Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hot Season Triangle

It was 35ºC in Phnom Penh today. After 3 months of blessedly cool, dry weather, the season is changing. Temperatures are beginning to rise. Standing on the roof for a smoke last night I noticed the ‘Hot-Season Triangle’ almost straight up - a landmark of the hot season nighttime sky. The Hot Season Triangle (also known as the 'Winter Triangle' and the 'Summer Triangle' in other parts of the world) is a group of three bright stars (Betelgeuse in the shoulder of Orion, Sirius and Procyon) forming a equilateral triangle. In February and March the Triangle can be seen high in the sky in the early evening, almost straight up about 2-3 hours after sunset here in Cambodia. It is particularly apparent when the moon is full as the moonlight washes out the dimmer stars, leaving the bright stars of the Triangle standing alone. When the Hot Season Triangle sits high in the sky in the early evening it bodes the coming of the heat and the imminent beginning of the ‘mango showers’ - light afternoon rains in the months before the monsoons, so known as they help ripen the mangoes, making the hot season the mango season as well.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It's New Year again

Chinese New Year revelers at Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Urn Jostling at Wat Phnom
It's lunar New Year today, commonly known as 'Chinese New Year' here in Cambodia - 'Tet' in Vietnam. It's Cambodia's second new year of 2011 - international New Year (January 1) being the first, Chinese New Year (today) the second and Khmer New Year in April will be the last and most important. This particular New Year is not an official holiday in Cambodia, though one might guess otherwise from the appearance of the city.

Many businesses were closed today and will be tomorrow as well - gates shut, bulbous Chinese lanterns hanging from the eves. In my walk around the city this afternoon, the streets were comparatively quiet - traffic very light as many stayed home with their families today. The smell of incense hung and still hangs in the air. Noisy troupes of Lion Dancers were making the rounds, visiting homes and businesses. Many houses in the city are decorated with New Year ornaments, almost all in red and gold - paper lanterns and coins, Fu Lu Shou, New Year children, stylized flowers and animals and other traditional Chinese images. Offerings of a red pig, food and fruit, incense, tobacco and drink sat on blankets and tables in front of houses. Some displays at the richer houses were quite elaborate. People burned ghost money at the streetside throughout the day, leaving little piles of ash and fake US$100 and Chinese bills blowing down some roads.

It's 1AM and I've just returned home from Wat Phnom here in Phnom Penh. My clothes reek of incense smoke and my eyes are burning and tearing from the same. Wat Phnom is the most popular pagoda in town for the local Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer-Chinese to usher in the New Year. After 11PM hundreds of people crowd the pagoda grounds to await the new year. Like international New Year and unlike Khmer New Year, the Chinese New Year enters at midnight.

Dozens of vendors set up at the entrance and along the paths, selling joss sticks, flowers and ghost money. In previous years beggars lined the steps to the top of the hill. People would bring piles of small bills (100 Riel notes) just for the beggars. This year there were no beggars. None at all. I don't know why.

Revelers pay homage at the various shrines around the pagoda, offering incense, food and prayer to the spirit houses at the outer corners of the vihear, at the Ya Penh shrine and of course to Buddha inside the vihear. But the real action is on the north side of the hill at the 'Chinese shrine' - uncomfortably crowded and the air thick with the smoke of a thousand joss sticks, sometimes suffocatingly so. The mood is energetic as people vie for space and move from shrine to shrine. Crowds of men jockey and jostle for position around the preferred urns, jamming in giant joss sticks and holding on as if for dear life, sometimes for several minutes, so the stick can be retrieved and taken home still alight. Standing on the level above the urns for the best view, spectators (including myself) choked on the dense clouds of rising smoke, only able to watch for a couple of minutes at a time before having to flee for fresh air.

The midnight crowd at Wat Phnom was significantly lighter this year than previous years. Still several hundred people there, but probably half of last year's number. The pagoda area was not as well or festively lit as in the past, there seemed to be fewer vendors, and as I mentioned no beggars at all. I'm not sure if people have found someplace else to go or if perhaps they just aren't feeling as flush this year.     

Still, it's all a pretty photogenic and exciting scene, and I've been going for years, but I almost never see foreigners there on New Year Eve. Tonight I think I was the only one. I find that a bit surprising. 

A few photos and videos from around Phnom Penh yesterday and at Wat Phnom this last evening…

Chinese New Year, lion dance helper, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Lion dance trouper

Chinese New Year Lion Dance, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Feeding the lion

Red pig for sale on the street, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Red pig for sale on the street today.

Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Vihear and stupa at Wat Phnom

'Chinese Shrine' at Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
At the urn, Wat Phnom

At the urn, Wat Phnom, almost midnight...

The 'Chinese shrine' at Wat Phnom, just after midnight...

(Videos were taken with my iPhone.)