EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of stories about life in Put Sar, a typical Cambodian rice growing village, about 30 km from Phnom Penh. The stories follow the course of this year’s rice crop. The village is home to 1,408 people in 320 families and lies 6 km from the nearest market. Eighty percent of the villagers are poor, and virtually all grow rice. We hope to show the importance of rice to Cambodia’s mostly rural population, to describe the hardships and rewards of village life, and to listen to voices not often heard.
put sar village, Takeo province – It was the week before Khmer New Year, and the dust covered everything in Put Sar.
It lay in crumbling mounds on dried paddies where the withered stalks of last season’s rice—brown, frayed and fragile—collapsed and lay half-buried in the sandy ground. Swirling in funnel clouds behind the ox carts and vehicles, it coated the throat and teeth, grinding against molars for hours afterward and making everything, even water, taste of dry earth.
Dust caked and discolored cars and motos, livestock, the stilt houses, and especially, the feet of Put Sar’s children, who had been spending every waking moment of the last few days playing in it.
Although the official holiday celebration was still days away, children here had already dedicated themselves to playing the traditional games: leak kanseng (hide the handkerchief); choal chhoung, played with a homemade nylon ball; teanh prat (tug-of-war) dandoeum sleuk chheur (race for the leaf); and khleng cham kon mon (the eagle chasing the chick).
Choal chhoung was the choice of the day. With boys on one side and girls on the other, and with the road lined with New Year’s lanterns made from plastic water bottles and colored ribbons, Put Sar’s kids clapped and laughed as they fought for the nylon ball, hoping to catch and fling it at a rival on the other side.
If the ball should hit someone, the children explained, the victim must sing and dance until the hurler is satisfied.
Despite the heat and the dust, the games attracted dozens of children, and some of the older crowd. Elderly men and women pulled up on motos to watch and smile before passing on. Some adults even joined in.
“I like playing traditional games because we can have a lot of fun and make a lot of friends,” said Uk Chim, 22, a garment worker who now lives in Phnom Penh.
Uk Chim said she skipped work that day because “I want to spend my time enjoying Khmer traditional games in my village with my family and friends.”
She said she enjoys coming home to Put Sar for the New Year because the games don’t involve money or aren’t competitive enough for people to become angry with each other, and because it helps her unwind from her city life.
“We do not get lost in the playing because it doesn’t require gambling. We play it just for friendship only. We play various games whenever we want to. We can play whichever we prefer and when we get bored, then we play something else,” Uk Chim said.
And this, some villagers say, is the whole point of Khmer New Year: To relax and have a good time.
“The Khmer New Year is for the kids. At this time, we’re happy every year. Even when we don’t have enough rice to eat,” said Chin Run, 60, wife of Put Sar’s commune chief, Bin Sophat, 61.
Although Chin Run said she took advantage of the rains a few weeks ago to plant her rice, most of the villagers have not. But the crop and most of their other burdens—Bin Sophat’s throat cancer, last year’s floods, the policeman who had his moto stolen while he worked security at a pagoda—are all forgotten, Chin Run said.
“This year, some people will not have enough to eat because of the floods. Still, they’re happy,” she said.
Later in the afternoon, the children gave up choal chhoung and moved on to boh Angkunh, a kind of lawn bowling where the loser has to endure his or her playmates clutching two rock-hard Angkunh seeds in their hand and banging them against the loser’s knee.
Abandoning the rules, the children passed up the bowling aspect of the game and instead descended upon the knees of the unsuspecting visitor who had come to observe the festivities. The children howled in laughter as he yelped in pain.
A few kilometers away, where some villagers were finishing the annual cleaning of the pagoda at Wat Prey Chea and rainbow-colored flags had been strung out for the holiday, Khim Vit, 62, a Buddhist layman, said he was looking forward to the New Year.
“During the days of the New Year celebration, all the families gather at the temple at lunch time and offer meals, deserts and fruits to the elderly to thank them, then offer food to the monks and pray to Buddha Dhama.” Khim Vit said.
Increasingly, the holiday has served as a kind of homecoming, as more and more young people like Uk Chim have moved out of the village in search of an advanced education, a job in the cities, or just a different life, Khim Vit said. Khmer New Year is therefore a family holiday, he said.
“The New Year gives us the benefit of solidarity and reconciliation when we meet and we can exchange our experiences about the old year with each other,” Khim Vit said.
Part of the reason the holiday falls near the end of the dry season, between the rice harvest and rice sowing, Khim Vit said, is to take advantage of people’s free time.
“When the Buddha was alive, the New Year was celebrated in January. But that was changed, because people were busy harvesting rice and they couldn’t give the elderly a bath because the weather was cold. That’s why the month of the New Year was changed to April, because people are free and the weather is hot,” he said, wiping the sweat from his face with a red-checkered krama.
Already that morning, the villagers had begun the festivities by dousing Wat Prey Chea’s deputy abbot with water to celebrate his birthday and welcome the New Year, he said.
The water dousing is a form of purification, Khim Vit said.
“It shows that our heart is clean, like what we did was to kick out our mind or bad moods and receive the new ones with more happiness and prosperity,” he said.
“When everything is clean, the new Devuda will bring you every new happiness and prosperity.”