Celebrating the coming of the New Year in a place other than your own is always interesting; more so if in another country and even double more so if in a remote part of another country. Last year, I was with my eldest sister and two close friends at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. There were Vietnamese pop musicians rockin and rollin, fireworks, and a huge crowd.
This year (or more appropriately, last year) I was with a Finnish and a Columbian with our Tompoun guide at the Tribal Hotel in Banlung. But before that, we sacrificed a pig (or more appropriately, a piglet).
I woke up that morning with a really upset stomach. I had gone to the bathroom around four times at dawn already. I’ve had worst LBM but no way was I gonna risk it with the roller-coaster ride to Ta Veng, more than 50k from Banlung. I barely survived yesterday’s upset stomach. I texted Yok that I was definitely out of commission that day.I’m quite sure it was the food at Pov Socheat that did it. The lok lak I had last night didn’t seem to be very fresh. Kun, who I bumped into at the reception area when I had my clothes laundered, told me that lok lak isn’t really cooked very well. That explains why it looked and tasted quite raw. The lok lak I’d been having at my favorite stall in Siem Reap was well-cooked, perhaps for the tourists.
Spent the morning watching National Geographic and Animal Planet and digging through my stash of loperamide I bought at a pharmacy earlier.
I had lunch at Taman just across Pov Socheat. The large restaurant had heavy wooden tables and chairs and large figures that I guess were for sale. It seems to be a favorite hang-out of moto-riding locals. Aside from the standard English menu, there was a Vietnamese one with pho bo and com ga and a shelf-full of Vietnamese coffee and other stuff. The service from the English-speaking staff was friendly and the food was good, albeit a little more expensive than Pv Socheat.
My stomach seemed to be in full control after lunch so I went to Boeung Yeak Lom with Kun. Who should I see but Yok buying cans of beer at one of the stall? Because it was New Year, he insisted that he buy me a Coke. Matti was on a mat seated and drinking with Yok’s family and friends. Families were laying on rented mats around the lake enjoying the cool breeze and the shade.
There was no one else in the trail that wound around the lake. Nothing really much to see in the surrounding forest. A few trails detoured from the main trail and led up and away to the surrounding villages perhaps. It did make a for peaceful and relaxing way to break out into a sweat as in spite of the blazing sun, the climate is actually quite cool with really chilly nights.
Back at the main area, I joined Yok’s picnic. In spite not understanding a word they spoke, I had fun just listening to them and watching. It was a Tompoun day out and everyone was enjoying themselves helped by all the cans of beer. Seated beside me was Yok’s uncle incessantly cracked jokes to me. Kun was seated with a lovely girl all dolled-up whom I assumed was a girlfriend as they seemed to be sweet to each other and left together. Kindly Kun waved away my offer to pay him for the ride to the lake when the party broke and I went off with Yok and Matti for the pig sacrifice.
Pig Sacrifice. Yok had brought the car he bought earlier. It was a battered Toyota Camry but a car nevertheless and in far-flung Banlung, it was a step-up from a moto. Later during the night while drinking with Jon, the Columbian, who was heading to Voensai the next day, I kidded Yok that he can now ask his guests if they preferred a car instead of a moto. Matti sat at the bucket seat and I piled at the back with Yok’s wife and kids. It’s unbelievable how Yok managed to bring his car to his house along the small trails meant for walking or motos.
At the house, they prepared the stuff needed for the pig sacrifice which Yok said would take place near the forest. We all piled back into the car this time with Yok’s mom, dad, and the village elder who would do the offering.
On the road leading to another village where we were to get the pig, we chanced on two white girls on bicycles. Concerned that they might be lost, Yok asked Matti to inquire if they knew their way. “Just going around,” the older one answered. “We’re on our way to sacrifice an animal. Wanna come with us? Just follow us,” Matti replied. It must have shocked them.
Stopped by to buy two jars of rice wine (10,000 riyel each) which I sponsored, then went off to get the pig. We arrived at a small house where Matti and I waited under the shade of a tree while everyone else went off somewhere. About half an hour later, Yok came running with a piglet dangling from one hand and gleefully shouting, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” We all piled back into the car with a wailing pig. I really felt sorry for the baby pig was it was really small. Yok didn’t have enough money to buy a real pig so a $25 piglet would do. I am really queasy seeing animals about to be butchered and the pig’s wailing increased my queasiness more. I could hardly look at it. I had told Yok earlier that I wouldn’t look when they kill it.
We stopped at a cross-roads which to the Tompoun is a dwelling place of spirits. The “magic man” had pointed a place such as this where to hold the sacrifice. The village elder gathered young bamboo to be made into the spirit house.
