Phnom Penh Festivities – New Year’s Eve on the Riverbank!

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I didn’t know that was even a thing.  After-sex pizza?  What a shallow life I have lived.  Or maybe it is unique to Cambodia?  I didn’t order the pizza.  I went for the potato soup, which didn’t stipulate any particular preconditions for ordering.  Nor did it mention that it was actually basically chicken soup, vegetarian chicken soup though, so presumably that’s OK.  I did have a couple of very alcoholic cocktails though, which as we started around 6.00 p.m. meant that by 8.00 p.m. I’d have very happily gone home to bed, but that wasn’t really allowed, it being New Year’s Eve and everything….

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As always, I’m jumping ahead, and that will never do.  I expect you are on the edge of your seat wondering how I spent my Cambodian New Year celebrations in Phnom Penh, Well, I can report that we get a long weekend as Monday is a public holiday here.  Consequently, many of the volunteer teachers opted to head off to Sihanoukville beaches, but I didn’t fancy that. It was an awful lot of time sitting squashed in a bus for a rather (in my limited view) seedy and touristy beach experience.  I favoured a staycation. Remaining in Phnom Penh and trying to get to know the city a bit more.  This decision-making was helped by the fact that one of my fellow volunteers knows someone who has a guesthouse just off the riverfront in what might be called ‘tourist central’ in Phnom Penh.  Not only did this get us mate’s rates, but the best rooms available at Sary’s Guest House.  I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as ‘guest house’ can encompass a multitude of accommodation compromises, but in fact I’d have called it more a boutique hotel.

We shared a tuk tuk and got there round about 1.00 p.m..  I was given the ‘freedom’ room (no, I don’t know why), which was at the front of the hotel. You clamber up some steep stone steps and then down a dark corridor to the room which was pretty spacious and tastefully decorated with matching soft furnishings. Could have done with a lick of paint, but it was clean, and had a big telly, air con, en suite black and white tiled bathroom with a western style toilet, and best of all.  An enormous and gorgeous balcony.  In truth, I was so tired, I’d have happily just sat myself down on the chair on the balcony and gazed out on the street for the rest of the day, it was a great place to hang out.   The staff was super friendly, though Sary himself was ill so not around.  We ended up paying $25 a night for this accommodation, it is but a step away from the waterfront, with other luxury hotels charging probably several hundred pounds a night within a few paces.  It’s weird how luxury and budget accommodation pop up cheek by jowl to one another here.  The place was within easy walking distance of the national museum and royal palace in one direction and the night market and quay side in the other.  Just diagonally opposite (more or less) was a movie house where for $3.50 you can watch films all day including The Killing Fields and other random offerings, none of which looked especially cheery, but all of which would be worth watching. If I was staying in this part of PP for a week, I think that would be a great way to spend an afternoon in air-conditioned comfort.  The guesthouse was also near too many western style bars, clubs and attractions to count. This makes it convenient for doing touristy things, but expensive and well, very westernised frankly.

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So, once we’d checked in, I decided to head off to the Friends Creative Tapas restaurant.  It is a social enterprise initiative, and I went there with my Intrepid tour.  It was very nice, and I knew I’d get a really good veggie meal there and could sit and read my book in a nice calm ambience before the frenzy of new year.  My companion had a hot date so went off to do his own thing… which was unfortunately cancelled, so he came to join me anyway.

It was a really quick walk to get to the Friends restaurant and I was quite pleased to finally be at the waterfront and seeing a bit of a different side of Phnom Penh.  I opted to walk along the river, the traffic was bad and the calls of tuk tuk drivers unrelenting.  At the end of the road 130 where I was staying, I cut across a corner and realised I’d unwittingly walked through a bit of the street that had been appropriated as a little miniature shanty town. There were a couple of families who were living there.  Beds constructed, cardboard used to create a low wall around their cooking and eating area, and a mother was washing her infant in the gutter.  In this heat it’s easy to overlook the reality of homelessness here.  People work hard, but if they can’t find a way to make a living of some sort then there is no obvious safety net.  It wasn’t threatening to me walking through this group – it wouldn’t be like say homeless groups in London where people are often sadly addicts or alcoholics and it can feel menacing to pass through. These were families doing what they needed to do, living how they have to live at present to survive. They are presumably so used to people walking through their impromptu camp that they seemed well, not exactly oblivious to it, but resigned to it certainly.  A man smiled at me as I passed and I smiled back feeling like a over-privileged and selfish cow for not knowing how else to respond or do anything of any practical value.

