As I write this, we are in Andalusia, Spain; in a house in a rural area with no close neighbors; and the nearest village a small thing about a kilometer away, down a narrow, dirt road. At night, it is pitch black in the house. During the day, it is sunny. There are few, if any, cars that go past us on the road; and a metal gate hides them from our view. Unless we make it ourselves, there is no noise.
It is only now, in the quiet of rural Spain, that I realize just how noisy is Cambodia.
Everything is loud in Cambodia, and the noise goes from well before sunrise, to well after sunset. In the morning, it is singing birds, crowing roosters, and loudspeakers blaring chants from Buddhist temples. In the afternoon, it is barking dogs, squealing pigs, crying children, and loudspeakers blaring chants from Buddhist temples. At night, it is loud music, chirping geckos, buzzing cicadas, and loudspeakers blaring chants from Buddhist temples. All day long, it is the hum of motorbikes by the thousands…and loudspeakers blaring chants from Buddhist temples.
Everything in Cambodia is alive, and moving, and making noise. This is all the more true in October and November — the Cambodian wedding season.
Our introduction to the wedding season was made at four o’clock in the morning, when two coconut-tree-mounted loudspeakers began to blast Khmer music from a couple hundred meters down the road. The music was played at the only volume level that Cambodians know, that being as loud as it can go — and when I say it was loud, I mean it sounded like the speakers were mounted inside our bungalow.
At about five o’clock in the morning, the chants of monks from nearby temples joined the fray, also blasted from palm-tree-mounted loudspeakers at maximum volume.
The barrage of heavily-distorted drumming and beating and wailing and chanting continued from four in the morning until eleven at night for three days, occasionally interrupted by announcements from the wedding party’s disc jockey.
Khmer weddings are street affairs. Large, multi-colored tents are erected in the roadway near the hosting family’s home or business (which are usually one and the same). It is not uncommon to see tents blocking a town’s main thoroughfares. At one end of the tentage, a wall of speakers is built, sufficient in size and power for a small-venue rock concert. Tables, chairs, and decorations complete the layout. People park inside the tent, motorbikes park outside the tent.
Weddings are typically celebrated over a two to three day period, at a cost of thousands of dollars. In a country where the average worker earns only a dollar or two a day, this is made possible by transferring the expense to the guests, who are expected to make monetary donations to the bride and groom. The custom usually results in the wedding turning a profit.
One of our Khmer friends told us that people often go broke during the wedding season, as they are invited to attend one wedding after another, and make one donation after another. He used the English word “charity” to describe the practice.
During our previous month in Cambodia, we had not noticed the Khmer obsession with weddings. Now that we were sensitized, we saw the wedding photography, wedding dress, and wedding party rental businesses that had been hiding in plain sight. As the season got into full swing, we were never out of earshot of a celebration, and each motorbike ride found a new canvas roadblock. The traffic in town was heavy with cars and trucks bearing plates from distant cities. Sappy, pink, heart-shaped archways littered Battambang.
In November, the Khmer wedding obsession begins to overlap with a spike in Western tourism. Our hotel’s staff placed a flyer in each room, apologizing for the noise. Someone in the new wave of guests had complained, apparently wanting to visit Cambodia without being inconvenienced by Cambodians. Of course, that’s not a particularly realistic expectation. Hearing silence on a November day in Battambang is about as likely as hearing Buddhist monk chants in rural Andalusia.