Finding Home Away from Home: Cambodians in Australia Rediscover Cultural Roots during the New Year Celebrations

Cambodians in Canberra participate in the traditional ceremony known as Pithi Srang Preah, which involves offering a special bath or shower to Buddha statues, monks, or elders. Photo by Sao Phal Niseiy

PHNOM PENH — The Khmer New Year, that is, Choul Chnam Thmey, celebrations can make the Cambodian diaspora in numerous countries feel homesick. However, those residing in big cities in Australia can still enjoy authentic Khmer food and perform traditional Khmer rituals in their second home.

More than 100,000 Cambodians live in Australia, the majority of them in large states such as New South Wales and Victoria. Some of them will say that being far from their home country does not make them homesick when they hold New Year festivities in Australia.

Chhuon Madinay, who has been in Australia for less than six months pursuing a master's degree in public policy at the University of Sydney in Sydney, said that he could feel at home when he took part in the celebrations at a Cambodian pagoda.

Madinay explained that eating Khmer authentic food and attending Cambodian cultural and traditional celebrations make a foreign land a home country.

A booth selling Khmer cuisine was photographed at a pagoda in Sydney during the Khmer New Year celebration on April 14th. Photo by Choun Madinay.

"We were served delicious food such as sach ko ang [beef skewers], kuy teav cha [fried noodles] and other Khmer dishes—all of these being as authentic as I have had at home," he said.

He went on to say that the welcoming environment created by the Cambodian compatriots in Sydney makes him feel deeply connected and with a sense of belonging.

"I have had two Cambodian friends accompanying me here, so I don't feel lonely,” Madinay said. “Cambodians here are welcoming, and that makes me feel very much at home.

"Even though we are far from home in terms of distance, we are not homesick,” he said. “There are many Cambodians here.”

Madinay said that he really appreciates Cambodian community members in Australia. During the New Year festivities, they usually sell food to showcase Khmer authentic dishes and culture as well as to raise funds to support the Khmer Buddhist pagodas. "I was told that all revenues earned from selling food are donated to the pagodas,” he said.

Members of the Cambodian diaspora in Sydney gather at a pagoda during the Khmer New Year celebration on April 14th. Photo by Choun Madinay

In the city of Melbourne, where most Cambodians reside, there also were celebrations and multiple activities, which helped Cambodian students and residents cope with homesickness while continuing to keep Cambodia’s culture flourishing.

Eng David, who is in the final year of his Master of Accounting degree at Monash University in Melbourne, said that the joyful and vibrant celebrations of Khmer New Year made him and other students feel both happy and homesick. "Khmer New Year evokes a complex blend of nostalgia and joy for me," he said.

"Having been born and raised in Phnom Penh, I don't have a hometown to visit during the festivities, a common tradition for many,” he said. “Yet, through stories shared by family, friends, teachers and colleagues who travel to their hometowns, I gain a vivid sense of the nationwide celebration."

However, the presence of many Cambodians in Melbourne and the availability of authentic Khmer food helped alleviate homesickness, David said. "This makes it easier to feel connected to the traditions and joys of New Year, even while far from Cambodia," he added.

The photo shows MCA committee members (from left to right): Jason Khou, Setha Sam, David Eng, Sokkanha Taing, Michael Kirivuddh Ouk, Kimsan Lam, and William Lim. Photo provided

Supporting Cambodians' Regained Connection to Their Cultural Heritage

While many Cambodian residents in different states in Australia often gather at pagodas to celebrate, young Cambodians join hands to host numerous events showcasing Khmer culture and especially traditional games to help students build connections or reconnect with their heritage in spite of being far from home.

David is advisor and representative of the Monash Cambodian Association (MCA)—the Cambodian student club created in 2022. As he explained, the MCA committee consisting of seven members has worked this year on hosting different activities for the New Year in an effort to help young Cambodians celebrate their roots and promote the country’s culture.

