The New Year Day Festival of the Khmer

In South Viet Nam, the Khmer, the majority of whom embraces Buddhism, lives in “Srok” (villages) located in the Mekong Delta and in areas bordering on the Cambodian border. The Khmer “Chon Cho-nan Tho-may” festival (New Year festival) falls during the middle of April, and is the Khmers’ biggest festival of the year.
Preparations have started several days before: cleaning and decorating houses, gathering fruits and making cakes as offerings to Lord Buddha and for entertaining guests on New Year’s Day.
On the advent of the New Year, at midnight, all villagers come to the pagoda with offerings – cakes and fruits – to perform the New Year ceremony. All are clad in national costumes: men in red silk “sarongs” with square patterns of violet, yellow or black colour, and while shirt; women in long-sleeved black blouses or short- sleeved white blouses with openings at the neck and coloured skirts. The Buddhist monks wear their usual saffron-yellow cloaks.
On the morning of New Year’s Day, the villagers in their colourful costumes again go to the pagoda for a ceremony and, thereafter, offer one another congratulations and good wishes. Then come the games. Adults play chess and engage in martial arts. Children fly kites and spin tops. Then come the dances including the “Lam Vong” dance, the “Xai-dam” dance and the “La-bam” dance, etc.
The “Lam Vong” is danced in pairs. Each woman and man moves slowly with their feet hitting the soil while keeping with the rhythm of the drum. Their arms flex in and out, and their bodies bend back and forth.
The “Sai Dam” dance is more lively. At first, the participants, who stand in a circle, vigorously clap for a few minutes. Then one or more dancers enter the circle. One person performs a dance depicting an elephant, another a duck, or a big and a small elephant, a big duck or infant duck. While dancing, the performers follow one another. Usually the male dancers are naked to the waist, as the movements of their necks, shoulders, chest, belly and buttocks are supposed to provide graceful figures. The onlookers clap, now slowly, now quickly depending on the movements of the dancers. The dance goes on, one batch of dancers replacing another one, until exhaustion.
The dances are followed by feasts that include liquor, boiled or fried fish and the famous “Pra-hoc”, a kind of salted fish paste stirred-fry with fat, onions, garlic and chiles and served with roasted meat, or added to a soup of chicken, duck or pork.
The feasts, in turn, are followed by dances, and the cycle goes on until the end of the first day.
The night is marked by a series of other games.
The flight of “wind lamps”: paper lamps containing oil-soaked cotton which, when burned, cause the lamp to rise in the air. The sight of a myriad of lamp twinkling in the sky, as if competing with the stars above, is indeed a thrill.
Sky-rocket firecrackers seem to set ablaze a portion of the sky.
“A-day” songs are exchanged by groups of girls, involving questions, guesses and replies, all in the form of songs.
The “Du-ke” theatrical performance is: a play of the Khmer people, with an open air stage but with due settings and curtains, a music band seated nearby including moon-shaped lutes, dipper-shaped mandolins, and single-headed drums. Performances take place in the light of the “Sa-lai” lamps while spectators sit all around. The themes of the plays usually originate from Khmer mythology and legends.
In some areas, “Du-ke” plays are even performed in day time with as many spectators as in the case with night performances.

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