Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cambodia through to semi's

As expected, Cambodia took just three sets to dispose of India in this afternoon's quarter-final clash of the WOVD Standing Volleyball World Cup at the Olympic Stadium, here in Phnom Penh. Cambodia, who finished 3rd in the round-robin series of matches, will now face Slovakia in a very tough semi-final tomorrow (Friday) at 6pm, and will need their supporters to turn out in force to help make the difference. Slovakia and Germany are the two countries to inflict Cambodia's only defeats so far in this competition. India proved to be plucky opponents after easily losing the first set 26-6, with Mean Veasna (right) in top form for the home team. They led the second set 13-11 before Cambodia stormed back to win it 25-20. The third set saw Cambodia coasting a little, making substitutions to give squad members a taste of the action, before finally winning 25-14. Not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but a job well done and time to relax before tomorrow's all-important semi-final. Stand Up Cambodia #1.

Cambodia at peace

This travel article from the UK press gives The Times' Travel Editor's view of the changing face of Cambodia and mentions my new company, Hanuman Tourism. Read on.

Exciting, exotic, romantic – even if the restaurants now offer cutlery – by Cath Urquhart, Travel Editor [May 19, 2007]

Perhaps a travel editor shouldn’t admit to having favourites, but, if pressed, I must say that South-East Asia always comes top of my places I love. I spent several happy and exciting months exploring the exotic destinations of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the early Nineties.
Those were the days before the region hit mainstream travel brochures, and it felt largely unexplored. In Laos, grass grew down the main streets of the capital, Vientiane, and you needed permits to travel everywhere (although the fine for being caught without a permit cost less than the permit).
In Vietnam we had to register at the police station in every town we visited – or pay someone to queue up and do it for us. And in Cambodia – which was still recovering from the brutal Khmer Rouge period – tourists were so scarce that whenever you met another Westerner, you would fall on each other like long-lost friends. Needless to say, this meant I hooked up with some wildly inappropriate travel companions, several of whom still write to me from prison. (Mum: just kidding.)
So, on a return visit to Cambodia this spring, I wondered how I’d feel about other tourists visiting my special places. I soon realised that I was going to have to guard against an outbreak of Travel Snobbishness, and its companion offence, Boring the Pants off Everyone about How it Was in the Old Days.
Yes, I had some exciting times in the early nineties, but do I miss restaurants with no cutlery? Flying on Wing and a Prayer airlines? Not a bit. Tourists are visiting this region in ever greater numbers, because now it’s safe to travel, and locals are making good money from tourism businesses: this is terrific news for a region that has suffered much in recent decades. Take Sotho Kulikar, for example, Kulikar (surnames are given first in Cambodia) and her mother set up Hanuman Tourism, a Phnom Penh-based travel agency, 16 years ago in their back room. They now have 154 staff and offices in Siem Reap and Laos. Kulikar’s father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. That her family has not only survived but flourished shows how far the country has come, and how much tourism is playing a part in that recovery.

To read Cath Urquhart’s travel article on her visit to Cambodia, click here. She travelled with one of Hanuman's top partners in the UK, Audley Travel.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cambodia defeat world champions

The Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, scene of Cambodia' s win over the world champions Canada
The Cambodia team listen proudly to the Cambodian National Anthem before the game
Wow, what an incredible afternoon. Cambodia faced the World Champions Canada in the final WOVD Standing Volleyball World Cup round-robin match looking for a victory to give themselves the best possible chance of getting a medal at the championships. With wins over India and Poland and defeats against Slovakia and Germany, Cambodia faced the toughest possible opponents in Canada, the #1 ranked team in the world....and won!
In the first set, spurred on by a noisy crowd who made good use of wooden sticks on the plastic seats to generate a high volume throughout the game, Cambodia took the lead and never gave the opposition a glimmer of a chance, winning 25-16. However, Canada sensed it might be their day when they raced to a 25-17 win in the second set, led by their man-mountain centre Stewart, who at 6ft 7ins dwarfed every other player on the court.
Not to be outshone on this special occasion, Cambodia had their own star player, Mean Veasna in top form and his volleys helped them to a 25-17 third set victory and the crowd suddenly had thoughts of the impossible, a Cambodia win. In the thrilling 4th and final set, Cambodia took the lead and never relinquished it, closing out the game 25-19 for a memorable 3 sets to 1 win over the tournament favourites. The players went beserk and carried their coach Christian Zepp aloft while captain Chhum Chhandy ran around the court waving the Cambodia flag with sheer delight. You could see how much it meant to each of the players, they were ecstatic, as were the crowd. It gave me goosebumps. And I'm proud to say, I was there!
The Cambodian team line-up before the victory over Canada
Not everybody was as ecstatic as me! How she slept through the noise I will never know
Cambodia meet India in a quarter-final clash Thursday, whom they beat earlier in the week, and will face Slovakia if they progress, in the semi-final on Friday. The final will be held on Saturday.

