Cambodia’s Biggest ‘Unofficial’ Holiday Begins

The streets of Phnom Penh were quieter than usual Thursday as shops shuttered their doors, children skipped school and adults took a break from work to kick off celebrations for the country’s biggest unofficial holiday—Chinese New Year.

As people across the country burned ghost money, offered up roasted pigs to their ancestors, and got ready to ring in the Year of the Horse, which arrives today, it seemed that many were unfazed by the fact that the holiday isn’t officially recognized by the government.

“Chinese New Year doesn’t need to be an official holiday…. People take off work anyway,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who said that most people in his office were taking a full three days off to celebrate the holiday.

“It’s very tough to keep them working—they go back to their home towns,” he said.

Keeping children in the classroom, Mr. Siphan said, was equally hard. “They want to spend the holiday with each other and their families; there is nothing we can do.”

Keo Pirum, a teacher and librarian at Samdech Chea Sim Chamroeunroth High School in Svay Pak commune, Russei Keo district, said that about 60 percent of students showed up for school Thursday morning, but they all left halfway through the day.

“Right now there are no students in the school,” he said Thursday afternoon, adding that about 40 percent of the teaching staff had requested time off for the holiday.

The Chinese Embassy held a party Thursday to mark the Lunar New Year that saw revelers celebrating with traditional Chinese New Year lion and dragon dances.

“I do wish it was an official holiday but there is nothing I can do about this…. We are still having celebrations,” said Chinese Embassy spokesman Cheng Chong after the party.

Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia president Jimmy Gao agreed.

“I have no comment on whether the Cambodian government should make it an official holiday,” he said.

“What matters is that Khmer-Chinese and Khmer people are happy to celebrate it whether it’s official or not.”

However, Sok Touch, an independent political analyst and president of Khemarak University, said that people should not be allowed to take days off work to celebrate the holiday.

“Chinese New Year isn’t a national ceremony or public holiday in Cambodia, so it’s not a day to relax,” he said.

Many Cambodians clearly disagreed. Tea Kheng, a 62-year-old shop owner with Chinese heritage, said he would be taking three days off as a way to to pay respect to his ancestors while spending quality time with his wife and children.

“My grandmother was Khmer and my grandfather was Chinese. They died a long time ago, but this time of year gives me time to honor them,” he said.

“Chinese New Year brings light to my family and friends.”

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