Christmastime in Phnom Penh

Christmastime in Phnom Penh is a lot like it was in Vientiane — plastic trees, LED lights, kitschy American Christmas music, and Saxophone Santas, with much more emphasis on the plastic trees and a bit less on the Saxy Santas.

One big difference here in Phnom Penh, however, is the number of events during the Christmas season — most geared toward kids and adults, alike, and free of charge — so we were pretty excited about that. No doubt there are a lot of Western expats here, but still surprising to have this much on offer in a predominately Buddhist country.

This is my sixth Christmas overseas in the tropics, and Lori’s fourth. We notice that a lot of people get really hung up about spending Christmas overseas, but we simply can’t relate. Of course, Lori and I would like to be able to spend the season with family and friends. But, honestly, spending Christmas in another country has never really bothered us that much. In fact, we kind of like it.

We loved all the quality time we had with family and friends last holiday season in the U.S., but find ourselves increasingly struggling with a lot of aspects of the holidays in the States. Apart from missing family and friends, it’s nice to have distance from the rush-rush-rush, hyperconsumerism, and just plain insanity that seems to permeate the entire season back in the U.S.

We’ve found that spending the holidays in a place like Phnom Penh has become more natural feeling to us than spending the holidays back in our native Oregon. It’s not something either of us have an explanation for. It’s just the way it is.

We like our Christmas season relaxed and stripped down, with time for reflection. While two young boys make that last one harder than we’d like these days, all in all, Christmastime in Cambodia delivered.

And call us crazy, but we actually like the nice weather of the tropics during the holidays.

Here’s a look back at our first holiday season in Phnom Penh.

Noe really gets a kick out of seeing all the different Christmas trees around town. And there are a lot (the plastic variety, of course — the nearest native fir is easily a thousand miles away).

He particularly likes seeing all the ornaments and the gifts under the trees (which he calls “surprises”).

Christmas trees seemed to pop up all over on a daily basis starting in mid-November.

By early December, Noe really wanted a tree of his own. We have a small reusable tree in freight, but it’s been looking more and more like our freight won’t arrive until after Christmas.

So, as much as it irks me to purchase [again] something we already have, I had no choice but to make a trip down to the local stationary chain store and pick up a new tree.

Lori and I also picked out a handful of ornaments and two stockings. Dare I say, this tree might even be a little nicer than the one we have in freight.

Two years prior, Noe was obsessed with our little Christmas tree, so we were hopeful that excitement might carry over. Let’s just say, he was not as impressed as we had hoped, especially after seeing all of the huge and ornate trees around town.

Over time, he has warmed to the little tree, and asks me daily to lift him up so he can see it.

I’m looking forward to a time when both boys are old enough to examine the tree up close without fear of a certain little toddler (who shall remain nameless but whose name begins with an “R”) eating and/or doing other unspeakable things to the tree.

A busy intersection full of street vendors lit up for the season.

Noe’s had a stocking since his first Christmas at six months, but never really thought much about them until this Christmas. This year, something clicked and he suddenly realized that stockings…are socks!!!

He proudly wanted to show off his discovery to me, prompting a long discussion about how stockings are special socks that aren’t actually worn…because Santa can smell that they’ve been worn, and if he does, he might not leave anything. That seemed to get the message across.

Throughout the month of December, there’s been more Christmas/holiday events than we could ever possibly take part in — handicraft fairs, concerts, cookie icing, coloring, clowns, Santa grottos, you name it — which has been a huge difference from Vientiane.

The events that we have attended have been fun and pretty low key for the most part. We’ve stopped by a few Christmas fairs, which are starting to get a bit repetitive.

There wasn’t much to see at this one, so we decided instead to take advantage of the awesome weather and go for a walk along the river.

The weather in Phnom Penh (and Vientiane) in December is about as perfect as it gets. You couldn’t pay Lori or I to trade it in for snow.

This particular day may have been the most breezy day we’ve had in Cambodia yet. We’ve been basking in the awesome breeze that Phnom Penh gets this time of year, after three years of living in Vientiane where there’s just not a lot of wind.

Another perfect weather day, another outing.

Fun fact. If you’re wondering where Riley is, if you don’t see him with his brother in the photo, I’m probably wearing him…and he’s probably kicking and head-butting me as well.

We’ve been wanting to try out Botanico for a few weeks. But once we realized we’d be living fairly close to the place, we thought we’d hold off.

On this day, they’re hosting a caroling event. Noe’s been craving mommy time lately, so the two of them went an hour early to enjoy the festivities. Riley and I joined later.

Just a bunch of fun people from around the world getting together to sing Christmas standards at a beer garden — with flights of local craft beer, nonetheless. Good times.