A temple all to ourselves

Safari tent at Preah Vihear
As you may've gathered from my website, I love Cambodian temples and getting out into the countryside and 're-discovering' ruined Angkorean temples whenever I get the chance. This travel article in the UK's Telegraph Travel newspaper from 28 April this year, is on the same theme and gives you the sort of 'goosebump' feelings I've been lucky enough to experience on thirteen trips to Cambodia in as many years, before recently moving out here to live.

A temple all to ourselves
Tired of the crowds of Angkor Wat, Francisca Kellett follows in the footsteps if Indiana Jones to explore the little-known ruins of Cambodia – and finds them well worth a bone-crunching drive or two.

In a country famous for its appalling roads, the one to Preah Vihear must be its worst. Barely wide enough for our 4x4, it cut into the 500m high cliff face at a vertiginous 45 degree angle. Shoulder-high grass pushed against the windows and rusty skull-and-crossbones signs loomed out (“Danger! Mines!”). This, I thought, clinging white-knuckled to the door handle, had better be worth it.
Our goal was one of Cambodia’s most isolated and dramatic temples, carved into a sandstone plateau in the far north-west of the country. We had spent two days on tortuous roads to get here – two days that proved to be an effective way to leave other tourists behind.
In Cambodia, you quickly adapt to your fellow visitors. You don’t have a choice. More than a million of them flood into Siem Reap each year to see the country’s famous site, Angkor Wat. There, my boyfriend and I had queued to join the swarm over Angkor’s lofty towers, been pushed aside by a crocodile-line of tour groups below Bayon’s stone heads, and raced through Ta Prohm’s chambers, fleeing the screeching megaphones of Korean tour guides.
We escaped Siem Reap on what they call a temple safari, a promise of a three-day adventure into the wild north-west. Here, we would take in some of the least-visited ruins in the country and camp-out, alone, in their shadows.
We set off in a dusty 4x4 with a guide, Servert, a cook and a driver. Trussed to the roof were three plastic water tanks; the boot bulged with boxes of food, ropes, tarpaulins and tools. It was like being rescued by the A-team – although this squad included a live chicken, clucking quietly in a box in the boot.
As we raced through Siem Reap’s outskirts, gleaming five-star hotels gave way to wooden huts on stilts, and tour buses were replaced by mopeds, swaying under the weight of entire families and baskets of live piglets. The Tarmac roads narrowed and crumbled into red dust, edged by emerald pools where water buffaloes wallowed amid lotus flowers. Mopeds gave way to bicycles, and bicycles to buffalo carts.
After two hours we arrived at Beng Mealea, our first stop. I braced myself for a queue of tour buses, but as we slowed to a halt the road stretched ahead, empty and shimmering hot. A small boy in ragged shorts wobbled past on an adult bicycle. A stray dog dozed outside a roadside café. Finally, no other tourists. We left the car and walked into the forest.
Hidden at the end of a dusty track stood the silent 12th century ruins, their collapsed, mottle grey stones smothered by foliage. Strangler figs snaked over stones and straddled walls, dropping their roots to the ground like thick plaits of hair. Vines wrapped around lintels and traced intricate patterns over carvings of demons and dancers.
Whilst we scrabbled around the ruins, the chaos of the forest pressed together over our heads, blocking out sunlight and dampening sound. We saw just two other people: a pair of guards slumped on some steps sharing a cigarette. It felt like an expensive, deserted, Hollywood set: Indiana Jones or Lara Croft might suddenly leap from a doorway, clutching a relic.
We drove on through the forest, a brief shower patting the dust back on the raised red scar of rod. Houses became smaller and villages farther apart. Children gleamed in the afternoon sun as they fished in the waist-high ponds and stared open-mouthed as we passed.
We saw only one other vehicle; a rusty blue van from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, bumping over the potholes that seemed to increase with every mile. The signs warning of mines began to multiply, too: skulls and crossbones scattered ominously between the trees. Cambodia has one of the highest incidences of landmines in the world, a legacy of years of civil war, but Servert assured us that 98 per cent of the devices had been removed.
