Khmer new year festival
Culture & tradition
| New year festival |
Art & Handicraft |
Food & Drink
Traditionally, the Khmer usually celebrate their
new-year days on the 13th of April and the festival
lasts for three days:
The first day is known as Vara Maha Sankranta in
Sanskrit-the day of the Almanac. The phrase means
passage of the sun or planets from one sign in the
heavens to another.
The second day is known as Vara Vata in Pali. The phrase
means the “normal day or time”.
It is an unimportant day of the festival.
The third day is known as Vara Laung SaKa in khmer and
The words describe the counting of the sequence of year
On the first day, usually the 13th of April, people of
each family prepare festival paraphernalia. Those
include a pair of Bay Sey1, a pair of Sla Thoa2, five
incense sticks, five candles, a pair of bottles of
perfume, five pieces of areca nuts, five betel leaves,
drinks, traditional cultural cakes, and various kinds of
fruit for greeting the New Year divinity. Each house is
cleaned and at night decorated with oil lamps and
colorful lantern or, in modern time with electric
The preparatory festival paraphernalia and food
offerings are used to satisfy the divinity that will
come to power. The offerings are organized according to
an ancient Khmer myth and legend known as “Samkranti
Sot.” For example, if the divinity coming to power is
known to consume blood offerings, each family will
prepare something which symbolizes blood, like some red
flowers or fruit for him/her. If another divinity is
known to consume various kinds of offerings, like bean
or sesame grains, they will offer him/her the real ones.
The arrival of each divinity is forecast by a group of
astrologers and publicized on the radio and television.
Each family greets the divinity by lighting incense
sticks and candles, spraying
themselves or their possessions with perfume, chanting
prayers, paying homage to God or to the Buddhist
trinity, and listening to Pin Peat music on the radio.
And at each Buddhist temple, Buddhist monks or chaplains bang the Gong.
During the first day of the New Year Festival, Buddhists
(especially the older generation), traditionally attend
and congregate in a particular Buddhist temple to offer
food to the Buddhist monks to ensure lives of happiness
and prosperity, as well as for religious merit. They
also chant prayers to the Buddhist monks and build sand
stupa know as “Voluka Cetiya.” As for the young, they
enjoy playing traditional games, such as Angkunh, Teanh
Proat, and Caol Choung.
During the second day and third day, the people enjoy
different types of entertainment at the festival. They
go out to resorts, attend Buddhist temple, or play
Two religious rituals are performed during the second
and third days of the New Year: building sand stupa and
cleaning statues of the Buddha. These take place in a
specific temple, for the benefit of the nation. But they
are also performed at the local level on the third day
of the New Year according to local schedules. The
construction of sand stupa is commonly known as the
building of sand mountains. Sand is collected, and then
piled up to form a mountain facing toward the east in
the middle of the temple. They symbolize the stupa where
in the Buddhist’s head, diadem, and tooth are buried.
The people in some regions in Cambodia build mountains
of rice instead of sand in their main temple building.
Height and size vary in both cases. Among the many
mountains of sand and rice constructed during the
ritual, there are four which are situated to the North,
East, South and West of the big one in the middle. And
around those mountains, the square bamboo fence known as
Raja Wat lies with four directions. This is built and
decorated with palm fronds. Outside of the square bamboo
fence, eight spirit houses are situated pointing in
eight different directions. Inside each spirit house can
be found one pair of Sla Thoa, one pair of Bay Sey, five
candles, five sticks of incense, some popcorn, and some
stupa, and some flowers. In front of the sand stupa,
three big altars can be found outside the square bamboo
fence. The one in the middle is for evil or Satan known
as Yama Raja (God of justice and the Underworld) in
Sanskrit and khmer. Another one on the left of Yama Raja
is for the Buddha; and another on the right is for the
God of Angelic Architects. Alongside the spirit houses
around the square bamboo fence, there are altars on
which offerings are also made to the gods. In addition
to these, on each altar there are nineteen- class Bay
Sey, Costumes, and food offerings.
On the first day of the ritual, in the afternoon, both
male and female votaries of religion congregate at the
ceremony. A chaplain invokes and offers a prayer to the
Buddhist trinity and divinities, and asks for a blessing
for happiness and prosperity. After that, the chaplain
ritualizes chants incantations and walks around the
boundary maker, sometimes with a string of thread to
protect the spot from destruction. This action, combined
with the chanting of incantations is known as Piti Poat
Sima. During the ritual at which flowers are offered and
incense sticks lighted, colorful paper standards are
consecrated to the sand stupa.
