Every year in Cambodia, when April comes, the people always look forward to celebrating Khmer New Year, the most important holiday on their calendar, which also coincides with the end of the harvesting season. The four-day holiday is a precious occasion for Cambodian people to gather and have fun with family, friends and their communities. However, this year, the kingdom is celebrating Khmer New Year very differently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference, in reality, is very gloomy, writes Taing Rinith.
On Monday night, the people in Phnom Penh were preparing to receive Koreakeak Tevy, the New Year Goddess, whom they believe will come to be their guardian until the next Khmer New Year.
According to this year’s almanac, the goddess will come at 8:48pm. When the time comes, people dress up, light candles and burn incense sticks at shrines placed before their front door, where the members of each family pay homage to offer thanks to the goddess.
Like this very day in the previous year, Tang Muyly, a 60-year retiree living alone in Toul Tompung, is praying to New Year Goddess. Yet, while she had prayed for wealth and good luck last year, she is wishing only for her family’s safety from COVID-19. Usually, she and her children receive the goddess together, and after that, the family will decide on how and where they spend their holidays. But, this year, she is alone and going nowhere.
“My children are still working,” Muyly says. “They will not have holiday this year. We have planned to visit Sihanoukville since last month, but everything is cancelled last week.”
Many people in Phnom Penh have similar stories to tell after Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday last week announced that this year’s Khmer New Year would be cancelled to curb the spread of COVID-19, which by this week infected over 2 million people in every corner of the world and claimed almost 500 thousand lives. Employees did not get their usual four-day holiday but instead a promise of a five-day holiday at “a more suitable time”.
“At this moment, the safest place is the workplace,” the premier said.
Sambo Manara, a prominent Cambodian historian, said the government’s move to cancel Khmer New Year is “the first time in Cambodia’s modern history”.
“Khmer New Year has been so important that it was even celebrated during
the Khmer Rouge regime, although in a different way,” Manara said. “It is a big part of our people’s life and tradition. However, the prime minister’s historic decision today is also a must since the government needs to prevent public gatherings”.
On April 9, Prime Minister Hun Sen took another step by issuing a week-long ban on all travel across the country from one district to another in a move to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. This included all domestic travel, especially getting in and out of Phnom Penh, from one district to another and from one province to another. On April 10, Mr Hun Sen eased some restrictions by allowing inter-provincial travels. He also combined Phnom Penh and Kandal province into a “single area”, in which people are allowed to travel freely except for crossing the borders into other provinces.
While others, like Manara, lauded the pre-emptive measures, many workers in the capital who have been looking forward to receiving the new year with their families are not so delighted.
Chan Ry, a 28-year-old garment factory worker in Chak Angre commune said 2020 Khmer New Year is “the worst in her life”.
“I can only visit my parents, who are taking care of my baby, in Banteay Meanchey province twice a year – during Khmer New Year and during Pchum Ben,” Ry said.
On the second day of this year’s Khmer New Year, people are crowded at a roadblock on National Highway 6, hoping for the police officers to open for them to go to their hometown.
A 32-year-old factory worker, who declined to reveal his name, tried to trick the officers. He got off a tuk tuk, which he took in Phnom Penh, about 300 metres away from the roadblocks and walked through the barricades, lying to the officers that his house is nearby. However, he failed when he was not able to produce the document to show his claim.
“It’s Khmer New Year, and I want to go back to my family in Kampong Cham,” he says. “The factory where I work halted its operation, so I have no work to return to. Besides, I don’t feel safe in Phnom Penh. If I am to die from COVID-19, I want to spend my last moment with my wife and children.”
A Silent Celebration
From just a quick glance, one can see that Phnom Penh looks very different on this year’s Khmer New year, compared to the same period in 2019 or even other years before. The things remaining the same is the street being quiet, not because of most of the Phnom Penh residents already having already left city, but they are staying home to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
Wat Phnom, for example, the heart of Phnom Penh where people who do not leave Phnom Penh during the holiday usually gather to celebrate the New Year, has been empty. The same could be said for other monuments in Cambodia, including Siem Reap’s Pub Street and Battambang’s Central Market.
There is no public celebration, in which people eat, drink and sing together, in local communes either. All of these are the result of the government’s prohibition on public gathering. That also applies to Buddhist pagodas, which according to tradition are the places where Khmer people go on New Year’s day to pray to their deceased ancestors for a good year ahead for them. Most of the pagodas in Phnom Penh were empty or seeing very few visitors during this year’s Khmer New Year.
“COVID-19 is driving us crazy,” says Sem Dara, an 45-year-old office worker who come to Steung Meanchey Pagoda. “Khmer New Year should be the time for us to throw away all the stress—not to mention that we were supposed to have a four-day break this year, but instead, we were not allowed to celebrate.”
“However, I would rather be crazy than to be infected with the virus.”