April holds special significance for the Journeys Within team as Khmer New Year, or Choul Chnam Thmey, falls during this month. Khmer New Year falls at the end of the dry (harvest) season in Cambodia, before the rains return. Many locals head home to their villages to be with their families during this time, although hundreds of thousands of local people also flock to the Angkor Park to celebrate their heritage. If you are visiting Cambodia, you may notice decorations such as stars and lights hung out in front of each house. Khmer New Year represents a special opportunity for travelers to partake in the local culture and customs, but be advised that destinations such as Siem Reap will be particularly busy, and many businesses (such as banks) will likely be closed for the holiday.
Here is a brief overview of the three main days of Khmer New Year:
Day 1: Maha Sangkran
Maha Sangkran is the first day of the Khmer New Year. Locals dress up formally, and visit their local temples to offer thanks to Buddha for his teachings by lighting candles, burning incense, and kneeling three times before a statue of Buddha. To bring good luck in the New Year, Khmers wash their face with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet in the evening.
Day 2: Virak Vanabat
Vireak Vanabat marks the second day of the New Year and this day set aside to help others by donating to charity, and paying respect to elders, parents, teachers by giving gifts. Many families also attend dedication ceremonies at their local temples to pay respect to their ancestors.
Day 3: Vearak Loeng Sak
The third day of the Khmer New Year is T’ngai Loeng Sak. In order to wash away past negative deeds and to bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life, Buddha statues and family elders are washed with perfumed water.
Although Khmer New Year has been celebrated in the month of April since the end of the Angkor Period, this will only be the 5th year that the special celebrations at Angkor Wat will take place. These celebrations are known as Angkor Sankranta, and the festivities are becoming more and more spectacular each year. Last year, more than a million visitors took part in these celebrations, which include traditional dances, Bokator (Khmer martial arts), games such as rope-pulling, Bas Angkulh, Haol Chhoung and Leak Kanseng, along with exhibitions and concerts. You can catch a sneak preview of what to expect with this YouTube clip. Travelers can also visit the Angkor Park after hours during the New Year to see the temples lit up at night, which is not permitted throughout the rest of the year, and no temple passes will be required for night entry. During the day, guests can celebrate the New Year with the throngs of locals partaking in the traditional games.
If you are interested in partaking in the festivities – let us know and we can incorporate Khmer New Year into your tour, with a Journeys Within guide to explain the significance of each cultural activity, and to help translate for you.
Here is a quick overview of the Angkor Sankranta schedule this year:
8:00 am – Blessing Ceremony (Boung Soung)
3:12 am – Reception of the Arrival of the New Year Tevada
8:00 am – Opening Ceremony
4:00 pm – Angkor Sankranta Friendship Tug of War (Teanh Proat)
5:00 pm – Khmer Popular Games and Traditional Dance Show
6:00 pm – Floating Lanterns Ceremony
7:00 pm – Khmer Classical Theater: “One Century of History of the Cambodian Royal Ballet”
8:00 am – Visiting Pagoda and Sand Mounding Ceremony (Poon Phnom Khsach)
Siem Reap, Cambodia
The creative scene in Siem Reap has been developing at a rapid rate in recent years. Where arts & music was once a thing of the past, it is now becoming more and more prevalent in modern Cambodian society. This expression of creativity enhanced the need for a festival to showcase and celebrate the reemergence of formerly lost talents that the Cambodian people have. The ChubMet Music and Art Festival began with an opening street party on 17th February, 2017 where one could wander the popular Kandal Village locale and find street performances by festival partner Phare – The Cambodian Circus; drop into the pop up cinema offered by The Little Red Fox Espresso and watch an intriguing documentary on the prevalence of music in Cambodia; or journey on, to the main stage, and watch the variety of live music performances throughout the evening.
As part of the festival, the long-standing Giant Puppet Parade celebrated its 10 year anniversary with a wonderful parade through the streets of Siem Reap, concluding with a free concert in the Royal Gardens. Performers on this momentous occasion included Kong Nay– known locally as the Ray Charles of Cambodia & KmengKhmer– Cambodia’s hottest boy band.
