Life out in the provinces can get pretty dull. Hot humdrum days follow long, hot nights, with only regular meals of rice and palm wine to break the dusty monotony. There’s also sleeping and bitching about the neighbours- two other popular pastimes.
Excitement only really takes place in the dry season, in the form of weddings, village celebrations – such as ‘Village Rice Cutting Party’ where folk eat noodles made from the season’s harvested rice, and special events like the carnival on New Year’s Eve. These mostly involve going out with the family, drinking, eating, noise and, between songs or brief periods of respite when the generator runs out of diesel, bitching about the neighbours.
Television provides entertainment after sundown. Have you ever seen the trick of chicken hypnotism, done by drawing a line on the ground in front of its face? Having easy access to chickens, and plenty of time to kill, take my word, it’s real. This transfixed state can last a few minutes if the bird is in a suggestible fowl mood and can be quite amusing, if that’s your thing. Television- the idiot box, the goggle tube, opiate of the masses- has a similar effect on Cambodians as the line in the sand trick has on poultry.
The moment that button is pressed, everyone within range will stop whatever it is they were doing, whether it’s housework, bar-tending, table waiting or operating heavy machinery. It doesn’t really matter what the content or quality of the programme is – cartoons, dubbed Asian soap operas, close up shots of traffic accidents, confusing onstage comedy routines and of course, singing: Khmers love singing.
Cable TV is a unnecessary luxury out in the villages, why fork out for it every month when a cheap aerial can be hung on bamboo and slung out a window? Besides who cares about quality, as long as there’s some singing? For this, one channel is held dear to Cambodian hearts, like the BBC to Brits and Fox News to mental Americans, Cambodian Television Network is national treasure – broadcasting news, confusing comedies to a live studio audience and lots of lovely singing.
Through CTN’s family friendly format, many household (and shackhold) names have found fame, such as every Khmer’s favourite funnyman/singer Pakmi.
Best known for his on stage skits and tongue in cheek songs poking fun at everyday Cambodia, Pakmi released the catchy tune Oy Brorpun Si Seang Ou Srey Si Soup – the song for Khmer New Year 2013, which was something about his wife eating fish paste whilst he eats soup with his girlfriend and gets pissed up with his mates. The video had villagers, a pig and angry wife along with a suicide attempt – OTT, but somewhat more realistic than the beautiful white skinned youngsters, living in beautiful white painted apartments with white leather furniture, driving white Range Rovers, before one dies in an accident and the other tops him/herself because of ‘broken heart’.
Every weekend of dry season, a live (well, recorded live) concert is shown on CTN from somewhere in Cambodia, and once a year it comes to the crappy provincial town near me: TV giving something back to the people.
As usual, I had no idea what was going on, having come home from work with a barbequed fish and a few beers, hoping for a little R & R. Any hopes for a quiet Friday night were swiftly dashed. Everyone was going to the concert and saying ‘no’ was not an option. It would be different; I was assured, from the carnival/concert last December. “Big concert, bong”
It was obvious this was a popular event on the social calendar by the volume of traffic on the road. A couple of kilometres from the site crowds of youngsters were actually using their own legs and walking- a sure sign this was something special was afoot.
The bridge across the river was almost impassible; a throng of motos, pedestrians and a few cars trapped within the melee. We weaved through the flashing red brake lights, illuminating clouds of dust and fumes. In the not so far distance searchlights and lasers lit up the sky and, over the honk of a thousand horns, the boom-boom-boom of music could be heard.
As we inched our way closer, the scene became more chaotic- the narrow street jammed with people, traffic and smoking food carts selling the standard party fare of bugs and chicken. With no organised parking facilities it was every moto for himself, bumping and inching toward the front. We managed to find a spot on stage right, where many others had taken up position sitting, standing and even sleeping atop their bikes- a real ‘drive-in’ atmosphere. Family members took turn to guard their wagon circle, allowing others to wander off to buy popcorn.
This concert was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and just in case the Coke trucks, giant screens flashing Coke imagery and thousands of inflatable Coke batons being waved around didn’t give the game away, it was necessary for the impeccably dressed man and woman acting as MCs to say the words “Koka-Kolah” every 5 seconds. The level of in-your-face advertising made my thinly disguised piece on The Cavern look like fair and well balanced journalism.
But what a stage! The spot beams lit up the presenters and the dancers, stage lights dazzled in time with the music as green lasers criss-crossed above. Every experience with PA systems in Cambodia has been awful, with fake Peavey and JBL speakers cranked up to distorted aural agony, but this was a different story – a professional line array of stadium sound, crisp and clear. This sound quality actually made Cambodian music sound good, quite a feat after being subjected to the torture of phone speakers and countryside weddings for so long.
The well-dressed couple onstage introduced a singing contest (that staple Cambodian tradition), brought to you by Koka-Kolah! Cue flashing lights, melodies of the live band and croonings from a couple of clean cut boys and a girl with white skin and a nice dress. And it was pretty obvious who would win, when the results, sponsored by Koka-Kolah, came back later in the evening.
A rumour went out that Sokun Kanha (the one who saw you, walking in the rain) was posing for photos with fans, so I got dragged around the back of the stage, only to see an ineffectual security guard making half-arsed attempts at shoeing away a group of urchins who kept peeling back a tarp to look inside Sokun Kanha’s dressing tent.
Then Pakmi came onstage. The crowd went passive. Cambodians, being conservative, rarely get excited about much, even when their TV hero appears in front of them. No Belieberesque screams from the hordes of young girls, instead the family audience ranging from krama wearing old crones, down the generations to suckling babes, just watched giving a wonderful impression of the hypnotized chicken look. Pakmi mimed to his new song, Knyom Anh Jeung – “The Way I am”, which will no doubt be a Khmer New Year smash for 2014.
Tension built up as the singing competitors stood anxiously on stage and, after plenty of references to a sugar laden beverage, the winner was confirmed as the pale chick in the nice dress. Then they did a raffle to great fanfare as the crowd watched.
Finally Sokun Kanha was called out. She danced a bit, sang a couple of songs whilst the backing band played in tight harmony, before all the performers came back onstage and said goodbye. The party was over and with low-key happiness the people went home in a disorderly manner, ready to watch the whole thing again the next day on CTN.
Loud Khmer music, no beer and a token white man- somehow, for once I almost enjoyed myself.