Cambodian festivals and holidays

Cambodia may well be one of the most festive places on earth, with more than two dozen public holidays every year.

There’s no shortage of holidays in Cambodia, with two dozen or more public holidays each year. In addition, other holidays, such as Chinese New Year, although not officially acknowledged, are widely celebrated nonetheless. The most significant Cambodian holidays are listed below.

Khmer New Year decorations in Cambodia

These Khmer New Year stars decorate almost every home in Cambodia each April.

Khmer New Year

Celebrated on April 13 or 14 each year, Khmer New Year, Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei, is a three-day affair that traditionally marks the end of the harvest season and is Cambodia’s single most important holiday. The cities shut down for a week over Khmer New Year while Cambodians return to their home villages (often referred to by Cambodians as their homeland) to spend time with their families, have parties, and visit the local pagoda. Traditionally Cambodians considered themselves a year older every Khmer New Year rather than celebrating on their actual birthdate, although that is starting to change.

Water Festival

Every November the water in the Tonle Sap changes course and Cambodians gather in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh to celebrate the Water Festival, Bon Om Touk. Colorful boats race on the river and two million Cambodians descend on Phnom Penh to watch them. (Festivities in Siem Reap are similar, but not as enormous.) Water Festival is a chaotic time in the capital city, with hundreds of thousands of people coming in from the provinces to watch the races. In 2010 one of the worst stampedes in history took place during Water Festival on the bridge to Koh Pich, leaving 350 people dead.

pchum ben cambodia

Spending time at the pagoda during Pchum Ben.

Pchum Ben

Another extremely important holiday in Cambodia is Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day), a 15-day holiday that usually runs from the end of September to mid-October. During Pchum Ben, the spirits of dead ancestors are thought to be especially active, or they may even return to earth. Cambodians dress in white and bring food offerings to monks at the pagodas during this time; some believe that these offerings bring merit that indirectly benefits the departed ancestors, while others hold that these food offerings are transferred directly to the dead. During this holiday Cambodians spend a lot of time at the pagodas making offerings and praying for their ancestors.

Royal Ploughing Ceremony

Held to mark the start of the rice-growing season, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, Bon Chroat Preah Nongkoal, usually takes place in May. During the observances, which are typically led by the king, sacred oxen plow a ceremonial row and are then presented with plates of food, most of which represent the crops of Cambodia. Based on which foods the oxen eat, the Royal Palace’s soothsayer makes predictions for the season ahead. Wine is also offered to the oxen; if they imbibe, it portends disaster.

This is an excerpt from Move to Cambodia: A guide to living and working in the Kingdom of Wonder. To learn more about 100+ topics that pertain to Cambodia expats, please consider buying the book.