Boat Operators Must Change Their Tune

People sit in tourist boats sailing along the Mekong river in front of the Royal Palace during a water festival which is not celebrated in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2021. Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP

Just a few weeks ago, I was on a riverboat in Phnom Penh.  The reflections of the city shimmered in the cool evening while the lights on vessels around me sparkled like a thousand stars.

It was an enchanting experience but one thing spoiled the moment and I plead with the authorities to fix it.

But first a little about me.  I have had a 10-year love affair with Cambodia, working and travelling here.   I have learned about the attachment of Cambodian people to their culture and the pride they take in it.

The sights and sounds of Cambodia are what we foreigners want to see and hear.

Yet on this boat the music was alien. Worst of all were the lyrics, in English, which were vulgar, coarse and ugly.

Don’t get me wrong. Music has no national boundaries and Cambodian music is inevitably going to be influenced by trends from abroad.

However, brutal lyrics drawn from the life experiences of those living America’s crime and drug-ridden ghettos make for uncomfortable listening as Cambodia welcomes a resurgence of tourism.

On my boat, the words f****r, mother****r, n****r are blasted out at 100 decibels in songs on high rotation.

And it wasn’t the first time I had heard them.  Evening cruises are one of the things I love about living in Phnom Penh. American gangster-inspired music blasts out every time I go out.

How is this supposed to be part of the Cambodian experience?  Is this what the boat operators  think foreign tourists come to hear?

Trust me, it’s not.

I’m not going to get into an argument over freedom of expression in music and I know that the government has banned songs deemed too sexual.

This is about boat operators understanding the effect of their music choices on their customers and the impression of the country that they create.

If they won’t change, I hope the authorities will remind them of their obligations to Cambodian society and culture and make waves if the message doesn’t get through.

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