Khmer New Year and WASH
Tang Vouchnea, WaterAid Cambodia
Caity Hall, WaterAid Australia
The middle of April marks Khmer New Year – a significant date for all Cambodians. As the location of much of WaterAid Australia’s water, sanitation and hygiene projects, we wanted to share the origins of this special time and what it involves for Cambodians.
What is Khmer New Year?
Khmer New Year, also known as Choul Chnam Thmey in the Khmer language, is a traditional celebration of the solar New Year in Cambodia. It is typically celebrated for three days beginning on the 13th of April, marking the end of the harvesting season. The Khmer New Year was originally celebrated in either November or December. During the Angkor era, the Khmer king moved the New Year celebration to April, aligning it with the solar calendar. Most Cambodian farmers have more free time in April due to the changing of the seasons, making it an ideal time for Cambodians to celebrate Khmer New Year.
Other countries in South Asia, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, follow the same tradition of solar New Year.
Cultures and Traditions
Many Cambodians believe in the idea of heaven, earth, hell, and good and bad karma. There is a myth that Khmer New Year originated from an angel coming down to earth to bring happiness and good weather for a good harvest for the upcoming year. On the first day of the Khmer New Year, also known as Moha Sangkrata, each family cleans, decorates their house, and prepares food and beverages to welcome this angel to receive a blessing.
The second day of the New Year, known as Virak Vanabot, is a day for distributing presents to grandparents and elders. Typically, Cambodians give an employee a gift and present and donate necessities or money to less fortunate people.
On the third day, Veareak Laeung Sak, people give a bath or shower to Buddha statues, monks, elders, and parents to receive a blessing from them. The locals believe that the special bath can remove melancholy, grief, and bad actions, in the way that pure water removes dirt.
During these three days, people go to the pagoda to offer food to the monks in the morning to celebrate Khmer New Year and receive blessings from them. In the afternoon, people invite the monks to send blessings to the spirits of deceased relatives.
Cambodians also believe in obtaining good luck; people wash their faces with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet in the evening before bed. Aside from the traditional and ritual celebration, Cambodians, especially young adults, play traditional games that have been played since then.
During Khmer New Year, it is common for most people to travel back to their home town in provinces, leaving the urban cities quiet. Both public and private places are closed due to public holidays. Every household in the country, even those in the remote areas where WaterAid works, furnish their house with decoration and spectacular lighting. Many people gather in rural villages to do various activities to celebrate the Khmer New Year. Cambodian teenagers play traditional games; they also play pouring water on their peers, while some use powder to rub their peers to make the celebration more joyful.
Water, sanitation, hygiene and Khmer New Year
Water and hygiene are key elements of Khmer New Year. People celebrate bathing and showering of the Buddha statues and elders for blessings, and well as washing their faces, chests and feet with holy water for luck. However, contemporary issues, such as water scarcity and unequal access to water in Cambodia, prompt us to think of how to use water wisely and efficiently. Clean water can be powerful in bringing hope, joy and a better future. Yet there are still many families in Cambodia who don’t have clean water for even their basic needs.
In light of the hygiene belief rooted in the Cambodian population, the festival provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on hygiene behaviors, not only to receive a blessing for their next life, but also to maintain their good health and well-being in their current life.
For information on the water, sanitation and hygiene projects WaterAid Australia is currently undertaking in Cambodia, click here.