14 April 2013

Sousdey chnam thmey! Happy Khmer New Year 2013!

For the third time in four months, Siem Reapers are celebrating the New Year: the first was the western one on 1 January, then came Chinese New Year on 10 February, and now we have Khmer New Year here in Cambodia, from 14 to 15 April.

I wasn’t actually out and about last night, and was asleep by midnight, so I’m not sure if there were any ‘stroke of midnight’ celebrations. I’m sure young tourists and expats used the date as an excuse for the usual Pub Street drunkenness but most Khmers live by the sun, waking at dawn and heading to bed soon after sun down, so I don’t imagine I missed any fireworks.

In last week’s build-up to the big event, schools had end-of-year parties, buildings were adorned with tinsel decorations and large cellophane stars, and many businesses (including my hotel) placed small tables loaded with offerings in front of their premises.

Today, the city seems relatively quiet, which is undoubtedly because most locals take this opportunity to return to their homelands for catch-ups and celebrations with their families. Schools, NGO projects and many businesses are closed for at least a week to allow people to do this.

Many of those who remain in the city or who come from Siem Reap will be visiting their local pagodas today, to pay homage to deceased loved ones and make offerings to the local monks. At the rear of the wat I visited this morning, amongst the burial stupas, two monks were chanting prayers, while a group of locals sat in attitudes of prayer on mats before them. A few people were also saying more personal prayers and making offerings at individual stupas, presumably where they had a more personal connection.

Towards the front of the wat there was another type of celebration going on. A series of stupas had been made out of sand – I’d seen these at another wat earlier in the week and not understood their significance. This group had been decorated sparingly with frangipani flowers – the trees grew around the temple there – and enclosed with a makeshift pailing fence. The fence had gateways on four sides, perhaps marking the cardinal points, with large decorated panels above the gateways, and flags and pot plants had been used to decorate the little enclosure.

There was a queue of people, mostly dressed in white, waiting to enter. The procedure seemed to be to make an obeisance and say a brief prayer at each stupa before exiting. I thought perhaps the stupas had a symbolic function, representing the stupas of the deceased for those people who hadn’t been able to return to their homelands or whose ancestors’ ashes had no specific burial place but, in fact, they are part of the Buddhist Songkran Festival. Devotees are simply worshipping Buddha, and the sand is later used for construction purposes.

I’ve heard that venturing into the countryside can be a hazardous activity at Khmer New Year – local kids apparently set up barricades to slow passing traffic which is then bombarded with water bombs and white powder. This is a rather boisterous corruption of other traditional Songkran Festival activities: bathing the Buddha and the hands of your elders with scented water and splashing other people “in a polite manner” have been taken to more youthful extremes. Luckily, I don’t intend heading out in to the countryside any time soon! A more sedate and rather charming version of this custom is shown in the image below.

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