So friends, I am back to Cambodia and back to blogging! I know you all have missed me terribly, and it’s been a while since my last post so we have a lot to catch up on. My latest blogging hiatus was due to my return to the great land of AMERICA for a month of fun with family and friends. I had an amazing time and I miss you all very much. It was very nice to be home again, if only for short time.
When I returned to Cambo, I went to work on a grant for a malnutrition project I’ll be starting in January. It has been approved and I am good to go, but more about that later. Now, I want to talk holidays.
Cambodians love holidays, or at least they must considering the multitude that this country has at a whopping 16 public holidays, 4 of which are three days long, putting the total number of days off at 24. Compare this to the ten days a year an American might get off from work. Since my return, we have had three holidays and one on the way. First was Pchum Ben in mid-October. (The dates for the celebration vary according to the lunar calendar and usually fall from late September to early October). Pchum Ben is also known as “Ancestor’s Day” and is an important Buddhist holiday meant for honoring the spirits of the day. The celebration last for 15 days, but the last three are considered a public holiday. During this time, it is believed that the guardians of hell release the hungry ghosts (the ghosts of people who died with bad karma and dwell in hell instead of being reincarnated) to receive the offerings from their relatives and the prayers from the monks. Families who honor their dead ancestors are rewarded and blessed with happiness and success, those who do not are cursed and haunted. Throughout the 15-day celebration, family members go to the pagoda each morning with an offering. (This offering is also a meritorious act which is very important in the Buddhist religion). Usually, people go to the pagoda at 4 a.m. to make the offering, because it is believed that the ghosts are not clothed and thus fear the sunlight. I went to the pagoda one morning with my little sister Dalin. Here is the offering that she made for the occasion:
My host my was surprised by the fact that I wanted to go to the pagoda 4 a.m. with my sister because usually kids enjoy the experience more. This is due to the throwing of the rice and fruits that occurs after monk chants in the temple. Everyone walks around the temple about four times, throwing the rice at the altars for the ancestors.
For the last few days of Phcum Ben, I headed to the province of Mondolkiri, a hilly province in the northeast of the country that is very sparsely populated and contains groups of ethnic minorities. The drive up to Mondolkiri offered some diverse scenery unlike most of what I have seen throughout the vastly flat, rice-filled lands of Cambodia. I knew I was in a climatically different area when I saw pine trees. PINE TREES! Can you believe it? Pine trees in a country that I sweat in literally every day; it was amazing. It foreshadowed the cooler weather in which I could wear a sweatshirt at night and be comfortable. Mondolkiri is good for trekking, seeing elephants (yes, I did get to see elephants yet again in this country, always brightens my day), visiting waterfalls, and meeting crazy ex-patriots. Here are some pictures from the waterfalls:
On the last day of Pchum Ben, October 15, the former king, King Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing at 89. Sihanouk was a symbol of independence and unity for the Khmer people and I have heard him referred to as “the Hero-King” many, many times since his death. He pushed for the independence of Cambodia from France until it was granted on November 9, 1953. He was the effective leader of Cambodia from it’s independence until March 18, 1970 when he was ousted by General Lon Nol, before the Khmer Rouge took over the country. Currently, the acting king is Sihamoni, but you can find pictures of Sihanouk in the country, especially at the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh.
I was in Phnom Penh when his body was flown from Beijing to Cambodia. I sat in the Peace Corps office in the heart of the city until about four o’clock. At that time I left to return to my hotel but found nothing but roadblocks and hoards of people everywhere, all sporting black pants, white, collared shirts, and black ribbons. They were gathering along Norodom Road to watch the procession from the airport. There were so many people it was impossible at the time to get to the other side of the city. I took a pretty inadequate picture of the crowds along the road, but the picture I found online of the gathering is much more effective in showing you the multitude of people who had come to pay their respects.
So, with the kings death, what does that mean for holidays? Well, Sihanouk’s birthday was October 31, and though he was deceased, the holiday was still celebrated here (though in the future I have no idea what will happen) as was Independence Day on November 9. The next holiday is Water Festival, the three-day celebration to mark the reversed flow of the Tonle Sap River. Each year during Water Festival, boat races take place in the capital and in the provinces. This year I was slated to participate in the boat races in Phnom Penh, but unfortunately, Prime Minister Hun Sen cancelled the races for the second year in a row due to the king’s death in order to honor a three-month mourning period. So, no boat racing for me this year, but I am replacing the festivities with a trip to an island, so no worries =).
Long live the king,