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OktoberTest for Phnom Penh

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Wrong costume, right mood: two Mexico Cambodians enjoy the Bavarian party. Photograph: Alex Crook/7Days

On busy weekends the beer tents on the Munich Oktoberfest – the world’s biggest beer festival – are so overcrowded that people are already trampling on each other in the first few minutes after the gates open. After a few minutes the tent is crammed and the gates close. Girls lose their shoes in the crush. Even with toes battered and bleeding, they dive behind the closing doors if they can – no thought spared for the men who help them and, hindered, they get stuck outside in the beer garden trying to bribe security and begging kitchen staff to help. As a Munich native, I know this from bitter experience.

So when I came to this year’s Oktoberfest tent, which took place on Koh Pich last weekend, I was remembering the Munich riot. It didn’t happen in Phnom Penh.

There’s no doubt that the event seemed poorly attended. The tent was far too big for the number of people that showed up.

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Tom Reichelt, a member of the communication agency that organised the event, told me that the tent was 1400 square metres in size. With roughly 1800 guests on Thursday and Friday, and most apparently coming on the second night, many tables stayed empty on the night I went.

About two-thirds of the guests were Cambodian and the rest expats. Many wore a free cap that carried the tag “Oktoberfest”. Some of the expats wore Lederhosen and Dirndl, the traditional Bavarian dress. Apart from beer and people, the music of a Bavarian band is vital for a successful Oktoberfest. Anton, the bandleader, tried to get the crowd warmed up.

He shouted in heavily accented German: “Open your mouth, show me your teeth, I teach you German now, ja. Auf geht’s!” His class was supported by an attentive accordion tune that let people bashfully sway left and right.

I was surprised how much the guys behind the beer taps reminded me of the Oktoberfest in Munich. They were Cambodian and looked strange to me wearing the harness of the Lederhosen costume – even though it is not made of leather but printed on a t-shirt. Still, they looked as if they are native to the Southern part of Germany with the complacent pose of a Bavarian innkeeper as they leaned on Tiger beer cardboard boxes, calmly scanning the scene.

To Anton the scene must have seemed rather too calm. At 8:30pm he threw in all he had left. He was wearing a Halloween mask that recalls a Richard Nixon caricature. “Won, two, zree – do it like me!” Anton had a hard time rousing the crowd until he walked and hopped down all the beer tables. An ancient tribal dance from Germania might have looked like this. It worked: the crowd was finally electrified. The traditional “Prosit” fanfare played by the band might also have had a part in it. After singing this, there was a countdown and hundreds of litres of beer trickled down hundreds of throats in the duration of a long gulp. The Cambodians seemed a little insecure with the obscure ritual but once they tried it they indulged in it and started shouting.

This was the right moment for the band to start a conga line. Reluctant to join in, I hid behind my notebook. Most other people also seemed to feel the way I do but once forced to join in they laughed and screamed in this dancing march. Once the line has dissolved I wondered whether the party had tilted or I had consumed too many Tiger beers. Many people stood in the hallway and most of the tables were cleared. At 9 pm many Cambodians started to leave - a mere three hours after they came. A hard-core, mostly expats, formed at the tables close to the stage and the band. A reciprocal chant started by the band was not answered. It was as if the band wanted to test what the crowd has learned about Oktoberfest.

“Schwiegermutter, Schwiegermutter,” which means “mother in law, mother in law!” is supposed to be answered with “Pfui, pfui, pfui!” by the crowd, which translates into “ugh, ugh, ugh!” There was no reply – perhaps a too obscure word.

An Austrian businessman in Lederhosen who invited the employees of his company to the Oktoberfest told me that most of his Cambodian staff didn’t come because of the King Father’s death. I realise that the Cambodians that came might have left early for that reason as well. It was definitely not the fault of the band. Those who came seemed tentatively to be enjoying it: I hold out hope for more “pfui, pfui, pfui” and “prosits” in the years to come.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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