WARNING: What is described in the following is not the for the queasy.
I kept my distance as no way was I going near that wailing piglet and the fate it was going to befall him/her. Yok’s dad got a heavy twig and started the beating the piglet with it! I thought he was just slapping it to keep it quiet as the piglet had stopped wailing. He hit on the body and on the head again and again then dropped it on the ground where it lay squirming until it blew its last breath. I had been witness to its death! Yok would later explain that slitting the throat is for mature pigs while smaller ones are beaten to death. I don’t know which fate is worse.
When the pig stopped squirming, Yok’s dad picked it up and collected the blood oozing out of its mouth in a small plastic bad. The spirit house was finished by this time. The village elder had put on a ceremonial headband of white strings wound into a thin band. He took some rice wine and mixed it with the blood in a plastic receptacle. I was horrified thinking that it was going to be passed around for everyone to drink! By this time, my curiosity was an anthropologist was being overcome by my queasiness as an ordinary queasy being. I heaved a sigh of relief when the elder offered it to the “spirit house” while saying some prayers after sprinkling it.
The now-dead piglet was roasted on a fire made from dried leaves and branches collected in the nearby forest. It little piglet that had been wailing its heart out just a few minutes earlier was now so dead. A piece of roasted piglet flesh was offered placed at the spirit house to offer to the spirits.
The village elder and Yok’s dad drank from the rice wine jar then Matti and I were invited to sip. The roasted pig lay beside the jar and I tried really hard not to look at it as I sipped. The wine was sweetish and didn’t seem to taste very potent unlike the one we had at the Jorai village the day before.
The sacrifice was over. I congratulated Matti for his first pig sacrifice. Yok’s mom stayed in the car the whole time as she was not allowed to be part of the sacrifice which was performed for her. The village elder had asked the spirits not to let Yok’s mom get sick anymore so she could return to her village in Lumphat.
You can now proceed reading. The queasy part is over.
Back at Yok’s house, the other jar of rice wine was waiting. Yok’s wife chopped the pig into a million little pieces and cooked it. The village elder in the meantime, tied a piece of white string around Yok’s mom’s wrist, said some prayers, then cut it with a knife. The ceremony had come to a final end.
That evening, my gung treng maker arrived with the instrument he had made for me plus a flute. He was really drunk this time but still managed to sing while playing the gung treng. I took a few bites of the pig meat with scoops of rice leaving the rest to Matti to finish. I gotta give it him for being such a sport. He was genuinely interested in everything and anything.
It was past 8 when we bade our goodbyes and Yok brought us back to Borann Lodge. He was to meet Jon, the Columbian, and explain to him the treks. We were accompanied by Yok’s wife and youngest boy who wanted to make sure that Yok wouldn’t be drinking and a friend of his.
Singing “Auld Lang Syne:in Banlung. Jon arrived a few minutes later and we all headed to Tribal Hotel where a small crowd was gathered at the patio restaurant/bar. I hardly had anything to eat but I didn’t want to offend Yok by eating at the buffet ($6 with a can of beer) which had roast meat in skewers, fried rice, and spring rolls, among other eats.
I had a Beer Lao and Matti filled us up with rhum coke. I met Jhared, a PhD candidate from the Univ. of Wisconsin who had been in Cambodia for 5 years and in Banlung for 1 year and a half. Previously, I had only corresponded with him through the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum where he was known as ‘rasheed. Big tall guy, nice and friendly. I envied him for being in such a fascinating place where he was doing his thesis on the lines of minority tours.
Yok’s wife who had been waiting in the car came to get him. We had earlier expressed concern about she and the little boy waiting but Yok said they were used to waiting up for him and they could sleep in the car.
At the stroke of midnight, we left our tables and gathered at the small garden where the restaurant staff set-off a few fireworks and toasted some champagne that were all handed to us. Led by a couple of English girls, we formed a circle, held-hands, and sang “Auld Lang Syne.” I knew the song but it was my first-time to sing it on NYE.
Back to the patio for more drinking where 3 Finnish girls Matti had met earlier joined us. One who was seated at the corner beside me and Jon looked particularly wasted and we both asked, “Are you all right?” She snapped, “Yes. Why? How do I look that’s why you’re asking if I’m all right.” We both smiled and turned our attention somewhere else. The one seated on my left had gone to the Philippines before and it was heart-warming to listen to her say how she had a really great time at Palawan and how she had made so many Filipino friends and that she had a lot of heart for the Philippines and the Filipinos while holding both her hands over her heart.
It was past 1 in the morning when Jon and I stumbled back to Borann Lodge.