Thursday, 21 April 2011

New Year Celebration in Cambodia - Khmer New Year

Happy New Year Cambodia!

Those of us fortunate enough to live in Cambodia get to enjoy three different New Year celebrations. International New Year on 1st January used to be a barely celebrated event here but of late it has become more important warranting a public holiday and special events including fireworks. I remember being in a nightclub in Siem Reap on New Year’s Eve many years ago and when the DJ started counting down to New Year I was preparing to rush around greeting strangers and wishing them all the best for the next 12 months. No one was even slightly bothered though when the countdown reached zero and I found myself looking rather foolish as I leapt in the air and prepared to embrace the person next to me. Everyone else was waiting for the lucky draw (always a popular event here and the reason for such a large attendance in the club) to begin. Cambodian attitudes to International New Year are changing but it remains the least celebrated New Year event.

Khmer Buddhist New Year Celebration

Chinese New Year is a much more important celebration albeit an unofficial one as, unusually, there is no official public holiday to mark the occasion. This occurs in either January or February and lasts 3 days. It seems to be celebrated by everyone regardless of any Chinese lineage and the country more or less shuts down for the duration to enable families to visit relatives and return to their homelands.

Khmer New Year Experience

The most important celebration for Khmers though is Buddhist New Year which falls in mid April. This is celebrated by absolutely everyone and traditionally marks the end of the harvest and anticipates the onset of the rainy season. The holiday itself lasts three days but in the week before the roads are full of traffic as people travel around the country to join up with family and friends for the celebrations. In the days before the holiday people spring clean their houses (I usually find something important to do elsewhere while this is happening) and on the first day households erect an altar to welcome the New Year spirit. Local temples are visited with food and alms for the monks and prayers are said for ancestors. It is a time of great feasting, parties and generally relaxing with family and friends.

New Year Celebration Cambodia

Obviously over this period everyone wants to spend time with family and friends and most businesses shut down for the duration of the holiday. Of course as a hotel we at Bambu Hotel Cambodia have to stay open but I tried to ensure that our staff could enjoy the festival whilst maintaining our usual excellent levels of service! We actually held an impromptu party one evening as our guests wanted to enjoy the Khmer New Year experience. Within the space of an hour or so the chefs had knocked up some delicious food, a sound system was somehow produced from out of nowhere and much dancing and fun ensued. I don’t think our guests had experienced anything like it but they thoroughly enjoyed it – or at least they told me so!

Cambodia New Year Celebration

Cambodia has an extraordinary number of public holidays – 26 days – which surely must be more than anywhere else in the world. There are holidays for the major religious festivals obviously but also for more secular events – 3 days for the King’s birthday, a day each for the King Father and King Mother, Human Rights Day, International Women’s Day, Independence Day, Constitution Day, Coronation Day to name but a few. Most small businesses stay open for the majority of these holidays but banks, government departments and larger businesses shut down. Of course if some of these holidays fall over a weekend they are carried over to the Monday which means you have to be quite organized – I have often found myself turning up at the bank only to find it closed when I wasn’t expecting it. As a fairly large business – well with 22 staff – we have had to register with the Ministry of Labour and so of course we have to ensure our staff get the holidays they are entitled to. As well as these public holidays there is also annual leave entitlement so juggling the staff rosters around has been fairly difficult although to be honest most of the staff have never experienced paid holiday leave and are very grateful for it!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Transportation in Battambang, Cambodia

Planes, Trains and Automobiles in Battambang, Cambodia

Improvements to infrastructure here in Battambang over the last few years have made significant changes to everyday life. New roads have made the city accessible like never before and Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the Thai border can be reached quickly and without too much bruising to the backside. Like most provincial capitals Battambang had an airport with daily flights to Phnom Penh but with the improvements to the roads this service was no longer required and the airport closed about five years ago.

