Since the beginning of the month, main streets in cities across the Kingdom have been colourfully decorated to welcome Khmer New Year, or Sankranta Chhnam Thmei. Usually, a national celebration is held in Siem Reap province to mark the occasion, but this year is different; instead, Khmer New Year celebrations will be spread out as various public and private institutions hold their own celebrations.
Bun Veasna, who works as an assistant at the National Committee for Organising National and International Festivals, sits in his office as he talks on the phone. He says that the national Angkor Sankranta celebration, usually held in Siem Reap province, will not be carried out this year. Instead, the government instructed localised celebrations to make it easier for millions looking to be close to their families in their respective provinces.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen recommended that our committee inform ministries and provincial departments to hold their own Sankranta celebration,” Mr Veasna says. “So that’s why we are seeing places like schools host their own Sankranta displays.”
He notes that Khmer New Year was celebrated by the ancestors of Cambodians, but celebrations were prohibited during Pol Pot’s regime.
“Because our country is at peace, Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to see his people happy and have the opportunity to gather with family in their respective hometowns,” Mr Veasna says. “The premier also asked people to celebrate our culture in order to make the younger generation learn about their own heritage.”
He says many believe the new year will oust any accumulated problems and usher in prosperity.
Mr Veasna said that is why people clean their homes and offer monks food before they say “happy new year”.
He adds that the lunar calendar, or Maha Sangkranta, plays a major role in determining when celebrations would take place.
“New year, or Sankranta, is celebrated on the first day, but some people can mark the event before the big day,” Mr Veasna says, noting that Sankranta is also celebrated abroad by overseas Cambodians.
Three days before new year’s eve, houses and pagodas are decorated with flowers, wallpaper, fairy lights, candles, incense sticks and offerings.
This year, Khmer New Year falls on the 14th at about 3.12pm. It will mark the end of the Buddhist year of 2562 and the start of 2563, the year of the pig. The holiday period is from the 14 to 16.
During “Maha Sangkranta”, the first day of the new year, people dress up to light candles and burn incense at shrines, where members of each family pay homage to offer thanks for Buddha’s teachings. For good luck, people wash their faces with holy water in the morning, their torso at noon and their feet before they go to bed.
During “Vearak Vanabat”, or the second day, people donate money to the less fortunate. Families also attend religious ceremonies for their ancestors at monasteries.
On “Vearak Loeung Sak”, the third day of Khmer New Year, Buddha statues and elders are washed with scented water. Bathing statues symbolises washing away bad deeds. It is also thought to be a kind deed that will bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life. By bathing elders, children expect good wishes and advice about life to help with the rest of the year.
An annual celebration is also usually held in Siem Reap, but the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia last week announced that it will not hold the national Angkor Sankranta celebration this year in Siem Reap province, instead it would focus on preparing local celebrations.
“UYFC will not prepare the national Angkor Sankranta in Siem Reap for 2019 because the working group wants to take this opportunity to prepare for the New Year Sankranta in every city and province, and also review events that took place last year so that next year’s Angkor event will be much better,” it says.
Chum Vuthy, director of the municipal culture and fine arts department, says he and his officials decorated Wat Phnom so the pagoda becomes attractive to visitors.
Mr Vuthy says this year, the pagoda will host traditional games, a dance and a souvenir market.
“We see some places have been putting up Sankranta decorations since the beginning of April,” he says. “They will join us in celebration on the day itself.”
He says that even though there will be no Angkor Sankranta celebration in Siem Reap, people can still celebrate in their provinces.
“This year, our people do not need to travel to celebrate Sankranta because all provinces will hold their own celebration,” Mr Vuthy says. “So they don’t have to spend money or spend a long time travelling – this will reduce traffic accidents as well.”
Top Vong Dara, director of Prey Tob High School in Takeo province, says his school will hold a Sankranta celebration this year so students and faculty can mingle before the long holiday period.
“This is the first time that we are celebrating Sankranta,” Mr Vong Dara says. “All students and members of the faculty are happy about this. I will discuss with my staff to see if we can do it again next year.”
Touch Pheaktra, a student at the high school, says she’s excited about welcoming the new year with her classmates.
“This is the first time my school has organised Sankranta to welcome the new year,” Ms Pheaktra says. “I can say that I was really happy to hear about it.”
“My friends and I will very much enjoy this,” she adds, noting that the celebration at school should be held annually. “We can play traditional games, dance and partake in other acitivities.”
Preah Sihanouk provincial hall spokesman Kheang Phearum says provincial hall is planning big things to attract tourists.
“We celebrate Sankranta to welcome the new year every year, but we are doing something bigger this year by hosting the ‘Sea Sankranta’, which is a four day event at the Independence Beach,” Mr Phearum says.
He adds that people who will attend Sea Sankranta in Preah Sihanouk province will not have to worry about the prices of food and accommodation because costs will not fluctuate.
“We expect Sea Sankranta to attract more tourists visiting Preah Sihanouk,” Mr Phearum says. “This is our tradition to organise a lot of leisure activities.”
Battambang provincial Governor Nguon Ratanak says last year, tens of thousands of people came to the attend the provincial Sankranta celebration. Mr Ratanak says he is expecting tens of thousands more this year and his province is prepared to be a host.
“This is our second time hosting a Sankranta celebration,” he says. “We expect more people will come this year.”
“Last year, about 60,000 people participated in our four day Sankranta celebration,” Mr Ranatak says, adding that he expects people from outside of the province to join.
Regarding safety, the Health Ministry has called on the public to guard their health while the millions of people are preparing to embark in a mass exodus to celebrate with their families in their home towns.
Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this week on Facebook wished Cambodians a happy Khmer New Year.
In his post, Mr Hun Sen says local authorities need to pay attention to road safety and ensure that both local and international tourists enjoy their time without concern.
“I urge all authorities to to make road safe for traffic and make sure that travellers and foreign tourists find it convenient to pass through border gates and air borders,” he says.