The Khmer New Year has taken over the streets, pathways, green spaces and driveways of Cambodia.
Now that the three-day holiday is here, children, teens and adults alike are fueling the annual resurrection of traditional games and street dancing.
It’s reassuring to see, said Meas Sarun, director-general of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts who studies “intangible” Cambodian culture.
Meas Sarun has found 49 distinctly Khmer games and dances, he said and some of them have roots that can be traced back to depictions of game-playing chiseled into the bas-reliefs on the walls of ancient temples.
“If we stop playing or reduce activities of playing [the games and dances], it means we are eliminating our national identity,” Meas Sarun said.
“To be Cambodians and children of this country, we need to preserve our ancestors’ achievements and heritages to go forwards forever,’ he said.
Players say the game of Angkuhn is a best loved New Year game. Angkuhn is a simple group game played with large, hard, mahogany-colored pits from the fruit of the sugar palm tree.
In the days leading up to the New Year, groups of university students were playing Angkuhn under the tall shade trees around Wat Phnom.
In teams of boys versus girls, they took turns placing three of the slightly flat golf ball-sized pits in a small triangle in the dirt. One team tossed other pits one-by-one toward the triangle formation. In between hollering and giggling, they tried to knock down the back two seeds first, and the third seed thereafter. Or, they tried to land a seed in the middle of the triangle. The team with the most successful shots won and then earned the right to use a pair of pits to rap-rap-rap on the knees of their opponents.
“I feel happy,” when playing Angkuhn, said Sam Tola, a 21-year-old Norton University student. But he was “a bit hurt when I was knocked by the winners,” he said.
Surrounded by his friends in a shady patch near Wat Phnom, 21-year-old architecture student Bao Kimhong said Angkuhn is a way to remember “our national identity.”
But Angkuhn isn’t the only New Year game. Youths also play Leak Kanseng, Chhung and Dandoeum Sloek Chhoeu as well, traditional games that involve chasing each other with scarves and vying for leafy branches. Card games—despite gambling being deemed illegal—pop up on street corners with increased frequency. Kids toss water and handfuls of talcum powder at each other. And dance parties go into full swing on the streets with the help of booming stereos.
They are fun activities, yes, said Meas Sarun. But he emphasized that the importance also goes deeper: “Our intangible heritage is the most valuable tool to allow Cambodia maintain its culture and tradition forever.”
(Additional reporting by Katie Nelson)