The Sounds of Phnom Penh


Noom-bpung man

The Sounds of Phnom Penh

The scrootching brooms the
universal alarm,
followed by the bread man’s call.

Early morning and late afternoon
the singing tones greets us—
noom-bpung, noom-bpung
drift through open windows raising
a scuttle of feet, a swish of doors
rustling wrappings peeled back from an enormous basket
that teeters on the bicycle rack.

The voices and sounds of a waking city:
school children chanting—
Chinese lessons
drift and hang in the early morning air
outside un-shuttered class rooms;
babies mewling, mothers scolding,
beating of mats and shaking of sheets;
monks chant and hawkers hit the streets,
motos rev to customers’ calls and the clattering
open and close of metal gates.

Ice cream man cycles down the street
hand bell ringing out, a
blast of music escaping from a bright tangle of wires that
coil around the rear of his bicycle. I hear the excited
chatter of children then the suck
and metal slide as tubular ice creams
are slid from the steel barrel.

A high pitched scream of sound
emerges from a battered wooden box
accompanied by the tinkle of keys and
the clanking of cans
as the key cutter negotiates
the pitted road on his jangling, clanking bicycle.

By early evening the cicadas
are deafening—
drowning out all thoughts,
blanketing me, muffling my home,
with their chirping shrill vibrations—
obliterating all else,
even the television’s drone.

karaoke pierces the night
barely distinguishable from
the sporadically howling dogs—
that discordant chorus that tracks around the city
punctuated by squalling cat spats.

As peace settles in with the deeper dark,
the noodle man clacks his rhythmic call on sticks,
his creaking trolley jerked along
river bed roads destroyed by the wet—
metal and glass grinding dolefully, sticks
beating in the dusk,
unseen, he serenades the night.

© Ammie-oy 2010

Cambodian Buddhist monks

Cambodian Buddhist monks

Pong tea khon (fertilized duck eggs)

Street trade



Cambodian Fruit Salad





Photo by: Margaret Mendel

I long for the fresh fruit again:
reaching up for mango, papaya, bananas and water apples—
watermelons piled, pineapples peeled, bananas baked
translucent gob stopper longans,
with beautiful choke stones;
red curling skin of dragon fruit, opening to reveal black flecked flesh
the colour of unwashed lace,
green coconuts in handcarts, machete to lop the top,
straws to drink;
basket bearing trees with prickly
green-armoured jack fruit bending the boughs
heavy with yellow waxy sacks—
mindful of durian but for scent;
fresh green oranges crushed with ice, startlingly sweet—
mauve dimpled lychees hiding translucent white flesh
and a sweetness comparable to the red hairy
rambutans dripping juice, or the
soft velvet white segments of
deep-purple-shelled mangosteen
melting in my mouth,
the outsize pomelo
(none of the bitterness of its hybrid child)
milk fruit, patched purple and green and huge Chinese apples
all neatly polished and piled up in pyramids—
abundant, fresh. I long for the fruit…

Cambodian fruit stall





Photo by: JR

© Ammie-oy 2010


‘But what is Bongdir?
Is it the rats?’
But we don’t have any rats. Not here—
even Dara can’t find any rats here.

‘Rats, no, rat gondol’

Only lizards: teukei, jinja…

‘Not rat, Janie.’

And Girly never lets a mouse pass…
Not like the first house where
they ran over my feet at night
whilst the cats fought on the tin roof.

‘But I’m scared of Bongdir Ammie-oy.’

Always Bongdir.
So I ask Sivin — again —
‘What is Bongdir? Nor naa?’
And she gives that shrug she gives
when I’m being strange and foreign
when I mispronounce and confuse the language
that Gallically borrowed shrug.

She inserts her culture seamlessy into ours
with strange omissions
of chopsticks and no admonitions
of his pointing feet (those impolite soles)—
just slides the rest in to reside amongst our own
and he runs to pray when the monks pass
and Bongdir lurks
beyond my grasp—

a hidden part of a foreign culture
coiled like a krama around my son’s head
like the scarves twisted
to balance baskets on hawkers’ heads—
but Bongdir weighs heavy on Dan.

He saves his bad behaviour
for Ammie-oy who doesn’t believe in Bongdir.

I ask her again.
‘Sivin… bongdir? Nor naa?’
‘Danny make mistake.’

I start to ask friends, neighbours,
but nobody knows
and Dan’s fear grows and takes control.

