Ushering in the New Year with Festivals

2020 is finally over.

Amidst all the uncertainty over an unprecedented year, one thing is for sure – many were eager to kick 2020 out the door.

A new year is a fresh start, brimming with hope, opportunities and possibilities. What better way to celebrate the new year than literally soaking in the festive atmosphere with others at a new year festival? Festivals are not only celebrations of humanity and life but also expressions of cultures and traditions. Want to know a country better? Then be sure to join the locals in one of their festivals for unforgettable fun and meaningful experiences.

While it may take some time before we can travel safely and revel in festivals, that should not stop us from learning about new year festivals. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, also collectively known as the CLMV countries, share similar and unique features in celebrating the new year.

Not all cultures and countries celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1 in accordance with the Gregorian calendar. When to celebrate the new year is usually a question of which calendar is adopted – solar, lunar and lunisolar.

Chaul Chnam Thmey – Khmer New Year

Khmer New Year Image
Source: Travel Cambodia Online

The Khmer New Year, or Chaul Chnam Thmey, marks the first day of the new year based on the lunisolar calendar. It is held in mid-April and celebrated over three days. As Cambodia is predominantly a Buddhist country, the festival is deeply influenced by Buddhist traditions. 

On the first day, people visit temples to offer thanks for the past year and pray for luck and blessings in the new year. The next day, people make merits to the poor and less fortunate, spend time with their families, and make offerings to their ancestors. On the last day, people sprinkle Buddha statues, monks and elders with perfumed water, as a symbolic act to wash away the bad and bring longevity, prosperity and happiness. People also douse each other with water for a practical reason – to cool themselves. Since the New Year falls in April, the hottest season in Southeast Asia, who wouldn’t enjoy a good splash of water?

Boun Pi Mai – Laos New Year

laos splashing water at monks
Source: Off Road Laos Adventure

The Lao New Year, known as Boun Pi Mai, takes place in mid-April for three days based on the Buddhist calendar. The first day of Boun Pi Mai is considered the last day of the old year, the second day is a “day of no day”, and the third day is the first day of the new year. The new year festivities can be extended to seven days in major cities, especially Luang Prabang. A common new year element with its neighbouring ASEAN countries is water, which is associated with cleanliness and purity. Water is one of the main features of Boun Pi Mai. Lao people bathe Buddha statues and greet their elders and monks with flower-scented water. Expect a good splash from others on the streets, although the experience is milder than Songkran in Thailand.

Thingyan – Burmese New Year

myanmar hair washing
Source: The Myanmar Times
myanmar cutting nails
Source: The Myanmar Times

Celebrated over five days, Thingyan is the Burmese New Year and falls in mid-April. As with the abovementioned new year festivals, water is a significant symbol in Thingyan – it washes away the old and sins committed in the previous year and welcomes blessings and fortune in the new year. In the past, the ritual was done by gently sprinkling water on people with a bowl of water and sprigs. 

The modern-day iteration of water throwing during Thingyan (Chaul Chnam Thmey, Boun Pi Mai, and Songkran, too) looks vastly different. Hordes of people, including tourists, pour onto the streets and engage in fun and boisterous water fights. Ordinary objects that can contain, spray and spurt water immediately turn into weapons. Water throwing happens on the second day and ends on the fourth day of Thingyan

The fifth day of Thingyan is the first day of the new year. Burmese perform merit-making by releasing birds and fishes, making food donations, washing the hair and cutting the nails of the elderly.

Tết Nguyên Đán – Vietnamese Lunar New Year

Vietnamese Lunar New Year
Source: Báo Giao Thông

Tết celebrates the arrival of spring according to the lunar calendar. The most significant festival in Vietnam is celebrated over a week and usually falls in either January or February. Major cities turn empty and quiet as Vietnamese return to their hometowns for family reunions.  

Each lunar new year is represented by a zodiac animal. In 2021, Vietnamese celebrate the year of the buffalo.

Tết traditions revolve around superstitions and luck. Families avoid sweeping the floor during Tết as it is believed that good luck would be swept away. Vietnamese believe that the first guest who enters one’s house during Tết determines the family’s fortune for the entire year. For this reason, families would invite someone who is wise or respectable or old to enter the house to bring wisdom, fortune, and longevity. People wear new clothes in bright and auspicious colours such as red and gold while black and white colours are avoided during Tết. Lucky money placed in red envelopes is given by elders to young family members as a way of blessing them. 

Click here to find out more about Tết traditions and superstitions.

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