Regional Railway Battambang

My wife remembers a road trip to Phnom Penh taking three days and until fairly recently the journey could easily take a day. The air service was therefore an important link with the capital. So despite the rumours about the airport reopening I don’t think this will happen – there just isn’t the need for it any more. Battambang also benefits now from a good mains water supply in the town and fairly reliable electricity from Thailand. I say fairly reliable because every so often (at least twice a month) the supply does fail plunging the city into darkness. Thankfully at Bambu Hotel Battambang we have a diesel generator as back up for these periods – the beer will always be cold! Sometime in 2013 Battambang will be connected to a new hydro generating plant in the Cardamom Mountains which hopefully will give us a cheaper and more reliable electricity supply. One piece of infrastructure however that has remained defiantly unimproved is the railway “network” so when I noticed that the main station in Battambang appeared to be getting a facelift I was keen to investigate.

Battambang Railway

The last passenger train rolled out of Battambang a couple of years ago but by then the service was a shadow of its former self. In fact there was only one scheduled train per week from Phnom Penh to Battambang which ran on a Saturday before returning to the capital on the Sunday. The journey time was somewhat unreliable and was scheduled for 14 hours but often took much longer sometimes failing to arrive at all. Considering the distance to Phnom Penh is only around 300km this must have rated as one of the slowest railway journeys in the world. The reason for this of course was the dilapidated state of the track and the rolling stock – it simply wasn’t safer to go any faster. In fact looking at the state of the tracks it is hard to believe any trains ever ran on them. This is all about to change though. An Australian company, Toll Railways, has been granted a long lease for the Cambodian rail system and has started to upgrade the tracks and facilities. Last year the line between Phnom Penh and Kampot on the coast was reopened, initially just for freight and now they have turned their attention to the northern line which will run through Battambang and up to the Thai border at Poipet. As far as I can see all that seems to be happening at the moment though are cosmetic improvements.

Around Battambang Railway 

Battambang station is been repainted and the offices are being refurbished after years of neglect. Reassuringly though no attempt has been made to repair the station clock which still gives the time as 8.02 as it has for years. I asked one of the workmen when we might expect to see some trains here again but he just shrugged and thought that it may possibly be sometime in 2013 – and presumably at 8.02. This looks rather optimistic given the lack of urgency. The whole track needs to be dismantled and re-laid and I would imagine this would take some time. It was fun though wandering around the station and the engine sheds. Clearly in its heyday Battambang station was a busy place with a number of platforms, sidings and warehouses. Nowadays it is home to some rotting carriages, a number of cows, chickens, plenty of children and a couple of Toll Railways painters.

Battambang Railyway Station

One aspect of the Cambodian rail system that continues to thrive – albeit unofficially - is the Bamboo Train. I would imagine that just about every visitor to Battambang has had a go on this and with good reason – it is great fun. Essentially the “train “consists of a bamboo platform on a set of wheels that buzz up and down the buckled tracks propelled by what looks like a lawnmower engine. It has become a major tourist attraction here but it is more than that as the locals use it to carry all kinds of provisions to villages and communities along the line. Just before we opened Bambu Hotel last year I took all our staff for a trip on the train. Most had never been on it before and I was keen for them to know a little about it as I knew virtually all our guests would have a go during their time in Battambang. If you meet another train coming the other way the train that is deemed to be the lighter of the two – with least passengers or freight – has to disassemble, let the other pass and then reassemble before continuing. During busy times, and if you are unlucky, this can be quite tiresome especially in the middle of the day as there is no shade from the sun. These days tourists generally only go on a short section of the line – from just outside the city up to the long burned out Ou Sralou station about 8km away where there are a few drink and food stalls to relax at before returning back down the line. The track is in such a poor condition that the ride can be pretty scary and it resembles at times a rollercoaster.

Battambang Train Cambodia
Talking to some of our guests at Bambu Hotel, it appears that sadly a lot of the tour companies now are refusing to let their customers go on the bamboo train for insurance reasons. Certainly the trains and the track don’t conform in any way to safety regulations but with a bit of common sense it really isn’t very dangerous. In any case it looks like the days of the bamboo train in its present state are numbered. Obviously when the tracks are ripped up it will cease to function and although I reckon the bamboo trains will return once the new rails are laid (there probably wont be more than one proper train per day) the ride will be much more comfortable and therefore less fun!