In Cambodia Part 6: Khmer New Year

Angkor 030I was originally scheduled to return to Thailand on the 14th of April but was having such a good time in Siem Reap that I decided to add another day.  This was beneficial as it allowed me to experience a bit of the Khmer New Year, the three days of which began on the 14th this year.  Like Songkran in Thailand and other regional celebrations, this marks the end of the dry (harvest) season and allows families to enjoy life together before the monsoons begin in earnest.  Unlike those in Thailand and Laos, the New Year festivities in Cambodia DO NOT include dowsing everybody in sight with buckets of water.  That, by itself, was reason to stay as I dreaded returning to Phuket while Songkran was still in force.

Prior to the start of Khmer New Year, families repair, clean and decorate their homes as well as buy new clothes and stockpile food and drinks for the celebrations.  Following my explorations in the Angkor Archaeological Park on the thirteenth, I witnessed the staff of the Angkor Wonder Guesthouse cleaning the place from top to bottom.  Huge cases of beer appeared in the lobby.  The owner, the wonderful Mr. Why Not, invited all of his guests to join his family in a trip to his local temple the following morning.

20130414-102110That day, the 14th, was the first day of Khmer New Year which is called Moha Songkran, or Chol sangkran Chmay.  It is believed that on this day the new deities who are to replace the older ones come to Earth in order to take care of its creation.  To welcome these deities, family members place an image of Buddha on an altar with flowers, candles, incense sticks, a bowl of scented water, food and drinks, along with banana leaves.  People dress up in their finest silk clothing and give food to the monks in the temples.  Candles and incense sticks at lit at shrines, where the members of each family pay homage to offer thanks for the Buddha’s teachings by bowing, kneeling and prostrating themselves three times before his image. For good luck people wash their face with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet in the evening before they go to bed.

20130414-102203Around ten o’clock that morning, myself and several others staying in the guesthouse piled into a couple of tuk-tuks for the trip to Wat Chork Pagoda, south and to the west of Siem Reap.  We traveled on fairly dusty and rutted dirt roads and enjoyed the rural scenery along the way.  Our first stop was a brief visit to Mr. Why Not’s home where we met his mother and several other relatives.  All too soon, however, we were back on the road to the temple.  It was similar to most that I have visited in Thailand and I quite enjoyed the large statues of various animals surrounding the main pagoda.  We then participated in a bit of praying to the main shrine where the monks were gathered.  We each donated a bit of money to the temple (a good way to get rid of the Cambodian riel that we’d accumulated as small change to dollars spent in town) and gave the food we’d been carrying that Mr. Why Not’s wife had cooked.

20130414-172736That afternoon, I went in search of a bus ticket back to the border.  I had been told that a number of the buses weren’t operating because of the New Year but I did manage to book a fare with a company in the roundabout just a short walk from the guesthouse.  It would leave early the morning of the fifteenth.  I spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around Pub Street and the Old Market of Siem Reap; I’d done such a great job of budgeting that I could afford a few souvenirs!  I purchased several shirts – including one from Viva! when I went there for one last taco.  Returning “home”, I took time to pack so I wouldn’t have to do that in the morning.

20130414-222235My last evening in Siem Reap was spent hanging out at the guesthouse.  Mr. Why Not’s family set out a great spread of food and we happily filled up on that plus a variety of Cambodian beer, all free!  What a great host – well, he was a little the worse for wear as he’d spent the afternoon drinking with his uncles.  We sent him to bed fairly early but most of us stayed up until the very wee hours of the morning.  I really enjoyed chatting with these fellow travelers!  (And I wasn’t even the oldest there…)

20130415-121401My journey back to the border was fairly uneventful – the bus picked me up on time and the only real frustrations were the 15-minute stop 20km from the border (we were expected to spend money in the shop but most of us just stayed on the bus) and then another 30-minute stop at the “International Bus Terminal” about 7km from the border (for the same reason; this time, the driver turned off the bus’s air-conditioning trying to force us inside).  The exit line from Cambodia was fast but the one entering Thailand was anything but.  I met somebody in line who offered to share the ride to the train station – due to the delays at Thai Immigration we almost missed the only train back to Bangkok.  It was nice to have somebody (a Canadian) to talk to during the journey.

Long before entering Bangkok proper, the railroad tracks were lined with people celebrating Songkran (Thai New Year) and as we got closer to Hualamphong Station more and more of the youths began targeting the train.  It wasn’t long before everybody was soaked.  More worrisome was the luggage as there was no way to protect it from the onslaught of water.  At one point, a bunch of young men actually boarded the train with a high-powered fire hose and drenched everybody and everything in sight.  They even picked some fights with a few passengers!  Such is the mix of alcohol and free-reign with water.

At the main Bangkok train station, it was absolute bedlam.  Songkran was still in full force (despite it being the 15th of April rather than then 13th) and none of the taxis outside wanted to take fares due to the crowds running rampant throughout the city.  It had cost me less than 100 baht a few days before to take an air-conditioned taxi from the Southern Bus Terminal to Hualamphong Railroad Station a few days before.  On this evening, I was quoted fares of 800 to 2000 baht (!!) and that was only from the few taxis that would actually roll down their windows so I could shout my destination at them.  Thai people weren’t having much luck either, so it wasn’t a prejudicial thing.  FINALLY, I found a motorbike taxi who quoted me 200 baht for the trip.  Talk about a sitting target!  But I accepted as I felt it would be the only way I could get to the bus station.

I was fairly lucky in that nobody took aim while I was on the back of the motorbike.  But I soon became concerned as he wasn’t heading the right direction.  I thought that, perhaps, he was trying to avoid traffic or heavy water-play but we soon arrived in the thick of a huge traffic jam with plenty of people wandering in the streets with water cannons and the like.  I soon recognized that we were at the Victory Monument (far to the north and east of my desired destination).  Then, the motorbike stopped and he told me he wanted another 300 baht to take me to Khao San Road.  I repeated that I wanted the Southern Bus Terminal (sai tai mai, in Thai).  Eventually, he agreed (it was a wonder that nobody soaked me during this lull in our onward journey) but it did cost me more baht.

We FINALLY arrived at the bus station minutes after the last bus south departed.  Everything was locked up, I was frustrated at the Thai greed I’d experienced for the previous few hours, and ended up sitting on a hard bench for the next four or five hours.  Around 3:30 in the morning, I found a way into the huge station complex and eventually discovered the ticket booths on the third floor (very confusing and was happy only that I was looking around when there weren’t crowds).  I then had to wait another hour or so before I was able to purchase my ticket back to Phuket.  It was then another two-hour wait until the bus departed – again, I had to sit outside and it poured rain during much of that time.  By late that evening, I was back home.

I can’t wait to go back to Cambodia which, in my brief experience, was relatively free of rudeness and greed…

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