Light Musical Encounters in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia

I was lost in the rainy darkness of Luang Prabang when I first heard an impossible sound cutting through the silence—music! Live music! I couldn’t believe it, even as I drew nearer, I couldn’t believe that such a thing still existed, I thought it had all long since gone extinct and that everyone was satisfied with the same pop music, which, except for differences in language, is identical everywhere, even in a random and quiet bar in Sukhothai, Thailand, where I told the incredulous bartender as much. This was after he mentioned that he sometimes took trips to Laos to bring in cheap workers to staff one of his water factories near Bangkok…

But here in Luang Prabang, at a classy restaurant where elderly tourists dress themselves up and keep their shoulders prim and erect as they examine their menus with lips pursed so tightly they’re almost white, one may find a vertical violin, drums, the equivalent of a santur, and a beautiful singer behind everyone else with a tiny bell in her hands to ring together with the rest of the instruments. Ferns and umbrellas protect them from the rain, and except for the indifferent customers sitting off in separate areas of the restaurant, men and women blind and deaf to all true beauty!, I stand a few feet away from the musicians with a glass of cheap and mediocre wine, sipping, slowly intoxicating myself with music and alcohol, and clapping and nodding whenever they finish one of their beautiful songs. I don’t want to leave, and in fact I’m still there. To me the music is certainly its own thing, but it also sounds like a mix of Malian and Iranian folk songs, santurs and njarkas, which makes it even better.

In Cambodia everything is more desperate. The traditional music sounds almost identical to what I heard in Laos, but the difference is that on the main tourist stretch of Siem Reap a man without hands sits with the musicians, waves his stumps to passersby who always look away, and begs for money. He’s the singer this time, and the words to his song go like this: “Hello sir! Hello madam! How are you today?” On the dirt paths to some of the temples it’s nearly the same story. Traditional musicians wounded from the cataclysm that is still felt everywhere in this country sit in the shade and play for the entire day whenever someone passes by, and a bowl set out in front of them waits to collect a few bills. Some of the musicians are either exhausted or not so good, but a few were at least decent, and when I bought a CD from them they began playing for me and smiling.

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One thought on “Light Musical Encounters in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia

  1. […] bell-ringers, violinists, and santur-hammerers, an episode you’ve no doubt read about before, word for word. But!—most importantly, Bar Harbor, my home in faraway Maine, lying in a different galaxy, […]

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