The 2 week festival hosted multiple crowd-drawing events including Battle of the Bands, Urban Art & Hip Hop Night and a magical performance of Modern Music & Ancient Sounds at FCC Angkor. The festival concluded on 2nd March with a key performance by Grammy Award winner Joss Stone at Jaya House River Park. This performance brought an international contingent to the festival and was enjoyed by a fantastic combination of Cambodian and Western attendees, coming together for one last evening.
Journeys Within was proud to be nominated as the official travel partner of the ChubMet Music & Art Festival and have the opportunity to promote this unique event to an international audience. The Cambodian team had the pleasure of guiding Joss Stone and her team around a few of Siem Reap’s most special sites during their stay. Head Guide, Sina & Assistant Regional Director, Narla both loved spending time with Joss, saying that she was a truly special person.
2017 was the second year that Siem Reap has hosted the ChubMet Music & Art Festival. We all look forward to the wonderful showcase the 2018 festival will surely offer and Journeys Within looks forward to being involved with the organization of this fantastic event again next year.
If you find yourself in a position to visit Southeast Asia in November, we recommend heading over to Luang Prabang to experience a particularly beautiful and interesting festival – Awk Phansa or the Festival of Lights – which marks the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent.
Monks decorate the temple grounds with handmade paper lanterns, lights and candles, and local families do the same outside their homes. The second day of the Festival of Light is more celebratory with costumes, and fire boat processions. The locals make ’Khatongs’, or little boats, out of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense and release them in the evening to float down the Mekong River.
We asked Onkeo, our Laos Country Director, about Buddhist Lent and Awk Phansa:
What is Buddhist Lent?
Khao Phansaa Day is on the first day after the full moon of the eighth lunar month and marks the beginning of the three-month rainy season. The tradition of Buddhist Lent or the annual three-month rains retreat known in Lao as “Phansa”. ‘Khao Phansa’ means to remain in one place during the rainy season. The Khao Phansa festival is a major Buddhism merit-making festival. During Buddhist Lent monks and novices are required to remain in one particular temple, and they have to swear to live in the same place; they can’t stay in the other places overnight. During this period monks will be strictly practicing meditation. Every day of the full moon, monks have to gather in one temple to recite “Phadhimoka” or 227 rules of monkhood.
There is a story of monks who travelled during in this period and damaged local plantations, and news of this event reached the Buddha. Therefore, the Buddha didn’t allow monks to wander to other places during the rainy season – they have to find a proper place or a temple to stay in. This is a time for contemplation and meditation. The monks meditate more, study more and teach more.
How long does it last?
During the rainy season – 3 months from July – Sep/Oct. This year it falls from 8th July – 5th Oct 2017.
What do the local people do during Lent?
Some people give up something for Lent – drinking alcohol, smoking, eating meat… Most people also go to the temple more to practice mediation, listen to the monks chanting and to give alms.
What did you do to celebrate Awk Phansa last year?
Last year I have had a wonderful time with my family on the Awk Phansa day (End of Buddhist lent day), my family all went to the temple in the early morning for alms-giving to the monks, and later we all prepared and cooked a big lunch and celebrated together. In the evening we went to the temple to join the candle light ceremony. Sadly, last year I missed the fire boat parade in town, which I promised I will go see the parade in town this year with my kids and family.
Why should guests visit Laos during this time?
During this period it’s the green season, with very nice scenery (green forest plus fresh air). It’s also a good chance for guests to travel to Laos as they will see more activities happening at the temples and can see how the local people celebrate the Lao way and traditions. Guests can see more farmers growing veggies on their farms and rice paddies. It might be rain somedays, but only for 1-2 hrs.
If this festival sounds like something you’d enjoy partake in – check out our Awk Phansa touring, which can be added to any itinerary.
