The Party of a Lifetime, Cambodian Style

When Kath and Koon, two brothers who work for the Trailblazer Foundation, invited Jeremy and I to spend the weekend in their village, we accepted without hesitation. Their family was hosting a two-day party to celebrate the 2nd birthday of their sister’s first child. “Can we ride our bikes?” We asked, wondering how we would get to and from their village. “No, very far.” They told us, so we agreed they would pick us up on Saturday morning and we would help them prepare for the party.
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At 9am sharp, Kath arrived at our guesthouse and the three of us crammed onto his motorbike (which is smaller than average). We had no idea how far we were going, so after more than an hour of sweating between Jeremy and Kath, I was relieved when we finally came to a stop in front of Kath’s house. “I can’t believe you drive an hour to and from work every day,” I told Kath, exhausted by the one way journey. “Yes, it is very far, but before I had only bicycle, then it took three hours to go to work and I come back very, very late.”

The women were already hard at work, intricately wrapping banana leaves around a blend of sticky rice, coconut and beans. We were introduced and sat to join them. Unfortunately, we were banished from banana leaf wrapping duty shortly after. Our several failed attempts at making this crafty treat was more unproductive than anything, so we left them to tour the property with Koon instead. Their home is on a beautiful piece of farmland, providing them an unmistakably country lifestyle. Two lush edamame gardens, a couple of cattle fields, and countless palm and banana trees surround their property. The area between their houses (mere wooden structures on stilts) and the road was cleared for the construction of a small schoolhouse and playground. Koon explained to us how he and his brother had built the schoolhouse for the children in their village because they wanted to teach English and give the youngest children a place to have breakfast. “Children always very hungry in the morning, you know,” he told us. “But before I cook, they had no morning food.”

Koon led us up the steep ladder of his house. It was unfinished, with only two walls and 5-inch gaps between the loosely laid floorboards. In the corner was a bed of rice mats, blankets and small pillows, protected by mosquito net. He had made it especially for us. “You sleep here, in my house,” he said. It was beautiful and wonderfully surprising, as I thought back to our night of hell in the Galapagos. Grateful, we dropped our bags and rejoined the others in the preparations.

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Turns out, this was not just an ordinary birthday party. This was a grand celebration; a once in a lifetime event. For years, they had been saving money in preparation for this event and over 200 people we expected to attend. Much like our wedding celebrations, they had spared little expense for the occasion. A space had been cleared and decorated with lights and speakers for the DJ and band, the shed was stocked with hundreds of cases of beer and soda, two cows were slaughtered on-site (and in front of our eyes), and hundreds of tables, chairs and place settings had been delivered.

I couldn’t believe how much food they were making. So much, in fact, that it appeared as if the entire neighborhood had gathered to help. We joined in the best we could. We chopped lemongrass and squeezed limes. We made appetizer platters and set the tables. For a few minutes, I helped clean out the cow intestines and pull off the fat (I only lasted a few minutes before waves of nausea began to rise in my throat), but mostly we just watched in fascination.

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Around 5pm, they turned the music on full blast. I don’t know if it was a sort of announcement to the village that the party had started or if they just like that eardrum-bursting, chest-thumping feeling of blown out speakers, but people came and within a few hours the dance floor was packed. Then, like clockwork, the crowd dispersed at 11pm, as everyone readied themselves for a 5am wake up to continue the preparations.

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On Sunday, the guests arrived in their finest attire. One by one they greeted the hosts at the entrance before finding a place at the table. When the rest of our friends from Trailblazer showed up, we sat down to enjoy the party ourselves. It was truly a remarkable experience. We celebrated with overly frequent jul-moi’s (the Khmai word for cheers) and enjoyed a delicious seven-course menu of fried cashews, steamed fish, stir-fried entrails and crispy ants, sour Khmer soup, grilled beef, fried rice, and more.

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Once all the food was gone and an uncountable amount of Black Panther (best beer in Asia, possibly on this trip) had been consumed, it was time to dance. “If you don’t know how to dance, it’s ok. Just move your hands a lot and your feet a little.” Lon Sei, the volunteer coordinator for Trailblazer, told me. We learned there are two kinds of dancing in Cambodia: the slow, rotating traditional dance and the standstill, modern dance. Every other song, the music would switch between a traditional song and a techno remix. While the traditional music played, the entire crowd would unanimously begin dancing in a counter-clockwise circle around the dance floor. The dance while you walked was slow, involving rotating wrist motions and rhythmic shoulder movements. When the traditional music ended and the techno began, the crowd stopped moving and began dancing freely, reminding me of what you’d see at a disco tech or high school dance. We danced like this for hours, until the last song was played and the entire place had cleared out.

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The party was over by late afternoon, and after two days of cooking, dancing, eating and drinking, we were ready for a cold shower. It had been one of the most memorable weekends in our entire travels. Forever grateful for the experience, we said goodbye to our hosts. We rode back to Siem Reap with the sun lowering toward the horizon; profoundly happy and utterly exhausted from the party of a lifetime.

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