Khmers do not, for the most part, celebrate Christmas. However this does not stop the residents of Phnom Penh, including the girls in our dormitory, from donning felt Santa Hats.
The country may be 95% Buddhist, but come the middle of December the markets fill with miniature plastic Christmas trees, garlands of tinsel and mini stands of flashing, multi-colored lights.
“Happy Merry Christmas” signs abound. Christmas songs play in all the chic cafes near independence monument.
Embracing the holiday spirit we bought a mini plastic fir tree, strung up lights and tinsel and set about making paper snowflakes – notwithstanding the fact that the girls at the dorm have never seen snow.
And then, a day before Christmas Eve, the thirty-four girls threw a Christmas party. Preparation started early with a morning trip to the market. There followed a flurry of meat chopping and lime squeezing. In the lazy heat of the afternoon a table was laid in the courtyard and speakers were set up.
The spread was not classic Yuletide fare: fried squids with pepper lime sauce and chili sauce, cold nests of rice noodles –thin and latticed, hairy rambutans and fingerling bananas. But it was certainly festive.
There was an exchange of gifts overzealously adorned with ribbons ,and lots of photographs. And then, the dancing.
With speaker blasting and music videos streaming the girls danced late into the night – skipping and twirling and stamping. Gangnam Style followed by Rhinana, followed by traditional Khmer Apsara dancing, followed by Bollywood, followed by Thai Pop, followed by . . . more Gangnam Style. The usually studious and demure students danced late into the night.
New Years was spent in a slightly colder climate – amid the curving hills and towering skyscrapers of Hong Kong.
Two years ago I visited Hong Kong on the heels of contracting dengue fever. I stayed with my Princeton roommate (who was pregnant at the time) in the heat of the summer, amidst storm warnings. We cooked curries, indulged in cheese and pastries (Thailand lacks both) and ate dim sum and hand pulled noodles.
Now, at the end of December, Hong Kong balances on the edge of brisk and the men and women of the city don jackets and scarves. I again stayed with my roommate Shobi and was introduced to the newest member of her family: nearly two year old Rania. I have become “Aunt Jess.”
In a compact two days we ate our way through many dim sums and, in a throwback to our dorm lives, sipped even greater quantities of tea. We hiked along the Dragon’s Back trail in the mountain over the city and then through the dense forest of apartment skyscrapers many with protruding poles of laundry that flapped precariously in the wind, thirty stories high or more.
For our New Year’s meal we taxied to the heart of the city to an elegant eight-table restaurant serving up the spiciest Sichuan food I have ever consumed. We ate our way through an intimidating twelve courses, which quite literally brought tears to my eyes. The most interesting was a fried chicken with a Sichuan pepper: rather than having the expected burn, it numbs your lips and then makes them feel as if they were actually bubbling and frothing.
Driving back to Shobi’s apartment New Year’s Eve, I reveled in the holiday spectacle – a light show of skyscrapers decked like Hallmark Holiday cards with building-sized flashing Santas, reindeer, wrapped presents and tree bobbles.
We welcomed 2013 on the roof of a Hong Kong Apartment – shivering in the cold, watching fireworks burst over the metropolis.