Pchum Ben is a three-day national holiday in Cambodia that happens in October each year. It is a part of the Cambodian Buddhist calendar, and it is a time when Cambodians believe that the gates of hell have opened. Therefore, they spend time visiting Wats and giving offerings to the feeding of dead ancestors that have found themselves suffering in hell. (Finding yourself in Buddhist hell is a very different process to the Western popular beliefs of hell- it doesn’t necessarily depend on what you have done. Sort of.) This is a part of Pchum Ben I didn’t get to see up close. I saw the throngs of people going in and out of Wats and heard the chants and smelled the incense, but didn’t actually go inside the temple gates. However, I did experience some major components of Cambodian festivities: food, family, friends and karaoke.
The first Saturday, I went with some of my Khmer colleagues to Kandal province. It’s the province that surrounds Phnom Penh. I rode on the back of a motorbike driven by Dara, our IT technician. I was one of two foreigners invited. We went to the house of one of the Khmer teaching assistants. Her parents have a house in a village, and they have chickens and trees in the garden.
We hung out and ate food. We had banh chao (បាញ់ឆែវ), which are similar to the yellow Vietnamese pancakes. Cooking often happens outside, especially in rural areas, over what looks like a ceramic bucket. This is fuelled with wood and charcoal. The woks were oiled, spread by the crushed stems of banana leaf stems. You can see the banana leaves being used to hold the cooked pancakes. The pancake mix was made in a reused tub of household plaster, which apparently with anti-fungal properties. I love the fact that you can see the ingenuity of the Khmer every dish they serve. The pancakes were served with pork mince and an assortment of leafy vegetables and herbs.
We also had chicken cooked two ways: one was spatchcocked and barbecued. The other was seared then cooked in coca cola. This seems to be a really popular way to prepare chicken in Cambodia. The chicken was very fresh. It was somewhat amusing watching three guys chase the chickens to catch then cook them. Westerners are a bit more detached now from the reality of where their food comes from. Although a lit bit disturbing at first, I think it makes the cooking and eating process feel a bit more natural. I certainly knew where my food had come from.
It was was such a nice day, just hanging out with my Khmer friends and eating delicious food.
We even had our own musician. Over holidays, Khmer people can drink quite a bit. A man who had his fair share (I thought it was a neighbour, but maybe even an uncle of the TA whose house it was), came over strumming a horrendously out-of-tune guitar. My friend Setna was brilliant at keeping him entertained, until the man grabbed Setna’s head and kissed him on the forehead.
I went to leave and say goodbye to everyone. At which, the speedy, albeit inebriated man, grabbed hold of my hand and wiped the back of it across his face (I’m not sure why). Then he grabbed by head. I tried to resist, but drunk Khmer men are pretty strong, if not just tenacious, and he managed to kiss my forehead too, much to the delight of my friends.
The Sunday was pretty uneventful, although I did take a picture of a sunset down my road.
Monday, I went with Vitou and his family in his white rickshaw. First we headed south to Kandal province (same province as the Saturday time but in the opposite direction). We stayed at his aunt’s house, so I met his grandmother and quite a few of his cousins. I even met two waiters (one I think was the head waiter) of the very exclusive Raffles Hotel. I was even drunkenly offered a 50% discount.
When we got there, I was offered snails (they were a bit rubbery) and then we had the main brunch. We had prawns and other dishes.
Whilst we were there, there were various guests coming and going. There were a lot of cans of Cambodia larger drunk. I worked out that around 264 cans were consumed. I sat among some of the older men. The uncle (you call all older men uncle) to my left was trying to get me to down each glass of beer. I had to resort to the empty can technique (pretending to open a new can, whilst disguising the fact that you’re just holding an empty can).
The man to my right became strangely obsessed with my nose. As the bridge of it is somewhat more pronounced than a typical Asian’s nose, they seem to think mine is particularly attractive. I, however, am pretty certain it is not my best feature. This uncle kept pointing at his nose and saying “jramoh klei” (short nose), then pointing towards mine saying, “jramoh veng”. A few more Cambodia larger cans in, and he leant forward, slowly raised his hand, extended his index finger and poked my nose. “Jramoh veng.” Then, just as slowly, he grabbed my index finger, drew it up to his face and then rested my finger tip against the tip of his nose.
