As Phnom Penh shopowners locked up their wares and tens of thousands left the city to enjoy the Khmer New Year holiday in the provinces, about 1,000 residents who stayed behind—some solemn and others playful—gathered at Wat Phnom on Tuesday afternoon to welcome the year’s incoming angel.
In the temple atop Phnom Penh’s iconic pagoda, musicians played traditional instruments and incense filled the air as some 70 Buddhist devotees prayed to Reakjasa Devi, a bloodthirsty angel scheduled to arrive at 2 p.m.
At precisely 2:01 p.m., deputy Phnom Penh governor Mak Vansitha lit 10 candles surrounded by offerings of fruit baskets, sticky rice cakes, lotus flowers and bundles of money to the new angel, or devada. After the ceremony, families lined up to receive blessings from Wat Phnom’s lay priests, who chanted and sprayed perfumed water on attendees, young and old.
In the gardens below, children and a handful of tourists took a more lighthearted approach to the holiday, participating in traditional Khmer New Year games organized by City Hall.
Next to Wat Phnom’s giant clock, music blared from speakers as revelers circled a clay pot hanging from a 3-meter-long pole.
In the game called veay ka’am —“hitting the clay pot” in Khmer —blindfolded contestants used a bamboo stick to break the pot filled with baby powder. Winners took home T-shirts, hardboiled eggs, soft drinks and fans.
“I’ve never won anything before,” said Jess Riddell, a 26-year-old tourist from Australia who won a T-shirt that was stuffed in the pot she smashed.
Under strings of multicolored flags hanging between trees wrapped in lights, vendors sold cotton candy and balloons to a crowd that grew larger by the hour.
Next to a stage erected for performances during the three-day holiday, some 200 people shouted and laughed as they played leak kanseng—“hiding the knotted scarf” in Khmer—and dandoeum sloekchhoeu—“vying for tree leaves.”
The first is a Cambodian version of duck-duck-goose, in which a traditional scarf is used to tag your challenger. The second is a competition between the sexes, where teams of young men and women compete to grab a bundle of leaves before being tagged by the other side.
Kun Kim An, an official in the municipal culture and fine arts department, said City Hall had been organizing the games since 1979—the year the Khmer Rouge was toppled—and that they had remained the same over the decades.
“The games we play have not changed since then. People of all ages come, young and old,” he said.