I walked on to the Foreign Correspondents Club, past a coffin shop.  Yes really. And turned down a road towards the national museum before breaking off along road 13 to get to the Friends Restaurant.  On arrival, I found it fully booked, which I hadn’t anticipated, but they got me a chair so I could sit outside, and it was fine, I was happy to wait.  It wasn’t like I had anything planned.  Amazingly, whilst I was waiting, my Intrepid Tour guide from a few weeks ago appeared, he had a group in there at the same time. He greeted me warmly and we exchanged effusive hugs and greetings and mutual good wishes before realising we had exhausted our conversation strategies entirely. I was genuinely delighted to see him. I thanked him again for giving us a wonderful tour and all the tips he’d given me about life in Cambodia. But the reality is, he has a new group of travellers now, our connection was transient. He did say I could phone him any time though for help with anything, and I’m sure he meant it. He is such a nice guy. Cambodia seems full of generosity and smiles.  It may be a cliché, but it is true (apart from the meth loaded bag-snatchers, but let’s not dwell on them).  Here is the coffin shop front by the way.  I’m sorry if it is tasteless, but the bluntness of its description amused me. I am also massively taken by the ads on the back of tuk tuks everywhere advertising a particular night club which offers ‘eccentric women’.  How splendid. I’ve not yet managed to snap a shot of that yet, but there is still time, so fingers crossed eh (in a gesture that is massively inappropriate in general in Cambodia, but perhaps massively appropriate here.  The hole between your fingers when crossed is considered to replicate the female external reproductive organs, and hence the gesture is considered not just ‘a bit rude’ but extremely offensive.  You have been warned.)  Enough of offensive hand gestures though, more of coffin. It did/ did not help, that initially I misread the sign as offering ‘hot coffins’ for sale.  An unexpected innovation in the funeral market, but so much in Cambodia is unexpected, why not a hot coffin shop?

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Also some more world going by shots (outside of FCC, distant views of national museum, and the river front).  To be fair, there wasn’t all that much traffic about. I think people were saving themselves for later on…

Then here is the outside of the Friends restaurant, and the view opposite, and also a picture of my starter which was fab. I’d have happily photographed everything I ate as each dish was a miniature work of art (zucchini and cheese fritters are particularly recommended by the way) but my companion joined me and I felt a bit OTT with my camera shots, so fought back the urge to document each mouthful. What a loss to the world that is. This is what 2017 needs, more photos of people’s food on the internet, and less acts of wanton violence.  I was able to photograph some tropical fruit stalls though.  I am much more interested in tropical fruit now my students have educated me about its relative merits.

So we ate our delicious meal. It was not cheap, but oh my, it was very good indeed.  Stuffed, we wondered back to the guest house. I was rather hoping for a bit of a pre NYE nap, but by the time we’d enjoyed a cup of coffee on my fine balcony, there was not all that much napping time available.

We had in mind a destination for New Year’s Eve. I think it was called the Mekong River Restaurant, just a couple of hundred yards away from our guesthouse. It wasn’t a particularly nice venue, but it offered views across the river from up on high, and was a good place to congregate.  We got there around 6.00 ish and were joined by two other volunteers who were also staying in PP and another long-term teacher who started at CWF about 6 years ago I think.  We sat looking out at the scenes unfolding on the street below. Truth to tell, we were all exhausted. We were contemplative rather than lively, but it was nice, relaxed and companionable, plus I just love watching the world go by.  I’d be happy up there for days as long as someone brought me life’s necessities from time to time.  Water, food, iced coffee, news from the outside world and to be honest, a bucket to pee in or similar, that would be me sorted.  The evening started to build momentum as it got dark.  We sat counting what was the most number of people on a push bike or in a tuk tuk.   Watching the people shooting off firecrackers into the sky and the occasional chinese lantern or balloon floating away. Crowds of people gathered some with picnics, some selling wares various from balloons and candyfloss to deep-fried bananas and everything in-between and beyond.  It was a good atmosphere.  Nobody drunk at all that I could see.  That was the big shift from NYE in the UK, if people were drinking, it was probably ex-pats, here at the river it seemed more of a family affair. Sometimes a truck would pull up and in the back would be a self-contained party.  Everything that was needed to celebrate the new year was in the back of the vehicle, no need even to disembark.  Tuk tuks carrying everything imaginable trundled past, one tuk tuk even had a motorbike in it which was a first. I have seen a motorbike on the back of a motorbike before but not in a tuk tuk.  The street inevitably became gridlocked, so no worried, motorbikes just took over the promenade and riverfront area, presumably as they weren’t on the road anymore, the rules of the road (poorly observed as they are) were deemed no longer relevant, so bikes accelerated through teh seated and ambling pedestrians at high-speed, without bothering with such inconvenient trifles as headlights say. It is terrifying to behold.

