Festival diary: a calendar of Cambodian cultural events
Cambodian Buddhist monks take a rest as they attend the Visaka Bochea celebration at Bayon temple in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, 28 April 2010. Photo: Mak RemissaSource: Cambodian Buddhist monks take a rest as they attend the Visaka Bochea celebration
Taking in one of Cambodia’s festivals or cultural events can help make a visit to the kingdom even more enchanting
New beginnings: Khmer New Year
Khmer New Year is the biggest, and probably rowdiest, holiday on the Cambodian calendar. The three-day celebration often coincides with the end of the harvest season, providing rural communities with even greater cause for celebration. Businesses tend to close down during the holiday as workers return to the provinces to party it up with their families. To best experience the festivities, head to the countryside, where traditional dancing, games and other activities bring whole villages together.
Urban scrawl: the Cambodia Urban Art Festival
Organised by the French Institute, the Cambodia Urban Art Festival is
a celebration of the country’s nascent street art scene that also attracts some high-grade international talent to Phnom Penh. A definite highlight is the urban art tuk tuk tour, a wonderfully unique experience that involves visitors being whisked around the capital for an up-close look at key murals. These tours are in high demand, so visitors should check the French embassy’s website early to avoid disappointment.
A time for praise: Visak Bochea
Visak Bochea day falls on the 15th day of the waxing moon, during the sixth lunar month, and celebrates the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. During this public holiday, Cambodians are expected to show added respect to the country’s ubiquitous saffron-robed monks. Visitors to Angkor Wat will be treated to a luminous torchlight procession at dusk, during which Cambodians carry burning incense and flowers in silent, contemplative prayer.
Days of the dead: Pchum Ben
Pchum Ben is a Buddhist festival that sees Cambodians pay respects to their ancestors of up to seven generations. The 15-day festival is the most anticipated religious event of the year, with Cambodians typically spending this period visiting pagodas to make offerings to the spirits of deceased family members. Each year, the village of Vihear Sour, about 35km northeast of Phnom Penh in Kandal province, hosts unmissable bareback buffalo racing and traditional Khmer wrestling on the final weekend of the festival.
Heave ho: Phnom Penh’s Water Festival
Historically, Phnom Penh’s Water Festival provided a training opportunity for the navy. In the modern era, however, oarsmen in wooden longboats have become militarily redundant, and the festival has transformed into a three-day boat-racing event on the Tonle Sap, complete with assorted riverside revelry. After sunset, fireworks and light displays illuminate the riverfront, drawing about one million visitors to the capital each year.
A literary great: the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival
The Kampot Writers and Readers Festival is a literature, arts and culture event that takes place across a total of 20 venues, most of them in the sleepy creative hub of Kampot. Launched in 2015, the festival adopts a new theme each year – the most recent being ‘Peace, Freedom and Prosperity’. Visitors can expect lectures from local literary figures, a forum for discussion of the arts, and peripheral activities such as cooking demonstrations and live music.
Snap happy: the Angkor Photo Festival
Held in Siem Reap, the Angkor Photo Festival is the longest-running photography event in Southeast Asia. The event entails free international exhibitions and workshops designed to promote young Asian talent and the development of photography as an art in the region. Among the photographers who have exhibited at the festival early on in their careers is Cambodian Kim Hak, who has gone on to impress critics on the international stage.
The director’s chair: the Cambodia International Film Festival
Since 2010, Phnom Penh has hosted the Cambodia International Film Festival, gathering thousands of locals, expats and tourists at movie theatres around the city. Films made in or about Cambodia are central to the event, though a variety of films from around the world is also shown over the course of six days. In 2015, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stopped by, the former in her role as president of the festival’s honorary committee, bringing worldwide press attention.