A week before the adventure took its muddy roads, I was waiting for a business meeting with Ian and browsing in some magazines and newspapers to pass the wait. A cover picture of the Phnom Penh Post caught my attention and I started to read the article. On the picture itself Cambodians, protesters, sitting on a piece of road, undefined, with signs in their hands, in khmer. Calls to resist, lowered. Exhaustion, helplessness and desperation in their faces. The focus a young man with a boy in his arms, crying. In pain. You can feel the incomprehension rumbling through his body, he is shaking, trembling like drums of war, screaming in anger and tearfulness, not understanding why his father is still sitting in jail, since weeks, for protecting the homeland of his family and the village and the country, for protecting which made us, created man – nature. Ian arrived. I felt neutralized. I can´t feel sadness anymore. Sadness is hope, intentionally. Or my subjective state of world. The atmosphere a dead dark, the stars an ancient spark of light. Open your eyes and you will understand why you kept them close. We were talking about business. I forgot about the picture and the article. “Are you ok if I buy the tickets for Steve and you?” – Ian is the owner of a sound studio here in Siem Reap. Steve is the sound engineer. Ian mentioned during a photoshooting weeks ago, that Steve will be sent on a mission, to find a rare khmer instrument somewhere down south, near the border to Thailand, to get some sound samples, with the Magic Khmer Music Bus, which is an ambitious Cambodian organization to preserve the heritage of the Pol Pot regime, when all was lost, burnt and burried in the blood-soaked soil of a country, which cultural design was prosperous like never before, before the Khmer Rouge started its outrageous murder. – And Ian asked me, if I know someone, who might be interested to company Steve and shoot this. Of course I did. I was craving for an opportunity to leave Siem Reap for a couple of days and this sounded more than I was expecting. Rough. Dirty. Adventurous. And heavily interesting. Ian booked our flights five days after and Steve and me arrived on the 8th of september in Phnom Penh, where our trip supposed to start early morning on the next day.
6 am Steve and me jumped on a tuk tuk to bring us from our hotel close to the Russian Market, where the Khmer Magic Music Bus waited for us. The bus turned out to be a mini van, which was a prospective decision and a foresightful lucky strike. Boarding at 8 am. Our driver, Arn, the founder of Cambodian Living Arts. Seyhma, who is a well-known singer and the manager of the Music Bus, with Yorn, the co-manager and a musician. Sovanna, a exceptional musician, whose stigmatised life during the war was saved by the magic of music, how Arn would describe it probably. Khemrin, a young committed poet and writer, Seyma´s brother Veaha, and last, on our way already, we picked up Gigi, a young woman in her mid twenties, who was introduced as our guide as she knows the area very well. It took us ages to escape the madness of Phnom Penh. After passing the huge garment factories in the outskirts of the capital city, houses became scarcer, green refracted light started to trespass the car. I had no fucking idea where we were going to or where we were. The chitchats surrendered to the uniformity of driving, the flashing by roadside, the constant engine noise and at times the melancholy wanderlust, which takes us somewhere to a mythical and alien far. Rain started. Arn reported us about the night before and why they were a bit late. Cambodia lost against Syria 0 to 6 in soccer. Surrealistic epic – why we didn´t go there? Cause we didn´t know. The stadium must have been loaded with people, fans, partriots and nationalists and others who don´t even give a penalty what happens down there on the field or why they are here, but to support their team, the Angkor Warriors, all together. And Cambodia has other problems than loosing a match against Syria, two raving lunatics on the field, asks one of them the other, “How is your thing going?” “Pretty wild still” Soccer never changes the world. It´s a stupid game, which is managed by commerce. After a quick discussion about sports and propagandha, the group split up, in khmer speaking and english speaking. And I felt embarrassed again, living since more than two years here and not being able to follow a conversation, but to pick up words like Stalin, Communism, Capitalism, Pol Pot, Vietnam and other meaningless concepts as long as you can´t put them into context.
