I’m a little behind with posts due to being on holiday so here instead is a short story inspired by my trip.
It was Jack’s idea to come to South East Asia. He had bought himself a large midlife crisis camera and done an introduction to digital photography course and now he saw himself as the next Sebastao Salgado or Annie Liebowitz or something, and South East Asia would be the place he would shoot the photos that would turn him from mediocre accountant to international superstar photographer.
We booked a trip from Vietnam to Thailand through Cambodia, travelling with other middle class, middle aged English people: four couples plus us plus two single women who were old childhood friends.
Jack pissed people off from the get go, grumbling that the light was not right for the image he wanted to create, or sticking his lens right into people’s faces without asking permission, and then complaining when they hid their faces or looked away. Even the two photo nerd men on the trip were annoyed by him constantly asking them questions about white balance and f stops (which made me think he hadn’t taken in as much from his course as he said he did).
And there was me, with my little smartphone, getting loads of photos with people. Anyone who called out “Hello!” to me, be it school children or old women, I’d stop to say hello back, and introduce myself (I have no idea if they understood what I was saying) and then I’d ask for a photo with them. (“Selfie” it seems, is an international word.)
We were in Kampot, in Cambodia, and our guide told us it was Khmer New Year. Jack was convinced this was his big opportunity to capture those Pulitzer Prize winning images. I trailed off after Jack into the city. The alternative was sitting with the other women by the pool, comparing cellulite and bitching about husbands and children. Tempting as that was on such a hot day, I felt the need to stretch my legs and see something of the town.
We were two blocks from the hotel when two young girls came up to us, holding a bottle of talcum powder. “Happy New Year!” the taller one wearing the matching Gucci tshirt and leggings said, while the shorter one wearing what looked like Tom and Jerry patterned pyjamas filled her hands with talc and reached up to wipe them on my cheeks. “Happy New Year,” I replied, inhaling the sweet childhood scent of talc. Jack meanwhile, had twisted himself into an irregular shape in order to avoid the girl touching him or getting powder on his precious camera. “No, go away,” he said. The girls shrugged, and carried on walking down the street.
Before I had the chance to tell Jack off for being so rude, two teenage boys on motorcycles shot water guns at us as the drove by. Jack let loose a high pitched squeal and hunched his body over to protect his camera. I looked around, and it seemed that everyone on this street had a water pistol except for us.
“This is the Khmer New Year celebration you wanted to photograph,” I said to Jack. “Water fights and talc on your face.”
Jack looked pained. “I thought there would be traditional costumes and dancing.”
“There’s certainly dancing,” I gestured at the grooving crowd on the corner clustered around a boombox pumping out some kind of modern dance music.
“This is not what I wanted at all. Theres nothing to photograph here. Let’s go back to the hotel.”
“I’m going to walk around a while longer,” I said. “I’ll see you back there.”
Jack frowned. “But it’s not safe.”
I waved him away. “I’ll be fine,” I said and then turned to wal towards the crowd on the corner. I could feel Jack fuming at my back as I walked away but I didn’t turn around.
The crowd in the corner saw me coming and grinning, raised their water pistols as I approached. I was hit by several streams of water, which were pleasantly cooling in the heat of the afternoon. I approached the smallest child and took the water pistol off him. He looked afraid for a moment, until I turned it around and shot water back at him. Then he laughed and jumped up and down that the crazy foreign lady was joining in the game.
But there was no time to enjoy my bonding moment with one boy; our group was under attack from a flat bed Toyota driving by with 10 people sitting in the back, all tooled up with heavy duty water guns.
I joined in, grabbing plastuc scoopfuls of water and emptying them at the Toyota crew as they shot at us from their higher position. After the Toyota, we had more success with stopping motorbikes and drenching the riders with water and shaking powder at them.
I must have stayed there for about an hour, in which time I got thoroughly soaked, but I had the most fun I’d had in years. The man in charge of our corner battalion even paid me the high honour of letting me have the hose for a while, and I think I did a pretty good job of soaking some teenagers in the back of another big 4WD flat bed while taking heavy water fire.
But I could see the sun was getting low in the sky, so I gathered my crew together for a group photo (I was amazed my phone still worked despite how wet I’d got), said thank you and goodbye and walked back to the hotel.
Away from the water fights, the heat of the afternoon returned and I felt my wet clothes start to steam as they dried.
