Phnom Penh is a fun, bustling city, showcasing the best that Cambodia has to offer. Although the country is still struggling to completely get away from its violent past, the capital city is showing signs of development and the international world of tourism is taking notice. Besides going to see the ancient architecture, colorful culture and humble locals (called Khmer), foreign tourists are beginning to flock for the culture and festivals of Phnom Penh. Nicknamed the “pearl city of Asia”, Phnom Penh is the center of Cambodia’s tourism and culture.
The city comes to life on New Year’s Day, and December and January are the best months to visit Cambodia because it is neither too warm nor too wet. The whole year, however, Cambodia is generally very hot and humid. For this reason, what better way to start the New Year than to get doused with a pail of water in the streets? People fill the streets with dancing and music, and water gets thrown at everyone for the yearly 3-day partying and festivities. The Cambodian New Year is not always on the 1st of January. It changes by the year, depending on the ancient Khmer calendar and end of the year’s harvest. Typically, the celebrations end towards the weekend. Resembling Thailand’s Songkran, New Year in Phnom Penh is a fun celebration in which tourists should get involved.
Water plays an important role to the capital city, since it is located at the confluence of three rivers, namely the Tonle Sap, Bassac and Mekong Rivers. In November of each year, the city celebrates the Water Festival, a fun holiday celebration as Tonle Sap River reverses its flow. The yearly event is also called Bon Om Tuk, which means Festival of the Reversing Current. The 3-day celebration is a national holiday and is marked with live concerts, partying, feasting, boat racing along the rivers, and fireworks. The boat races are to commemorate the strength of the Khmer marine forces in ancient times during the Khmer Empire. The races are highly anticipated by everyone: every year, people flock to take part of the Water Festival. In fact, often there are simply too many people. During the 2010 Festival, 348 people were killed in a bridge stampede. November is the beginning of fishing season, and the Water Festival sets it off.
A month earlier, on October 7 to 9, is the Pchum Ben, a religious festival in which people gather to remember their ancestors. Pchum Ben literally means “gathering together” in Khmer. This is an important time for the people of Phnom Penh as they express their love, offer food, and give good karma to dead ancestors who may still be trapped in the spirit world and have not entered into the cycle of reincarnation.
The Cambodian population is 90% Buddhist. The rest are Hindus, Muslims and a few Christians.
Another important cultural event is the Visak Bochea in May, which is also considered the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. But more than that, the festivities commemorate Gautama Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and passing away.
Two other interesting points of culture and festivals in Phnom Penh are the Royal Rice Ploughing Ceremony in May and the arts festival in December, the goal of which is to introduce Cambodian art to the rest of the world.