Khmer Mozart in the Jungle
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

While touring the less famous Khmer temples of Beng Melea, a musician blinded by violence shows the juxtaposition of music and art in a land that's known two millennia of strife.

Cambodian temple

The leering death head signs warning of land mines were an extreme contrast to the ethereal music reaching my ears in that jungle morning. 

Beng Melea was a center of Khmer culture when my own people were still nomadic hunter/gatherers, but today it sits alone and isolated, reclaimed by the jungle; watched over by a chattering Praetorian guard of monkeys, and full of warnings that if you step off a trail, you are likely to die.

Thousands of butterflies were dog-fighting in the gauzy yellow haze of a jungle sunrise. Shafts of light broke the foliage like laser beams and that image, filtered through the smoke of wood fires turned the maze of spider webs heavy with dew into shimmering prisms that grabbed the regal moths mid-flight, turning their life dance into a death struggle; an instant reminder of Buddhist karma.

Cambodia has known peace for about 35 of the past 2,000 years, so it must be forgiven if it wallows in a bit of self-pity. In Cambodia today, there are more than 40,000 amputees that are land mine victim, but even that has dignity in this land. Rather than begging for money, many land mine victims play music for tips at temple entrances. Many have formed impromptu bands that play traditional Khmer music, and some are quite good. 

That day it was not the band of landmine musicians, but a single player whose soaring melodies transcended the familiar notes of Southeast Asian music and caused the monarchs to dance. Part of the great irony of the temples of Cambodia, is that their history of death and destruction has always been balanced by high art and music.

a band of Cambodian landmine victims

The solo player sat alone, cross legged in the alcove of a tumbled ruin, in a freshly ironed shirt, his sightless eyes wandering left and right while his fingers ran up and down the fret board of his thro like a bug on hot tin. The thro is a traditional instrument resembling a violin but with only two strings, and in the jungle they may be made from an old tin can and a tree branch, but this gentleman’s was of high quality.

I approached silently so as not to interrupt his playing and only then noticed the tiny scars behind his eyes where the shrapnel had entered his head and cast him into perpetual darkness.

guide in Cambodia

In a country where an estimated one out of 17 citizens is an innocent victim, I have yet to meet anyone without a tale to tell. My own guide, Soukhouen, had visited this very spot with his family for a picnic one month prior to my arrival. Sitting on something hard, he stood up to discover an anti-tank mine. He simply did not weigh enough to detonate it. I asked how much pressure it took to detonate the much smaller and more common anti-personnel mines and he said, “Ten pounds, like a handshake.” Wherever you go in Cambodia today, you are rarely more than ten pounds from eternity. What really chilled me was the matter of fact way in which he said it. They were words from a person who lives within inches of death each day and that is all much of the population knows.

The musician stopped playing abruptly and looked up at my ungainly western footfalls through lifeless eyes while inquiring, “American?”

Caught off guard I muttered a quiet “Yes” followed by “How did you know?”

“You smell of meat,” he said softly, then laughed and continued to play. I knew he was not joking. In many parts of Asia, I have been told that westerners smell like meat.

Soundtrack for Second-Fiddle Temples

I sat down next to him, surrounded by the last remnants of a once great civilization. Behind us a massive temple wall had collapsed, its heap of granite blocks, each carved with a piece of the history of the land around us. Morning dew evaporated as sun hit stone, sending ghost like fingers of mist skyward like prayer carriers. Dozens of alligator lizards did pushups while observing these strange visitors. Each massive block is a piece of a puzzle that would unlock past histories. Long before mankind produced the first book, the Khmer were carving epic histories and tales on their stone walls. 

Cambodian temple

But today, we know Beng Melea pre-dates its showier cousin, Angkor, by at least a century. Satellite imagery has revealed a wagon wheel of roads emanating from its core, proving it to be an ancient hub of Khmer culture and trade. Many believe it was built as a precursor, or trial run as it were, before construction on Angkor commenced. But because of national poverty mixed with a pinch of apathy, it sits unwashed, and unattended, slowly being overgrown by the jungle it once ruled, governed by chattering monkeys and awash in land mines.

That was the amphitheater for the man I sat with, a grand crumbling ruin for heavenly music to reverberate all around. Birds sang as he played and more than one monkey added its voice to the choir. The trees were alive and it seemed the animals were joining in like a scene from Jungle Book.

For the longest time it was just the two of us and our choir, and I let the music send the rest of the world away.

His name was Qok and he was happy to share his story. Classically trained on the violin as a child in Beijing, and later in Hanoi, before returning to Phnom Penh to join an orchestra, he claimed to have been a prodigy before being swept up in the mass exodus from cities to rural life imposed by the Khmer Rouge. It was on that march that a mine took his sight but not his soul. He was not even the one who stepped on it; his brother did. It killed both his brother and father.

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Read this article online at: Khmer Mozart in the Jungle

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

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