Photo: Evannovostro/Shutterstock

How to Rock in Phnom Penh

by Lauren Quinn Dec 8, 2011
Lauren Quinn takes on Dengue Fever in Phnom Penh.

1. HAUL YOUR ASS down to Java Café to buy a ticket.

This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but you’ve been hit with one of those requisite newbie stomach flus, and you a) barely slept all night, b) feel like someone took an air mattress deflater to your insides, and c) are dizzy and a little shaky when you walk.

Even if it weren’t for all that, you only arrived back in Phnom Penh four days ago and your body’s not used to the heat yet. You were hoping that since you’d been through this once this year, and since you were coming back for good, to live here you’d be exempt.

No such luck.

But a friend told you about this show a couple days ago—the LA-based Cambodian-rock revival band Dengue Fever is touring SE Asia, which they haven’t done in 18 months. You’re just in time for one of their last shows, Friday night. Tomorrow.

You know enough to know that chances like these don’t come often in this city, this country, this part of the world. And you will be goddamned if you miss it.

So you take a tuk-tuk down to the café, where they’re selling tickets for an exorbitant $10. But you like the café, haven’t been there since you’ve been back, and you sit down in the air-conditioning and think, “I’m totally good to order some food.”

So you get that pumpkin muffin you love, and at first you feel okay. Then, you start to get goosebumps in the air-conditioning, and decide to head back to the hotel.

In the tuk-tuk, you start shivering, even though it’s 90 degrees out. By the time you get back to the hotel, you’re shaking like you’ve got DTs.

Conclusion: you are not “totally good” to eat. But you’ve got your ticket, so you are ready to rock.

2. Pile into the tuk-tuk in front of Bel’s house the next night, clutching your bag close and peeping around corners ’cause the nice French girl you just met had her iPhone stolen at gunpoint, at this intersection, less than an hour ago.

You’re five-deep and rattling potholes through the streets, cool breeze from the river sneaking between the alleys and into the city—three foreign-born Khmers, 20-somethings who’ve all moved back, an American boyfriend and you.

The girls cross legs; the boys crack Anchor beers and jokes.

Up over this bridge to Diamond Island—the new one, rebuilt after the last one collapsed and killed 300 people. “Hey it’s almost the one year anniversary,” Bel says. Nod. Think of how all those things you take for granted in the States—building codes and fire escapes and even the FDA—don’t apply here.

Hope they’ve rebuilt the new bridge a little better.

You’ve never been to Diamond Island, and you think it looks like what would happen if Orlando, Florida had a love child with Phnom Penh—neon and motorbikes and massive malls and some gaudy soon-to-be monstrosity hidden behind construction cranes, corrugated tin and uplit Roman pillars.

Pull up to the tented event center—see the swarm of tuk-tuks and shiny, parked cars and expats in their hippest wear. Know you’re in the right place.

3. It’s air-conditioned inside the tent, and somehow security let you through with a water bottle in your purse, and thank god because you’re still dehydrated as hell and can’t stop drinking.

One of the opening acts has already started—you don’t know who, the billing just said “Special Guests”—so you wade through the bodies to catch a glimpse.

Nod as you listen—watch those fingers pick and pause, the voice rise, a kind of call-and-response in one person.

It’s two old dudes on stage. Their white shirts are glowing in the spotlight and they’re playing the chaipei, a traditional Cambodian guitar. It’s twangy like a banjo and soulful like a guitar, and one of the dudes is moaning and singing and he’s got dark sunglasses on.

Lean in to Bel’s ear, “Yo, is he the Ray Charles of Cambodia?”

“Actually,” a grin, “yeah. They totally call him that. Master Kong Nay. He’s one of the only chaipei players who survived the Khmer Rouge.”

Nod as you begin to remember him, his story. Nod as you listen—watch those fingers pick and pause, the voice rise, a kind of call-and-response in one person.

Decide he’s more of the Leadbelly of Cambodia. But keep the comment to yourself.

4. There’s a huge swath of floor space fenced off with pink string and laid out with straw mats, and when the next opener comes on, you realize what it’s for: dancing.

They’re kids, performing traditional Cambodian dances. Realize then that this whole thing is a benefit for Cambodia Living Arts. That’s where you’d heard of Kong Nai—he’s kind of a figurehead, working to pass nearly-lost culture arts onto the younger generations.

Watch the kids dance—the flexed feet and careful hips, the twist of wrists and the cinch of fingertips. Feel better about your $10 cover.

Watch the girls smile placidly and the boys beam, as though grins were trying to bust their way out. One boy widens his eyes and snaps his hips. Say,“The boys are sassier than the girls,” and Bel agrees.

