Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Buddhist monks praying for happiness (Photo by Kong Vireak)

Celebrating Khmer New Year Festival

Cambodia is rich in both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. In terms of the tangible, scattered throughout the Kingdom are many prehistoric and historic sites brick, laterite, and sandstone temples, irrigation systems, and other cultural elements. To date, two Cambodian archaeological sites have been registered as World Heritage Sites, the Angkor region in 1992 and the Preah Vihear temples in 2008. At the same time, the Kingdom also has many different forms of intangible cultural heritage, such as arts and crafts, traditional music and dance, traditional customs, and ritual practices. Of the many living heritage elements in Cambodia, UNESCO registered the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and the Khmer Shadow Theatre to the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003 and 2005, respectively.

Under the theme of National Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Kingdom of Cambodia annually celebrates traditional ceremonies that have existed in Khmer society since ancient times. These traditions include the Khmer New Year, Phjum Ben, the Water Festival, and many others. Among these celebrations, the Khmer New Year is one of the most important national events, and it is considered a joyful occasion throughout the country.

As a tradition, the Khmer population celebrates the three-day Khmer New Year in April. Usually beginning between 12 and 14 April, the exact date to hold the ceremony is based on a calculation by the National Astrologist Committee. Religiously, the New Year marks the arrival of a new goddess, whose name is based on the day of arrival, to protect and serve the world. Among the many important events of the traditional Khmer New Year, family and relatives reunite, and rituals and religious practices take place.

Khmer New Year, an Occasion for Family Reunions

For the Khmer people, the three-day New Year festival is an occasion to visit relatives living in different parts of the country. In traditional practice, they return to their birthplace or the area where they grew up to celebrate the Khmer New Year. Most family members or close relatives gather at the house of grandparents or parents for at least one of the three days of the New Year. This provides an opportunity for all the members of the family to reminisce over the years of happiness and hardships they experienced while growing up together as siblings and relatives in the family. During the reunion, religious rituals are held to bless everyone and to offer wishes of success for the coming year.

Khmer New Year as Rich Religious Rituals

In Cambodian society, the Khmer New Year Festival combines different forms of religious rituals and practices. The rituals are usually performed at three different locations: at a Buddhist pagoda, at an ancestral stupa, and at home. Generally, Khmer people gather and bring food, fruit, kitchen utensils, and other offerings to the Buddhist temple to pray for happiness and to dedicate these gifts to the spirits of their ancestors. The main activities at the Buddhist temple include listening to a Buddhist monk preach, roarb baat (offering rice and other food to monks), building a sand-mountain, and washing the statues of Buddha.

Besides the religious practices at the Buddhist temple, the Khmer family always invites a Buddhist monk home for a blessing ceremony to chase away bad spirits or evil that may resided in the house and to bring familial happiness for the coming year. In addition, a Khmer family also invites Buddhist monk to pray at the family’s ancestral stupa to memorialize the merits and heritage of the ancestors for all the deeds they have done and the legacy they have left for the family. In Cambodian society, it is believed that the spirit of ancestors can also protect and bring happiness to the family.

As a symbol of familial and societal happiness, Cambodian youth, with the assistance of elders, enjoy variety of traditional games in villages, public areas, and Buddhist temples. There are many traditional folk games, and some of these games are played only during the Khmer New Year. Other activities include various forms of traditional dance.

The Khmer New Year is a treasured event in Cambodian society. Within the celebration, there are many religious rituals, customs, folk games, and dance, and it is an occasion for family reunions. The New Year celebration is a symbol reuniting the Cambodian people, ancestral spirits, and gods, and, most importantly, it is an expression of happiness in society. The New Year festival itself embraces many forms of intangible cultural heritage that are rarely seen on other occasions.