What Are the Most Important Festivals in Cambodia?

What Are the Most Important Festivals in Cambodia?

In Cambodia, festivals and holidays are not in short supply — it has the most holidays of any country in the world. Many of these are linked to cultural traditions and come with huge celebrations, which international visitors to Cambodia are more than welcome to experience.

What are Cambodia’s main holidays and when do they happen? Find out the answers in this guide to the country’s most important festivals.

What Are the Main Holidays in Cambodia?

Cambodia has many public holidays and festivals, all of which have their own importance. Some have religious significance, influenced by Buddhist and Hindu tradition. Others are a testament to the country’s history.

Perhaps the 10 most important Cambodian festivals are:

  • Choul Chhnam Thmey (Khmer New Year)
  • The Water Festival
  • Meak Bochea/Magha Puja Day
  • Pithi Chrat Preah Neanng Korl (Royal Plowing Ceremony)
  • Pchum Ben
  • Angkor Festival
  • Cambodian Independence Day
  • King Norodom Sihamoni’s Birthday
  • Vesak Bochea
  • Sea Festival

How Many Festivals Are There in Cambodia?

Cambodia has a total of 28 public holidays. This is the highest number of public holidays of any country in the world. Many of these are festivals, complete with their own celebrations, while others commemorate things such as the constitution or International Labor Day and function mainly as a day off work.

Cambodia’s festivals often involve firework displays, light displays, and religious ceremonies at pagodas and shrines. Some of the most important festivals are described below.

Khmer New Year (Choul Chnam Thmey)

The Khmer people are the largest ethnicity in Cambodia (over 97% of the population) and their culture is integral to the country’s history and traditions. The Khmer Empire once ruled over most of Southeast Asia and its capital at Angkor was the largest pre-industrial urban area on the planet.

In Khmer culture, the calendar follows the lunar cycle, with the new year traditionally beginning on the first new moon of April. In modern times, it is usually celebrated for 3 days beginning on April 13th or 14th.

During Khmer New Year, people engage in the following traditions:

  • Lighting candles and incense sticks at Buddhist shrines
  • Giving to charity and helping the poor and less fortunate
  • Washing statues of the Buddha
  • Pouring water on elder relatives
  • Eating special dishes such as “kralan”, a cake made with steamed rice, coconut milk, and beans or peas.

Cambodians tend to use this time to reunite with their families and often take the whole week off. For this reason, visitors can expect many businesses to be closed at this time. Those that remain open, as well as most public services, normally operate with a reduced number of staff.

The Water Festival in Cambodia

The Water Festival, also known as Bon Om Touk, is one of the most important festivals in Cambodia. It occurs every year over 3 days in autumn, usually in November (the date depends on the lunar calendar).

The Water Festival sees people from all over the country descend on the capital Phnom Penh, where the following festivities take place:

  • Dragon boat races
  • Royal boats are illuminated
  • Firework displays
  • Free concerts in the evenings

The festival marks several important things:

  • The end of the rainy season
  • The reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River (a rare natural phenomenon, wherein the river flows in one direction for 6 months and in the other direction for the other half of the year).
  • Two legendary naval victories of the Khmer people over the Champa kingdom and Vietnam (these are thought to have inspired the boat races).

Magha Puja Day/Meak Bochea

One of the most important festivals for Buddhist monks in Cambodia, Meak Bochea commemorates the Buddha’s sermon at Rajagaha Valuwan Vihara, where 1250 monks gathered to hear him speak.

According to tradition, this was a huge moment in the development of the religion, where the Buddha asked his audience to spread the principles of Buddhism. Just before his death, on the same date, he gave another sermon.

Meak Bochea is celebrated during the full moon of the 3rd month of the Khmer lunar calendar, which usually falls in January or February. It is the first religious festival of the year in Cambodia.

It is celebrated with processions, meditation, and people flocking to Buddhist temples, where they partake in ceremonies with candles, incense sticks, and flowers.

Royal Plowing Ceremony

The Pithi Chrat Preah Neanng Korl, or Royal Plowing Ceremony, is an ancient tradition held by the King of Cambodia. It marks the beginning of the rice-growing season.

The King or a selected representative plow a plot of land with 2 royal oxen. After passing around the field 3 times, these oxen are given a choice of fodder. The food that the animals choose is said to either predict the weather or the outcome of the harvest for the year to come.

The Royal Plowing Ceremony takes place in May.

Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day)

Also known as the “Festival of the Dead” and the “Hungry Ghosts Festival”, this Cambodian tradition pays homage to 7 generations of ancestors with food offerings at pagodas (shrines).

Usually taking place in September or October, Pchum Ben is one of the most popular festivals in the country. Visitors can expect prices to go up around this time and for businesses to close during the festival.

It has been described as the Cambodian equivalent of Halloween. According to tradition, on this day ghosts come back to roam the earth and food must be offered to them.

Angkor Festival

The Angkor Festival takes place in the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire and is one of Cambodia’s most popular annual events. The King of Cambodia himself often attends.

The Angkor Festival sees performers from all over Asia recreate epic tales from ancient Khmer myths with colorful costumes and music. The legendary temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat plays host to this unique storytelling event. The time of year it occurs can vary.

How Can I Attend Festivals in Cambodia?

Cambodia follows the lunar-based Khmer calendar, which means most of its festivals change date year-to-year on the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world. Travelers who wish to experience a Cambodian festival should check the dates for the current or coming year before booking their trip.

In order to enter the country, most travelers will need a visa or electronic travel authorization for Cambodia and a valid passport.

Citizens of 9 Southeast Asian countries can visit Cambodia visa-free. A number of other nationalities can avoid the need to visit an embassy and stand in line to obtain a visa by applying online for a Cambodia eTA.

Learn more about which countries are eligible and other requirements for the Cambodia eVisa.