Those who chose to stay in Phnom Penh for Khmer New Year while tens of thousands flooded to the provinces found themselves in an uncharacteristically quiet city on Wednesday.
While the holiday lingerers stayed for reasons both financial and familial, almost all expressed their desire to honor the arrival of the New Year angel, Mondea Tevi, at 8 p.m. last night, marking the official start of the Year of the Monkey.
Deputy Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng, who was among those spending the new year in the city, said the exodus meant that City Hall’s plans were slightly less opulent than for other holidays, involving a small ceremony at Wat Phnom to mark the angel’s coming.
“People from provinces come to Phnom Penh to celebrate the Water Festival,” he said. “Phnom Penh residents mostly travel to the provinces for the Khmer New Year holiday.”
“But we still celebrate the New Year in Phnom Penh as we did in the past to welcome the new devada,” or angel, he added.
At Wat Phnom on Wednesday afternoon, a crowd of about 50 children squealed with delight while watching friends play “veay ka’am,” attempting to smash clay pots with long bamboo sticks to score loot.
Celebrating at the temple for the first time, garment worker and Preah Sihanouk province native San Srey Pov, 22, watched the blindfolded hopefuls swing, miss and occasionally crack the clay, sending clouds of powder into the dry air.
“This year, I didn’t go back because transportation is very expensive, and the traffic is really bad one or two days before the first day of Khmer New Year celebrations,” she said, adding that she had made do with a small shrine at her rented house in the city.
Khim Nora, chief of the waste management office at the municipal environment department, said he was happy to spend the holiday distributing anti-littering leaflets to visitors and vendors expected to descend on Wat Phnom in the evening.
“It’s our obligation, so it’s fine,” he said when asked how he felt about working on a national holiday, going on to extol the virtues of waste management as tourists and locals gave him a wide berth.
Further south, workers at the French-Cambodian restaurant Khema had set up a sparsely decorated shrine on a table covered with a crisp, white tablecloth that fit the eatery’s upmarket aesthetic.
Waiter Tong Lorng, 22, looked furtively at his boss when asked what he hoped Mondea Tevi’s descent would herald.
“I hope happiness for our family and this business,” he said, laughing nervously when asked if he was disappointed to be working.
“I am not really happy with working, but I have to,” he said. “I will go to stay with my family also, on the 15th, 16th and 17th.”
Manager Eden Gnean, 24, said that while her Christian faith meant she would not be making an offering to the angel, her Buddhist colleagues would be allowed a short break to do so.
“We just light the incense—five pieces—and put it there,” she said, gesturing to the coconuts and golden offerings known as “bay sei” that are meant to help human prayers reach the heavens.
“We take around five minutes and that’s it. After, we work as normal.”