When Pakk Yourng, a social science researcher, first came back to Cambodia after an absence of almost a decade, he was told that nobody goes to pagodas anymore to play traditional games in celebration of Khmer New Year.
He was skeptical, and had to see for himself.
“So I went to at least 30 pagodas during this New Year,” said Mr. Yourng, who returned to Cambodia last year with a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
He embarked on an unofficial social research project, setting off from his wife’s hometown in Kandal province, continuing along National Roads 4, 5 and 6 into the remote districts of Oral in Kompong Speu province, Batheay in Kompong Cham, Ponhea Leu in Kandal and Kompong Tralach in Kompong Chhnang.
“I saw that none of these communities were hosting any cultural events like trot dancing or playing cultural games in the pagoda,” he said. “I asked lay priests in the pagodas and they said people now like to gather in groups to drink instead.”
Mr. Yourng’s observations point to a gradual transformation of social traditions over 20 years, a fading out of communal New Year’s activities centered around the pagoda, and toward the rise of private gatherings driven by booming subwoofers and dancing.
More recently, this slow evolution has led to the rise of major festivals in several provinces, many of them organized by young people yearning to restore Khmer traditions. On their face, the festivals are a rebirth of traditional songs and games, but they also mark an institutionalization—and often commercialization—of festivities, with a growing division between the audience and the stage.
The old tradition, of communities—and especially the young—gathering in pagodas to pay their respects to monks and play traditional games has existed since at least Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime during the 1950s and 1960s, and is likely far older, said Ang Choulean, an anthropologist at the Royal University of Fine Arts who specializes in Cambodian traditions.
Games at the pagoda—like Bos Angkunh, which involves throwing stone-like fruit, or Chol Chhoung, where two lines of players pass a scarf back and forth—were about tradition, not religion, Mr. Choulean said.
“This is intangible heritage,” Mr. Choulean said. “But now this really has declined, and almost is gone.”
Mr. Choulean said the cultural evolution could be understood as a part of people’s growing isolation.
“If we look at houses in the past, no one built a high fence to separate their own house. But now, each builds a high fence,” he said. “This is the same matter. Society has evolved to a state of separation from each other, to such individualized states that even if someone lives close to another, they might not even know each other in person.”
New Year celebrations, too, had become a “personal matter,” with groups of acquaintances coming together at private gatherings, Mr. Choulean said.
Like any change, however, the cultural shift appears to have moved faster in some places than in others.
Pheng Sou Leng, an assistant at a Phnom Penh consultancy who goes back to her hometown in Kratie province every New Year, said she still sees many traditional celebrations there.
“At night, my brother would drive his car from north to east to visit different pagodas, at least to dance to a few songs,” she said with a laugh. “I think different places are different.”
Still, there were fewer people playing traditional games, she admitted. Although the celebrations still take place at pagodas, there is now a mix of traditions and modern music, with less traditional games and more dancing, she said.
Elsewhere, young Cambodians eager to preserve their culture have revived traditional games and performances in their home provinces by organizing large festivals that are exploding in popularity. Many mimic Siem Reap’s annual Angkor Sangkranta festival, put on by the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, which is led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Many.
Rithy Lomorpich, a freelance media producer, is one of the organizers of “Bonn Phum,” an annual New Year festival in the pagodas of Phnom Penh that began in 2014.
After spending time in different countries in Southeast Asia during her university studies—including living in Thailand for a time—Ms. Lomorpich realized that the New Year’s traditions of her home country were being lost, she said.
“People don’t even know what Sangkran means and thought it was a name of a New Year cultural celebration in Thailand,” she said. Sangkran is a Sanskrit-derived word designating the first day of the new year.
So the idea of gathering friends—many studying in different universities at the time—to celebrate the New Year emerged in her social group, she said.
“At first, we just wanted to have a gathering before the New Year. And the idea has grown bigger and bigger, to the point where we have connected it to our experiences from when we were young and used to go to pagodas to play traditional games,” she said. “We don’t see it anymore. That was why we wanted to bring it back.”
The event now includes traditional performances like Rom Vong, Saravan dance and Lakhaon theater, and has moved to a bigger venue in Kandal province this year.
Held at the Tuol Krasang Pagoda, this year’s event attracted between 15,000 and 16,000 people over three days, Ms. Lomorpich said, up from about 3,000 when it first began in 2014.
Kem Chanbopha, 19, a third-year university student majoring in business, has a similar story. Concerned by the loss of cultural identity, she started gathering her peers in Battambang province last year to organize Sangkran Phum Yerng (Our Village’s Sangkran) with the help of almost 100 volunteers from high schools in Battambang.
Her festival has grown from about 5,000 participants to roughly 13,000 this year, in an event held at Preah Monivong High School in Battambang City, she said.
“I think we have reminded people how to play the traditional games. Some people who attended the event did not know how to play even Bos Angkunh, so we have taught them,” Ms. Chanbopha said.
In Prey Veng province, another new Sangkran festival sprouted last year and doubled in size to 50,000 attendees this year, said organizer Ty Vanny, who noted that her festival had a public education element to it.
“Besides cultural performances and traditional games, we have also organized roleplay to educate the public about the side-effects of drinking alcohol during the festival, which leads to social insecurity,” Ms. Vanny said.
Seng Somony, spokesman for the Cults and Religion Ministry, said he had been receiving increasing reports of new celebrations being organized around the country.
On the back of the new Sangkran celebrations, there appeared to be more people playing traditional games and joining in cultural dancing, he said.
However, the phenomenon was not as straightforward as simply restoring old traditions, said Mr. Choulean, the anthropologist.
Although the new celebrations bring people together during Khmer New Year, they are typically more passive than the active, spontaneous involvement of the past, he said.
“It is just a show on the stage, but not from the people,” he said.
When it comes to intangible heritage, the loss, rebirth and evolution of culture is beyond our control—it cannot be corralled or shaped, Mr. Choulean said.
“When it’s gone—and it will be gone—something new will happen,” he said. “We can create technology, but not heritage. What we can do is to keep it alive, when it isn’t completely gone to bring it back and preserve it.”