Several hundred people gathered at Wat Phnom Sunday beneath a huge effigy of a golden pig to ring in Khmer New Year.
The laughter of children playing traditional village games, colorful Chinese-style crowns, fresh rice cakes and fried beetles formed a pulsing heart in an otherwise empty city.
All around Phnom Penh storefronts were shuttered as residents went home to the provinces for the three-day holiday, which ends Monday. The gates were pulled down at Phsar Thmei, and on Phnom Penh’s wide boulevards the roar of motorbikes had been replaced with the thrum of insects.
Largely absent this year were the splash of water bombs and talcum powder fights, two New Year’s traditions that the government has been cracking down on in earnest in the last few years.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth said that his officers had found little evidence of illicit water sport so far this year. “The streets until now have been very quiet but we are still patrolling,” he said.
Bo Vibal, 26, a student at Build Bright University, said he used to throw water and talcum powder at New Year’s, but this year he stopped.
“The Prime Minister said don’t play with powder because it’s not our tradition,” he said.
Instead, he joined about 100 other young people at Wat Phnom who played seven different traditional village games from 7 to 11am Sunday.
“I like the traditional games more than throwing water and playing with powder,” he said. “It’s the way we can show everyone we have our own traditions.”
Bo Vibal said the only water that would touch his hands this year is the water he plans to use Monday to bathe his mother and grandmother. “The bad luck washes away with the water and we bring the good luck back,” he said.
Song Saroeun, 29, who emceed the Wat Phnom games for Phnom Penh’s municipal theater company, said most people have learned about games like Chorl Chhong, Teanh Prort, and Dondoeum Sleik Chhoeu from their families, even if they’re a little unclear on the rules.
Song Saroeun’s been helping put on the games for 16 years now and said many young Cambodians under the sway of foreign movies, music and fashion don’t know much about Khmer culture.
“For municipal policy, we need to play Khmer traditional games,” he said. “They only know how to dance to fast foreign music,” he added, shaking his hips back and forth. Plus the clothes: He pointed out a young woman wearing shorts and said: “Before we used to wear traditional Khmer outfits. We are a guardian of the culture,” Song Saroeun added.
Thach Samath, a 23-year-old ethnic Khmer garment worker from Ho Chi Minh City, said this was the third time he had traveled to Phnom Penh to celebrate Khmer New Year. “In Prey Nokor,” he said, using an old Khmer name for Ho Chi Minh City, “there is no one to play the games with.”
But the calm that ushered in the Year of the Pig was not good for business around Wat Phnom.
Sovan Sophors, 20, who was selling colorful Chinese-style crowns imported from Vietnam, said that she had grossed only $12.50 so far this year, down from $35 last year. She blamed her flagging fortunes on the late arrival of Mahotaradevi, the New Year deity.
Last year, the deity was said to arrive at 6:48 am; this year the deity didn’t come till midday. “People waited in their houses all morning,” she said.
Nheim Thorn, 40, watched her rice cakes slowly billow over a pot of hot charcoal. She too said business was bad. “Only children eat them,” she said. “They see it’s big and they hope it will make them full.”
High up on Wat Phnom, fortuneteller Chhaum Myom, 65, also said few people had come to her this year. “It’s very strange,” she said. But even she could not fathom why. “I cannot guess,” she said, spreading her cards before her.