Happy Khmer New Year
04.18.2010 - 04.18.2010
Greetings all and Happy Khmer New Year.
Well, this is the second attempt at a blog. Yesterday I spent over four hours in a coffee house that was open at New Year’s and wrote a rather extensive blog about my last 3 weeks. (Of course it was brilliant, funny and instructive!! ) I reported with nostalgia on all the fun visits of family and friends over the last two weeks of March, about our activities, (even consulted the travel books as to be true to the facts). I wrote a rather mixed review of my solitary trip to Laos, as well as about the lonely place Phnom Penh is during the Khmer New Year. I ended with an update on my peaceful co-habitation with my rat , which has ended. After all there is a limit to a one-sided attempt to make it work. I am on the warpath.
I felt pretty good about my effort and I saved it as a draft -as I always do- to edit one more time before I push the ‘publish’ button. However, I must not have pushed hard enough, or whatever happened, but when I tried to retrieve it a couple of hours later sitting in another venue, it had gone where everything mysteriously goes when it disappears…whatever I tried, the draft was no longer there!
Of course I was ‘p.ssed!’ What a loss! Yet, being in a Buddhist country, where everyone mostly accepts calmly things as they are, I at least seem to have learned something. I quickly recovered and thought: “Well, only words! “No problem” as they say here about everything, or in Khmer: ‘min ey dtay’, meaning it’s o.k., it doesn’t matter! I ordered myself another mango shake and went to exercise for hours!! In other words, what you are getting is the second version of this blog! Pictures will be included.
Khmer New Year
Khmer New Year (14-15-16 April, + the weekend) is quite an event here. According to the Cambodia Daily newspaper, over 2/3 (70%) of the citizens of Phnom Penh
(2 million), went “to the province” to celebrate the New Year with relatives in their ‘home’ villages. Some travel long distances, and the bus companies cash in by raising their prices astronomically. As my foot massage lady told me, she usually can go to her province for $5, and now the ticket is $20!! (The bus companies explain it because the price of gasoline has increased, as well as that their buses are empty back from the destinations to Phnom Penh!). The paper had pictures of pick-up trucks so overloaded with cargo and people, that the car was close to invisible. People sit on roofs, stand next to the doors, hang out of the back or somehow the sides, and do not face danger. Motorbikes carry 4 adults and three children, babies included, and you hold you heart. So far, only 17 deaths and 100 wounded were reported at the exit trips.
Since Sunday, (4-11), the city got slowly empty, there is hardly any traffic and everything is closed, even the ‘malls’ and markets have rudimentary stalls, often just the food sections. There is only one tuktuk driver in my street, the fried banana lady and the barber are gone, and my newspaper stall has been closed for days!
All my favorite (cheap) hangouts and eating places have “Closed for Khmer New year, open on Monday” on their gates. Even my internet place is closed. Just the places that cater to mainly ‘barangs’ (white people), as the supermarket, and some terrasses, are open, as well as some restaurants, which are packed with people one rarely sees! Their prices are outrageous for often mediocre dishes! (Usually I pay 3-5 for dinner with a drink, (lime soda, sometimes wine), now my bills are more like $10).
However, it is a joy to walk by the river early morning and hardly anyone is there, or go on an enjoyable bike ride without having your heart jump every second because of a traffic situation! It seems like a fairly normal city!! (Yesterday it was overcast, and I went on my bike every where the whole day! Unusual not to be so hot!!)
