South East Asian Countries: To Celebrate The Traditional New Year

Whilst the rest of the world may partake in a common New Year on 1st January, different cultures and religions have their own calendars and hence, different New Years. We look at four South East Asian that celebrate their Traditional New Year in April.

Cambodia – Enter New Year, Chaul Chnam Thmey. (14th-16th April)

Chaul Chnam Thmey, which means ‘Enter New Year’ in Khmer, recognises the start of the Cambodian (Khmer) New Year and the end of the harvest season. Major cities like Phnom Penh would be rather quiet as most head back to their villages to celebrate with family and friends alike. Games, dance and social interaction would occur, although they are relatively subdued when compared to the exuberance of festivals like Songkran.

The first day, Maha Songkran, welcomes ‘New Angels’. Homes are cleaned, and offerings are prepared and blessed by monks. The second day, Vanabot – or Virak Wanabat – sees Cambodians performing charity for the less fortunate. It is also a day to remember elders, as families visit temples to build sand stupas, which are sand sculptures resembling Pagodas, in a dedication ceremony to their ancestors. On the last day, Thngai Lieng Sak – or Virak Loeurng Sak – Buddhists visit temples to wash their elders as well as statues of Buddha with fragrant water. As water is the symbol of the essence of life, it is thought that washing Buddha statues is a kind deed that can bring longevity, good luck, happiness, and prosperity in life.

Thailand – Songkran. (13th-15th April)

Songkran is arguably the most significant event for Thais. Officially, celebrations go on for three days, but unofficially, certain parts of Thailand can celebrate for up to a week, or more.

Songkran is from the Sanskrit word, Samkranti – ‘Astrological Passage’ – and is a celebration and the reunification of families, where houses are cleaned and temples are visited. The traditional practice of ‘Rod NamDumHua’ on the first day sees young people pouring fragrant water into the palms of their elders to honour them, signifying humility and deference as well as to ask for their blessings. Additionally, there’s your kingdom-mandated mega water parties, too.

This profuse use of water is not baseless, though, at its core, water symbolically cleanses and renews, the latter being especially important given the birth of a new year. Thais are a very measured, polite people, and originally took to using bowls to pour water on their families, friends and neighbours to ritually and symbolically cleanse them. Despite its deep religious roots, the modern-day Songkran is now an almost secular affair. Whilst tradition continues with Thais, tourists travel all the way to Thailand to grab a piece of the fun despite the fact that most businesses are closed for the period.

Pii Mai Lao – Laos (15th-18th April)

In terms of cultural practices, Pi Mai Lao (Laotian New Year) is not very different from Songkran and the Cambodian New Year. One of the most important dates in the Lao calendar.

Pi Mai Lao is a time of celebration, fun, and merry making and is synonymous with commemorating the Lao identity. Familial bonds are reinforced and relationships strengthened; it is a time for tranquil and soulful reflection for the year ahead. Similar to Thailand, it is officially celebrated for three days, but the celebrations always extend to a week.

Similarly to Cambodia, they also partake in the washing of Buddha statues, and people greet one another with ‘Sok Dil Pimai’ (Happy New Year) before pouring water over their heads to wash away the previous year’s sins. To them, water, too, is symbolic of cleansing and purification.

Some interesting things to look out for in the main city, Luang Prabang, are the thousands of sand stupas on the Mekong River bank, erected to keep ‘evil’ spirits out, the Prabang procession from the former Royal Palace to Vat Mai, and the beauty contest, on top of assorted games, music and dance.

Thingyan – Myanmar (13th-16th April)

Thingyan is most notably a New Year Water Festival, with preparations preceding the actual New Year. Arguably the most celebrated festival in Myanmar. It is full of fantastical mythologies and folklore, yet still Buddhist in spirit. Similarly to the other New Years, alms giving, good deeds and fasting is undertaken. It is a time for all to celebrate goodwill, love, and kindness.

On the eve of Thingyan, religious activities such as observing the Eight Precepts of Buddhism are undertaken, and the fun starts nearer to the evening, when merry making in the form of song and dance take place. Like Songkran, this festival also originally started with bowls of water poured onto heads, but have evolved to be a fun and active water festival to have clean fun with friends, families and strangers.

– Jamilah Lim