The 3-day Chol Chnam Thmay festival takes place in the middle of April.
In April the Khmer in Vietnam’s southern region have finished the harvest and have leisure time. It’s the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season.
Rain brings vitality to nature and trees begin to bud. 2 weeks before the Chol Chnam Thmay festival, the Khmer clean their houses, prepare new clothes, and make various dishes.
Danh Thị Lan of Soc Trang said, “My siblings return home to visit our parents. We have a meal together and talk about our families. We clean the altar, decorate the house, and prepare offerings for our ancestors and an offering to bring to the pagoda.”
Most activities during the 3-day Chol Chnam Thmay festival occur at the pagoda. On the first day, people go to the pagoda to burn incense to worship their ancestors.
They use scented water to wash their faces in the morning, have a bath in the afternoon, and wash their feet in the evening. On the second day they do charity work for disadvantaged people.
On the third day they use scented water to bath the Buddha and young people spray scented water on older people to wish them longevity and happiness. The third day is the most important day, when people show their filial duty and gratitude to their ancestors and the Buddha.
One week before the festival, Khmer pagodas are beautifully decorated to give a fresh look to the Buddha’s lotus throne, the main hall, the yard, and the gate.
Venerable monk Sơn Ngọc Huỳnh of Tra Vinh shared, “The monks are busy preparing for the new year festival. They clean the yard and arrange places for pilgrims to build sand dunes. It’s an age-old tradition of the Khmer to earn blessings.”
“Building sand dunes” is an important rite of the Khmer new year festival. Eight sand dunes are built pointing in 8 directions in the yard in front of the main hall. One sand dune placed in the middle represents the earth.
Rites performed on the 3 days of the festival align the Khmer lifestyle with Buddhist philosophy. In addition to performing rituals at the pagoda, the Khmer also invite monks to their home to pray for their family’s happiness.
The Chol Chnam Thmay festival is an important event in the religious life of the Theravada Khmer. By Khmer calculations, the new year begins when the sun finishes its circle of 365 days, which occurs in the morning, afternoon, or evening in different years.
On the first night of the new year, they burn candles, incense, and oil lamps to bid farewell to the old year and welcome the new year, new crops, and a happy future.