According to David, celebrating Khmer New Year in a big city like Melbourne, especially on a university campus such as at Monash University, serves multiple purposes. It especially serves as a crucial space for Cambodian students and the broader community to reconnect with their roots and heritage.

"This is particularly vital for young Cambodians, whether they were born and raised in Australia or recently arrived from Cambodia, as many are not truly familiar with their cultural traditions," he explained.

Students partake in different entertaining activities hosted by MCA to celebrate the Khmer New Year. Photo by Henry Ly.

Such a celebration enables Cambodian students to meet, network, and support each other, enabling stronger bonds to develop David said. "This also helps support students' mental health and well-being, especially for those homesick while away from their families," he said.

David pointed out that the Khmer New Year celebration his team hosted was open to all as this was also meant to foster a broader understanding and appreciation of Khmer culture among the international community.

"Hosting the event on campus enhanced its accessibility and visibility, encouraging participation from a diverse group of students and staff, not limited to those of Cambodian descent," he said, adding that Cambodian students from several universities and other foreign students also took part in the event. 

"At the event, when I saw…both Cambodians and non-Cambodians engaging with our traditions, playing traditional games, and even trying to sing along Cambodian songs, I felt a profound connection with and pride of my roots," David said.

Cambodian Ambassador to Australia Cheunboran Chanborey praised the Cambodian communities, especially the youth who made a strong effort to host the Khmer New Year, and he believes it contributes significantly to promoting awareness of Khmer culture in Australia. 

"Hosting this special festivity allows us to promote the visibility of our culture and tradition in Australia’s multicultural landscape since it helps people here understand the richness of our cultural heritage and encourage them to visit our country," Chanborey said. 

Students partake in different entertaining activities hosted by MCA to celebrate the Khmer New Year. Photo by Henry Ly.

Showcasing Khmer Culture for the Young Generation of Cambodia’s Diaspora

Canberra, the Australian capital territory, is home to only around 300 Cambodians and only has one Khmer pagoda. This is where people can come to celebrate and conduct Cambodian traditional festivities, including the new year.

This year, the celebration held on April 13 was smaller than in previous years. Still, the New Year celebration at Khmera Reangsey Pogoda was meaningful and contributed significantly to uniting people and preserving Cambodia’s heritage, according to Tith Annchankrisna, a master's student in Public Policy at the Australian National University who attended the celebration.

Residents in Canberra participate in the traditional ceremony known as Pithi Srang Preah, which involves offering a special bath or shower to Buddha statues, monks, or elders. Photo by Sao Phal Niseiy

For him, having the opportunity to celebrate Khmer New Year at the pagoda and to eat Khmer authentic food with Cambodian compatriots outside the country was extraordinary and essential during this time of year.

"We celebrated at the pagoda here, in Australia, sharing popular Khmer cuisine with a smile,” Annchankrisna said. “This indicates solidarity among our people, which was the more meaningful that we did this at the Buddhist pagoda.”

The importance of the New Year festival in Australia went beyond a show of solidary. It enables Cambodians to showcase their unique cultural practices to other nationals and the younger generations born and growing up in foreign lands.

"We played our popular games such as bos angkunh (throwing brown nuts), choal chhoung, leak kanseng (hide the towel) and teanh prot (tug-of-war) here at the pagoda," he said.

"Although such a practice is not comprehensive, I still could see our children who were born here with their cultural heritage and comprehend our culture and traditions, begin to learn about their rich culture from the celebration.

Some children of Cambodian parents born and raised in Australia engage in the Khmer traditional game, teanh Prot (tug-of-war) at the pagoda. Photo by Sao Phal Niseiy

"Even though our Khmer diaspora is small here, I believe that doing this will enable us to continue to preserve and conduct these traditional and cultural practices in the future,” Annchankrisn said.

Ambassador Chanborey concurs that the Khmer New Year Festival offers a unique opportunity for Cambodians to unite and celebrate as patriots while allowing the young generation to learn about their roots. 

"The festival enables our people to pass on knowledge of our Khmer culture and tradition from one generation to another," he stressed.

Related Articles