81-year-old Ray Shackelford hands out presents to members of the public in Phnom Penh yesterday. KT/Chor Sokunthea
Merry Christmas! Ho ho ho!” 81-year-old Ray Shackelford bellows as he walks down an alleyway in Daun Penh district dressed in a full Santa Claus costume and carrying a sack full of presents.
Tuk tuk drivers taking a break stare at the somewhat odd sight, not sure how to respond to the cheerful well wishes.
At the end of the alley, two kids suddenly rush out of a doorway to greet the American expat dressed as Santa.
Shackelford digs into his bag of goodies and hands two wrapped dolls to the young girls. A woman standing close by also receives a krama as a gift.
It’s mid-day on Christmas Eve and Shackelford is spreading Christmas cheer to anyone and everyone on Street 172. Expats sitting at bars receive a goodie bag of candy or a krama and kids receive a variety of toys and sweets. Anyone who passes the Blue Dolphin guesthouse and restaurant, a favourite local haunt of Shackelford’s for over a decade, receives a hearty dose of Christmas cheer.
He’ll continue handing out presents around the city – mostly in alleyways where unsuspecting children can be found playing – through Christmas Day and make personal stops to peoples’ homes to deliver gifts as well.
Shackelford classifies himself as a world traveller before anything else, although he owns a winery in Oregon and spends much of his time volunteering around the world. He said he helps manage an orphanage in Kampong Speu province and has volunteered regularly in Mondulkiri province where he donates sacks of rice to those in need.
On Wednesday, he accompanied marines and veterans from the US Embassy to donate gifts to children at the Children’s Surgical Centre.
He’s been in Cambodia since March and because of COVID-19, he hasn’t had a chance to leave yet.
“It’s the longest I’ve ever been in one country for 46 years,” he said.
He first took to playing Santa in the Philippines some 17 years ago, when someone told him he’d be perfect for the part.
Since then, it’s evolved into a tradition.
When asked why he likes to dress as Santa and ride around Phnom Penh handing out gifts on his motorbike, he said: “Because I’m selfish. I do what I like to do and I like to make people happy because that keeps me happy.”
Staff at the Blue Dolphin help him wrap the gifts and when he runs out, he swings by the restaurant for a refill.
Shackelford said his gracious spirit was partly instilled by his mother when he was growing up, who worked as a first grade teacher in Oregon and helped support the local migrant worker community.
He’s also a Vietnam War veteran and said he’s motivated to give back to society by survivor’s guilt after living through the harrowing experience.
He says he believes in helping people in any way possible. “You don’t have to give money or food, just be nice to people,” he said.
His friendly demeanour and warm presence has made an impression on the staff at the Blue Dolphin, its patrons, and most everyone on Street 172.
“Everything he gives, he says thank you and asks for nothing,” Kim Houy Yin, the owner of the Blue Dolphin said.
Houy Yin has known Shackelford for over a decade and has helped out at the orphanage he set up in Kampong Speu. She said she’s never heard him utter a rude word or lose his temper with anyone, something she said was rare for a foreigner on Street 172.
The ever-restless Shackelford likely won’t be in Cambodia next Christmas, but for one more day, Phnom Penh will have a Santa Claus delivering gifts to people on the street and dropping by homes to hand deliver presents to friends he’s made over the years.
His parting Christmas message to kids and adults celebrating Christmas at the tail end of a turbulent year: “Merry Christmas, just enjoy. Remember everyone can help someone in some way every day.”