“I gotta leave, I wish I could stay/ But I’ll be home for the holidays…” – J. Cole
It hasn’t been easy being away from home over Christmas, but the three of us have managed to make it a special time of year in our own way.
It started in Phnom Penh. Warren, Sara, and I made plans to do a gift exchange, and we set out to find each other gifts at the night market. The plan was to go there and do some Christmas shopping, and maybe get some food, too. I had a few restaurants written down as a backup.
No need. The night market had it all: bubble tea, fresh spring rolls, duck eggs… you name it. We ended up eating dinner for $2 USD each, with dessert for another $1.25. We sat on a picnic blanket, surrounded by vendors hawking goods and bargain-savvy locals, soaking it all in — the deep-fried food, the intoxicating mix of scents and sounds, and the night air.
Then came the shopping.
The whole place is a sight to behold. Picture eight rows of stalls selling everything under the sun: clothes, jewelry, artwork, all up for bartering. Everywhere you turn, there’s something new — it’s sublime. By the night’s end, we grabbed a tuk-tuk ride back to our hostel and watched the city pass us by — a nice alternative to the usual Christmas shopping experience.
Cambodia is largely a Buddhist country, but you don’t have to look far to see signs of the holidays. One of the cutest things we saw was a group of kids turning a piece of Styrofoam into snow and singing “Jingle Bells.” Others have been quick to wish us a Merry Christmas when they see us. (I’ve been called Santa Claus more than a few times already.)
For Christmas Eve dinner, we went to a hole-in-the-wall just around the corner from where we were staying for some cheap, delicious Khmer food. I ended up with eight-and-a-half spring rolls, and that was just the appetizer. (Some things get lost in translation, including restaurant orders.) The following night, we marked Christmas Day with 50 cent beers in the heart of Siem Reap, capping a day of $6 massages and even more bargain-hunting.
It’s been an unconventional Christmas, to be certain: no snow, no carols, no family get-togethers. No movies, no hot chocolate, no evenings spent by the fireplace.
Add in the company of friends, and the warmth of the Cambodian people, and it’s been a Christmas to remember, all the same.
Tales from the road:
1. I can’t explain it, but my beloved (and much-cursed) Miami Dolphins managed to make the playoffs. In true Dolphins fashion, they chose the one season in which I’ve been unable to watch any games.
2. I struck up a conversation with a man from California on the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and he asked me whether Canadians celebrate Christmas, or just “Boxer Day.” My apologies to my American friends.
3. Tuk-tuk rides are an experience unto themselves. Picture the open-air freedom of a carriage ride, but zippier and a thousand times more chaotic. As in Bali, traffic rules don’t seem to apply. Miraculously, I’ve yet to see a single crash.
4. My bartering skills need work. Warren has mastered the art of walking away, and Sara has been on a run of good deals herself, but I find it hard to say no — even when I wasn’t going to buy anything in the first place.
5. We went to see the Choeung Euk killing fields in Phnom Penh. It’s a serene field and orchard today, but remnants of the horrors committed there under Pol Pot’s regime remain. The atrocities committed are unfathomable: millions died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The pits in the ground are still there. My initial thought was gratitude that I live in a country where I don’t have to live in fear of this sort of thing. Then I remembered the stories of residential school survivors: theirs is a lost generation, too. In the midst of this sadness, I was struck by a sign of hope as I finished the tour. For the first time that afternoon, I checked my watch: 3:16. I’m hardly in the habit of quoting Bible verses — I only know a handful to begin with — but it hit me all the same: in the midst of carnage, of horror, of grief and sorrow, a seed of hope.
Things I’ve seen:
Angkor Wat is a 12th-century marvel. As impressive as it is from a distance, it’s even more striking up close: the attention to detail in the walls’ carvings is almost beyond belief. I struggle to wrap my head around how long it would have taken to complete.
2. More temples.
Although less famous than Angkor Wat, Bayon deserves its own share of attention. Over 200 faces are carved into the temple’s walls, all smiling down on visitors.
3. Chaotic streets.
Here’s a glimpse at life in the back of a tuk-tuk. Not all cities are as hectic as Phnom Penh — indeed, some are even more frantic — but life in the capital moves fast. Hold on tight.
What I’ve been listening to:
J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only
Kanye West – “Family Business”
Lauryn Hill – “That Thing”
(Header photo by Warren Jones)