Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trick or Treating in Phnom Penh

There are certain days in the year when I wake up in Phnom Penh and wish I was back home in England. Birthdays, bonfire night, you know what I mean. Today it is Halloween. It should be cold and crisp. I want to put on jeans and a jumper and crunch among fallen leaves in the woods. But, as Srey Mait remarked this morning as she arrived at the door: “Oh! It’s so hot today!” (It’s not true that only the British obsess about the weather. At least we actually have different kinds of weather to comment on. We can boast a hundred different kinds of rain alone. Here it is either dry or wet. Oh, and there’s the cool season of course, where you turn the fan down from high to medium.)

All Hallows is not an English tradition, I know. But my mother is American, so there. I was always proudest of this heritage on Halloween, because it meant we were the only family who really knew what we were doing. Every year my mother would get out the old tin pumpkin lamp and put it in the window. We would dig out our own pumpkins too, of course, and make sweet pumpkin pie with the discarded flesh.

My oldest sister - we are four girls in total, a witch, a ghost, a demon and a ghoul - transformed me into a little red devil. She used to pull my scarlet tights up so high over my rib cage that she lifted me off the ground with them. Another pair would be tucked in the back for a tail. We drank hot chocolate with marshmallows and bobbed for apples. Spilt candle wax burned inside the pumpkin skin as we fought over who would carry the lantern. Huddled outside the neighbours’ houses, we shivered with anticipation as we knocked on the door.


There was something about those words that would have us squealing with excitement. It was so much fun! They would not be afraid to shout back “Trick!” A couple of colourful autumn leaves through the door was about as daring as we would get. And if they gave us a treat, we would thank them enthusiastically, however small and disappointing it may actually have been.

It is so sad that today the same innocent words incite terror in many of us as we hear about gangs of teenagers whose tricks are so obscene that old women hide behind their curtains in fear, or fumble desperately in their purses for something that might be considered enough of a treat.

I could never have imagined this, back then, anymore than I could have imagined that one day I would be taking my own daughters trick or treating in Cambodia!

Really, you should have been here on Saturday. If you had, you could have joined the large groups of Cambodians flocking about certain houses. ‘Halloween houses’ as decorative signs on the gates announced. You would have seen their jaws drop to the ground as Tuk Tuks filled with whole families of monsters, witches, ghouls, princesses and fairies drew up outside the gates, examining a map, and crying, “This is one!”.

This was seriously organised Trick or Treating! How could it be otherwise? They could hardly turn up at houses randomly and expect their Khmer hosts to have a clue what to do. Actually it struck me as a great idea that could revive a safe and fun way to Trick or Treat back home. The only problem is, of course, that this way, there are no tricks. And judging by the number of sweets given out at just one of these houses, bedtime in expatriate homes on Saturday night can not have been pretty.

We managed to avoid the sugar high because we didn’t get any further than our first house. I blame myself. For some reason I forgot to warn Jemima that the costumes might be scary. I had underestimated the imagination of some of the older kids. When we arrived at my friend Tone’s house we were greeted, to the tune of Mediaeval Baebes’ Dance Of The Trolls, by her monster-masked son, with his ‘ghost of the Christmas future’ friend. They jumped out at us just as we had entered a darkened den covered with spooky, staring, cut-out eyes. Jemima has slept in our bed ever since.

It was brilliant and ingenious and I’m sure next year she’ll appreciate it. But as I took my exhausted child for a peaceful ride home in a cyclo at sunset, and passed a silent, stray Tuk-Tuk carrying four giant eyeballs, I could not help wishing we were back home with her cousins in England for some good old family tradition.

The next day we made pumpkin pie and drank hot chocolate with marshmallows.

1 comment:

Mangy said...

Jus to reassure you we had no tricks last night here in England simply oversize pumkins, a few skeletons, and other ghoulish things...all accompanied by weary parents!! However the weather, our favourite topic, was beautifully sunny, fresh and lots of crunchy leaves around. Apparently national shortage of pumkins thuoght due to poor weather over summer...
Oh and wasn't it I who was the red devil...need to check the photo albums!!