Khmer New YearApril 15, 2005
So there I was (in the words of Martin Luther ”I could do no other”), sitting in one of my favourite male orientated drinking establishments a couple of nights ago. The clock had chimed twelve and the bar was being run by a skeleton staff of one, and that one person really wished that she was in whooping it up in Svay Rieng rather than filling my glass with Beer Lao in Phnom Penh.
”It’s a special day now,” I offered up in the way of conversation. ”Yes it is,” replied the dusky waitress, with just the hint of a smile forming around her full Khmer lips. This part time university student paying for her studies by drink pouring was a full blooded Khmer from the boonies with the delightful lack of guile, large faun-like eyes and the deep brown complexion that differentiates her provincial compatriots from their fairer skinned pointier nosed, mixed race Sino-Khmer brethren to be found so abundantly in Phnom Penh.
”It is a very special day,” she emphasised. ”Of course,” I responded. ”It’s Thai New Year.” Sarcasm doesn’t go down so well in Cambodia and those full eyes narrowed. Nevertheless, she cheered up sufficiently to allow me to take her out for a late supper after work (small shellfish cooked with basil in case you’re interested) and now she really is in Svay Rieng back in the bosom of her family as all Khmers hanker to be at this most important time of the year.
Yet, even as we hunted for a 2am noodle stall the water throwing idiocy made famous and typified by Thailand’s Songran had kicked off on a smaller scale in Phnom Penh. And guess what? The Khmer’s were innocent. It was the drunken deathpats, pantsniffers and other assorted white loudmouths who were tossing buckets of water onto passers by around the strip adjacent to the Heart of Darkness. For a second I considered cracking a hammer into the skull of the nearest deathpat, staying around just long enough to watch the blood pour from his head and blend in with the spilled water while his limbs malfunctioned and shuddered in a grotesque dance of death. Instead I did a 180 turn and found a quiet little noodle stall near Monivong and around the corner from the Billabong Hotel.
So Khmer New Year has finally arrived and after two weeks of hearing the late evening shouts and squeals of small children playing underneath my balcony and cracking each others kneecaps with angkhuns, (so named because they resemble an inedible fruit seed which resembles the knee bone), together with the far from pleasant sound of ear-bleedingly bad Khmer Techno blasting from the cheap and tinny sounding beat boxes which appear on most street corners surrounded by cheery locals dancing with all the grace of a kicked elk, events have finally reached their pinnacle.
However, it’s quite eerie just how many Khmer childrens games conclude with an act of hurtfulness. Take Leak Kanseng for example. A group of children sit in a circle, while one child walks around the circle and secretly places a kanseng (rolled up towel) behind another one of the children. The players then have to guess which participant has the towel behind him with the winner getting to viciously beat the child sitting next to him with the rolled up kanseng.
Traditionally Khmer New Year is celebrated this month for the very good reason that in an overwhelmingly agrarian population most of the work is done by April, the hottest month of the year, the rice having been reaped or harvested from November to March. The first day of the New Year is called Moha Sangkran, and it can be described simply as the inauguration of the New Angels who come to take of care the world for a one-year period. Often this is a time for people to visit the temple and just as importantly to clean their houses and make offerings such as fruits and drinks to welcome the angels who will with a bit of luck take care of their families for the next year.
The second day, known as Wanabot is also a time of giving but as the angels have departed, poor people are often given presents and this usually includes a bonues for employees which in a society with such shockingly low wages do indeed count as poor.
Finally, we come to the third day or Leung Sakk, when it is traditional to troop off to the temple and give the statues a good swabbing down, hopefully leaving them gratified and willing to forgive any perceived offence caused to them over the last year. This ceremony is called Pithi Srang Preah and unfortunately seems to be where the tradition for water slinging comes from.
We now move on to how festivities effect expatriates and tourists. Firstly, whilst matters do not become as mind numbingly moronic as in Thailand, where hundreds of people die every year in road accidents caused by overcrowded pick-ups crashing or simply by selfish and stupid people throwing gallons of water over motorbike drivers, there is a little bit of crass behaviour in Cambodia.
As we saw on Wednesday night, the deathpats and knuckleheads were out in force outside ‘The Heart’ on Rue Pasteur with buckets of slop to hand. Sadly, locals get in on the act too and in previous years, Wat Phnom and the Riverside area have both seen gangs of young ‘freshie boys’ sexually harassing women (both Khmer and barang) and using the opportunity to ‘powder’ woman as an excuse to grab them in parts of the body where they have no wish to be grabbed. Furthermore, the unwanted tradition of water slinging (imported from Thailand) is also much in evidence although nowhere on the scale as to be in Bangkok or Pattaya, for instance.
Secondly, transport prices leap. With half the country seemingly on the move demand towers over supply and taxi rides to the provinces become very expensive as do hotel rooms in Cambodia’s beach resorts with the possible exception of Kep which Khmers seem to think of as a place to go for a quick paddle and a crab lunch before heading home. Nevertheless, the NGOs and the 4X4 brigade scoop up the accommodation during the New Year period so if you haven’t booked by now, it’s probably too late.
Finally, if it all gets rather tiring, a bit of a nuisance and all too much then go to Burma. The enlightened authorities there have not only managed to keep out the creeping malaise of Americanisation to be found elsewhere in SE Asia, they’ve also brought in huge fines and jail terms for water slingers. That’s the way to do it.