Bun Da Lean – Rice Harvest Festival
Cambodia has more holidays than any other country in the world. Almost every month there is anywhere from one to five festivals, national holidays, or religious holy days. And each province and village has their own unique celebrations, which is how I ended up last weekend in a small village in the countryside just outside of Phnom Penh, dancing in a dirt clearing until the early hours of the morning and celebrating the end of the rice harvest, known here as Bun Da Lean.
It all started when my Cambodian friend Kim, asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend in his home village of Takeo for Bun Da Lean. Bun Da Lean is a festival at the end of the rice harvest, when entire villages come together to thank the spirits for the good weather, good growing conditions, and the bounty of rice that will feed and support the people for the following year. Typically, people make offerings to the Buddha and the spirits of the rice fields and villagess, receive blessings from the monks, and donate part of their crop yield to the monks and the temples. Afterwards, a party takes place with good food, lively music and plenty of dancing. I was up for all of it.
So on Saturday morning, off we went on Kim’s Suzuki Best, me on the back, Kim driving, and Kim’s 8-year old nephew balanced between his legs.
Driving out of Phnom Penh, we passed entire families poised on motorbikes, lorries jam packed with snorting, nervous looking pigs, and baseball capped men, carrying dozens of chickens on the back of their bikes, each one tied to another by the feet, and slung over the back of the bike so their beady little eyes bobbed precariously, inches from the ground which was racing beneath them. At one point I looked up to see a mini van speeding past us, stuffed to capacity with plastic bags full of chilies and green beans.
As we left the city limits, the landscape began to open up to vast open fields, and the ubiquitous Cambodian palm trees (daum t’nout) that are scattered across the country.
Upon arrival at Kim’s mother’s house we could see that the main stage for the celebration had been set up almost directly in front of her house. A small stage decorated with bright, colorful Buddha posters had been erected as well as a long platform like bench along the side, and huge, tarp awnings to protect the area from the sun and/or rain. And of course the microphone and speakers – Cambodians love to set up loudspeakers at celebrations and blast traditional music or belt our announcements on the microphone. For birthdays, weddings, funerals, and festivals, it’s not a party unless the entire neighborhood can hear you.
A small group of nuns, attired in white lace shirts and sarongs sat cross-legged on the intricately woven rattan mats, and listened to the oraters read out the amounts of money that had thus far been donated to the temple. Small, dusty, half naked children played on the outskirts, occasionally stumbling onto the mats and crawling into the nuns laps. Soon, the area began to fill up with villagers, and shortly afterwards, the monks arrived in tuk tuks and on the back of motorbikes. They sat in order of their status, with young monks at the end farthest from the stage, and the older monks at the front. The head monk was given the seat of honor—a throne like wooden chair with plush yellow cushions.
Soon the area was packed with people in prayer, giving their respects to the monks, and listening to the Head Monk preaching the dharma and giving advice to them on how to live a good Buddhist life.
After about an hour or two of praying, the ceremony was over, the monks went back to the temple, and the partying began. The mats were cleared out, loudspeakers brought in, and the music started with a mighty thump of bassline. For hours people danced in the traditional Khmer style—slowly stepping forwards in a large circle, and seductively twisting their hands along side of them in time with the music. Nobody touches, nobody moves quickly, and nobody breaks ranks or direction with the circle of dancers. And the style never changes, regardless of whether it’s a Khmer love song playing or a Westernized Khmer hip hop or pop song.
Kim managed to ply us both with beer, and I was constantly being dragged up every few songs to dance in the circle with Kim’s sister and friends or various other villagers, all of whom were thoroughly amused at the sight of a blonde haired barang girl attempting to dance Khmer style. Our evening was also peppered with the frequent appearances of Kim’s cousin who would pop out of nowhere and drunkenly shout “Hello!!!” which seemed to be the only English phrase he knew besides “sorry – sorry”.
At about midnight I was very hospitably led to bed by Kim’s sister, who seemed to sense my drunken exhausted state, and I retired to the only mattress in the house, which was shrouded in a much appreciated mosquito net. The rest of the family – Kim’s mother, 3 sisters, two brothers-in-law, a younger brother, two nephews, a niece, and the new baby (2 months old) all slept under mosquito nets on blankets on the top floor of the house.
In the morning, I awoke to more chanting, and crawled out to sit on the front steps, where I watched villagers carry large baskets of rice to a tarp on the ground in front of the house. Each person ceremoniously poured the rice onto an ever-growing pile. Apparently, each family in the village makes an offering of rice to the temple, which will then be stored as food for the monks or sold to help pay for the upkeep of the temple.
After a quick breakfast of crusty baguette dipped into a bowl of curry, I was led to the back of the house where I was pointed in the direction of a giant water vat to brush my teeth and wash my face. Kim’s neighbor had a toilet in her back yard (the only one in the village), so I didn’t have to squat in the backyard with the cows in broad daylight, as I had done the night before under the protection of darkness. And then we were off, back to the city—a completely different world than the village of Takeo.
My Bun Da Lean experience gave me a new found respect for the tenacity and generosity of the villagers who work hard all year round, with few luxuries and even fewer so-called “necessities” of life. Yet these people make a point to share what small excesses they do have with the community, and have no qualms inviting a foreigner into their midst. I am grateful that I got a chance witness and take part in the celebration of the rice harvest, and a chance to experience the overwhelming sense of community that is often times taken for granted in big cities all over the world.