Cambodians are always celebrating a festival of some sort, heading out to the pagoda with family and friends or taking off for the provinces; unsurprisingly, festivals are the busiest times for shopping and travelling. For details of public holidays, consult the “Travel essentials”.
The most significant festival of the year is Bonn Chaul Chhnam (Khmer New Year; April 13 or 14), when families get together, homes are spring-cleaned and people flock to the temples with elaborate offerings. Bonn Pchum Ben (late Sept), or “Ancestors’ Day”, is another key date on the festive calendar. Families make offerings to their ancestors in the fifteen days leading up to it, and celebrations take place in temples on the day itself.
Marking the start of the planting season in May, the ceremony of Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal (Royal Ploughing Ceremony), held at Lean Preah Sre park in Phnom Penh, combines animism, Buddhism and plenty of pomp. It begins with chanting monks asking the earth spirits for permission to plough. Then ceremonial furrows are drawn, rice is scattered and offerings are made to the divinities. The most important part of the ceremony, however, is what the Royal Bulls choose when offered rice, grain, grass, water and wine. Rice or grain augur well; water signifies rain; grass is a sign that crops will be devastated by insects; and wine, that there will be drought.
Though it has been cancelled for the last few years, the Bonn Om Toeuk (early Nov) water festival has traditionally been celebrated when the current of the Tonle Sap River, which swells so much during the rainy season that it actually pushes water upstream, reverses and flows back into the Mekong. The centre of festivities is Phnom Penh’s riverbank, where everyone gathers to watch boat racing, an illuminated boat parade and fireworks.
Buddhist offering days (exact dates vary according to the lunar calendar) are also colourful occasions: stalls do a roaring trade in bunches of flowers that are taken to temples and used to decorate shrines at home. Lotus buds – the traditional offering flower to the Buddha – are artistically folded to expose their pale-pink inner petals, while jasmine buds are threaded onto sticks and strings as fragrant tokens.