Phnom Penh by ear doesn’t want to end – the night only quiets into a hum, which then streamlines into the buzz of day. In my sleep, I can sense the pace pick up. The movement taps in my ears, nudges my bones, and coaxes me, from unconscious corpse, into semi-conscious spirit, into resurrected living organism.
As the 5 a.m. powder of light starts to seep through the curtain, I can hear Aunt Thine sweeping in the wet, narrow alley, behind my bedroom wall. Tsch, tsch, tsch, is her act of daily cleansing. Tsch, tsch, tsch, joins the rest of the city in unison, a battalion of like-minded broom-wielders on their sidewalks, corners, and streets.
Then there’s the opening act. It comes on strong. Zhoo, zhoo, zhoo. The cars, the motorbikes, and every other assortment of weight on wheels start striking some of that snappy friction on those roads – if you look close enough, you can see smoke signals shoot from the ground. Zhoo, zhoo, zhoo. That’s where all of that robust city air smell comes from. Yum.
Note this before you step into the crescendo of human activity: By entering, you recognize that you are a foreigner, and therefore willingly subject yourself to the staccato of tuk tuk drivers who will clap at you like you are a dog. Klik, klik, klik. It’s like Pavlov’s experiment. In a couple of months, the sound will trigger a twitch-and-mini-seizure sequence to set off from the nape of your neck. Klik, klik, klik.
But bear it friends. If you wait, if you continue walking through the hours of day, that turn into dusk, that turn into dark, you may be able to catch a ride down into that part of the song that is still and deep. Wsh, wsh, wsh. This is when the evening breeze patches up your wounds and brings the temperature of your brain down to a level conducive to basic human reasoning skills. Wsh, wsh, wsh. This is the sound that feeds your heart a quality of oxygen that lets you believe that happy endings and redemptive narratives are not simply the naïve presumptions of epic fantasies and baseless fictions.
Phnom Penh by ear is a gritty symphony. But there is a harmony in it. Listen for the undertones – extremely, way under.