Khmer New Year for Expats

Posted on by Stan Kahn


Khmer New Year is one of those holidays when I prefer staying in town. In contrast to Water Festival which turns Phnom Penh’s everyday chaos into mayhem, at New Year it becomes a ghost town. Phew… what a relief… so quiet, peaceful, easy to get around… like 7 o’ clock Sunday morning for three days. I could even ride a bicycle around… if I had one.

I just can”t bring myself to brave the streets here any other time. Bad enough just trying to walk without getting blottoed by 15-year-olds trying to see how fast they can drive through heavy traffic. I certainly would strenuously avoid going to Sihanoukville or any tourist spot during the holiday. The week off between school terms is when I move around Cambodia. The reason was most poignantly illustrated a couple years back when I went to Siem Reap the week after New Year’s. I was told there was a kilometer long line of cars waiting to get into the archeological park during the holiday: when I went, no line at all.

It is, however, really great when you get invited to a family gathering out in the countryside, in spite of the traffic or having to deal with the crowds at the bus terminals. This time I stayed in Phnom Penh at least partly because of a harrowing experience (ok, it was only mentally harrowing) I had starting two weeks before the holiday: My landlord decided to replace the roof and ceilings – I’m on the top floor. In the process the place was totally trashed out and I was forced into hotels for the 10-day duration.

I had him delay the job until my term break and I was planning to get out of town anyway so it was a bit more tolerable than it would have been otherwise. So first I went to Sihanoukville for two nights. It certainly had changed from the last time I”d been there about a year-and-a-half ago. The first thing you notice is the new Ekareach Street between the hill and downtown. As I”ve mentioned previously (Asphalt Sea, about a year ago) many public officials – especially, it seems, in the developing world – measure their success in how many square meters of space they can cover with asphalt (or some type of pavement). It doesn”t matter if it actually needs to be covered… it”s an ego thing. So there”s now a six lane stretch which allows smooth and easy motoring; except those six lanes can easily carry 60,000 cars a day (and many more motorbikes) and that’ far more cars than even exist in the city. At current growth rates, I figure it”ll take at least 30 or 40 years before the capacity is actually needed.

Seeing that grand new street reminded me of a far more egregious example I witnessed in Thailand a few years ago. There”s a small city named Tak which is on the road between Phitsanoluk which sits on the northern train line and the small town of Mae Sot on the Myanmar border. Mae Sot has a few thousand people, as a whole the border area is very sparsely populated (and a great place to visit). Tak itself has maybe 10,000 people. It may not be the end of nowhere, but it’s unquestionably the middle of not very much.

Therefore it was quite a shock to the senses – of a planner type anyway – to see a ten lane concrete roadway going through town. You would have to project growthrates out to near infinity – you know, hundreds, maybe thousands of years – before those lanes would actually be needed. The sad irony is that Thailand”s cities are notoriously short of public spaces and amenities. I don’t know anything about the town of Tak other than what I gleaned breezing through on its gargantuan main street, but there”s one thing for sure, an obscene amount of money was spent on an absolutely, totally, ridiculously redundant roadway that could’ve been used to enrich the lives of those townspeople in numerous ways.

Getting back to Sihanoukville. It had plenty of money to build a beautiful wide new roadway but, evidently nothing for a sidewalk, not even in front of the school located on it. What the hell, let the kids walk on the street. What”s important? Kids safety or extra-wide totally unnecessary streets? Since I started going there nearly six years ago, I’ve always stayed on Victory Hill. The only exception being that I”d occasionally spend a night in downtown.

My visceral dislike of motorbikes combined with the exorbitant demands made by the motodops there make it difficult to check out downtown at night unless I stay there. Walking all the way back to the Hill after drinking till late? Not likely. Well it certainly had gone through a transformation since I’d last been there: a totally out front Pattaya-style girlie bar scene had nearly taken over the main commercial strip. While I can”t deny my own attraction to that type of venue, I”d have to say I prefer the behind-smoked-glass Phnom Penh approach to being rushed by the little hussies as you are merely walking along the street.

If I”m going to participate in shit-eating-grin silliness and lusty pawing I’d rather the whole world not be watching. Considering the number of straight establishments that remain in the vicinity, it”s likely their customers aren”t interested in watching me either. Anyway, they are going fast. While coexistence is a byword of Cambodian culture, the scene almost certainly doesn”t appeal to unsuspecting tourists. Speaking strictly of economic benefits it”s probably a plus for Snookyville, but it”s definitely causing some disruption to businesses caught in the transition. As for the beach, it was practically deserted – weekdays, end of March, no holiday – and just the way I like it.

It might have been busier at midday. I prefer getting in the water in the morning before the sun gets too hot or around sunset. The water is just as nice during those times. They are making progress building a wall around the beach, I assume, in preparation for charging admission. I believe making people pay for the simple pleasure of enjoying the beach is bad policy on its face. However, if it results, as the sign upon entering the beach area proclaims, in clearing businesses from near the water and putting them behind the wall, it will be a tremendous improvement. Upon returning to my apartment after two nights, I witnessed a disaster zone. Roof and ceilings partly removed, mountains of rubble everywhere. One of the young kids doing demolition fell through the ceiling onto my bedroom as I was watching. The absence of roof and ceiling had put many of my plants in direct sunlight, and combined with no water had burned many of their leaves.

I’m a plant person – I”ve got 70 of them in my apartment. I talk to and dote over each one. When I saw the workers nonchalantly throwing boards around and jostling the plants, I freaked. The landlord was also – as long as everything was getting torn apart anyway- doing some additional remodeling I’d asked for so I tried to grin and bear it. I then spent two nights in a guest house in town so I could return twice a day to check on progress and try to do minimum damage control. Remodelers here are about as conscientious in their manner of working as alligators are when devouring their prey.

Which is to say; not at all. I couldn’t stand hanging around the city so I went off to Kampot for two more days. The contrast to Phnom Penh couldn?t be more stark. Practically deserted streets, blissfully quiet, lots of quaint old colonials. Most people there drive very slowly, almost as if they were deep in contemplation rather than behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. I wouldn”t hesitate to ride a bicycle in KP. For those of you not familiar with the little berg, it fronts onto a wide estuary – a body of water that’s inland but saltwater and rises and falls with the tides – with picturesque mountains as a backdrop.

It’s the gateway to Bokor, 20 ks to Kep where you can swim, and there is a waterfall and mountains to explore within bicycling distance. It’s quite close to Phnom Penh, 148 ks, and the road is good so it’s a 2 hour taxi ride, or a roundabout 5 hour bus ride. Really skimpy on nightlife though. If you”re into the bar scene, you’d be cast adrift. However, as in many places in Cambodia, there’s been an explosion of restaurants and guest houses catering to westerners (at least compared to a couple years ago) so a nightlife scene may be just around the corner. For now, if you need to get away from the madding crowd, there”s no nicer place in Cambodia to do it. But I couldn”t stay away for long: never know what calamity might befall my apartment in my absence. None of the agreements were written down, and my Khmer isn’t that good, so, for instance, they were painting the apartment green when I’d asked for off-white. It took four more days before they were finished, me praying all the while for a speedy return to my own bed, and plants, and life. So a bunch of things were trashed, and some small things pilfered, andnot everything was done as agreed, but that?s life in Cambodia.

Now that I”m back it just seems like a bad dream. Meanwhile, being in those two, small, easygoing towns sure made me long for more quiet and less hassle in my life. In fact, I’ll soon be able to stop working – at least temporarily – so I may actually have the choice of moving. Leaving friends would be the hardest part… we’ll see.

Stan Kahn

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