ox has eaten.
This is a significant festival for many Cambodians as their fortunes are linked to the land that they farm. The presence of the king also reaffirms the importance of this ceremony.
Bon Chol Vassa (July full moon), nationwide. Held to coincide with the eighth full moon of the lunar calendar, this festival marks the beginning of the three-month Buddhist Lent, a time of fasting and strict meditation.
This is also the time for young men to be ordained as monks. Traditionally, the newly ordained monks would spend the entire rainy season within the temple, but nowadays this period can be as little as three weeks
Cambodia’s Cool Season
As the rains retreat toward the end of October and early November, a cool breeze sweeps over the land. The Tonlé Sap, having been rejuvenated, abounds with fish. The best time to visit the country is between November and January when humidity levels are lower than usual.
Bon Dak Ben – September–October full moon, nationwide. Dedicated to the spirits of the dead, this is one of the most traditional of Khmer festivals. Influenced by elements of animism, the festival is celebrated over a period of 15 days, beginning on the full moon.
Food and drink are offered to monks so that they may assist people in blessing the souls of their ancestors. People throng to temples to listen to sermons and make offerings of respect to their ancestors. They believe it is vital to keep the spirits of the dead appeased; these spirits are believed to protect the living.
Bon Pchum Ben – September/October, nationwide. This festival of the dead is equivalent to All Souls’ Day. Khmers make offerings of boiled eggs, paper money, food, and drink to the dead in order to avoid being haunted.
Bon Kathen – variable, nationwide. Starting at the end of the Buddhist Lent and continuing for a month until the next full moon, this festival marks the emergence of monks from their retreat with offertory robes and slow public processions to the local wat. Donations are given in order to receive merit, thereby improving karma (fate) for the next life.
King Sihanouk’s Birthday – October 31st, nationwide. This day celebrates the country’s influential and mercurial leader, the former king, Sihanouk, who managed to endure both Colonialism – eventually achieving Cambodian independence – as well as the Khmer Rouge.
It is believed that understanding his psyche is the key to comprehending the complex soul of Cambodia and the compromises it has had to make in order to survive. Processions take place in front of the Royal Palace and many loyal followers of the former king return to Phnom Penh to celebrate.
Independence Day – November 9th, nationwide. Cambodia’s independence from France is marked by processions of elaborate floats in front of the Royal Palace. A special day for all Khmers, fireworks and parades are arranged across the country and bunting strung across narrow streets. The main festivities, however, take place at the famous Independence Monument at the junction of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards in Phnom Penh.
Bon Om Tuk -November, nationwide. This three-day event, also known as the Water Festival, celebrates the victory of Angkor over the Chams in the 12th century. It also observes the natural phenomenon of the Tonlé Sap reversing its flow and emptying back into the Mekong River, thus marking the end of the rainy season. (It is the only waterway in the world to reverse its flow at different times of the year.) Along with the Cambodian New Year, it is the most important festival in the Cambodian calendar.
Boat races and a carnival atmosphere on the Tonlé Sap attract millions from across the country. More than 400 boats take part in the boat race of Bon Om Tuk, with oarsmen and their vessels coming from far and wide and bringing with them thousands of supporters from their villages. A smaller festival also takes place around Angkor Wat, but the real heart of the celebration lies in Phnom Penh, on the Mekong.