Back in Melbourne, I’ve got a cold and the heater is up to 11. Three nights ago, I was sweating under a mosquito net, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of pre-dawn in a rural village in Cambodia. A monk broadcasting from a dodgy PA system; roosters crowing; the chuckling of geckos and the sounds of sleepers nearby, their rustling and snoring carrying through thatched walls.
I’m listening to the dance mix of a song by Srey Thy of The Cambodian Space Project and it’s reminding me of one of the favourite journeys of my holiday in Cambodia. (Am only just getting that Dead Kennedys song out of my system, by the way.) Among the forms of transport I took on my travels – a speedboat, horse and cart, plane, bus, car, tuk tuk and truck, my favourite by far was a motorbike driven by Jan Muller, AKA Professor Kinski, German ex-soapie star, music producer and long-time resident of Phnom Penh.
“I don’t have helmets or lights but don’t worry – I’m a good driver,” he said, as we headed into the peak hour traffic of the Cambodian capital. He was right. He was a good driver – which was handy, as I was juggling a backpack of recording equipment, a handbag and soon enough, a six-pack of beer. Later, as he steered us expertly past tuk tuks, other motorbikes and the bruising four-wheel-drives of the Cambodian nouveau riche and foreign NGO workers, I asked him about his earlier television career. ‘I forgot to ask you about the character you played,’ I said over his shoulder. Jan took a sip from his can of beer while making a left turn into oncoming traffic, which only served to increase my confidence in his driving ability. ‘Oh you know, I was in the soapie for seven years, so everything that could happen to a character in a soapie happened. I went blind. I turned gay. I was arrested for punching a Nazi in the shoulder…’ ‘Punching a Nazi in the shoulder’? Imagine that sentence in a German accent. Then imagine me trying not to giggle too much, so I didn’t have to explain that accident at the hospital. ‘I was OK with the beer and the bags and the no lights and the no helmets but the ‘punching ze Nartsi on ze shoulder’ made me fall helpless to the road…’
I’d first chatted with Jan by email before heading to Cambodia and had called him the day before at 11am to arrange a meeting. ‘Stephanie! Why are you calling me in the middle of the night?’ I was confused. ‘Are you in Germany?’ ‘No, I’m in my mezzanine bed in Phnom Pehn.’ ‘Are you a vampire?’ I asked. ‘No. We made a big party last night.’ This would be a Tuesday. His band Dub Addiction played the first night of the first music festival in Cambodia – which was held at the south-western riverside town of Kampot. K., J. and I flew in to Phnom Penh from Kuala Lumpur, meeting H., who’d been in Vietnam, at the airport. K. and J. went off to spend the night in Phnom Penh, while H. and I were picked up by our Kampot guesthouse host and driven straight there, which was supposedly a three to four hour trip but our driver, with hand stuck to horn and pedal to metal, made it there in two. The festival had ominous beginnings, with a bunch of older expats snap-frozen in the 60s playing overly loud blues and rock covers featuring the solos of eternity. It was like Buddhist training, except you could buy jugs of gin and tonic.
The venue, another guesthouse on the Kampot River, was full of young expats, all flirting furiously, fuelled by cheap beer and the jugs of spirits. By the time Dub Addiction finally laid down a bassline, the place was literally heaving with bodies and the humid air was weighty with hormones and the promise of sex in a foreign land. I remembered that I was there partly to record the music for a radio doco and had been sending emails for weeks in order to arrive at precisely this place at precisely this time. H. and I finally gave up the papasan chairs we’d been coveting all night to join the throng on the dance floor. Have a listen to Dub Addiction’s Out in the Streets:
The whole scene reminded me of Darwin in the late 80s, when two entrepreneurial musician arts administrators put together the Northern Territory’s first Indigenous rock festival. The organization was kind of patchy, as was the sound quality. Yet the enterprise had a refreshing rawness and the diamonds in the rough shone that much brighter. It was huge fun.
After the gig, we dragged ourselves away to our waiting tuk tuk driver who motored us along the muddy, potholed road back to our guesthouse on the other side of the river, with barely any light but the half-moon and an eerie green neon in his tuk tuk to guide him. We drove past houses on stilts and rice paddies, still with the driving rhythms and Khmer rapping of Dub Addiction’s MC Curly in our ears. K. and J. would be joining us the next day for the longest day of the festival, which was being held in the grounds of our guesthouse. It was late, so I tipped our driver generously, inadvertently guaranteeing his availability at any hour of the day for the rest of the weekend.
Kampot River Music Festival could have been sub-titled The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. At least on Saturday, we four had home advantage. If a band pushed rudely past the boundaries of good taste (and I’m not naming names), we could retreat to the verandah of our bungalow or take a swim in the river. Many of the bands were fusion bands of Khmer and ‘barang’ (foreigners), playing intriguing hybrid forms of old Cambodian songs. A few were just your average cover bands made up entirely of expats. People could buy tickets for Friday night separately but weekend tickets were $30, which excluded most Cambodians and – so we were told – foreigners earning local wages. The number of tickets was capped at 100, for capacity reasons. There were some mutterings about the cost from several musicians but the organizer assured me that this was a first-time arrangement. Next year the festival would be bigger, allowing the economy of scale to kick in.
The highlight was the headlining Cambodian Space Project, with the charismatic Srey Thy at the helm. A song about the ‘kangaroo’, which I think was written by Thy for her Australian partner, Julien Poulson, was dedicated to the four Australians who’d come all the way to Kampot, Cambodia, for the festival. Not being particularly nationalistic, we danced kind of self-consciously and were startled as a non-Australian guest came confidently bounding past us onto the dance floor from stage left, paws held aloft.
We got talking to some of the many French band members at the festival and to Mark and Chris, from Yorkshire and San Diego respectively, now living in Kampot and playing music with two talented locals in a band called Kampot Playboys. We saw them play the final gig of the festival the next afternoon, at a nearby guesthouse which had a pool. Listening to their peculiarly hypnotic brand of homespun Khmer folk mixed with Americana, while floating in the pool in a rubber tyre, was definitely another festival highlight.
Later, we met up with the band at singer/guitarist Chiet’s bar in Kampot before moving on to the bar Art Bar Craze (ABC), a cute French-run place. H. and I had come across Ann, who runs the bar with her husband Johann, the previous day, as we were looking for somewhere to have lunch. Ann was sitting outside the bar, enjoying a plate of gratin dauphinois and green salad. ‘We are not open until later. I was just finishing the last of the gratin dauphinois for my lunch. It is so delicious,’ Ann said, in an outrageous French accent. ‘That was kind of cruel,’ I said. ‘But we’re definitely coming here for dinner after the festival tomorrow.’
I wondered how we would get home from the ABC. I didn’t fancy a dark stumble along the long, muddy road home. Somehow, it was nearly 4am on Monday morning and Kampot’s not the kind of place where you can call a cab. As we rolled out of the bar, Ngo, the driver from Friday night, emerged, smiling and sleepy-eyed, from his tuk tuk, where he’d been napping, awaiting our departure. So the final night of the Kampot River Music Festival ended pretty much like the first, bouncing through the potholes past rice paddies and wooden houses on stilts, our faces lit like a B-movie, in leery green neon.