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Phnom Penh Aside: Where karaoke is king

THERE is love of karaoke and then there is Sihanoukville's love of karaoke, which  is all-encompassing, ubiquitous and joyous. It's about camaraderie, community and contagious fun. We're not talking laid-back, ho-hum, casual amusement here; we're talking more about a cultural phenomenon.

In that thriving seaside community nestled spectacularly on the glistening waters of the Gulf of Thailand, the locals flock to the '70s- and '80s-style karaoke clubs, bars, restaurants and other assorted venues - there is even an outdoor karaoke speaker and TV/DVD combo setup on the potholed, dirt main drag adjacent to Mealy Chanda Guesthouse on Victory Hill.

The heart of karaoke is Street 333, which has in excess of two dozen karaoke clubs sitting cheek to jowl between the Golden Lions monument and the main drag (Ekareach Street) that connects Sihanoukville's three sections: Victory Hill, downtown and Ochheuteal Beach.

Even the expat entrepreneurs have muscled in on this Karaoke Row, with the Aussie/Brit-run venue called Lone Brothers MC, which opened last November.

Crossing boundaries

Karaoke crosses social and economic bounds - it's as popular among the silver-spoon elite as it is with the no-spoon proletariat.

Karaoke venues run the gamut from poshly designed and decorated nightspots like Blue Storm, X-Gold, Mocau Music and Lucky Night that cater to business people and the upper classes, to hole-in-the-wall neighbourhood hang-outs like Ho! Yes! and scores of nameless mom-and-pop joints with the seemingly mandatory Anchor beer sign cantilevered over the front door.

Whatever the size, location or level of swankiness, one characteristic remains the same - the patrons crowd the venues because karaoke is king.  

When grabbing the microphone in a karaoke club, for a few charmed moments the patron becomes a superstar. Karaoke transforms mundane reality briefly into something joyous and life-affirming.  

Back in the 1960s, pop artist and media sage Andy Warhol observed that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. His take was that the quest for celebrity-dom would captivate the world. His prophesy has certainly come to pass - reality TV, Divorce Court, Judge Judy, even the almighty Oprah's appeal is based on the notion of instantaneous celebrity.

A similar phenomenon occurs, though on a less flamboyant scale, when the patron at a karaoke club performs. For the three or four minutes of the tune they become a celebrity, a fleeting celebrity, but a celebrity nonetheless.  

The vocals might not be up to the caliber of J.Lo, Beyonce or Celine Dion though that lack of polish doesn't seem to factor into the whole thrilling karaoke equation.

When warbling a well-known song in a club, the patron's voice - sophistication or lack there of - is immaterial. What matters is the physical act of letting go.

Karaoke in Sihanoukville is a tangible manifestation of psychologist Abraham Maslow's theory on self-actualization.

A situation is created in the karaoke milieu where the individual is able to feel good about himself or herself while acting out through mimicking vocals. In that context karaoke is truly the balm that soothes the emotional sores of life.

For those of you that haven't partaken in the karaoke feast, try it; the sense of camaraderie inside the venues is palpable - the pervasive ambiance is one of bonhomie. Hail to karaoke - the king of popular entertainment in southern Cambodia. May it reign forever.

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