Festival Season in Cambodia

When we lived in Laos, we dreaded festival season.

Every year, usually in April, the entire country of Laos shuts down for nearly two weeks to celebrate the Buddhist New Year. Pi Mai (Lao New Year) is the biggest celebration in Laos, and nothing else comes close.

Sure, the boat racing festivals across the country and Vientiane’s That Luang Festival are very big deals, but they don’t impact on every facet of everyday life quite like Pi Mai.

As a falang (foreigner in Lao), it’s one thing to have to deal with the impacts of a long break in the action from a work or travel perspective — vacation time is always welcome.

More so, it’s the days upon days of partying and loud music booming from every family compound, shops and restaurants shutting down for a week or more, crime peaking for the year, and having it be next to impossible to find vacancies or something that vaguely resembles a “vacation” during all that vacation time.

If we didn’t have little ones, we’d enjoy imbibing and participating in a night or two of all-night festivities with the locals. With a baby and toddler, that’s just not going to happen for us. Even without kids, our cap of partying would be a solid night, not 10 like the locals do.

We knew before moving to Phnom Penh that Cambodians celebrated Buddhist New Year in the spring in much of the same spirit, and Lori and I were fully prepared for that.

What we weren’t prepared for was Khmer Water Festival. And we certainly weren’t prepared to embrace the onslaught of such an event after having barely settled into our new home (and not yet really having a place to call home yet).

Noe got exactly eight days at his new school before they closed things down for the next seven. Lori got five days in her new office, and we found ourselves left in a lurch regarding rental viewings.

But we knew that no matter how much we grumbled about the timing and all of Cambodia’s 24+ national holidays, that it is what it is. And as always, we’d make the most of it no matter what.

Fortunately, housing-wise, we were able to buy ourselves a little time and flexibility, which went a long way in saving our sanity during festival time.

Housing Update

Big Green in the photo, above, is where we currently call home.

We were initially meant to stay in a boutique guesthouse near Lori’s work for the first week as we got settled, but Lori instead advocated for a two-bedroom Airbnb for around the same price, following on the heels of the luck we’ve had in Vietnam and Malaysia with Airbnbs. Lori’s employer covered the first week and we tacked on a second.

Around the time that we began to realize this housing search thing was going to take a lot longer than we anticipated, we also viewed a three-bedroom unit just a floor below in the same building. We knew it wasn’t going to work long-term, but enquired anyway and found the terms to be very flexible (daily rate, no lease, etc.).

Not having any solid housing leads and with the Water Festival almost upon us, we decided that the best course of action would be to move into the unit immediately for as long as we needed until we found a place that suited our needs.

Though our housing search has proven much more challenging than we initially planned for, we we were happy for our serendipitous stop-gap.

What’s not so serendipitous is getting your butt kicked by food poisoning on moving day.

I thought I’d found our go-to Indian restaurant for our time in Phnom Penh on Monday night. It got rave reviews, the atmosphere was nice, the price was right, and they were quick and friendly with my take away order.

Feeling triumphant, I brought the food back to the apartment and Lori and I devoured the delicious and oh-so authentic Indian feast.

We had no idea then just how authentic our experience was about to become.

Just like Kolkata, Lori was the first to get hit. It came in waves throughout the night, then peaked around midday…on her second day of work.

I was spared the bulk of the abdominal nasties, but was absolutely knocked out and down for the count from sun up to sun down on Tuesday.

Unfortunately for me, we were due to pack up our things and move apartments on the same day.

I pushed through the cold sweats and sheer exhaustion over 4-5 trips between floors before passing out in our new bed for the next several hours.

No unpacking today, but at least everything made it downstairs.

And, for the first time in six weeks, we’ll get to sleep in our own room sans kids!

Noe’s really perfecting his Asian squat. I always wondered how men can squat for hours on end here. Now I know that it starts early.

One More Viewing

One last scouring of online rental postings before the holiday leads us to this little beauty. A gorgeous French Colonial duplex (two-story), fresh on the market.

It’s a two bedroom, but with an air-conditioned office and a bonus area off of the master bedroom. It’s all got some generous square footage.

On our final day before festivities begin, we arrange a viewing.

We’re impressed. It’s a beautiful home, centrally located, with lots of charm and character, and we can certainly figure out something with the office (above). Noe’s room, perhaps?

During the viewing, Lori and I are giddy with excitement. We just made it in the knick of time! A few formalities and the place is ours.

At one point I whisper to Lori, “So…what’s the catch…?” She cuts me off in mid-sentence. Don’t jinx it.

The current tenants are there so we’re able to ask them a number of key questions. We get to the topic of noise, and they say they’re neighbors are mostly Khmer and very quiet and respectful.


But then, an awkward pause. The current tenants (a young couple), awkwardly eye each other. There’s more.

Here it comes…

“The drag shows can be a bit loud, though.”

…Wha? Where? Who?

Her boyfriend adds, “Yeah, the gay bar down the street has a drag show, but it’s just on Fridays and they’re wrapped up by 11pm.”

Oh, that doesn’t sound so bad.

“They’re so much fun to go to, you guys will love ’em.”

(Oh yeah, our kids go down at 7pm every night, but I’m sure we can live vicariously through the blaring music).

“Yeah, the gay bar, and sometimes the temple across the street has announcements and music through the PA system.”


Walking back from the viewing, Lori’s pretty excited about the place, but I have a bit of an uneasy pit in my stomach. Maybe just the Indian food.

Maybe not.

I get back on Google maps and look up info on the gay bar. The drag shows aren’t one but FOUR nights a week and go well past 2am. The bar is literally right next door to the property as well (not “down the street”), and the master bedroom is in the front of the house, just meters away from the action.

