We were lucky enough to arrive in Cambodia during the Khmer New Year. Actually, the holiday is referred to as Happy Khmer New Year, as in “today is the first day of Happy New Year!”, and “Angkor Wat is very busy because of Happy New Year today”! And it is, truly, a happy celebration.
Local teens are armed with deluxe water guns (traditionally the New Year is a time to wash the Buddha statues and collect the water for a ritual wash). This has devolved into a nation-wide (regional if you include Thailand’s similar celebrations) water fight and when you add in everyone throwing talcum powder on each other, the street party gets interesting. There is no resisting joining in as the entire population of Cambodia celebrates to the sounds of DJs in the streets, temples and parks. Extended families traditionally celebrate with picnics on the grounds of the famous temples Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, grilling chickens and snacking on fresh durian, jackfruit, mangoes and watermelon. The streets are decorated with star-shaped lanterns, Christmas lights, and tinsel ornaments.
The days are hottest during April in Cambodia, and we joined tons of like-minded visitors to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The moat was filled with floating lanterns from the weekend festivities, and the remnants of hundreds of thousands of picnics threatened to cover the temple grounds in a layer of plastic. Tourism has grown rapidly in the past decade in Cambodia and the signs of growth, for better or worse, are everywhere.
Our celebrations and sightseeing were tempered by a sobering visit to the Landmine Museum where we saw first-hand the lives ruined by war. Over 100 people continue to die each year by landmines which remain in rice paddies and forests. Wherever we went, beautiful traditional music was produced by groups of blind and crippled survivors of landmines. our guide, Sonphat, told us of the two years of his childhood during which his family spent each night crouched in a mud ditch with bamboo overhead to avoid air raids and marauding robbers.
We were invited to light incense and make wishes at a local shrine each evening, and we always wished for continued peace for the beautiful Cambodian people – they certainly deserve it.