I’ve always loved that Sophat and some of my other Cambodian friends referred to the New Year here as ‘Khmer Happy New Year’ because for me it conjured up images of a really playful, joyful occasion and last weekend I was able to witness the reality which turned out to be just that.
Set over three days, Khmer Happy New Year occurs between April 13-17 each year (usually it’s 13-15 but this year was 14-16 which I assume has something to do with the moon or something like that) and coincides with Songkran, the Thai Water Festival.
Official New Year began at 03.14 on 14 April and apparently involved Khmer families performing religious ceremonies and letting off fireworks. Thankfully, none of the families around my home did the latter and so I slept peacefully through this part of the formalities.
Venturing out in the morning, the first thing I noticed were Cambodian flags proudly lining the highway into Kampot town and countless shops and houses along the route displaying their overflowing altar tables loaded with generous offerings to the Gods. Some had decorated these with fairy lights and balloons and all were stocked with copious cans of beer to keep the Gods on good terms for the year to come.
Apart from the religious and superstitious ceremonial stuff, Khmer Happy New Year basically involves spending time with family. In the past families would gather at home and sit around eating, drinking, playing traditional games and chatting, but with increased prosperity and improved transport links a large percentage of the population now take the opportunity of the holiday from work to go out and about. Those living in the capital head home to the provinces, leaving Phnom Penh a ghost town and the roads in a state of even more bedlam than usual.
You may recall that back in September I experienced the holidays out and about phenomena when I took a day trip to Kep, the super sleepy seaside town transforming itself into Bank Holiday Blackpool on speed and this Friday to Sunday in Kampot I witnessed the precursor to that town’s transformation again as the main route from Kampot to Kep was flooded with traffic making the pilgrimage.
On each morning, the usually fairly tranquil main road into town was bumper to bumper with motorbikes, cars, pick up trucks and minivans all overloaded with people and provisions. Whilst the grown up in me knows the way people travel here is dangerous: families of six all piled onto one motorbike; cars with passengers contorted into every inch of space in the back seat and the boot tied with string to hold in the huge red ice box of beers and sodas that is an essential part of the picnic here; extended families standing packed shoulder to shoulder in the back of pick up trucks; whilst in other pickups a blanket is rigged up to provide shelter from the fierce sun for the family of five who huddle beneath, the child within was uplifted by the fact that everyone looked so damned excited to be heading out on their adventures.
I followed the convoy into town, partaking in a bit of dangerous road activity myself on the Sunday by snapping photos with one hand whilst steering my bike precariously around the melee of traffic with the other before we parted company at the roundabout.
Thankfully these journeys did not see me succumbing to another Khmer Happy New Year activity adopted from the Thai Songkran tradition of being soaked to the skin by people with water pistols, hose pipes and buckets of water although there were a couple of near misses as I cycled past the market place on my way home right through the middle of a battle between opposing trucks lining the road.
The other big part of Khmer Happy New Year (and every other festival, ceremony or family gathering of any type in Cambodia) is eating. A quick glance into homes afforded a view of families sitting together squatting around a picnic blanket on the floor tucking in to assorted dishes and supping from a can of beer, At pavement restaurants in town groups of youths on motorbikes and cars stuffed with families pulled up on their way home from a trip up the mountain or to the waterfall to eat together, roadside stalls piled high with durian and other exotic offerings appeared out of nowhere to feed the hungry hoards, tiffin tins hung from motorbikes, people balanced on full rice cookers and baskets of provisions in trucks and bags of snacks were passed around as the convoy shuffled along to Kep. And basically, people took every opportunity to eat, drink and be merry.
And so Khmer Happy New Year rumbled on, a festival of praying, eating, travelling, relaxing, socialising and generally being Happy.