Powder to the People: A New Year’s Dousing

As the Khmer New Year drew to a close, revelers throughout Cambodia kept their bottles of talcum powder nearby.

In Phnom Penh, clouds of powder hung in the air over Wat Phnom. The carnival at the park drew hundreds who either lounged in the shade, had portraits made with their families or furiously covered friends—or anyone else nearby—with fistfuls of powder.

“It’s just fun,” was the only explanation from Ka Sinat, 21, whose face was caked with powder. Chan Tho, 21, carried a bag full of powder containers ready to replenish any revelers’ supply for 1,000 riel. He was also ready with pre-packaged towelettes for anyone needing to clean up after getting a face full of powder.

Even Sambo, the 44-year-old elephant and mainstay at Wat Phnom during the New Year holiday, wasn’t spared from the powder. The elephant munched on sugarcane as Cambodians, who were willing to pay 1,500 riel, passed under his trunk with their children for good luck.

In Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, villagers used the occasion of the holiday to turn a profit—or at least pay for the festivities. Children, under the supervision of village elders, had strung a rope across the one-lane dirt path in order to impede passing mo­torists. If they ponied up a few hundred riel they could pass. If not, their faces were smeared with powder, said Phuong Montry.

“We use the powder to make the people’s faces beautiful,” he said, adding that the money they make will be used to pay for the powder, wine and palm juice for the night’s festivities.

A little farther up the road, the commune’s older youths performed the same ritual in a more raucous fashion.

The teens smeared the faces and bodies of their peers in powder and used the money they collected to pay for the enormous PA system that was blaring thump-thump music throughout the neighborhood.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in Kandal province Wednesday that fewer people spent the New Year in Phnom Penh this year because better roads and political stability have made it easier than ever to access rural provinces.

In Sihanoukville, the beaches were full of locals and tourists alike. “It’s quite hot this year, so people came here to swim,” said Chhun Sirim, first deputy governor of Sihanoukville.

(Reporting by Kim Chan, Mike Farrell, David Shaftel, Phann Ana and Kay Kimsong)

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