Every year in Cambodia, for three days in April, power shortages and empty drinks shops start to become a common occurrence. This is because every house is partying from sunrise to well past the sunset with giant amps blaring hip hop into the stars and ever growing piles of empty Angkor beer cans appearing outside the houses. Incense floats around the villages as a table in each residence is dedicated to offerings for the gods with whatever that family can afford – from a bowl of fruit to lavish displays of flowers and food in the expensive hotels.
So why are these three days in the fourth month of the worldwide calendar named as the time to bring in the Cambodian New Year? Khmer New Year is a traditional Buddhist celebration (a similar event occurring in Thailand) and is based on an ancient story of the gods. I have no idea how factually correct this folk tale is as one of my students told me the story, still it is pretty entertaining so I’m not too fussed!
The all-powerful deity named ‘Prohm’ is a four-faced god, each side of his head revealing a different peaceful expression. His head sits atop the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and on many large pagodas and stupas. The story of this New Year celebration starts with the meeting between Prohm and mere mortal man. Prohm appears to this man and tells him he wants answers to three very important questions on the meaning of life. In only three days, Prohm will return to this man expecting answers. If he fails, the man will be killed instantly. If he succeeds, Prohm promises to allow the man to cut off his four-faced head. The man is of course terrified and unable to think due to his fear, the days start to pass and he accepts his death is inevitable. There are, like with most religious stories, many versions of the Khmer New Year story. In some, giant talking Cambodian birds appear to be discussing the questions and the man overhears the correct answers, in others the birds are elderly women, likewise in some they are bickering gods. The result in every one, however, is the same. Upon Prohm’s return to the man, the questions are all answered correctly much to the god’s surprise. As promised, the man decapitates the four-faced head and avoids an untimely death.
Prohm has 7 daughters who are loyal to their father and upon his death became the sole worshippers and protectors of the four-faced head of their father. Each year a different daughter carries the head around the highest mountain on a pilgrimage of worship to their father. This journey also takes 3 days until the head is returned to its residence where the daughter then guards it until it is passed to the next oldest daughter the year after. Every year symbolises a different daughter being chosen to carry the head and protect it and of course it goes in a 7-year cycle. In 2013 the oldest daughter passed it onto the youngest so it started the next cycle, making it a special year. Just as Chinese New year has its zodiac animals, each daughter represents a different animal. This year the eldest was represented with a snake, which we saw decorated around Siem Reap.
It is a story steeped in legend and Buddhist teaching but for most it is an excuse to have a much-needed break from hard labour and for a while escape from the battle of survival day-to-day. Families with nothing, find money to buy nicer food and maybe invest in a new couple of outfits from the local market for their children. However many Khmer people are faithful to their religion and it doesn’t have the same kind of consumerist angle that Christmas comparatively has in the UK. When the first day begins, most families rise at 2am to bring in the New Year celebrations. The table of offerings is filled with sticks of burning incense and people wish for good luck and for their dreams to come true. The TV channels show Apsara dancers in full traditional clothing representing the daughters of Prohm and reproduce a version of the passing of the head from one daughter to the next so it can be carried three times around the mountain on it’s yearly pilgrimage. We were lucky enough to join this ceremony at 2am and although I was mainly asleep with my eyes open I managed to wish good luck for my family and receive a blessing bracelet from the elder mother and landlady of our house. We then watched the TV channel’s imitation of the head of Prohm being carried in its pilgrimage before collapsing back into bed.
The next day we woke up to thumping music at a mere 7am and grumbling, rolled back under the sheets to try and sleep to the pounding beat. Throughout the three days I can safely say I heard gangnam style about 10 times, maybe more in passing… thankfully Psy’s new song had yet to grace the country so it could’ve been worse! A whole disc of Khmer New Year songs was created especially for the event and every family seemed to have a copy -we soon knew how to hum along to the catchy ones and learnt a few of the moves too (much to the amusement of the locals of course!)
I was lucky enough to have my family over for this celebration and although I stayed in my Khmer house with Trish, we met up for many of the celebrations that occurred.
