I got a call from an editor asking for some pictures representing Valentine’s Day in Phnom Penh in the afternoon of the 14th February; I was surprised firstly because I had forgotten about it (alas) and secondly I didn’t think that it was celebrated in Cambodia.
I was staying in a suburban area and had not been out to the main road that day. As I travelled into the city centre, sporadic stalls appeared selling flowers, teddy bears and saccharine foil balloons. Stands with enormous, crackling speakers set up outside businesses blared out what I assume were messages of love to entice customers.
When we arrived at the Independence Monument it was similar but on a bigger scale: more flowers, more teddy bears, more balloons; the atmosphere was more carnival than carnal.
There didn’t seem to be many couples, or at least I thought I would see more on a day like this. Perhaps it’s to do with the way people show affection in public here or maybe because I was trying to find them. It wasn’t lost on me that there was something voyeuristic on my part about what I was doing and some people clearly didn’t want to be seen to be together.
Further, Cambodian culture does not generally accept the idea of having a partner that you aren’t intending to marry. Those who do are often seen as improper or, particularly for women, loose. Conversely it is apparently common for men to have mistresses and this is even seen as necessary for the harmony of the workplace:
As with tuktuk and moto drivers here many sellers bawled, shouted and waved to get their customers’ attention, though most of this was probably aimed at foreigners. Others let the occasion do the work.
Valentine’s Day has been brazenly capitalist in the west for a long time but there was something about it here that seemed to amplify it. It is not only artificially transplanted but also there are no similar local traditions that I could find. Chaucer couldn’t have imagined what might happen while he was working on The Wife of Bath’s Tale…
Still, I think Geoff would agree that any excuse to spend time with someone you love is a good excuse.