Chaul Chnam: The Cambodian New Year

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Celebrating the Khmer New Year with water and talcum powder.

Covered in talcum powder during Chaul Chnam

Many of the people I spoke to in Phnom Penh said that they were going back to their villages to celebrate. Others complained that they had to work. But, wherever they were, everyone would be able to find some time to celebrate over the three days of the holiday.
To the visitor, the most obvious indication that it was a holiday was the smartness of everyone's dress and the fact that everyone seemed to be going somewhere. An endless stream of trucks, motos and cyclos, all loaded up to bursting point, kept the roads even more crowded than on a normal business day.
It soon became clear to me that it was traditional to pelt each other with flour or water (although many people seemed to be using talcum powder rather than flour).

Fun in the rain during Chaul Chnam

As one sits outside cafes, the noise of massed mopeds being trailed by complaining car drivers leaning on their horns is soon followed by a perfumed scent as clouds of talcum powder drift towards the roadside.

Groups of children armed with a range of water carrying and water projecting equipment stalked the sidewalks as defenceless people passed by; their favourite target a cyclo filled with three, four, or even five passengers1.

The most well organised of the revellers were the young men armed with pump action water pistols the size of bazookas and extra water strapped to their backs; they rode around on the back of motos commiting drive-by squirtings. It was pandemonium and some of the celebrants could get out of hand; a number of times I saw near accidents as two couples on mopeds attacked each other with talcum powder as they sped along the centre of a main road.

Fun in the rain during Chaul Chnam

At various places people had set up attractions designed to part people from their money. In the open area in front of Wat Ounalom a magician set up. I watched part of his show, which consisted of frightening people with a large snake, getting a young boy to put it inside a large hollow cylinder, then chanting, presumably to make it disappear. The act went on for so long that I drifted off before the conclusion.

People walked up and down selling balloons, snack food, flowers; anything you may have wanted to make the holiday special.

On Pochentong Boulevard a stage was set up and, once it got dark, people were entertained with traditional songs. Another stage was set up in front of the National Museum where acts performed more modern music. Unfortunately, as it was the beginning of the rainy season, the first night of the celebrations were dampened by a heavy rainstorm which hit at about 9.30pm.

Things continued in the same vein for the full three days, with the final day being a veritable orgy of soaking and talcum bombing. Even when, as the sun was going down, a heavy rainstorm hit, nothing could dampen the high spirits, and the roads became jammed with soaked, laughing, people.

Down My Lane

The Cambodia Archives

12.06.00. Front Page

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1A cyclo is like a back-to-front rickshaw, the driver sits at the back, high up in the air, while the passenger(s) sit in the front.

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