On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week (April 14-16) the people of Cambodia celebrate the Khmer New Year, known as Chol Chnam Thmey, with games, family time, visits to local temples, and jubilant celebrations. As with all Buddhist holidays, the 3-day festival is tied to the lunar calendar. By Buddhist reckoning, this year is 2553 BE (Buddhist Era).
Monday night marked New Year’s Eve. In Phnom Penh, I watched fireworks at the stroke of midnight (apparently 1:36 am in Cambodian reckoning), just south of the Royal Palace, at the convergence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers.
The evening and morning of the first day, known as Moha Songkran, is a time when families worship their ancestors at special holiday alters, and then visit the local pagoda to make prayers and offerings to Buddha. In temples people erect sand mounds representing Culamuni Catiya, the stupa at Tavatimsa, where Buddha’s hair and diadem are said to be buried.
Much of Phnom Penh is quiet during the holiday, as Cambodians prefer to go home to their villages for the celebration. However, when I visited Wat Phnom, the city’s temple-mount namesake, I found the center of afternoon activates, with young people gathering to play special holiday games—which included dousing each other with water and smearing talcum powder on each other’s faces.
Wanabat is the second day of the festival, and a time to donate to charity. On Tanai Lieang Saka , the third day, people visit local temples to bathe Budda statues and receive baptisms from monks. Children may also bathe parents and grandparents for good luck and longevity.
Variations of the Khmer New Year are also celebrated in Laos, where it is known as Bpee Mai, and Thailand, where it is called Songkran, although these countries have adopted fixed dates of April 13, 14 and 15 for their celebrations.
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