One weekend before Christmas, we made the journey down to Toul Tom Pong (Russian Market) for the kids to say hi to Santa. It took us a good 15 minutes to find the place, as the Google Maps and Facebook pins were wrong and there was no signage but for a small wooden easel out front. But we found it, and Santa as well.

Later that day, we stopped by Exchange Square to check out yet another Christmas Fair. Not much to write home about for the adults (the same Seekers Gin and Botanico beer booths we see everywhere), but there was a nice little coloring and clown corral for the wee ones.

Cinema in Phnom Penh in 2019. In my book, it’s Diamond Class or no class. Actually, Lori and I haven’t been inside a movie theater since early 2016. It’s more like Laptop-in-Bed Class for us these days, which is fine by us.

Another Mommy and Noe outing. This time, it’s gingerbread decorating at our favorite little Aussie/Polish place, Pelican Cafe.

Like prior years, Christmastime wouldn’t be complete without a holiday program at Noe’s nursery school. Noe’s been practicing the songs at home for weeks, particularly as he’s drifting off to sleep and waking up in the morning. The kid loves to sing and can hold a tune better than most adults, in my opinion.

Following the music portion of the event, the kids break off by class and head inside in eager anticipation of a visit from Father Christmas.

Father Christmas brings a bag full of goodies for the classroom (to play with in the coming year at school).

Then, a bit of play time…


…and nap time back at home, signaling the beginning of another long holiday break — this time, a two-week holiday for the school. Riley’s current school will be open for another week, but Noe will be home with me next week, with a little help from one of our favorite new sitters for a few hours here and there.

Then, we all head to the beach for a few days over New Years.

Getting back to Christmas…

Another mommy outing at a festively decorated Vietnamese restaurant nearby.

Every morning for about a week now, Noe wakes up and heads straight to the refrigerator to see if “Baby Jesus” came and left him a surprise under the tree.

The first couple mornings, I reminded him that Baby Jesus came a long time ago and Christmas is Baby Jesus’ birthday, and it’s Papa Noel / Father Christmas / Santa Claus who comes on Christmas Eve to fill the stockings, and it’s mommy and daddy who leave the presents, but that Christmas is more about giving than getting, and…and…and…

By the third morning of this, I resigned myself to simply shaking my head and saying, “Nope, no Baby Jesus yet. Soon, Noe. Soon.”

Finally, Christmas Eve rolls around. We wanted to attend the evening service at the church down the street, which started at 7pm, but weren’t sure how Riley would do. They have a creche, but Riley gets a bit wacky when he’s tired and I didn’t want to subject anyone to that — not on Christmas Eve.

I thought I’d have better luck trying to put him to sleep on me. So, Riley and I went for a little stroll around the neighborhood while Lori and Noe sang carols and played with fire, in the name of the Lord.

After about 15 minutes of wandering around the dark streets of BKK1 wearing my own little manger, I returned to the sanctuary triumphantly…

…thanks be to God!

Granted, Riley forbid me to sit the entire service, so I lurked creepily against the back wall, just me and my 25-pound Christmas getup.

At long last, the big morning arrives. We bring the tree and presents down where the boys can see them, and open the flood gates.

But first, breakfast.

With happy bellies, the fun begins.

…almost. Sorry, Noe. Mommy has to go get Riley. Alright, Noe, I think we’re ready to…

…Riley! Those aren’t your gifts. Sorry, Noe. We just have to get Riley in a good place…

Riley, buddy. Out of the trash cupboard. You know you’re not supposed to be in the kitchen…

Sorry, Noe… Thanks for being patient.

Hmm…what to do…what to do…

That’s better!

Alright Noe, let’s open your stocking!

And what did Santa bring Noe? The two things that would fit into a sock that we knew he’d really get excited about — fruit, and a milk box (long story).

Out on parole, Riley opens his stocking.

Yep. We’re those parents. Honestly, there are few things the kids get more excited about these days than fruit (with Riley, it’s any food, really). We’re riding this wave for as long as we can.

Then, on to the opening of “surprises.” Noe absolutely loves Richard Scarry books. They are impossible to find here new, but Lori was able to buy this vintage second-hand book from another expat family here who was getting rid of a few things.

And Riley, of course, was excited to open his gift too. Riley can be an animal, but when it comes to opening his gift-wrapped surprise, he does so with the careful precision befitting someone at least twice his age.

With all the boys’ Christmas surprises opened, there’s just one thing left to do…

Merry Christmas from Cambo!

25 Dec 2019

1 thought on “Christmastime in Phnom Penh”

  1. Shirley Northcraft

    Awesome posting. Noe is certainly changing. The whole family looks healthy and happy.


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