With an influx of goodies and decorations, a traditional Christmas can now be recreated in Cambodia. AsiaLIFE provides a guide to making all your Yuletide wishes come true. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
For many expats, Dec. 25 conjures up nostalgic images of overstuffed stockings, traditional carols, and plates piled high with roast dinners drowning in gravy – all in the foreground of a cosy, wood-burning fire, as the snow silently piles up outside.
And for those who this year will be staying in Cambodia through the holidays, celebrating with family or fellow orphans, it’s hard to reconcile these visions with the capital’s tropical and dusty streets, lined with stupas and food carts.
Though Christmas has long been a foreign concept in the country, in recent years Cambodians have warmed to the season, and retailers are quickly catching on. Some may bemoan the holiday fast becoming commercialised as the nation embraces it, but the upside is the growing number of stores and events that now cater to those seeking to ring in the season in style.
So while dreaming of a winter wonderland may be a stretch, snow aside, an old-fashioned Christmas can go off in the Kingdom of Wonder without a hitch – perhaps even leaving you grateful to have skipped the crowds, costliness and chaos accompanying the holiday back home.
Christmas starts and ends with the tree, and the sooner it’s up the sooner it will feel like December. Getting outfitted is as easy as a one-shop stop to IBC (International Book Center), which has been stocked with all sizes and assortments of decorations since October. Dominating a large ground-floor section are life-size, sax-playing Santa Claus figurines and artificial trees, along with row upon row of multi-coloured tinsel, tree ornaments, snowmen, Santa hats, reindeer headbands and a myriad other trinkets ranging from classy to gaudy.
The AEON mall supermarket also stocks decorative mini trees, stockings and other knickknacks leading up to the big day. And signature children’s accessories can be found at Little Phnom Penh, which designs and rolls out a line of personalised stockings, Christmas tree decorations, star pillows and kids’ outfits and accessories.
Once all the trimmings are in place, you can concentrate on gifts for loved ones, assuming they’ve been nice and not naughty. Luckily, the city offers options for both the generous and the miser, ranging from luxury to budget presents. For those planning to splash out, Phnom Penh is now home to brands such as L’Occitane en Provence, Ralph Lauren and Rimowa, to meet all opulent fancies.
Those looking to keep costs down can head to local markets for crowd pleasers such as kramas and Kampot pepper, or to Senteurs d’Angkor, with outlets in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, for all-natural lemongrass or frangipani soaps ($2.50) and Khmer spices ($4), complete with recipes for traditional dishes.
For everyone in between, the capital now boasts a smattering of small boutiques with one-of-a-kind gifts, handmade in Cambodia. Specialising in pig and cow leather goods, DO I DO sells everything from oversized purses ($120) and reversible tote bags ($30) to sunglass cases ($20) and key holders ($3). Opened in August, the intimate shop provides workshops for do-it-yourself-ers, and customers can choose to emboss or personalise products in red, blue, pink, yellow or orange leather. The minimal-design pieces are made in house and by partner Watthan Artisans Cambodia, which employs those living with disabilities.
For household decor, Alchemy Design Co. furnishes wooden cutting boards ($40), iPhone docks ($15), stools ($75-$90) and dressers ($650). All products are designed in country and hand-built from locally sourced reclaimed wood and other repurposed materials, giving them a unique look while also plugging environmental sustainability.
If on the hunt for something more vintage, retro Cambodian souvenirs can be purchased at 2nd Estampe – a treasure trove of reproduced images from the region’s heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, printed on photographs ($9-$15), posters ($15-35) and magnets ($2). For those looking for the originals, the first Estampe store has higher-end vintage paintings and maps of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
For your more studious friends, head to Monument Books to invest in recently published works on Cambodia’s past and present, including Robert Carmichael’s When Clouds Fell from the Sky and Sebastian Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
To accompany presents, high-quality Christmas cards can be purchased at Bloom and at Siem Reap-based Blossom ($2.25 each, or $2 when buying five or more). Handmade by young Cambodian women and locally designed and printed, cards use foil printing and embossing, and feature polar bears, penguins, wreaths and trees, some with matching lined envelopes.
Channelling Season Spirit
Beyond the presents under the tree, embracing the ho ho ho holiday spirit will take some creativity and close calendar monitoring. While it’s impossible even in the cooler season to fully escape the Cambodian heat, it may be worth cranking up the AC for a night to host one of the persistently trendy ‘ugly sweater’ parties.
All the rage in the West for the past few years, these get-togethers ironically celebrate hideous 1980s holiday sweaters, as well as any other general Christmas tackiness. Hosting is as simple as concocting your own eggnog, mulled wine or hot toddies, tracking down winter movie classics, such as Home Alone or It’s A Wonderful Life, to set the scene, and finding your best ugly, vintage clothes from the city’s many second-hand stores, such as the expansive Don Don Down in Russian Market or bag a bargain at The History of Things to Come’s vintage sale from Dec. 4 to 8 at 1961 in Siem Reap.
