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Delightful Phnom Penh and Norah – Mixed Vibrations




My Motorola cell phone did an unattended trip down the stairs and the vibrating alert stopped working. This makes the cell phone useless: Phnom Penh is so noisy that you’ll never hear your phone ringing. You rely on feeling the vibration in your pocket.

"No problem", believes Norah, my delightful Khmer lady. "We go to the service, I think they can fix that for a few dollars." Onto the moto we hop and off to busy Sihanouk boulevard we bounce.

Good Vibrations

We stop at our trusted Heng Heng mobile phone shop under the large Mobitel sign. We had already bought a SIM card there.

Norah hands over my phone, it gets tested, opened, and then suddenly the tiny grey man behind his glass counter full of second hand phones looks very frightened. He whispers something to Norah and gives me shy looks.

Norah explains: "There's something seriously broken, he can't fix that, he says – so sorry".

Now I address the mobile phone man directly in my tourist Khmer: "Adh baan te", I ask? (Cannot?) Noticing I speak his language, Mr. Heng Heng looks even more scared. He whispers something to Norah.

"He says if it was a Nokia, no problem. But he has no spare parts for a Motorola."

"Well", I go, "and can't he use parts from any Nokia on my Motorola phone instead?"

Norah shakes her head sceptically, but translates my question anyway. And suddenly the guy's eyes light up and he looks more confident. He and Norah engage in a discussion with striking handmoves.

Norah produces a summary: "Yes, he could give you a vibrating alert from Nokia, if you really want that in your Motorola phone. Would you really want that?"

I: "Sure! Why not!" I smile at the phone man: "Just give me some good vibrations!"

Now everybody smiles happily. An awkward situation has been resolved! Norah says: "It would take about thirty minutes and would cost two or three dollars."

I: "Great, that's what I want! Om bop-bop, good vibrations!"

Humming happy Beach Boys songs, we set out for Lucky Market and European Bakery nearby. Around half an hour later, I'm pickin' up good vibrations, my now very unique Motorola cell phone sporting a second hand Nokia vibrator inside, paying 2,5 USD for the restored good, good, goooood, good vibrations.

Bad Vibrations

Back in the hotel room, I open the laptop, attach the speakers and start a jazz CD, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd's "Canto". I guess it's not exactly Norah's kind of music. But she is repairing a trouser now and usually peacefully ignores whatever music I play.

After a while, Lloyd's "Nachiketa's Lament" with its mournful, wailing sound comes up. This track feels vaguely oriental, actually it's played on a Tibetan oboe. Maybe she likes it, I wonder?

And see: Norah looks at the monitor. She looks at me. She puts down the needle.

Norah says: "This sounds like the music that accompanies boxing matches in the stadium. We hear that music a lot in TV boxing broadcasts, or from live fights when we walk in the streets."

And indeed, now that she made the connection: Lloyd's "Nachiketa's Lament" can sure remind you of those noisy loudspeaker cars near the Thai beach resorts of Koh Samui, Phuket or Koh Lanta; they advertise Thai boxing sessions (muay Thai) in stadiums. So now I understand that this music is actually part of the boxing culture, also played within the stadiums. And I understand that this music and the boxing is not exclusively Thai, but also part of Cambodia's popular culture.

Norah continues: "They play this kind of music intensely when someone dies during a boxing match. We have light boxing and strong boxing, and many times people do die, you can see them die on TV. I think the winner gets 150 or 250 USD. The loser gets 50 USD – or his family gets 50 USD, if he dies. Sometimes the loser dies right in the boxing ring, sometimes he has only lots of bones broken and dies later at home. Some know before they'll die, but they need the money for their family. They play this wailing music all through the fight, but when he dies it gets stronger."

Norah resumes her unusually long speech: "And now your jazz CD reminds me of that – poor Khmer people die beaten after fighting for 50 or 150 dollars."

I don't remember Norah ever asking me for a favor. But now she gets this half pleading, half concerned and half encouraging smile and she asks: "Maybe you could put on another song?"

Happy Vibrations

Click, click. Let's play something I know she likes.

"Adh bai adh baan", say the Khmers (no rice, cannot), and that even seems to extend to their musical preferences. Now I play one of Norah's favorite non-Khmer songs. The original is called "Lao shu ai da mi" and played in every disco in China, the original from Xiang Xiang. But the Khmers have this in myriad cover versions, the cheesier, the better. For the time with Norah, I found an Asian-produced English version – and it's called "Mouse Love Rice". It must be the "rice" that makes Norah like the tune.

As the chorus sets in, Norah visibly relaxes.

I love you, loving you, as the mouse love the rice
Even every day has storm, I will always by your side

And sitting here with my wonderful and unambiguously romantic Khmer lady, now back in peace again with herself, with me and with the world of music, even I can chime in as we sing and sway with the unknown artist:

I love you, loving you, as the mouse love the rice
Even every day has storm, I will always by your side
I miss you, missing you
I don't care how hard it is
I just want you be happy
Everything, I do it for you.

Stickman's thoughts:

I love the way these technicians can fix most things in these parts.