This wasn’t the first time the Olympic Stadium has got me contemplating my own mortality. I mean, I’ve already indicated I want a Khmer version of ‘achy breaky heart’ at my funeral, but I don’t see that as mutually exclusive with a fanfare farewell like the one seen today. If I can’t have a viking funeral, then this would be absolutely fine and dandy too!
We were all late getting off to the stadium today. I don’t know why exactly. I did have to fight my way out of my apartment to some extent on account of the failure of lights in the corridor, but I am tenacious, I made it out eventually… only to find my co-conspirators absent. They were considerably late too. Late enough that I was on the brink of either abandoning our outing or going on alone. I hadn’t decided on which.
We walked down, and light was breaking en route, which shows how late we were, normally the whole walk is in darkness. We joined our usual troupe. The session was a little more subdued than usual. Some high points though. We espied some fan dancers on a forecourt as we approached, we’ve not seen them there before and they were doing some amazingly choreographed moves. Imagine if we’d happened on that group on day one at the stadium? What havoc might we have unleashed there? Also notable, was the sight of young men training by doing wheel-barrows up and down the steep concrete steps of the Olympic Stadiums. In case there is any ambiguity here, I mean, one person would grab the ankles of the other, who would then walk forward on his hands, up the steep and many concrete steps of the stadium (scary enough) and then turn around and come back down (way scarier). I can think of absolutely no-one I would trust with the holding of my ankles when literally faced with the very real risk of sliding down a hundred concrete steps chin first at the slightest loss of control. It was exciting to watch though!
After our class, we hovered for a bit, then decided to try our luck at an alternative soya gloop stand. Well, I don’t know if it’s just that we were intoxicated by the sense of occasion last time, or misled by the relief that what we offered was actually palatable, but it was not the same at all. We managed the interaction OK, being served up thick hot gloop in little bottles, each of which came with a straw, but my it was rank. Maybe the previous lot had ladles of sugar already added, this was really unpleasant. I quite liked the soup like texture and the warmth of it in my throat, but only managed a small amount. It seemed like a waste, but it was only 1500 reil, so let’s keep it in proportion. All that waste and packaging though, no wonder the sea is being so rapidly replaced with plastic micro-particles. It’s terrifying really.
We opted to go back via the more interesting and varied route with little stalls and adrenalin-inducing road crossings. As we were walking, we suddenly heard noisy drum beating ahead. A few moments later, the head of a great funeral procession appeared. It was quite something to behold. Honestly, it’s a bit of a blur, but the sense was of a lead truck with a band on board. A vast golden dragon flanked trailer followed, with monks in attendance. There were purple clad marchers, and many all in white, with pointed hoods reminiscent of the KKK. One of the vehicles had a large photo at the front of it, presumably of the diseased. It was a noisy and fast-moving procession, with some hundreds participating I would say. It blocked off the whole road, but passed by at speed. My companion took a few snaps and other by-standers did also. Just to get a feel for it, nothing too intrusive. It was extraordinary. What a way to mark someone’s passing. The more time I spend here, the more I am getting to understand, or maybe more accurately begin to understand some of the rituals here. For example, there are multiple funeral ceremonies after one day, ten days (I think) 90 days – I honestly don’t know. But the reason put to me as to why these are so public and loud, is to ensure everyone knows. It was explained to me that otherwise ‘what if you were away when they died, you wouldn’t hear, you wouldn’t be able to give condolences or support‘. It does have a logic really. To state and restate a death over time means the whole community knows, and remembers. That is helpful potentially. Maybe that public acknowledgement and display is meaningful. It has got lost along the way in our culture I think. Anyway, if I could have a funeral like this, that would be fab. Noisy percussion band, colour coordinated mourners and a few road closures would certainly be the literal and proverbial way to go!
We stood to watch them pass, then walked onwards. The route was scattered with golden squares of paper, I don’t know what they were for. This is a chinese funeral though I’m sure. A few hundred yards behind we came across the now abandoned funeral tent. Already it was being disassembled. Someone was plucking down the elaborately constructed jasmine blossom pillars outside it by grabbing away at it with their hands. It will be gone in an instant. So it ends.
We paused at ‘our’ favourite post-stadium Trav coffee house. They have new tables. The staff welcomed us and seemed to recognise us now. We are quite distinctive I suppose. As always, they gestured it was OK to keep our shoes on, though it didn’t feel like it should be. We had our iced drinks (ordered with varying degrees of success) but the high point was the lovingly produced little pot of jasmine tea. It is a delight this tea ritual, and I think this is the only place in Phnom Penh that I go to which does it this way. It is really lovely. A fine end to a morning of micro-adventures. We have but one more olympic stadium outing still to come. This has been my favourite thing in Phnom Penh. So many of my insights, explorations and discoveries have unfolded pre-dawn in this extraordinary city. I have barely scratched the surface I know.
Yes it is true, all problems can be solved by the consumption of hot tea.