That night, we camped outside the walls of Koh Ker. Three centuries older than Beng Mealea and once capital of the Angkor empire. A hundred temples are hidden in the silver-grey forest, from dark stone structures sheltering giant stone phalluses to large red-brick temples smothered by strangler figs.
Despite first impressions, nowhere was quite deserted. At each site a handful of workers would emerge from the trees and temples, armed with brooms and earnest smiles. The youngest would follow us around, pointing at an engraved column here, a hidden garuda statue there. Servert said we were the first visitors in a week.
The true scale of the site was revealed beyond the leaning structures at our last stop. Behind the rusty-red temples, the forest abruptly opened up to disclose a seven-tiered pyramid, towering above the trees in a field the size of two football pitches. As our tem went to set up camp, we clambered alone up the steep, worn steps and sat looking out over the forest, the light sliding into a dusty pink and a cloud of egrets passing soundlessly overhead.
Dinner was a noisier affair. Arriving at the camp – a fireplace, a couple of tents and a bucket shower just outside the temple walls – we found that our cook had created a feast of ginger chicken, fried fish and spicy soup. The hen that had been boxed up in the boot was nowhere to be seen. We ate under the trees, listening to the background thump of the generator and the blare of Cambodian pop from the cook’s radio.
At 9.30pm sharp our team dispersed into tents, the radio and generator were silenced and a hush fell over the camp. Eerie forest crackles drifted through the thin canvas of our tent, and in the distance a baby cried into the night.
Next day, we spent five bone-crunching hours juddering across rice-paddy plains and through forest villages, before our final cold-sweat climb up to Preah Vihear. And here, after two isolated adventurous days, we saw our first tourists. We hadn’t seen or passed any on the way up. Where had they come from? I was utterly unprepared, and glared resentfully at their Bermuda shorts and baseball caps. My grumblings were halted an hour later, though, when they headed towards the gate and vanished. At 4pm we had the ruins to ourselves.
The temple climbed up over a series of avenues, stone steps and gopuras (entrance pavilions), which followed to the very top where we sat, cross-legged, on the edge of the plateau. With the hot stones of the temple behind us and the countryside rolling out below, we watched the sun set in a milky, tropical haze. It felt as though we could see the curve of the planet.
That night, after another feast below the ruins, we climbed, giggling, back up with a torch. It felt brave and audacious and when we reached the first temple I dared my boyfriend to turn off his light. As we stood beneath the dark, silent stones – still radiating warmth from the day’s sun – it felt suddenly menacing. Pinpricks of starlight shone between the looming ruins and the centuries-old stones seemed to weigh down around us. We clambered back down to the reassuring light of the camp.
Next morning, the quiet was broken as a small trickle of tourists arrived and, by the time we had broken camp, two dozen or so were straggling up to the top. Where on earth had they come from now? Nonplussed, we walked past them to the main entrance and, from this new, low vantage point, saw what was bringing them in. On the far side of the plateau was a gleaming, beautifully laid three-lane highway. This, Servert explained, was the road on the Thai side of the border. Half a dozen air-conditioned buses arrived every day, dropping off their charges and whisked them back to the comfortable hotels on the Thai side before sundown.
As we clambered back into our dusty 4x4, I braced myself for the wrecked roads, landmine warnings and empty plains on the Cambodian side. I preferred it our way.

If you are looking to experience this unique adventure for yourself, click here for more info.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The ancient secret unleashed

The Trailer for the first ever Bokator movie has been released - by Dante Scott
“Before there was Muay Thai, there was Bokator”

The trailer for the new film about Khmer Bokator has just been released and is available here.

