By Gabrielle Low
‘Stung Treng 216 km’ flashed on the blue signboard as our bus sped along the highway. I was only a third of the way through the journey from Phnom Penh to Cambodia’s northern outpost of Stung Treng — the name of both the province and its capital — near its border with Laos. The bus would take ten hours to travel the roughly 350-kilometre stretch of highway.
The word ‘highway’ I learned, is a relative term. Here, it was a dusty two-lane road, and the last two hours to Stung Treng would pass by painfully, on a road that was mainly compressed dirt and tiny rocks. Once I reached the town, I would have to wait until the following morning before I could catch a speedboat to my destination, a small village along the Mekong River.
It was probably the longest journey I’ve ever had to undertake in order to see a performance — in this case, a touring production by the Phnom Penh-based Savanna Phum Arts Association. By means of a performance that integrated elements of Cambodian shadow puppetry, theatre and dance, a 10-person troupe from the association was touring remote fishing villages in Stung Treng, to raise awareness on biodiversity conservation in the Mekong wetlands. In a region of Cambodia where many villages have no electricity and no telephones — neither land nor cellular lines — travelling productions are among the most viable, if not most effective, outreach methods.
On the road, however, my concerns were more immediate. The bus was a metal trap for heat, but every time I slid open the window, a fine yellow dust flew at my face, sending tiny particles into my mouth and between my teeth. For the past four hours we had been served Khmer karaoke videos, replete with pretty Cambodian girls in heavy make-up, dressed up as apsara dancers or farmers’ daughters. I had six more hours to enjoy the onboard entertainment. At my feet, a discarded plastic bag containing a yellow and white semi-liquid substance had begun to leak, and its contents were slowly spreading across the floor of the bus.
Hours before the show was scheduled to start, a loudspeaker began blasting Khmer pop songs to entice the villagers to the evening’s performance. A stage had already been set up next to the village community hall, a traditional wooden structure raised on stilts, located on a field at the centre of the village.
I had already given myself a tour of the village. Stephanie, a Khmer-speaking French-Lebanese ethnomusicology graduate student who had travelled with me to Stung Treng, had, earlier in the day, secured for us a couple of bicycles, borrowed from the villagers. We headed down the narrow dirt path that ran from one end of the village to the other.
“We must find out the name of the wat, so that we can ask for directions if we get lost,” Stephanie informed me. “Most villages are known by their wats, even if the villages have names.”
I nodded, glad that I was with someone who had experience and foresight. We found out that the wat was named Wat Kol Maneach. We pedalled off to the stares of a few villagers standing by the side of the path.
Five minutes into our cycling trip, Stephanie and I found ourselves in a large yard between two houses. The path ended here. Heading down in the opposite direction — and passing by the bemused stares of the same villagers — we cycled for about 20 minutes before we reached the other end of the village. The path, which ran the whole extent of the village, was no longer than two kilometres.
Without any knowledge of the village and its surroundings, we decided not to venture into the brush and the fields. Landmines remain a very real threat in rural Cambodia.
Later, shortly after the Khmer pop songs began heralding the performance, several villagers began to set up food and drinks stalls at the edge of the village field. As I sat alone, finishing up a four o’clock lunch of instant noodles at one stall, Miek, the Savanna Phum troupe’s stage manager, beckoned me to join him at a nearby stall.
I smiled at him nervously. Surrounding him were seven other Khmer men, their broad-nosed, dark brown and oil-glistened Khmer faces breaking into big, white-teethed smiles. They were sitting at a long wooden table, strewn with half-empty beer glasses, overturned beer cans and white snack bowls.
“No, no,” I said, putting on my most polite smile.
He motioned again for me to join him — this time, raising a beer can with his other hand.
At the table, I was given a glass of Anchor (Cambodians pronounce the last syllable “chore”) with ice. It was continuously refilled, and every time a round was poured, glasses were clinked to sound of buoyant voices, going: “Ching, ching!”
“How do you say “cheers” in Khmer?” I asked, my spirits higher.
“Sokhopeap laor,” came the answer, as one of the guys raised his glass. “Sokhopeap laor,” replied the others. When we received the bill, they refused to let me pay my share. “You are our guest,” they said.
Theatre by the Mekong
By nightfall, the entire village had gathered in front of the stage, located just metres away from the banks of the Mekong. It was dark; I couldn’t see the ground beneath my feet as I walked towards the stage. I was boarding, along with some of the troupe members, at the house of the village chief. For our benefit, he hooked up the only fluorescent light in his home to a power generator. Another source of illumination were the small battery-powered lights attached to the handful of village stalls that cropped up in anticipation of the crowd attending the show. Alongside the food and drinks vendors, other village entrepreneurs had laid out gaming mats on the grass. Small crowds gathered around the mats to take bets on dice games.
That night, Savanna Phum had an audience of around 400 people: from old women with traditional cotton krama wrapped around their heads, smoking pungent hand-rolled tobacco; to young men, many of them wearing T-shirts bearing the logos of the many environmental NGOs that had come that way. The night’s feature performance, A Weird Dream, was a piece devised by the Savanna Phum artists in collaboration with the organization that funded the tour, the Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use Programme.