2013 was a particularly special year to be in Cambodia for Khmer New Year, because for the first time ever, a giant 3 days celebration was being held at no-other than THE Angkor Wat! I couldn’t believe the temples were being opened to the masses of Cambodia to celebrate this national party holiday. Usually the temples are all shut and closed off to visitors from 6pm at night. During the celebration the temples were specially lit up with colourful stage lighting, candles lined the walkway to the majestic towering turrets of Angkor Wat. The Bayon temple of faces changed from purple to blue to pink, smiling out into the darkness like never before. The dramatic lighting actually enhanced the temple’s carvings, casting shadows around the posing apsaras and giant elephants so they almost loomed out of the stone. To put it simply, it was breath-taking. We visited the celebrations in the afternoon and evening, watching a giant open-air concert (all in Khmer of course!) and appearing to be the only white faces in a crowd of thousands. The atmosphere was incredible and what I loved most was that this was something organised for the Khmer people by Khmer people, if foreigners decided to come then so be it, but tourism for once was not the focus. There were markets set up and giant festival-like beer tents around the temple sites. We visited Angkor Wat in the setting sun and as dusk fell, came out to the front to light a floating candle and push it out onto the large lake that lies in front of the temple’s gates. In the darkness, hundreds of candles floated slowly across the water’s surface, each inscribed with people’s hopes and dreams for the coming year. We each wrote our own wishes onto our candle’s base before a young child swam out with it into the dark water so it wouldn’t get caught on the bank. We watched it gracefully make its way out onto the black liquid, the tiny flame flickering in the gentle breeze and fading to a speck amongst hundreds of others. The overall picture is something I will never forget, it felt almost magical to be by one of the wonders of the world with Trish and my parents watching our candle float away.
We also took Chhaiky with us to the celebrations, who has become a great friend to Trish and I this year as a full-time Khmer teacher at Honour Village. It made the experience even better to see how happy she was to join with so many other Khmer people to celebrate this amazing first-off event. I don’t think she had ever seen so many people in one place before, I actually don’t think any of us have (apart from maybe at a music festival but that’s not exactly the same atmosphere…) We ate dinner at one of the restaurants that had popped up for the event and made our way around the various trade fairs before ending the night at a giant Khmer open-air concert. I was amazed at the logistical planning that had gone into the event, thousands of volunteers had been brought in from Phnom Penh mainly and there was even some police armed with AK47s to make sure everyone was enjoying themselves but not too much…
As well as the surreal evening at the temples celebrations, there were traditional games and dancing constantly going on outside Angkor Wat and many of the other temples which we weren’t able to see but watched on some of the Khmer TV channels. As we arrived back to my parent’s hotel that same night we had witnessed the celebration one of the staff came running, “Your daughters were on the TV!” she excitedly told my Dad. It seems that as we were watching the Khmer concert the local TV station covering the event (aptly named Bayon TV) decided that the only white faces in the crowd deserved a bit of airtime! Pretty much on our way to super-khmer-stardom…
The reason we were able to take part in all these different celebrations was due to Honour Village being closed for just under a week during the Khmer New Year holiday. All the children went home to their villages, to extended family, friends or remaining parents, meaning the whole site closed!
However we still wanted to celebrate this special time of year with the kids at our project so before the site closed, we had a day when we invited all our students to come to a big Khmer New Year party – HVC style!! We had no classes and instead spent the day joining in traditional Khmer games. My favourite one was a kind of variation on duck, duck, goose (hopefully most of you reading had an opportunity to play that as kids!) where a child walks around a huge circle of sitting children, with a towel that has been tied into a knot and taps someone on the back with it. That person then takes the towel and has to chase the child on their right around the circle trying to batter them with it before they make it back to their seat! Then whoever loses has to repeat the same thing, choosing a bewildered victim to carry on the chase. Whilst they play the traditional games, Khmer songs are sung at the top of their voices, which every child and adult of any age seems to know. It was incredible to be a part of the day and especially get involved with the crazy talcum powder fights (apparently the excuse is that it’s ‘good luck’ to be attacked with powder) which meant we ended up looking geisha-like at various points of the day, until we sweated it off of course… We also had a water-balloon game where a blind-folded child wielding a large stick had to burst their hanging balloon of water before their opponent burst theirs. Almost got knocked out a couple of times but it was so much fun. Other games included sack races and pass the elastic band with straws, the list goes on! It took me back to times when we used to have so much fun with just household things like towels and spoons and eggs, before the age of technology took over completely (yeah I’m actually only 19 but feeling like an old crony already in that sense.) There was of course the obligatory 10 ft high amps that blasted Khmer remixes of J-Lo and Pitbull all day until 9pm, spaced between the Khmer New Year songs which involved us attempting to dance traditionally in a slow circle around a desk.
