It is Choul Chnam Thmey and the year is 2559.
No, this is not some piece of creative science fiction writing. Last night marked the start of Khmer New Year (choul chnam Thmey) — and Cambodians are going all out this week to ring in the New Year and welcome the monkey god.
The Cambodian calendar — or at least one of them — is the Buddhist Era lunisolar calendar, which marks the death of Buddha in 544 BC. And like the Chinese zodiac, it is based on a 12-year cycle with each year represented by a different animal. So, 2559 is the year of the monkey.
While the New Year officially kicked off at 8pm on Wednesday night, celebrations were only just beginning and a variety of Buddhist ceremonies, family visits, concerts, parties and games are set to take place over the three-day holiday. Yes, New Year celebrations last for three days here. It’s a big deal. One of the biggest and most important holidays in the Cambodian calendar.
In the lead-up to choul chnam thmey people are busy cleaning their homes, sweeping out the vestiges of the last 12 months and making way for new beginnings and good luck for the year ahead.
Houses are spruced up, decorations are hanging, elaborate offerings are displayed on balconies and at the front of homes and despite extreme water shortages, front yards are being watered down (it keeps the ghosts away, I think).
Cambodians from around the country have flocked into town for the celebration — even Hun Sen is here, along with a strong police presence.
We arrived in time for the start of Khmer New Year, on April 13 last year. It was an interesting time to be here but we were still finding our feet and we missed out on a lot of things around town. So we were determined to see and experience more this year.
Yesterday, we headed to Angkor Wat for the start of festivities. Things were not in full-swing but there was a party atmosphere with market stalls, loud music, a few games and demonstrations, art works and a real hum to the place. All with Angkor Wat as the backdrop.
We anticipated huge crowds on the way in but we arrived in good time. It was a different story coming home and at one point there was quite a bit of excitement from the police lining the road. They got very animated, waving batons and yelling, turning vehicles off the road and banging on the side of buses. Shortly after the kerfuffle a procession of state cars passed with police and army flanking each end of the procession. We assumed it was Hun Sen to generate that much excitement but we are not sure.
We are hoping to get back to Angkor Wat to really experience the games and the atmosphere. We are also catching up with Khmer friends, who are having a New Year celebration today, so we are looking forward to whatever that may hold.
There is a hum and a buzz throughout town and it is not all because of the extra vehicles in town (although that’s a big contributor). There’s music and parties in homes and restaurants, people are having picnics and meeting up with friends and family. If you stop and say Happy New Year — or even better sousdey chnam thmey — there’s every chance you will be involved in a friendly chat with some locals and may even be invited to join them.
If you’ve lobbed into Siem Reap in Khmer New Year, here’s a few tips:
Angkor Wat – Angkor Sankranta
Angkor Sankranta is the organised festival that takes place in Siem Reap during choul chnam thmey. Most of the action takes place in front of Angkor Wat or on park land in front of the Terrace of the Elephants. It includes markets and street food, traditional games, art displays and exhibitions. The 2016 festival is running for four days.
During this time foreigners can get into the area without tickets. However, if you want to visit the temples during this time you will still need a temple pass. If you go at night some of the temples are lit up with light displays, which look amazing.
There’s plenty of action on Pub Street during the New Year festivities. It is one of the few times you are likely to see more Khmer people than foreigners in the popular party zone. During this time vast amounts of talcum powder are thrown around and combined with an abundance of water pistols, means it’s likely going to get wet and messy for anyone taking part. A concert is usually held one night. But many places also close during this period to give staff the chance to celebrate this important holiday, so not all your favourite places will be open.
It’s always fun to head out to Sixty Road when you’re in Siem Reap. But during choul chnam thmey it’s pumping. By day Sixty Road is like any other street leading out of town. But by night it has a facelift. The road is lined with market stalls and street food sellers. And in one section a Khmer-style sideshow alley is set up with fairground games and activities. Throw darts at balloons, shoot at empty tins or take a turn on the dodgem cars.
A number of concerts — or live music events — take place around town. Some are better than others but all are free so you can drop past and join in the fun.
Remember to keep your valuables safe — pickpockets are rife at these events. And if you are going out drinking, go with friends. You are more vulnerable and a target if you are drunk and by yourself. But mostly, enjoy the festivities. Sousdey chnam thmey (Happy New Year)!