I realized about five seconds after the bus pulled into Siem Reap from my Visa-Cation in Laos that I had only three and a half weeks to finish cataloguing and modelling every Buddhist Terrace I ground-truthed at Angkor Thom; Natasha and her friends are in Siem Reap by May 6th, and I’m leaving the country on May 9th for Sri Lanka via 12 days in Thailand. That said, 3 1/2 weeks to find things you’ve already found doesn’t take long unless the sites are as far away as they can possibly be in the backwoods. That was only the case for two of the seven survey days I’ve undertaken since I got back, so things have been moving quickly but smoothly.
And I even got a few 3D models done in the process, which I’ll be posting in the next entry as soon as I fix the top of a stupa that was shaded by a tree.
I eagerly jumped back into the woods the first day back from Laos, but was immediately stopped in my tracks by one thing I’d kind of forgotten about: Sankranta, Cambodian New Year.
Sankranta, or Songkran as it’s more commonly known in Thailand, celebrates the first day of the Cambodian/Thai calendar, and is incredibly unique to any New Year’s celebration I’ve ever taken part of. The celebration lasts three days – this year was April 14th – April 16th, and typically spans the second weekend of April from Friday to Sunday (next year it’s April 13th-15th) – and traditionally consists of weekend-long prayers at the local wat and a celebration with family and friends back in the village. It’s very locally-celebrated, and villagers working in the tourism industry in Siem Reap pour out.
That’s just more money for the nea tweugah who live in and around Siem Reap, though: over the last decade, Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park have become the focal point of the entire New Year’s Celebration!
During that weekend every hotel was packed, but not with foreign tourists: with Cambodians. And for me it was a chance to see Cambodia’s Middle Class for the first time, who for the most part do not live in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is filled with (typically poor) seasonal workers who live in small villages all across Cambodia, and the city empties during the rice harvest in October-November after the end of the Rainy Season. The week leading up to Sankranta was similar, and kramah (scarf)-wearing farmers in tuk-tuks and kitchens were temporarily replaced by white-collar workers driving multiple SUVs and paying $22/night for a hotel room alongside the tourists. Of course, the importance of family transcends social class in Cambodia, so you get the same type of family crowded you get with large families of subsistence farmers.
Take, for example, the huge family that took up an entire floor of the Villa Siem Reap, my hotel. Each husband and wife had their own room along with their very young babies and toddlers, each grandparent had their own room regardless of whether they were widowed, but the ten kids along for the ride were stuffed into a single room with two double-beds and no floor-space. I saw the maids cleaning up that room on Monday – it looked like someone TP-d a house and had dumped a huge bucket of water on the floor.
Add to that two Toyotas, one Lexus parked on the road, two motorcycles, and a Kia. I kind of wanted Grandma to be the road hog of the family.
Because Sankranta happens over the course of a weekend, there’s plenty to do in the spirit of familial togetherness, and you see a few traditions begun to reveal themselves.
The first is, simply, going out for a picnic or having a cookout. I’ve been to multiple Cambodian cookouts – everyone gets really drunk and eats about a pound of pork fat. But in Siem Reap people were relatively well-behaved because the government hired about 400 extra soldiers and policemen to patrol Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park. It was mainly because King Norodom Sihamoni and Hun Sen were coming through on Saturday, but I figure it was to dissuade rabble-rousers as well. But you could see picnicking families sitting on the outer shore of the moat surrounding Angkor Thom, up the road to the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, and even at Srah Srang Reservoir further east unpacking enormous lunches as the kids ran around like crazy-people. On occasion, somebody got hurt or there was a fight between aggressive family members, but that’s not unlike any rowdy family reunion back home!
(Mind you, I haven’t been to a family reunion since I was thirteen (that’s one side of my family), and my grandparents’ funerals don’t count (that’s the other side), so I really have no good idea whether this is the way these shindigs actually get down).
The second is lighting incense at various ancient and modern temples for the worship of the Buddha, neak ta (spirits inhabiting inanimate objects), and ancestral spirits. The smell of incense in smaller temples is intoxicating, and lines form in front of significant statues to pray.
The Government of Cambodia has attempted to appeal to the younger, less religious generation by camping up Angkor for a weekend. Combining religious worship, history, nationalism, and pop culture, the land to the west of Angkor Wat and inside central Angkor Thom is transformed into “Angkor Sankranta Theme Park”.
At first I was worried the installations they put up were permanent – me, being the archaeologist, sees anything modern built on an archaeological site as anathema and not in situ – but I saw APSARA officials regulating the construction of the temporary exhibits and pavilions so my anxieties were ease a bit. Most of the pavilions and structures have come down as of a week later, and after another two you won’t be able to notice Sankranta ever took place.
The third is a city-wide water-gun fight. Yep, water-guns. And though mock urban warfare in war-torn Cambodia seems a little bittersweet, it’s probably the most fun part of the entire weekend. It kind of runs in the same vein as Thailand’s bucket-throwing traditions, too – you can see how both cultures give and took before the modern borders were set in stone in the late 19th century. But Cambodia’s is way more fun.
Infantry groups station themselves along street corners with buckets, unleashing the rain on everyone but the old, the police, and tourists from mainland China who typically want nothing to do with other cultures’ traditions (unless they involve gratuitous consumerism…Christmas…) nor getting sprayed in the face with a water-gun. Gangs form dragging buckets and patrol large sections of avenue with guns the size of small children, and when two gangs meet in the middle, all hell breaks loose.
The Khmer Hydraulic Army also has cavalry divisions, both on motorcycle and tuk-tuk, and once in a while an armoured truck transport rolls by.
And, of course, skilled grenadiers throw water balloons into unsuspecting platoons and wait for their inevitable explosions, but that all happened so fast I could do nothing but try to dry my phone off as a balloon sailed through the open chariot of a tuk-tuk and hit me in the knees standing across the road. With no water gun in hand (I was my local convenience store’s combat photographer), I grabbed a hose. GAME ON.
Also one weird thing that is combined with the water gun fight is smearing baby powder on people’s faces creating a paste. I got baby powdered a little bit but the only thing that came of it was really soft skin for about two days.
There’s also concerts around Pub Street and a few fireworks here and there, but the real fun is up at Angkor and spraying water on random passers by.
(Try reading the photo captions like Don LaFontaine – it’s really fun.)
Some Cambodians who’ve come from Phnom Penh or the Northeast take a four-day long weekend, and the traffic in and out of the one-lane South Gate of Angkor Thom was congested with military vehicles passing through, so it took me almost as long to get to Angkor Thom as it did to both get to and catalogue my first Buddhist Terrace on Monday morning. The Middle Class congestion is now gone, and the farmers/tuk-tuk drivers/cooks/masseuses/etc. have all come back from their family rice paddies and resumed the “Barang Hustle”, so all is back to same-same.
But it was a cool experience overall – Chinese New Year in comparison was all in your face, everywhere, in flashing neon lights, where buying stuff was the name of the game, but Sankranta was more subtle, less commercial, and more…chilled out. I took the three days off from working to see it, and I was really glad I did. It was almost like an extension of the relaxation I felt on Don Det back in Laos.
Something I definitely could use a little more of.
Next Entry: A Day in the Field Part 3 – Photogrammetry at Angkor and why it is AWESOME!