Updated for 2019
Khmer New Year in Cambodia — Everything You Need to Know
Khmer New Year is the most widely celebrated holiday in Cambodia and the third new years celebration of the year! The International New Year and Chinese New Year are also observed.
In fact, the small country seems to stop as businesses close and people flock to their hometowns.
Khmer New Year is the end of a year and the beginning of a new one (it’s also the start of the dreaded hot season!)
Traditionally, this was the only time that young Khmers were allowed to meet and engage with the opposite sex in order to find potential spouses. But, that has changed nowadays.
In this post, you’ll learn about the three days of Khmer New Year, get insight into some of the customs, and understand why we even celebrate it in the first place.
The Three days of Khmer New Year – 14, 15, 16 April
Day One: Maha Sangkran (មហាសង្រ្កាន្ត)
The first day of Khmer New Year is called Maha Sangkran. This day is the official end of one year and the beginning of a new one!
Cambodians will dress in white and set offerings during Maha Sangkran. They will prepare tables of offerings at the entrances of homes and businesses as well as bring offerings to their pagoda of choice. Common offerings include fruit, candles, incense sticks, flowers, and twinkling lights.
Through cooking food and bringing it to the monks, Cambodians are able to keep their ancient traditions alive. Plus, the pagodas become a place of reunion. It’s a great place for Cambodians to meet others from their region or who went to school together.
Day 2: Virak Vanabat (វិរ:វ័នបត) – Day of Giving
Virak Vanabat is the Day of Giving. Use the second day of Khmer New Year to show your appreciation.
Cambodian children do so by presenting gifts to their parents and grandparents. Parents buy new clothes for their children. Families give money, food, and clothes to the poor. And in the evening, everyone heads to a pagoda to give thanks to their ancestors and the gods.
Day 3: Vearak Loeng Sak (វារៈឡើងស័ក) – New Beginnings
Vearak Loeng Sak is the Day of New Beginnings. The third day of Khmer New Year, like the others, starts with religious ceremonies.
Buddha statues are bathed with scented water to bring good rainfall. Some choose to also bathe monks, their parents, and grandparents to bring good luck and a long life. This practice is called Srong Tek in the Khmer language. These ceremonies are a way to show respect to Buddha and your parents.
Not long after, the streets turn into a wild water fight, with baby powder included!
What Should You Know About Khmer New Year?
There are quite a few things to know before you celebrate. Let’s go for a brief journey into the history behind Khmer New Year.
What Cambodian New Year is Called in Khmer
In the Cambodian language, Khmer New Year is called Choul Chnam Thmey (បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី) meaning literally, Enter New Year.
How to Say Happy New Year in Khmer
You may wish to greet people by saying happy Khmer New Year. Do so by saying Susadei Chhnam Thmei!
This video may help.
Why Do the Khmer Celebrate the New Year in April?
Khmer New Year marks the end of the Cambodian harvest season. This brings about a time of leisure for farmers who have toiled all year to plant and harvest their rice fields.
In the past, April represented a rare break from the daily hard work. Cambodian society is changing but it’s necessary to keep in mind that agriculture has always been a large part of the way of life. Today, agriculture still represents 28% of Cambodia’s GDP and 45% of employment.
What Calendar Cambodia Uses
Cambodia, like many other Southeast Asian countries once used a lunisolar calendar, also known as the Buddhist calendar. The Khmer traditional calendar was known as Chhankitek.
While the lunisolar calendars all share a common lineage, they also have minor but important variations. The Cambodian version is largely based on an old version of the Hindu calendar.
Today, we use the Gregorian calendar for it’s accuracy and the traditional lunisolar calendar is used mainly for festivals. The Chhankitek calendar no longer has the official calendar status in Cambodia.
Traditional Khmer New Year Customs
There are a bunch of traditions and customs to observe during this time of year, from fun games to tasty treats!