Khmer New Year is the lunar New Year, and it is also celebrated at this time in Thailand and Laos, and perhaps more countries. I spend parts of 2 days with Samorn and Ka, at their house in Stung Mean Chey neighborhood, (where I spend the first couple of days of my Cambodia trip), where we went round to relatives to eat, and then we went for an overnight to their house in TaKmao, for a New Year’s barbeque on Thursday with relatives and friends. It was like any big family gathering,(about 20+), yet also distinctly Cambodian. Women arrive and immediately start helping with the cooking, and all seem to know what to do. They laugh a lot and tell stories. Some speak some English and French, but most only Khmer and my Khmer has suffered a lot in the last three weeks of exclusively speaking English!! Made me sad! The men sit together, smoke, play cards and some drink. The ‘barangs’ got served at a different table. I met some people who work at the Tribunal with Samorn and had some interesting conversations. Both of them had lived in the Hague and had worked at the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavie. The food was delicious. Ka had ordered fresh shrimp from Sihanukville, ( a seaside town) which we had picked up at the bus station the day before. We had fresh spring rolls with shrimp, (I love the sauce that comes with it!), and barbequed delicious shrimp and a raw mango salad. All wonderful! There were also chicken legs, meat/shrimp skewers, etc. for the meat eaters. I ate way too much!!
The food stays on the table and we kept eating, despite the millions of flies who also liked it! Covering up the food was only partly successful! Many hammocks around to rest after eating! I had bought some walnut bread from the French restaurant and Gouda cheese for the New Year, and discovered that Titi, Ka’s sister loved it. We served it, Titi was so happy, but the rest of the women, were mixed in their responses. I gave the rest to a delighted Titi, who offered to cook my favorite dishes some day! At a certain point, everyone starts picking up, cleaning, and then we leave! The whole family get-together was a nice interlude in my otherwise solitary week!
About the significance of the New Year.
What follows may not be accurate, because everyone tells me different things, but this is what I know and observed. Many people go the pagoda to offer money and food to the monks and to receive a blessing of good health, prosperity and harmony in the family for the New Year. I went to Wat Botun, close to where I live very early the first day of New Year. An elderly monk was sitting under an overhang and motioned me to come in. The grounds, which are usually pretty ‘messy,’ looked spic and span! There were flowers and a setting with silk covered chairs and tables for a ceremony. The pagoda was still closed, but outside at another entry was another small pagoda, with tables in front with seated monks, an altar with the usual offerings of food and flowers, and monks standing to receive the offerings and give the blessing to devotees. I could not get myself to give money to the monks, after I had walked by many disheveled street people and kids just waking up, probably hungry, and gave my gift (and silent blessing) to a nursing young street woman, who looked desolate after a long night on the street with her baby. It remains hard to see this.
For families, it is also common to give money to older relatives and say a blessing to them and receive their blessing. In the home, everyone has a table, covered with a vase of flowers, banana’s, mango’s, soft drinks (coca cola) and cans of condensed milk. It is for the angel who rides the Tiger of the New Year. (First time I heard the word ‘angel’ in Khmer context!) Even the palace, the place where there is usually a picture of the king, had a big poster depicting the New Year’s angel riding in on a tiger. I asked some people how they know what to put on the table. I got two answers: the tv tells people that the tiger likes milk and banana’s, so that’s what is on the table. Yesterday I asked two young guys in the coffee shop and they said that the monks tell the people, “it is in the Buddhist bible” (also new to me!) they told me. Apparently it is different every year, depending on the animal: monkey, snake, dragon, rat etc. I think that the whole deal is clearly mixed up with Chinese cosmology, but I have to ask my ex-monk tutktuk driver to get his perspective!
People used to throw water (sign of purity in the New Year) on each other, but this is now forbidden by law in public places, and people will be fined when they are seen to do it! In Phnom Penh there was increased police presence to watch that, as well as for crime prevention and traffic infractions (like overloaded vehicles!)
How fun it was to have Fred, Anneke and Vincent visit! I am so glad that they could see for themselves a tiny slice of my life, met my friends and some of the faculty I work with. We stayed in very nice hotels, both in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and were joined at times by our good friends David (Urbana, Ill) and son Will (Brisbane, Australia), and Chris (San Francisco) in Siem Reap. In Siem Reap we saw many temples, with of course Angkor Wat as the most known one, but we also saw the oldest temples, the Roluos, all built in or before the 9th century. They have beautiful masonry, but also exquisite stone carvings. One of the temples had a working monastery where we talked at great length to a young eager monk who taught in the little school at the monastery. We gave him money for school books for his students.