We are listening to a cover version of Seyhma, a 60s song. Cambodia has some serious psychedelic rock in their history of music. And I like it. I am trying to get a better idea of how I can approach the mission to record all this. I feel like back in the days, on search of my political maturity. Talking about how to change the world and what has to happen after. How to distinguish the worst from the bad and the bad from the better and how to get rid of the non-reeducational ones. And that the system has to be changed and not the economic outburst and the ecological impacts. Make peace not war! And how to prevent that this will ever happen again. I don´t interrupt the discussion. I am scared. There is so much in this bus, such a huge capacity, such a world of precious people and unique backgrounds. Generations. Insurgents. Rebels. Activists. And victims, not exposing wounds and scars, but performing their strength and power, for Arn created by the magic of music, for me made by barbarity and mercilessness. It´s all there, in one bus. The purity of history jumped right on my lap. My shaky perception as I was in heavy excitement and the fact we have left the asphalt road and slowly disappearing in the forest of the Cardamom Mountains, designed more and more my notes unreadable. I recognized banners roadside. We turn right. Left and we will reach Koh Kong. But we go straight into the green. I ask Gigi what is written on the banners. She tells me it´s part of a protest against the government, whose forces, military and police, are patronizing and executing the interests of an international industry, for illegal logging and land grabbing. The cover for all this is the construction of a dam, producing electricity for the exploding international interests of industry, flooding nine villages, scattered in three districts, a whole valley of protected nature, rich variety of wildlife, which I haven´t seen in this kind of prosperity before. It is the last forest Cambodia has, not sold, not hunted down, not consumed, used up and spit out as dirty and smelly beggars and homeless crawling down the metropolitan streets on the edges of touristic melting pots, trying to escape, the system and hunger. I asked about certificates for the property the people own. They have. But with a bit of pressure on some pockets suddenly it appears, that there is another entry of land register, signed by the company, who is in charge and responsible for hundreds of people, a whole country on the run. We are passing by hectars of farms, durian trees, rubber trees and others strung by greed and industrial dementia. This will be worth nothing after a couple of harvests. The soil will be contaminated. Tribes, living in this area since generations, loose their poverty-stricken lives, some of them will literally. Their language will be erased, although it has nearly already, because of the Khmer Rouge, being accused for cooperating with the Vietnamese and because of a government today, which doesn´t give a shit about the history, the culture and its reconstruction. Seems like nothing has changed. Lifestyle, ancient traditions, culture, handcraft and music will be drowned in money and power. The minorities will disappear without trace. Not the first one in human history and I honestly think this is the true nature of humanity, erase itself for good, it´s just takes a while as we first had to go through the whole process of inventing ourselves as killing machines. The road is getting more and more difficult and if a Cambodian road gets difficult you know you are fucked. Your car at least. A hard fuck. A gang bang. Roundly. Craters of fractures, chasing us up and down a hilly landscape, which offers bend by bend astonishing green, views of excitment, views, which creates an urgent need of diving into, leaving everything else behind and go back where we came from. To a uncivilized being in harmony with nature and itself.
The construction of the road was stopped immediately after the pressure of publicity and media was raising a stink, covering other shit. Half finished road to nowhere, to a remote area, to a upcoming dam, to a proof of successful manhunt. They can wait. Still enough time to the next election and the industry doesn´t care anyway who is pulling the strings for them. We see some military driving around. They haven´t left. They are supervising the area and guarding its disappearance.
We are already 8 hours on our way. So a walk is much appreciated as the car needs every unloading possible to manage the rocky, slushy grip. What a beauty coloring my eyes! It´s cooler up here. Humid. Isles of mist spark up the silent sky. We still don´t know where we go and how it´s gonna be there, behind the green horizon.