This year, the eighth full moon of 2015 (in addition to being a Blue Moon) marks the beginning of a special time of year for Buddhists in Southeast Asia. Often referred to as “Buddhist Lent” or the “Rains Retreat” by westerners, this tradition corresponds to a three lunar month cycle when the region typically experiences heavy rains and farmers are planting their crops.
Monks and novices will stay in the same monastery or temple for the entire three-month period, venturing out only during the day (if at all) and always returning to the same temple to meditate and sleep. During this retreat, monks typically devote more time to meditation and deepening their understanding of the Dhamma – the truth taught by the Buddha.
Locals often practice a more ascetic lifestyle during this time period as well, often giving up meat, smoking or alcohol for a portion or all of the three months, spending more time giving alms on the streets, or visiting local temples to meditate.
To get a deeper understanding of this important Buddhist tradition, we asked our five country directors a few questions about how Buddhist Lent is observed in their countries. Below you will find answers from:
Houmphaeng “Phaeng” Phommaly, Country Director for Laos
Kanchana “Joy” Junglin, Country Director for Thailand
Michelle Nguyen, Country Director for Vietnam
Dar Le Khin, Country Director for Myanmar
Makara Put, Country Director for Cambodia
Journeys Within: What is this period of time called in your country?
Phaeng: In Laos we call it “Khao Phansa” which means all monks and novices must stay in the same place and focus on meditation.
Joy: In Thailand, we call it “Wan Khao Phansa.”
Michelle Nguyen: “Phat Dan” is the Vietnamese name for Buddhist Lent/Vassa/Rains Retreat. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism). It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics* in India not to travel during the rainy season as one may unintentionally harm crops, insects or even oneself whilst travelling. (*As they walked from place to place, followers begged and relied on charitable donations as part of a vow for poverty in order to spend ones time and energy solely on preaching and serving the poor.)
Makara: This period of time we call “Chorl Vorsa” (Chorl means enter, Vorsa means raining). It is one of the biggest religious celebrations besides New Year and P’Chom Ben.
Dar Le: In Myanmar, we called it “War-Twin” meaning duration of the Buddhist lent.
Journeys Within: For how long is it observed? Are there any particularly special days that are celebrated?
Joy: Wan Khao Phansa is observed for a period of three lunar months during the rainy season when monks are required to remain in one particular place or temple. This year it runs from July 31 to October 27, 2015.
Phaeng: It is observed for three months from July 31 – October 27 in 2015. For regular people, all activities remain the same, but on traditional Buddhist days of celebration like the full moon, even more people than usual would give alms on the streets and temples. And elders often go to the temples to listen to the Dhamma and join the monks in their chanting.
Makara: It is celebrated for a 3 months period, and there is a special celebration on the first two days. On the first day, most regular locals will bring many useful things like cloth, dry fishes, tea, milk, coffee, sugar and other offerings to the monks, especially the big candles that they will light every day. The second day the Head Monks will call all the monks to come together and give advice and take the role for this period.
Journeys Within: What do monks do differently during this time period?
Phaeng: All the monks and novices have to stay in the same places or temples and can’t travel this time of year. The (historical) reason for this rule is that it is the time period of hard rains and planting of new crops, so if monks were to travel they might step on farmers’ plants or on baby animals, or get stuck in the heavy rains (and mud). The head monks, and those in high positions, have to meditate for the entire period. These monks typically retreat to a center temple that is not open to the public during this time.
Michelle: For the duration of Vassa, monks remain in one place, typically in monasteries or pagodas. In the monasteries and the monks chant the scriptures, lead a period of meditation and give teachings on the themes of the festival in return for people’s offerings. At this period of time, the monks stay inside and they won’t go outside until the Vassa ends or unless there is anything urgent.
Joy: This tradition originates from old times when Buddha stayed in temples during the rainy season to avoid killing insects or harming the growing seeds. It is a period for study, meditation and teaching of new monks. The monks are allowed to go out during the day but they must sleep in the same temple every night during these three months.
Journeys Within: What do regular locals do differently during this time period?