No one seemed like they were in a rush to get to the feature performance. The evening began with two preludes: first, a speech; then, a short skit — presented by volunteers from the village, who had rehearsed under the direction of the visiting artists only a few hours before the show.
The main presentation opened with a scene featuring puppets, but soon the stage included actors and dancers, who moved seamlessly from performing against a backdrop of shadows to appearing behind the screen as shadows. It was a piece that fluidly blended together the idioms of traditional sbek touch (‘small shadow theatre’, the Cambodian folk tradition of puppetry, distinct from a more courtly form, sbek thom), contemporary shadow theatre, dance and conventional theatre, an approach that Sovanna Phum has employed to great effect in other productions. One of the key issues addressed by the performance was electrofishing, a method of fishing that involves sending electric currents into the water, which can result in the unnecessary killing of a range of aquatic life, not just the targeted species.
Shadow theatre is perhaps Sovanna Phum’s greatest strength. In one scene, when an entire rainforest composed of shadow suddenly appeared on the screen, the audience emitted a spontaneous gasp. Similarly arresting scenes prompted children to run to the edge of the stage, and adults to scold them for blocking the view. Still, it was not an easy audience. When the dialogue became too didactic, people would drift away, only to return during a more exciting scene. Language might have posed another barrier for the villagers. Many of them spoke Lao, not Khmer.
Not understanding a word of the dialogue myself, I relied on images to enjoy the performance. Perhaps because of the darkness, the play of shadow and light had a more stunning visual quality. The context in which the performance was taking place also gave it an added relevance. Folk theatre is more at home here, before a village crowd. Sbek touch, with its provincial burlesque, is out of place even in Phnom Penh, where I had first seen it, amidst an audience comprised mostly of perplexed tourists.
The Return Trip
On the way back to Phnom Penh, I saw billboards encouraging Cambodians to register the births of their children, to drink Anchor beer, to protect wildlife from traffickers, to practice safe sex, and to smoke Alain Delon cigarettes in order to enjoy ‘the taste of France’.
I passed, once again, long stretches of countryside dominated by shrubs. Agriculture, a sector that accounted for roughly a third of Cambodia’s GDP in 2005, is comprised primarily of subsistence farming. Roughly half of the country’s arable and irrigated land remains uncultivated. Commercial agriculture is still in its incipient stages, the rubber industry being one area undergoing redevelopment — and this includes the reopening of French-era rubber plantations. In the province of Kompong Cham, the former centre of Cambodia’s rubber industry, rubber cultivation may be a re-emerging sector - but it is still somewhat of a novelty: some of the active plantations in the province are touted as tourist destinations.
I tried to write in my notebook: “The countryside is flat. There are sugar palms, papaya trees, rice fields, women in sarong. The houses are wooden. Raised almost two metres off the ground. Borders and trims are often painted light blue.”
I stopped writing. The pen in my hand was quivering too much with the rattling of the bus. Still, the restoration of these highways has far deeper implications than merely ensuring comfort for people riding a bus. We travelled on a road with sections still being paved under various foreign-aid schemes to restore Cambodia’s roads and bridges, destroyed during the country’s long years of strife. The prices of goods would be lowered when the time and cost of transportation is reduced. Roads, furthermore, open up a wider market for farmers and fishermen, enabling them to bring their goods to larger towns, where they fetch a higher price. And, perhaps even more importantly, improving the road conditions would also mean that schools become more accessible for children in remote areas.
It’s very easy to develop a fixation with Cambodia: the Indochine exotic, combined with the grandeur of Angkor, and the ruggedness of its provinces.
Then there’s the other thing that Cambodia is known for: the killing fields. Many tourist itineraries in Phnom Penh include a visit to Tuai Sleng — the complex known as S-21 during the years it served as the torture and interrogation centre of the Khmer Rouge — and a trip to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Tuai Sleng, for me, was quite enough.
The most well-known images associated with Tuai Sleng are the mug shots of its victims: row upon row of black and white photographs of men and women, children and the elderly, Cambodians and foreigners; almost all with drawn faces, bearing cards with prison identification numbers — some of the cards are pinned directly onto the flesh of their chests. Then there’s the room with the skulls, once so controversially arranged in the shape of Cambodia’s map. Now the skulls are placed in glass cabinets — again, row upon row.
By the time I arrived at the rooms with the mug shots, I was emotionally drained. Visitors are first led to rooms where the decomposing bodies of the last 14 victims of S-21 were found, by Vietnamese troops, who captured Phnom Penh on January 7th, 1979, and dispelled the Khmer Rouge from the city. The rooms still contain iron beds, shackles, and the implements of torture used on the victims, as well as photographs of the bodies as they were found, chained to the beds.
Some of the rooms bear bloodstains, on the floor and on the ceiling.
Didier, a Frenchman who had visited Cambodia numerous times, told me he had never been there. “I cannot go there,” he said, sounding resolute, as if he had deliberated over this decision.
