Cambodia is an extraordinary place, especially at Christmas. Despite the Kmer Rouge genocide of nearly a third of the Cambodian population in the late 1970’s, they are a gentle happy people. Despite being a deeply religious Theravada Buddhist country, they welcome any reason to celebrate life. Despite having no evergreen trees, snow, or Christian traditions, they celebrate Christmas in joyous fashion, so much so that many middle class Chinese tourists travel to Seam Reap, Cambodia to celebrate Christmas. The big tourist hotels are decked out in Christmas lights, Santa and his reindeer, fake trees, and displays which makes it look like it is snowing in a country which never experiences snow.
My last night of spiritual pilgrimage I took my Cambodian guide Tek, and his nine and six-year-old daughters out to dinner at a restaurant of their choice. The girls, Regina and Reginie, chose their favorite meal of French fries and pizza. The girls attend Kmer public school from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm weekdays, and after going home for lunch, attend an English language class from 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm. As a result, Regina speaks remarkable English and was eager to practice her English on me.
We speak of many things, particularly similarities and differences in growing up in Cambodia versus America. This being late December a big Christmas display is visible across the street. The girls sang me Christmas songs they learned in school, none of which were religious, and talked about presents they hoped to receive. For them Christmas is a joyous family centered international holiday, with lots of presents, which doesn’t conflict with their Theravada Buddhist family traditions. Santa appears to them as a Laughing Buddha type figure, a jolly, fat and happy manifestation of divine mystery.
Regina finally asked me an important question: “If snow is made from frozen water, doesn’t it hurt you when it falls from the sky?” So, I explained to her about ice crystal formation in the clouds, resulting in the airy fluffiness of snowflakes, and how children catch snowflakes on their tongues. She pensively asked me: “So can you eat snow?” And I explained about snow with syrup, and snow fights, and snow men. The girls decided to throw snowballs at their father. So, we ordered snow from the kitchen. They will be expecting Santa in Seam Reap again this Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas! Jim