Friday, April 10, 2009

Choul Chnam Khmer

Next week is Khmer New Year.

In ancient times Khmer New Year was celebrated in January but later on this was changed to April to coincide with a seasonal lull for farmers and so while New Zealand is preparing to shut up shop for Easter weekend the streets of the Cambodian capital clog up with urbanites trying to get home to the provinces to help pray for their dead ancestors and honour their elders.

Khmer New Year is, like New Year celebrations the world over, a party, when, as one website aptly puts it, 'We can see that merriments related to culture are almost uncountable'. But there is a more serious side to festivities too.

Split into three consecutive days. The first day, the 13th of April, Maha Sangkran or 'Great Almanac Day', proclaims the arrival of a new year. Representatives of each family go to their temples to offer thanks before the Buddha. For luck they wash their wash their face with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon and their feet in the evening before they go to bed.

The second day, Veara Vanabath or 'Worshipping Day', is when donations are made to charity and families attend a dedication ceremony for their ancestors at their local monastery.

The third day is known as Veara Leung Sak or 'Rank and Promotion Day'. Of the three days Veara Leung Sak is considered the most auspicious. In the evening, to complete the New Year festival, Cambodians perform the last ceremony, called 'Pithi Srang Preah'. It is the day to cleanse the countries many Buddha statues, monks, elders, parents and grandparents to apologise for any mistakes over the past year.
Bathing the Buddha images is symbolic. Water is essential for life. As a 'kind deed' it is also thought to bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity.

This translates in practice to a lot of water (or sometimes plaster as in the photo below) being thrown. Not to be confused with the Water Festival, where there is no water thrown, Khmer New Year is Cambodia's chance for a big water fight. The area around Wat Phnom, in the central part of Phnom Penh (better known for its late night dark and seedy side) is transformed into a battle ground of sorts littered with burst plastic bags and quickly drying puddles of water and wet laughing people.


As the cooler temperatures of the hot seasons evenings hit, street corners, parks and yards become games arenas where the skills and rules of traditional games are re-learnt and practiced. Traditional Khmer games are often an exercise in the dexterity of both mind and body. Tres, for example, is a ball game where, using only one hand a ball is thrown and caught while simultaneously trying to catch an increasing number of 'sticks'- pens or chop sticks- with the 'resting' hand. I'm knackered just thinking about it!

Bos Chhoung, another game involving the tossing of a 'ball', pits boys against girls. The 'chhoung' is a krama or Cambodian scarf twisted into a tight ball with the end left tail-like to give a handle. Once the players have lined up facing inward a member of the boys team lobs the chhoung at the girls line. The girl who manages to catch it is then able to throw the 'ball' at a particular boy of her chosing and often the object of her crushing, in the boys line. If it hits him he must sing and dance. If it misses, it is the boys turn to try and make the of HIS choice girl dance. You can imagine the laughter this particular game causes!


Khleng Chab Koun Moun which means 'Hawk Catches Baby Chickens' is a game for the kids. To begin the game one child is designated Hawke and another (usually the biggest) the rooster. The rest of the group become the chickens. The rooster and the chickens sit in a circle around a pretend fire. The hawke approaches to ask for some fire but is denied and further infuriated by an insulting song that the chickens and rooster sing demands a chicken. The protective rooster again refuses and then the real action begins. The chickens line up behind the rooster in a 'train' holding eachothers waists and try and evade the evil clutches of the much less encumbered hawke. The game ends when the hawke has managed to catch all the chickens.

There are other traditional games played during Khmer New Year here and here.

(from ariffin's photostream on flickr)

We are in need of a break after a few months of busy-ness and heat so we have booked the weekend in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the following week in our Asian home away from home, Singapore.

1 comment:

Connie said...

I always learn such interesting things from your posts!