Phnom Penh is emptying out as I write this, just before the start of the Cambodian New Year. The exodus has begun.
The holiday is a three-day celebration when the Khmer people head for party points, seaside resorts and, most important to them, the rural provinces and farms that mean “home” to them. Consider this sad post on Facebook from a student/waiter I know at the cafe where he works:
Why all of u give me alone? I’m really lonely….. All of u can go to ur homeland n happy but I can’t…. I really miss my homeland so much. I want to meet my family…. What should I do? How can I do?
Siam Reap, where tourists flock year-round to take in Angkor Wat, had 170,000 visitors at this time last year. This year, hoteliers expect 200,000, and that’s a lot in a nation of some 15 million. Many a glass will be raised.
Such an influx means the absence of vacant hotel rooms and rising prices, against which the government has impotently inveighed. There also have been warnings, which doubtless will prove to be equally futile, about careful driving. The traffic can be nightmarish, and deadly.
Another big destination is the seaside, principally Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep on the Gulf of Thailand. Although our family here has offered to ferry us virtually anywhere — including Mondulkiri, a hilly province with jungles that I theoretically am keen to see — I find daunting the idea of sitting in a car for at least six or seven hours at a time and creeping behind heavy traffic. However, I may be having second thoughts today.
Phnom Penh began showing the effects of the coming holiday, which technically runs April 13-15, in the last couple of days.
Some of the construction projects that have been running seven days a week practically from dawn until well after dark shut down as workers, most of whom come from the country and live inside unfinished projects with gaping openings, head home.
Almost nothing can hold back the tide from reaching the provinces. It seems that only a shortage of cash can keep any of them in town in a county where poverty rages as the government’s elite help themselves to ill-gotten gains.
Some people scrape up enough money to wedge themselves into a van overloaded with passengers and their cargo. Stores and restaurants that cater to Westerners post notices of shorter hours or outright closings. Many just assume you know that the doors will be shut for at least the three days. My gym won’t be open at all.
I think many Cambodians treat the week in which Khmer New Years falls a lot like the extended period of low productivity between Christmas and New Year’s in the West. I never was one for skipping away during holidays back home either, relishing the emptiness.
Here, I am hoping for a Phnom Penh that is powered down.
But I honestly worry that there will be nowhere to eat, no store in which to buy provisions. The movie theaters I favor (about which I’ll write in the near future) will be functioning, though the films to be screened until the end of next week are of little interest to me.
I am told there will no incessant hails from tuk-tuk drivers and motodops, not one, it is said. The drivers will have joined the homeward flood.
Phnom Penh is rapidly adopting the aspect of a ghost town.
Will I be bored? Hungry? Probably not, there always are the movies and that jar of peanut butter in the fridge. And my sincere wishes to Cambodians everywhere: Soursdey Chnam Thmey!