Our Khmer New Year

Khmer New Year is a holiday I dread and look forward to in equal measures. I dread it because our neighbour starts celebrating about a week early and plays loud music for about 12 hours straight. I look forward to it because we always go to at least one wat and have a big family dinner or two.

First stop: inside the temple at Wat Samathi

First stop: inside the temple at Wat Samathi

I never really knew why Khmer New Year falls at this time of year. Fortunately, a friend filled me in on Facebook.

It is the end of harvest and it lasts officially 3 days, but 5 days is more common practice. One of the rituals is washing Buddha statues and (grand)parents. That ritual is the origin of the water throwing. Thailand and Laos also celebrate new year (Songkran in Thailand), so it is not a specific “Khmer thing”.

He went on to say that “Bonn Chrot Preah Nangkol (Royal Plowing Ceremony) in May marks the start of the rainy season (or end of dry season).

We often go to more than one wat (temple) over Khmer New Year, but I only went to one this year. It happens to be my favourite wat, Wat Samathi. Wat Samathi (same as Samadhi) is near Ream. I like it because it has a trail around a mountain. After we pay our respects in the temple, the kids fortify themselves with ice cream and we start on the short walk around the mountain.

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

The kids take along a stack of 100 riel notes as offerings along the way. For them, the walk is an opportunity to pay their respects to Buddha and play. They couldn’t resist climbing these tree roots they discovered behind a Buddha statue nestled inside a big rock.

WatSamathi1If you’re in a hurry, you can do the walk in about 10 or 15 minutes, but we took over an hour. The kids found plenty to do and I was content to just enjoy the scenery. Except for the path and the paved areas, they’ve left nature intact and the views are wonderful.

I occasionally go to Wat Samathi just to get out of town. Doing the circuit on a weekday between festivals is wonderful because I’m the only one there. Then I’ll ride out to a restaurant overlooking the water in Ream. It’s a great escape from the city and now I can take a motorbike lane all the way to Ream and not have to worry about getting run off the road by a Lexus or big truck.

Our sojourn was over by about noon. Instead of going home, I took the new road down to Otres and had lunch at Papa Pippo’s. He’s not sure when the bulldozer’s will come (or if), but is continuing as normal until the day arrives. As I enjoyed my meal and the cool sea breezes, Bob Marley’s One Love was playing in the background. It seemed like the perfect song to finish off the day.

I got home at about 2:00 p.m. and had to catch up on some work. Miraculously, the music wasn’t blaring next door. It was a good day.

WatSamathi2

The roots the kids were climbing are behind this Buddha

Visiting Buddha in Sihanoukville

It dawned on me the other day that I’ve settled into a routine and become a creature of habit. And so it was this morning. I went out for breakfast and then called a friend to arrange our usual Sunday get together. “I’m on my way to Phnom Penh,” he told me. Okay. Plan B was Otres Beach. Then I thought, “Why? Why not try some place different?” Without having a clue where I’d end up, I headed out Route 4. About 1/2 an hour later, I found myself turning off on the road towards Ream, but instead of going straight, I turned off on the new Sun Moon Resort Road.

creek

A creek by the side of the road

Good move. There’s no resort out there as yet, but there is a good road through some beautiful scenery with almost zero traffic. I cruised down the road slowly, enjoying the scenery and the cool breeze on my face. I’d never been down this road before, but thought it led all the way to the beach where the resort is set to be built. After a few kilometres, I discovered I was only half right. There was a guard stationed at the point where the paved road ends and the old dirt road takes over. He told me the road was closed, so I turned around. For a few minutes, I thought about taking the road down to Ream and having lunch by the water, but then Wat Samathi caught my eye on a distant hilltop.

wat-samathi-from-road

I’ve been to Wat Samathi several times before. It’s one of my favourite wats. The beautiful natural setting helps and the fact that there’s a lovely walking track around the hill makes it perfect. I’ve only been there with the family during religious festivals before. It’s always enjoyable, but I’ve always wanted to come on a day when no one was there and soak in the peaceful atmosphere.

A light rain started to fall just as I began my walk, but it was just enough to keep me cool as I walked up the staircase to the top. Just as I neared this Buddha, the rain started falling more heavily, so I took shelter under a tree.

buddha-on-stairs

The heavy rain didn’t last long, so I continued on my way. The natural setting, the cool weather and the Buddhas tucked here and there along the path were weaving their magic and for the first time in a couple of weeks, I was able to put my concerns about the state of the world out of my mind and enjoy the moment. Continuing on my way, I discovered a new temple was being built at the top of the hill. No one was working outside, but a painter was busy working on a mural inside. Here’s one he had already finished:

mural

Continuing on, I discovered that work was being done on the wat’s main Buddha, too. The scaffolding around the statue didn’t inspire me to take a photograph, so I turned and started down the stairs to the parking area. As I walked, gazing across a sea of rice paddies, I was aware of the Buddha at my back. I like to think he is there to act as kind of a lighthouse of compassion, spreading light throughout Cambodia and beyond. We can turn our backs on a beacon of light like this, but when we do, our field of vision is dimmed by shadows. Not far away, in Phnom Penh, a power struggle is taking place — a struggle that can easily be resolved if both sides turn their eyes towards the Buddha on the hill at Wat Samathi. Beyond that, another power struggle is taking place — one that threatens the entire world. The players there don’t even know this Buddha on a hill in Cambodia exists, but there’s a word for peace in every language, a place for peace in every religion. The question is: Will they be able to listen before it’s too late or is the Buddha going to have to silently watch the world destroy itself?

Wat Samathi is a lovely place. It’s only 20 kilometres outside Sihanoukville. Next time you’re in the area, check it out. Here’s a map. Take the road highlighted in yellow near Sihanoukville International Airport.  Look for the entrance just outside the village.

map-to-wat-samathi