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[Jocelyn is an intern with the Center for Global Impact—World Next Door’s partner organization in Cambodia. In addition to writing and taking pictures for CGI’s blogs, newsletters and promotional materials, Jocelyn is a freelance photojournalist for WND.]
While the rest of the world brought in the New Year at midnight on January 1st, the Khmer New Year 2012 officially began four months later. The “Year of the Dragon” kicked off at 7:11 p.m. on Friday, April 13th, with family, food and fireworks. It’s not often you get to experience two New Years in one calendar year, so I decided to live it up and connect with some locals to figure out what this peculiar holiday is really all about. I give you my official Khmer New Year Expat Survival Guide—straight from the single, Western female who experienced the craziness herself.
Khmer New Year Expat Survival Guide
#1. Find the Homeland
An integral part of Khmer New Year is returning to your roots. A few days before the three-day national holiday begins, men, women and children begin to leave Phnom Penh for the villages of their ancestors. They journey by bike, boat or bus to dance, sing and play cards with their extended family. Since America is technically my “homeland”, I decided to claim Battambang—home of Green Mango Café & Bakery—as my own. I couldn’t resist the rumors of boxing matches, ox cart races and even a fake wedding!
#2. Befriend a monk
Technically, Khmer New Year is a cultural holiday—not necessarily a religious one. But many celebrations take place at local pagodas. In my experience, Buddhist monks are super friendly and eager to share their knowledge. For example, what better source could you find to learn the story of the battle of wits between the “intelligent son of a tycoon” and the king of the gods that explains the history of the holiday? They also make delicious iced coffee. Just be sure not to touch them—especially if you’re a lady!
#3. Wear a rain jacket
Another unique aspect of the holiday is Sraung Preah—a Buddhist water purification ceremony. Traditionally, the ceremony involves children pouring water on the Buddha and their parents with hopes of receiving happiness, wisdom and a long life in return. However, today a lot of kids—and a few grown men—take great pleasure in standing on the side of the road with water balloons, water guns and buckets full of water to “purify” [A.K.A. totally soak!] passersby.
By the time I finished my several kilometer journey to Ek Phnom—where I got a feel for traditional Khmer games—even my underwear was dripping. Everyone laughed.
#4. Bring your sweetheart
In addition to celebrating fortune, Khmer New Year is also a holiday of love. At least that’s how it appeared according to my tuk tuk driver. As we spent the day together at a local carnival, he took every opportunity to not so subtly suggest he was looking for a sweetheart. I was introduced to several of his friends, who were girls but NOT his girlfriend. He elicited random children to take pictures of us in popular lovers’ alcoves of an ancient temple. And he even invited me to a village house party later that night through a serenade by one of his “superstar” friends—creative yet ineffective.
#5. Go along for the ride!
The best piece of advice I can give when navigating an unfamiliar holiday in a foreign culture is simply to “go with it!” When random teenage boys rub powder on your face and call you beautiful, say “Thank you.” When you are handed unidentifiable meat-on-a-stick from a street vendor, eat it. And when you find yourself in that rare, privileged moment of being the only foreigner around, revel in it. Because even when you’re wet and covered from the neck up in baby powder, you discover you are also unbelievably happy to be considered one of their own.
About the Author: Jocelyn is a freelance photojournalist with World Next Door. She studied Creative Writing and Missions at Concordia University Irvine. She enjoys reading, writing and traveling. She also likes butterflies.