Happy Khmer New Year

My driver insisted that I do something special during the three-day Khmer New Year and suggested that I attend a performance of the traditional Khmer Apsara dance before leaving Cambodia. One of the mini themes developing during this journey is that I find myself attending cultural performances unique to each country. In Vietnam it was water puppetry; in Bali it was Balinese dance. I saw no reason to buck the trend, so yesterday evening I went to a local restaurant that features a stage performance of Apsara every night.

Traditional Cambodian Apsara dancers
Traditional Cambodian Apsara dancers

Unlike Balinese dance, which focuses solely on religion, Apsara depicts both religious legends and scenes from everyday life. I especially enjoyed the coconut dance, where young men and women weave around each other in seductive courtship moves while clacking together dried coconut shell in rhythm to the music. Another one that delighted me was the cock fight dance. In every Asian country I’ve seen roosters, caged in loosely woven wicker baskets that have been turned upside-down and set along the edge of the road. In Bali I asked my guide about this custom. He explained that cock fighting is a huge sport in Asia and the caged roosters are being trained to fight. The baskets are placed by the side of the road so that the roosters become accustomed to people and noise. The cock fight dancers, with the aid of wicker basket props, were so convincing that I could almost believe they were roosters when they placed the baskets over their heads.

 Cambodian cock fight dance
Cock fight dance

Today I went to the market in the center of downtown Siem Reap. I was drawn to the stalls selling New Years decorations – giant hoops wrapped in metal garland, inside of which were mounted three-dimensional stars wrapped in multi-color cellophane. These decorations adorn every commercial building in town and are strung throughout every park. For the past five days I have watched them being carried on the backs of motorcycles and piled high on delivery trucks. By the time the holiday began on the 13th, every house in town had its own New Year star, with many houses sporting colored lights like the ones found at Christmas in the States. I moved further into the bowels of the market, finding myself in the food section, which was similar to any other Asian markets, until I got to the butcher shops. I turned a corner and was confronted by row after of row of sausages and intestines suspended from the ceiling. Dried fish fillets hung from wooden racks sitting on top of display cases. Whole pig’s heads were set out on counters, attracting swarms of flies. Shopkeepers stood on top of display cases to hang slabs of meat from hooks, their unwashed feet stepping on the raw meat displayed for sale.

New Year decorations at the central market in Siem Reap
New Year decorations at the central market

The stench of rotting meat was so bad that my stomach turned. I knew I was about to lose my breakfast and looked around for an escape but I had wandered too far in. I held my breath and attempted to find my way out of the maze but my lungs gave out before finding the exit. What to do? The voice in my head said: “Breathe through your mouth, dummy!” And so I did. If I were not already a confirmed vegetarian, I would be after this experience. I cannot imagine why everyone in this country who eats meat is not dead.

Whole pics heads sit on counters in market in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Whole pics heads sit on counters, attracting flies and creating a stench bad enough to make me gag

I leave Cambodia tomorrow afternoon. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here and will come back someday, as I would like to visit the capitol, Phnom Penh. But for now I am headed back to Bangkok, where I will meet my friend, Joan, who will travel around Thailand with me for the next month. I am looking forward to showing her around Bangkok, then heading out to explore the amazing beaches of southern Thailand.

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