Expats Pick Their Own Way Through Yuletide in Cambodia

Natasha Rawson, who is al­most 4, quickly breaks into a French carol at the mention of Christmas. She is hoping to receive a doll today—from a big, bearded man in a red suit.

Shane Rawson, Natasha’s father and the country director of Transport International, has strung lights inside his home and bought gifts for his children.

“We’re trying to give some atmosphere on Christmas for the kids,” the New Zealander ex­plained Thursday morning.

In a country that is 97 percent Buddhist, Dec 25 is officially just another day. But for the thousands of Christian expatriates, today is one of the most important days of the year for cultural and religious reasons.

Many foreigners find Christ­mas in Cambodia a strange experience. “You don’t have the same feeling here because people are not shopping. There’s no decorations everywhere like you’d have in New Zealand,” Shane Rawson said. “It doesn’t feel like Christ­mas.”

Some foreigners here find themselves alone for the holiday, but make the best of it.

Wolfgang Schueller, a retired diesel engineer from Australia, is widowed with no children or grandchildren. Without a family, he has  spent the past few Christ­mases with neighbors. This year, he decided to travel around Southeast Asia. He’s been in Asia for the past two weeks and will travel until “two days before I run out of money.”

He arrived in Cambodia this week with a small sack of dolls, paints, balloons, and coloring books that he plans to hand out to children he sees on the street.

“I thought maybe someone will be happy, and you’ll be twice as happy if it comes unexpected,” he said. “That is what I plan for Christmas….I know most of the country is not Christian….I know they probably don’t know what Christmas is, but Christmas or no Christmas, I want to do something anyway.”

Cambodians who work at establishments frequented by foreigners also seem to enjoy the spirit of the season. Sotheth, a waiter at the Foreign Corres­pondents Club of Cambodia, said: “I like the foreigner Christmas. I enjoy it. I’m not a Christian. I’m a Bud­dhist, but Christmas is fun.”

Some foreigners, however, re­fuse to do anything for Christ­mas, glad to be away from the brouhaha that usually characterizes the holiday in the West.

“I hate Christmas,” said Mi­chael Koenig, a student from Ger­many in the middle of a five-month journey around Asia. “I’m glad to get away from Ger­m­any.”

Graham Stewart, who has lived in Cam­bodia for six years and until recently worked for an NGO, is doing his best to ignore the holiday and will not be buying presents for his two children.

“I’ve just been back home to Australia, seen my family and done all that so it’s just another day for me,” he said. “I’ve basically done the Christmas season. The kids don’t know anything about it.”

Others have chosen to leave town either to go home to visit families or to travel around the region. Guito Chek, a ticketing agent at East West Travel, says that bookings have been high this month and flights to just about anywhere are fully booked.

Some people have traveled to be in Cambodia for Christ­mas.

When Shar­on Martin, Glenys Chechi and Hilary Harper first came to Cambodia in Dec 1979 to work at a border camp in Aran­yaprathet, they were told by refugees that they had to visit Ang­kor Wat.

The three Red Cross nurses from New Zea­land pro­m­ised that they would, but other business took precedence. Their careers took them all over the world, and they were unable to return to Cambodia until now.

Today they fly to Siem Riep to finally see the temples they’ve heard so much about. They are, however, taking Christ­mas pudding and custard to have their own celebration in Siem Riep.

“Nineteen years ago, we were here for Christmas,” said Martin. “This is deja vu for us and the trip of a lifetime.”

 

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