Photo: Sharon May, “Coconut Trees, Battambang, Cambodia” (2010)
Known as the “Master Poet of the Sangkae River,” Kong Bunchheoun credits the river of his native Battambang as the source of his livelihood as a writer. “The Shade of the Tenth Coconut Tree” is one of several songs he wrote for Sinn Sisamouth. According to Kong Bunchheoun’s memoirs, this particular lyric was written during a low point in his life; his mother had died, he had abandoned writing and was unemployed. He often sat on a stone bench watching the Sangkae River. He secretly fell in love with a neighbor’s daughter who promised to meet him in the shade of a coconut tree, among a row of coconut trees along the river. She never showed. He recorded the incident in his journal and later turned it into a song in 1972 for Sinn Sisamouth.
Recording: "The Shade of the Tenth Coconut Tree" as sung by Sinn Sisamouth (first recorded in 1972).
I gaze at the Sangkae River
and its stream of flowing water.
Po Pagoda’s pond mingles with the rising tide,
moaning a message to the floodwaters.
The cicada’s shrill song bids farewell to the river of poetry
as the sun shrinks and sneaks behind your house.
The tenth coconut tree
spreads its shade by the riverside.
Silent and still, I stand
without words, waiting for you deep into darkness.
You forgot what you promised me that day—
that you’d meet me at eight o’clock.
Now I’m lost like a raft adrift,
flotsam in a swirling vortex.
The flower festival at Po Pagoda isn’t even over—
how could you forsake me now?
Marriage melodies from Tuol Ta Ek
morph into mournful dirges
as a cobra closes her eyes to wed a man.
I stand by the river’s edge,
trying to cry tuneful tears inside—
farewell to you, a brute without, a beast within.
About the singer: Sinn Sisamouth, considered the king of Khmer music, was born in Stung Treng province in 1932. He is renowned for his “golden” crooning voice and his romantic ballads. As a famous and prolific singer-songwriter in the 1950s to the 1970s, he belonged to a thriving pop music scene in Phnom Penh that blended elements of traditional Khmer music with rock and roll and rhythm and blues. He died during the Pol Pot regime. His popularity continues to this day.