We reach the Tmor Bang Destice close to 5 pm. In the heart of the roadside built village a tree and a small pavilion. We rest for a moment. Sovanna and Yorn are playing some music for the kids gathering around us, with guns and Barbies in their hands. Motorbikes are lining up in front. Our drivers. We can´t go any further with the car, it has done it´s duty before it might, no it will fall apart. What amazes me and makes me suspicous, the people here are not amazed at all. Which doesn´t mean they are not curious, but in a very secluded way. Also the younger ones, they don´t care how we look like. It surprises and is very refreshing as we are not in a touristic area at all, but the people here seemed to be in such utter satisfaction with what they have, they seem not on a search for a change or an idol or jealousy or greed. Or they are just suspicious too, careful who is entering and for what reason, with their backs to the wall. I feel contented. I feel I arrived again. I feel grateful to be here. I feel the love for this country and the reasons why I want to live here. We get prepared for the rain. Plastic bags shall keep us dry on this hellish bikes, which wouldn´t even be allowed to rest on a junkyard in Germany, they probably could explode just by existing. I am not a mechanic so I understand nothing about, I just wonder that they are still driving and this was just a prewondering. Eight motorbikes on their way into the jungle, on a road, still, a road with blocks and provocations and straight madness. For more than one and a half hour we will sit on the back and sweat blood, I actually sweat fun. It was. Insane. Undescribable, because unbelievable. On wet planks across rivers and deep streams. Through rivers, the exhaust pipe transformed to a submarine, wailing like a Gyro Gearloose invention. The noise of the engine was yelling constantly on high-frequency, like this kind of tone you expect something to explode next. Down and up in skidmarks of trucks and other heavy machinery, deep mud channels, corrugating the road, providing for the driver stability left and right on its shores, if you are a driver, a real driver. Fuck these guys. I was by amazement happy to watch the guys doing their thing without any worries in their moves and turns, randomly a laughter, that was it. Our team exchanged here and there anxious faces, interrupted quickly by the next pothole reminding us of seathold and eyes on the road, ducking all kinds of branches scourging your head.
At night we arrived in a village named Chom Nhaib, also in the Valley of Areng, where we expected to find the mysterious instrument, called Ploy, the maybe only existing version of it, and hosting the only player, an over 80 years old man. We jumped – we crawled more off the bikes, appreciating the fact we are all alive and well, thanks to the nasty bunch of drivers, who drove back subsequently, even we offered them to stay overnight, but why? True. The normal crazy. An easy pack of dogs browsing between our wobbly legs. The leader of the commune we have met at Tmor Bang Destice and who organized everything, not just giving us the permission to enter, also risking his position by doing this. “He has power here.” He is a pleasant looking man, simple and eyes of a smile. Middle-aged. He is a man of power, the power of responsibility. He is leading us to the building where we are supposed to stay. I expected a wooden floor, that´s it and I wouldn´t have had no complaints about. But we were invited to stay at the commune center, a wall-less wooden house, in spacious room with tents and inside plankets. Luxury – bit mouldy though, embracing the rainy season. We were happy and exhausted. Dinner was already prepared for us. Pouring rain and the late hour didn´t invite lots of villagers to come by. We were discussing the next steps. The schedule had to be tight. We only had tomorrow to find the Ploy and do some recordings. But we were far away from the Holy Grail. I had a further very interesting chat about the political situation here. The commune center, where we will rest and sleep, was built on behalf of the commune leader, who has to justify his ambitions in front of the court in about a month. The government doesn´t like people gathering, joining, sharing and discussing opinions, perceptions and possible solutions. Most of the activists, including the men sitting in jail, waiting for trial, are not from Areng or nearby. They are from Phnom Penh, like Gigi, or neighboring provinces. They fight, because they want to save Cambodia, its nature and its heritage, its culture and traditions, to reconnect the generations, having lost most of its identity during the Khmer Rouge. They fight with heart, with a naive undertone as there is of course no political education since decades. With passion. With no remorse. Even after they got beaten up by the military already and manage the serious daily threat of law enforcement. I had to remind myself constantly, listening to their stories, this is Cambodia, not Germany. This is a country, where people disappear, no matter where they come from or who they are. No questions. This is a country, where it is life-threatening to stand up for rights, written as a law, interpreted and executed beneficially for the power of man. I felt so wrong in this place suddenly, with all this impressive people, who deserve my deepest respect for their life stories and their action to provide Cambodia an opportunity to change. I shouldn´t be here, someone else who knows the job, who knows what to do, how to do it and who is able to do it. I felt blessed and cursed. And had to remind myself, my excitement, my hunger, we are here to find the Ploy, I am here to shoot and to record, not to save the lost world. “I am not a hippie or tired of life!”
