For the third time in four months, preparations are underway to bring in a new year in Cambodia. International New Year is an excuse to party with the rest of the world and Chinese New Year has been adopted as an unofficial holiday. But Khmer New Year still stands apart as one of the major festivals in the calendar. Officially running from April 14 to 16, there’s plenty of fun to be found, but visitors should be prepared for busy roads, closed banks and increased interest in their personal belongings.
Khmer New Year celebrations begin with a rush to the countryside. Families pack their SUVs and shared minibuses full to bursting with tinselled presents, pagoda offerings and new clothes to return to their home province for three days of celebrations. On village roads, barricades are set up by groups of youngsters armed with water bombs and white powder. Passing motorbikes are drenched and dusted to howls of delight, before a small fine is demanded to allow passage. These 500 riel dues are spent on yet more ammunition, ensuring the fun continues all day.
Houses are given some glitz with tinsel decorations and fairy lights, with an offering table of banana leaves, candles and incense placed outside. Families gather to drink, eat and dance to unbelievably loud music. Special games, reserved for the holiday, get underway with teams of enthusiastic teenagers making the most of flirting opportunities. Bos Chhoung involves two teams singing a traditional song and throwing a balled scarf at their love interests. A cross between petanque and bowling, Bos Angkunh uses big fruit seeds as targets and ball, with the losers having their knees pounded by two seeds knocking together. The name for the seed in Khmer sounds like the word for ‘knee’ so it’s perfectly logical, as well as painful.
In Phnom Penh, your best chance of seeing and joining in these games is at the Vietnamese Friendship park opposite Wat Botom, or coming across a bunch of teenagers playing in the streets in the evening. For a village experience, arrange a trip to Kandal province (just across the Mekong river) with a motodop or tuk tuk, and remember to take plenty of small notes for the ‘tolls’ and prepare to get wet (and while you’re in Kandal — check out the pagodas). There’s usually fireworks near the riverside and those who haven’t escaped the city will be making parties of their own, spilling out into the streets.
You should remember
While Khmer New Year is fun, it can also be frustrating for visitors. Banks, embassies and many businesses will be closed, so if you need to get a visa or make onward travel plans, you’ll need to think ahead. Tourist attractions such as museums also shut down, and there’s less choice of restaurants and bars than usual. Those that are open will usually have less staff, so a little patience may be required. Transport providers also go home for the holidays — expect to be asked for a little extra on the fare when you do find a tuk tuk driver who’s willing to work.
Finally, the run up to Khmer New Year has been dubbed ‘robbery season‘ as bag snatching and thefts increase. Take extra care and be vigilant, so you don’t start the New Year subsidising someone else’s party.
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