Dar Le: People offer robes to monks which monks might need during the three-month time period. Since it is the rainy season, their robes can get wet easily while collecting alms and eventually need to be replaced. That’s why it is called a “vaso robe” which means “rain resistant robe.”
Michelle: Buddhist Festivals are always joyful occasions. Buddhists decorate their houses and streets with Buddhist flags and flowers. Buddhists often give up something for lent, e.g. meat, alcohol, smoking… It is a time to make special efforts to make people happy and review our personal progress for kindness and respect for everyone and everything around us.
A typical day during the festival people will:
Go to the local temple or monastery and offer food, candles and flowers to the monks and receive guidance, support and teaching from the monks.
Give food and support to the poor during the day.
Gather around statues of the Buddha when it is dark and walk around the statue with candles until all is covered in light.
End the day joining in with chanting of the Buddha’s teachings and meditation.
Joy: Mostly the activities on Wan Khao Phansa (Rains Retreat Entry Day) are the same as those on any other Buddhist holy days. Two main important things are presented to monks during Khao Phansa – candles and the garments worn by monks, specifically the bathing robes. In the old times there was only candle light to be used around the temples, and at the beginning of the rainy season, Thai people made large candles as offerings to be used during this season. Some believe that as a result of this custom, the givers become brighter and smarter – similar to the characteristics of the candlelight.
Makara: Regular locals will bring food on days they are free to offer to the monks because the monks cannot go out and receive morning alms like they normally do.
Phaeng: Devout Buddhists and most elderly locals would try to follow the five precepts below:
Abstain from killing
Abstain from lying
Abstain from alcohol and liquor
Abstain from stealing
Abstain from sensual misconduct
Besides following those rules, some people like go to the temple more often than usual.
Journeys Within: Any tips for visitors who are in-country during this time period?
Phaeng: Most of temples are open as normal since they have a special place for monks to practice separate from the main temple sights, so there shouldn’t be any problem. However, visitors can talk to their guide or the staff at their hotel before going to any temples so as not to disturb any ceremonies that might be going on.
Joy: One important tradition for Wan Khao Phansa is the Khao Phansa Candle Making Ceremony where people bring white and yellow candles to make the Khao Phansa candles. There are also Candle Festivals celebrated in locations throughout Thailand on this day, the most famous of which is located in Ubon Ratchathanee province at Thung Sri Mueng Temple, which is the province’s most popular annual event. Local artists express their artistic talents and techniques through crafting and placing Thai patterns with the candle wax, and the magnificent candles also demonstrate the link of local custom and religious belief. After a procession, the candles are presented to local temples.
Michelle: Take the opportunity to visit pagodas with our guides (or even on your own if you wish) whenever the opportunity presents itself in holiday itineraries and meet with the monks. Everyone will be very happy to welcome you to join in the festival experience and explain more. Chat with your guide if you need him/her to be on hand to help with translations. It is best to keep clothes comfortable and tops covering shoulders with long trousers at a respectable length. Shoes are taken off and left outside homes and on the pagoda steps. Hats shouldn’t be worn inside pagodas or homes.
Dar Le: Perhaps, volunteer at night preparing food for next morning’s alms bowls for monks.
Journeys Within: What is your favorite aspect?
Dar Le: I think that the people of Myanmar are still strong Buddhist followers and it’s good to see the religious spirit of the people.
Michelle: The nurturing of the community spirit, the bringing hope to others and stopping to remind ourselves that we do not live in isolation and whatever we do on a daily basis has an impact on others and on our surroundings.
Joy: I am Buddhist and I am proud that this tradition has been passed on from generation to generation and it is still present today.
Phaeng: I think Buddhist lent is good for monks and novices who can stay in same place, and for regular people as well. I see that most people try not to drink and that they are trying to maintain the Lao traditions that have lasted over a thousand years. I hope they are still doing this in the future, even as the world changes.
Makara: My favourite aspect is to see Cambodian people maintaining this traditional religious celebration the same way they have been doing this for years.