As well as the big party which included around 250 children from the villages as well as the HVC kids, we had a day just with the Honour Village children. This was our ‘big day out’ with them when we loaded onto a big coach at 7am and spent the day visiting temples with them! First of all we trekked about a million miles (it was something like 3 km but still…) up to Kbal Spean which is a waterfall that has carvings on the rocks, it was beautiful and of course I was made to stand under the freezing water, but not as spectacular as in rainy season due to the dry heat that had persisted in Cambodia in the previous couple of months. We then ate our packed lunch of rice, omelette and meat with the kids on the forest floor on old cement sacks before loading onto the bus again. Hilariously nearly every child was sick from motion sickness that day. Not just feeling queasy but full on sick, either at various points on the bus on the journeys or all crouched in the trees nearby as we pulled up to our next destination. The staff were all ill too, and the sight of all the House mother plus about 30 or so children just crouching in the forest holding their stomachs was so bizarre! I think it’s because the journeys were very long and none of the kids or mothers have had much experience on the steady coach motion we experienced. Bewildered by the numbers with motion sickness, Trish and I tried to help by passing the bags around and hugging the kids who felt really bad with it. However I think everyone knew that the journeys were worth it, after the first hilltop waterfall temple we then travelled to the beautiful Banteay Srei temple. This temple is unique as it is made from a pinkish coloured stone and was carved solely by women! We then piled back onto the bus for one last stomach-lurching journey to the local reservoir lake named ‘Western Baray’. It is almost a sea-side-like place for the people of Siem Reap province who are pretty much as far from the coast as you can get.
The giant reservoir was definitely the best bit of the day! It is absolutely huge and seems to stretch on for miles around, although with the dry season there were now sandy islands emerging at its centre. There is a sort of beach on the banks of the water and from there we all ran in to swim and play with all the children. We managed to rent out giant rubber rings to float in and then of course capsize as well! Next to the beach area were tons of little bamboo structures with ladders leading up to floors covered in bamboo mats to sit on and rest. Each little section had hammocks to lie and relax and we all ate a big dinner of roast chicken – all the chickens usually roaming around creating havoc were killed especially for the day (can’t say I was too sad to see those chickens go…!) It was an amazing day where we could spend quality time with all the Honour Village children in a different setting, they all loved it and by the time we crawled into bed I was completely exhausted!
The last event I have not yet mentioned which we were lucky enough to attend during this festival was the day after my parents flew home back to the UK. Chhaiky invited us to her house and later to the local pagoda to see the ‘washing of the elders’ ceremony. It is the last ceremony as the festivities are coming to a close and is a sign of respect to the older generation. Each family in their own household gets their parents and grandparents together and the children have to bathe them with buckets of water and sweet smelling flowers and soaps. They literally wash their arms and legs with their bare hands as if washing their own children. We watched from the side-lines and it was a bizarre but wonderful thing to behold. It then turned into a water fight amongst the younger family members but only after the older people had been thoroughly soaked to the skin! After the cleansing, the older members held prayers for the family and blessed each of their children, nephews and grandchildren together in their homes. The same process was repeated in neighbours’ homes and then as a village unit in the pagoda with grandmothers and grandfathers specifically. This was the climax of the day’s celebrations as monks also sat with the oldest members of the community where we live and there must’ve been over 200 sitting on benches waiting to be drenched in flower-infused water. It is a true symbol of the respect that the Cambodian people have as a Buddhist people, towards their elder generations, to care for them and give them something back and we felt incredibly lucky to have been allowed to observe and get involved with this tradition!
Khmer New Year was a definite highlight of my year, I was so exhausted by the time we went back to volunteering again with the teaching work that I pretty much slept the whole weekend after! It was an incredible and unforgettable experience seeing the main festival of a country which is like birthdays, Christmas and every other celebration of the year rolled into one big party. The country came alive with music and celebration, every house over-flowed with colourful paper lanterns and LED lights were twined around banisters, pillars and tree trunks and hung between streetlamps. Specifically for the festival, big star decorations are made from a wooden frame and covered in coloured plastic which are then illuminated from the inside; HVC had its own huge one hanging by the front gate! Siem Reap seemed to come alive with the most traffic I have ever seen, as thousands of people travelled from the provinces to take part in the big temple celebrations. Although Cambodia also celebrates the international New Year that we do at home, and the Chinese New Year, it is Khmer New Year that really captures the souls of Khmer people and is their chance to have one hell of a party celebrating it!
Now currently on a 10 hour bus journey to Mondulkiri and the North East so expect more blogs to come soon…- I was when I wrote this but at the time of publishing am heading home from my North-Eastern adventures back to Siem Reap tomorrow!!