Siem Reap, Cambodia

Only one week in Siem Reap was much too little time. Siem Reap, the second largest tourist center in Cambodia, is the site of many famous Buddhist temples including the sprawling Angor Wat, the smiling faces of Bayon, and the tree gnarled ruins at Ta Prohm. The clip below is the best bird groove I have ever heard, recorded at dawn at the Bayon Temple (picture above).

Though the temples themselves were silent, the soundspace around them was not. Tourists milled and spoke, and cameras were constantly shuttering, motorbikes could be heard nearby, and in one temple reconstructive work was being done.

Above is a famous tree at Ta Prohm. My traveling companion in Cambodia is the photographer in the corner. The clip below is of locals selling string instruments and drums to tourists.

At Angkor Wat, the sounds near the outside of the temple complex always included the shrieking cicadas. Inside the temple, the main sounds were of tourists walking, talking and shuttering their cameras. In the clip below, I am near several tour groups speaking several languages, which has been the dominant soundmark of all touristy places I have visited. As as happened several times, someone sees me standing with my Zoom H4 recorder and approaches me asking what it is (a few Australians in this case). I am growing to like these ‘interruptions’ to my recordings, as it gets me some free soundbites of curious people, and I get to explain my Sound Journal project and give the website address to people. Most people grasp the idea quickly, but the vast majority are surprised by it, and say they like the idea, but ‘haven’t ever really thought about how a place sounds’… Onward ho – sonic education! One noisy tourist at a time…

A common game in Cambodia, and other nearby countries, is a form of hackeysack that uses several small discs linked together topped by feathers. When it is hit, it makes a distinctive chhrickkk sound.

Biking around Siem Reap is a great way to see parts of the town away from the tourist center in the Old Market. We followed the river and stopped at the Royal Gardens where a swarm of bats was hanging and howling in the trees. Is it a swarm? A flock? What is the name for a group of bats? If I had to choose, I would call it a screech of bats.

Also along the river, we passed a school where a marching-style band was practicing outside. This will sound like a familiar experience to many music students who ever played in a band in high school.


The Phsar Chas, or Old Market, was the tourist hub of Siem Reap. Souvenier stalls, foot vendors, restaurants, endless massage parlours and fish foot massage tanks, and one solid street of bars, all filled with tourists, tuk tuk drivers, hawking vendors and local children running around selling things.  We ate not so ‘local’ khmer food at restaurants for a couple days before discovering the barbeque stall that we went to almost every day after for their BBQ and cashew nut shakes. Below is the sizzling clip of the barbie.

The clip below is a walk down Pub Street past bars pounding piped western music, repetative live bands (every night we ate near there we heard (Take Me Home, Country Road”), and one quiet traditional ensemble sitting in the street performed by landmine victims.

For the first few days, we stayed at the Golden Temple Villa, a nice garden-filled guesthouse with some cool style and a really annoying high frequency shimmer in the halls. Turn your EQ up and get shivers with the clip below. I found it actually hurt the back of my throat to listen.

1.5 km of hiking took us to Kbal Spean, a site where ancient carvings lie in the rocks along a riverbed. It was the dry season while we were there, but there was still a trickle of water moving over the images and round ‘linga’ shapes.

There were some very interesting bird calls along the path. In the first clip, a tree also squeaks above me. In the last clip, you hear evidence of how the friends and family I travel with are subjected to my recording antics. I am sorry to have so many of these insect, bird, and instrument sound clips without proper names. If you recognize any particular species, let me know!

At one roadside eating joint, we were spotted by a group of local kid-vendors who surrounded my friend Thanh from Vietnam and wouldn’t leave until she bought something. This was a common occurance pretty much wherever we went, especially with me as a ‘barang’, or white person (the Khmer word actually means a French person, but it’s used for any caucasian now – relic from the French colonial period). My friend was sometimes mistaken for a Khmer local, and was able to get us something closer to the local rates, otherwise I would get charged hugely inflated tourist rates for anything. She was also a much better bargainer than I – I blame my over-accommodating, slightly-push-over Canadian upbringing. The prices were still unbelievably cheap though, from the point of view of a North American. Below are two clips of what was the normal soundscape walking through Siem Reap as a tourist.

One night we attended Beatocello, a concert put on weekly by Dr. Beat Richner. He is a Swiss national who has built and is running 5 children’s hospitals in Cambodia. He would play short pieces on his solo cello, and then speak about the work the hospitals do. The statistics and stories he poured out almost without pause were heartbreaking. And I have never heard anyone play the cello the way he was playing. He played several pieces by Bach, his own compositions, and a piece by Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist. All the pieces were played clearly and strongly, without any subtlety. He seemed to rush through the pieces, even ones typically played slowly, and he would almost toss away the endings as if in a hurry to get on to more important topics: the need for imploring the audience to support the work at the hospitals. The concert was free, but he said they annually bring in more than five million dollars. If I was to endorse any organization I came across in my travels, it would be this one. I bootlegged the entire concert, but don’t feel right to post any of it online. If you would like to hear what I have, I will happily play it for you, but only in person. The link to his work is here: Dr. Beat Richner.

