Khmer, or Angkor, was a powerful Hindu-Buddhist Empire ruling over the mainland Southeast Asia in the olden times. The empire stretched over present Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Mekong Delta (Vietnam). Although its territory was curtailed into modern mainland Cambodia, their descendant who remained in Mekong Delta at the moment has still preserved their unique national culture and customs. One of them is a significant festival called “Chol Chnam Thmay”.
Within 13 cities in Mekong Delta, there are approximately one million Khmer citizens settling down, especially in Trà Vinh, Sóc Trăng, An Giang and Kiên Giang. Though bearing the same meaning as Lunar New Year in other cultures, Chol Chnam Thmay is somehow celebrated with different rituals. Following Theravada school in Buddhism, all activities during the occasion are held in the pagodas.
“Chol Chnam Thmay” literally means “New year” itself, which is the biggest occasion for Khmer citizens. It is held in the middle of April in solar calendar. This moment is known as the transitional period between dry and rainy seasons in Southern Vietnam, which leads to the bud of plants and flowers. It is believed that the blossom is a good sign for a prosperous year ahead. Greatly affected by Indian culture, most of the people in Khmer community are Buddhist, following Theravada, one of the two main schools in Buddhism.
During the occasion, there is an indispensable ritual: forming a sand mountain. It is said that every single grain of sand lapped up can eliminate one sin and release one guilty spirit in hell. Furthermore, the shape of a sand mountain looks identical to a mass of cloud pouring rain all over the fields after five or six months of barren.
This festival lasts for 3 days in common years and 4 days in leap years with different names created for different days. Apart from Buddha, Khmer people also believe that in every year, Tevoda is appointed to take care of their daily life, come back to heaven in the end of the year and get replaced by another God. Hence, at New Year’s Eve, banquets are set, incenses and lights are all lit up in order to make their farewell to the prior Tevoda and welcome a new one.
Regardless of their status of poverty or richness, each household prepares a special cake called “Nùm Chrụp”, which tastes somehow like sticky rice with pork as the core. It is considered as a symbol of prosperity and development in agriculture.
If you ever catch a chance to visit Khmer community during this distinctive occasion, you will probably witness an uttermost animation and vividity. Their one-of-a-kind dance moves, along with many sky lanterns climbing gently into the sky, are fundamental factors during the festival. Releasing a sky lantern will bring one’s wishes of a well-off life and contentment along.