“Sous-Dey Joul Chnam T’my!” says the auntie who lives in the bottom of our building. We’ve just returned from a 7 day trip to Malaysia, and it’s April 14. We’ve been struggling to remember that today is Good Friday, and it felt weird to be travelling during this important day in our Christian calendar. Now we’re back at our home in Cambodia, but it’s not Good Friday here – it’s New Year’s Day, the first of 3 days to celebrate Joul Chnam T’my.
We’re still so new to life here in Cambodia, that we can’t adequately explain the history or meaning of a holiday like this very well. If you’d like less anecdotal information, allow us to direct you to wikipedia – Cambodian New Year.
What we heard from others who have lived here longer is that Khmer New Year is the biggest holiday of the Cambodian calendar. Although it is officially 3 days, most people are given 5 to 7 days off of work, depending on how the holiday falls around a weekend. The vast majority of people will return to their hometown, and everyone enjoys a huge family reunion. We live in Phnom Penh, the capital city, but we’re learning that not many people who live here were born and raised here. One of the first questions we ask when we are practicing our Khmer with a stranger is, “What province are you from?” Out of maybe 30 cases, I can only think of 2 or 3 people who were from Phnom Penh. Wow! So we were told that Phnom Penh ‘shuts down’ during the New Year holidays.
Our language school gave students and teachers April 9 – 17 off, and we thought since the city would be vacant, why not look into going to another country in South East Asia? We ended up choosing Malaysia because of ridiculously cheap flights (for photos, see Facebook). The timing of our trip had us arriving back in Phnom Penh on the 14th of April, which allowed us to experience a few days of the quiet streets. If you remember the video we took of us cycling through Phnom Penh, then the following video will show quite the contrast:
Fortunately for us, we didn’t miss out on all of the celebration and games that come with the New Year holiday. Our church, which is about 70% Khmer, was not going to have any services over the April 14 – 16 weekend since most of them would be leaving town. So they held a special pre-New Year celebration service with a focus on outreach on April 2. There was worship (Colin got to play his cajon), a message, lots of food, and games. One thing we’re learning is that Khmer New Year means game on! Here’s a video from that service with Colin participating in a game:
Today is Monday the 17th, and the streets are filling up again with people returning from their hometowns. We went to our favourite vegetable shop, and they were open, but low on stock. Some of the shops on our street have slid away the heavy metal gates that protected them in their owner’s absence. Tomorrow is back to language school for us, and back to the daily grind for most Cambodians. I wonder if the weeks ahead they will feel the same way we would feel the first few weeks of January: post-holiday syndrome. Before the New Year most of the people we talked to were visibly excited as they told us how much they looked forward to time with family and friends, food and fun, and those games!