Celebrating Khmer New Year

Martina (center) with a Bunong guide (left)
Martina (center) with a Bunong guide (left)
Martina Fraternali is BOOKBRIDGE fellow at our learning center in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The end of April is quickly approaching and I am left with only 5 weeks of work. Not to give away with sadness I will write about the Khmer New Year holidays.

April in Cambodia is synonym for great celebration as the New Year is in the air, the biggest celebration ever here. Schools remain closed for 2 weeks – however students and teachers stop coming there way before it. The cities and villages slowly get decorated with lights, colorful stars hanging from buildings’ entrances, shops and streets. In the many shops big and small water guns begin to appear that will then be used throughout the days of celebration. The atmosphere is very festive and of expectancy. On top of all this, people move to their home towns where they will spent quality time with their families and friends; therefore some shops stay closed.

This year, the New Year came between the 14th and 16th of April. The Learning Center stayed open until the 11th and I decided that I did not want to spend the holidays in possibly the most crowded city in Cambodia! As a matter of fact, Siem Reap is the city where many Cambodians travel to in order to take part into the big festival called Angkor Sankranta, which is held in Angkor archeological park. Artists from all over Cambodia and eminent public figures participate in the festival and the city becomes a magnet. And given the rising temperatures of that period, I figured that Angkor Sankranta would not have been a smart idea.

Martina enjoys the lush rain forest of Mondulkiri
Martina enjoys the lush rain forest of Mondulkiri
I bought bus tickets to Mondulkiri, the far-east province of Cambodia that borders with Vietnam. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful, lush and weather-friendly. And in fact it did not disappoint! Mondulkiri is covered in forests and the richness and diversity of natural landscape it is uncomparable to any other place I have been in Cambodia so far. Additionally, it is one of the few enclaves of elephant communities in Cambodia and there are plenty of agencies that claim unforgettable experiences with elephants while protecting their well-being. However I chose not to go for it and to select a 2-day trek in the jungle with sleep over. My trek guide was a member of a minority group in Cambodia – although majoritarian in Mondulkiri -, called the Bunong, the forest people that until not long ago lived of subsistence with the products of the forest and of animal breeding. My guide was a very knowledgeable man about the forest and its animal and showed me plenty of hidden waterfall and interesting spots in the depths of the forest. When we finally stopped for camping, he cooked the most amazing and yummy soup I ever tasted in Cambodia: the bamboo soup cooked directly inside a real bamboo stick! After the many hours of walk and climb, that was exactly what I needed!

We slept in hammocks by a waterfall that lulled my sleep. The night was extremely cold in the forest to the point that I had to use two blankets to keep warm! Something that does not really happen in the plains like Siem Reap..It was a true blessing!

Waterfall in Mondulkiri
Waterfall in Mondulkiri
In the morning my guide woke up really early and went around the place collecting the trash that other Cambodians had left the day before during the New Year celebration. Plastic cups, styrofoam food containers, cans and much more lay scattered in the forest and I had the dreadful impression if he had not done it himself, nobody would have ever come to clean the mess. He then came to me and with a very disappointed face exclaimed ‘Cambodians no good’. Belonging to a minority group that lived for so many decades in harmony with the forest in his view defines him as very different from the others. At the end of the trek, we reached his village, on the top of a hill where humans and animals coexist in the streets peacefully: pigs, cows, dogs and chickens mingle together around the people’s houses.

Mondulkiri is an amazing place to relax and get away from the heat of April/May and its environment heritage has been kept relatively intact thanks to the effort of NGOs that operate in the territory and attract tourists pushing for environmental conservation. Definitely a place to see!

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