Surreal Cambodian New Year

1 Jan
New Year's Eve dinner

New Year's Eve dinner

In some countries they say that what happens on the first day of the year is an omen of what will the remainder of the year will bring you. If this is so, then my 2009 will be resolutely Asian, filled with communication, full of drag, sipping heaps of cocktails, fooling around in town with friends, short but hot nights and good healthy food.

It is difficult to describe what actually happened from the New Year’s Eve onwards – it was a bit surreal. In the one day we (my Norwegian travel buddy PH and me) had been in Phnom Penh we had created already a set of ‘local’ places where we’d hang out. So for our New Year’s Eve celebrations we would not risk having a bad experience, so we repeated our lucky start.

Our favourite (barang) Khmer resto accross the street

Our favourite (barang) Khmer resto accross the street

We started the evening splashing out with a cozy dinner across the road from our Goldy Sweety Boutique hotel, on a lush terrace dotted with exotic plants and comfy seats. PH had socialized big time with some of the staff – basically pulling their legs, playing the clown and asking them all kinds of inconsistent questions to confuse them. It does sometimes only take a few funny phrases to get talking for a whole evening with some interesting people… (that’s one strategy to keep in mind). So basically the whole staff knew us, and for the reminder of our stay there they were inquiring where we would be going that evening – and if we wouldn’t buy them out (if they were not busy)…

After dinner we then wanted to go back to the Blue Chilli bar, because there would be a special show (and definitely special it was – more than that even). The only problem was that we hadn’t taken a card with the address, so we didn’t have a clue how to get there. And probably most of the motos (the taxi-motorbikes that you just jump on – up to 4! people) would not have a clue where it was, but apparently the tuk tuk drivers would know (covered threewheelers). It was pouring rain (we got really baptized for new year’s eve) so a covered tuk tuk was the best option anyway.

New year performance on the bar...

New year performance on the bar...

I must say the excitement was added to because we know some of the staff of the evening before, as we wanted to socialise with them rather than with the money boys… The guys (girls?) were performing a set of Cambodian, English and Chinese songs with full devotion (and bad lipping). One of the guys had the most expressive gestures I’ve ever seen and the most wicked laugh (more for VIPs here). Some of them crawled on top of the bar to do their drag show, thrreatening to kick over the drinks or to plunge in the audience (they were not sooo used to the high heels apparently ;-) Others went on a 30cm high improvised stage of some iron scaffolding construction with some boards of multiplex on it. On top of that, the stage was sliding on the floor whenever someone would jump on or off. I haven’t seen a more wobbly structure in my life.

New year performance on a veeeery wobbly ladder

New year performance on a veeeery wobbly ladder

I’m sure that my UK colleagues would have an instant heart attack because of this superb transgression  of any Health and safety rules imaginable. For one of the songs, a lady came down the balcony, on a ladder that was standing on the wobbly stage. With another guy dancing on the stage – sort of to hold the ladder, but actually causing more jumping up and down rather than stability for the poor performer on top of the ladder – trying to get down from it on her high heels… In the whole process of going completely crazy,  climbing on a ladder, shaking – stage was made of some thin triplex wood, jumping up and down as they were dancing on it. At some stage even dragging per on stage and falling over royally – big cheers from the crowd.

And since it was New Year’s Eve, they even organised a Fashion show. They had invited the guys from the Mister Blue Chilli competition a few weeks ago to show some clothes – and undies – what else ;-) Not sure if the point of the show was to show lots of fashion… but let’s say that some of the models were quite ‘in fashion’ judging from the audience’s reaction.

fashion show

New year, new underwear: fashion show

The show worked up (a bit too fast) to the midnight count down. I had the privilege to start 2009 six hours earlier than most of my friends in Europe. And as a bonus (because of the show that went quicker than expected), Blue Chilli added an extra 10 minutes, because in all nervousness, the Cambodian guy (dressed up as a girl) was so nervous, having to speak in English into the microphone, started the countdown 10 minutes too early. He even had to redo the counting twice because of nervousness – but the audience happily joined in, and did the kissing well ahead of the real new year. That gave us some time to get some extra drinks or send some text messages back home when the new year was finally really there.

