Saturday, 14 April 2012

Cambodia - Happy New Year!

As I'm blogging about various different places around the world, I often become aware of festivals and celebrations that I would never have otherwise heard about.  Right now it's New Year in Cambodia or, in Khmer language បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី - Chaul Chnam Thmey.  Khmer New Year is celebrated over three days, from the 13th to the 15th of April and marks the end of the harvesting season.  This year's Chaul Chnam Thmey marks the beginning of 2556 BE - ie. according to the Buddhist calendar (Buddhist Era). 

April 14th 2012 - Virak Wanabat
Monks giving alms by Pigalle
I'm sure there will be lots of ceremonies and temple visits in Cambodia today, which is the second day of this celebration, called Virak Wanabat - it focuses on charity and giving to the poor, I guess today is the equivalent of our 'Boxing Day'.  And not just in Cambodia either.  Cambodians all over the world will be celebrating New Year this weekend.

Songkran and Pathandu

Chaul Chnam Thmey coincides with other Buddhist New Year's, like Songkran in Thailand and Laos, a time to get splashed with flour and water, if I remember my Songkran in Thailand correctly!  It's also New Year in Sri Lanka and in the Tamil communities of southern India, Malaysia and elsewhere, where it's known as Puthandu

So when is New Year again?

Postcard seller by Pigalle
Until I lived in places like Uzbekistan and Thailand, I didn't realise that there were other dates for New Year (apart from Chinese New Year).  In Central Asia and Iran, New Year is celebrated as Navrus (or Nowrus), normally around the end of March.  The date is based on the lunar calendar, which changes from year to year, although most countries have settled on one date (22 March) as the date for New Year.

My Kalmyk partner celebrates New Year (Zul) on the 20th of December!  The Celtic New Year traditionally began during Samhain (seed-fall, or the end of the harvest).  This festival survives in our modern-day Hallowe'en, which falls on the last day in October, according to the Gregorian (Western) calendar.  It seems strange to have a New Year beginning at the start of winter, but I guess every New Year marks the end of an old one and, as with Chaul Chnam Thmey, Celtic New Year really marks the end of the productive agricultural season (before the rains come, or in Europe - winter). 

New Years around the world

Living in climatically different parts of the world, it would make sense that New Year starts at different times in different places, as it usually heralds the end or beginning of a productive agricultural season. 

It surprised me to learn that New Year has only been celebrated on the 1st of January in England since 1751!  Previous to that, New Year in England began on Lady's Day, which is the 25th of March.  I guess the UK retains a remnant of this older tradition, as the UK 'Financial year' begins on the 1st of April.

Our modern New Year most likely has its origins in the Yuletide of Nordic and Germanic traditions, which is still celebrated as Christmas, but probably got moved to the 1st of January as a more convenient 'starting' date and to differentiate Christmas, which they were keen to portray as a 'Christian' holiday tied to the birth of Christ?

Psah Thom Thmei by Pigalle
Orthodox countries like Russia, still have a different New Year's date (called Old New Year!) on January 14th - so they get to celebrate New Year twice! 

In the Judaic tradition, New Year is celebrated during Rosh Hashanah which will be in September this year. 

I guess the Hindu 'festival of lights' Diwali is a kind of New Year celebration - it also falls in the autumn or early (European) winter - this year Diwali will be in November. 

Enkutatash - the Coptic (Ethiopian) New Year falls on the 11th of September.

The Islamic New Year starts on the first day of Muharram which will be the 15th of November this year. 

Seollal - the Korean New Year, started on the 23rd of January this year, a date that is very close to the Chinese New Year.  The Vietnamese New Year Tết also coincides with Chinese New Year. 

The Balinese celebrated their New Year Nyepi on the 23rd of March this year.  Nyepi is an interesting one, as it means the 'day of silence' - when everyone in Bali stays indoors in the hope that visiting demons will think the island is uninhabited and leave them alone for another year!  Nyepi also applies to visiting tourists and I can't imagine what it's like to stay indoors and remain silent during that day - it sounds wonderful!

I guess at any time of the year, somewhere in the world, people will be celebrating the end of harvest or cheering themselves up in the middle of a dull winter or rainy season!  So wherever you're reading this and whatever time of the year it is - Happy New Year!

Image credits:

For this blog post I wanted to highlight the photography of Flickr member Pigalle - who has amazing collections of images from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and elsewhere.  You can see more on Pigalle's photostream - all images for this blog post have been taken from the set - A Brief Introduction to Cambodia - thanks to Pigalle for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

Monday, 2 April 2012

Cambodia - Monarchy in the 21st Century

I'm not sure many people could have guessed that Cambodia would enter the 21st century as the Kingdom of Cambodia. Mind you, there aren't many countries in the world, where a reigning monarch has been in favour of Communism (as Norodom Sihanouk, father of the current King of Cambodia, seemed to be during the 1960's). Nor have many of the world's monarchs been so warmly welcomed in Communist Beijing, as Sihanouk was, or gone into self-imposed exile in North Korea, where Sihanouk went after his abdication in 2004. Needless to say, the monarchy in Cambodia is different than most other monarchies around the world!