The ancient Cambodians didn’t leave many written records to tell us how they lived. Fortunately the history was somewhat preserved in the stone carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat and in the arts, handed down from generation to generation. Grand Master San Kim Saen is the man credited with surviving the Khmer Rouge genocide, and then returning to Cambodia to revive the dying Khmer Martial Art of Bokator. Today, he works closely with writers and film makers in an effort to document his country’s art and share it with the world. Film producer, Tim Pek, of Transparent Pictures, whose family endured the hardship of the Pol Pot Regime, was a child refugee to Australia. Now, as an adult, he has returned to his home country to make films, giving a voice to a people in a desperate need to tell their story. The release date of the Bokator film was delayed because Tim was working on another Khmer film, called 'The Red Sense.' Shot in Australia, the story revolves around a young woman who discovers that the Khmer Rouge soldier who killed her father, is alive and well in Australia. She is torn between wanting to take revenge or if in forgiving her father’s executioner, she could bring healing to herself and her people. Both films show the deep cultural and religious roots of the Khmer society.

Bokator is about martial art, but it tells so much more. The first half of the Bokator film is a documentary, telling the origin and nature of the martial art. The second half is a mini-film, starring martial arts and adventure writer Antonio Graceffo, called 'Brooklyn Bokator.' Always the baddie in Asian action cinema, Antonio plays a boxer from Brooklyn , with a bad attitude and a fat belly who gets beat up by an old man. Seeking revenge, he returns to boxing trainer, played by his real-life coach Paddy Carson, asking his coach to get him in shape so he can beat up the old man. “If an old man beats you, then you must not fight him, you must learn from him.” Says Paddy. “As always, I was honored to play in a Khmer movie. I am so grateful for all of the email and support that has come to me from Khmer people around the globe.” Says Graceffo, who receives countless emails, daily. “The actual acting was pretty funny. I play a big out of shape boxer from Brooklyn. It wasn’t much of a stretch. The story is in a lot of ways, based on my own experience of coming to Cambodia to train. For example, in the beginning of the film, my character doesn’t speak Khmer. And he gets a little sick when his training brothers ask him to eat spiders. By the end, he gets used to all of that and he learns to respect the spirit of Angkorian warrior.”

Volleyball mania

The Cambodian team prepare for the game to begin
Despite shouting myself hoarse, I couldn’t change the outcome of the WOVD Standing Volleyball World Cup tie as the world’s 2nd ranked team Germany defeated the gallant and plucky underdogs, the Cambodian national team at the Olympic Stadium last night. Though the Germans won three sets to nil, the Cambodians never gave in and took their opponents to a third set 25-23 score before finally succumbing. The last set told the story of the whole match in that the Cambodians built a lead in each of the sets only for the Germans to rally and overtake their diminutive opponents to close out the sets, 25-21, 25-17 and 25-23. The sizeable crowd warmed to the task of cheering on the home side, waving small flags and increasing the vocal support as it looked as though the Cambodians would win the third set, but two crucial fouls called by the referees turned the set in Germany’s favour and they closed out the match.
Of the six teams taking part in the finals Cambodia have beaten India and lost to Slovakia and Germany. They face Poland today and world champions Canada tomorrow. The standard of volleyball on display was very high with most of the athletes overcoming severe disability to reach this level of competition, though the Cambodian audience needs to be even more vocal if they want to carry their team through to the final stages of the world cup on a tidal wave of enthusiasm. I’m sure it was a case of mixed emotions last night for the Cambodian national team coach Christian Zepp, who is German.
The two teams are presented to the German Ambassador after the match
Earlier in the day I paid a brief visit to the National Library (Bibliotheque) and the National Archives, but both were closed, the library for lunch even though it was just past 11am, and the other for a stock audit til 1 December. I've yet to step foot in either, so this was the purpose of my visit as well as an archaeological exhibition by EFEO at the library, which I'll have to visit another day.