For the next day a 20 minutes walk has been scheduled. About the Ploy we had only puzzling informations. It has been sold to a museum in another district, but the player will come for sure. This will alter, change, negate itself during the day constantly. Cambodian style. I suppose the tribe didn´t want to trust us. Easy and understandable. The Khmer Magic Music Bus with its famous representative Seyma, Arn, the founder of the more than 15 years ago established NGO Cambodian Living Arts and the other Cambodian team members, survivors of the Khmer Rouge, didn´t ease their distrust, as they experienced for sure enough causes for in the past. My respect for the people living in this remote and forgotten, rich and beauty area of Cambodia was increasing continously.
On the next day we started the trekk early morning. Summit Mrinh Kangkeab. We changed the plan to sleep up there because of too much rain and we might not return on the next and departure day on time – plans are plans when they happen. The 20 minutes excursion emerged like a clearing out of densely jungle as a rough and steep over an hour hike. The laces of my flip flops were up in arms, ripping my toes open. I am always astonished how locals walk up and down and through and steep in flip flops, mostly broken thereto. I felt like a complete idiot, brachiating through, heavy drunken monkey style. But then I thought about Steve, our sound engineer, who poked his toe couple of days before in a motorbike accident – and it looked really really fucked up, and was not able to walk, so they put him again on a motorbike, but here, where I was crawling up now, it was for sure not possible to drag him up by motorbike, hell of a stunt! But he should have been in front of us and we didn´t overhaul them yet. Close to the plateau on the crest of the wave, there he was, Steve, looking at me, “Don´t ask.” “20 minutes, right.” We laughed. What else. And suddenly we were there. And I couldn´t believe what I saw, picking the last resisting branches and leaves out of my sight, leaving the thick dark green of the forest to stand knee-deep in refreshing and cleaning stream of water, on by tides smoothed stones, on the edge of an abrupt waterfall, the entire valley in front of us. We all had a blooming smile in our faces. This is insane! – It´s nature. And now I sighted the interest of the dam construction, an eternity of land to rape and to carry to a final end. What beauty! What paradise! How ignorant can man be to put all this in the blind spot of a divine creation, to make it destroyable, to distance it from us, man, who are a part of this, of all this! Let this embrace your heart and you will feel the roots saturating your mind. “Am I a hippie?”
I went further up with Gigi and Arn to interview them. We rested on a plateau, more than 180 degrees green waving valleys as far as you can´t imagine. A fireplace nearby reminds Gigi of the protests, when they kept watch, warning the tribe and batten down the lianes on time. We rested for a while. I would have liked to stay up there and investigate the surrounding, I am not a botanist, not at all, but I have seen mushrooms, flowers, fern and trees in shapes, sizes and colors I haven´t seen before. But as always, keep an eye on the rain and it was very advisable not to walk down this hill during pouring rain. We slided most of the trekk anyway. Steve looked like a bobsleigh rider, just without a bobsleigh, hurting himself more with a capsular rupture of his small finger´s joint. We returned to the commune center with leeches, bleeding and broken, but overhappy. Lunch was ready. Two elder women were providing during our stay real Cambodian food, I have not yet tasted in its taste explosion. No chemicals. Everything fresh and fucking tremendously delicious. After lunch we got some news again about the Ploy. The community will come together this afternoon and with them the player, Nhek, but still without the Ploy. At least we could interview him and try to find out if we can rebuy the instrument, as this might be one of the only existing one worldwide. Also to rebuild without an original seemed to be impossible. We knew nothing, but we all felt still very thankful – and super tired.
