Anth in Phnom Penh

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Dengue Fever in Phnom Penh!!

Please don’t be alarmed. This post is not about mosquito-borne disease, but rather the biggest musical event in Phnom Penh ... well at least since the internationally acclaimed Micheal Learns to Rock came to town that is. Dengue Fever are a Los Angeles based band who cover, and are inspired by, classic Khmer rock of the 1960’s. I was very excited at the news of their imminent arrival. What was even more exciting was the coinciding visit of my little brother, an avid DF fan.

I fronted up to Pochentong airport and anxiously waited for Roh to take his first steps on South East Asian soil. In the taxi back to my house, I casually mentioned that if he wasn’t too tired we could go see Dengue Fever that night. “Are you serious???!!!!”. He was definitely up for it. However, after building up expectations of his first evening in Phnom Penh our plans were abruptly dashed. In an episode murky with controversy, Dengue Fever did not play. Seven pages of postings on Khmer440 and several letters to the Cambodia Daily later the debate was starting to get personal and worn out. Did the band pull out because there wasn’t the appropriate equipment provided? Was the stage structurally sound? Or was their lead singer being a spoilt prima donna and they just didn’t want to play???

Who knows, and everybody seems to have a different version. Either way, they played at Talkin’ To A Stranger on the following Friday night and it was awesome. Roh and I had dinner with friends before the gig and at the appointed time to leave the sky opened up and big fat drops of wet-season rain began to storm down. After refusing several “Can we go see DF yet??” requests on the grounds that “everything stops in PP when it rains like this”, we hopped on our bikes and headed over. We walked in the door and were immediately greeted by Zac, DF’s guitarist, who had spied Roh’s Dieselhead t-shirt. The evening could not have started better.

After sufficient time had been allowed for the rain to stop and for patrons to arrive, Dengue Fever took to the stage. We had secured a prime front stage spot early on. ‘Stranger’ was chockers with barang and Khmer and it was muggy and sweaty under the canvas tent that had been erected for the gig. The band came on stage and begun to play. An audible ‘aaah’ could be heard as the stunning lead singer, Chom Nimmol, swung onto stage (in particular, from the lovestruck Khmer boys to my right). Microphone in hand she started singing in her high, clear voice. The crowd started to move in time with the music, incapable of resisting the catchy beat and infectious and playful melodies.

In a beautiful moment, transcending all cultural barriers I see my brother singing along in Khmer with a young Cambodian guy he has just met. The front part of the crowd is starting to dance, with more than a hint of Khmer traditional dance moves. This was great! Roh and I both agree that the only thing missing is our younger brother Scrappy. Although, given the Dr Rock-esque keyboard styling intros of the keyboardist and his outfit of brown pin-strip pants we figure that the spirit of Simon was there at least in some shape or form.

Everyone was having a great time and I was reveling in a rare moment of unity between PP residents. It was a nice change from the sometimes extremely segregated night-life of PP. The band finished their last song and walked off stage. They were eventually lured back and did three more songs by the loud chanting ‘moy teat, moy teat…’

Photos courtesy of Pierre

It was an incredible performance; great music, talented musicianship and an enthusiastic crowd. It did really reinforce how lacking the live music scene is here in Phnom Penh. There are a lot of small venues around town that could host similar, small laid back evenings, but this just does not seem to happen. Is it that there isn’t enough music minded Phnom Penhers about with the ability and equipment to put a band together? I was talking with Zac after the gig and he was saying how he really hoped that their visit might inspire young Khmers to get into music. Most of my young Khmer friends love music, they will all sing karaoke if given the opportunity, but none of them play instruments. I can’t believe that there isn’t the interest or talent in Phnom Penh for some really good bands to develop. I suppose we need a confluence of factors, both the people to play the music, the venue for the music to be played and the support of locals coming and listening. Is this such a difficult thing??

Viva live music in Phnom Penh!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Part 6 (The Horror) The final chapter.

Vern Sai to Ban Lung
Journey: 4 hours by truck
Road Condition: treacherous

About 15 minutes down the road we came to a screeching halt. Two trucks were ahead and one of them was seriously bogged in the red, sticky mud. The sun was beating down. We sat in the sand waiting whilst ahead branches and sticks were collected. We watched with bated breath as the second truck attempted to make it across the perilous stretch of mud. The bridge of branches helped but it was not enough. The road was now completely blocked off by the two huge trucks, wheel deep in thick mire. Well accustomed to such a turn of events the truck drivers and their assistants did not despair. Further branches were cut down, blocks and rocks collected and with much revving and over-heating of the truck’s engine the second truck burst free. It could now pull the first truck out of the quagmire. The trucks would inch forward half a metre at a time, and a team of assistants would run alongside, shouting out instructions and quickly pushing rocks in front of the wheels at each inch of progress. This whole episode took over an hour and set the tune for our trip back.

we watch on with trepidation from the back of the sand truck.

The trucks traveled in a convoy of five and so at every difficult stretch of road we would stop, wait, provide assistance where necessary until all vehicles were through. The trucks were pushed completely beyond capacity and after ploughing through a stretch they would sit, steam gushing out of their hoods, black smoke belching from their sides. On several occasions, we witnessed a truck take a dip in the road at such an extreme angle it almost tipped over. From our vantage point high on the sand, we would look out for possible problem spots and then brace ourselves against the side of the truck as it battled to get through huge gashes of earth and sludge.

The sun was setting as we neared Ban Lung. I looked out but the sunset was obscured by the forest that hugged the edges of the road. I rested my head up against the side of the truck and ruefully thought how typical that was of my Ratanakiri experience. But then, as the truck continued on, it occurred to me how beautiful it was; the strong lines of the silhouetted trees with the soft pink and blue hues as a back drop.

