Vintage Sounds: The Revival of Cambodia’s Golden Era

The 1960s were a bad-ass time in Phnom Penh.

You might not have known that. I certainly didn’t, not until a work friend happened to put Cambodian Cassette Archives on my iPod. Even then, I didn’t know the extent of the dopeness, just that the psychodelic, garage sounds coming through the little white earpieces were unusual, different, haunting—an echo of another era, most of the songs flashing with an “Unknown/Unknown” track title and band name. What the hell was this, how did it survive, why was it so effing good?

My intro to Cambodian rock

Well, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. People have been digging in, excavating through the darkness, trying to revive the Golden Era of 60s Cambodian pop culture: rock, films, thick lines of black eyeliner and bouffants the color of ink. It’s an exercise in lost histories, untold stories, missing pieces, what-could-have-beens, what-shouldn’t-have-beens. It’s an exercise in facing just exactly how much was lost. And ultimately, it’s an exercise in love.

So when I saw the flyer for a vintage shop, simply named Vintage, opening in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market yesterday—um, yes, count me in.

We waded through the sweaty stalls of the market—Western clothes and traditional trinkets, vegetables and raw meat, housewares and fruit stands. Tucked beside the nucleus of food stalls, it was easy to spot Vintage: sleek, boutique design, a crowd of hob-nobbing Westerners, and insanely good music coming out of the speakers.

Bad-ass original

The shop was selling remastered CDs, tshirts of contemporary Khmer hip-hop groups, some refurbished 80s ghettoblasters (dubbed as such), a new vinyl record by the revivalist band Cambodian Space Project. It’s the first vinyl, the enthusiastic Frenchman wearing a killer pair of glasses told me, to be pressed in Cambodia since the war. (Composed of an eclectic group of Westerners and fronted by a working-class Cambodian woman, the band is actually out of town for SXSW, so I’ll have to wait til April to catch them. For a super interesting interview, check out this link.)

Cambodian Space Project’s cover

One of the most interesting things for sale at the shop—and what had attracted me to the flyer for the opening in the first place—were the “reprints” of Cambodian film posters from the 60s. All the originals of these posters had been destroyed, not to mention the films themselves. But Sithen Sum, from the Kon Khmer Koun Khmer (Khmer Film Khmer Generation) repainted versions of the lost posters. We chatted, I got his business card, yes, yes, there’ll be an interview.

I’m forming an image in my head. It’s of Phnom Penh in the 60s. It’s aided by photography books I’ve browsed at the posh English-language bookstore. It’s populated with the people I’ve seen on grainy black-and-white videos at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where I’ve spent hours clicking through the archives, where the people don’t look so different from how they do today, where the markets look the same and cyclos look the same and you could almost imagine none of it had ever happened.

The image has a sound. Behind the spotlights and sequins of it, it echoes of guitar riffs and mystery.

I’m sure this image is grossly inaccurate and veiled in layers of romanticized mystique, but right now I don’t really care. Sometimes you need a fantasy, a vision, a place in your head you can go to where everything is safe—just the glowing lights and the dancing limbs of some other time, that doesn’t seem so dead or so far away—that you let yourself pretend isn’t.

10 Responses to “Vintage Sounds: The Revival of Cambodia’s Golden Era”

  1. 1 Kirstin March 15, 2011 at 6:29 am

    This post was awesome. I usually keep up with your posts on my google reader but this one is just especially good. I’m curious about what sort of following this music has (the originals and the revivalist bands) among Cambodian people? It seems like you mentioned a lot about Westerners.

    • 2 laurenquinn March 15, 2011 at 8:36 pm

      Well, I plan on investigating this. But as far as I can tell, these artists are still well-known and widely loved in Cambodia. I think part of the excitement is both the younger generation rediscovering their own roots (as opposed to the imported music/culture), and realizing that outsiders/Westerners are interested in it too, that there’s interest beyond just Cambodia. I’ll report back my findings. 🙂

  2. 3 Steve L March 15, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Man, that original song brings back memories. That song is very popular and my mom used to blast it at home. You also hear it at weddings a lot.

  3. 4 konkhmerkounkhmer May 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    Lauren, Sithen is not the one who repainted those posters! I hope you learned that after your interview with him at T&C! Anyway, great post 😉

  4. 6 Maya May 12, 2011 at 3:13 am

    To answer Kirsten’s question about the current following this music has, I can say it is still popular among old and young people alike, HOWEVER, most have them have never heard the original versions. Also, most of the compilations available to the public are terrible “remastered” versions from the late 80’s. The Cambodian Cassette Archives, Cambodian Rocks, and “Electric Cambodia” (released by Dengue Fever) are examples of how the music has not been properly represented, not to mention, they published this music with no intention of supporting the artists/families of the artists, whom are extremely poor and suffering. Not to mention, these are really the worst examples of this brilliant period of music. You will find on youtube many excellent songs, namely from natesterx and orocambodiamusic. They only post the best quality versions they can find. Here is an example of a great song by Sinn Sisamouth. If you are into psych-garage rock, this should satiate your interests..

  5. 7 cambodianalliance June 10, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Would you be able to do music reviews for our site at or share relevant articles about Cambodian performing arts? We would love to hear from you! 🙂

  6. 8 کونگ فو November 11, 2011 at 8:41 am

    I don’t disagree with this blog!!!

  7. 10 Pich Makara November 15, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Usually I don’t read post on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very compelled me to check out and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, quite great article. My blog is KHMER79.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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