Feeding the Senses: Sounds at Wat Opot


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Asia » Cambodia
February 20th 2014
Published: June 10th 2017
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What are the daily sounds I hear while living in rural Cambodia ? Birdsong is constant; it is the backdrop for every other sound. It is so constant I especially notice it when it is absent: at night. But at night (unless the wedding or funeral music is blaring) I hear the insects, and this is one of the sounds that I find enormously pleasing. Ever since childhood I have loved hearing the insects and frogs sing in summer; they ARE the sound of summer to me.

One evening when I was nine years old, I remember taking a walk with my dad. He held my hand, and I was happy; with three brothers and one sister I never had time alone with my father. After awhile he stopped at a house I didn't know, and an old man (he looked old to me) came out and they started talking. Well, this was boring, so I sat down on the front steps. That was when I heard the strangest, sweetest sound, one I hadn't heard before. I politely interrupted their talking, and Babe, the name of my dad's friend (not Mr. Babe, but plain Babe. Everything was strange that night!), told me they were cicadas, and that they came out every 17 years. How lucky I was then, I thought, to be here hearing these wonderful cicadas that only sang every 17 years! By quickly doing some math in my head, I figured the next time I'd hear them I would be 26. And then the time after that I'd be 43, almost as old as my father! It was impossible to think of being older than that. This was indeed a very special night.

After an interminable time Babe gave me lemonade to drink, and he and my dad said good-bye. I was glad, but I was sad too because we were leaving the cicadas. We couldn't hear them at my house. Ever since my first memory of hearing the cicadas I have loved the sound of night insects. Falling asleep to their sweet music is one of my greatest pleasures here at Wat Opot.

What other sounds define the days here? Children's voices, of course, everywhere, singly or in chorus, usually happy but not always; the piercing cry of our newest arrival, a two month old baby girl; children chanting their lessons, or calling to one another. Also: music from the radios the kids bought when we went on a day trip to the beach (thankfully the radios' batteries all wore down after three days); Charly, the pig, snorting and grunting; the four ducks quacking and following each other in a line; an occasional dog barking; Momo's (one of our resident cats) near constant meowing. And this year I hear more German than I ever thought I'd hear outside of Germany, as three of the other volunteers come from that country and speak primarily to each other, in German, of course.

What else? Occasional motorcycles coming or going, the hauntingly beautiful tune played by the ice cream truck even at 4 in the morning, occasional distant flutes, geckos announcing themselves, sporadic piano playing as I teach a few of the children simple tunes. Many of the kids have an ear for music, but play mostly with one finger. Their desire to learn is impressive, but they insist on using one finger. I hope again this year there will be time to teach them some pieces on the gorgeous and professional set of bells someone donated. I did this two years ago, and the kids loved it, but we had more free time back then. With the kids in school all morning, and individual lessons from 2-4 every afternoon, I haven't found the time to offer bell music lessons to them, but that is another sound that captivates me, bell ringing.

I love to go to bell ringer concerts, or to hear the chiming of cathedral bells. To hear bell towers ring out music at noontime is a great pleasure, no matter in what city or what songs are played. We could use a great deal more of bells almost everywhere in the world! Throughout Thailand, when climbing up to some high temples built on mountainsides or tops, there are level areas interspersed among the steps, and on these level paths are many large but different sized bells on both sides of the walkway; climbers ring them in order as they ascend or descend. Thus, the whole time one is visiting one of these high wats, the sound of many tones of ringing bells can be heard, accompanied by the chanting of monks and the murmuring of other visitors. It is an exceptional auditory experience.

Here my goal will be to pull some kids together and give a concert at evening meditation sometime this next week, my last week this year of living --and listening-- in this lovely microcosm of Wat Opot.



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22nd February 2014

Fantastic ode to the sound-scape...Laura, I loved this post. Thanks.
23rd February 2014

I loved reading this. As a returning visitor to Wat Opot, it was easy to put myself in your story. I tried teaching the hand bells on my first visit in 2006 and it was somewhat successful. Good luck with your performance, I'm sure it will b
e uplifting for all!

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