There’s no better time to visit Cambodia than during the Khmer New Year. Thu Hoa reports.
Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, said: “You should go to a place where you have never been before every year”. With these words in mind, I was excited to receive an invitation to visit Cambodia during the Khmer New Year festivities.
I boarded Flight VN841 in Hanoi and transited via Vientiane to Phnom Penh. In Cambodia’s capital, I was met by Ms. Huong, an ethnic Vietnamese woman who lives in Cambodia. She clasped her hands and bowed, then explained: “Clasping your hands is not a sign of prostration. According to Cambodian culture, it means that you are greeting someone with ten good wishes, as each fingertip represents good luck.”
In Cambodia, when greeting someone younger, you clasp your hands at your chest. When greeting your parents or people of your parents’ generation, clasp your hands at your chin. Hands are clasped at eye-level for grandparents and over the head when greeting monks.
The nation’s customs, activities, treasures and important architecture are all connected to Buddhism. Two national treasures are housed in Wat Preah Morakar, which lies near the Royal Palace. This pagoda is often called the ‘Silver Pagoda’ because its foundation is paved with 5,329 pieces of silver, each of which weighs 1.225kg and bears beautiful carvings.
The first national treasure housed here is a statue of the Buddha carved from giant sapphire. Standing 60 cm high, this statue rests on top of the central tower of the pagoda. The second national treasure is a statue of the Buddha cast from 90kg of pure gold and embedded with 2,086 diamonds. The biggest diamond, located on the Buddha’s chest, is 25 carats. There are also 20 carat diamonds.
The Khmer New Year
Respect for Buddhism is also evident in the way that Cambodian people welcome their New Year. The Khmer New Year is called Chol Chnam Thmay. Like in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, the celebrations last for three days in April when the crops are harvested and the wet season is about to begin.
The first day (14/4) is called Maha SongKran. On this day, at an auspicious time, everybody takes offerings of fruit, incense and flowers to the pagoda. On Wanabat (15/4), the second day of the New Year, every Khmer family cooks rice to offer to the monks and the pagodas wardens in the morning and at noon. In the afternoon, people hold a sand-mountain building ceremony. They build eight small mountains facing in eight directions with a big mountain in the middle. This represents the universe. People pray for rain and happiness.
On Leang Saka (16/4), the third day of the New Year, Khmer people light lamps and incense, offer gifts and bathe Buddha statues with perfumed water. They show their gratitude and respect to the Buddha and pray to wipe out any bad deeds and bad luck of the past year, and seek good things for the coming year. After praying, they invite monks to the cemetery to perform a mass for the dead. They then return home to bathe the family’s Buddha statue. They offer cakes and fruits to wish their grandparents and parents well and ask them to forgive their faults. In the evening, people attend Apsara dances and drink Palmyra wine – the traditional wine of the Khmer people.
>> read more: New Year celebrations in Indochina countries
Khmer people regard Naga snakes as the protectors of Buddhism. These mystical beings are found on the roof of every Khmer pagoda, where they are said to drive away evil spirits. I heard the following Khmer legend: “For seven days the Buddha sat in a state of religious ecstasy under the Bodhi tree. Suddenly, an out-of-season deluge poured down on him, creating a raging river. At that moment, a Naga snaked crawled out of a hole and curled itself into seven rings, then lifted the Buddha out of the raging water. The Naga used its seven heads to form an umbrella with which to cover the Buddha.”
I attended a New Year ceremony organized by Naga World. The focus of the Sacrament Ceremony was a statue of King Jayavaraman VII, the greatest king of the Khmer people. The king was depicted seated under a lucky tree with his hands clasped and a beatific expression on his face.
The air rung with gongs and everyone clasped their hands and prayed. 108 high-ranking Buddhist monks threw jasmine petals onto the statue of King Jayavaraman VII to show their respect to the monarch who oversaw the construction of Angkor Thom. They asked him to support the prosperous development of the Khmer people. After the ceremony, the monks received offerings of rice and filed out of Naga World. I had gained a fresh understanding of this devout Buddhist country. Listening to the sound of gongs, I resolved to visit other new places and seek to understand different cultures.
Source: Heritage – Vietnam Airlines Inflight Magazine