By Karyn Simpson
SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Click on. I lower myself. click click. I take two steps back, one to the left. click click. I raise my camera. Focus. Click the shutter once, twice more, and spin around, clutching my camera to my chest and catching a spray of cold water on my back. I quickly get soaked, but my camera is dry.
With eye-catching decorations, reverent religious ceremonies and near-constant water fights, last week’s Khmer New Year celebration is every photographer’s dream – and nightmare. Spraying people with water is a blessing in many cultures, and although New Year’s water fights in Cambodia are reminiscent of these customs, holding a camera does not give you immunity to water jets from pipes, buckets and neon squirt guns that almost everyone above the age of three seemed to wield.
Nevertheless, capturing the beauty of the city festooned with scenery, Cambodians and foreigners plunging into games and water fights, is definitely worth the detour.
However, the Khmer New Year is not just about water fights. Spread over three days, from April 14 to 16, the celebration is a time of family, friends and religion for the Cambodian people.
“The Khmer New Year is a traditional celebration to mark the end of the year and also to welcome the new year,” said Phanna Sok, senior lecturer in environmental ethics and development at the School for Field Studies in Cambodia.
The capital, Phnom Penh, is usually a ghost town during the New Year as its residents travel to visit families in their home provinces, Sok said. Siem Reap, on the other hand, comes alive.
“Usually people don’t tend to stay in the capital or in urban areas,” Sok said. “They usually go to their home provinces. The people you saw at the Royal Garden could be from different places. It’s probably not the local residents here.
In Siem Reap, this year’s celebrations focused on the Royal Gardens of Independence, a change from previous years when celebrations were held in the historic Angkor Archaeological Park. The three-day celebration included religious ceremonies, traditional sand dunes and vendors selling everything from roast meat to cotton candy to t-shirts.
The gardens also featured a very loosely enforced ‘wet zone’ for water activities, although no one seemed to take the limits of the area seriously.
Songkran, the first day of the New Year, is traditionally dedicated to preparing food and bringing it to pagodas, or Buddhist temples, to offer to monks in exchange for blessings, Sok said.
Virak Wanabat on the second day is more about spending time with his family, Sok said. It is usually spent visiting loved ones, catching up with personal news, and simply enjoying each other’s company.
“On the second day, usually people go to visit friends and family, relatives,” Sok said. “They go to the other, and they stay there. They are having a good time, good time together. And it’s a time when people talk about life.
The traditions that each family practices vary depending on the makeup of each family — a young couple with children will have different individual traditions than an older family, Sok said. But the feeling is the same: reunion.
“For me, the meaning of the Khmer New Year [is a] a kind of celebration to join family and friends,” said Tony Yon, assistant of the School for Field Studies program. “We are relatively small, so we have a lot of memories with our friends, with our village – no matter old or young.”
Vearak Loeng Sak, the third day of the New Year, is a day of reverence and repentance. On this day, Cambodians show respect to the Buddha and their elders by bathing or lightly washing them with water, Sok said.
“It’s a sign of respect and a sign of apology,” Sok said. “For example, they tend to believe that if they did something wrong during the year, and they didn’t get a chance to apologize, or they didn’t know that they had made a mistake, then this last day is an opportunity for them to apologize by doing this to their parents and the elderly and all those who are respected.
This custom is likely the source of water fights throughout the city, Sok and Yon suggested. Also, in the past, people would lightly mist others with scented water during the New Year to bless them and wish them good luck – an act that is part of many traditional blessings of monks. This too could have been part of the origin of today’s water fights.
“That’s what really grew out of our own culture at the time. And that was a sign of blessing, good luck, good health, safe travels, fun times, things like that,” Sok said. “It’s not going to soak you to the skin. It’s not. more and more aggressive.People have changed from doing this to throwing water at each other and to using squirt guns.
Water fights could be a way for younger generations to emulate the traditional practices of their elders, Yon said. And they could just be from the triple-digit temperatures common at this time of year.
“New Year’s is in the middle of the dry season,” Yon said. “So playing water is advantageous.”
Yon smiled when asked what New Year was like in his village.
“Noisy, happy and no boom box time limit,” he said with a laugh. “When I say boom box – people are playing loud music.”
Her community also celebrates with lots of dancing and playing traditional games, Yon said. During the celebration at the Royal Gardens in Siem Reap, pop music blasted through the loudspeakers on the ‘wetland’ side of the complex, fueling the energy for massive games of tug of war, sack races and more.
These games are an important part of Cambodian culture as they provide the first place where young men and women from traditional and conservative society really start to interact, Sok said.
“It’s the time when young men and women start to connect and talk, and the love starts too,” Sok said. “That’s traditionally how people get to know each other.”
Photos by Karyn Simpson/MEDILL. Top photo: A boy sprays his water gun during the annual Khmer New Year water fights.