There is no better time to witness the charms and mystery of Cambodia than the first hour of every morning. As the ever punctual sun rises, promising another day of scorching heat, there is a magic in the first rays of light, a creeping mist and coolness to the gentle breeze whispering to the leaves above.
The dirt road outside my gates comes to life; veritable rush hours, as old women wrapped in sarongs creak out of their homes and sweep their few square metres of concrete. Teak skinned farmers chug past on motos piled high with eggs, fruits, braces of chickens and the occasional pig, swerving around wandering cows, a barefooted boy driving them forward with stick in hand.
Following behind comes the advancing column dressed in Angry Birds pyjamas and slippers, market bound.
Some ride bicycles, motos or walk through the dust with young kids clutching shopping baskets by their sides. Riding in the other direction go the pretty girls in pencil skirts and starched white blouses, flashing the occasional flirtatious smile as they pass.
A line of monks, with robes the same colour as the morning sun wait in line for alms, with a ragtag troupe of scruffy boys falling in alongside them. Soon enough the air will become thicker as the sun climbs higher and the pyjama clad army will retire to their hammocks and wait lazily for the worst of the heat to pass. Dawn – when the air is clear and fresh and the people most animated, the herald of another tropical day.
Yet for 3 day stretches, on random days every month, this serenity is punctured, my small Cambodian oasis violated and my sent teeth rattling in my skull as I am rudely awoken by a cacophony from the dark hours.
As I fall from bed and fumble for the light switch, I can already tell in sleep denied confusion whether someone has karked it, or if a lucky couple is finally going to get laid in 72 long hours’ time.
It’s still dark and outside the battle of Jericho is underway, my walls crumbling to the sound of Gagnam Style.
It begins like this. The sound of metal clanging against metal will ring out for a few hours one afternoon. That’s the key – the siege towers are being constructed. The garish fabrics arrive with the caterers, who set up camp a stone’s throw away. Huge cauldrons are unloaded, fires lit. An army is approaching and it is going to be hungry.
Phase 2 is the generator. The feel of medieval pageantry has been replaced by the age of the internal combustion engine. The rhythmic thud will become as regular and familiar as my heart beat as it splutters into action, ready to feed life into the black wall of speaker boxes stacking up higher and higher.
The piece de resistance, the icing on the proverbial cake is hoisted – a loud hailer or 3, sometimes 4 standing above the riot of green and pink like a king’s banner.
I feel empathy with peasants of old, as they waited, watching the dust of advancing Mongol hordes, ready to kill, plunder, and make off with any daughters who are hitting puberty. Just swap the horses for Hondas, bearskins for tacky outfits and war paint for make-up. Any plundering shall take place around a table of fruit.
The logistics outside in place, I reach for my last line of defenc….Anchor, earplugs and a couple of valium. Then wait as the chugging of diesel power provides a constant reminder of the impending storm.
Day 1…5am, the aural attack commences, a raspy throated voice with added feedback shouts ‘Hello, hello, hello’ into a microphone. Seemingly dissatisfied, the guy cranks the volume even more. Like Spinal Tap, these amps go up to 11. Then it’s time for the music.
If it is a somber affair, a funeral: 100 days or however many years since some bong departed for the great prahoc market in the sky, the same two xylophone tracks will play on loop. The first is uncannily similar to the Blackadder theme tune.
If the occasion is more upbeat, the sound of a studio organ and a wailing cat woman start shaking the shutters with Khmer songs about love (recently I heard a cover of Whiter Shade of Pale murdered by a ogotan band). The metal doors rattle with the bass, the gate rattles even my bed and pillow vibrate with each boom-boom of the bass. And so the nightmare of sensory deprivation begins….
Anybody remember when the US invaded Panama and General Noriega holed himself up in the Vatican Embassy? Navy Seals blasted him out by playing Metallica for a few days until he crawled his CIA drug smugglin’ ass out to face the music. The sun comes up and that’s how it feels inside, with a liberal sprinkling of Guantanamo Bay torture. There is no respite, no let-up, save for the relief of a CD change or the brief silence just before a wailing crone or MC Buddhist Monk takes the mic and begins what sounds like the worst rap battle in history.
Day 2 begins earlier, something to do with ghosts; I’m told – or luck, depending on who is to be believed. By five I’m up, chain smoking and typing shite on the internet to distract my sleep deprived mind and irreversible tinnitus. Maybe they’ll pause for an hour at around 11….
Day 3 is earlier again. How? Why? By now I’m a nervous wreck; the bags under my eyes give me the appearance of a harassed raccoon with a meth habit. I can’t take it anymore; I’d confess to the most heinous of crimes, agree to do anything, just to stop my brain from being skull-fucked by weeping and wailing, moaning and gnashing of teeth and/or K-Pop.
‘Yes,I planned 9/11….yes I shot JR…..yes I was Jimmy Savile’s grooming partner….just…make it….stop!’
Then, around midday the chanting reaches a crescendo….one last tune before the spirits are appeased, or the lucky couple gets to go off and have awkward virgin sex in the new curtained off space in a parents house.
The hoard rides away; the encampment is dismantled and packed as quickly as it arrived. Soon just a pile of rotting detritus is left, and a couple of bored caterers wait for a pick up to ferry them to the next death or marriage.
The battle is over, but the war is not won – they will be back, they will give no warning. Until the next assault I can only wait. I make disapproving stares to the young neighbor chatting to the cute chick standing by the fence. I worry about the old man’s cough……stay strong, bong, please don’t die. The dawn has been reclaimed once more. But for how long?