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

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