I understood him. I had postponed my own trip to Tuai Sleng until the last possible moment. “But it’s a responsibility,” I said, nevertheless, “To confront what humans are capable of doing to one another.”
He nodded, but said nothing.
I wanted to say more — that it was about our own humanity; that evil is not an abstraction; that it is, every bit, human. But I found it difficult to talk about these things in ordinary conversation.
Theatre for Tragedy-Seekers
Staged in Phnom Penh, 3 years, 8 months, 20 days was a piece of theatre about surviving the Khmer Rouge regime, devised by Dutch director Annemarie Prins with three Cambodian stage actresses. The play was produced by AMRITA Performing Arts, an active and well-resourced production company founded and run by Fred Frumberg, an American who has lived in Cambodia since 1997. According to the programme notes, a workshop was first held between Prins and these actresses, to ascertain if Prins’ “way of making modern theatre would be appropriate to Cambodian culture”. The workshop “proved to be a success”, and this led to a further collaboration, one year after the initial workshop.
The basis of the collaboration — if it could be called one — defined an asymmetrical relationship between the director and the performers: performers either adapt to Prins’ method, or they don’t — in which case the project wouldn’t have happened.
The performers themselves appeared to have had very limited input in framing and determining the outcome of the creative process: they provided their personal stories to Prins, in the Netherlands, where she subsequently collated and rewrote the stories; and five weeks before the play’s first staging, Prins flew to Cambodia to rehearse with the actresses. The process worked, according to Prins’ notes, “thanks to the curiosity and patience of all of us”.
Like the process, the product went down this same patronising road. Mournful and speaking in hushed tones, the performers — who were collectively alluded to as the ‘three little girls’, onstage — appeared as if they had been encouraged to undergo a catharsis, as they each told their personal stories of surviving the Khmer Rouge and witnessing the deaths of their family members. “Mother carries me. Mother drops me. Mother falls down,” one performer recalled.
The text, as arranged by Prins, seemed designed to heighten the sense of tragedy, with narratives shaped to culminate in a heart-rending emotional surge. Traditional Khmer music, performed by two young musicians who shared the stage with the actresses, interrupted the flow of the narratives at certain intervals. The pathos reached a peak when one performer sobbed out her story – the two musicians ceased singing and playing music, and provided accompaniment in the form of more exaggerated sobbing.
As they choked, sobbed and sputtered on stage, I grew increasingly frustrated. It’s difficult for me to criticize something like this, because I view tragedy as having a certain inviolability. Yet, just as it is difficult for me to address this sentiment, I feel that it should also have been difficult for the creators of this project. To reduce the narratives to melodrama, and to characterise the tragedy as the sum total of pain and sadness, seemed a bit too simple.
Prins is one of many well-meaning foreign artists who fly to Cambodia to collaborate with local artists on the subject of the Khmer Rouge. “But most Cambodian artists I know don’t initiate projects on the Khmer Rouge,” Delphine Kassem, the founder of Sovanna Phum, said to me afterwards. “They are not ready to talk about it.”
Weeks later, over dinner and drinks at Savanna Phum’s theatre and workshop in Phnom Penh, a CD player suddenly began playing a fast, catchy Khmer song. The style and the quality of the recording sounded old, but it was evidently a song that even the younger members of the group knew well.
Reit, the company’s slightly taciturn handyman, began moving his thin arms to the rhythm. Clapping with the music and singing along at the chorus, he prompted the rest of the group to join in.
After being fed with Khmer ballads for weeks, the song — which merged elements of traditional Khmer music, combined with 1950s Western rock and roll — made me feel like I could finally appreciate popular Khmer music.
“Who is the singer?” I asked.
“Sinn Sisamuth,” answered Mann Kosal, Savanna Phum’s artistic director. “Cambodia’s most famous singer.” He continued: “Young people today like bad music, but when they hear Sinn Sisamuth’s songs, they are quiet, they just listen.” Much later on I learned that Sinn Sisamuth, whose legendary stature and smiling face on an old tinted photograph reminded me of P Ramlee, was executed at Tuol Sleng in the early days of the Khmer Rouge takeover. Like so many of the other deaths — estimated at 1.7 million throughout the country — his was senseless.
“Why did they kill a singer?” is not a question that can be answered. The Khmer Rouge killed monks, artists, children and plantation workers, in addition to members of the royal family, government and military officers of the previous Lon Nol regime — as well as fellow cadre members suspected of disloyalty. Every single Cambodian who lived through 1975 to 1979 was either a victim or a perpetrator. There was no room to be on the sidelines.
But that night, this question stopped mattering, if only for a little while. Sinn Sisamuth’s voice, on the old recording, with its scratches and echoes, playing from a pirated CD, made us listen.
Gabrielle Low spent one month in Cambodia, between November and December 2006, on a residency with the Sovanna Phum Arts Association. This two-part account of that period describes her observations of the country
First Published: 17.01.2007 on Kakiseni