Notes from an author: Dee Peyok reflects on how music and memories have shaped her travels in Cambodia

The author and former singer explores the pop music that shook 1960s Cambodia, a country in transition, and provided respite during Pol Pot’s reign

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Kampot, a river town in southwest Cambodia, is where my book took root. It’s around a three-hour drive from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and it’s close to a mountain where my 10-year quest for answers ended in 2012. Here, in an abandoned casino at the mountain’s peak, I stumbled upon the voice of Cambodia’s most famous mid-century crooner-pop star. Alone, but for a stereo, a stranger and me, the singer’s mellifluous voice took flight in the Cambodian language, Khmer. Bouncing off the empty walls, his vocals entwined with a Farfisa organ, its keys squeezing out the melody of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. His voice seemed to permeate every cell in my body. I felt as if I was soaring and immediately wanted to know everything about the mystery singer. I discovered later that his name was Sinn Sisamouth. Some call him ‘the Master’, others call him ‘the Golden Voice Emperor’, and many still call him the ‘Elvis of Cambodia’. Some say he recorded as many as 4,000 songs during his 20-year career.

By the time I made it back to that casino two years later, I’d talked at length with the singer’s wife, son and fans; traced the ghost of his steps along the polished floorboards of his childhood home. And it was only truly at this point that I knew I had the beginnings of a book. What was built on a bedrock of intrigue snowballed into a quest that saw me gamble my savings away and cross three continents in search of musicians like Sisamouth. Musicians who shook the establishment in the 1960s and provided cultural respite in war-torn Cambodia in the 1970s. Musicians who survived a genocide in Pol Pot’s killing fields, and the families left behind by those who did not. 

Over the course of a decade, it was an eclectic odyssey. I sought out a legendary garage rocker turned recluse deep in the jungle, spoke to a royal court musician-cum-resistance fighter and interviewed Cambodian rock’s enfant terrible — once for nine hours straight — about his remarkable reinventions from rock star to gem miner to sailor to scientist. Kampot’s very own Ray Charles wrote a song for me, I went on tour with some revivalists, accidently spent a tense night with the Khmer Rouge guerrilla army and witnessed the reunion of one band in New York 40 years since they last met, some 8,000 miles from where they formed in Phnom Penh.

The music that captured me couldn’t have grown anywhere but mid-century Cambodia: a country unshackling itself from 90 years of colonial rule. Its capital, dubbed the ‘pearl of the Orient’ and the ‘Paris of the East’, was rapidly modernising, revelling in a second golden age, the first having begun centuries before when Cambodia’s magnificent temples were built. Cities and towns became a melting pot of cultural, musical influence. Rock ‘n’ roll burst onto the scene in 1962, and dances like the twist sashayed their way across the nightclubs of the riviera resort, Kep, and the packed mud floors of juke joints in neighbouring Kampot. Odes to Kampot and the surrounding province are still sung 50 years on, including In Yeng’s traditional A Cry of a Border Poet and Sinn Sisamouth’s Kampot from the Bottom of my Heart. 

Over the years, and over the course of my trips to Cambodia, Kampot unintentionally became a last stop on the circuit. In a sense, it still holds a kind of spiritual magnetism for me. It’s become a place of transcendental significance and a place of reflection. 

I always stay in the same place if I can: a hotel called the Villa Vedici. One does not come expecting to be noticed, much less served. One comes for the sights and sounds of day and night: the bend in the river where it lies, the rhythmic croaking of frogs, flying fish catching the moon on their scales, fireflies decorating the trees like Christmas lights. It was here in 2014, atop one of Villa Vedici’s stilted balconies that I wrote my reflections on six months in Cambodia, and it was here that I returned with my young son in 2019. 

Half a century on from the Cambodian Civil War, Kampot’s rice fields have been revived, the surrounding mountains once carpeted by American bombs have recovered their jungles, the oxcart tracks of Khmer Rouge ammunition routes have been filled in by villagers. Bands like Kampot Playboys can be heard playing their unique fusion of Khmer-folk and Western rock. A booming tourist industry now prevails. The old guesthouses are replaced by high-rise hotels along Kampot’s river. But the Villa Vedici remains — a lone, last bohemian bastion just half a mile beyond the developers’ reach.

Away From Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia by Dee Peyok is published by Granta Books, £16.99.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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