Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Happy new year
A few years back I was in Bangkok at the time of Songkran, the Thai new year festival. For days before and after the actual date of the new year there was water flying everywhere. On the actual new year night my friends took me into Khao San Road where there were huge crowds painting each others faces with 'powder' (which I think was actually white clay).
The Cambodian people celebrate Khmer new year at the same time as the Thais celebrate theirs. So here I am in Kompong Chhnang enjoying the celebration. In fact, if anyone happens to be wondering why my weekly blog did not appear on Saturday as usual, it is because I decided against taking my computer to Phnom Penh the first day after the new year. I didn't know how enthusiastic the Cambodians would be about drenching strangers and their belongings. So this blog is being posted on Tuesday instead. I have no classes until later in the week, so my plan is to stay in PP overnight and catch up on a few things.
On Wednesday La dropped in and invited me to come to Wat Xam for the washing of the Buddha. I had never been inside the actual Wat, so this was an opportunity to take a look at it from the inside. I was a little concerned about getting my camera wet but La convinced me that people would allow me to stay dry.
At the wat there was a crowd gathered around the well drawing water and carrying it into the temple. I took a few photos but kept my distance. La went over to the well and came back drenched. By this time the crowd had dispersed from the temple so I went inside and took a few photos. The floor inside was wet and care was needed when walking. Outside people were washing some of the stupas.
We walked around the grounds and found there were a few Buddha images set up for those who still had enthusiasm to wash them. But of course with all that water it was perhaps difficult to put it only on the Buddha images. Sometimes a little went over your friend—and somtimes a lot—and sometimes it also went over the monks in attendance. And of course if your friend spilt water on you it was necessary to retaliate. While this was fairly low key compared to what I have seen in Bangkok I could see how the tradition grew into what it is in Thailand today.
I asked La if there was any symbolism in the washing of the Buddha images. He said no but after a year it was time to clean all the dirt and dust off them. Obviously everyone wants to get into the act and considering the temperature is in the high thirties who cares if you get a little wet in the process.
A few bucket carrier's eyes lit up when they saw me and from time to time I was concerned for my camera but once they saw what I was carrying I was left alone. I got to take many photos and managed to stay dry as well.
There has been much partying since. Parties sometimes include 'traditional Khmer games'. Anyone reading this who has attended Games for the Fun of It at the Relaxation Centre in Brisbane would recognise some similarities. While the Khmer games may have less emphasis on noncompetitiveness, all were played in a noncompetitive spirit. I know it was sometimes difficult to get Australians to drop their competitiveness when playing. In any case, it seems to me that traditional games like traditional stories travel across borders.
At none of the parties was drenching with water practised and I have seen no more drenching since the first day at the wat. The powder tradition was popular at one or two public gatherings. The powder used here is talcum powder and it was used without water. It seems that like Australia people here behave in different ways. When applying powder some act bravely and some cowardly. In Khmer society touch between the sexes in public is usually considered unacceptable. This is one time when the barriers break down and young men and women are free to touch each other's faces. Some handle it well, they approach a target with a handful of powder and let it be known that they would like to spread some powder on that person's face. The recipient then has the opportunity to accept or say 'no'. Perhaps fear of rejection is too much for some (usually young males) to handle so they cope with the situation by coming up behind an unsuspecting target with the handful of powder. You might be dancing and suddenly you are assaulted by someone's hand rubbing powder into your facial orifices. By time you turn around and perhaps remove the powder from you eyes the gutless attacker has disappeared into the crowd. Some of the young women react very quickly and swing a few blows but most remain amazingly under control. I have to admire their ability to accept this gross assault on their person. I found retaining similar control quite challenging.
A monk remarked to me that powder was not part of the Khmer tradition. I asked where it came from. He said 'Thailand'. I pointed out to him that my experience during several hours in Khao San Road was that 'powder' was put on my face thousands of times and done gently by 99.9% of those participating. And that unfortunately my experience here in Kompong Chhnang was not so pleasant.
The other aspect of many new-year parties here in Kompong Chhnang is what I would call an excessive volume from huge speakers. At all hours of the day and night over the past week and a half my ears have been assaulted. I attended one party where a bank of speakers about three metres high was set up in an otherwise-empty rice field. I guess it had to be loud to drown the noise of the generator that was powering it. Last night I was invited to visit a rural village for their party. It was a bad decision. I had no way of leaving. When I was ready to sleep I was given a sleeping mat under a mosquito net in a house with no internal walls. It probably acted as an amplifier for the speaker below. This was one of the palm-leaf homes with gaping floorboards. Fumes from the diesel generator drifted in along with the noise. I guess the dancers gave up at about two am and then the karaoke stars took over. At four am I went and found a log to sit on in a rice field. Someone rigged up a hammock for me and I did get a little sleep before we returned at daybreak. Last Sunday morning I decided to abandon my room because of speeches being broadcast from a house two doors away. They started at 5.30 am. I estimate that I rode my bicycle about two kilometres before I was out of range of the broadcast.
To me, such volumes are excessive. Even if the choice of music was my own, rather than that which I am learning quickly to dislike, I believe that at 50% of the volume it would still be too loud.
I trust you have a quiet and peaceful new year.
Additional new year photos will be posted in due course: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnstory/