Happy Khmer New Year! A time for wishing good luck! A holiday so big it goes on all week. Last night the walls were shaking from partying up and down the street, music blaring out of restaurants, whooping cat-calls of young men and screeching brakes of motos into the early hours of dawn. Today the roads are nearly empty, shops are closed up, and I sat alone in my wing of the office, putting in a Western work-day in the pin-drop silence of after-hours work. Atey grabbed her purse eagerly as I stepped through the door this evening, wishing us all good luck on the New Year, and hurrying off to the last of her young city-parties. Tomorrow she too will make the long bumpy bus voyage to the provinces, heading to her hometown like most of Phnom Penh did yesterday.
We are curiously imitating our city neighbors. I too scavenged the ATM machines last week to find one that still had currency, unloaded what I could, and queued up at the chaotic bus station for tickets. Prices doubled for Khmer New Year, elbows jabbing, pushed to the back of the line by so many complicated transactions ahead of me. But we are curious and aimless travelers, so I picked two cities that seem opposite and complements to each other: Kep, that is on the Gulf coast to the south, and Sen Monorom, that is in the mountainous jungles to the east. A plus, I thought, that these are small cities and the tickets hadn’t sold out yet.
The early morning bus station, the seats, the travelers, are becoming familiar like the sweet onion smell of a well-worn shirt. Ernest immediately pulls a book from our bag and begins his long read. Yoshi negotiates the seating and snack distribution. Tika and Puck rev up for a five-hour tussle punctuated by peals of laughter and shrieking. I am usually wedged on the edge of their two seats keeping the peace or trying to muffle their screams. I can count on the Khmer travelers to take the kids’ side on noise-making, but I am cowed by the nasty glances of the older, barren, safari-clad Jack Kerouacs from England and Australia who think they deserve peace and quiet for their four-dollar bus fare.
No, I feel a stronger kinship with the Khmer grandmother aboard our last bus, who ran to the front of the aisle, screaming baby on arm, sodden wad of pants in hand, and begged for a stop. She didn’t flinch at re-boarding with happy naked baby tucked against her. I remember getting off along the route to Siem Reap and noticing that one woman had let her two boys ride naked, apparently a cooler way to travel. These are people who tickle the kids’ arms in between the bus seats, squeeze Puck’s cheeks until they’re red, bite off choice morsels of dried fish and offer them to Tika, while counting the kids, looking me over and giving an approving wink. With a few more bus rides, I could feel right at home here.