( In my lost blog I did a more complete overview, but I will not now. Also I described some of the temples in my January blog).
We also ate, at many establishments in the market area where all the tourists hang out: we samples many versions of the famous Fish amok, Khmer curry, green papaya/mango salads, some Thai food, and drank of course the superb Lao beer! At 50 cents a glass for Happy hour at the riverside was a great daily ‘habit’ to celebrate the great times together!
In Phnom Penh, Karen and David and son Henri, from Spokane visited for a couple of days after their fabulous trip to Burma/Myanmar. We enjoyed visiting the palace, walked a lot to see the sites, markets, and street life, ate at my favorite hangouts, and made a river tour at sunset, which was fun, but no gorgeous sunset as I sometimes see.
We also went to Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum, where 17.000 enemies of the Khmer Rouge, (intellectuals, teachers, educated people, former Lon Nol government workers and those of their own ranks who were suspected of being CIA informants or traitors) were interrogated and tortured, made to suffer tremendously and then brought to another place Choen Ek (killing fields) to be bludgeoned to death. Only 7 survived. It is hard to take and comprehend. Just like one woman in the documentary we saw said: “ I understand life in a family, I understand love between husband and wife, I understand……., but I cannot understand this!” Choen Ek is usually the next place people visit, but we all thought we had enough reminders of unspeakable cruelties inflicted on other human beings. We did not go, but had a wonderful lunch in the Bodhi Tree restaurant across the street which lifted our spirits.
Fred,+ A/V met Samorn, Ka and Davi my Cambodian friends at a wonderful dinner in the Khmer Kitchen,(we forgot to take pictures!) and also some of the faculty members I work with at a happy hour. It was great we could all meet, and we had some great conversations with all of them.
I felt fortunate to see my family and so many good friends and ‘show them around’ my favorite places to walk, eat, visit markets, my apartment, and meet my friends and colleagues, so that there is some shared understanding when I come home.
Trip to Laos
Just as I could imagine feeling lonely after everyone had gone back home, but also because the University was closed the two weeks after, I booked a trip to Laos.
I left the same day, even before Fred, Anneke and Vincent left, so I would not feel ‘left behind’!
I flew to Vientiane and spent the weekend with Dutch acquaintances, (Nicolette, Renee and their two sons). They live in a gorgeous house and it was very pleasant to be with them. Vientiane is not necessarily a beautiful city, but it is a dreamy place along the Mekong river. Much less traffic and people and a slower pace than Phnom Penh. Nicolette and I biked around Vientiane and visited some great pagoda’s and landmark stupa’s, and the independence monument that looks like the Arc de Triumph. We climbed it, to have a great view over Vientiane. We also went to a interesting Buddha Park with some bizarre statutes, and had a great lunch in a boat that went up a river about 30 kilometers out of town. Very peaceful and fun!
Then I took a 4 hour bus ride to Vang Vieng, or so I thought. The VIP bus had been overbooked and when I was picked up from the travel agent, as I was told, the bus was full and I, and 10 others, were put in an old minivan without ac and drove for over 6 hours over a very bumpy road. There was a lot of joking about the VIP treatment, but it was not particularly fun and not great scenery either. Yet a I got a good idea about rural life, that did not look any different from how people lived 35 years ago when I was in PNG. I arrived with a real back ache!
