Traffic in the Mourning

For the third morning I come to out of a precarious sleep before dawn woken by a tinny voice warbling through a loudspeaker somewhere nearby. The first morning, in a confused fog, I thought the trill piercing the thick air was coming from the minaret of a mosque. Then I remembered I'm in Cambodia, and though there may be a few Muslims here and there, it's a Buddhist country and the voice most likely was chanting in Khmer, not a Middle Eastern tongue. 

"It's a funeral," Peter says. "It will last three days. Maybe five depending on who was the person." His name isn't Peter. His name is a word that starts with the letter p and has two syllables neither of which I pronounce correctly when I try to say it. I cringe when I do it, but I try. In my mind I call him Peter. He's the son of the owners of the guesthouse at which I've parked myself for the nine days I'm in Siem Reap, Tourist Trap. 

The prayers are broadcast through the neighborhood at just-before-dawn and sundown. The utilitarian, commercial business neighborhood doesn't seem to take any notice, but the decedent's family certainly wants everyone to know. Why it has to be amplified no one can say. Later, in the countryside around the Angkor temples, I'll hear the same rites over a similar loudspeaker.  

From my breakfast spot at the end of the block I can see the funerary gathering place diagonally across a very busy intersection at Wat Bo Road and Route 6: a large, open banquet tent set up on what passes for a sidewalk. It's in front of a Samsung shop on a street lined with second-hand furniture stores, electronics shops and cheap guesthouses. Traffic, most of it on two wheels, flies by at the speed of light in an astonishingly crash-free frenzy. 

Inside the tent are many tables set for big meals. It's got light-colored drapes around it and it makes me think of a wedding instead of a funeral but for the white Buddhist banners on either end signifying the passing a person and the loudspeaker up a tall bamboo pole. My waiter tells me this all usually takes place near someone's home. Unless the person lived in the Samsung shop, I can't see anything that looks residential. 

But -- aside from the loss of sleep -- I'm grateful that I'm witnessing this ritual. Because although Siem Reap is in Cambodia, Siem Reap is not Cambodia. At least, not anymore. It's what Cancun is to Mexico, what Times Square is to the United States; vis, one doesn't get an accurate impression of the country based on what one sees here. This manifestation of mourning is the most Cambodian thing I've witnessed outside the temple ruins. 

I read that in the 1950s and '60s, Siem Reap was the place to be in Southeast Asia. Celebrities of all sorts came through here, charmed by the French colonial development and the ancient Khmer temples to the north. Norman Lewis wrote of his visit to Angkor Wat serenaded by traditional musicians with Apsara dancers beguiling everyone by torchlight. Now, the serenade comes in the form of a hundred remorque drivers shouting, "Hallo, Ladeee! Tuk-tuk?"

It is a tourist town. feel like a tourist here and that's not a sensation I’m comfortable with. It's sole purpose is to act as the landing pad and launching platform into the Angkor Region. A necessary thing, but nonetheless uncomfortable. 

There’s a distinct separation between the Cambodians and the rest of the crowd. I don't see locals and foreigners socializing here like in some other tourists hotspots I've seen. The Khmer working in hospitality here are polite, but there's a definite timidity. The smiles are not forced, but they don’t come as freely and easily as some places I’ve been. Shy people doing jobs for which shy people aren't meant. There seems to be a weariness -- I sense a feeling of gratitude for the jobs that have been created, pulling people out of the provincial country and allowing growth -- but also a slow tiredness of the nonstop flow of strangers from the East and West by the busload who don’t bother to ask them about themselves, their lives, their experiences. 

The town is even more stratified than I'd imagined it would be. There are places for the well-heeled, middle-age crowd on tour buses. Older Westerners and Asians of all ages wearing medical masks who go from a sterile hotel to a temple straight back to a sterile hotel for a safe meal. There are places for the backpackers -- bohemian cafes run by expats -- who, like me now, lounge about with their computers and ignore the Cambodian service staff until it’s time to order. They are not unkind to locals, but seem content to not engage. 

I like my breakfast spot because it's full of Cambodians starting their day -- lots of men in the customary uniform of a registered Angkor tour guide -- comparing notes, swigging coffee and smoking cigarettes seeming, somehow, to ignore the bleating of the prayers. 


Anonymous said…
Rachel , You paint such a exact picture of the street life around you. I can hear the funeral chants here in the living room. Damn girl, you are good.!!!!

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