Near Kbal Spean is the Angkor Center for Conservation and Biodiversity, a really well-run rescue center for animals taken for poaching or illegal pets. Many of the animals they have cannot be released into the National Park the center is in, but they have breeding programs for releasing offspring. The tour guide took us past ??? bird, like an eagle, and several species of monkeys, one of which sounded to my ears like a cat (picture above). The guide told us that most of the poaching results in small parts of the animals being sold for ‘traditional medicine’ uses in China.

Here is the call of the bird above, a Bramanee Kite.

And below, a pileated gibbon monkey, quite the loud howler.

Our tuk tuk drive to the floating village took us past some fields that had a rice harvest. Most of the fields we saw were bone dry, only inhabited by skinny white cows. Below is a clip of the tuk tuk ride while we were still in the town.

Locals biking along a small creek with dry fields behind.

Close to the floating village of Kampong Phluk we switched from the tuk tuk to a long boat build for touring the Tonle Sap lake area. The lake level changes drastically in the rainy season, but now was low enough to make maneuvering  the long boat difficult, and the views of the villages spectacular. The boats had oversided motors, the propellor was attached to a long pole that sprayed water everywhere when the water level was too low (then the driver switched to poling the boat), and the whole thing was steered using string attached to the steering wheel. I tried dropping my hydrophone into the water, but it hit debris almost every second, mostly bits of wood or grass. Below is a clip (not hydrophone) of our boat poling along , being passed by other boats using their engines, and eventually we start our own motor. You can hear insects, children and villagers on shore, as well as generators used for to power power tools. Here is a challenge for all musicians out there – transcribe the beat made by the other engine – you will hear which one I mean!

Some of the houses were 10 meters off the ground, and apparently the water rises to within 1-2 meters of the floors in the rainy season. Now, chickens and kids moved about in the shade and dry leaves below the houses. There were people on boats along the narrow canal; some had boats that were their houses, others had piles of nets or stacks of shrimp traps ready to head out onto the lake.

We stopped at one village, Kampong Phluk, and wandered around. Most of the houses were smaller versions of the one in the photo above, and others were made of more fabricated materials like plank wood or metal roofing. We were asked to buy school supplies for the local school, and were to give them to a class ourselves. Outside the school, kids in uniforms were running around – it looked and sounded like recess at any school in the world.

When I entered the class (in a stilt classroom of course), I was greeted by 40 elementary school kids speaking hullo in unison. I recorded them saying “Or Gkoon”, or thank you, and played it back to them on the small speaker on my Zoom H4, and got lots of giggles.

15 minutes past the village, we began passing tall mangrove trees that would also flood in the rainy season, and were advertised as the ‘Floating Forest’.

Back in Siem Reap, we had dinner at La Noria Hotel restuarant where children from the NGO  Krousar Thmey performed traditional shadow puppet plays, and Apsara dances. They also performed the music live on a traditional ensemble involving two xylophone-style mallet instruments, one large bass drum hit with two sticks, one two-toned drum, metal bowls called Kong Vong Tuch (I think) strapped into a circular frame, and an double reed wind instrument which the teacher plays in the second clip below.

There is a free shuttle from the Artisans d’Angkor artist workshop center that took us to a silk farm where we had a free tour of how they make silk and silk products. It was fascinating. Here is a brief explanation: the silk worm moths mate for 12 hours, after which the male dies and the female lays about 150 eggs. These hatch into little silk worms that eat mulberry leaves grown on the farm. They go through exciting stages of worm-hood and become worms as long as my middle finger. They stop eating and spin happy looking yellow cocoons in frames provided by the farm. Most of the cocoons are then baked in the sun, killing the worms and bleaching the cocoons. Some cocoons are kept for mating. The baked ones are put into boiling water to separate the cocoon from the worm, and kill it even more. The silk from the cocoons is drawn up into a spool and pulled through several different machines, creating the silk thread. The clip below is of the machines powered by foot, and some by electricity.

The thread is then refined more, and dyed with natural dyes like banana leaves, coconut shells, chili and different barks or spices. Then it goes to the weavers who use complex looms to create beautiful patterns and silk products. The clip below is a weaver at her loom.

At the Artisans d’Angkor center, here is a clip of a workshop where silver was being hammered into various objects like bowls, jewelry boxes or elephant figurines.

My last night in Siem Reap was at Mommy’s Guesthouse, in a room for $5/night. Just after I arrived – by tuk tuk of course – a granddaddy of a thunderstorm began raising the dead overhead. I got proper soaked helping the staff push the rain out of the tarp ceiling- first time I felt cool in days. And the thunder sounded mythological. Or prehistoric.  The rain sounded at first like normal rain, pattering and smeltering on the tin roof and tarp overhand (first clip below), but then it began to sound like semi machine guns (second clip below). The lightning was pink – how is that possible? The streets quickly filled with inches of water that cames down cold from the sky, and heated up with the warmth of the day. There was one lightning crack that I thought was going to blow my microphones. I was imagining all the temples I’ve seen. They must have look incredible, all the silent smiling ancient faces crying rainwater.