The stars align this year, making for a rare convergence of calendars and a most magical month of May in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Few guidebooks have yet to let travelers in on Cambodia’s best-kept secret, but among the region’s best sights to see, Cambodia holidays can easily compete with any ancient temple or floating village. So if you are trying to choose the best time to visit the country, the lunar calendar, the Gregorian calendar and the agricultural calendar all convene in just the right way this year.
Three distinct national Cambodia holidays fall in the month of May: King Norodom Sihamoni’s Birthday, Visak Bochea Day, and the Royal Ploughing Ceremony Day. Not only will you be privy to an array of stunning Khmer traditions and displays, but by this time the high season is waning so you won’t have to vie for the best Angkor Wat hotels in the ever-popular town of Siem Reap where many of the largest festivities are held.
Cambodia holidays are about as far removed from standard Western traditions as possible — and they will take your breath away each and every time. At home, national holidays are often an excuse to sleep in, catch up on favorite television series and shirk the necessity of pants. In Cambodia, holidays are a time for reflection and gratitude. In a country where 90% of the people identify as Buddhist, most holidays are a kind of Cambodian Thanksgiving and visitors to the Kingdom all agree that witnessing one of these celebrations rivals even the most majestic temples.
The first and grandest of the three, Visak Bochea, falls on May 13th this year. Unlike Western Christian traditions, Buddhists celebrate the birthday, enlightenment and death of Buddha on this day. Early in the day, people visit their local temples to offer food and sweet treats to the monks who live there.
The real show, however, takes place once the sun dips beneath the horizon for the evening. Armed with bouquets of fragrant flowers and glowing incense sticks, hundreds and thousands of monks and lay people take part in a candlelit procession around the town’s main shrine. Witnesses to any of these moving and somewhat haunting ceremonies insist it is one they will never forget.
King Norodom Sihamoni’s Birthday
Another Cambodian holiday to pull out all the stops, King Norodom Sihamoni’s Birthday is celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of May this year. On this occasion the reigning king visits temples to give offerings of food to the monks. Additionally, the king takes this time to give food to the country’s many underprivileged. Although the king celebrates this holiday near his home in the capital of Phnom Penh, if you have your heart set on one of Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat hotels do not fret: for these three days Cambodia’s streets are lined with bright and festive birthday signs for the king.
Royal Ploughing Day
The third and final national Cambodia holidays rounding out the week is the celebration of Royal Ploughing Day, which falls on Saturday, May 17th this year. Cambodian life is largely agrarian and the population relies heavily on rice, thus the planting season is of major importance to the entire country. Royal Ploughing Day marks the start of the new rice season. Recalling an ancient Khmer tradition, Cambodians celebrate this holiday with a holy ground breaking. Sacred cows plow the rice fields and subsequent predictions about the coming agricultural season are made based on what those sacred cows choose to eat after their work in the fields is done.
This tradition is primarily undertaken by consorts of the king, however additional ceremonies are also held next to the Royal Palace and in front of the National Museum. These venues are both open to the public and easily accessible, so you should have no trouble finding the festivities.The Royal Palace and the National Museum are right in the heart of town, so finding the perfect luxury hotel resort in Siem Reap will be a breeze. As always, be aware of your choice of clothing any time you wish you visit religious sites and national monuments, as it is disrespectful to show too much skin – no matter how hot the weather. And trust us, it will be hot.