I give it to him straight,
I clearly explain the evil Bongdir’s fate:
‘Bongdir s’lahp, s’lahp heuy Danny,
there is no Bongdir, Bongdir is dead!
Ot mean Bongdir—Bongdir s’lahp
k’nyom dtoh salarian, taup mouy, lea heuy!’
Then Sivin laughs, walks Danny away—

‘No Bongdir
you not hear’

I not hear or I’m not here?
But she doesn’t say…

Coming home from school, his legs
kicking free, care free,
dangling from the bike
I sit side-on, my arm around his waist
and we sing
as the moto-dop takes us home,
takes us home to Vin.

And I ask him — ‘where do you think Sivin is?’
I know he knows; we have our routine.

‘She’s on the balcony—’
A glint in his eye

‘Not making your lunch, not waiting for you?’

‘No. Bongdir is eating her feet.’

About this poem

© Ammie-oy 2010

Haad Tien

I left her there; on the beach
in the wet sand—
the real me, happy and free.
I couldn’t bring her home,
the real me.
She lives in her body with ease:
lean and free.
She’s the golden colour of peanuts,
skin salted by the sea, buffed with the grains,
hair tangled by gusts—
weather wild as she, feral and free.
Bare feet on storm whipped sand,
rocks scoured black with rain,
slicked over, tested by her foot—
strong toes curl, grip; she jumps
clean to the next beach.
She loiters briefly at Phi’s,
the first welcome, the first stop off rocks and earth,
out of trees and into light, back to sand.
On to Bpu’s welcome; Khun Yaai cooking omelette.
She walks back by dark, only moonlight
and her lover’s arms to guide her.
Wind swirls, ocean beats grainy shore
and the new jetty—gone,
and with it all fear of departure.
She lies in his arms
and the wind blows through.
The storm stirs the ocean to foam and five foot swells
and the spray joins the rain and sea
and keeps her there, keeps her from me.
I couldn’t bring her home,
the real me.
I could only leave her there,
living wild by jungle and sea—
the real me, happy and free.


© Ammie-oy 2010

Playing with Form: Villanelle

The Grave in the Road
The morning light is tinged with gold.
The city awakes with a chorus of sighs,
and a new-born breeze skims dust on the road.
Dutiful husband does as he’s told.
I watch from my balcony way up high,
the morning light still tinged with gold.
The digging and the sun both take a toll.
My eyes on his flexing back and thigh,
as the new-born breeze skims dust on the road.
It looks like a grave, some kind of hole
dug into the dirt of the road, so dry,
but the morning light is still tinged with gold.
The freshly turned layers of earth unfold.
Averting my eyes, I do not pry
but watch new-born breeze skim dust on the road.
Incense sticks send prayers for the soul.
The wife breaks down with a silent cry
and the morning light remains tinted gold
but the new-born breeze dies on the road.

Further information

© Ammie-oy 2010

The Art of Riding Side-Saddle

The Spill

As we take the corner
delayed reaction—
my shout carries
into the dozing lunchtime air
and mingles with the incense from Wat Lanka.
Back curves,
throwing my weight forward—
arms reaching, flailing
legs kick skyward

—and down,

find the ground again, as my
hand hits dirt
and the motorbike lies in the dust
but I’m lurching upright
to his apology,
his sheepish grin
and his arms that strained
as he doubled over the handlebars,
gasp punched from him,
grasp pulled from him,
lose the bike and
reach to me.


More about this poem
Another Phnom Penh poem about transport. This relates a minor accident when riding side-saddle on a moto (motorbike taxi). This was near Wat Lanka, one of Phnom Penh’s five original Pagodas which apparently dates back to the fifteenth century. It was during siesta time so the streets were very quiet and neither of us were hurt. Here’s a great picture of a moto-dop (motorbike taxi driver) sleeping during siesta time at Wat Lanka.
© Ammie-oy 2010

First Time at Kai Tak

The smell invades the cabin
greets us… first taste of Hong Kong.
Huge mountain—filling my vision,
impossibly close;
raising the hairs down my spine.
Passive indifference of fourteen hours exhaustion
seeping out of me,
replaced with explosive nervousness.
Stomach lurches sideways as we bank
affording a view into passing homes.
Atmosphere changing:
first timer stress, old hand bluff,
yearning for home—
or solid ground;
anticipation of a dog tired crew.
An almost tangible tingle ripples
through the cabin—
excited murmurs, engine roar,
nothing distinct, vague essence—
thrill and fear.
Then again,
looking into someone else’s life;
twisting and banking through high rise,
crazy descent
intended for birds, not man.
Rancid smell rising again, seeping
through the plane, the dampness of the typhoon,
recent and returning. Dank, rotten
and in conflict with the buzzing metropolis
stretched out in sprawling urban chaos below.
The rain is coming now, hurling itself at the
toy-like window, another obstacle
to my safe arrival.
Relief as we finally land and I look out,
see sea,
only sea,
and rain down the window like streamers.

© Ammie-oy 2010