Once the kids have pattered their bare feet off the mats, people come to roll them up. Someone raises the pink string and a cheer goes up as the crowd bumrushes the empty space towards the stage. It strikes you as sweet—smile.

5. The next opener is Animation, and they’re one of the few all-Khmer alternative bands, who also write their own music, who also sign in Khmer. Get excited about this, curious.

Watch them as they come on stage—looking all of 16, tight jeans and black t-shirts, with some of the most ridiculous hair you’ve ever seen. It’s like K-Pop hair had a head-on motorbike accident with a bottle of bleach and an anti-gravity machine: sideswipes and spikes and a flattop and something vaguely Flock-of-Seagulls, but with more product.

Marvel at the hairs’ height and dexterity.

Wonder how they think it looks good.

Wonder if this is how you looked to your parents when you were a teenager.

Decide it is.

They start to play, and, well, it’s awful. Maybe what Linkin Park sounded like before they really nailed the timing and levels bit. The signer’s voice cracks when he screams—you wince.

But still, they’re one of the first few bands to emerge in a country that has effectively had no independent music scene for over 30 years. They don’t have much to work with. And they’re kids.

Say to Bel, “It’s gotta start somewhere.”

6. Applaud when Animation leaves the stage, and watch an American roadie start to scurry. Watch him continue to scurry. And continue.

Get bored and begin to scope out the crowd. You’d been warned that it’d be majority expats, given not just the cover but that fact that the show is booked to go until 10:30, and “good” Cambodia youth don’t stay out past 10.

So check out your soon-to-be constituents—you’re too new here to consider yourself one of them yet. It’s what you remembered from your last stay here: lots of button-up shirts and short-brimmed straw hats and statement necklaces; lots of double cheek kissing and standing in small circles.

A pair of girls walk by—young, early 20s, strappy sandals and flowy dresses, tossing hair and bits of conversation over their shoulder. Make eye contact with one of them and begin to smile, cause that’s what you do when you happen to meet eyes with someone.

She maddogs you like you’re in a middle school hallway and brushes past.

Start to worry about the next year or so of your social life.

You were also warned there would be a sizeable white-dude-with-Khmer-girlfriend contingent, and true to form, they’ve made a strong showing. They don’t mix and mingle with the other expats—they stand in pairs, a tangle of limbs and embraces and whispers into ears.

Something about it reminds you of being young, before you got jaded and cool—seventh grade, and going to see Green Day play at the Henry J Kaiser Auditorium near your house.

Decide not to judge. Because it’s not your business anyway.

You’re surprised by the number of Khmer faces—only 10%, maybe 20% of the crowd, but still more than you’d expected. Most of them can be found standing closer to the stage, rapt and waiting, radiating a sort of electric excitement.

Something about it reminds you of being young, before you got jaded and cool—seventh grade, and going to see Green Day play at the Henry J Kaiser Auditorium near your house, how you’d spent the whole afternoon giggling and braiding your hair with your girlfriends; how at the show, you’d stood outside the mosh pit and screamed along and did a little hoppy dance that wasn’t a dance at all, just the uncontained expression of excitement.

Decide these folks are having more fun than anyone else.

7. When Dengue Fever finally comes on, it’s past 10 and a lot of the Khmer faces have thinned from the crowd. But the ones in the front erupt into a limb-waving cheer, and you follow suit ’cause, you know, why not?

They start to play and they’re good. The singer’s Khmer—short and dark and curvy, wearing a sequined dress that makes the most of it. She has a killer voice, and the band of various Americans isn’t bad either. They smile at each other and the crowd, and they look like they’re having fun.

They’re billed as the biggest band of the ’60s/’70s Cambodian garage/psychedelic rock revival, and they do a pretty spot-on job of it—not verbatim enough to be straight karaoke but not reinvented so much it’s ripping-off. It’s contemporary, relevant, and the most refreshing kind of homage—one with soul and respect and a total lack of pretension.

They write their own music, but they also cover old classics. They play one and you recognize it, which surprises you.

You’d driven around your city, your hometown, but your heart had been somewhere else. And these songs had been the soundtrack.

You know it from a Cambodian rock archive comp a friend burned you. You’d played it in your car over and over again all summer, when you’d found yourself strangely homesick for this country you’d spent only a few months in.

It was before you’d bought your ticket back and put in your notice and told your parents you were leaving, moving, coming back for good.

You’d driven around your city, your hometown, but your heart had been somewhere else. And these songs had been the soundtrack.

So nod when you hear them, even though you don’t know their names or the original artists or the big empty of what happened in the time since they were first recorded. You don’t know the words, but recognize the sound—remember the verse progression and you wait for the high note.

When she hits, smile. Think: I’m back.

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