A Cambodian Christmas Carol

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Well, there wasn’t really any caroling but I couldn’t help throwing some alliteration into the title of this post, just because I could.

It was sunny, warm and there was no snow in sight in Phnom Penh this Christmas.  Given that I’ve never had a Christmas without snow and bitter cold, it was quite a change from the norm.  It didn’t feel much like Christmas in the traditional sense (stressful and cold) but all you really need to have a good Christmas is good people and a big dining table.

For Christmas Eve, everyone living at my house decided to go out for dinner.  While some people wanted a Western-style meal, the places that offered that type of food were extremely costly (minimum $23 per person up to around $200 per person).  Fortunately, nobody was willing to spend that much to have turkey so we settled on a really nice but still very touristy restaurant called Romdeng that serves modern Khmer food and employs young people who formerly lived on the street.

The atmosphere was great, the food was good, service was incredibly fast (by Cambodian standards, especially) and I hear the rice wine was to die for.  There was one major downside, though: they bring a live tarantula to the table as soon as everyone is seated with their menus.  Tarantulas are a traditional part of Khmer cuisine and this place serves them fried with lime and chili as an appetizer.  The schtick is that you get to play with your food before you eat it.

I’m terrified of insects.  I have been as far back as I can remember.  Things like flies, mosquitos and ladybugs are okay but grasshoppers and spiders (especially those black ones that like to live in basements that run really fast) cause my sympathetic nervous system to take over and tell me to run for my life.  Imagine how happy I was when they brought out this giant effing tarantula and tried to get us to hold it.

Some of my housemates were brave and held it with no problem.  One even put it on his face like a crazy person.  I wanted to conquer my fear of insects so badly and I tried to psych myself up to hold it…but I settled for touching its butt.  Or web sack.  Or whatever the scientific name for tarantula butt is.  That’s good enough for me.

Anyway, the meal was delicious and I was so happy to be able to try Cambodia’s national food, amok.  It’s usually made with fish but you can find it made with chicken at some Western-style places.  This one had pumpkin, zucchini and tofu–yum!  We were too full to try any of their desserts so we settled for going to some random bar, which I won’t talk about because it really wasn’t anything special.

We didn’t get home very late but, given that I was planning to be up before 6:00am to start cooking pancakes for everyone as a Christmas breakfast, it was a later night than I had planned on.

It seemed like most people had totally forgotten about the Christmas breakfast I had planned.  Luckily, my housemates were excited to have something different and it was one of the only days we’ve ever all had breakfast together.  It was fun having everyone there, chatting, eating pancakes and playing Christmas music.  It felt remarkably festive, despite nothing around us being traditionally Christmas-y.  We even managed to organize a Secret Santa scheme just amongst ourselves and that turned out very well.  There were yummy gifts, thoughtful gifts and hilariously apt gifts.  I got a sarong that I plan on using a lot while I’m in Asia.

Once the morning’s festivities were over, my housemates and I caught a tuk tuk to the school where we teach (an explanation of this coming in a future post) to take part in the kid’s Christmas party.  I received a lot of hugs, little Merry Christmas’s and one little girl even gave me a ring.  A girl in grade four immediately latched onto me and took me around the school, chattering the entire time.  Usually, the first things kids say to foreigners is “Hello!  How are you?”,  “What is your name?”, “Where are you from?” and (it surprises me how interested kids are in this next part) “Do you have a boyfriend?”  We talked about where I was from in Canada and they were very surprised to hear that I travelled for around 30 hours to arrive in Cambodia.  They told me about where their other teachers had come from and wanted to know where the b-friend was teaching and what his name is and when they could meet him and how long we’ve been together and when we’re getting married (sounds like my grandma!).  They were disappointed to hear that he isn’t in Cambodia, that he’s very sick right now and that we’re not getting married any time soon. 

After we chatted for awhile, we made our way downstairs to the dance party.  The kindergartner’s who recognized me from my first day in the classroom yesterday gravitated towards me, grabbed my hands and we danced in a circle for about half an hour.  There was jumping, Gangnam Style-ing and laughing.  I got baby powder smeared on my face by a little girl and kicked in the head by a little boy doing acrobatics.  It was great fun and it’s unfortunate that we’re not allowed to take pictures of the kids that are not in our classes, a very sensible school rule.

I went home for lunch so my housemate, TN, and I could hang out in Xotique in the afternoon to get some work done.  We spent only a couple hours there and then decided to go to the Russian market to see if there was anything we felt like contributing to the Secret Santa that the volunteer house was hosting.  Before we left, the lovely staff at Xotique gave me a gift.  Well, they let me draw a number out of a bucket (I drew 42) and I got present number 42 under the tree.  It wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be (a $1000 Xotique gift card) but assorted chocolate works for me!

We walked around the market but nothing caught our eye…until we exited.  We came out where the locals go to buy food and we happened across two women selling nom koums–10 for $1!  I treated myself, because it was Christmas.

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Tree at the volunteer house!

Dinner was at the volunteer house just down the road and was comprised of AMAZING Khmer curry soups.  I could have eaten the whole pot myself…had I not been snacking on nom chuk chuls (a delicious, sweet fried pancake that’s a common street food here) earlier in the day.  Unfortunately, I was ridiculous, as usual, and forgot my camera at home so I don’t have pictures of our food…but I promise you wish you had some.

Then Santa came to us!  He distributed candies to everyone and MC’d the house’s Secret Santa.  I think you’ll get an idea of how it went from the following pictures.

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This is SO's pretty face. We like to punch each other for fun.

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Santa's pants fell down!

And then the dancing started.

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Obviously, Mr. L was the first on the dancefloor.

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SO and I got a little crazy during Blurred Lines…

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I love how it looks like he's running away. He was dancing just as hard as I was, though!

Even though I was exhausted from getting up at 5:50AM to start the Christmas pancakes, I ended up dancing (read: jumping) for two hours straight.  I came home drenched in sweat with achy feet and completely wiped–different than the usual tired from eating so many cabbage rolls.  While it was certainly not like any Christmas I’ve ever had, it was probably the best.  I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Merry belated Christmas, Internets,
Meggo

PS There exist some hilariously awesome videos of the party but I haven’t been able to upload them.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to add them to this post soon.

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