Soundscapes of Phnom Penh | Anjan Sundaram | Granta

Soundscapes of Phnom Penh

Anjan Sundaram

Bot sadam,’ I said, making my voice nasal and sticking my right hand out of the tuk-tuk. ‘Tini bot chwein.’ The new ride-hailing apps hadn’t yet arrived in Cambodia, so I had to direct the tuk-tuk driver at each turn, right here and left here, to get us across the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to my meeting at the Ministry of Commerce. ‘Indeeya?’ he said, smiling in the rear-view mirror. ‘Khmai la-aw ’ – ‘Your Khmer is good.’

Cambodia was a rare country where I felt welcomed as an Indian, not derided as an immigrant, or regarded with suspicion as a foreigner with strange ways. Cambodian and Indian sailors had for centuries ridden the twice-annual monsoon winds between these countries, trading goods, gods and languages. Some Cambodian people, to me, even looked like my cousins.

Khnyom rien khmai, bong,’ I said. Brother, I’m learning Khmer. I hadn’t yet learned how to say that I found the language difficult, although its alphabet mirrored that of Hindi and reminded me of my childhood ABCs in the old tune I had memorised, ka kha ga gha na . . . p pha ba bha ma. The words for ‘stop here’ were appropriately curt: ‘Chhop tini,’ I said at the ministry gates.

A secretary let me into the minister’s vast office, appointed in white and beige. ‘Somto Mé?’ a man said, sticking his head past the door. In Khmer, which is close to the ancient Indian language Pali, once spoken by the Buddha, was the word for ‘mother’. I raised my eyebrows at the minister. ‘My ministry staff call me Mother,’ he said in English. It turned out that ‘mother’, in Khmer, was synonymous with ‘boss’, and many of the men who ran Cambodia were addressed as women.

Minister Pan looked at me nervously, I suspected because of the news that had been announced on the radio just two hours before, on that morning in June 2017. But he digressed, telling me that Cambodian men in traditional households handed over their salaries to their wives, who returned a smaller amount back to the husbands as monthly pocket money. Houses and land in Cambodia were inherited by daughters.

The minister was a digital pioneer of the Khmer language. Digressing more, he told me that Khmer’s complexity, and the main difficulty in learning it, lay in its vowels. Khmer has about twenty-eight vowels and vowel combinations, called diphthongs, as well as about seventeen independent vowels, which I struggled with. I couldn’t pronounce the oeu in kroeung – for ‘curry’ – and the aw in kdaw – for ‘hot’ – well enough to make myself understood in the markets and found myself running through those vowels’ every possible variation, hoping vendors would eventually understand.

‘The election results,’ I said, gently alluding to the breaking news. Minister Pan evaded the subject a third time. He was trained as a computer engineer, he said, and had encoded Khmer’s subtle variations into ASCII, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, the global data standard. ‘Khmer uses five layers of written symbols, two above and two below each consonant, to denote its vowels, but the American coding system only allowed for three layers, one above and below each consonant, as is needed by Latin languages. I solved the problem of fitting Cambodian complexity into Western simplicity.’

Finally, I mustered the courage to ask him directly about the morning’s news. I waited. Minister Pan, and all of Cambodia’s ruling party, were in trouble. Communal election results had been announced. Once a French protectorate, Cambodia was still organised into communes, districts and provinces, and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had grabbed 2,000 extra communes, out of about 11,500 nationwide, from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The opposition had taken control of nearly half of Cambodia.

It was widely believed among human rights activists and the political opposition that Hun Sen had stolen the 2013 election from his CNRP rival Sam Rainsy. After that crime, Hun Sen had burnished his credentials, insisting it was he who had saved Cambodia from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and who had made Cambodia prosperous during his three-decade rule, warning that if he were ousted, ‘rivers of blood’ would flow. But two successive election results had now confirmed his waning popularity.

‘Have you looked at the Phnom Penh skyline?’ Minister Pan asked me in response, pride in his voice, gesturing towards the window, avoiding a deeper conversation about the difficult news. He glanced at his watch, and stood. I had travelled across the city and the minister had fobbed me off.

