The Kingdom’s most important ceremony is only a few days away, and as they load up on incense sticks and fruit offerings to ring in Khmer New Year, many Phnom Penh residents are also packing their bags and getting ready to head out to the countryside.
The holiday, which falls on April 13 this year, is an opportunity for locals to visit their home towns in the provinces, where they organise traditional celebrations with relatives.
In every house, a temporary shrine is filled with flowers, biscuits, fruit, incense, candles and powders to welcome an angel known as Kemera Devi, the mythical figure believed to bring in the New Year.
At exactly 7:11pm on April 13, her arrival will be celebrated with the sound of drums and gongs at every Buddhist pagoda, and the countdown will be televised live to households around the country. People will light incense sticks and candles and pray for prosperity, and the New Year will have begun.
Beyond religious rituals like alms offerings to Buddhist monks at pagodas, the New Year is a time for Cambodians to come together with family for three days of fun.
Children are allowed to run free and go swimming, climbing, sightseeing, and can be seen scattered on the streets playing traditional games.
Those who stay at home play cards or feast with friends and relatives while towns hold races and dances.
It is in the provinces that those unfamiliar with Khmer New Year will get the best taste of how Cambodians celebrate the occasion.
Prey Ta Ouk village in Kangpisey district, Kampong Speu province, will hold its annual traditional oxcart race on April 12, one day before Khmer New Year.
Pok Saoly, the community coordinator of the race, said 64 oxcarts will participate this year.
The race, set to take place on the rice fields near the village, will last from 7am till 12pm and entrance is free.
“Our first purpose is to entertain people during Khmer New Year because there are rarely such entertaining events in our village,” Pok Saoly said of the yearly gathering. “We also want to revive the traditional oxcart race after it was halted by the Khmer Rouge regime.”
Oxen and carts will be vividly decorated and the race field will be lined with colourful flags.
The race was recently revived in 2007 in Prey Ta Ouk village, which is located about 38 kilometres south of Phnom Penh along National Road Number, eight kilometres past Kbal Thnorl.
Beyond reviving the traditional countryside sport, Pok Saoly also hopes to encourage local people to use their oxen for agriculture rather than machines because they don’t consume gasoline, and also because they produce fertiliser.
Meanwhile, in Takeo province locals make their way to a Buddhist pagoda known as Khang Sleng, about three kilometres from Phnom Tamao Zoo.
Here they play traditional games like pole climbing and dancing with clay pots balanced on their heads.
The nearby zoo is also open during Khmer New Year, and usually fills up with families over the weekend.
“We’ve decorated the zoo a bit for Khmer New Year, and we let people play various traditional games if they want to,” said Nhek Ratanapich, director of Phnom Tamao Zoo, which is about 40 kilometres south of Phnom Penh along Nation Road Number 2.
For those hoping to get farther from the capital, the Ek Phnom ancient temple, about 11 kilometres from Battambang town, hosts a unique annual “fake wedding”.
Young people from the area volunteer as “grooms” and “brides” for a re-enactment – extravagant wardrobes and all – of a typical Khmer nuptials ceremony.
The fake wedding, meant to raise money for maintenance of the Ek Phnom ancient temples, is a good opportunity for those who have yet to secure an invitation to a “real” Cambodian wedding to witness the affair.
Doeun Sovann, Deputy Director of the Department of Tourism in Battambang, said his department will cooperate with Ek Phnom’s pagoda committee to run the traditional feast.
Apart from the staged nuptials, the northwestern province is host to an array of other festivities.
Phnom Banon, about 16 kilometres from Battambang town, is a good destination for those who want to join in traditional games, and Battambang is well known for the New Year’s boxing matches that take place in surrounding villages.
“The bamboo trains will not be closed over Khmer New Year. If anybody wants to ride, the villagers will be happy to drive them,” Doeun Sovann said of the province's iconic tourist attraction.
And even though most people leave Phnom Penh during the holiday, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do for those who can’t get away.
Kandal province's Mekong Beach, also known as Koh Dach, is a mere 15 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh across the Mekong River, and is a popular destination for residents of Phnom Penh and Kandal, Kampong Cham and Kampong Speu provinces.
After swimming and lounging about by the waterfront cottages, visitors can drop by nearby Wat En Pisey, which honours Khmer New Year with 12 days of traditional games and dancing and where revellers paint their faces with powder and throw water at each other.
And last but not least, Phnom Penh itself will also host a Khmer New Year's ceremony at Wat Phnom.
Phnom Penh Mayor Kep Chuktema ordered the construction of an iron and bamboo dragon sculpture at the iconic monument, where fireworks will be set off at the start of the New Year.
For three days, the city will host festivities for those who want to welcome the angel Kemera Devi to Phnom Penh.
“We will organise entertaining events such as traditional dance and games, as well as concerts at Wat Phnom and some other places in Phnom Penh,” Mayor Kep Chuk Tema said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]