Photograph by Arrizka Faida, East-West Center in Washington Young Professional

Khmer New Year Celebration Brings Together Cambodian Community


Khmer New Year is Cambodia's most important traditional celebration and national holiday. With a population numbering around 300,000, Cambodian Americans are the second largest Southeast Asian ethnic group in the United States after Filipinos. Cultural preservation is important for the communities since the United States and Cambodia have deep historical and cultural ties that date back to 1950.

The traditional celebration of the solar new year in Cambodia is known as Khmer New Year (KNY) or "Enter the New Year." Before the rainy season, the three-day festival signifies the end of the harvesting season. The KNY has its roots in old Hindu and Buddhist customs, which both Buddhists and non-Buddhists observe.

Khmer New Year is a significant expression of Cambodia's cultural identity, and the community engages in historical rituals to welcome the new year. It holds deep cultural and spiritual significance for the Cambodian people. Commonly cooked traditional dishes include amok (fish curry), kralan (sticky rice cake), and nom banh chok (rice noodle soup). These meals are not only delicious, but also symbolize fertility, abundance, and good fortune.

The Royal Embassy of Cambodia in Washington, DC hosted a celebration event on April 6, 2024. The celebration featured food delicacies, a traditional Khmer dance, music (both traditional and contemporary), social dancing, games, ceremonial ancestor worship in the morning, and an opening statement from Mr. KEO Chhea, the Ambassador of Cambodia to the United States. The celebration offered a precious opportunity for them to reconnect with their roots, share their traditions with fellow community members, and strengthen their sense of identity and belonging in the United States.

Krystal M. Chuon, a Cambodian American living in California, told the East-West Center about the meaning of the celebration: “For Khmer Americans, it's one of the times in the year to celebrate our heritage and express our Khmer identity. Like many descendants of refugees and immigrants, growing up with dual identities - Khmer and American - is challenging. Khmer rituals and cultural practices can be complex and hard to understand. Parents may not be well-versed in explaining the importance of Khmer New Year practices, especially if there is a language barrier. In addition, there are limitations with celebrating in America, so there is some leniency when it comes to ritual and ceremonial participation. Thus, Khmer Americans have the liberty of celebrating Khmer New Year the way they want and feel most comfortable doing.

Ms. Chuon added that, “Khmer New Year to me is a time of reset and spiritual renewal. I look forward to it more than the American New Year because it's culturally relevant to me, therefore much more important to me. It's a time where I can adorn myself in traditional and contemporary Khmer clothing, eat some of my favorite Khmer dishes, and partake in rituals that go back centuries. It's a celebration that brings me joy and a positive outlook on life ahead.

Cambodian Americans Communities in the United States

The history of Cambodian immigration to the United States began in 1975, during and following the Khmer Rouge regime's takeover of Phnom Penh, the country's capital. The population of Cambodian Americans grew to 339,000 in 2019 from 157,518 in the years 1975 through 1994.

Cambodian Americans have helped shape American culture significantly. Sokhary Chau, the first Cambodian American mayor, took office as the Mayor of Lowell, Massachusetts in January 2022; his election signified the importance of Cambodians in American society.

He acknowledged the election’s significance to the broader immigrant diaspora while speaking to Boston’s NPR News Station. “As a proud Cambodian American, I am standing on the shoulders of many immigrants who came before me to build this city,” Chau said.

A few nonprofit organizations in the DMV region focus primarily on preserving Cambodian culture. The Maryland-based Cambodian-American Heritage, Inc. (CAHI) was founded in 1980 and is committed to preserving Cambodian arts and culture within the United States. The Cambodian Buddhist Society, based in Silver Springs, Maryland, was established in 1976 and registered as a non-profit in the State of Maryland in 1978. It seeks to preserve both Cambodian culture and the Buddhist religion through social and educational events, including language, dance, and music lessons.

Celebrations such as Khmer New Year help Cambodian Americans in preserving their cultural heritage through multiple generations, while also allowing other Americans an insight into their rich traditions.

Arrizka Faida is a Spring 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington DC. She received her master’s degree from Cornell University, Brooks School of Public Policy, studying MPA in Science, Technology, and Infrastructure Policy.