I then look up reviews for a guesthouse down the street. More confirmation that the drag shows are several times a week, that they go late, and they are very loud.

And if that isn’t enough, apparently the temple across the street blasts music EVERY morning at sunrise.

AND…guests at the guesthouse complained of smoke and ashes…and the smell of burning flesh. Apparently, the temple is the biggest Buddhist crematorium in town.

Well, I wasn’t crazy about moving all of our stuff again so soon, anyway.

Daddy Day #1 in Cambodia

Next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are Water Festival days. And tomorrow (Friday), is Independence Day.

The city has already begun to shut down for the mega-holiday, and officials are busy dolling up Independence Monument in its holiday best.

Today (Thursday), is our first official Daddy Day in Cambodia — not by choice, however. I love my sons, but I did just spend three weeks straight with them, so a little more than a week or two break to get settled-in and get caught up on my to-do list would have been very welcome.

Voluntary or involuntarily, Daddy Days are always fun with Noe these days, so I can’t complain too much. Plus, it gives me a good excuse to procrastinate on grown-up stuff.

Ever since our first daddy day, I’ve put in place a zero tolerance for multi-tasking, and try to stick to it.

That doesn’t mean I don’t sneak off to do some dishes while Noe’s happily reading or working on his Legos. It does mean that when I’m playing with Noe or out and about, I try not to be on my phone.

There are times when this is unavoidable (say, a last-minute grocery request from Lori, or a time-sensitive piece of logistics that needs to be handled). But generally, I hold to it.

So, yes. There’s plenty that needs to get done. But nothing that’s so pressing that can’t wait until nap time. This morning, I’m hanging with the big boy.

We head to Riverside, hit up a coffee shop, share a bagel sandwich and juice, and make things with our off-brand Magna-Tiles. I make something, then Noe tries to one-up me, and so on.

Then…it’s time to do the one thing Noe’s been talking about since we got to Phnom Penh over a week ago — go to the river!

Perhaps above all else we did on daddy days in Vientiane, Noe loved our trips to the Mekong. When we were packing up to move to Phnom Penh, I told him not to worry, because we can visit the Mekong in Phnom Penh too!

In the seven years since the first time Lori and I visited Cambodia, I’d forgotten that the Mekong only barely skirts the city, and it’s the Tonle Sap that actually runs the length of the city center.

I thought of explaining this nuance to Noe, but then thought better of it. It means a lot for the little dude to think it’s the same river, so we’ll keep calling it the Mekong for now.

On a side note, the Tonle Sap is a very crazy and unique water way, and it’s worth reading this post to find out why.

On this particular day, the river isn’t exactly the main attraction, but rather the dozen river boats being fitted with lights for the festival.

Noe could probably sit here for hours watching the workers string the hundreds of meters of lights on each boat. We’re excited to see the final result next week.

Around 10am, things started to get really steamy. We cut short our walk along the river and took a tuk tuk down to our go-to play cafe: Farm to Table.

Quesadillas are our special daddy day lunch treat, and Noe loves them (who doesn’t?). Farm to Table has quesadillas on the menu, so I thought we’d have a special treat.

However, their quesadillas were just a bit too hipster for our Mister.

Noe’s tastes are quite simple, and cheese and chicken in between two tortillas would have been just fine. So, he ended up munching on the tortilla, black beans and cheese, and I took care of the menagerie of sauteed produce spilling out from every corner.

Lori pointed out later that there is a basic cheese quesadilla hidden on the Kids Menu. We’ll know for next time.

It’s back to the apartment for nap time and laundry. Our new unit is northeast facing, so it stays nice and cool throughout the day. But that means our clothes don’t dry as quick as they could. Fortunately, this time of year, there’s a strong northeasterly wind that we catch pretty nicely up here on the sixth floor.

The next day, we head back to Java Cafe for a bite and a bit of play time. There aren’t a ton of coffee shops around here that have play areas, so we find ourselves heading back to a lot of the same places.

It’s not that Noe needs a place with toys to be happy at a coffee shop, but these days with very few toys at home until our freight arrives, he gets really excited for any chance to play with something else.

He’s been a really good boy since we’ve arrived in Phnom Penh, and the transition hasn’t been easy. I wanted to do something out of the ordinary with him, but the heat of this particular Friday limited our options.

We ended up at the mall, of all places, in the arcade. Only his second time in one, and this one offered a lot of age-appropriate options. He was very excited to say the least.

Noe got to drive a big truck…

…and a cloud machine…

Then, we took a stroll around the department store, which he may have enjoyed just as much. So many weird things to see, like huge flat-screen TVs showing high-resolution video of sailboats and butterflies, there were washing machines and refrigerators, and this display, which really piqued Noe’s interest.

“Ooh! Snowman, like in my book!”

Yep, even predominately Buddhist Cambodia is not immune from the kitschy decorations and music (and associated commercialism) of what Starbucks’ marketing material here has labeled the “Global Season of Cheer.” Nobody does corporate imperialism quite like Starbucks.

Looks like someone got a Black Friday deal on a Black Friday banner. Fortunately, Black Friday isn’t really a thing here, though we hear that Khmer Water Festival is quickly becoming Phnom Penh’s answer to Black Friday.

I guess we’ll see for ourselves next week…

2 thoughts on “Festival Season in Cambodia”

  1. The waterfront has improved a lot. I was there 18 months ago and they were still laying pavements and gardens. Looks amazing now.

  2. Sure had a giggle at the duplex “catch”. Wow!
    Anxious to hear where you are permanently…or still in the green palace?
    Great pictures but missed Riley!
    Hugs to you all. Ann and Bill too


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