The Essential Guide to Cambodia's National Holidays

Offerings left at a pagoda
Offerings left at a pagoda | © Maurizio Biso/ Shutterstock

The Cambodian calendar is packed full of holidays – 27 in 2017 to be precise. From boat races to sacred celebrations, they are well worth watching out for during your stay in the Kingdom of Wonder.

Khmer New Year

As Cambodia’s most important holiday, Khmer New Year, or Choul Chhnam Thmei, falls on April 14 to 16 in 2017. Traditionally marking the end of the harvest season, expect Phnom Penh to shut down for a week as Cambodians return to relatives in the provinces where they will visit the pagoda and party into the night. While an increasing number of restaurants do remain open during this time, they work on skeleton staff. Expect accommodation on the coast or in popular getaway destinations, such as Kampot and Siem Reap, to be extra busy, along with transport, so book ahead. Prices will also increase.

Cambodians give offerings at the temples during Khmer New Year

Visakh Bochea Day

Falling on May 10 this year, Visakh Bochea Day, or Buddha’s Day, is of particular significance in a country where about 90 percent of the population is Buddhist. Pagodas across the country will be full of people giving offerings of fruit, flowers, money and other items. Colourful processions take place throughout the country, as worshippers flock to mark the anniversary of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. A special parade takes place, before candles and incense are lit and flowers are laid before statues at Preah Reach Trap at Udong, the ancient capital that sits about 40km from Phnom Penh.

Royal Ploughing Day

With the agricultural sector dominating in Cambodia, many festivals are related to the seasons. Royal Ploughing Day marks the start of the rice-growing season. This year landing on May 14, the day sees a traditional ceremony to encourage a good rice season, usually led by the king. During the ceremony, sacred oxen plough a row before being presented with plates of food that represent the country’s crops. A Royal Palace soothsayer then makes predictions for the season based on what the oxen have eaten.

A Royal Ploughing Day ceremony takes place in Siem Reap

Pchum Ben

Another important holiday is 15-day Pchum Ben, or Ancestor’s Day, which usually runs from the end of September to mid-October. It is said that during this time spirits from the previous seven generations unable to pass onto the next life return to earth hungry. In a bid to bring peace, Cambodians flock to the temples to offer food and other gifts to monks, to pass on to the hungry ghosts. Expect to see crowds of people wearing black and white gathering outside pagodas, laden with baskets of gifts. While Pchum Ben lasts for 15 days, public holidays are only planned for three – this year, September 19 to 21. During this time many businesses will close but not as many as during Khmer New Year.

Water Festival

Despite being another huge holiday in the Cambodian calendar, the opposite occurs during Water Festival, or Bon Om Touk. Rather than the capital closing down, seemingly the whole of Cambodia flocks to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap to watch the bright boat races take place on the rivers. The festivities mark the changing of the flow of the Tonle Sap. Hundreds of thousands of people gather on the capital’s riverside to watch the country’s largest boat races, that see up to 80 people racing the brightly coloured snake boats on the water. This year, Water Festival is on November 2 to 4.

A boat on the Tonle Sap, Phnom Penh, takes part in the Water Festival Celebrations

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