The National Library (Bibliotheque)

The National Archives

Monday, November 26, 2007

News snippets

The Volleyball World Cup for disabled athletes began at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on Saturday and a crowd of over 7,000 watched the opening ceremony and a Cambodian win over India in the first international sporting event in more than four decades to be held in Cambodia. I'm going along to watch the Cambodian team, who have a real chance of a medal, take on #2 ranked Germany at 6pm this evening at the stadium. And as I was eating my lunch at the Khmer Kitchen restaurant today, who should walk past, but the whole of the Cambodian national volleyball squad. Where sport and music are two of the country's most popular diversions, Stand Up Cambodia #1 is the the World Cup Anthem, recorded by Cambodian superstar singer Preap Sovath. Link: WOVD website.
This Thursday, golf will be in the spotlight when we will see the inaugural Johnnie Walker Cambodian Open tee off at at the Phokeethra Country Club near Siem Reap. The US$300,000 Asian Tour event will be the first professional golf tournament to take place in Cambodia.
Last week the Cambodian government signed an agreement with two Indonesian companies to establish a national airline, six years after its former national carrier went bankrupt. The new carrier is scheduled to begin operations in six months, with the Cambodian government holding a 51% stake and receiving 30% of the profits. Cambodia has been without a national carrier since Royal Air Cambodge went bankrupt in 2001 and negotiations with private airlines to set up a joint deal managed under government auspices have dragged on since 2002.
On the newswires today, there's the possibility that Phnom Penh and Siem Reap could have its own tramway if the French company, Alstom get their way. Sounds romantic but a co-ordinated transport policy is a long way off from materialising, so at this stage its just wishful thinking. One small item that made me smile today as I drove around town, was the sheer volume of broken sandals lying in every road I passed after three days of mass crowds converging on the city.
Finally... it was a shocking weekend for me personally, as far as the UK footy results went. I never thought I'd ever see Leeds United playing at Cheltenham Town's Whaddon Road ground in a league match, especially as a boy I supported both of the teams with a consuming passion: back then Leeds were winning the First Division Championship and Cheltenham were in the lower reaches of the Southern League. Oh, how times change! Well, Leeds visited Whaddon Road on Sunday and had their noses blooded by the bottom club, 1-0. At the same time my other team, Kidderminster Harriers went down 2-0 at home to Oxford. But the award for the biggest plonker of the weekend goes to Mike Slasher (name changed for identity reasons). He's been a great pal of mine for many years and he celebrated his 50th birthday this weekend. However, he was frog-marched out of the Whaddon Road ground before the Leeds match for taking a leak in a public place. Mike is renowned for this - obviously in Cambodia no one bats an eyelid - but in Cheltenham its rightly frowned upon and he was ejected and banned from future matches. Happy birthday Mike!

Roy’s clicking into gear

Roy was in touch last week. Yes, I couldn’t believe it either. I think he hibernates for eleven months each year. The Roy in question is Roy Hill, the ultra-talented singer-songwriter who made a massive impression on me, musically, back in 1978. Then, for me, he completely disappeared off the radar, until 26 years later. In the intervening years, whilst I was busy listening to Steel Pulse, Ennio Morricone, Billy Bragg and so on, Roy had licked his wounds after a bloody nose from his unfulfilled solo career to rise again in the guise of Cry No More, who for a decade wowed audiences in stockbroker-belt SE England, and beyond. My re-introduction to seeing Roy in the flesh again, accompanied by his straightfaced sidekick Chas Cronk, in the form of Cry No More was a revelation. Roy has matured his boyish charm and comic monologues into the funniest music set I’ve ever seen. He is simply brilliant.
Anyway, back to last week’s correspondence. I’ll tell you what Roy’s plans are as hopefully that will be an additional prod to make him complete the mammoth task he’s set himself. He’s currently putting all six Cry No More albums onto cd’s with his own inspired artwork, as well as compiling a dvd to be called The Cry No More Story, which will include clips from old vcr tapes, videos from three recent compositions and narration from Roy himself. If that’s not enough to whet your tastebuds, he’s also clicking into gear with his own stuff too. He’s nearly completed the first two releases: Hello Sailor – very early tracks recorded before he signed to Arista in 1977 – and Fun With Dave – songs recorded with Dave Richards in Switzerland during the early ‘80s. The target he’s set himself is ten releases in all, fifteen if he includes “the real rubbish!”
If all that comes to fruition, I beseech everyone to buy the whole set. You will love it, I promise. My decision to relocate to Cambodia has some drawbacks to it, one of them is missing the annual Cry No More Christmas extravaganza. This year’s is on 28 December at the Turks Head in Twickenham. If you don’t attend, I want to know why. At least I can say I’m 6,300 miles away on the other side of the world, what’s your excuse?
Link: Roy Hill.