His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni

The current King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni is a fascinating character. He's well-educated and travelled, was trained as a Classical Dance Instructor and is the only reigning monarch who is fluent in Czech! I'm no big fan of monarchy but - dare I say it - he sounds like a really nice guy! I guess modern-day constitutional monarchs have a symbolic role of to play in the countries where they are Heads of State. Like our President in Ireland, the King of Cambodia seems to be more  cultural ambassador than tyrannical leader.

Monarchy around the World
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh by Wilson Loo
It always surprises me that monarchies continue to flourish in the 21st century, in different parts of the world. I personally don't agree with the hereditary aspect of monarchy, or the idea that there should be a princeps civitatis (or principle citizen) who is somehow 'better' than other citizens. Monarchy underpins a basic 'inequality' in society that makes me feel uncomfortable. Monarchists might claim that the system is 'harmless', but you have to wonder at the underlying message that is given out by a political system with a hereditary figure at the top.

Japan has the longest-running monarchy in the world, the current Emperor Akihito is the latest ruler in a line stretching back to the 4th century CE (Common Era). I've already blogged about the House of Saud and the last Maharani of Jaipur.

Other countries with monarchies, include most of the Scandinavian countries, African countries like Lesotho and Swaziland, the Sultanates of the Middle East and Malaysia, as well as some small island nations in the Pacific. The world's newest monarch, Tupou VI, became King of Tonga a couple of weeks ago!

King Bhumibhol and lese-majesty

Door detail by Wilson Loo
The world's longest-reigning monarch is King Bhumibhol Adulyadej of Thailand, just across the border from Cambodia. I spent a year in Thailand and became incredibly aware of the importance of the Thai king in the country's political system and culture. Thailand is a country that still frequently prosecutes people for the crime of lese-majesty. From the French for 'injury to the monarch', lese-majesty means any crime that is deemed to be injurious to the monarch or ruling Head of State. It includes crimes like the counterfeiting of currency, as coins and notes usually contain the monarch's profile. It's more common these days to seelese-majesty being exercised in cases such as libel.

Although I don't agree with the concept of monarchy, I also think that it's wrong to go to a country like Thailand, as a foreigner, and make flippant comments about an issue that is incredibly sensitive and little understood by 'westerners'. There have been some famous cases of foreigners being prosecuted in Thailand, like the Swiss man who sprayed graffiti on portraits of the King in Chiang Mai and received a ten-year jail sentence. However, most lese-majesty prosecutions involve Thai citizens and recent civil unrest in Thailand has seen an increase in incidents of lese-majesty. Internet sites like YouTube and Twitter are becoming the battle-grounds where a debate on the Thai monarchy, suppressed elsewhere, are coming to the fore.

The Queen's Jubilee

I don't think lese-majesty is such a massive issue in the UK and criticism of the Royal family, by those who don't believe in monarchy, is fairly common. Nevertheless, I'm sure there will be a lot of flag-waving for the Queen's Jubilee in June - 60 years on the throne, Elizabeth II is currently the world's second-longest reigning monarch.

The position of the monarchy in the UK seems to be stronger than ever and the argument about the value of the royal family, in terms of bringing in tourist revenues, continues as ever. I don't really believe that the royal family per se is the reason why tourists come to the UK. I'm sure people would still come to see the palaces and other historical buildings, whether or not the royal family was around. Whilst it's obvious that the British royal family is very popular with some overseas visitors, I'm sure that the majority of people that live, work and visit the UK, are fairly indifferent to the monarchy, most of the time.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh by Wilson Loo
An elected Monarch?

Going back to Cambodia, I find it interesting that the role of Cambodian monarch is both a hereditary one and an elected one. Most hereditary systems mean that the eldest son (or sometimes daughter) will become monarch, when the reigning monarch passes away or abdicates. King Sihamoni isn't Sihanouk's oldest son, but was elected from a list of possible heirs by a council under the supervision of the Cambodian Prime Minister.

It seems like a fairly sensible system to me, as every royal family has its 'bad eggs' and this kind of selection could be used to by-pass heirs that were not fit to rule.

It would be interesting to apply this system to the British Royal family and I guess it would be the equivalent of having a choice between Prince Charles and his brothers, sisters and sons. It would be interesting to see who would win the selection, especially if it was put to a popular vote!

Image credits:

All images were taken at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh by flickr member Wilson Loo who is from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.  You can see more of Wilson's work on his Flickr photostream and on his Facebook page.  Thanks Wilson for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.