Khmer New Year Games
There are plenty of fun games and activities to observe and take part in during Khmer New Year. You’ll witness some that are known throughout the world like tug of war and others that we explain below.
Either way, you’re sure to have fun playing these games in Cambodia.
Chol Chhoung (ចោលឈូង)
Chol Chhoung is a game played on the first night of Khmer New Year by two groups of boys and girls with ten or twenty people in each group. They start by standing in two rows opposite each other. Each group takes turns throwing the chhoung to each other. When a team catches it, they must throw it back faster. If someone gets hit by the chhoung, their group has to dance in order to get the chhoung back.
Chab Kon Kleng (ចាប់កូនខ្លែង)
Chab Kon Kleng is a game generally played by adults on the night of Virak Vanabat. The theme of the game is to imitate a hen as she protects her chicks from a crow. Players usually pick a strong player to play the hen who protects her chicks, while another player is picked to be the crow. While both sides sing songs, the crow tries to catch as many chicks as possible as they hide behind the hen.
Leak Kanseng (លាក់កន្សែង)
Leak Kanseng is a game played by groups of Cambodian children. As the kids sit in a circle, someone holding a kanseng (Cambodian towel) that’s twisted into a round shape walks around while singing a song. The person walking secretly tries to place the kanseng behind one of the kids. If the child realizes what’s happening, they must quickly pick up the kanseng and beat the kid sitting next to them.
There are many more Khmer New Year games. To find them, join the locals during the celebrations! Make sure to share your experiences with us in the comments.
Cambodian New Year Food
Khmer New Year is a time to party. And, it’s also a time to feast. During Khmer New Year many families prepare special dishes. One such special dish is called kralan.
Kralan is a cake made by mixing steamed rice, beans or peas, grated coconut, and coconut milk. This sweet and sticky mixture is then stuffed inside a bamboo stick and slowly roasted.
What is Khmer New Year Like in Cambodia
Whether you find yourself in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap for the Khmer New Year, you’re in for great time. However, it pays to be prepared. It gets extremely busy, so make sure to book your accommodations and transportation in advance.
The Biggest Celebrations are in Siem Reap & Phnom Penh
Wondering how wild Khmer New Year 2019 in Siem Reap will be? Check out the following video from a few years ago!
You will have a great time partying with Cambodians and fellow travelers for three full days! Do set aside some time to experience and learn about the social and religious traditions around Khmer New Year.
Visit Angkor Wat to take part in Angkor Sankranta! This is a three-day festival full of cool events, entertaining shows, traditional ceremonies, fun activities, delicious food and drinks all in the stunning Angkor Temple Complex. There’s always a nice little schedule and itinerary every year. Once we find it, we’ll be sure to share it here and on our social profiles.
Taking part in Siem Reap’s songkran means you’ll get wet.
No matter where you walk or drive, you’re sure to end up soaked with water and covered in baby powder. Prepare to be ambushed with water guns, buckets, hoses full of icy cold water! So, buy yourself a water gun and join in the fun.
Celebrations Outside of Cambodia
Here are a few places where you can celebrate Khmer New Year outside of Cambodia. If you know of any in your location or would like to be featured, please leave a comment.
The Cambodian Coordinating Council (Cam-CC) will be hosting its annual Cambodian New Year Celebration on Saturday, April 27, 2019 from 9 AM to 5 PM at El Dorado Park, Area III, Long Beach, California.
Cam-CC is proud to host these festivities in partnership with the City of Long Beach to showcase our rich Cambodian cultural heritage to the Long Beach community at large. It will also be an occasion for our younger Cambodian American generations to experience the Cambodian Traditional New Year Celebration. There will be traditional games, traditional and modern dances, singing and dancing with live bands, Buddhist ceremony, and much more. There will be booths for non-profit service-organizations, commercial vendors as well as Cambodian authentic ethnic foods.
Learn more about Cambodian New Year 2019 in Long Beach. There will also be an event in Stockton.