On April 3rd, I set off for Vietnam on vacation. Schools in Cambodia close for Khmer New Year for the entire month of April (although officially the New Year is only three days long) and so I decided to take this as an opportunity to venture out of Cambodia. Vietnam was an obvious choice because it is so close to where I am currently living (which is about 8 km from the Vietnam border) and I am often in contact with Vietnamese people. Two friends and I took the bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (better known as Saigon) where we spent a night before catching an "open bus tour" north. We stopped in Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, and Halong Bay. It was a whirlwind two weeks. My favorite spots were Hoi An and Halong Bay. Hoi An because of the large number of wooden houses from the 16th and 17th centuries as well as all the fun dress shops (where you could get outfits made for less than $20!); and Halong Bay because it was breathtakingly beautiful. On the 14th I returned home to celebrate the three most important days of the Khmer New Year.
New Year in Cambodia (Chaul Chnam Thmey in the Khmer language) is all about spending time with family. It depends on their lunar calendar but this year we celebrated on April 14th,15th, and 16th. People who have moved away from their homeland will come back for at least these three days. Romeas Hek (my site) is moderately sized (in rural Cambodia terms) – and has a population of somewhere between 5 and 10 thousand people. Due to lack of jobs and overall lack of amenities, most people choose to move away; mostly to larger towns where they can get a job in one of the many gament factories. The population at least tripled for Khmer New Year. An interesting fact about Cambodians and New Year is that, for the most part, everyone just turns a year older at the new year. They do not (usually) celebrate their birthdays. I'm definitely not the sharpest tack in the box because it was maybe around the 5th or 6th person telling me their birthday was April 15th when it dawned on me that everyone celebrates on the same day.
Every morning, for each of the three days of the new year, families go to a Pagoda and give food and money to the Buddhist monks after prayer. Sometime after lunch, people will then go to one or more of the private and public parties happening all over town. Nearly all day, every day, I ate, drank, and danced with people in my village. The best party I went to was at the nearby Wat (temple/pagoda). Here there were at least 100 people – many of them dancing, many more just watching, while gaggles of children threw powder and water on EVERYONE. I hope to upload some pictures on Picasa (a web server for pictures) soon. If you are on Facebook the pictures are uploaded already and are included in the album "Welcome to the Wat Party".
Although Cambodia doesn’t have the most official public holidays in the world (though close to it with about 25), I cannot doubt that it has the most UNOFFICIAL holidays. As I mentioned earlier we had the entire month of April off of school. This month, I am told the school may be closed more days than it will be open. This is due to King Norodom Sihamoni’s birthday on May 14, (3 days), the Royal Plowing Ceremony on May 12 (1 day), and Labor Day on May 1st and the fact that one day off usually leads to two days off or more.