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Norway or the highway

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Ken Oishi and Kristin Hansen with their daughter Miyo. Photo by: MICHAEL SLOAN

LIKE its Viking ancestors, Siem Reap’s small Norwegian community celebrates national holidays with feasting, drinking and singing, all of which were on display last week at a lunch party to celebrate Norwegian Independence Day at Soria Moria Boutique Hotel.

While jumping into longboats and looting and burning went out of style in the 12th century, a more modern day twist on the Viking formula for a good time sometimes involves ending a party by drinking in a phone booth, according to Norwegian expat Ida Schage.

“In Norway the national holiday coincides with the time students celebrate their graduation from high school and they play a large part in the street parades. When I graduated we all went to parties and then I sat up all night in a phone booth with a friend drinking. Everyone stays out late or passes out.”

Soria Moria owner Ken Oishi said Norway’s national holiday, commonly known as Syttende Mai, or May 17, is “celebrated all over the world wherever there are Norwegians, and the newspapers publish photos of May 17th parties in different countries”.

Schage said students who participate in “Russefeiring”, or high school graduation parades, dress in colour-coded overalls depending on their choice of university degree, which they are required to wear for up to two weeks leading up to national day without washing.

As well as the overalls, students are given small figurines, known as “knots”, by their peers which symbolise pranks they have carried out during the two-week “Rus” period, ranging from spending a night in a tree to biting the leg of a police officer and then barking like a dog.

Luckily for the group of policemen eating in a food stall across the street from Soria Moria as the lunch began, all of the attendees appeared to be past high school age.

Oishi, who runs Soria Moria along with his partner Kristin Hansen, has hosted lunch and dinner parties to celebrate Syttende Mai at the hotel for the past five years, and explained that the occasion is held to celebrate Norway’s declaration of independence from Swedish rule in 1814.

Attendance at Ken and Kristin’s lunch usually ranges from between nine to 12 Scandinavian expats, backpackers and NGO volunteers, but what Siem Reap’s Norwegian community lacks in numbers it makes up for in the taste in food, with smoked salmon, brown cheese, ice cream and waffles served in abundance.

Oishi said he met Hansen in Siem Reap in 2007, while she was running the Earthwalkers Hostel and he was volunteering with NGOs after selling his telecommunications business in Norway.

The couple began working on aid projects together and eventually decided to open Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, named after a famous Norwegian fairytale.

According to Oishi, “the folk story is about a shepherd who gets lost wandering in the mountains. He sees this castle on the next mountain or the mountain after that and he keeps walking. Eventually he gets to the castle and finds his princess and so on. But there’s one condition – he cannot tell anyone about this place. But once he gets back to town, he feels compelled to tell someone and the
castle vanishes.”

Hansen interrupted and said: “He is leaving things out. It’s also a romantic story where the shepherd meets all these princesses in the castle and has to defend them from the trolls. He eventually falls in love and picks one of them to marry.

“The name Soria Moria itself is not Norwegian. Soria is Sanskrit for sun, and the fairytale can be called Castle of the Sun. But the story is very Norwegian. All our stories end with the farm boy getting the princess and we thought it would be a good name for the hotel.”

As well as running Soria Moria, Ken and Kristin also act as official representatives of the Norwegian government in Siem Reap with responsibility for providing consular assistance.

Oishi also runs the Norwegian Educational Development Organisation, a Norwegian government supported NGO which provides free water filtration systems to rural villages, a project he describes as his main passion.

“Kristin and I will not be running the hotel forever. At the moment we’re in the process of drawing back our involvement and letting the staff take over the management in exchange for shares in the business. It is part of trying to do something to give back to the staff, and let Kristin and I concentrate on other things.”

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