Imagine yourself groaning in a loud, deep vibrating voice, saying, “Ello owe, ello owe, ello owe, ello owe.” Then occasionally adding a short guttural breathy sigh, “Ello owe, erhhhhh.”
Well, if you had been in my room in Phnom Penh at about 6:30pm that’s what you would have heard. It sounded like someone saying Hello Joe in a northern Russian accent. Maybe it’s a ring tone, I though. So I called out, “This has to stop right now, ”after, “Ello owe” had toned about 10 times. Then it dawned on me that the sheer drop outside my window probably meant it was not a phone ring tone. My hosts said nothing about my “This has to stop right now, ” loud and annoyed exclamation and I later found out the noise comes from a large lizard who every night and occasionally during the day exclaims, “Ello owe.” Our lizard starts his rounds outside my room, he sounds like he’s inside the wardrobe, then he moves to another location. It seems to do a regular circuit occasionally ending up outside my window at sparrows fart. I think I’ll record it and actually use it as my ring tone, at least that way I won’t feel so stupid.
Our lizard, the Tokay, is regarded as a lucky, lucky sign, especially if it gives multiple calls. It groans and sighs its way through the neighbourhood, I can sometime hear it in the distance. Its mating call, the loud croak, is variously described as sounding like token, gekk-gekk or Poo-Kay. The gecko’s call is responsible also for a slang name given to it by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam: the f- you lizard.
The Tokay is treated with deference and respect unlike other wild or stray animals in Cambodia. In fact there are hardly any stray animals in Cambodia. It is a very practical society and it has lost a lot of its language and culture after Polpot. There are fewer words for emotions in Khmer, than in other languages, basic emotions yes but nuances and differences are difficult, for instance the difference in degree between sadness and grief is vast, yet it is difficult to differentiate here. Average westerners perhaps have access to 16,000 words while the average Khmer will have maybe 8,000.
On the other hand, the soap operas, the incredible soaps are worth looking at, for information about the unconscious emotional forces running under the radar in Cambodia. My first impression is schmaltz, gold costumes, long, long, long, did I say long? crying jags, really snotty extensive crying episodes usually the result of lost love, death, betrayal, the usual story line, but played out in fancy outfits. All the outfits are a Versace wet dream, the accompanying sound track is over the top treacly, swelling bosoms, causing emotional fallout.
I have friends here attempting to help Cambodia find its cultural roots, its musical soul and in exploring the musical culture with them I’ve listened to more torch and sentimental, mawkish songs than I care to remember. Maybe it’s that the population is undereducated and popular culture reflects an unsophisticated access to emotional intelligence, but I suspect it also reflects a desire to let the past go and get on with life practically. I certainly can’t imagine personally what the effect of years of terror and oppression is like but to survive maybe emotions are too unkind and a hindrance to getting on with it.