For a built-in vintage atmosphere, throw a party at Harry’s Bar on Bassac Lane. The venue, filled with antiques and classic desks, lamps and clocks, will feel like a timeless, picture-perfect J. Crew version of Christmas. The postcard-worthy outlet hosts tailored festive drinks for offices, organisations or groups of families and friends. (Call 077 555 447 for inquiries and bookings.)
If you’re craving a real hit of cold, head to Aeon mall’s Ice Park. It may not be Hyde Park, but the 1,000 square-metre ice rink offers ice skating sessions (adults $10 and children $8, skates included), and even bumper cars on ice with laser tag.
Though many Christmas fairs take place in November, festivity seekers and last-minute shoppers can catch a few events this month. Xmas Corner, held on Streets 240 and 19, will have a Santa Claus, clowns and various children’s activities, with the participation of retail shops, restaurants and bars. And, on Dec 13, the Xmas Fair, hosted by French NGO AEFC (Association d’Entraide des Français) at the Cambodiana Hotel, will showcase 40 small-scale vendors selling Khmer-made goods such as scarves, silk bags, recycled products and honey.
To connect with more traditional holiday rituals, grab tickets for Belle Voce’s Christmas Concert. The community choir, with 40 singers from more than 10 countries, will perform classic seasonal songs, such as ‘Hallelujah’ from Handel’s Messiah, Cantique de Noël and other international favourites. Ticket sales for the concert, on Dec. 6 at the Intercontinental Hotel Phnom Penh, will support the Phnom Penh Centre for Independent Living. Special services will also be offered at many of the city’s churches on and leading up to Christmas.
Though fried rice and sour soup may do the trick the rest of the year in the Kingdom, it hardly makes the cut on Dec. 25. Thankfully, venues across the capital are offering traditional fare fit for the three kings, which means, fortunately or unfortunately, Christmas in Cambodia will not spare your waistline.
Hagar Restaurant will be serving a special buffet dinner on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with five main courses featuring roast turkey, roast beef and stuffing, accompanied by soup, appetisers, salad and a cheese and dessert station ($25). The social enterprise helps train its staff in cooking, service and food preparation to create sustainable career pathways.
At Intercontinental Hotel Phnom Penh, a festive Christmas Eve dinner buffet and Christmas Day brunch will also be offered. Diners will listen to live performances by the Hosanna School Choir, and Santa Claus will make a visit, bringing with him gifts and activities for kids at the Regency Café.
Or splash out at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra for their Christmas Eve set dinner at Do Forni Restaurant, where a five-course contemporary Christmas menu designed by Chef Andrea Genio will be paired with New World fine wines ($105 with wine pairings).
If you prefer dinner at home – but without all the work – Digby’s has whole smoked hams and speciality flavoured sausages for order, and Dan Meats offers frozen turkeys ($7/kilo) or cooked turkeys with stuffing and gravy ($15/kilo), as well as ham ($10/kilo). For sweet tooths, Bloom and Blossom will have Christmas-themed cookies and cupcakes.
Yet amidst all the merry-making, Christmastime can often be difficult for people. Beyond the daily struggles of those burdened by persistent poverty in the country, foreigners far from home can also struggle with loneliness during the season. Consider inviting neighbours or co-workers who may be celebrating alone to your orphan Christmas, and be on the lookout for those in need.
For anybody you know who may be struggling, consider connecting him or her with non-profit organisation Samaritans. While there is no in-country presence, you can connect to the Thailand-based operation, where trained crisis intervention volunteers provide listening ears for anyone who is depressed or lonely. Callers can remain anonymous, and lines are open 24/7. (Call +662 713 6791 for English, connect via Skype (samaritans.thai), or Facebook chat at facebook.com/Samaritans.Thailand). Phnom Penh-based Indigo International also offers counselling for those needing to work through personal difficulties, ranging from anxiety and bereavement to stress and trauma.
If you’re looking to lend a helping hand, link up with one of the many local and international non-profits to see how to donate time or resources. International non-governmental organisation Prison Fellowship works with national and foreigner prisoners, who face numerous challenges year round while incarcerated. This month, the faith-based group will be providing Christmas dinners and events in local prisons throughout the country, and are in need of volunteers and donations. The organisation also pairs foreign prisoners, who number more than 100 in country and are often separated from their families and communities, with expat volunteers who are willing to befriend and encourage those behind bars. (Email email@example.com to learn more.)
For those feeling more anti-holiday grinch, it’s still possible to escape the celebrations by heading to any one of the Kingdom’s coastal getaways, such as Kampot, Kep or the islands, where the rest of the country remains happily oblivious to the Christmas craze – at least for now.
For those remaining, with construction dominating the city, Christmas in Cambodia promises no silent night, and there may be no crazy Uncle Lewis present, but it can still be a traditional, quaint holiday just the same, with a charming tinge of Khmer. With the wonders of technology, even fireplaces replete with crackling noises can be recreated on iPads, and snow globes can be purchased at any local souvenir shop –with flakes appropriately falling around the country’s icon, Angkor Wat.
With Christmas covered, there’s only one question left to answer: what are your plans for New Year’s Eve?