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The genesis of my book found its grounding in Kampot, a riverside town located in the southwest of Cambodia. Just a three-hour ride from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, it lies adjacent to a mountain where my decade-long search for understanding concluded in 2012. I unexpectedly discovered the dulcet tones of the nation’s most renowned mid-century pop icon within an abandoned casino at the mountain’s summit. An old stereo, a stranger, and I were the sole attendees of the impromptu performance where the singer’s honeyed voice soared in the Khmer, the Cambodian language. His voice echoed off the barren walls, harmonising with a Farfisa organ playing the melody of Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. The singer’s voice pervaded every fibre of my being, leaving me yearning to unveil the enigmatic artist. I later found out his name was Sinn Sisamouth, lauded as the ‘Master’, the ‘Golden Voice Emperor’, and often referred to as Cambodia’s ‘Elvis’. It’s said he amassed a collection of around 4,000 songs during his two-decade-long career.
By the time I revisited the casino two years later, I had extensively conversed with Sisamouth’s wife, son, and devoted fans, and traced the remnants of his existence in his childhood home. Only at this juncture did I truly comprehend that I had the makings of a book. What began as curiosity soon escalated into a journey that depleted my savings and took me across three continents to find artists similar to Sisamouth. Artists who defied norms in the 1960s, served as cultural sanctuaries during the conflict-ridden 1970s in Cambodia, and outlasted a genocide in Pol Pot’s killing fields, along with the families left to pick up the pieces.
The ensuing decade was a tapestry of varied experiences. I tracked down a famed garage rocker turned hermit deep in the forest, conversed with a royal court musician turned resistance fighter, and engaged in marathon interviews with Cambodia’s rock’s infamous figure who swapped roles from rock star to gem miner to sailor to scientist. I was honoured with a song composed by Kampot’s very own Ray Charles, toured with some music revivalists, unintentionally spent a nerve-wracking night with the Khmer Rouge guerrilla army, and witnessed a band’s reunion in New York, four decades and 8,000 miles away from their origins in Phnom Penh.
The music that captured my heart was uniquely Cambodian, birthed in a nation freeing itself from 90 years of colonial bondage. Phnom Penh, referred to as the ‘pearl of the Orient’ and the ‘Paris of the East’, was rapidly evolving, basking in a new golden age that paralleled its first one marked by the construction of magnificent temples. Cities morphed into cultural and musical hubs. Rock ‘n’ roll debuted in 1962, leading to dance forms like the twist being introduced in Kep’s riviera resort’s nightclubs and Kampot’s local juke joints. Songs dedicated to Kampot and its province, such as In Yeng’s A Cry of a Border Poet and Sinn Sisamouth’s Kampot from the Bottom of my Heart, continue to be celebrated even after half a century.
Throughout my numerous Cambodian voyages, Kampot unknowingly became a pivotal endpoint. For me, it still possesses an ethereal pull. It has turned into a place of transcendence and introspection.
I typically choose to stay in the same place if possible, the Villa Vedici hotel. Visitors don’t come here expecting to be acknowledged or catered to; they come for the immersive sensory experience: the river’s curve, the rhythmic chorus of frogs, flying fish reflecting the moon’s glow, and fireflies adorning the trees like festive lights. I penned down my musings on a six-month Cambodian adventure here on one of Villa Vedici’s elevated balconies in 2014, and returned with my young son five years later.
Half a century post the Cambodian Civil War, Kampot’s rice fields have thrived again, the surrounding mountains previously scarred by American bombs have restored their jungles, and the Khmer Rouge’s ammunition routes have been filled in by local villagers. Contemporary bands like Kampot Playboys create a unique blend of Khmer-folk and Western rock. Tourism is booming now, with new high-rise hotels replacing the old guesthouses along Kampot’s river. But Villa Vedici persists — a solitary, final bastion of bohemia just beyond the reach of developers.
Away From Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia by Dee Peyok is available from Granta Books, priced at £16.99.
Originally published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Cambodia’s mid-century music
What is the primary location featured in the text?
The primary location featured in the text is Kampot, a river town in southwest Cambodia.
Who is the main artist discussed in the text?
The main artist discussed in the text is Sinn Sisamouth, Cambodia’s most famous mid-century pop star.
What is the main theme of Dee Peyok’s journey?
The main theme of Dee Peyok’s journey is exploring how music and memories have shaped her travels and led to the creation of her book.
What is the name of the book written by Dee Peyok?
The book written by Dee Peyok is called “Away From Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia”.
What musical era is prominent in the text?
The mid-century Cambodian music era is prominent in the text.
What was a significant part of Peyok’s journey?
A significant part of Peyok’s journey was meeting and learning about musicians who challenged the establishment in the 1960s, provided cultural respite in war-torn Cambodia in the 1970s, and survived a genocide in Pol Pot’s killing fields.