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Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Noise pollution

A few blogs back I listed some of the challenges that might be found when living in Cambodia. For me the most difficult one is fortunately only an occasional one. There is a tradition in Cambodia that weddings and funerals are celebrated with noise at such an uncomfortable level that I can't see that it can possibly be enjoyable to anyone.

No one has ever told me that when there is such a celebration taking place near their home they say something like, 'Oh goodie. Now I can enjoy a few days of loud distorted music, speeches and monks chanting.'

If it benefits no one, then why does it continue? My only explanation is that it is also a part of Cambodian culture that no one should question or challenge anything. Obviously history provides contradictions to this. Pol Pol and his accomplices must have questioned the status quo prior to their ascendancy. But when they came to power it seems that no one questioned or challenged them, at least not successfully. It took an invasion from an external power to unseat them.

I have been fortunate that no one has seen fit to marry or die in my neighbourhood since my recent arrival here—until today. Actually the celebrations started yesterday afternoon. Fortunately yesterday the volume of the music was kept to an almost bearable level and they turned it off early in the evening. However they started again this morning at full blast, probably about 200 decibels, before 6 am. At least I can be thankful that they didn't start up earlier. 5 am is not unusual here in Kompong Chhnang.

To some extent I was prepared. When I chose this room I selected one that is half way down the building and so protected from noise invasion on three sides. I have earplugs from Australia. I was not able to buy any in Cambodia last year—no one knew what I was talking about. I have an iPod and a set of expensive Bose headphones.

After I was woken first I tried the earplugs. These are good quality mouldable earplugs, rated for about 30 decibels. They made almost no distinguishable difference. Without connecting the iPod I put on the headphones on top of the earplugs. With the combination of the two the difference was discernible but the noise was still too loud to allow me to go back to sleep. I removed the earplugs and plugged the headphones into some music. This was the best combination. It didn't drown the external noise but gave me something more pleasant to concentrate on. I am careful to use my iPod at only half volume. These things have the power to damage hearing just as I'm sure the speakers outside are doing for anyone stupid enough to get close—that's all the wedding guests.

By about 9.45 am, I'd done my usual morning rituals, breakfasted and done my chores and they'd got on to the speeches. Some woman was sounding off in a fiery manner but my ability with Khmer language is not yet good enough for me to benefit from her wisdom. I headed off to the internet cafe. It's at least a kilometre away. Maybe it'd be quieter there. Unfortunately it was not open. Not sure what time it does. I returned to my room. Speeches were still being broadcast but at least the noise had been toned down a little. As I write, just before midday, I can hear something in the distance but it is at a bearable level—no worse than your teenage neighbour would do when his parents are out. I don't expect it'll stay that way. If they follow the traditions it'll be loud into the night this evening and start again tomorrow morning early. I've got my iPod battery fully charged. Hopefully I'm prepared.

* * *

This morning I rang Esther, my Khmer teacher, and suggested she think about another venue for my lesson this afternoon. Esther lives directly behind the house where the wedding was taking place. By time I headed off for the lesson I realised this was not necessary. As I was walking down the street I could see that all the hired chairs, equipment and speakers were being loaded onto a truck. Wow, they had finished the wedding already. I won't have to put up with it any more today and tomorrow.

Esther confirmed that the wedding had in fact finished this morning apparently because the family is quite poor. The toned-down noise I could hear this morning was a funeral a little further away. I've also learned that the reason the internet cafe was closed was that the staff all attended the wedding.

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