Cambodians are always celebrating a festival of some sort, heading out to a popular pagoda with family and friends or taking off for the provinces; unsurprisingly, festivals are the busiest times for shopping and travelling.
The major celebrations of the year are Bonn Chaul Chhnam (Khmer New Year; mid-April) and Bonn Pchum Ben (Festival of the Ancestors; mid-Sept to early Oct). These are festive occasions with everyone gathering at the family home and always involve lots of food and trips to the pagoda. The other big public holiday is Bonn Om Tuk (Water Festival; mid-Oct to late Nov), which occurs when the waters of the Tonle Sap reverse; activity is mainly centred on Phnom Penh with dragon-boat crews from around the country congregating to show off their prowess and massive crowds of supporters thronging the riverfront to cheer them on.
Buddhist offering days (exact dates vary from month to month according to the lunar calendar) are also colourful occasions: stalls do a roaring trade in bunches of flowers which are taken to pagodas and used to decorate shrines at home. Lotus buds – the traditional offering flower to the Buddha – are artistically folded to expose their pale-pink inner petals, while jasmine buds are threaded onto sticks and strings as fragrant tokens.
Dates for Buddhist religious holidays are variable, changing each year with the lunar calendar.
January 1 International New Year’s Day
January 7 Victory Day over the Genocide Regime. Celebrates the liberation of Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge in 1979
Late January/February (variable) Meak Bochea Day. Buddhist festival commemorating and worshipping the Dhamma
March 8 International Women’s Day
April 13–15 Bonn Chaul Chhnam – Khmer New Year
Late April/May (variable) Visak Bochea Day. Buddhist festival celebrating the birth, enlightenment and passing to Nirvana of the Buddha
May 1 International Labour Day
May 13–15 Birthday of King Norodom Sihamoni
May (variable) Visakha Bochea. Commemorates the birth of Buddha
May (variable) Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. Celebrated just before the rains begin, this marks the start of the rice-planting season, and a ceremonial furrow is ploughed on the grounds in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh
June 18 Birthday of King-Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk
September 24 Constitution Day
September/October (2–3 days, variable) Bonn Pchum Ben, the Feast of the Ancestors. Celebrated on the day of the new moon, when families head out to the pagoda to make offerings to the dead
October 29 Coronation Day of King Norodom Sihamoni
October 31 Birthday of King-Father Norodom Sihanouk
October/November (variable) Bonn Om Tuk, the Water Festival. Held at a variable time from late October to mid-November, it marks the end of the rains and the time when the water again starts to flow out of the Tonle Sap. A busy and colourful three-day event ensues, with boat races on the river near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and on the moat around Angkor Wat
November 9 Independence Day. Marks independence from the French in 1953
December 10 International Human Rights Day
Any public holidays that fall on a Saturday or Sunday are taken the following Monday.