Phnom Penh's jolly Santas

Phnom Penh's jolly Santas

Keep your eyes and ears open for that 'ho, ho, ho' around supermarkets, shopping centres and restaurants during this holiday season and you just might catch a glimpse of Saint Nick

Photo by: Camilla Bjerrekær

Channet outside the Korean BBQ Restaurant (left). Johnny West at Monument Toys.

FOUR-year-old Justin,  dressed as Batman, was  shopping for Christmas gifts with his grandmother last week at Phnom Penh's Monument Toys when his eyes suddenly widened with awe and wonder.

 "Father Christmas, is that really you?" he asked the man in the unmistakable red suit sitting next to a Christmas tree.

"Well, ho, ho, ho! Of course it is," replied this Santa Claus, one of many jolly old men who have been turning up around the capital in increasing numbers as the holiday season approaches.

Despite being far from the North Pole, Santa - or at least his helpers - have been getting Phnom Penh into the Christmas spirit.

Monument Toys' Santa is really magician and entertainer Johnny West, who regularly performs his routine of tricks throughout Cambodia.

This was his first year playing Santa, and to prepare for the role West said he watched Christmas movies.

But the real key to becoming a good Santa, he said, comes from within.

"It takes someone who can understand the joy and wonder of Christmas. You need to feel that sense of wonder that you did when you were a child," he said.

"When I put on this costume, I feel like I am Santa. And it is up to me to impart that emotion about the spirit of Christmas to everyone I meet."

The more technical aspects of the job, however, also have to be just right.

"A good Santa asks if you've been good or bad. And the proper ‘ho, ho ho' is very important because that puts you in the moment as well," West  said, adding that all of the children he has seen so far - both Cambodian and foreign -  won't be getting coal in their stockings this year.

"That's what's great. It's the first time a lot of the Cambodian children have had the chance to see Santa," he said.  

"They have reacted with a mixture of awe and terror," he added.

"At first, a lot of children are afraid of Santa and I don't blame them because he is a big red man with a white beard who looks pretty weird."

However, the job also has some downsides, he said.

"A kid farted on my lap today. That was the worst experience of the day," he said, adding, however, that once a parent slipped him a US$10 tip.

 
The Cambodian Santa

Outside Korean BBQ Restaurant on street 258 was another Santa - 20-year-old Channet standing dressed in a full Santa suit, complete with big red boots and thick mittens.

Channet said he has been playing the part every night since early November when the restaurant first opened, adding that his boss believes the red suit and friendly "Hello, Merry Christmas" attracts more customers.

"When I say Merry Christmas to the customers and passersby, they are happy," he said.

"Some come in to the restaurant and some don't, but usually they respond with a Merry Christmas."

Although Channet admitted to not knowing anything about the real Santa, he said that wearing the Santa suit made him happy because it made other people smile.

"I don't understand about the meaning of the real Santa Claus ... [but] people say that wearing the clothes makes me very handsome and ready for Christmas Day."

In fact, the red suit has made him a minor celebrity in the area. "Both local people and foreigners who pass this road always greet me, and some want to have a picture taken with me," he said.

While Channet said he enjoyed his work, he felt that it was not always easy being Santa.

"I feel very hot and sweaty when I'm wearing the Santa suit, but I have to be positive and patient," he said.

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