A Phnom Penh New Year’s Eve

Cambodia from aboveThe sun never rose on our Monday, the calendar curtailed by humans’ clock cooperation, so Tuesday felt fifty hours old by the time we found the back end of dinner in Phnom Penh. We plodded through “Where is the hostel? Where is food? What is this I’m eating?” and arrived at “Where are we going tomorrow?” Phnom Penh from above was marinating in smoke and smog, seasonal countryside burns combining with year-round combustion mechanics to explain why everyone was wearing face masks. That, or the city was populated entirely with medical personnel. Either way, we were keen on spending New Year’s Eve somewhere a little less urban, a little more oxygenated.

Phnom Penh pulsed with an…Asian-ness that pleased every particle of my traveler’s soul, but we pieced together enough jet lagged wits to decide on leaving the capital city as soon as possible. We’d spend our last day or two there to visit the killing fields. We pored over a friend’s recommendations and decided on Chi Phat, a community tourism initiative that offers homestays and Cambodian connection. Done. “We’ll figure out buses first thing in the morning. Now sleep.”


Up by 4:30, I was bright and shiny and bloodshot eyes when the hostel boss arrived at 7. By 7:15 the lesson was clear: there were no seats left, going anywhere. We’d been surprised by the low-ish tourist presence in the streets, and she explained why. “Everyone has left the city for New Year’s Eve. Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, all are full. Buses too.” We heard Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s main beach town, was expected to host 70,000 visitors over the next three days. Good lord.

So it would be a Phnom Penh New Year. Accustomed to the Latin American model, wherein capital cities are the last place you’d want to spend any time, I worked to stay optimistic. But Asia is not Latin America. Shocking revelation, I know. The more we explored Phnom Penh, the more I liked it.

Phnom Penh street

Food vendors wandered or set up shop on streets where motorbikes swooped and tuk tuks puttered, their drivers accepting a single “no thank you” for an answer. The climate was bizarrely nice, astounding the locals and visitors, so sweat merely moistened my gringo brow, instead of soaking my shirts.

Wat Ounalom monks, Phnom PenhMonks mingled, in the luxurious orange robes of Theravada Buddhism. I’ve traveled just enough in Asia to accept that being a monk doesn’t entail the peaceful wisdom of the Dalai Lama (racist monks in Myanmar and materialistic ones in Sri Lanka taught me that humans are still humans) but I’m still fresh off the boat enough to find their presence soothing and inherently enjoyable. Basically I still have a man crush on all monks. We sat among a few to watch an afternoon soccer game and rest our feet.

We were tuckered by 23:00, but there’s nothing like the prospect of giardiasis to get you moving. So as 2014 wound down, I sat on the back of a motorbike buzzing through the traffic, up onto the curbs, and through darkened alleys of Phnom Penh. It was gorgeous. We’d swerve around a dog carcass in an unlit puddle, then blast across traffic to curve around the majestic slopes of Wat Phnom, the hilltop temple and stupa at the heart of the city. Everything was beautiful and perfect, even the motorcycle that crashed right behind us. Alive!

Phnom Penh Royal PalaceBack in the room I roused the drowsing Lydia, and dragged her onto the crowded streets, parks, and royal palace plaza, where families had spread blankets on which to dine and recline while they waited for the foreigner’s holiday. Cambodian New Year is in April, but the Khmer are not ones to pass up on the chance for a good time. I was quickly growing fond of these people, who returned my every smile and laugh with three of their own.

Fireworks exploded over the Mekong, bottle rockets burst from the masses, and 2015 began with a sense of happiness, adventure, gratitude and enthusiasm. Yes, I was quickly growing fond of Cambodia.