Angry nights, these, as monsoon season begins to make its presence felt. The heavy daytime air which sulks relentlessly over the city is about to come under attack by wind, rain, thunder and lightning.
Seasons run like clockwork in these parts, and while the effects of global warming may be felt in the duration or sogginess of the rainy season or (as is the case this year) the intensity of the hot season, the three seasons – hot, rainy, windy – have been coming and going with astonishing regularity for centuries.
This time of year we get a prelude of the months to come, when intense rain will be a daily event and the deluge will move from the evening to late afternoon and then arriving earlier in the day as the season progresses.
Then, sometime in November, when the Tonle Sap River changes directions, it will just stop.
Tonight, though, as dusk visits Phnom Penh, it is just beginning.
I lay on the hammock on our balcony, watching the swirling clouds gather, collide, and repel each other. Above them, lightning flashes backlight the grey display of cascading palettes that seem alive in the late-afternoon sky.
To the East, the dark skies suggest more serious activity. It’s like watching a bombardment from afar, removed from the carnage but close enough to sense its wrath. Above, the show is just beginning.
Birds fly about in a choreographed frenzied rush, seeking refuge from the advancing storm. Thunder crashes more frequently now, and a fat raindrop lands on my clavicle and runs down my shoulder, dissipating into the hot air. The trees sway wildly, buffeted by winds that swirl and attack them from all angles, waving to the circling clouds below which seem to clasp at each other and shudder.
In the street below, dogs pick up the scent of the advancing threat and bark excitedly, answering one another as a bolt of lightning lights the skies and buildings shake with the thunder that follows.
A brilliant lightning bolt makes from the clouds above and finds earth, brightening the sky on its way and eliciting a smile from me.
I think: in Kandal Province, to the east, where the storm is raging right now, lightning often means death to rice farmers caught in the lowlands when a storm like this swoops across the country. Every year hundreds of Cambodians perish or are seriously injured from lightning strikes, adding yet another natural threat to the host of problems these people face every day.
They would hardly have the luxury of taking pleasure in the celestial display I watch, and I feel guilty for enjoying it so.
Such is the dance of life and death in this country full of ironies. With the storms comes life-giving rain, often in such volume that it overruns river blanks and floods and drowns unprepared rural villagers. The storms bring cool air and relief to the stultifying heat of hot season in Cambodia, delivering a cool drink for the parched earth below. And with it comes the promise of another productive growing season. Or, if the rains are too heavy – as was the case last year – a season of floods, frustrations and loss. Some live and prosper; others struggle and perish. One side of the road may have just the right amount of water; the other parched or flooded.
I’ve lived here long enough to sense the oncoming onslaught, and I move the hammock under the eaves and head inside to watch from safety. Trees have been known to snap at roof levels and lightning knows no boundaries when these monsters come to town, and it’s best to take refuge.
Suddenly it is upon us, and the rain pummels the tin roof on our landlord’s garage with a familiar cacophony, the drumbeat of rainy season. The air cools instantly, and the entire city seems to breathe in the wet relief.
The rain rises in manic sustained crescendos that seem to defy nature’s rules, accelerating and increasing in intensity.
Then it stops.
This was but an hors d’oeuvre to the banquet of storms that will sweep through Cambodia in the coming weeks and months.
But for now, it brings relief to the hot pavement of the city’s streets, and to the millions of Cambodians who will sleep tonight in the air made cooler by the blessing of rain.