Khmer New Year is a big deal. It’s like Cambodia’s version of Christmas, New Year and Easter holidays combined with more food and more parties. Seriously. Khmer New Year (or Chaul Chnam Thmey) aligns with Songkran in Laos & Thailand along with Thingyan in Burma which means that travel at this time is expensive, difficult and exciting too. We got stuck once in Thailand when we tried to travel from Chiang Mai to Bangkok at the end of Songkran and ended up on a horribly stinky (thanks to an overflowing & blocked toilet) and over-stuffed tourist bus. NEVER AGAIN.
In Cambodia, Khmer New Year is the time that all the families get together for a week-long feast and sleep-fest in their family home town…or some other relative who still lives out in the farming areas. It’s a bit different to what we experienced in Thailand as the cities empty (well, Phnom Penh does anyway!) everything shuts up and there is very little to do. We got warned in advance that everything would be dead in Phnom Penh, so we took up the offer to go visit some friends up in the North Western part of the country along with a friend who was leaving Cambodia the following week.
Our first stop on the trip was Battambang. This part of Cambodia is on the far western part of the country in an area considered one of the most beautiful and productive. It is heavily featured in the traditional songs of years-gone-by as it was where the big rice and vegetable harvests came from and is a thriving regional city on the banks of the Sangkar River…most of the time.
When we arrived after a long bus trip from Phnom Penh at 10:30pm, the city was dark. And quiet. And in the morning, it was pretty much the same. The thriving town centre was devoid of any form of busy-ness besides the celebrations from the local Wat’s (Pagodas) and people’s houses. Restaurants and market stalls were closed, the river was very small BUT it was fantastic! It was exactly what we needed. Sometimes Phnom Penh can be quite noisy, busy and chaotic so cycling around the empty streets, listening to the birds and traditional khmer music, slowly sipping on a Cambodian Beer was really fantastic. We had a great time in Battambang (read more about it here) and would highly recommend heading up that way if you are visiting Cambodia.
After Battambang, we made our way to Svay Sisophon, up in the far north-west of Cambodia. This town is a big, dusty regional centre on the crossroads of the road from Siem Reap to Poipet/Thailand and the road from Battambang to Poipet/Thailand. This dusty city is the provincial capital of Banteay Meanchey and the ex-hometown of one of our volunteer friends, Toni, who was working up in Sisophon for a year as a Midwife Mentor. She did some pretty incredible stuff and made some amazing friends that we were glad to also become friends with! Toni’s close colleague, Manich, was kind enough to invite us to come visit over Khmer New Year for a few days which we gladly agreed to do. Unfortunately Toni had to go back to Australia only a few weeks earlier so she missed out on all the fun!
Manich and her mum live in a small township/village about 7km from the main part of Sisaphon. Down a couple of windy dusty roads, we made it to their home which is right beside a pagoda, backs onto farmland and is blissfully basic. The home itself was a traditional Khmer style wooden house with 2 stories – the top-level that wasn’t really used for much except it seemed for visitors to come and stay. Downstairs was a big cool open area, lots of hammocks to chill in and a separate kitchen.
We were just a couple of extras for the already big family who had descended on Manich’s family home for Khmer New Year – if I remember correctly, there are 7 brothers and sisters plus many nieces/nephews!
One of the big attractions to going out into the provinces for Khmer New Year is that the pagodas put on a whole week worth of celebrations. There are fake weddings (they tried to convince Mick and I to be the guinea-pigs for that!), prayers at ancestor stupas, games, dances, water-throwing and much more.
The games at the pagoda are very popular with the local community and it seems like the whole village and beyond come to partake in some silly fun. Some of the games are quite simple ones that we would play back in school like tug-of-war, blind-fold finding games, tag and more; while other games we quite complex that we had never seen before! But the Khmer’s loved them and it seemed like everyone was having a go at being silly and having a laugh. I don’t think that my face has hurt so much from laughing in a long time to be honest!
Then there is the serious side of Khmer New Year with families making offerings to the local pagoda, holding ceremonies at the stupas of their families and making prayers for a year of good fortune, luck and good health. This is the part of it that I believe is quite a deal stronger in Cambodia than in Thailand, or we were just lucky enough to be a part of it.
The best part of the celebrations, however, was the amount of amazing local food we got to eat! Here’s a selection of what we had over 3 days. All delicious!
Mick and I really enjoyed all the food, but we both understand that its not for everyone. Bron (our trusty companion!) struggled with the mystery meats and strong flavours but she still had a go at trying bits and pieces. Sadly, this was Bron’s last trip around Cambodia and a bit of a send off for her. The following week she headed back to life in Perth and her adventure was over. We miss her a lot but are certain we will see her back in the motherland soon for some wine adventures!
Our trip to Svay Sisaphon was such a wonderful experience and we all felt that we got to see some really (and i hate to use this word) “authentic” Khmer culture in practice. In Phnom Penh, its much like any other big city where it can be difficult to find that kind of thing because people are so busy progressing to attain financial and career goals. Manich’s family were such a wonderful group of people, smiling, dancing, feeding us, relaxing and just very warm generous people. I would love to be able to offer the same opportunity to them back in Australia some day.