Khmer New Year in Siem Reap
Choul Chnam Thmey or Happy New Year! Khmer New Year in Siem Reap and around Cambodia more generally is one of the most important holidays of the year, alongside Pchum Ben, Ancestors Festival.
Those who are able and can afford it, might take a week to 10 days off work for Khmer New Year to head to their home towns to spend time with family. Others might only take a few days holiday. In terms of its significance as a holiday, it can be likened to the Christmas and New Year period in the West.
While in neighbouring Thailand, cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai are seeing backpackers arriving for Songkran in their tens of thousands for a few days of water-fights and street parties that take on the atmosphere of a wet t-shirt competition. Things are done a little differently here in Cambodia, and especially Siem Reap.
Khmer New Year in Siem Reap
While Siem Reap’s Old Market quarter was crammed with revellers dancing and partying during the 2016 Khmer New Year, Buddhist traditions still take priority, and Cambodians refreshingly take over the Angkor temples, as well as Pub Street, for a change.
Traditional Khmer New Year Rituals
During Khmer New Year in Siem reap and across the country, Cambodian homes are receiving a spring clean, floors are being scrubbed, and living areas decorated with flowers. Offering tables are being readied with Buddha statues, fruit and jasmine flowers. Incense sticks are being lit and prayers are being said to ask for happiness, luck and success in the year ahead.
The Khmer New Year holiday marks the end of harvest season and the hottest part of the year. In the countryside around Siem Reap, villagers will enjoy the fruits of their labour before the build-up to the start of the rainy season with home-cooked meals and rice wine with family and friends.
The pagodas around town and in villages are the main focus of fairly solemn events for three days. Different rituals take place at different times of the day for local communities and families. Visitors are welcome (don’t forget to dress respectfully) and early mornings are the best time to see the most activity at pagodas.
On the first day of Maha Songkran, Cambodian Buddhists will dress up in their finery – freshly pressed white cottons and linens and long silk skirts – to visit their local pagodas to light candles, burn incense, and make merit with offerings of food to the monks, and gather to pray to mark the start of the New Year.
Sandcastles that symbolise the peaks of Mount Meru, the mythical home of the Gods, will be built. The devout will add their own sand as a symbolic gesture to produce health and happiness.
On the second day of Virak Wanabat, also written as Virak Vanabat, it is a time for Cambodian Buddhists to offer charity and goodwill to the less fortunate, via donations, gestures of support or service to charities. There are more prayers at the pagodas. More grains of sand added to the rising mounds that will be fluttering with colourful flags.
Finally, there is a ceremony dedicated to the ancestors, which will end with rather raucous and rushed processions around the pagoda, led by the monks and bands of musicians. It’s a day of giving gifts to family members, especially children, the elderly, and teachers.
On the third day of T’ngai Loeng Sak, also called Virak Leung Sak, it’s time to offer perfumed water to elders and return to the pagodas to wash the Buddha statues. Bathing symbolises clean starts and there are more prayers and wishes for luck, peace and prosperity.
Villagers and farmers also wish for rain to come during the monsoon season ahead, to ensure good crops and good fortune. This is the day that the Khmer New Year holiday in Siem Reap finally sees some playful water-fighting amongst children and young people, but on nowhere near the scale of neighbouring countries.
Angkor Sangkranta at Angkor Archaeological Park
Festive activities and traditional games and sports take place for Khmer New Year as part of the Angkor Sangkranta festival events at Angkor Archaeological Park. These start in the morning at around 8.30am and continue until 9.30pm or so.
This is the time of year when Cambodians from across the country descend upon Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park and the temple grounds are filled with Khmer families and friends.
Activities that traditionally occurred in villages take place throughout the park over all three days, on the grassy areas around the Angkor Wat moat and in Angkor Thom, near the Royal Palace and the Bayon.
Expect to see traditional ball games and tug of war, giant chess games, and ox cat and buffalo racing. The highlights for many, however, are the bokator and dancing, including traditional round-dancing and the Cambodian Madison. (If you want to learn more, Wikipedia has a good list of traditional Cambodian games.)
The non-stop bokator demonstrations take place throughout the day, with hundreds of practitioners of the medieval martial art participating in bouts and also encouraging the public to try their hand at the sport. The dancing also takes place in a number of areas, peaking in the late afternoon and early evening, especially on the final day.
A Cambodian event wouldn’t be complete without street food and stalls are set up right around the Angkor Archaeological Park, the vast majority in the area across from Angkor Wat.
Unfortunately there are also a lot of tacky commercial booths, because apparently Khmer New Year is also the time to think about opening a new bank account, getting a new mobile phone number, or buying a tractor or food processor.
Concerts take place in the evenings on several stages in Angkor Archaeological Park, the biggest near the Bayon, where you can expect to be invited by locals to join in and do a bit of round dancing. Don’t refuse!
Check the Angkor Sankgranta Facebook page for details a few days before Khmer New Year.
Khmer New Year Festivities in Siem Reap
Siem Reap town also sees some Khmer New Year action. Concert stages are usually set up in the Royal Gardens, also known as Siem Reap’s Central Park, and in the park along the Siem Reap River near Raffles Grand d’Angkor Hotel. In 2016, these saw anything from Cambodian pop to heavy metal bands perform.
Cambodians, expats and tourists, fill the streets of the Old Market area, particularly Pub Street and surrounding streets, which see the biggest crowds over the three main nights with massive street parties punctuated by fireworks.
In 2016, outdoor pubs with plastic chairs and tables and small stages also popped up along the riverside, and the street outside the Kings Road complex was closed for a huge party that predominantly saw young Cambodians dancing well into the night.
For the first time in the three years we’ve lived here we also saw a lot more shirtless white male tourists with water guns, indiscriminately wetting people, locals and tourists alike. This hasn’t been part of the Siem Reap Khmer New Year celebrations and is not something a lot of people here want to see. There is talk that the water fights might be restricted to private parties, Pub Street, Sok San Road (‘Bar Street’) and the backpacker hostels in 2017.
Should You Add Khmer New Year in Siem Reap to Your Itinerary?
While some writers discourage tourists from visiting Siem Reap during Khmer New Year, we personally think it’s the best time of year to come if you want a taste of the traditional culture and Buddhist rituals, and to interact with Cambodians socially. You’ll be warmly welcomed too, by some of Southeast Asia’s friendliest people.
If you’re looking for three days of the wet and wild partying associated with Songkran in Bangkok and Chiang Mai then it’s probably best to go to those cities instead. That’s not really what makes Khmer New Year in Siem Reap special. It’s more about the chance to observe Buddhist ceremonies and participate in traditional rituals that are disappearing elsewhere.
Khmer New Year Dates
Below are the dates for the next Khmer New Year in Siem Reap based on the official Cambodia calendars, however, the actual Angkor Sangkranta dates might be different. From 2015 to 2016, for instance, the festival was extended from a 3-day to a 5-day festival. We’ll update this page as we become aware of future dates, so check back in closer to your trip.
Khmer New Year 2017 – 14, 15, 16 and 17 April
Click through the photo gallery above to see traditional Buddhist rituals that take place at pagodas during Khmer New Year in Siem Reap. Terence photographed some of these in 2014 on a Khmer New Year insider experience offered by Backyard Travel.
UPDATED: May 2016