Christmas in Cambodia by Nigel

from: Room 05 Guesthouse, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Julie needed to give me a couple of extra shakes to bring me blearily awake and into a unique Christmas Day in Cambodia. I was up rather too late last night waiting for Santa, I say, but really just sucked into the first 'real' TV we've encountered in three months. I was through a Gene Hackman Biography, the Packers embarrassing Cleveland on snowy Lambeau field and half way through Jimmy Stewart in 'Shenandoah' before the sandman finally found me.


Perhaps he was so late because he had trouble finding the beaches of Sihanoukville where we have come to celebrate the Yuletide. This name is from the popular current god-king Sihanouk who likes to vacation here when he is not being a statesman, a politician, a womanizer and a movie star. A dusty town at the end of the road that is a port, a couple of lovely beaches and some rickety low rise buildings has a name that sounds like it should be somewhere in a banana-republic. I have seen little to persuade me it's not.

We are up early because we'll venture into town and attempt to call our families. We are walking because the motorcycle we rode the 200+ km from Phnom Penh doesn't work on holidays. I suspect that unless a mechanic takes a look, it won't work tomorrow either. School is in session, as it would be on any Tuesday, or more specifically it is in recess and all the seven and eight year olds are outside making that clamor little people with big amounts of energy and prepubescent voices make when they get together in groups. A little scooter drifts lazily around a sandy roundabout big enough to taxi a jumbo jet and heads towards the port. Two Buddhist monks have stopped in front of a bicycle repair shack to beg for alms, the gentle breeze rustling their orange robes around their skinny brown legs. Shaven heads protected from the already warm sun by black umbrellas that seem, I don't know why, out of place. More out of place is the only cue to remind us it's Christmas Day. A limp Christmas tree in the concrete parking lot of one of the whitewashed hotels, it's tinsel flashing gaudily in the bright morning sun.

Three hours later we have contacted one of side of the family and reluctantly decided that to repeat the rigmarole for the other half wasn't practical. We have also coaxed the motorbike to work again and can now embark worry free upon the days main project - the beach. I'm thinking about something Mom said she and my sister had decided - that though they were sad at our absence they were thankful that Julie and I would one day return. They know that this Christmas season there are many who cannot say the same. Slowly I am grateful for what is around me instead of longing for what is not. I silently thank my mother for the Christmas gift she may not know she has given me.

We are both lolling beneath a palm frond umbrella before the calmest ocean either of us has ever seen. There are no waves to speak of, just a gentle lapping where the water meets the sand. Water filled with thousands of tiny harmless jellyfish that make it feel like thin tapioca in my hands. Young girls with baskets of Mangos and bananas balanced on their heads move from one group of desperately tanning tourists to another. Sixty-five cents will buy us an entire fresh Pineapple. The sand makes a unique squeaking sounds when we walk on it, which we don't do much because we are lazy, not because the sound affects Julie like fingernails on a chalkboard. Prince Norodrom emerges from one of the long line of Land Cruisers that has arrived at the helicopter pad next to the beach. His entourage makes repeated and exaggerated Sompiahs* as his chopper lifts up and heads north to Phnom Penh. A stray dog gives us a nervous sniff and the sun sinks towards the fishing boats on the horizon.


Chrismas grocery shopping

Hedonism halfway is fertile ground for guilt so in order to enjoy a beach vacation at all, one must enjoy it with full indulgence. This includes gorging yourself on fresh seafood, tanning yourself to a crisp and having reading material that requires only half your attention. For this I would normally allow myself a science fiction or easy thriller but since this is Cambodia I am cooking in the sun with a copy of 'The Killing Fields.' This book that deals with the bloody reign of terror visited upon the Cambodian people by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge may not be the most joyous holiday material but it does serve to hammer home the reality of my disconnected Christmas in Cambodia. This place may look like paradise but I know it is not. It may not look like Christmas here, but I know that it is.

~ Nigel
12.25.01

*Sompiah - "Cambodians traditionally greet each other with the Sompiah, which involves pressing the hands together in prayer and bowing. In general the higher the hands and lower the bow the more respect is shown." - Lonely Planet Cambodia

   

 

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