Sunday, January 20, 2013


I have come to appreciate and to miss American zoning laws. Why, you may ask? Because businesses, particularly restaurants of various kinds, are a noisy lot, and it really does make sense to separate them from residential areas in which people prefer to sleep, rather than party, all night.

No, this is not a new realization. However, it has become much more personally relevant in recent days … weeks … months … Let me go back to the beginning.

Cambodia, or at least the part of Cambodia known as Phnom Penh, is noisy. Aside from businesses that exist cheek by jowl with homes, there are weddings and funerals, both of which can last for days and which involve very loud music. However, we didn’t really consider that when we filled out our housing survey, expressing our preferences for the type of home to which we wanted to be assigned upon our arrival in Cambodia. We were coming from an American compound in Egypt, where the walls were thick and the apartment building was designed to minimize sound penetration. So noise didn’t enter into our thought process when we discussed housing in Cambodia. We discussed the commute, proximity to shops and restaurants, villas versus apartments. We requested a villa with a short commute and close proximity to shops and restaurants, because in Egypt I loved being able to walk almost everywhere I wanted to go.

When we arrived, I was a little disappointed in our villa’s location. The commute is short, and we’re in a Phnom Penh neighborhood that is known for its shops and restaurants, but we’re in a corner of it that is primarily residential. The shops and restaurants were within walking distance, but they were a longer walk than I’d really expected (although since then, I’ve discovered a couple of nice little restaurants that are tucked quietly into apparently residential villas within just a block or two of our home). The short commute and the beauty of our spacious villa quickly overcame any disappointment, however. We proceeded to settle in to our new lives, not really noticing the blessing of peace and quiet that we enjoyed.

Then we experienced a Cambodian funeral. A wealthy man who lived just a couple of doors down died, and his funeral, as is expected here, was long and loud. I think his lasted five or seven days, with music playing around the clock or close to it. We endured the disruption—it isn’t really diplomatic to complain about funeral customs, after all, and we are the guests in this country. Nevertheless, we were happy when the funeral was over and our street became quiet again … until the customary 30th-day remembrance event, which mercifully lasted only a couple of days.

After that, we continued in our blissfully quiet lives. We watched as an apartment building went up on the corner, and two restaurants were built and opened on that same corner. The houses between us and the corner provided a nice buffer to the noise, which we heard but not at a disturbing volume. When the restaurants opened, we tried one of them and decided that it definitely was a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

And then … sometime last October or November, a year after our arrival, the villa next door began undergoing a conversion. My days became filled with noise. It’s bearable in most of the house for most of the time. For the first few weeks, a particularly loud noise sometimes startled Alexa out of a nap, resulting in a terrified, screaming, sleepy toddler. But she adapted, and as long as I don’t spend too much time outside or in the kitchen, which is located right beside the construction, I tolerate it with no major problems. However, as the restaurant nears completion, it’s becoming apparent that my ability to ignore it will soon change.

The restaurant going in next door looks like it’s going to be a beer garden.

The owners say it isn’t going to be a beer garden, simply a Khmer restaurant, patronized mostly by families. But there are at least six speakers mounted to the rafters of the wall-less roof they’ve erected in the courtyard. And they’ve tested those speakers a couple of times. They get loud enough for any beer garden, though the owner says they’ll only be used at half volume once the restaurant opens. I’m not so sure I believe that, though. So I find myself hoping that the construction next door takes a few more months … I’d rather have noise during the day than noise at night.

In conjunction with the “not a beer garden” going in next door, there’s a restaurant behind our house. We’ve had very little problem with that restaurant, and I didn’t even realize it was a restaurant until recently. I thought it was a home where they occasionally have loud parties. Usually, it’s nice and quiet, though there occasionally have been events that resulted in music and loud conversation drifting over our wall.

Last night, however, was the party to top all parties. I suspect it was a preview of what we can expect if the establishment next door opens before we leave. The music was so loud that I could hear it clearly in Alexa’s room when we put her down for her night’s sleep, which may account for why she didn’t fall asleep until a good 90 minutes later. In Jeff’s and my bedroom, I could identify the words to the songs that had English lyrics. In our living room—clear on the other end of the house—I could hear the thumping bass and the periodic cheers from what sounded like a massive group of people. The mobile patrol came and tried to let the partygoers know that they were causing a disturbance, hoping they would quieten down of their own volition—to my knowledge, there’s no law here to compel them to keep it down—but they chose to keep the party going. When I tried to go to bed around 11, I put in my earplugs—the ones I use at the range to make bearable the deafening roar of guns in a confined space—and I still heard the music and the chatter of multiple conversations so clearly they could have been right outside my window.

Shortly before 1am, I gave up. I went into the living room … and still heard the party raging. The extra distance muffled the noise enough that I thought that maybe, just maybe, I had a chance at some sleep … but no. It wasn’t working. My brilliant and loving husband thought of the solution for me: he downloaded a track of a heavy rainstorm from iTunes and had our TV playing it (loudly!) while I lay on the couch and finally fell asleep. I offered to take the loveseat so he could have the couch, but he decided to go to our room and see what happened—but not until after he sent an email to the embassy’s housing office recommending that they strongly consider dropping the lease on this beautiful villa of ours. He told me this morning that the music stopped at 2am, the loud voices went away around 2:30, and he fell asleep shortly thereafter. I woke up at 3:30 to blessed quiet and abandoned the couch for the comforts of my own bed.

Needless to say, we didn’t make it to church this morning.

Also needless to say, we have a new priority for our housing in Kosovo: Despite the longer commute, we most definitely will be requesting housing in an international housing development, far from any shops, restaurants, or beer gardens.