One of my favourite sanctuaries in Phnom Penh is a restaurant with a secluded garden terrace on a corner. I first came here in January 2014 with Mum and Ruth, attracted by the leafy entrance as we wandered past one evening. Today a noisy construction site on the opposite corner destroys the ambience somewhat. I have just spent about 15 hours of my weekend on this terrace, blocking out the incessant construction noise with headphones. This interrupted my attempts to study as You Tube took me on a journey of music and comedy shows, sabotaging my already-limited concentration span.
As I sit here preparing to leave, darkness has fallen and the construction noise has been replaced with Christmas music matching to the red and white elf hats all the restaurant staff are wearing.
As is so often the case here, the construction site doubles as temporary accommodation for workers who sleep on the cement shelves of the slowly materialising building. Corrugated iron slides across to form a fence at night, closing the workers in for their night’s sleep in the open air a few levels up. A number of similar construction sites exist near my home and it’s not unusual to get a sneak peak of someone washing themselves with a hose behind the fence, or for children living on the site with parents to run excitedly over rubble mounds to the entrance shouting “hello” as you walk past. If you know they are there, you can see workers behind canvas sheets or blankets hanging as a wall, sitting in a circle in the dark. About eight young and gorgeous people, a mixture of men and women, just emerged from behind that iron fence, showered and heading off to dinner, at a guess.
Win joined me for a chat this afternoon and while he was here a blind beggar being led by a checked scarf tied around his waist and pulled by a young boy approached the corner entrance where we were sitting. Win invited the young boy in so I could give a small offering of riel but he was stopped by the security guard who passed the money to him on my behalf. The division of rich and poor is explicit and legitimised here and I am a part of it.
With Christmas Eve upon us, this has been my least Christmas-like season ever, despite occasional elf hats, carols or trees interrupting what has otherwise seemed like everyday normality. I like it! I may yet not escape it however, as the Europeans working with me appear hell-bent on celebrating it despite their opportunity to completely avoid it!
This got me to thinking about what Christmas should mean to us, a message that seems to me to have become lost in the asphyxiating consumerism of modern culture. I think this short sentence says it all. Tomorrow I’ll look for a way to put it into action, as my one acknowledgement of the fact that it’s Christmas.