It was strange to be so far away from home (from my friends) for New Year ;-(  It was also my first new year ever that I was wearing shorts and mosquite repellant for the New Year’s Eve party ;-)  But in a bar like Blue Chilli it is easy to socialise with other Barang (Khmer word coming from Français = generically used for foreigner) We made friends with Korean, American, French, Belgian, Norwegian, Chinese, Filipino etc guys and girls (a few that got lost there), and – judging from the number of hands I have felt in strategic places – the locals were also eager to socialize with us ;-)

Starting the year with a kiss - sigh...

Starting the year with a kiss - sigh...

Drinks were flowing generously (well, for 2,50 US$ a cocktail), brought to me by my favourite waiter, nicely clad in a red dress, who comes to twirl around me every once so often, and seals the night with a big red kiss on my cheek (see picture).Things start slowing down a bit at the Blue Chilli (there’s limits to the amount of drag and dirty jokes one can handle) so we move on to a disco ‘Heart of Darkness’ (what a name)… a ‘mixed’ disco. It was mixed in the sense that there were indeed a lot more girls, but they were pinching my bottom (one of them at least) all the same…. Heeeeeelp!!!

No handbags in 2009 !

No handbags in 2009 !

One had to get body-searched before going into that Disco (well that night, an additional pair of hands wandering around, wouldn’t make much of a difference). Interesting was that you were not allowed in with thongs (flip flops) nor handbags… Hm, not sure what the ‘ladies’ (gay or straight) say about that…

New Years Day – Cambodian Style

Knowing that one should do on the first day of the year, what one would like to do for the remainder of the year, I definitely was not going to get up early, not even for the breakfast that was included in the hotel. So I cuddled with my bed till noon. And then, as people do, they get up for Bruch, as the breakfast hour has passed. So we did – going to the Boat Noodle Thai restaurant (well we go to Thai restaurants in Brussels as well, so why not here in Cambodia?). They brought us to a nice secluded corner, where we were sitting on the elevated floor on cushions (Cambodian style) and sharing food from communal dishes… Great, looking forward to lots of dinners with friends in 2009!

After lunch we went for a stroll along ‘riverside‘, the tourist area of Phnom Penh. It was the first time since I arrived in Phnom Penh that I met so many tourist (and the beggars and children selling books and newspapers – horrible). But we had to do what we wanted to do for the rest of the year – so we went for yummy ice cream (maybe not so healthy, and guidebooks don’t recommend it, but we wanted to treat ourselves… Mmmm.

Street life in Phnom Penh...

Street life in Phnom Penh...

After having had our programme of pampering, PH and I decided it was time for ‘doing nothing‘ – meaning just wandering aimlessly through the city, to get a feel for the environment, see what’s happening in the streets, see how life is functioning in Cambodia (as new year was not really a holiday down there – the Cambodians have their Khmer New Year from 14-16 April – and it involves lots of water throwing – so i might come back for that!). I got a fresh coco-nut of a street vendor – with a straw to drink its juice – wow, so fresh and refreshing! I also bought some superbly sweet and cheap fruit – and payed in Cambodian Riel for the first time (because so far we were only hanging out in Dollar-only places – except for small change under a dollar). And walking around, we passed a Massage parlour. PH and I looked at each other, and instinctively know that YES, that was the thing to do to start the new year in style – and we stepped in for a 2 hour massage (for 10 us$ a head) – goooooorgeous !!

Let 2009 begin!!


One Response to “Surreal Cambodian New Year”

  1. Bill 11 February 2009 at 22:51 #

    My friends (barang), all from San Francisco, and I were at the Blue Chilli on New Years eve as well. We had a great time, unique and fun. The show was energetic. Even with the amazing down pour of rain it was a great night.

    The next morning we took off for Siem Reap.

    Thanks for your sharing your story.

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