Ban Lung to Phnom Penh
Journey: 40 minutes by plane

After a day of extreme relaxing in Ban Lung, our one true day of holiday. We fronted up at Ban Lung airport and took our 8th different form of transport for the trip. It was our shortest journey and we were in high spirits. The flight was comfortable, quick, and without event (apart from the huge clouds of white smoke that emanated from the air conditioning system).

We arrived in Phnom Penh airport at midday and triumphantly walked across the tarmac into the terminal to collect our luggage. Yay Phnom Penh! I was happy to be home.

Goodbye Ratanakiri!

Part 5 (The Horror)

Voen Sai to Virashay National Park Outpost (Kalangchhouy)
Journey: 20 minutes by boat and 3 hours by foot

After several false starts and some problems with our boat’s engine we were on our way to Koklak, a Prehl minority village 20 minutes upstream of Voen Sai.

From Koklak our only option was to continue by foot due to lack of road access. We shouldered our packs and had a pleasant walk through largely deserted villages (most of the inhabitants are nomadic) and rice fields bursting with ripening stalks. We passed villagers making the trek, their woven bamboo backpacks filled with vegetables or grain to sell in town. I wondered how I would manage living in a village where I had to walk at least 3 hours before I reached a town.

Rangers Outpost

The outpost is located right on the border of the National Park and is a simple wooden stilted house, with one room and a balcony. Before we can enter the National Park we need to cross a river that runs between the outpost and the park. After a lunch break we leave our packs at the outpost and get ready for our walk. We assemble bottles of water and the “leach socks” (starchy-thick cotton socks that reach mid thigh with hospital-esqe ties at the top to stop nasty leaches from crawling onto ones legs). Krishni is keen to try out the socks, but Sovann says it is not necessary yet. We walk to a section of the river which Sovann thinks will be the most suitable for crossing. We get to the rivers edge and look on with dismay. What is a bubbly, ankle deep spring in the dry season is now a roaring, cavalcade of water with eddies and currents. Andrew constructs a long piece of rope with our hammock strings whilst singing ‘Whole Lotta Love’. I stare out at the water and have a bad feeling about our ability to make it to Virashay.

We discuss our options. If the strongest swimmer can get across then the rest could follow using the rope. Sovan jumps in and attempts to cross but the rope isn’t long enough. He clambers out a fair way downstream. We are not in the national park until we cross over the river. We stand on the bank and eye of the other side. So close, yet so very far. I am not a strong swimmer and after a test swim I am pretty sure it would not be a good idea for me to try make the crossing. The current is just too strong. Sovann is a bit perplexed and disappointed when we tell him we are not going to do it. Krish seems genuinely disappointed that she does not get to wear the leach socks. Sovann proposes a swim back to the outpost (with the current) and Krishni takes him up on his offer. They climb down the bank and are quickly swept out of view. Later on Krish tells us they hit a series of rapids. Slightly panicked, she asked Sovann what to do. He replied “just lift your legs”. Thankfully by the time Andrew and I made it back to the outpost Krish was there safe and sound.

Andrew ready for the challenges of Virashay Park

Virashay Output to Voen Sai
Journey: 4.5 hours by foot
Road Condition: bad (only passable on foot)

I was woken early in the morning to face a comprehensive incursion of our living space. Tiny, biting vicious black ants had conducted an extremely successful night raid on our hut and were now celebrating their conquest in every single personal item that I owned. I stamped about, pulling up pieces of clothing and shaking them free of ants. I was not in a good morning mood. After leaving the majority of the ants behind in the hut, we set off back to Voen Sai. I traipsed automaton-like through the green forest and rice fields. It was beautiful and interesting, but at that point I just wanted to be back in Ban Lung.

The 3 hour walk to Koklak went fairly quickly and uneventfully apart from having to stop twice to remove leaches from Krishni’s legs (we should have been wearing the leach socks!). We arrived in Koklak sweaty and exhausted. The ranger in Ban Long had told us that we could get a moto from the village, but as it was wet season many of the villagers had moved elsewhere or were busy fishing. We stopped at a meeting place to ascertain our options. I crawled onto a bamboo slat-bed, took off my sodden, muddy shoes, and was almost immediately asleep. I awoke from my nap to be told there were no motos, no boat and the only way to get back to Voen Sai was by foot. This was not welcome news. But what choice did we have?

I was overwhelmed by exhaustion. I mechanically put my sneakers back on my blistered feet, shouldered my pack and readied to set off. When I first began walking that morning I had consoled myself with dreams of reclining in Yaklom Lodge with a gin and tonic watching the sunset. Now, my fantasies were much more immediate. I imagined myself sitting back in the ‘hang bai’ in Voen Sai on a blue plastic chair on the dirt floor, a cup of cold over-brewed tea with ice in my hand and the sounds of noisy karaoke dvds filling the wooden shack…. Ohhhh Vern Sai hang bai…….

Oh so happy not to be walking! The ferry to Vern Sai after walk.

We made it to Voen Sai and I did wind down in the restaurant, but not with an ice tea. Things never seem to work out the way you envisage, especially on this trip.

Inevitably, sitting in the Voen Sai hang bai, our journey was far from over. We had to make it back to Ban Lung. It was 2pm and there were no moto drivers in town.


Ot mien.

It says a lot about your holiday when you are overjoyed at the prospect of catching a lift in the back of a big, rattly truck filled with sand.

We made a split second decision to take the only available transport out of town. We laughed and waved goodbye to Voen Sai, and nestled comfortably in the sand as the big diesel truck struggled and ploughed along the muddy, bumpy road.