Today marks the second day of the three-day Khmer New Year celebration in Cambodia. This year I decided to stay in Phnom Penh for the holiday, and I have been surprised to see how quiet the city becomes at this time of the year. The streets are nearly empty, store fronts are shuttered, most restaurants are closed, and even the normally constant sound of construction is silenced – all in sharp contrast to the normal hustle and bustle of life in Phnom Penh.
For Cambodians, the Khmer New Year is a time to reconnect with the entire family, traveling far to visit parent, grandparents, and other relatives. As the empty streets of Phnom Penh attest, the majority of Cambodians still have their family roots in the provinces.
On the first day of Khmer New Year, Maha Songkran, also known as “Great Almanac Day” since it marks the end of the previous year and the start of a new one, Cambodians offer thanks and gratitude to the Buddha for his teachings. Many dress up, light candles, and burn incense at shrines to welcome the New Year angel. To receive blessings, people prepare food to offer the monks at temples. Another way Cambodians try to ensure good luck for the coming year is to wash different parts of their body with holy water during the day – face in the morning, chest in the afternoon, and feet in the evening.
On Virak Wanabat, or “Worship Day,” Cambodians offer gifts to parents and other elders. They also donate money or clothes to those less fortunate to mark the second day of Khmer New Year. On the final day, Virak Leang Sak, or “Rank and Promotion Day,” Cambodians perform goods deeds in the hope it will bring future happiness. Many clean Buddha statues with blessed water and bath their elderly relatives to get good wishes and advice.
Although life in Cambodia slows down at this time, it never stops. There are still emergencies, essential services, and other situations that require some workers to forgo the revelry to ensure their fellow citizens are protected and cared for. I would like to express my appreciation to those who must remain on duty over the Khmer New Year holiday, folks like law enforcement officers, emergency medical personnel, and utility workers. Thank you for your dedication and sacrifice.
To all of my Cambodian readers who have made the journey home, I hope you are having a wonderful Khmer New Year spending quality time with family and friends. May the Year of the Horse bring you and your family new opportunities and a bounty of the four Buddhist blessings: compassion, love, joy, and equanimity.