Christmas this year began with three of us riding a motorbike from the centre of Sisophon to the home of Mono, his mother, grandmother, sisters and cousins. It wasn’t far and three riders is a standard load here where as many as 5 or 6 on one bike, passengers with iv infusion running, live pigs heading for market or 50 live ducks hanging upside down is not unusual. It was wonderful to see the family again after a year and a delight to see the thoughtful planning which went into the welcome meal (rice and various traditional savoury dishes) and the evening party.
Our communication skills were as limited as ever but our communal meal, exchange of gifts and greetings, and day together demonstrated mutual respect and affection and strengthened our relationship as friends and extended family. After lunch came the customary afternoon siesta when the hammocks were strung between the supporting pillars of the house and we rested and dozed until the heat of the day was passing. At this point we western visitors strained the limits of cross-cultural understanding by insisting on taking a walk with no direct meaning or purpose for our Khmai hosts. We set off in the late afternoon along the street towards the centre of town accompanied by 19-year-old Chi Chi padding along like a Russian tour guide in the days of the Iron Curtain, trying to steer her wayward charges in a favourable and permissible direction despite their obvious intention to trespass. We turned off the main street to find ourselves on a dusty road frequented by heavy lorries carrying loads from the nearby quarries – they are trying to remove a local mountain to create a new road from here to the border at Poipet. We needed face masks or the local scarf – the krama – to protect our lungs but had to make do with turning our heads away and holding breath as long as we could. Chi Chi was constantly on the mobile phone reporting our errant progress and it was not long before Chan Leap arrived on her moto to check where we were heading. She came in the nick of time as Hilary’s sandal strap had broken, Chi Chi had already exchanged footwear, and progress was decidedly slowing. Our destination, the pagoda where my language helper of 2011 lived, was now close by and a further exchange of views and shoes allowed us to reach the entrance. It was by now clear that we meant to go no further, had never intended to escape or pass covert messages to enemy agents, and would likely return to the intended Christmas party which had taken so much time and care to plan.
Construction and decoration of the pagoda was in full swing and had been for as long as I had known it – for the last 2 years – and the Easter deadline for completion and dedication seems unlikely. The striking red and gold pattern on the outer walls and roof tops glowed in the late afternoon sunshine and complimented the healthy leaves of the bodhi trees planted on the northern side of the temple complex where beautiful pale green tiles had been laid since my last visit a year ago. Several of the funerary niches on the outer wall have already been filled and inscribed, each commemorating a departed soul and a hopeful donation – contributing to the cost of building the place of worship and intended to gain some merit for the deceased. Unfortunately my friend Houen has changed his mobile phone and we could not establish whether or not he was still in residence, hopefully in the land of the living. Despite our success in locating and reaching this place we had to admit defeat and retreat to the scene of industrious party preparation, chez Mono.
As dusk gave way to nightfall, silence gave in to Gangnam Style celebration and Christmas proper came to a small part of Sisophon with Santa hats, carols, festive food, cake and candle (singular) and not least – artificial snow spewed noisily from a couple of aerosol cans flown in from Greenland. We visitors sang ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ to bemused applause, told the story of the infant Jesus and the visiting Wise Men with their gifts and blew on the Christmas cards we had provided in the hope of turning the contents to gold, at the request of our expectant hosts.
The customary 8pm Khmer curfew curtailed our noisy disco and brought our revels to a welcome close. We happily bade our friends farewell and rode pillion on separate motos the few hundred yards back to Botoum Hotel where our AC cooled climate and comfy mattresses soon saw us dreaming soundly, as dreaming well is the best form of Cambodian repose in single beds.
It has been both Merry and Happy this unusual and surprising Christmas Day in Cambodia!