Next, the chaplain offers a prayer and announcing
determination to the sand mountains for the symbols of
the stupa of the Buddha’s hair, sacred canine tooth.
During this act, he puts pieces of a half-meter-length
white cloth across each sand mountain. This is commonly
known as “Bambous Phnum” in Khmer, or “ordaining the
mountain.” At the same time, Buddhist monks commence
offering a protective prayer in the chapel of Dharma.
Here, the long thread is connected to the sand
mountains. It is also noteworthy that nobody is
permitted to walk over, deform, or demolish the finished
sand mountains before they have been officially
deconsecrated. If somebody does that, it is considered a
sin. At the foot of the sand mountains representing the
Buddha’s hair and sacred canine tooth, the chaplain
offers further prayers and apologies to God, the
divinity, and Yama (God of Justice and the
Underworld). He asks to be permitted to cancel the sins
committed by his congregation during the previous year,
and for the future happiness and prosperity of all
people. He then proceeds to make offerings and prayers
to the dead.
The following day, in the morning, Buddhists and a
chaplain congregate again at the ceremony in the
Buddhist temple and commence paying homage to the
Buddhist trinity. They also vow to adhere to the
Buddhist practices. The ritual which comes after this
involves a ceremony whereby rice is put into Buddhist
monks alms bowls, arranged in a long queue known as
“Piti Rabbatra” (ritual of offering alms to the Buddhist
monks). At the end of the ritual, each participant holds
a candle, incense sticks, and flowers in his hands
toward the sand mountains. The chaplain then continues
performing the ritual as he did at the previous
ceremonies. Meanwhile, in the chapel of Dharma, the
Buddhist monks repeat sacred Buddhist prayer. And then
in front of the sand mountains, outside the square
bamboo fence, the chaplain proceeds with inaugurating as
well as with making an official statement of
excommunication of the mountains. The statement says
“Imang Valuka Cetiyang Paccakami.” in Pali “I’m making
an announcement of excommunicating these sandy mountains
from now forward.” It is noteworthy that after this
statement has been made, the sand mountains can be
deformed without incurring any serious faults or sin.
This is followed by a special lunch in the chapel of
Dharma.In the afternoon the monks re-congregate to pay
homage to the Buddhist trinity and toinvite a Buddhist
monk to preach for about two hours. This is followed by
ritual in which a Buddha’s statue is perfumed and
scattered with flowers. This is commonly known asSrang
Preah in Khmer. And at the end of the ritual, Buddhist
followers sit and wait for the Buddhist monks to give
them sacred spring water. This ritual originates from
the Brahmans, and is known as Savang, meaning “good or
Non-religious or popular customs
In terms of popular custom, there are various kinds of
non-religious festival procedures. Here are three of the
most popular kinds:
- Playing traditional games.
- Enjoying the dances.
- Custom of performing dancing.
The Khmer have various kinds of traditional games, but
the ones favored at the New Year ceremony are the games
of Angkunh, Teanh Proat, and Caol Choung.
Caol choung is popular among the young. When they play
this game, they are always dressed in a colorful and
ostentatious manner, in clothes specially selected for
the festival. The game is always accompanied by songs
and dance. The songs make use of affectionate terms,
such as my darling, my baby, etc., which are used in a
teasing and provocative manner. It is enjoyable both for
people playing the game and their audiences. The object
used in the game is not hard to make; it can be made on
the spot by wrapping a cotton scarf around itself or
around a clean rag to make a short tail to hold and toss
up. This object is known as Choung.
Method of playing
Ten people are needed for the game. The cluster is
divided into two groups – one is a female group and the
other is all male. Both sides stand face to face with
each other, at a distance of about ten meters. After
diving the group, the male group commences to toss up
the Choung to the female one who prepare to receive it
from the male group. Each group member attempts to catch
the Choung. If the Choung slips out of one’s hand, then
the group’s turn is over. In quick succession, the
female group tosses the Choung back to the male one, and
the game proceeds as before. The tossing of the Choung
lasts until the object is grasped in a group member’s
hands. The one who captures the Choung has to secretly
determine by him or herself whom to throw it to. If the
Choung he/she throws hots the chosen person, that person
will, by singing and dancing, deliver the so-called
Choung to someone who threw. And then the man pr group
that receives the Choung back will commence playing
again. It is noteworthy that it is not only the person
hit by the Choung that sings; others with beautiful
voices can be asked to do that for him/her. Four
important songs are sung for the game. Each melody has
special characteristics and differs from other ones sung
by Khmers. Each song is sung in a particular context
happening during the game. It is enjoyable to listen to
the singer using provocative, teasing lyrics. They
finish playing the game when each of the participants
feels tired and run out of lyrics.
Here are the song lyrics
ung up to you, it will hang on the bamboo trees, Darling
no words to speak to, GrasFirst melody or lyric song
(Soon before throwing the Choung up to their partners,
they commence singing)
Women: While I toss the Choung up to you, Darling, It
divides into five, Waiting and receiving my Choung, In
time in April is quite right.
Chorus: While I Toss the Choung up to you,
(Men & women) Darling, It divides into five, In time in
April is quite right.
Men: When I toss the Choung up to you, Darling, It
divides into four, Waiting and receiving my Choung.
Chorus: When I toss the Choung up to you,
(Men & women) Darling, It divides into four, If one of
you feels its good to do, Waiting and receiving my
Second melody or lyric song
This is a kind of provocative and teasing song known as
“Brobkai.” The term Brob means “try to gain favor” and
the term Kai describes as “Key, haw to do something.” In
general “Brobkai” means “find out how to please someone
Women: When I toss the Choung up to you, It will hang on
the Coco-tree, Darling, standing Hey! Hey! Oh, And
receiving the Choung from me.
Chorus: When I toss the Choung up to you,
(Men &Women) It will hang on the Coco-tree, Darling,
standing Hey! Hey! Oh, And receiving the Choung from me.
Men: `While I throw the Choping my Choung, hey, my baby.
Chorus: When I throw the Choung up to you,
(Men & women) It will hang on the bamboo tree, Darling
no words to speak to, Grasping my Choung, hey, my baby.
Women: I toss the choung up to you, It will hang a mango
tree, Hey, any widower of you, And receiving the Choung
Chorus: I toss the Choung up to you
(Men & Women)It will hang on the mango tree, Hey, any
receiving the Choung from me.
Men: I throw the Choung up to you. It will hang on the
Sankae tree since my birth. I have never known. A dog as
well dressed I’ve never seen.
Chorus: I throw the Choung up to you,
(Men & Women) It will hang on the Sankae tree sine my
birth, I have never known, A dog as well dressed, I’ve
Melody or lyric song Third
This song is sung when delivering the Choung. While they
sing this song, the performers also dance and bring the
Choung to the opposite group. Other musical melodies can
also be set to these lyrics.
Man: Former year’s gone, the new one’s come.
Chorus: Oh my darling, the new one’s come; we are male,
female, old and young,
Chorus: My darling dressed in traditional.
Women: We all gather, we’re happy,
Chorus: My darling, we are delighted. At the
congregation of friends, merry,
Chorus: Diversion makes us contented.
Fourth melody or lyric
This song is sung during a pause in the proceedings. And
this is known as “Phisa vong song”.
Man: Darling, Merry New year to you, we are pleased
about New Year, Darling, congratulations to you!
Chorus: Congratulations! Oh, my dear.
Women: We offer a prayer to the God, for our lives of
Chorus: Merry New Year to you from the lord. Hurrah for
the New Year! The greatest, The year of victory and
Enjoying the dances
Cambodian people in town and country alike enjoy dancing
folk-dances known as Ramvong. Ramkbach, on the occasion
of the New Year festival. People of all ranks
participate in the dancing. When one wants to dance,
especially on the New Year festival days, they often
invite their friends by saying, “Let’s go to dance the
Ram Vong.” The dancing of Ramvong involves dancing the
Ram khabach, the Saravan, the Lamliev, and the Bruen,
the Chuok Kampus, and the Taloung.
The dance stage is organized and decorated by putting a
table in a specific place inside the Buddhist temple. On
the table, a tablecloth and a big pot with colorful
flowers are placed.
The dance consists of dancers moving in pairs around the
table. They move forward and round the table until the
dancing rhythm stops. Nobody is permitted to dance hand
in hand or arm in arm. The dancing can be accompanied by
all kinds of musical instruments. The drum is an
important instrument for giving beautiful cadences to
the dance. In those regions which lack musical
instruments, especially the drum, the people often
accompany their dancing by banging metal buckets,
spoons, forks etc. In others, they dance, nowadays, to
the loud speakers of the Hi-fi stereo player.
When the stereo player or musical band commences playing
the Ramvong, male dancers walk over to the females and
salute them. They do this by placing both hands
together, palm to palm, in front of their chests with
fingers pointing upward. Female dancers reply by copying
the men and walking with them to dance around the table.
Source: Ministry of Tourism of the Kingdom of