I took a tuk tuk 10 kilometers out of town to the "eco-lodge" (which was booked for me) and when we got there, I first did not believe that was the place. It was off the road and just looked like a thatched roof riverside village, with a couple of bungalows. I was the only guest, and I saw very quickly that there was no lights on the path and that would mean that I would be in my room from 6.00 pm until morning without anything to do. No ac in the room, but there was electric light and a van. First I thought it would be an adventure, but I had my doubts. Then I went to the "restaurant", I was really hungry after that long bus trip, and wanted “morning glory” ( a vegetable dish), or fried vegetables, neither of them was available. The young woman did not speak English and I started to feel miserable. I ordered a big beer Lao, which she had to go buy on a roadside stall and took for ages to come! That was the end of it. When I drank half of it, I told the woman to call the tuktuk and that I could not stay. The same tuktuk driver picked me up and apparently was not surprised. I told him to take me to a hotel in town, same price range and he took me to a great hotel, on the river with a magnificent view out of my third floor room. All mountains (in the smoke because of field burnings!) but beautiful. It was great! Had CNN on my tv in the room!! Starving by then, I had a mango shake and vegetable curry in the river side restaurant and felt quite happy!! The next morning I went kayaking on the river (started right at the eco-lodge!!) and had 4 hours of unusual quiet that I had not experience in months. I had a private guide and we only heard birds (which he did the calling for) and the river! The guide was great! He let me swim and float and we took some mild, but fun runs!! I had my sunscreen blouse on, but my hands got badly burned, even with 50 UBV sunscreen after 4 hours kayaking. It was enough, but wonderful. We stopped also to visit a cave, but I declined when we got there, because he told me that the water would be up to about the middle of my thighs. I was not in the mood for that in a dark cave! We stopped back at my hotel!
Then I had a Lao massage in my room, it was great but not for the weak of heart or body! Wow, the woman used force bending every leg and arm and my back!! The stay in Vang Vieng turned out to be wonderful, but hot. There are lot of riverside places for tubbing and jumping, and it seems to be a ‘hippy haven’ to have fun and get druk. Everywhere it says: “Free shots all day!”
The next morning I took the bus to Luang Prabang. It was as if I was back in the highlands of PNG. It was a 7 hour winding road up to a summit, along villages and fields through the mountains, great views, some like old Chinese mountain views in the smoky air! (Farmers are burning the forest to create new plots for their gardens) Then all the way winding down. I was the only 60+ person in the bus with a backpacking crowd of 20+ youngsters, who all went to sleep and missed the gorgeous views! Kids through water in the bus because of the Lao New Year and the bus attendant threw water at only girls on motor bikes we passed. It was an unforgettable trip, in an old bus that went very slowly and had no ac. It is still brutally hot!
I got my soul back in Luang Prabang. I wanted to go to Luang Prabang, since many Hmong people I worked with in Spokane came from around that area, and I wanted to see it for myself. It is the ancient capital of the Lao Kings, situated where the Mekong and the Nan Khan river flow together. Lucretia Stewart (Tiger Balm, 1992) writes this about Luang Prabang: “ It was the cherished dream of every retired French colonial officer to end his days in Luang Prabang, the Shangri-La of the Orient, a beautiful indolent Lao wife at his side, attending to his every need” (p 242).
It is a sleepy old town, reminiscent of English villages, but with Wats and monks everywhere. I stayed in a guesthouse next to the Santi Hotel where David and Chris stayed and went for early walks, (6.30 a.m.) along the Mekong and the Nan Khan rivers and just by chance saw the famous procession of monks begging in my street and being offered food by kneeling devotees. It was so quiet, with hardly any traffic at that time, very different from Phnom Penh. I visited the Royal Palace, which it beautiful and saw a great Ho Chi Minh poster exhibition, beautiful temples, all from different times and some with pretty violent scenes from I’m sure events in one of the 37 hells! I climbed the sacred hill in the center of town, which offers a great view of the city (in smoke!) One of the two pagoda’s on the hill has a foot print (very large!) of the Buddha, and I wondered in how many places he travelled and left footprints, (or hairs, or fingernails!). Luang Prabang has a delightful night market and I bought quite a few things, including a pair of cotton dark grey pants. When I washed them, the water got so black, and stained the floor of the shower! I had to use bleach to get that clean. I’m not sure what they use to dye, but I got stains on my white blouse and other items, just after rinsing off! I ended up throwing them out, it was impossible rinse out all the dye!! A highlight was to visit the famous many tiered waterfalls, called Kuang Si. They are 30 kilometers south of LP, and offered a cooler place in beautiful surroundings. I walked all the way up along the falls and swam in one of the pools. Wonderful!
