Soursdey chnam thmey! Happy New Year! Commemorating the end of the harvest season, Cambodian New Year is observed typically in mid-April for three days, although some choose to celebrate the entire week.
The three-day event includes the following traditions:
DAY 1: MOHA SANGKRAN
The first day commemorates the day God’s angels return to take care of creation. Patrons welcome the angels by cleaning and lighting up their homes. Food and drink is offered to the monks and placed in pagodas, while the altar is adorned with a statue of Buddha. Flowers, candles, incense sticks, snacks, drinks and carefully shaped banana leaves are also placed around the altar.
DAY 2: VANABOT
The second day focuses on charity. During Vanabot, people give alms to the poor, among other acts of servitude. Family and friends also present each other with gifts to show acknowledgment.
DAY 3: LEUNG SAKK
The final day includes washing all the idols of Buddha with scented water to ensure good rain throughout the year. Children wash their elder’s feet to show respect. In return, the elders bless the children with prosperous health.
People also pay respects to their ancestors as well as participate in events and activities at the local ‘wat’ (temple).
I have fond memories attending the ‘wat’ back in my hometown in Stockton.
The ‘wat’ itself is a large complex featuring the main building for worship and housing for the monks. Ornate statues are scattered throughout the complex illustrating the life of Buddha.
During the festivities at the ‘wat,’ there are a number of activities open to all ages to participate in.
Traditional games are a huge part of Cambodian New Year. Often, they’re held near the main stage and bring everyone together, from toddlers to elders. A number of these traditional Cambodian games test one’s mental and physical capabilities.
Some of my favorite games include:
This game requires two groups of boys and girls. The groups stand in two rows opposite of each other. The first group throws the “chhoung” to the other group. When caught, the other team will rapidly throw it back. If someone is hit, the whole group must dance to get the “chhoung” back.
Similar to Duck, Duck Goose, participants sit in a circle. One person holds a twisted “kanseng” (towel) and walks in a circle while singing the song. The person person tries to place the “kanseng” behind one of the participants. If the participant realizes this, they must pick up the “kanseng” and playfully beat the person sitting next them.
Granted, I never participated because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of thousands of my fellow Cambodians.
Vernacular or social dancing is another huge component in any Cambodian—or any Southeast Asian—celebration. There is a variety of styles of social dancing to partake in. Here are some of my favorites:
Where are my fellow 80’s and 90’s babies at?! If you’ve attended any Cambodian New Year celebration—or any Cambodian or Southeast Asian event, for that matter—you know this dance. This upbeat—seriously, it’s infectious—dance incorporates simple hand moves and footwork.
In contrast, Rom Saravann is a slow and emotional genre of Cambodian music. Often danced in a circle, its somber tone influences the gentle hand movements and footwork.
Colloquially known as “the Cambodian Electric Slide,” the Madizone is a spin on the American novelty dance, the Madison.
WHAT DOES CAMBODIAN NEW YEAR MEAN TO YOU?
“Cambodian New Year is the one holiday where families come together. It’s important to me because it represents the survival of our family and culture.” – Lalinna Ouk
“It’s a celebration of our culture and heritage. It feels good to be part of a culture with a rich history [that] overcame big obstacles. I love being around my family of [people and] eating kathiew and beef sticks with old Cambodian friends I haven’t seen in a a long time.” –Alex Houy
“Cambodian New Year means spending time with my family, paying respects to my ancestors [and] ringing in the new year with all of my loved ones.” –Daniene Hi
“It’s been an inspiration of pride and spectacle to me. Not only that, it’s also a celebration of culture togetherness of family, friends, and other Cambodian people.” –Annette Lam
For me personally, it’s a time for reunions. I’m always able to find family and friends at the ‘wat’ every time I attend. It’s such an easy yet enjoyable way to meet up with people you haven’t seen in years that takes little to no effort. While the Cambodian community is large, everyone knows everyone—no really, we literally know everyone! But on a serious note, Cambodian New Year allows me to reconnect with my roots. At times when college overwhelms me and adulthood lurks around the corner, the festivities bring back memories of simpler times when the most difficult thing for me to do was deciding on what I wanted to order at the vendors–seriously, you don’t understand the struggle until you’re torn choosing between papaya salad and beef skewers. Finally, Cambodian New Year reaffirms my identity as a Southeast Asian American. It reminds me to not be ashamed but be proud of who I am.