Back in the leafy green hotel courtyard, I saw Jack sitting on his own with a beer and one of his World War II books. Two of the other tour couples were sat at another table and they fell silent as I walked in, still wet and bedraggled and with crusts of talc on my face. I gave them a cheery wave and sat down opposite Jack.
“Where the hell have you been?” he hissed at me. “You look ridiculous.”
I combed my wet hair back off my face with my fingers.
“No Jack, I look like someone who has been having fun. Do you remember what fun is, Jack?”
The young Cambodian man who worked the hotel bar was cautiously approaching our table, sensing animosity, not sure if he should put himself in the way. I smiled at him, pointed at Jack’s beer and then at myself. He smiled back, understanding, and went to get me a beer.
“You could have been killed or raped or robbed,” Jack snapped. “I was worried about you. I tried calling you and got no answer.”
I fished my phone out of my pocket, still wet and very little battery left, but yes, two missed calls from Jack and one from Miranda.
“You got Miranda to call me?” Maybe he really was worried.
“I thought you might not answer my calls for whatever crazy reason, but you would probably answer a call from our daughter.”
I put the phone back in my pocket, and reached out to touch Jack’s hand where it lay in top of his book. He pulled his hand away, and that stung.
“You know I keep my phone on silent. I didn’t know you called me.”
“No, you don’t think about anyone else do you? You follow your own little path and expect everyone to go along with you but you end up looking ridiculous.”
He pushed his chair back abruptly, and stood up and walked away from the table, nearly bumping to the man bringing me my beer.
“Khmer New Year,” the barman said, smiling at me.
“Yes,” I replied, pulling a smile onto my face to stop the feeling that I might cry. “Good fun. Are you celebrating?”
The barman gave me a cheeky grin and said, “Oh yes, celebrating big time.” Before I could ask him what that meant, he’d turned and gone back to the bar.
I took a quick look over at the other couples from the tour. They had been looking at me but when I turned they all looked away, pretending they weren’t.
These snappy interactions with Jack happened often enough but no usually in public. It didn’t matter that I could have said the same thing to him, he’d said it to me, in front of other people.
Don’t cry, don’t cry, I said to myself as I took a long drink of my beer. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
Someone dropped into the chair opposite me.
I opened my eyes. There was Ray, our tour guide, soaking wet, hair crusted white with talc and carrying the biggest water gun I’d seen all day.
“I see you’ve been celebrating Khmer New Year as well,” he said. “It’s good fun, isn’t it?”
I managed to blink back the tears that were forming in my eyes.
“Oh Ray, it was the best fun I have had in years! Everyone was happy, it was such simple fun – water fights and talc.”
He nodded enthusiastically. “Did Jack join you?”
“No, it wasn’t really his kind of thing,” I said. “Having fun? Yes I can see that having fun might be a challenge for him. Anyway, I’m glad you managed to get out there and enjoy it. But you better get cleaned up, we are heading out for dinner in…” here he checked his watch, “half an hour.”
He got up and left.
I took another long drink of beer. Yes, I knew how to have fun, and it didn’t matter what Jack or the other couples at the next table thought. I had fun – chaotic, messy, playful fun. That fun was more memorable than any temple or museum. That fun was worth more than any image caught on an expensive camera.
I drained the last of my beer and got up from the table. Time to get ready for dinner.
2 thoughts on “Happy New Year”
We lived in Siem Reap for about 2.5 years and have lived in Thailand for god knows how long. It’s remarkable that you were not aware of such a massive holiday for SEA, but that shows a lovely kind of innocence too.
Vietnam has their own version as well. I’m not sure what I think about the water fights and talc powder because as far as I know it’s not a traditional way to celebrate in Cambodia. Most likely they borrowed the idea from Thailand which is known for this “nationwide water fight” but this year, as it was the first after years of Covid shutdowns, the govt said no splashing.
I’m sorry you and Jack fought. I can see both points of views and traveling plus the stress of being somewhere very different can test the best of us. Enjoy the water, but be careful — my friends have had ear infections, but playing around in water can be a refreshing break from the heat.
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😂 This was a short story not fact, so there is no Jack, except in my mind. Husband luckily is much nicer than him 😃. I have no idea if this was traditional for SEA or Cambodia but it was a great to see a celebration that was so happy and fun.
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