Revered throughout Cambodia as the greatest holiday of the year, the Khmer New Year (or Chaul Chnam Thmey) is centered on a three-day-long festival in April during Khè Chèt, the fifth solar month. The New Year is particularly important for provincial life, bringing people together to celebrate family, spiritual well-being, and culture. People from all walks of life take three or more days off to return to their villages and spend time honoring family, friends, and focusing on spirituality.
Most exciting is the mythical history of the New Year. Connected to the seven signs of the Zodiac, the legend follows a young man of ancient times named Thoamabal, who had the ability to understand the languages of birds and was a layman in charge of religious ceremonies for everyone. Religious leader Kabel Maha Prohm decided to challenge Thoamabal with three riddles. If Thoamabal could successfully answer the riddles, Kabel Maha Prohm would be beheaded, and if Thoamabal could not answer the riddles correctly, Thoamabal would be beheaded. Thoamabal insisted on having seven days to answer the enigma.
After six days without answer to the riddles, Thoamabal hid himself beneath a pair of sugar palm trees where a pair of eagles was nesting. Thoamabal overheard the female ask the male for the answers of each of the riddles, and Thoamabal returned the next day to Kabel Maha Prohm and successfully answered each riddle. Kabel Maha Prohm, realizing failure, called his seven daughters, all maids of Brahma, to share his fate. He asked his daughters to bear his decapitated head as it would bring chaos to the land. Neang Toungsa, the eldest of his daughters placed her father’s head on the holy tray and each year the seven angels take turns to invoke their father. Following the holy procession the angels return to their heaven. The seven angels represent the seven days of the week, and the New Year is named after the angel of the day on which the first day of the holiday falls.
As tradition goes, each of the three main days of the New Year has a different focus with its own meaning and function. Maha Songkran (or “Great Almanac Day”) is the first day. Falling on 13 or 14 April, it represents the passing from the old year to the New Year. In Cambodia, people dress up in traditional clothing and light ceremonial candles, and bring sacrificial gifts like flowers, incense, and fruits to temples.
On the second day, named “Worshiping Day” (or Virak Wanabat), family members honor their ancestors at local temples with donations of rice, and contribute through charitable actions to the less fortunate, the poor, servants, the homeless, and low-income families. Finally, the third day is Tngai Laeung Sark (“Rank and Promotion Day”), and on this day Buddhists cleanse Buddha statues and elders with perfumed water, and children bathe parents and grandparents to obtain their wishes and advise for the future.
Throughout the New Year, Cambodians relax and enjoying traditional games and food. Visit a local village and you might come across a game of Chol Chhoung, where teams of boys and girls attempt to hit each other with thrown objects in order to force their opponents to dance, or Bas Angkunh, a game involving the throwing of brown seeds. You might also come across the sweet delights of kralan, a cake made from sticky rice, beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk roasted from within bamboo. Or maybe you will find yourself munching on some sumptuous umbock, a traditional pounded rice grain served with banana. But those dishes aside, the most delicious of all Khmer New Year treats is Num Ansorm, a stick rice and soybean cake that comes in two styles: sweet, with banana, and salty. Both are not to be missed!