I did not do everything I wanted to do, the trip to the waterfall was advertised with a stop at a Hmong village, which did not happen, because the driver did not come back until 4.00 p.m instead of 2.30 p.m. and everyone in the van was really tired from waiting in the heat. Actually, I felt horrible and suspect I had a heat stroke or was dehydrated, although I drank a lot of water. Being late also prevented me to book a rivertrip the next day to go to some famous caves with a lot of Buddha’s in them. Instead I went to see a couple more temples which I did not regret. I just have to include Luang Prabang again in one of my future travels with Fred!!
I flew back to Vientiane, but had to spend the the night on my way back to Phnom Penh, and it was surprisingly wonderful. I stayed in a hotel on the Mekong river, and had a wonderful dinner at a riverside restaurant (smoked Norwegian salmon on white toast with homemade mayonnaise!). It was a beautiful and quiet place and a great night time temperature. I dreamily watched the lights across of the Thai town at the other side of the Mekong. It was a gorgeous good bye to Laos!
And finally, my rat(s) in case you are interested!
Coming home was a challenge. I was not really looking forward to a week home alone and that mood only worsened when I came to the mess in my house. The rat sure noticed that I was not there, and must have invited all his family and friends to party and feast on all they could find in my apartment. The floor was full of droppings, the shelves covered with pieces of paper and plastic from eaten through plastic lids of containers of red curry paste, or other condiments. They also liked the “breathe easy” teabags Fred had brought. If that was not enough, I opened the drawers of my plastic drawers (did not know they could get in there!!) and they had left their marks as well. They had eaten through my Tupperware container of rice, nibbled royally at the packages of different kind of noodles and other things one would not think would be food for rodents. I went through my closets and found evidence of their visits as well!
I called my landlord and showed him the mess and the possible places they could enter my apartment. He seemed only mildly impressed. He promised to do something “after the New Year”, which would take another week!! If not, I will call the pest control myself! It took me a long time to clean, wash the shelves with bleach, throw everything out, (yes everything that has to do with food), washed all my dishes and decided to only prepare food that I could store in the refrigerator!
Needless to say I was more than disgusted and decide that “accepting things as they are” is beyond this situation. I now barricade my balcony door with a double row of books to close the hole they ate in the cover under the door.
The whole thing creeps me out, especially since last night I woke up at three by a lot of noise, and thought someone was trying to break in. It got my heartbeat up, because I always thought I was save and locked up! There is barbed wire all around my apartment and the landlord lives downstairs. Then it was clear that pretty big rats (or whatever animals) were running over the ceiling of my room for more than 10 minutes, creating havoc!! I’ll see what happens next week, but if my landlord gets under the roof, I am sure he will be surprised!!
Well, I am at the end of a pretty solitary week. After all, it turned out to be nice to contemplate and think about what I still can accomplish in the month or so I still have here. Tomorrow work starts again and I made a list of people and agencies I still want to visit to get more perspective on Cambodia. Especially the peace making groups and human rights and women’s rights groups are on my list.
I read quite extensively in the Dhammapadda and am reading the Three Marriages by David Whyte (2009). He is a poet and a Buddhist and writes very well about our marriages: two a partner, to a work, and to ourselves, invoking other writers and poets in making his points. He ends each chapter with his own poems which I like a lot. A great book for a solitary week!
The last hurray this time in this part of the world, will be a trip to Vietnam, (Hanoi and Sapa) with Truus, my first roommate and friend from Holland. We have so looked forward to this trip and it will happen the end of May! We will go to Siem Reap as well, and she will end up in Phnom Penh with me, just a few days before I come home.
What an adventure it has been!
May you all be well and peaceful!