There were some attempts at karaoke, but the internet signal meant that songs couldn’t be played for too long.
We then had dinner (more prawns). Then everyone got ready for bed. In Cambodia, especially during holidays, everyone sleeps together in the same room and share mattresses or straw mats on the floor. However, as the barang (this literally means “a French person”, but is extended to anyone not Khmer), I’m usually given a place of honour, and a real mattress. It’s quite embarrassing, but I think it would mortify the host if I refuse. (I accidentally started helping tidying up and everyone looked slightly horrified, as if I was suggesting that they weren’t doing a good job. I just smiled as said the food was lovely.) This occasion was not to be an exception.
I got my own mattress. Vitou said something about his boys and sharing, so I thought Vitou, I and his two seven year old twins would share the bed. I was a little uneasy, but it is the Khmer style (there were people, kids and adults alike, sprawled over various mattresses next door). One twin appeared. The other didn’t but one of them is a bit more shy, so that’s fine. I assumed Vitou would come along shortly. He didn’t. So I was sharing a bed in a room on my own with a seven year old.
This was a child protection obsessed Brit’s safeguarding nightmare.
(However, the door was open and there were people coming and going and getting clothes, etc. throughout the night. There seemed to be a constant stream of people moving even at ridiculous hours of the morning. I also made sure that he was one one side of the double mattress, and I was on the other.)
There was one moment when I thought I kicked the boy in my sleep when stretching out my leg. However, I thought about it and he was about a foot away. I moved my leg again, and then suddenly whatever was on the bed swiped at me. It was a cat. I picked it up and moved it away from the bed.
The early morning did get a bit chilly, so I did put a blanket over Vitou’s son and, in English, he sleepily said, “Thank you”. Vitou’s boys are really sweet.
Dawn just about broke at 4:30 am and everyone was up.
We had breakfast prawns. My dad loves prawns, but I am pretty sure that I ate more prawns in those three days than my dad ever has.
I watched the women prepare the daily offerings for the house shrine (cups of tea) and then we headed to our next province, Kampong Speu, to Vitou’s dad’s and step-mother’s house. Kampong Speu is to the north-east of Phnom Penh. This mean our journey took us back to Phnom Penh, then back into Kandal province (but to the east), then into Kampong Speu.
In Vitou’s little three-seater rickshaw (4, counting Vitou), we had me, Vitou, his wife, his two boys, his month-old daughter, another girl and another very cute but fidgety boy, as well as my bag, Vitou’s family’s possessions, and between four to six boxes of beer cans. It was pretty cramped and I was getting pretty sweaty.
When we arrived into Phnom Penh, we off-loaded the two extra children onto the backs of motorbikes. Then about another hour-and-a-half later, as we were going through Kandal province (again), we met up with another family member who was driving by car. Everyone else decided to go in the car. I thought, however, that car was probably now pretty crowded, so I opted to stay in the rickshaw.
We eventually made it to the house in Kampong Speu. I’ve been there before for Vitou’s sister’s wedding. It was nice to be there again. The house is lovely, and they have a garden area, with a pond that overlooks fields.
It’s truly peaceful. Until, people try to sing karaoke of course! Khmer people love karaoke. They love it to be really loud, to the point that you think you’ve gone deaf in the moment of silence as the track changes.
We also had food plenty of food (coca cola chicken and curry with baguettes) and more drink.
Then, in the afternoon, we went back home. Vitou probably would have stayed longer, but he said I looked exhausted. It was nice to sleep in my own bed again.
The following day, Vitou picked me up again, and we had more food at his in-law’s house. (They live two doors down from Vitou.) This time there was crab, all the way from Kampot.
Then, of course, came the karaoke. They managed to coerce me into singing. My first choice was ‘My Way’, but Frank Sinatra. I don’t agree with the song on a philosophical level, and feel it encourages hedonism and selfishness, but it’s relatively repetitive so easy to sing.
It was horrible to think that my voice could be heard for probably a kilometre radius in every direction.
Thankfully, you couldn’t hear it where you are.
Although this holiday often seems spooky and strange to Westerners, for me it was fun and filled with friendship and somewhat strange moments. It was only a few days, and very little planning or effort went into it on my part. But it was definitely one of the most memorable few days of my life and my time in Cambodia.