Thursday, April 18, 2013

Celebrating Khmer New Year

We were fortunate to be visiting Cambodia during Khmer New Year.  This year, the festival ran from Sunday, April 14 to Tuesday April 16.  And we were at Party Central.

One of several such billboards around town

The government decided that it should put greater emphasis this year on Khmer New Year, especially in Siem Reap.  Huge celebrations certainly didn't fit in with the anti-fun doctrine of the earlier Khmer Rouge routine.  Since great interest in the temples was only rekindled 20 years ago, Siem Reap hasn't generally been front and center in the frivolity.

This year is different.  Siem Reap is the focus of the national celebration in 2013.  Both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom hosted numerous events.  Famous Cambodian TV and movie actors, singers and comedians came up from Phnom Penh for the three days of the festival.

Singers on stage in grassy area near Angkor Wat
Official ceremony at The Bayon in early AM on Khmer New Year

There were probably 1000+ people seated in the crowd

Monks mingle with beauties, the military and government officials

There was a pretty big traffic jam on Monday on the way from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat, but it didn't matter because there were excellent people watching opportunities from the tuk tuk along the way.  Many pickup trucks were packed with 15 - 25 people on their way from other provinces, often 100 - 400 miles away.

Heading around the bend to the final stretch of road

Maybe an extended family from a rural province?

Cambodia is very traditional, so most of the festivities have a pretty laid back, family friendly atmosphere.  Partially because the weather is so hot, the vibe is a lot more like the 4th of July than New Year's Eve in the U.S.

Picnic on the other side of the moat from Angkor Wat

In a grassy park area near Angkor Wat on Monday, 8 men demonstrated the Cambodian version of hacky sack.  They were very skilled.  They stood in a circle, and struck a large, weighted shuttlecock with either the bottom of their feet or their elbows.  They had some fancy moves, and rarely missed when passing it to each other.

The white shuttlecock in motion, just below banner at top left

Near one of the temples on Sunday, some girls were playing a popular Khmer game that is similar to both horseshoes and shuffleboard.  Two sets of 5 flat round nuts from a tree, which look like dark brown stones, are placed in a cross formation on each side of a 15-foot stretch of ground.  Each team pitches additional nuts and tries to knock down the nuts on the other end, but you have to wait until the end to strike the the middle nut (the "king".)

A girl finishes laying out the nuts before the game

After visiting the temple of Banteay Srei on Sunday, we requested an impromptu stop at a monastery to take a few photos.  As we approached, we noticed that the monks and local villagers were engaged in a lively game called "Hit The Pot."  A person is blindfolded and given a stick that is just long enough to hit a clay pot strung from a wire above.

After being blindfolded, the person is spun around several times.  Then the audience yells out directions so that the stick holder can put him/herself in position to smash the pot.  You only get one try, and then they move on the next contestant.  The first person swung the stick in the right direction, but was just short of the pot.  The second person used a longer stick, and was more successful, bringing great joy to the villagers.

Sizing up the pot situation

A monk advises on stick length and other important issues

This contestant was wise enough to listen to his elders

The audience yells out advice to the disoriented man

Victory!  The pot explodes in a cloud of dust.....

Many houses, including our orphanage KSEDO, place star-shaped ornaments above their doorways for the Khmer New Year.

Sokly, Savet, housemate Megane and Samet in front of KSEDO

Sarah wasn't feeling well on Monday afternoon, which was a holiday for us since many of the kids were not at the orphanage anyway.  So John enlisted Rey, a member of the Projects Abroad staff, to join him at the day's festivities at Angkor Wat.  After Cambodian hacky sack, we moved over to a large stage nearby to watch some of the singers from Phnom Penh.

More performers singing traditional Cambodian music

There was a camera mounted on a 20-foot boom, which was constantly scanning the crowd to get in the middle of the action.  It was frequently lowered to within an inch or two of the tops of the heads of the crowd, even infants.  That would never be allowed in the U.S., since we are such a litigious society.  But it was fun here.

This camera boom never stopped moving and fed a live TV broadcast

There weren't very many Westerners there, so if you looked European or American you were in high demand.  We met a very amusing couple, one of whom looked and acted like the Cambodian version of the singer Prince.  He was hilarious.  His female friend was quite inebriated, and insisted that John dance with her.  For many songs, the entire crowd danced while moving forward in a large circle around the grass.

A Cambodian Prince, royalty from Minneapolis

John got on live Cambodian national TV, after inventing a creative hybrid of bad American dancing and bad Cambodian dancing.  The crowd cleared a circle around John and his dance partner.  We know that we were on TV because one of Rey's friends called him on his cell phone a few minutes later, telling him that he saw Rey on TV with some crazy-dancing "European guy" (me).  The previous day, Sarah and I noticed that Westerners were featured while we were watching some live Khmer New Year footage on a restaurant TV.

The dance partners celebrate the fact that they are still standing
Some other new Cambodian friends

John and Rey walked a mile down the road to Angkor Thom, where there were performers on two other stages near the elephant terrace of the king's palace.  Along the way, we ran into our everyday tuk tuk driver and several Westerners we had met the day before.

Stage production depicting a traditional Cambodian story

The King and Queen discuss some pressing royal matters

4 famous comedians perform on the larger stage at Angkor Thom

I held their baby upon request, then took their photo

On the way home, we stopped to take a photo of The Bayon lit up with festive lights.

The Bayon at dusk is illuminated in Redskins colors

A very Happy New Year indeed!

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