The vitality of Cambodia’s festivals is really something special. Often spiritual and tradition-heavy affairs with a focus on coming together with family and as a community, the layered meaning of these festivals can be difficult for foreigners to grasp. We’ve compiled a list of the key occasions to keep in mind when planning your travels in Cambodia:

  • Khmer New Year
  • Royal Ploughing Ceremony
  • Pchum Ben
  • Bon Om Touk (Water Festival)
  • Kampot Readers and Writers Festival

1. Khmer New Year - April

Avoid travelling during this time if you can. The country closes down almost entirely as locals head to the provinces to celebrate with extended family. The only reason to travel in Cambodia during this time is if you have an 'in' with a local who can score you an invite to their family home. Dates change annually according to the lunar calendar.

2. Royal Ploughing Ceremony - May

During this ancient festival, oxen are let loose on a variety of foodstuffs and what they eat is closely observed and analysed by the Royal Palace astrologers, who are Brahmin priests. The priests then predict the outcomes of the next year’s harvest for a number of important crops. While not all Cambodians take the prediction seriously (many will openly scoff at the prophecies) the pageantry draws a respectable audience in person and when played on television. The exact date and location change every year.

3. Pchum Ben - September

This 15-day festival is for honouring the dead and making sure they don’t return to feast upon the pus and blood (yes, it is that specific) of the living. Many Cambodians living and working in Phnom Penh head to the provinces and devotees descend on Cambodia’s wats with offerings of food and cash for monks and beggars. Unlike Khmer New Year, however, things keep operating. If you are in Cambodia during this time, head to a wat (temple) for an interesting look at a unique tradition.

4. Bon Om Touk (Water Festival) - November

When it’s not cancelled due to drought (which is pretty common) the Water Festival draws millions of Cambodians to the banks of Phnom Penh’s Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers to watch traditional boat races. Be prepared for the city’s already crowded streets to reach new heights of congestion. Security and crowd control have improved slightly since the deaths of 353 people during a stampede at the festival in 2010, but this is still a fairly chaotic event. Don’t expect to be able to get in – or out – of the capital with ease in the days before or after the festival.

5. Kampot Readers and Writers Festival - November

While it hasn’t operated every year since its inauguration, the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival is definitely worth checking out if it coincides with your visit. The cafes, bars and sidewalks of this sleepy town make a tranquil setting for the literary festival, which features performances, workshops and discussions by Cambodian and foreign artists.

You can find a comprehensive, up-to-date rundown of Cambodia’s public holidays at World Travel Guide.

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