Cambodia's Biggest Festivals

Cambodian holidays are inextricably intertwined with Theravada Buddhist ritual. The holidays that really count are Buddhist in origin - not even the Khmer Rouge could eradicate the practice of holidays like Pchum Ben. Even the increasing presence of modern Western culture has done little to change the way the Cambodians celebrate the ebb and flow of life. Cambodian holiday celebrations are, and will always be, all about religion, tradition, and occasionally the Khmer's irrepressible sense of fun.

  • 01 of 08

    February - Meak Bochea

    Parade of devotees celebrating Meak Bochea in Cambodia
    ••• Parade of devotees celebrating Meak Bochea in Cambodia. Image © Sarah Severson / Creative Commons

    Meak Bochea celebrates the spontaneous visit of 1,250 monks to do homage to the Lord Buddha. The Buddha had retreated to Valuwan Vihara in the city of Rajagaha, whereupon 1,250 enlightened monks, the Buddha's own disciples, converged without prior appointment or agreement.

    The monks heard the Buddha lay down the Buddha's three main principles: do good, abstain from bad actions, and purify the mind.

    Meak Bochea happens on the full moon day of the third lunar month (Magha, corresponding to March on the Gregorian calendar). On this day, Buddhists celebrate Meak Bochea by joining candlelit processions within temples in their vicinity.

    The corresponding Gregorian calendar dates for Meak Bochea fall on the following:

    2017 February 11
    2018 – January 31​​
    2019 – February 19
    2020 – February 8

  • 02 of 08
    Sand stupas in Cambodia for the Khmer New Year
    ••• Sand stupas in Cambodia for the Khmer New Year. Image courtesy of Lonely Planet/Getty Images

    Cambodia grinds to a halt during New Year, drawing families together from all across the country into a celebration that turns wet and wild on the third day.

    On the first few days, Cambodians will clean house, prepare food for blessing by the local monks, make merit at the local temple, and (for younger Cambodians) play traditional games with members of the opposite sex.

    On the last day, as with similar new year celebrations in Thailand and Laos, young and old alike splash water upon one another to mark the occasion.

    Unlike most Cambodian holidays which follow the lunar calendar, Chaul Chnam Thmey follows the Gregorian calendar - celebrated for three days, set every April 13 to 15.

  • 03 of 08
    Royal Plowing Ceremony in Siem Reap
    ••• Royal Plowing Ceremony in Siem Reap. U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh/Flickr

    The Royal Ploughing Ceremony is a religious ceremony marking the beginning of the rice-planting season in Cambodia. On this day, the King's representatives plough a field in Phnom Penh with sacred cows, then divine the coming season based on what foodstuffs the cows eat afterwards.

    The ceremony dates back to the mid-1200s, derived from an ancient Hindu ritual designed to ensure a good harvest. Cambodians believe the ceremony can account for events like floods, bumper crops, famine, and illness.

    The ploughing ceremony is traditionally held on the fourth day of the sixth lunar month. This corresponds to the following dates in the Gregorian Calendar:

    2017 – April 29
    2018 – April 18
    2019 – May 7
    2020 – April 25

  • 04 of 08

    May 13-15 - King Norodom Sihamoni's Birthday

    King Sihamoni's portrait in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    ••• King Sihamoni's portrait in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Image © Phalinn Ooi / Creative Commons

    The King celebrates his birthday simply, making offerings to the monks and to the country's poor, but the government celebrates his birthday with a three-day holiday, over which the streets will practically dance with banners and billboards congratulating the King on this auspicious day.

    The day of his birthday and the two days following it are national holidays throughout Cambodia.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    September - Ancestors' Day (Pchum Ben)

    Pchum Ben candlelit ceremony
    ••• Pchum Ben candlelit ceremony. Image © Erik Davis / Creative Commons

    Pchum Ben, the Khmer Festival of the Dead, is actually the culmination of a fifteen-day observance called Dak Ben, throughout which Khmers are encouraged to visit at least seven pagodas to make offerings to dead ancestors and light candles to guide the spirits of the dead to these offerings.

    Observant Khmers will also throw a rice-sesame seed mixture onto temple grounds. This observance helps feed the spirits of the ancestors who roam the world on Pchum Ben and are consequently hungry from not having eaten all year.

    This holiday is especially poignant for the descendants of those killed by the Khmer Rouge, who pray at pagodas that house unidentified remains from those dark days.

    Pchum Ben is celebrated on the 15th day of the 10th month of the Khmer lunar calendar, with celebrations spilling over to the day before and after. These correspond to the following dates in the Gregorian Calendar:

    2017 – September 19-21
    2018 – October 8-10
    2019 – September 27-29
    2020 – September 16-18

  • 06 of 08

    November 9 - National Independence Day

    Independence Day celebrations in Cambodia
    ••• Independence Day celebrations in Cambodia. Eitan Simanor / Getty Images

    This day marks the anniversary of Cambodia's independence from France in 1953. The celebrations are centered around the Independence Monument at the center of Phnom Penh, where the King lights a victory fire in the presence of the country's politicians, generals, and diplomats.

    The celebrations also include cultural activities, parades down Norodom Boulevard, and fireworks in the evening.

  • 07 of 08
    Boat races for Bon Om Touk in Cambodia
    ••• Boat races for Bon Om Touk in Cambodia. GUIZIOU Franck / hemis.fr; Getty Images

    The Cambodian Water Festival (Bon Om Touk) takes place once a year, on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk (usually in November). It celebrates a major natural occurrence: the reversing flow between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong River. This natural occurrence is celebrated in Cambodia with three days of festivals, fluvial parades, boat races, fireworks, and general merriment.

    People come from far and wide to join the celebrations. Upwards of a million Cambodians attend the celebrations at Phnom Penh to take in the wholesome carnival atmosphere. Food and drink overflow in the streets, Khmer pop bands entertain the crowds, and the riversides are packed to capacity with punters cheering their favorite boats on.

    Bon Om Touk is celebrated on the full moon of the 12th month of the Khmer lunar calendar. The authorities have canceled celebrations in the past without warning. If the celebrations push through, they will take place on the following dates in the Gregorian Calendar:

    2017 ...MORE November 3
    2018 – November 22
    2019 – November 11
    2020 – November 31

  • 08 of 08

    May - Vesaka Bochea (Buddha's "Birthday")

    Vesaka Bochea is a single day that commemorates three events in the Buddha's life: his birth, enlightenment, and passing into Nirvana. On Vesaka Bochea, Buddhists offer prayers to the Buddha and donate clothes and food to their local monks.

    This holiday is one of Southeast Asia's most beloved, celebrated in areas where Buddhism has a strong following. 

    In Cambodia, Vesaka Bochea is celebrated on the full moon of the sixth month of the Khmer lunar calendar. The corresponding Gregorian calendar dates for Vesaka Bochea fall on the following:

    2017 – May 10
    2018 – April 29
    2019 – May 18
    2020 – May 6