But suddenly there were people, villagers, gathering next to us. The round of introduction. As nothing is planned, Steve and me had always to improvise or just be super quick to set everything up before the plan is to finish as spontaneous as it has started. During the next hour or so there was intense exchange of experiences and background informations about the activities of the tribe and coworking NGOs to preserve the valley, its cultural heritage and how protect it in the long-term. Two more young cambodian women introduced themselves. One is a famous actress, Ream Sao Si, now in cinema, born and still living in Areng. The second of my personal heroes is from the province nearby, christian, whatever that tells us, I only have a heavy dropped jaw for them. These young women, who fight peacefully but full of pride and passion for their homeland, culture and nature. As a woman in Cambodia, in Asia. I only have my deepest respect. How brave they are. How brave and at the same time humble and discreet. They act against their parents will, they sacrifice, they ruin, they – no, they just do it, because they have no alternative. Because they choosed to protect Cambodia from sale, on all levels. Steve and me were looking at each other, flabbergasted. I feel honoured to be accepted as an intruder. The Khmer Magic Music Bus played two songs to loosen up the atmosphere. And it´s not like every month musicians pass by for a show here. The audience was relaxing. Lots of joking and laughter was exchanged. From youngest to oldest, from no teeth to no teeth. I like sometimes not to understand a word, so you have more senses, perception to inhale the beauty of human nature – and this was one of this rare gasps. But in their faces I recognized still resistance. Seyma and Arn promised the tribe to come back if they allow them to, to celebrate a music festival together. The woman, who seemed to be in charge, responded immediately, “Don´t make promises you can not keep.” So we knew, we are not the first ones digging here for treasures and opportunities. And this is not surprising. But I hope we can proof them wrong in their doubts. In less than a minute the gathering disbanded. “We can only wait now.” For their permission to go one step further, towards the Ploy, towards their tribe.
For the evening the main celebration is still scheduled. With or without Ploy, with or without the player, who is hard to find as we were told. Nhek has 4 farms to take care of. The farms are far away from each other. And you don´t think about cellphones now. Don´t. No signal up here. In my opinion this was a strategic seesaw, to proof our patience and persistence and to give them more time to think about this odd group constellation, who appeared suddenly and want now everything, in two days. I have to admit, I would tell them to fuck off. But maybe sometimes fame helps to perform a difference.
Most of us rested. It started to rain. The afternoon passed by. Still raining. Early evening. Rain. No villagers. No news. The atmosphere in the team was on hm-mode. What we do if nobody will come to join? What do we tell then the sponsor of this trip? “I guess we have to come back then.” I said.
And exactly out of the dark light cones flickering, something startet to actuate and approached the community center. People. The villagers, they are here! What will happen in the next 2 hours made me cry. The elderly also came. It was all about music. But first the welcome ceremony. A plate with roasted chicken and two bottles of naturally homemade rice wine. Candles and incense sticks were burnt. No buddha. Nothing for anyones sake. After the usual Cambodian speech thing and a short worshipping and subsequently a first round of rice wine, two older man took their seat, one with a Tro, a string instrument. And for the next ten minutes a song trapped all of us in blurry silence, in a state of amazement and trance. Another elder started to dance, in a way which reminded me more to a native american, not as floral as cambodian dances are presented usually. Simple, following the beat of the singer, who was speeding slowly up. The dancer was supported with rice wine. An older woman sitting opposite on the ground started to move her upper part of the body in a circle, an act of trance. I could have peed in my pants of delight and excitement. The lyrics were in the tribal language, which nearly all of tribe members don´t speak or understand at all, except these elderly. This was exceptional. Mindblowing. Everything-blowing inside of me. More rice wine. More music, dancing, exchange of happiness and respect. The chicken got ripped apart. The elderly slowly drunken. A last song, a last speech to express our gratefulness. The Ploy didn´t find its way, also not the player. No further news. As a last resort we were told to do a detour on our way back to the van and try to catch the player at one of his farms. Finally we felt all very contented with the evening, with the invitation, with the special celebration we had together, with the trip in general. The Ploy would be now just the cherry on top of the huge pile of precious and a little bit jingled cream. “For more we should not ask.”
