The pop and crackle of Lunar New Year firecrackers going off around our Siem Reap neighbourhood over the past few days has punctuated the otherwise uninterrupted soundtrack outside of birdsong, motorbikes, barking dogs, crowing roosters, laughing tourists, and “Tuk tuk? You want tuk tuk, Madam?”

Gōng xǐ fā cái! As it’s Chinese New Year’s Even here in Siem Reap, we thought we’d share this post from three years ago. The same rituals are underway, only it’s the Year of the Rooster in 2017.

Firecrackers, Marigolds, Lucky Money: Celebrating Lunar New Year, Tet and Chinese New Year

A few hardware shops at Old Market have been selling potted cherry blossom trees and red Chinese lanterns, but otherwise there were few signs that the Lunar New Year was approaching — until today, New Year’s Eve. The new Lunar New Year — and Chinese New Year — begins tomorrow, Friday 31 January, the start of the Year of the Horse.

Today began early with the hum of monks chanting at nearby wats (temples) and a steadily increasing pop and crackle throughout the day until an hour ago, when proper fireworks went off a few blocks away with a bang. Now? I can hear the tuk tuk drivers playing drinking games and Cambodia disco music in the distance.

The Khmer New Year — or Chal Chnam Thmey — actually takes place on the traditional Solar New Year over three days in April, when it’s also celebrated in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and parts of India. The Cambodians, however, love a party, and have been embracing holidays like they’re going out of style.

On our New Year’s Eve here in Siem Reap, there were far more Khmers dancing in the streets than foreigners. I read in a story today that a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture said that the “Universal New Year” was the third biggest celebration in Cambodia after the Khmer New Year. The second most important, while not an official holiday, was the Chinese New Year.

Cambodians without Chinese ancestry are celebrating because they believe it will bring them good luck, prosperity, and the natural consequence of that — happiness. If you’ve been through what Cambodians have been through then you’d be setting off firecrackers at every opportunity too.

Of course, many Cambodians are of Chinese descent. The Chinese Association in Cambodia estimates there are some 700,000 Cambodian descendants of Chinese heritage, although you don’t realise it until holidays such as these when all of a sudden your travel agent stops answering emails, your neighbours have pulled down their shutters on their shops and homes, and even your tuk-tuk driver has gone on holidays. Fortunately in Cambodia it’s only for a few days.

Across the border in neighbouring Vietnam, where the holiday is called Tet, the Vietnamese have been preparing for a couple of weeks. There, official Tet Holiday began a couple of days ago so people could start the trek back to their hometowns and villages to begin helping their families with preparations.

In Vietnam Tet is the most important holiday of the year, so they’ll celebrate Vietnamese New Year tonight, Vietnamese New Year tomorrow, and then take another five days off to spend with their families and close friends before making the journey back to their place of residence and work.

At roughly the same time last Lunar New Year — I can’t say “this time twelve months ago” because the Lunar New Year dates shift according to the Lunar Calendar — we were in Hanoi and then Hue while they were bustling with preparations for the holiday.

Everywhere, shops were selling vibrant red and gold lanterns, Chinese couplets, paper-cut decorations, red envelopes (to hold gifts of money) and fake flowers. People were buying new clothes and busy cleaning every inch of their homes.

After, they hide the brooms and cleaning products for a few days to prevent the good luck from being swept from the house. At nearly every eatery we ate at or shop we went to in Hue, we saw family members arrive with plastic bags full of fresh bottles of cleaning products, new cloths and sponges, and brand new brooms, ready to begin scrubbing their businesses until they were spotlessly clean. Some also had tins of paint and brushes to slap on a new coat even if it wasn’t needed.

We arrived in Hoi An two days before New Year’s Eve, to witness last minute purchases of cherry blossom and marigold trees — it’s also the Spring Festival, according to the Lunar New Year — and see dozens of the trees crammed onto ferry boat after ferry boat, along with scores of people and motorbikes. As if the things weren’t overloaded as it was.

The most bizarre sight during Tet that for me has become the quintessential image of the holiday is that of a motorbike buzzing through the streets with tall potted flower and orange trees strapped on behind. The quintessential smell of Tet is incense, which locals light for their ancestors at a shrine they decorate more elaborately than usual with fruit, fake money, rice wine or bottles of liquor, and plates of food.

We spent New Years Eve strolling around the crammed streets of candle-lit Hoi An until an hour before midnight when we hired a boat belonging to a smiling old lady so Terence could capture the reflection of the fireworks on the water. She rowed us around for a while and it was magic — so still, just us and a handful of others on the water, while the riverbanks were jammed with people.

A short time before midnight the old lady stopped at the dock so we could dash to a toilet, which fortuitously happened to be where her family — her daughter and grandkids — were waiting to board. We didn’t mind one bit. Just minutes before the fireworks crackled directly above us the sky opened up and it began to rain, and it rained so hard we all got absolutely drenched.

I didn’t quite figure out whether our soaking was good luck or bad luck. I guess it must have been a good omen, as it wasn’t a bad year. Let’s hope for the same again. I’m off to hide the brooms.

Happy Year of the Horse!

You might also like to read Terence’s reflections on Photographing Tet Celebrations in Hoi An.

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