Buddhist Monks from Watt Dhammackakaram sit as residents of Mt. Baker Village chant in ceremony. Watt Dhammackakaram, located in Beacon Hill, is the oldest Khmer Buddhist Temple in Washington state. Photo by Lucky Chanthalangsy

Note: This piece was originally published in the South Seattle Emerald and is republished with permission.

April is Khmer New Year Month!

While the holiday traditionally takes place April 13–16, the local Khmer diaspora celebrates every weekend of the month. Khmer enclaves dot the I-5 corridor, from Snohomish County all the way down to Vancouver. Many in the community are blue-collar workers who can only celebrate on weekends as Khmer New Year is not an officially recognized holiday and therefore cannot be taken off from work.

Residents of Mt. Baker Village chant in prayer during a ceremony to welcome the new year. Photo by Lucky Chanthalangsy

According to Khmer legend, a heavenly Brahma named Kabal Mahar Prum descended from the heavens to challenge a young child named Thommabal Koma who understood all the Vedas of Buddhism.

The challenge was presented in three questions. If Thommabal Koma could answer the three questions, Kabal Mahar Prum offered to decapitate himself, and if he could not, the head of Thommabal Koma would be taken as an offering. The child requested seven days to answer the questions.

After six days, the child still had not answered the questions. Fortunately, while he was moping under the shade of a large palm tree, a pair of eagles flew by and perched atop the tree.

He listened closely as they conversed.

The first eagle: What are we feeding on tomorrow?

The second eagle: We will feed on Thommabal Koma … he hasn’t been able to answer the questions, “Where is the morning blessing … the noon blessing … the evening blessing?”

The first eagle: What are the answers?

The second eagle:

The morning blessing is at a person’s face as they wash it with water to begin a new day.
The noon blessing is at a person’s chest as they cool their body down from the afternoon sun.
The evening blessing is at a person’s feet as they wash themselves from a day’s work before going to bed.

After Thommabal Koma presented his answer to Kabal Mahar Prum, the heavenly Brahma summoned his seven daughters from the heavens and said:

“Daughters, my head cannot touch the ground as it will burn the whole entire world. It can not be thrown into the ocean as it will evaporate all the water and kill all marine lives. Nor can it be tossed into the air as it will evaporate all of the rain clouds and cause years of droughts.”

The deity Tungsa Tevy, the eldest daughter, took possession of her father’s head and placed it on a golden platter.

Every year on the day of the Mahar Songkran, the seven daughters take turns flying the Brahma’s head in a ceremonial circle around Mount Meru to bring peace and prosperity to the mortal realm.

The daughter that carries the Brahma’s head on the day of the Mahar Songkran is the new deity of that year.

That is why people who observe Khmer New Year:

  • Clean and tidy up their homes.
  • Cut and tailor new clothing to wear.
  • Make sure all of their business is in order.

So they’ll be prepared to receive the new deity that will bring peace and prosperity to everyone.

How can you celebrate Khmer New Year?

Go to a Khmer Buddhist Temple!
Residents of Mt. Baker Village participate in a ceremony to give offerings to the Buddhist Monks of Watt Dhammackakaram.
Photo by Lucky Chanthalangsy

Cambodia is a majority Theravada Buddhist nation with over 90% of the country being followers of the religion. The temple and monkhood make up an important part of society, where all things intersect, from holidays to weddings to funerals. New Year festivities usually take place on weekends beginning early in the morning during all of April.

Here’s a list of local temples:

Sahak Khemararam Buddhist Association Wat Thmey — South Park, Seattle
Watt Dhammacakkaram Watt Chas — Beacon Hill, Seattle
Wat Samakki Ratanaram — Tacoma
Khmer Theravadin Buddhist Temple — Eastside Tacoma
Wat Chantarangses Khmer Krom — Tacoma
Cambodian Buddhist Monks Association — Kent
Cambodian Buddhist Society — Wat Sanghikaram — Mill Creek
Bright Buddhist Association Watchansi Bodhiyana Ratanaram — Lake Stevens
Wat Prochum Raingsey — Yelm
Watt Rattanak Raingsey — Vancouver

Attend a Khmer Event!
A flyer for CCAW’s 2021 White Center Cambodian New Year Virtual Street Festival. The festival will feature a food tour, a karaoke contest, and performances by local Khmer artists. Photo courtesy of CCAW

Cambodian Cultural Alliance of Washington’s (CCAW) 19th Annual White Center Cambodian New Year Street Festival has been around since the 2000s and features all things Khmer: From traditional Khmer dance and music to vendors selling BBQ beef sticks, this event has it all! Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is virtual this year and features a food tour, performances by local artists, and more. Find more info on the following Facebook event page.

The University of Washington Khmer Student Association (UW KhSA) will be holding their annual Khmer New Year show featuring a play based on the traditional Khmer story called “The Silent Princess.” Photo courtesy of UW KhSA.

The University of Washington Khmer Student Association (KhSA) New Year Show is a mainstay of the community. Every year the group puts on a play inspired by Khmer folklore alongside good music and dancing and even greater Khmer food.

$unday $wap Meet is a monthly community gathering held at Forever Foreigner in White Center featuring food, vendors, and music.

Support an Organization Doing the Heavy Lifting for the Community!
Vannra Yan and Sophia Som participate in Rom Vong, a traditional group dance, as part of CCAW’s White Center Cambodian New Year Street Festival in 2019. Photo by Bunthay Cheam

Khmer Language Arts and Cultural Academy — Based in Tacoma, this organization focuses on foundational cultural preservation through Khmer language lessons and traditional Khmer dance.

Khmer Community of Seattle King County — Established in 1979, KCSKC is one of the oldest continuously running organizations serving the Khmer community.

Cambodian American Community Council of WA — A statewide organization with almost two dozen organizations under its umbrella, CACCWA came together in 2015 as the community sought a way to collectively commemorate 40 years since the beginning of the Cambodian Genocide.

Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together — Founded in 2014, FIGHT helps organize and amplify the work of incarcerated community members including assisting with re-entry.

Khmer Anti-deportation Advocacy Group of WA — Founded in 2017 in response to ramped-up ICE raids into the community during the Trump administration, KhAAG is a community-led organization driving advocacy for and by individuals and families impacted by deportation.

Support a Khmer-Owned Small Business!

Oliver’s Twist — Phinney Ridge
Phnom Penh Noodle House — Little Saigon
King Donuts — Rainier Beach
Apsara Palace — White Center
Forever Foreigner — White Center
Lucky Donuts — Burien
Theary Cambodian Foods — Tukwila/Seatac
On A Roll — Puyallup
Let It Snow — Tacoma
Factory Donuts — Kirkland
Sunrise Donuts & Espresso — Redmond
Sarkall’s Donuts & Noodle Soup — Burlington
Voracious Market (online)
Ambitious Kitchen (online)
Daily Scone  (online)

Clothing & Apparel
Red Scarf Revolution
Eastcide Thrifter
Mac Does It

Grocery Stores
Phnom Penh Market — Holly Park
Samway Market — White Center
New Golden Village Market — White Center
Grocery Plus — White Center

How We Met Apothecary
Neary Alchemy
Hourglass Industries

Happy Balloon Decorations — White Center
Bo Lavish Spa — West Seattle
HZ Law PLLC — Renton
Khlassic Auto LLC — Kent
South Sound Martial Arts — Tacoma
Generation Midwifery — Lacey
Nhay Pann Tailor Shop — Everett
DJ Phosho (online)
Miss Sun Creates (online)

Khmer New Year story provided by Khmer Identity, a platform honoring Khmer legacies and culture.

Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist, and lifelong resident of South Park.

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