Siem Reap & the Khmer New Year


On April 12, I took the bus to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh.  It left three hours late, and even though it was an AC bus (which are more expensive), the driver never turned it on.  So it was a long, hot eight hours, but I finally arrived and checked in at the Siem Reap Hostel well after dark.  My first impression of Siem Reap was that it was very smoky and smelled like a blazing fire.  I never did figure out where it came from, but it was indeed smoky the entire time I was there.  My second impression of the city, after exploring it on foot, was that I was going to like it.  It seemed fun, hip, easy to get around, and full of restaurants, markets, and bars.  I had specifically planned to be there for the upcoming Khmer New Year because I had heard that it was the only city in Cambodia that really celebrated the holiday with a bang.

On my first full day there, I discovered that the heat in Siem Reap is even more stifling than it was in Phnom Penh.  I had lunch at an amazing vegetarian restaurant and planned on exploring the town a bit, but the heat drove me back to the hostel and into the covered pool.  I ended up meeting a few guys from Seattle who were also staying at my hostel and we decided to head to the temples to experience the Khmer New Year festivities.  Unfortunately, after a long tuk tuk ride, we didn’t find very much going on.  We had heard that there would be games, competitions, performances, etc, but we couldn’t find any of it even though the area was jam PACKED with Cambodian people, cars, motorcycles and tuk tuks.  I asked a police officer where the  games were taking place, and he said that they didn’t start until tomorrow.  The Khmer New Year is celebrated over 3-4 days, depending on the year.  This year it would be a 4-day celebration and today was Day One.

After sitting in stand-still traffic for 15 minutes, we decided to give up and head back to town to see what was happening on Pub Street.  Pub Street is just what it sounds like:  a street full of bars, clubs, and restaurants, and it goes OFF at night, especially during New Year.  The street was overflowing with revelers from all over the world, but mostly young Cambodians who had also traveled to Siem Reap to take part in the celebrations there.  New Years in Cambodia is a holiday typically spent at home with family.  From the way it was described to me, it sounds a bit similar to an American Thanksgiving, where families gather and have a big feast.  Cambodians who don’t live in their hometowns travel back home to spend the week with their families.  School is not in session and many shops and restaurants are closed.  But young Cambodians looking for a party go to Siem Reap and things get pretty wild. The Khmer New Year tradition is to calmly place powder on the face of friends and family. In Siem Reap, however, hordes of kids gripping CostCo-sized bottles of baby powder flock to Pub Street and launch full-on powder attacks.  Water guns, buckets of water, and water bottles also come into play, as Siem Reap has borrowed Thailand’s New Year tradition of water fights.  The whole thing makes for a crazy, fun, wet, powdery spectacle. Everyone is having a blast, music is pumping out of the bars and clubs, drinks are flowing, people are dancing out in the street among all the powder tossing and water spraying. It was so much fun.  I’m not sure what time I got back to the hostel that night, but the party was still well underway when I lost the Seattle boys and decided to call it a night.
It’s fair to say that I was pretty useless the next day.  I spent the entire day in my bunk bed, sleeping or blogging, only leaving once to go eat some amazing Indian food at a restaurant up the road, aptly named “The Indian.”  I went to bed early that night, as the next day I would be doing a sunrise tour of the Angkor temples (See “The Temples of Angkor” post for those stories and photos).
I woke up at 3:30am the next day and started the Angkor temple tour with two girls from my hostel.  We finished around noon, ate lunch back at the Indian restaurant, and returned to the hostel for showers and a long nap.  That night I met up with a girl I had met back in Thailand at Elephant Nature Park, Vici, and her friend, Rose.  After dinner, we decided to check out Pub Street for another night of New Year celebrations because Vici and Rose had not yet experienced it.  The street was wall-to-wall packed so we had to walk single-file and holding each other’s hands.  We were on Pub Street for maybe five minutes before Rose noticed that her backpack was open.  At first we didn’t think much of it, but then I realized that my purse had also been unzipped.  Rose’s wallet and my cell phone were gone… stolen, literally in the blink of an eye as someone dumped handfuls of powder onto our heads and we were temporarily both blinded and distracted. Very smart and very swift are these thieves, aren’t they?  I couldn’t believe it.  Two nights before, I had been partying my butt off on this street with the exact same purse on, and nothing had happened.  Needless to say, our night quickly came to end after that.  I headed back to the hostel and used my computer to disable my phone, feeling quite violated and sorry for myself.  At the time, it felt much worse than it really was.  I thought I had lost all my photos from the Angkor temples that day.  (Fortunately, for the magic of the Cloud, all my photos appeared in the new phone I purchased the next day).  I also had a 6:00am flight to Jakarta, Indonesia the next morning and was unable to file a police report, which is required for theft reimbursement through my travel insurance.  Oh well… nothing I could do about that.
I know these things happen while traveling, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.  But the lesson I learned that night is that you cannot let a history of nothing bad happening fool you into believing that nothing bad ever WILL happen.  In other words, don’t let your guard down.  A couple extra precautions on my part could have easily prevented the theft.  But I didn’t do them because the thought of getting robbed never even crossed my mind.  Now it does. Every day.  I can’t afford to replace my phone a second time.

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