A Khmer New Year Story

Posted on by Casey Nelson


Our maid (Ta) was robbed today, in the ordinary fashion. She was riding pillion on a motodup (motorcycle taxi) when a couple of young guys on a passing moto ripped her bags from her shoulder. She probably appeared an easy mark – a small 50-year-old woman, alone, exposed and overloaded. No match for a couple of 20-something thugs on a faster bike. Pulled off with the bags she fell from the motodup, banging her up a bit, mostly bruises and road rash.

The robbers escaped with her goods. Not an unusual occurrence here in Phnom Penh, especially in the days and weeks before Khmer New Year (i.e. Chhaul Chhnam Thmey) when robberies and other petty crimes spike as unscrupulous sorts try to put together some holiday coin for their New Year’s festivities. It’s still National Robbery Month here in Cambodia.

Pissed me off something fierce when I heard the story. Like most Khmers, she planned to travel to her native province for the New Year to be with family. She was heading off to begin her holiday when it happened – on her way to the bus station to make the trip home to Battambang. I didn’t see her this morning before she left, but when I got back to my office this afternoon, there she was, bloodied and crying, her clothes torn, her remaining bag smashed and wet from something that had broken in the fall.

Two of the staff were tending to her, trying to calm her. Truly a pitiful sight. The thought of a couple of young city boys, probably middle classers or better, targeting a 50 year old country woman for her meager belongings just infuriated me. Perhaps even more upsetting, mostly because I saw how disappointed she was, this was her New Year in tatters.

She had been saving for her trip home for at least the last 2 months. A couple of days ago she took an advance on next month’s pay and I had given her an additional $150 New Year bonus. She spent the last two days preparing, buying a new outfit and bag, as well as some presents for the family. Almost all of the money and most of the belongings were lost or ruined in the robbery.

But, in the spirit of the season, the situation took a heartening turn. Most of the staff was still here at the office when she stumbled in after the robbery – 12 people, all Cambodians, everybody due to leave on their own New Year holidays at day’s end. On hearing the story, people spontaneously started chipping in money for her. A impromptu collection arose in the office. Everybody contributed without hesitation. As the story spread, even the cyclo driver and motodups that sit near the office tossed what they could afford into the pot.

I Twittered about the robbery shortly after hearing the story, primarily out of frustration and as a warning about pre-New Year street crime. Again, without prompting or request, local barang Tweeps offered money to help her. It was all an amazing outpouring of sympathy and generosity.

As I understand it, the spirit of the second day of Khmer New Year (Virak Wanabat) is expressed in generosity and giving to those less fortunate than oneself. I saw that spirit manifest today (if a couple of days early) in the swift and unreserved support shown this woman. Perhaps, amongst good people, they would have responded that way at any time of year, but it seemed particularly appropriate to this time.

Calmed briefly after the robbery, Ta was soon in tears again, but this time for being overwhelmed by the flood of help she was receiving. Most of her lost money was replaced. Her thanks were profuse and animated (a bit uncomfortably so.) She told me to say “thank you” and “happiness” and “Happy New Year” (and more) to all who helped and offered kind words.

By late afternoon she had collected herself and the staff was readying to escort her back to the bus station to catch an evening bus. I bowed out at that point. I understand that she made it onto the bus without further problem. She should be in Battambang by now, probably in her village, home with her family for the holiday.

Casey Nelson

This is a guest post from the LTO Cambodia blog.


2 Responses to A Khmer New Year Story

  1. jabyor says:

    A touching story with a great ending. Unfortunately Cambodia, and many places in SE Asia, seems to be ripe grounds for things like this — poor stealing from the poorer. Please let Ta know plenty of people are hoping she had a good trip after all.

  2. JinTao says:

    Stories like this makes my blood boil because what these kids are doing is just opposites of what they have learn from traditional values and that of local buddhist pagodas. Anways good ending to the story though.

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