During our stay in Cambodia we went to Kampong Cham twice because I have a friend who is currently working for an NGO and is based there. Our first time was a hit and run type of visit: we went for Christmas eve with two other good friends from home, Ewa and Antoine, who we’d met in Bangkok and with whom we’d traveled to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. On the 25th we said goodbye to Ewa and Antoine who continued their trip on to Laos, and the day after, on the 26th, Romana, Antonio and I went to Sihanoukville, on our way to Lazy Beach. After Lazy Beach, we moved to Kampot, then to Phnom Penh for new years’ eve, and then again to Kampong Cham.
Because Antonio had got us invited to a Khmer wedding anniversary in Kampong Cham, the plan was to go to the party and hit the road again in one or two days maximum. However, we ended up staying more as Kampong Cham, with its atmosphere, mid-way between the provincial and the rural, really took our heart and gave us the opportunity to enjoy Cambodia’s genuine, unadulterated charm.
The celebrating couple were two people working at the hospital with which Antonio’s NGO works, therefore the guests were mostly doctors, nurses and other hospital staff. The party took place just in front of the couple’s home, where a big tent had been mounted and a number of tables had been scattered all over the place. We were welcomed in and we were accompanied to a table while a number of waiters were going back and forth to take care of groups of guests. A Karaoke-style band was playing Cambodian pop music and everybody seemed to enjoy their time. We were introduced to our hosts and soon we were served some food. A Khmer person who was sitting at our table instructed us on the proper etiquette to follow and how to match the various sauces and broths with the many dishes we were served. Bones and other leftovers, he told us, go to the floor, under or near the table. Keeping them in your plate or bowl, just doesn’t look good. How uncomfortable I felt with throwing chicken bones and empty beer cans on the floor! But when in Rome…
At some stage during the celebrations a person came in and everybody stood up. Antonio explained me he was a VIP, namely the director of the hospital. Being Cambodia, like many other Asian cultures, a vertical society, people are expected to show respect and deference to the elders and those who are in power. The director went from table to table to shake hands, then disappeared for a while. He reappeared after 30 minutes or so, on stage with the karaoke band, singing a popular Cambodian tune. When he finished his performance he was saluted by a standing ovation. The deference, the hands-shaking thing, the standing ovation, it’s hilarious how all these things reminded me of Sicily, which is where I’m from and where similar cultural rituals take place
During the party a bunch of poor children sneaked in and began going around the various tables. I liked the fact that nobody seemed bothered with their presence, whereas instead most people would hand them what they were looking for: leftovers and cans, some of them empty (it looks like they can re-sell empty cans and earn some change).
A couple of Angkor beers and Khmer delicacies after, our hosts came and dragged us to the dance floor, which seemed to revolve around a single table. Romana had a great time trying to learn new Khmer dance moves.
It was a nice evening, and an opportunity to sneak into Cambodian society, in its upper/middle-class flavour (Thanks Antonio!)
To wrap up the evening, after the party we went to one of the street bars on the riverside, with their small, tiny plastic chairs and tables, to grab another couple of beers, chew a dried squid, look at the Kizuna bridge, and chat about the meaning of life.
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