As the “supermoon” hung above the Royal Palace on Monday night, 25 candles set on an intricate stand were carried into a large hall. After King Norodom Sihamoni finished a prayer, the candles—each representing a Cambodian province—were turned on their heads, allowing wax to fall onto banana leaves.
In the wax puddles that formed, the fate of farmers across the country was told: 2017 will be a year of healthy rainfall and strong agricultural yields.
“We check every province and the capital. When a lot of wax drops from the candle or less drops, we have to analyze based on this,” said Kong Ken, the Royal Palace’s Brahman chief, who interpreted the wax clusters for the king.
“I can tell that rainfall could be much better than last year in almost every province.”
The traditional ceremony dates back centuries, he said, going hand-in-hand with Water Festival celebrations. According to the ritual, the larger the pool of wax, the more rain the corresponding province can expect.
“There were some places where rain will fall a little bit, some places that will be average and some places that will have a lot of rainfall by the end of the year,” Mr. Ken said.
With the worst drought in 50 years having hit the country last year—pushing back the start of this season’s monsoon, leaving reservoirs and wells dry, and destroying or delaying entire harvests—the news could bring great relief to the majority of farmers who still rely on the rain.
“If it is so, it is good for agriculture—for farmers from Cambodia,” said Sam Vitou, the executive director of agriculture organization Cedac. “I can’t say if it’s accurate or not accurate, but it’s a good tradition.”
Ministry of Agriculture spokesman Lor Reaksmey said the news may offer encouragement, with new reservoirs having been built in the wake of the drought only for the rain to slow upon their completion. “We hope next year will have better results, because now the dry season is beginning,” he said.
Hun Lak, vice president of the Cambodian Rice Federation, said he believed the weather predictions would come true, but that infrastructure was the answer to dry season woes.
“What we hope to see is the government to develop more irrigation systems,” he said. “Then we hope we can increase the production and the yield. That is the point.”
Scientifically, it’s too early to say how much rain will grace the country next year, according to Oum Ryna, spokesman for the meteorology department at the Ministry of Water Resources.
“We cannot predict until next year because we need a lot of foundation and evidence for predicting long term,” he said.
“It is not just our country. Other countries also predict step-by-step over a short period of one or two months.”
As for the Royal Palace’s verdict, Mr. Ryna said, “I am involved with technical assessments, so I have no idea when talking about this tradition.”
But Ian Thomas, a Cambodia-based environmental consultant, said that he was “very happy” to agree with the ceremony’s results.
“It should be okay in 2017. The correlation between drought and El Nino is very strong, so when it is not an El Nino year it should be alright,” he said, referring to the devastating global weather cycle that exacerbated the drought in Cambodia.
This year, a La Nina weather cycle is anticipated, he said, bringing opposite but less predictable results. The rainy season should turn out somewhere between normal and “a slightly wetter year in 2017, up to the possibility of some floods,” he added.