Khmer New Year. Wat Athvea – one of Siem Reap’s oldest pagodas.

Buddhist New Year Festivals in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – What to Expect

Buddhist New Year festivals are beginning at the end of this week in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Here’s what to expect and how to prepare for Cambodia’s Khmer New Year or Choul Chnam Thmey, Thailand’s Songkran, Thingyan in Myanmar, and Boun Pi Mai in Laos.

Buddhist New Year festivals are starting in four countries in northern Southeast Asia at the end of this week, from 13 April through to 16 April 2018, give or take a day depending on the country. (Scroll down for official dates for each country.) Many people are already in holiday mode here in Cambodia.

Known as Choul Chnam Thmey or Khmer New Year in CambodiaBoun Pi Mai or Laos New Year in LaosSongkran in Thailand, and Thingyan in Myanmar, the Theravada Buddhist New Year festivals are the biggest holidays of the year, equivalent to Christmas-New Year in predominantly Christian countries.

The Buddhist New Year festivals are a little different from one country, city, town or village to the next. Some are more focused on spiritual rituals, some more on traditional customs, and all have an element of water involved – whether bathing Buddha statues at the pagoda or scrubbing down your house. In Thailand, the Buddhist New Year festival of Songkran has become one big water fight.

Here’s a quick guide to what to expect and how to prepare for the Buddhist New Year festivals of northern Southeast Asia:

Buddhist New Year Festivals in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – What to Expect and How to Prepare

Buddhist New Year Festivals in Southeast Asia – A Quick Guide

The Buddhist New Year Festivals in the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar are the most important and biggest traditional festivals of the year.

Falling at the end of the dry season the Buddhist New Year festivals mark the build-up to the wet season and Buddhists visit pagodas to wish for good fortune – health, wealth and happiness – in the year ahead. For farmers it’s the end of the harvest season when they can celebrate the fruits of their labour and pray for a good year ahead, which means a wet monsoon and fertile land.

The Theravāda Buddhist calendar is a lunar calendar, so while the Buddhist New Year festivals are generally celebrated over three days, the actual Buddhist New Year falls on the New Moon, which is April 15 this year. (The Mahayana Buddhists follow the Georgian Calendar.)

Locals celebrate the Buddhist New Year festivals with their families, in the community, and as a society, with some rituals and celebrations taking place in the home, others in the Buddhist pagoda, and yet others in the village or large public community spaces in towns and cities.

One of the things we love about Cambodia’s Khmer New Year here in Siem Reap, for instance, is that Cambodians take back Angkor Archaeological Park. While tourists normally dominate the space, on Khmer New Year, Angkor Wat is crammed with locals instead of foreigners and New Year festivities, including traditional games take place around the archaeological park. (Click through to read more in our guide to Khmer New Year.)

In the home, it’s all about fresh starts, out with the old calendar and in with the new, and there is much scrubbing and cleaning, shrines are set up and offerings made, there is a great deal of preparation of food for both the pagoda and family, and visiting relatives and friends to exchange New Year greetings.

Good Buddhists will go to the pagoda to take offerings of food, participating in various ceremonies and rituals, lighting candles and incense, chanting prayers, washing the Buddha statues, and receiving water blessings.

The third type of celebration is much more public and more closely resembles New Year’s Eve in the predominantly Christian and Western countries that’s celebrated on 31 December with parties and fireworks.

In Thailand, this is what most people think of when they think of Songkran, which has long been associated with massive water fights and street parties. While this hasn’t always been the case for other countries, in Cambodia, here in Siem Reap we’ve increasingly seen a street party on and around Pub Street that gets bigger and bigger each year.

For visitors to the region, it’s important to note that the Buddhist New Year festivals are the equivalent of the Christmas-New Year periods in predominantly Christian countries, where the majority of the population goes on holidays and everything shuts down.

Just as there is airport chaos over the Christmas-New Year holidays in countries like Australia, the UK and the USA, during the Buddhist New Year festivals in this part of the world flights are full, trains are packed, and the roads are busy as everyone makes their way to their ‘homeland’ – the cities, towns and villages they were born in – to spend time with their families, neighbours and friends.

While there’s a mass exodus of locals from the capital cities of Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Vientiane, and Yangon, where sizeable percentages of their populations have moved from the countryside to the city to work, tourists descend on some cities, like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Siem Reap for street parties and water fights. Phnom Penh and Yangon, by contrast, become ghost towns.

Buddhist New Year Festivals in Southeast Asia – A Practical Guide and Our Tips

  • Book flights well in advance if flying during the Buddhist New Year festivals – everyone will be travelling to their homelands for the holidays, so flights will be full and airports chaotic.
  • Skip long distance buses and trains during the Buddhist New Year festivals – bus and train stations will be packed and if you can buy a ticket you may not get a seat; people will be sitting, sleeping and standing in aisles.
  • Avoid travel at the beginning and end of the holidays – this is the period when people are travelling home and returning to work. If you must travel go in the middle of the period.
  • Stay put in one place during the Buddhist New Year festivals – if you have already booked your holiday, then try to stay in one place for the period rather than move between cities and towns.
  • Check into a resort or luxury hotel – you’ll find fantastic deals on resorts and luxury hotels, as many domestic tourists will stay in guesthouses and budget and mid-range hotels. Resorts are the best option for avoiding water fights.
  • Don’t count on dining at the best restaurants – the best restaurants in cities, along with the best cafes, bars, boutiques, and art galleries, will close for the holidays to give their staff time off. And they should be congratulated for it.
  • Stay off the streets if you want to stay dry – if you don’t want to get wet and/or covered in baby powder, don’t leave your hotel/resort. During Songkran In Thailand, and increasingly during the Buddhist New Year festivals in the other countries, locals drive around in vehicles throwing buckets of water on people. It’s not fun.
  • If you do want to play, be prepared – if a big water fight sounds like fun, go prepared: leave your passport/valuables in the hotel safe, wear old clothes, put cash/credit card/hotel key/transport card in a waterproof pouch around your neck. You’ll see these being sold everywhere – close to the water guns. For more tips see this post on Thailand’s Songkran.
  • Take care and watch your valuables during the Buddhist New Year festivals, especially in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday – take more care than you might at other times to protect your valuables and extra precautions such as leaving handbags at the hotel and only travelling with cash you’ll need that day. Petty crime always increases during this period.

Have you participated in Songkran or Khmer New Year or one of the Buddhist New Year festivals before? Are you a fan of the water fights or do you do your best to stay off the streets? 

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