Cambodia is quite possibly my favourite country on my travels so far. There is just something about the rural countryside and its proud people that I love to return to time and time again. I have mentioned Sihanoukville before as one of my favourite backpacker hangouts and this is because the best holiday I have ever been on is when I visited Sihanoukville in April 2008. This just so happened to coincide with Khmer New Year.
My friend Kelly and I decided that we wanted a cheap Easter holiday and Cambodia seemed to tick all of the boxes. We headed to Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon’s backpacker district, and purchased a bus ticket for $22 from one of the many tour operators. At 7am the next day we hopped on a bus for an arduous 11 hour journey – on which we encountered pigs on the back of a motorcycle, a 2 hour roadside wait when our bus crashed into a van transporting male underwear, and a further 20 minute wait while the bus driver stopped at a temple to pray to the coconut god. But by nightfall we were settled into our hostel on serendipity beach for the week and ready to enjoy ourselves.
There is no denying the fact that Serendipity beach in Sihanoukville is primarily full of western backpackers most of the time but all this changes during the period of New Year, usually from 14th-16th April, when thousands of young Khmers flood to the beach in search of serious partying. This date is determined by the lunar calendar and is generally Cambodia’s hottest time of year, following the harvest. The Khmer people have worked hard through the harvest period and so Khmer New Year is the country’s biggest holiday, despite the fact that they have already celebrated International New Year and Chinese New Year by this point.
Travellers to Thailand are most probably familiar with Songkran, a festival which takes place around the same time as Khmer New Year. This is when the streets of Thailand become the scene of the world’s biggest water fight and Cambodia’s celebrations are similar. Locals ‘cleanse’ each other with a sprinkling of water in order to bring in the New Year but sometimes the sprinkling becomes more of a dousing. If you are out in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar or Cambodia at this time, you are very likely to get wet! Of course, the backpackers are always keen to join in as the cold water is refreshing in the heat of the asian summer. Incidentally, Vietnam does not celebrate this festival.
It is not only water that is thrown during this time: white powder or chalk may also be thrown at unsuspecting passersby and it can get very messy. I am particularly fond of Khmer New Year as it was on this night that I met my partner Nicklas, who fell for me despite the fact that I was coated in baby powder!
Top tips for enjoying Khmer New Year
- Don’t wear white
- Don’t wear your best clothes – the sticky powder residue may not be easy to remove
- Use waterproof mascara
- Leave valuables behind. You WILL get wet.
- GET INVOLVED!
It is a kick-ass party! Let’s just hope the beach shacks stay in place for a few years to come, and that the upscale hotels don’t privatize the entire beach.