5 am next morning. The last day. The drivers were arriving. Our last delicious breakfast. As the housing of the village is scattered, the goodbye party was quite short and climaxed in more a motorbike parade through, waving and smiling. On half way we did a turn left, leaving the main dirt road, reaching one of the river streams and a ferry station. Two longboats tied together, planks on top, a cable winch system. Not that this was very suprising or unique, but we wondered what will come next, on our unintentional hunt of surprises. A short distance away from the ferry station the parade stopped the engines. And in less than a buffalo can poop, I was sitting on the veranda of an old wooden house, in front of me iPhones and recording devices, behind three elderly, two women and a man, the player, Nherk, next to him leaning against the wall, the Ploy. I laughed out loud, half of happiness and half of these repeating surprising moments. And to see all this and be invited to sit with them, watching them, sharing our adventure and their astonishment. I felt like I don´t want to die, now, no! One of the women was smoking a cigarette, the other two were taking a step back a bit, they obviosuly felt uncomfortable with all this attention. Seyma and Arn introduced the team and why we are here. See the surprise and honour he in particular, the player, feels! In his eyes, not with a lot of self-confidence though as for whatever reason you would need this civilisation monstrosity out here. With a tearful heart – pure happiness. He started to play the Ploy. Silence. The Ploy is a sort of a bagpipe, instead a bag a coconut and the pipes are bamboo, producing a mystic – of course, smooth but complete sound. I was tripping, couldn´t seperate anymore my senses. I wanted to scream! This is magic, Arn, yes! Seyma, Arn and Sovanna did a song to give the player a break. It´s also for him long time ago he played. The elderly are all of them over 80. Pure history is sitting in front of me. “We need a singer.” Another old man was sneaking on the veranda, smiling already. These people are killing me. Where did I live my past! And suddenly everyone was moving again. Outside, in the garden, easier to play the Ploy as the player can stand. Meanwhile some villagers with their kids joined. The Khmer Magic Music Bus did another song. The singer started to cry. – And this still gives me the shiver even weeks ago. It´s about 50 years ago he heard live music, he said. Magic. The songs they played after, the atmosphere, the happiness in all of us team members. That we were finally allowed to be here, beyond, beyond something, which doesn´t have to be described, because who cares. To me it felt like in a relationship, when after a while all this love thing and being enamored has settled, disillusioned and the brutal nakedness shows it´s distinctive colors. Dusty. Dirty. Poor. Invariable corrupt. Fucked up. Lost. What a character though! And you wake up one other day. And you look at your pale love, in a different exposure to light. And something has changed. You. Your perception, rediscovering the needs, the very good reasons why you are here, why you stay and why you would go to any lengths for. And you want to love! I was reconnected. The down-and-dirty, crazy of hunger, constant fustigation and political backlashes, raped but made up lady was back in her dress. Not that I lost my interest for her. Yes, Maybe I did. – The magic is back! After the show and the elderly left to rest on their verandas again, we were invited to be interviewed by the police. They recorded our IDs, asking what we are doing here – Gigi is well-known. But finally all went good. We were allowed to leave.
On our way back to the van we stopped at some more beautiful corners of the valley, centering the urgent need to return, to get brutally naked and start to walk. We were all smashed, dirty, smelly but super overhappy. The atmosphere in the team was more musing than in the beginning of or trip. I dare to claim we were all inspired and following now the sap of youth or we were still tripping on magic music. The mini van needed a clean up before reaching Phnom Penh or the police will stop us and start asking questions. We got abyssal stucked in mud half way. A drunken probably soldier with his truck pulled us out. They make good money with their trucks during rainy season and as long as the road construction is on hold. Why proceeding if there is no economical interest? And why don´t take advantage of the misery? Because you are Cambodian, you brainwashed idiot!
We arrived at night in Phnom Penh. Steve in pain, both covered in dirt and happiness, laughing.
During the ride back Gigi told me about her ambitions to become a photographer one day. She showed me some pictures she has taken up in Areng and during protests. And the one she likes most. She said it was also published in The Phnom Penh Post around two weeks ago. The picture of the crying boy, who´s father still sits in jail.
Magic, but true.
And a final personal note, from the bottom of my hungry heart, I thank 60Road Studio and all the team members for an unique, wonderful and inspiring experience, but especially I want to thank Areng and the tribe for opening their arms and inviting us to be for two days a part of their life. With all my respect. And I apologize my amateur approach to report all this to the world… but honestly and I am sorry to dissapoint you at this point, the world doesn´t give a shit. But I do. Thank you.