THE SUN is setting as Euk Tha walks to the front of an open-aired room on a dusty
Phnom Penh side street and grabs the microphone.
Tha, a high school student, had waited anxiously for nearly half an hour for his
turn to sing, a pastime he said helps him forget a painful break up with his girlfriend
two months ago.
Crooning the Khmer love song "Did I Do Something Wrong?", Tha's soft voice,
amplified by two loudspeakers, carries out of the karaoke house and reverberates
off neighboring buildings.
"My life has changed since my girlfriend left me," he explains later. "I
sing to relieve the problems I feel in my heart. I was shy before, but not anymore.
Now I know how to sing."
With hundreds of karaoke houses lining Phnom Penh's main streets, thousands of Cambodians
have got the singing bug. To others, they are a source of amusement or irritation
- depending on the time of day.
Karaoke was an instant hit in Phnom Penh and the provinces after in the UN-sponsored
After the Pol Pot regime, and then the austere decade that followed, Cambodians struggled
to rebuild the basic aspects of Khmer life - Buddhism, family, community, song and
dance - that were nearly destroyed.
While foreign songs are also popular with karaoke, Hang Soth, art director at the
Ministry of Culture, praises karaoke as a legitimate and cheap way for poor Khmers
to revive their culture.
"People can just sit down with a microphone and sing without needing a lot of
equipment," he says. "They enjoy karaoke not just because it makes them
happy or relieves stress after work, but also because it is an art."
Karaoke-goers in Phnom Penh do not seem to have time to realize they are advancing
Khmer culture as they sing, clap, cheer and laugh over their beer and food.
"It's fun," says one karaoke fan. "It's better than sex with a prostitute,
which is expensive and risky."
Some karaoke houses charge as little as 300 riel a song.
"When I have tensions in my job or my family, I come here," Sin Karo, a
businessman, says at a karaoke house on Sothearos Blvd. "This is a happy place,
not a sad place."
Meas Sam Ath, 17, who helps her sister run the karaoke house, says their business
is down since the July coup. "I make about 30,000 riel a day, which is less
than before July, but I am still happy with my job."
Students are among Sam Ath's most frequent customers, singing both Khmer- and English-language
songs from the past three decades.
Songs by famous Khmer singers Sin Sisamuth and Ros Sereysothea, who died during Pol
Pot's reign, are popular at many karaoke houses.
"These singers died 20 years ago, but their voices are still sweet in my ears,"
says Mao Along, owner of another karaoke bar, which serves about 50 people every
One of his customers is Sou Mamdy, a bodyguard to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen,
who says he spends 5,000 riel a day at karaoke houses.
"I like to sing slow songs from before the 1960s," Mamady says. "Karaoke
is a kind of cultural thing from me and is also a good way to practice singing."