Saturday, April 14, 2012

Exit the Rabbit, Enter the Dragon

Excerpt from Khmer New Year playlet broadcast on local TV in Phnom Penh this evening.

Today (13/4/12) was the first day of Khmer New Year (Chaul Chhnam Thmey) – the end of the Year of the Rabbit, the beginning of the Year of the Dragon. Unlike western New Year, the Khmer New Year does not begin at midnight, but at a different time of day or night every year, as determined by the astrologers. This year it began on April 13 at about 7:10PM (Cambodian time.) Each house prepares a table of offerings during the day, and as the New Year enters, joss sticks are lit and prayers made at the offering table, ideally at the moment of the change.

Each year I am torn about where to be the moment the new year enters. Most Khmers around me would have me at the offering table making prayers. But I’ve always rather enjoyed watching it on TV. As the New Year enters, the local stations run a delightful little playlet of the goddess and new animal arriving and the old departing. People giggle at the cheesy special effects but can get quite serious and attentive about the spirit of the moment and what is being said. Years back, there was a third option. When the wars were still on, the New Year was welcomed with skyward gunfire. Here in Phnom Penh, at the moment of New Year the air would fill with sounds of firearms discharging and the sky would come alight with tracer bullets (phosphorous filled bullets that burn bright when fired.) A live-fire pyrotechnics show of sorts. Of course, what goes up does eventually come down, making this a very dangerous tradition, but an exhilarating one nevertheless.

One year, 1995 or 96 I believe, I had flown into Phnom Penh from the provinces for the holiday. I was staying at the Bopha Tep Hotel near the Cambodiana. That year the New Year was to arrive at night. Anticipating the usual gun show, I put on a heavy jacket (imagining it might act as a makeshift flak jacket) and went up to the hotel roof, which provided a panoramic view over the city. I situated myself under a low concrete overhang to try to guard against falling lead.

Ordinarily, tracer bullets are used in machine guns, placed every fifth round to help the shooter see his actual line of fire. But for the New Year, soldiers and police would fill their entire clips with tracers so that every shot would glow. At the moment of New Year the city erupted in peals of gunfire from every direction. Some fired single shots, sending tracers zipping skyward like supersonic fireflies. Most used AK-47s, letting off 30-shot clips on full-auto, shooting fiery dotted lines crisscrossing the night sky. Most spectacular, on the outskirts of the city where the soldiers had heavier weapons they’d use belt-fed machine guns that could fire continuously for as long as they wanted to make the belt. It could go on for hundreds of rounds, often several guns at a time, creating great glowing snakes writhing skyward from the horizon.

Now, in 2012, going out to watch the gunfire is no longer a New Year option. The hazardous tradition of shooting in the year was wisely quashed more than a decade ago. Today was a choice between the table or the TV. I chose the TV – exit the rabbit, enter the dragon (naga.) See video above.

Suasedey Chhnam Thmey. Happy New Year. 

Khmer New Year goddess and dragon, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Goddess riding in the Dragon. Front of Royal Palace, Phnom Penh.

A few screenshots from the New Year presentation:

Khmer New Year play on Cambodian television

Khmer New Year play on Cambodian television

Khmer New Year play on Cambodian television, new year's goddess and dragon fly in from Heaven

Khmer New Year play on Cambodian television, new year's goddess and dragon fly in from Heaven

Khmer New Year play on Cambodian television, new year and last year's goddesses speak, rabbit still here

Khmer New Year play on Cambodian television, new year's dragon flies in

Khmer New Year play on Cambodian television, dancers and new dragon

Khmer New Year play on Cambodian television, last year's goddess exits

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Khmer New Year Story

Cambodian calendar, April 2012, beginning of month trough Khmer New Year
Our maid, Mean-Ta, was robbed today, in the ordinary fashion. She was riding pillion on a motodup (motorcycle taxi) when a couple of young guys on a passing moto ripped her bags from her shoulder. She probably appeared an easy mark – a small 50-year-old woman, alone, exposed and overloaded. No match for a couple of 20-something thugs on a faster bike. Pulled off with the bags she fell from the motodup, banging her up a bit, mostly bruises and road rash. The robbers escaped with her goods. Not an unusual occurrence here in Phnom Penh, especially in the days and weeks before Khmer New Year (i.e. Chhaul Chhnam Thmey) when robberies and other petty crimes spike as unscrupulous sorts try to put together some holiday coin for their New Year’s festivities. It’s still National Robbery Month here in Cambodia.

Pissed me off something fierce when I heard the story. Like most Khmers, she planned to travel to her native province for the New Year to be with family. She was heading off to begin her holiday when it happened – on her way to the bus station to make the trip home to Battambang. I didn’t see her this morning before she left, but when I got back to my office this afternoon, there she was, bloodied and crying, her clothes torn, her remaining bag smashed and wet from something that had broken in the fall. Two of the staff were tending to her, trying to calm her. Truly a pitiful sight. The thought of a couple of young city boys, probably middle classers or better, targeting a 50 year old country woman for her meager belongings just infuriated me. Perhaps even more upsetting, mostly because I saw how disappointed she was, this was her New Year in tatters.

She had been saving for her trip home for at least the last 2 months. A couple of days ago she took an advance on next month’s pay and I had given her an additional $150 New Year bonus. She spent the last two days preparing, buying a new outfit and bag, as well as some presents for the family. Almost all of the money and most of the belongings were lost or ruined in the robbery. 

But, in the spirit of the season, the situation took a heartening turn. Most of the staff was still here at the office when she stumbled in after the robbery - 12 people, all Cambodians, everybody due to leave on their own New Year holidays at day's end. On hearing the story, people spontaneously started chipping in money for her. A impromptu collection arose in the office. Everybody contributed without hesitation. As the story spread, even the cyclo driver and motodups that sit near the office tossed what they could afford into the pot. I Twittered about the robbery shortly after hearing the story, primarily out of frustration and as a warning about pre-New Year street crime. Again, without prompting or request, local barang Tweeps offered money to help her. It was all an amazing outpouring of sympathy and generosity.

As I understand it, the spirit of the second day of Khmer New Year (Virak Wanabat) is expressed in generosity and giving to those less fortunate than oneself. I saw that spirit manifest today (if a couple of days early) in the swift and unreserved support shown this woman. Perhaps, amongst good people, they would have responded that way at any time of year, but it seemed particularly appropriate to this time.

Calmed briefly after the robbery, Ta was soon in tears again, but this time for being overwhelmed by the flood of help she was receiving. Most of her lost money was replaced. Her thanks were profuse and animated (a bit uncomfortably so.) She told me to say "thank you" and "happiness" and "Happy New Year" (and more) to all who helped and offered kind words. By late afternoon she had collected herself and the staff was readying to escort her back to the bus station to catch an evening bus. I bowed out at that point. I understand that she made it onto the bus without further problem. She should be in Battambang by now, probably in her village, home with her family for the holiday.