Prime Minister Hun Manet has announced that Cambodia is in the process of applying to register “Cambodian Songkran” on UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage. He called on the people of Cambodia and neighbouring Thailand to avoid unnecessary quarrelling, as UNESCO inscribed Thailand’s Songkran traditional New Year festival two months ago.

Songkran is a Sangskrit-derived term for the traditional New Year of the Buddhist calendar, observed in several Buddhist countries in Asia. 

According to Manet, who revealed the application while presiding over the February 8 closing of the labour ministry’s annual meeting, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts is in the process of completing the registration.

He said that although UNESCO has inscribed the traditional Thai New Year celebration, there is no reason why Cambodian cannot apply to have its own added to the list.

He said this should not be a source of conflict for the two neighbouring kingdoms.

“We are approaching the Khmer New Year. Both Cambodia and Thailand have similar events. While Thailand has registered its holiday on the UNESCO list, we have not done so. Songkran is observed in several Buddhist countries, and we also celebrate it,” he said.

“We have similar cultures, as can be seen in the common elements of Muay Thai and Kun Khmer,” he added. 

In early December, UNESCO announced the registration of Thailand’s Songkran. According to the description published by UNESCO, Songkran in Thailand is quite similar to that observed in Cambodia. It marks the end of the old year for Buddhist calendar and the coming of the new one, with many traditional games and songs, and a wide range of other cultural activities. 

Manet said that although Thailand has registered their Songkran, Cambodia has the same right. The prime minister insisted that there is no reason for the people of the two nations to be at odds.

He has instructed the culture ministry to organise more events that showcase Khmer culture and identity, so the younger generations will learn about them and preserve them. The aim is to show the uniqueness of Cambodia’s culture.

Bathing older people during Songkran is a Khmer cultural tradition. Angkor Songkran

“I think we should prepare the necessary documentation. This is important work, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs should also join because it is also their responsibility to protect our heritage and the value of our culture. We must do this to avoid future conflict, as our celebrations could be perceived as similar to theirs,” he said.

Culture ministry spokesperson Sum Mab said on February 11 that Cambodia has already prepared a draft list of cultural items that it will attempt to register with UNESCO, including Songkran.

“This is just some of the work that the ministry is doing. Based on our previous efforts to register items, before we submit an application, we need to review it for a year. Therefore, it takes around two years to complete an application for intangible heritage registration for the UNESCO committee to review,” he explained.

Chhort Bunthang, a research officer in cultural relations, tourism and education at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, believes there is nothing wrong with Cambodia seeking to register Songkran, even though Thailand has successfully registered their own event.

“Some people in Cambodia call it Songkran, the same word used in Thailand. Many people call it Khmer New Year, because it is simple, and very clear. The same word is sometimes used in both countries, as they have a long historical relationship,” he said.

He also called on the people of both nations to avoid any confusion or incorrect interpretation which could lead to conflict.