In 2017, I arrived in Cambodia to report on its transition away from the West and liberal values such as free speech and democracy, for the New York Review of Books. I investigated how Cambodia was now drawing closer to its neighbour, authoritarian China. East Asia was growing faster than anywhere on Earth, and in return for new prosperity, supported by China, Cambodia’s government forced a silence – a harmony, as government propaganda had it – upon its citizens. I was learning Khmer in part because the Khmer Rouge had systematically decimated Cambodia’s intelligentsia, killing an estimated 2 million people, targeting those who spoke a foreign language, in particular. A Cambodian friend’s parents had told him that Khmer Rouge cadres tricked potential targets into speaking French by walking up to them and exclaiming, ‘Bonjour!’ The effect could be felt forty years later, and helped explain why I met so few English or French speakers on the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s bustling, cosmopolitan capital. In a country increasingly repressed, I learned Khmer so I could listen in on the hushed conversations in bars, in the Vietnamese yellow-pancake restaurants, and in food markets.

Bai roi kaw sup,’ – 390 – was all I had to tell the tuk-tuk driver whom I hailed on the street, his carriage drawn by a Honda Cub motorcycle. The numbers in Khmer were easier to pronounce, and 390 was my street number, the only instruction I needed to give.

My apartment was situated just off the city centre, in an area called Boeng Keng Kong Bai, near an old school that had been turned into a grim genocide memorial visited mainly by tourists. But such landmarks were unnecessary: my street number was sufficient to navigate Phnom Penh’s grid street system, a Cartesian urban plan designed by the French. Streets running east–west were even-numbered, and those running north–south were odd-numbered. A pair of even- and odd-numbered streets denoted an intersection.

The street numbers decreased as we drove east from the ministry, until we arrived at moi roi pram, Street 105, known colloquially as the ‘shit canal,’ for the open sewer that ran along it and into the southern Boeung Toumpun lake. We turned south. I lived about twenty metres from the canal, where it intersected with street 390. On some nights, the monsoon rains stirred the canal’s waters, and I smelled its odour.

Three months after the communal elections, in September 2017, a dozen Cambodian radio stations, including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, as well as the prominent newspaper the Cambodia Daily, were shut down. ‘Descent into Outright Dictatorship,’ yelled the front page of the final edition of the Daily, one of the country’s two independent English-language papers. A new edition of the second independent paper, the Phnom Penh Post, was bought out a few months later by an ally of Hun Sen, its once-critical pages carrying honeyed flattery of the government.

A journalist friend, Mech Dara, lost his job twice, having reported for each of those two newspapers. We sat at a Khmer restaurant, eating bai, white rice, with mahchou youn, a tamarind sour soup with lotus stems, while I helped him apply for jobs. On the restaurant’s speakers, radio stations played the legendary Sinn Sisamouth’s love songs, and then modern Cambodian death metal. Silence had descended about whom the regime arrested or evicted, and whose land it stole for lucrative housing developments. The non-profit Global Witness had, the year before, reported on Hun Sen’s family’s involvement in criminal activities such as a 41 billion heroin-trafficking operation and illegal land grabs on such a large scale that they amounted to ‘crimes against humanity’. Several international watchdogs listed Cambodia as among the world’s most corrupt and least free countries, while Hun Sen insisted that his only source of income was his prime-ministerial US $1150 monthly salary. The government expanded its high-tech military surveillance unit, which, rumour had it, was powerful enough to listen in on phone conversations and track anonymous Facebook posts. The government was building a ‘National Internet Gateway’ to channel all of Cambodia’s internet traffic through a single point, where everyone’s words would be monitored.

Hun Sen wanted his voice to sound across Cambodia without dissent.

Anjan Sundaram

Anjan Sundaram is an author, journalist, academic and artivist. His books include Breakup: A Marriage in WartimeBad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship and Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo. He has reported from Central Africa, Cambodia and Mexico for Granta, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian and the Associated Press, among others.

More about the author →