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The couple who joined us had had an eventful tuk tuk ride from Russian Market to join us.  It sounded bad.  Often when I’m scared it’s not actually a dangerous manourver at all, it’s just that I can’t read the situation. So tuk tuks weave through spaces I think they cannot possibly negotiate yet they can.  Our tuk tuk earlier didn’t hesitate to go the wrong way up a one-way street, but it was honestly fine. My fellow travellers experience was rather different. There driver was on his phone throughout and had near misses that were so bad other drivers were remonstrating with  him. This NEVER happens, it must have been pretty bad. It was unclear if he was drunk, or distracted or what.  AFter a while he just stopped the tuk tuk and got out to go and have a pee on the street.  At this point one of the couple suspected they were being set up for some scam, but in fact not.  Eventually, he returned, shooed them out of his tuk tuk after finding another one for them, and they transferred into this to take them to riverside.  He didn’t know where to take them too, and just sort of gave up or something.  I wonder if he was having some sort of breakdown poor guy. Anyway, they made it in one piece and with a traveller’s tale to boot. We’d also been accosted earlier by an oddly behaving backpacker.  I just kept walking, as my sixth sense says don’t get involved in this situation it feels unsafe.  My companion made me feel like a horrible human being by stopping to see if he could help because, and I quote ‘the poor guy might have had some ice or something‘ well quite. I feel for him, and I’d behave differently in the UK, but here I’m not putting myself at risk.  In fact, he just seemed totally disoriented, he wanted to know what day of the week it was, and was talking nonsense.  Very bizarre. The thing is though, as my companion acknowledged, even if he did need help, medical help, we don’t know what to do. It is a very infantalising experience being in Cambodia at times.  As has previously been reference, here I don’t even know how to cross the road, I have no idea what to do in an actual emergency.

Anyway, we had our cocktails, did our people watching and willed the hours to pass to midnight so we could have done our bit, desert our posts with dignity and catch up on sleep!  People came and went, but the bar never got that crowded.   Service was very poor, and slow, but this was actually noticeably to our advantage as there was no pressure to buy lots of drink or food we didn’t really want.  At one point a couple sitting next to me got into difficulty when they came to pay as they unwittingly tried to use a fake $10 bill, they were new arrivals and couldn’t seem to grasp that it was just a poor fake, they thought maybe it was just an old note or something.  I offered to help out as I thought they might not have had the money, but that wasn’t the issue, they were just perplexed as to how they’d managed to get a dud note within hours of getting to Cambodia, and didn’t look entirely convinced that it was one.  Oh well.   Photos were taken to kill time and satisfy our facebook friends that we are party animals living the high life in Phnom Penh.

Sunset cruise boats tracked back and forth along the river.  It was definitely a good vantage point for later fireworks, but the actual cruising bit is pretty dull.  The route is just a few hundred metres back and forth.  Oh well. As midnight approached, we noticed all but one of the boats and congregated further down the river where there was a slight bend which partially obscured our view.  Eventually, we started our own countdown, there was no publicly organised one.  And if not actually ‘right on cue’ then near enough on cue, some fireworks started.  I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, but it really wasn’t Sydney Harbour Bridge with purple rain!  There were some impressive single fireworks, shooting up, and we could glimpse them by leaning precariously out over our balcony. It was fun though, we did some selfies, which is obviously the main thing, so some could be loaded up onto Facebook to demonstrate to all our social media friends what fun and happening people we are and how we were still celebrating at one minute past midnight.  Go us.

The fireworks lasted about five minutes or so (someone proudly told me the next day it was actually seven minutes, maybe that’s true) and then people started to disperse.  We paid our bills, and the others got a tuk tuk home (good luck with that, the roads were solid and we were warned about not getting into a tuk tuk in case the drivers were drunk) I was very happy we were just a two-minute walk from our guest house. It was fun walking back, it felt really safe. There were groups partying outside their houses, one such group opposite our accommodation gestured for us to join them.  I was really tempted, they were doing that gentle Khmer dancing that I am now expert at because Ive done it twice (ahem).  However, the guy at our hotel was waiting up for us, smiling and clearly wanting to shut up the front gate and lock up. We went in.  I went back out onto my balcony and watched the parties from up there.  Floating across the air I could hear noisy renditions of Happy Birthday across speakers from some hotel or other.  I think Happy Birthday is used interchangeably with new year.  I got a message saying ‘Happy Birthday’ from my mobile phone provider, so that, and the broadcast versions of happy birthday across the city lead me to this conclusions. Why not? It is a new dawn and a new start in a way.

I was very glad to have had a staycation and change of scene this weekend. It was by no means a riotous new year, but it was a fine one.  I felt comfortable with and blessed by my companions.  It feels unreal to be here in CAmbodia.  This time last year was not a good time or place, I had no idea that  a year on I’d find myself here.  I wonder where and if I’ll be a year from now. Best not to think too far ahead sometimes,  just be mindful of the present.

So happy birthday everyone, may you have good one!

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