Khmer New Year Number 3

Posted on by Anna Spencer


After having crossed the calm river on the passenger ferry, and having ridden the dirt tracks past hay houses, slim cows and countryside pagodas we arrive at my partner’s family house in Lovea Aim District, Kandal Province. It is my third Khmer New Year trip here.

The motorbike engine stops and the soothing sounds of the countryside surround us as my partner’s Mum and Dad advance towards us with open arms. We slip off our muddy flip flops and settle up onto the bamboo porch to drink some Chinese tea with the family.

My partner has two sisters and 6 brothers, so there is a very large welcome crowd. During the family chitchat I struggle to prove my improvement in the lingo since my last visit. I know for a fact I am getting better or at least less self conscious at speaking Khmer but still, I am far from fluent.

Before I came to Cambodia, relaxing meant a different thing to me: relaxing was taking the dog for a walk, reading, watching ‘Come Dine With Me’, having a few beers with friends etc. Now I recognize these things as relaxing activities.

Since moving to Cambodia I have been perfecting the art of a different kind of relaxation, which to be honest at times has felt just as challenging as a busy roundabout in rush hour Phnom Penh on a push bike.

That is the art of ‘somraa’, relaxing, Khmer style; lying down, eyes optionally open or closed and doing nothing. Relaxing without activity. So I lie back on the bamboo and do nothing quite happily for who knows how long. Until it is time to go down to the river and wade in the lovely squelchy water, splashing around with the kids and then returning back to the house for a refreshing ice cold bucket shower and an elevated ‘somraa’ on a hammock. Bliss.

I’ve learnt from my last two Khmer New Years here in the province that it is a good idea to relax whenever possible because the celebrations here go on for five days. You need stamina. As soon as the the big, old stack of speakers blast off later on today there will only be a few hours between 3am and 6am when they are turned off.

So after more hammock somraa and a card game with some of the younger members of the family where I inevitable get beaten by a seven year old, it’s time to head to the family kitchen hut.

This is where I feel especially happy. I help my partner’s mum and sisters pound tiny silver fish with kreoung to make thin patties and turn herbed rice batter in their sunken hollows over the open flame so that they become the crispy balls that we can all snack on with sweet chilli sauce. This is not the kind of cooking class you would find in Phnom Penh. This is special and I am honored.

Later on the drinking ceremonies commence. Big rice bags are laid out under the banana trees at the back of the house and family members and villagers come to join the circle. There is green mango and delicious fried pork to nibble on as the drinking gets underway. It is unheard of for Khmer people to drink without snacking, which is a just generally brilliant in my opinion.

I sit with the ladies on one half of the circle and we drink our rice wine with coke and giggle as we out-drink many of the men. That’s not to say after a couple of hours we aren’t tipsy. I’ve lost the thread of the conversation but at this point a lot of ‘sabay nas’ (very happy) and ‘joal moi’ (cheers) is enough to feel part of it all.

As dusk descends the speakers crackle and the music crashes upon us. A chair is laid out with flowers for us to dance around and the insects swarm to the strip lights as we all sway over to the ‘dance floor’.

As we dance, I move my arms and legs in a representation of the effortlessly graceful movements of the Khmer dancing style. Everyone encourages me and seems generally delighted by my dancing. I know I’m a million miles away from their grace ( my fingers just weren’t genetically formed to bend and move that way) but over the last three years I’ve had a lot of practice and I can at least say that I am moving in the lovely rhythm of our group.

The children come to dance with me and then I see my partner’s Mum come over. She wears her traditional Khmer skirt and top as she always does during the dancing festivities, but she’s also donned a diamond encrusted baseball cap. It’s her dancing hat, I guess, and I love it.

She saunters over with her gangster hat and wide beetle nut stained grin and joins my side to dance. This is one of the moments when I think in the back of my head ‘This is not how I imagined my life to turn out. But I like it.’

The dancing goes on until 12am. I sleep like a log on the bamboo under a mosquito net until the speakers start up again at 6am. After coffee (I always buy my partner’s Dad coffee which is also a slightly selfish ploy to ensure my coffee addiction is met) the drinking starts again. At 10am.

We go over to the neighbor’s house and huddle on the porch underneath the stilted house to escape the sun. Here we are in a circle again. There are another two ladies, my partner, a few of his brothers and neighbors.

A well-built neighbor is the cocktail maker this morning. This is my first experience of a 10am rice wine cocktail, but this is Cambodia so go with the flow. Rice wine (a lot) is added to a large glass of crushed ice and lime is squeezed into it and then coke (a very little) is added. The cocktail maker then puts a cloth over the top of the glass and gives it a massive whack on the ground so it all fizzes together and then whoever is in line must drink it down in one go. I love the all or nothing style of this, especially as the girl next to me is on her fourth cocktail whilst still nimbly hacking green mangoes up with a machete in preparation for a lunch time salad.

A wandering chicken is carried off, lovely smells waft over and a short while later a freshly killed, cut and lemongrass-fried-chicken is in the middle of the circle.

I know I am smiling inanely and speaking very bad Khmer but I am having the time of my life. Still, as midday approaches I decline cocktail number five and return to the family bamboo porch and practice that skilled art of ‘somraa’, relaxing, doing nothing, drifting…..

Anna Spencer

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2 Responses to Khmer New Year Number 3

  1. andy says:

    Wonderful description and a great insight into a side of Cambodia most tourists (and many expats) never get to see. Hope to read more from you!

  2. Ian Stewart says:

    Anna has written a beautiful story that describes “Chaul Chhnam Thmey” perfectly.

    I agree with Andy – as I mentioned in the forum, I also spent “Chaul Chhnam Thmey” in the provinces with my rather large Khmer family. I am a foreigner, but their acceptance of me and the enjoyment of the occassion will always be in my mind.

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