Making Trails

the travel blog of Lauren Nishizaki

Phnom Penh and Cambodian New Year Celebrations


To get from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, we booked bus seats through our hotel. The bus company (168 Sorya Bus Transport) picked us up in the morning, arranged our visa at the Cambodian border, and then allowed us to jump off the bus early when the bus route neared our hotel in Phnom Penh. The whole process was easy and streamlined. And when we stopped to pick up additional passengers along the route, I learned that two people can quickly and easily load a scooter sideways into the cargo area below the bus.

Here are some of the observations I made during our time in Phnom Penh:

As soon as we arrived in Phnom Penh, we realized that our time in the city would coincide with the Cambodian New Year. Cambodians celebrate the New Year three times every year, once on January 1, again on the Lunar New Year, and a third time at the end of the harvest season in April. This third celebration is called Cambodian New Year, and the city comes to a standstill for about three days around the holiday. Luckily for us, many of the popular tourist destinations remained open, as did the restaurants that catered to tourists.

One of the Khmer New Year traditions involves throwing water on random people in the street. This doesn’t happen much within the big city of Phnom Penh. However, we took a tuk-tuk out of the city to visit Choeung Ek. Along the way, we drove through some narrow residential streets (tuk-tuks can’t legally drive on highways). We passed many groups of young kids who would run out into the street and attempt to stop the traffic (specifically motorcycles and tuk-tuks). The kids would then throw water, either from a bowl or using a water gun. Out tuk-tuk driver was able to persuade most of the groups to leave us alone, but one persistent girl tossed a bowl’s worth of water onto us in the back seat of the tuk-tuk. We got very wet (although our cameras thankfully stayed dry), but the cold water felt refreshing once we stepped out into the hot sun.

Since the whole city got quiet for New Years, I scoured the internet for things to do. I learned that a combination game store and cafe called The Puzzle Chamber would be open over the holiday. To celebrate the New Year, the store would be hosting traditional Khmer schoolyard games.

Jake and I spent a very fun afternoon on the cafe’s rooftop patio, playing games with a group of young kids and cafe employees. There were a lot of grins and shrieks and we got sweaty from all the running around. Despite the heat, we had a ton of fun. Jake and I ended up staying until the late afternoon and participated in a second round of games with a different group of people.

While playing the games, we struck up a conversation with Ishan, a Duke alumnus who had just arrived in Cambodia. He is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, and is in Cambodia to document the effects of dams on local economies and communities. His work can be found here. That night, we grabbed dinner and drinks with him and chatted about our respective travel experiences.

And it turns out that Ishan went to school with two lovely people I’ve met in the Bay Area! I repeatedly remarked to Jake that the world is such a small and interconnected place.

One evening, Jake and I attended a show put on by Cambodia Living Arts. This organization works to preserve traditional Cambodian art forms. Many art forms are at risk of disappearing, due to the persecution faced by artists under the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia Living Arts employs master artists from around the country and helps them pass their traditions to the younger generations. The show we attended showcased performances by graduates of the arts program. It consisted of many shorter segments, including examples of apsara dancing, shadow puppetry, and traditional village dances. The dancers were accompanied by musicians who sat in the wings.

We explored the grounds of the Royal Palace. There luckily weren’t too many tourist groups around, so we were able to gaze up at the ornate decorations and elaborate roofs in peace. I found a long mural along the walls of the Silver Pagoda. The mural depicts stories taken from the Reamker, which is the Cambodian version of the Ramayana (a Sanskrit epic). Many of the figures and groups in the painting are annotated with Khmer script.

Sisowath Quay is the big street that runs alongside the river. There are many bars, restaurants, and cafes along this stretch, and most are aimed at tourists. When all the restaurants near our hotel (we stayed a short drive away, near the Russian Market) closed for the New Year, we were able to come to Sisowath Quay to get food. And because it’s our modus operandi, Jake and I found a rooftop bar here and took some long-exposure pictures of the traffic.