Far beneath the sun-seared golden spires of Phnom Penh’s many Buddhist pagodas, a strange, glittery wind has begun to blow, leaving the hot December streets dusted with shiny red plastic trees, blow-up Santas, flashing ice blue lights, and sparkly banners proclaiming, in English: Merry Christmas!
But it is not so much Christmas itself that has gripped Phnom Penh as that great Western tradition: the Christmas sale.
The front of Peace Book Center on Monivong Boulevard is an explosion of fake plastic fir and fuzzy pink balls, draped with a large red banner promising 10 percent off.
CBC hair salon, across from Sorya Shopping Center, has strung up a tinsel tree, decorated with that most felicitous greeting: 30 percent off.
Sorya mall itself has become something of a plastic pine forest. Out in front a tall, winterish plastic tree drips with red and gold bows, silver bells, and a Santa face, looking a little hot and haggard in his frayed white beard.
Inside, employees at Swenson’s ice cream parlor donned fuzzy red and white Santa hats on Sunday.
“We don’t know why we have to wear the hats,” said staffer Yi Sophal, before delivering an ice cream sundae to the tune of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
Assistant manager Kol Chanbo said everyone was wearing Christmas hats because celebrating Christmas has become, well, cool. “Everybody does it so we do it too,” she said, adding that she learned about Christmas from TV and magazines.
“We love Christmas. It’s cool. I want to play under the snow one day too,” she said.
So what is the meaning of Christmas in Cambodia?
“Christmas has one big fat guy giving gifts to small kids,” she said.
As for Jesus Christ, she’s heard he’s a Christian god, and she thinks Christmas just might have something to do with him.
“Maybe it’s his birthday? I just guess,” she said, shrugging.
The Pizza Company is offering four “Christmas specials.”
A large if untraditional holiday feast of pizza, Italian meatballs, fish sticks and lasagna can be yours for just $21.90, down from $25.60.
At K Four electronics, paper Santas and candy canes hang from the ceiling, along with golden paper coins in honor of Chinese New Year.
Neup Chan Thavy, the store manager, said sales typically surge by 20 percent during the month of December.
The real driver of sales, he says, is end-of-season discounts. Prices on most products are slashed by 30 to 50 percent.
“We have to clear stocks,” he explained. The Christmas decor, he said, is just “to show that now prices go down.”
Many manufacturers also offer steep discounts around Christmas, he said. Buy a 37 to 50 inch plasma television from Hitachi between Dec 15 and Feb 15, for example, and you get a free Hitachi refrigerator.
The offer conveniently covers both Christmas, and more importantly, Chinese New Year. Sales in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, on Feb 9th, typically rise by 40 percent, far more than around Christmas, Neup Chan Thavy said.
People stock up on digital cameras, hi-fis and televisions, as tokens of prosperity and luck for their families, he explained.
He said he does see some extra shopping around Christmas, largely by foreigners and Cambodian teenagers who somehow have the idea that Christmas is about love and that love is, at least in part, about shopping.
“They just say, ‘It’s Christmas, what can you give me?’” he said.
Bo Kola, 22, a student at the National Technical Training Institute, was at K Four on Sunday looking for a watch for his girlfriend. He said he didn’t know what Christmas meant, except that it was a good excuse for some romance. “It is meaningful for teenagers. They meet and go for a walk,” he said.
Neup Chan Thavy said he knows Santa is fat and has a big white beard, but he really can’t remember how Jesus Christ is related to Santa and the seasonal sales, if at all. And the meaning of Christmas itself? “It’s for the New Year, right?” he said.
By suburban standards, the Christmas kitsch around Phnom Penh is fairly low key.
My My, 35, who owns a small toy shop of the same name in Sorya, said she usually sees a small bump in sales around Christmas, but has no idea why Buddhists have started buying each other Christmas presents. “I don’t understand it either,” she said.
CityMart sporting goods store clerk Sao Chila, 24, also said business picks up around this time of year, even though there are no special holiday sales.
“I think Christmas is good because all over the world they celebrate it,” she said.
Christmas, she says, represents love. “We just want to share our love with each other,” she said, smiling.