Festival update

I spent Saturday morning in the office and broke-off at lunchtime for a siesta and then out to the riverfront area with my good friend Sophoin to get some of the flavour of the second day of the Bon Om Tuk water festival and the continuing heats of the dragon boat racing. This was the first time I’d seen the crews in live race action and both sides of the river were crowded with spectators. It was fun to see different sections of the crowd burst into life as they recognised their boat from their particular village or province, as the crews gave it their all in the race from the Japanese bridge down to the finishing line in front of the Royal Palace. The crowd along the riverfront in front of FCC was about five deep, so getting a good spot to watch and take photos would’ve required an early start, so we merely peered over someone’s shoulder for half an hour as the heats came thick and fast, with at least two races almost coming to a premature watery end when the two boats were within inches of crashing into each other.
The crowds were heavy and in good spirits and those not content to watch the races, wandered slowly along Sisowath Quay, haggling with the food and trinket sellers or parked their bums on the grass in front of the National Museum and other stage areas near the riverside. There was a large police presence and with most of the traffic banned from the riverfront, the whole day took on a carnival atmosphere as the Quay and all roads leading to it were thick with family or village groups.
After a refreshing drink at one of the riverfront bars, it was back home for a quick shower and then out to Tuol Kauk by tuk-tuk to rendezvous with Davy, Seng Hour and their son David. The owners of the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse in Siem Reap, they were in Phnom Penh for a few days to attend a couple of weddings and Davy had called me earlier in the day to invite me to a house party with his friends in Pochentong. I asked Sophoin to come along, despite still being in recovery with her injured leg, and we had a great time. The food was excellent and plentiful, the drink flowed non-stop and the fifty or so people at the party were in high spirits. Sophoin, ever the trooper, did her best with the dancing as we went through the whole repertoire including saravan, cha cha cha, madizone and more. Most of the party-goers were in their fifties but they obviously enjoyed their dancing and Sophoin overheard that most of them belong to a dance club, and it showed, they were very accomplished. I got home in time to watch Bolton beat Man United on the tv, so all in all, a successful day!
Sunday was a lazy day and with the sun particularly hot, so I didn’t really venture out til it got a lot cooler in late afternoon. Sophoin popped round and we decided to take a look at what was going on around the Independence Monument and the new park near the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument. The roads near my house are usually quiet, but not today. In fact Sihanouk Boulevard was at a standstill with all motorized traffic bumper-to-bumper, so walking was the only option and that was an ordeal as we pushed and barged our way through the car park that this main highway through Phnom Penh had become. The police had lost all semblance of control, their whistles having absolutely no effect on the traffic and it was simply chaos as crowds streamed towards the river area. It took over an hour to fight, literally, our way to Independence, which would normally take me about fifteen minutes on foot. The roads, pavement and park areas were swamped with people, either sitting on mats and eating or aimlessly wandering around. Even Independence, normally off-limits to the public, was under a blanket of people.
We visited a couple of music stages but couldn’t really get very close as the crowds were huge though the singing and dancing on offer was pretty poor, so I don’t think we missed much. Sophoin gave me the low-down on the names of the singers and what the songs meant but it didn't rock my boat. I know the population of Cambodia has a high proportion of under-25 year olds and it seems all of them were in the city at once. It’s also one of the few opportunities where teenage girls can mix openly with young men and everyone seemed to be grabbing that chance with both hands. After a few hours we’d had enough and walked back to have dinner at the Garden Center Café 2, just around the corner from my apartment. The water festival had certainly been an eye-opening experience, specifically for the crowds that it attracts to Phnom Penh. I think I can see why long-stay expats make a point of leaving town for these few days, certainly if people-watching isn’t one of your hobbies.

Two dragon boats battle it out mid-stream at the half-way marker

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ratanakiri roads - don't ask!

My trip to Ratanakiri was at the end of the wet season, so I expected a bit of rain, and I wasn't disappointed. For the first few days I used motodups to get to various locations, tough-going but doable but for the longer trip to Andong Meas and the 7-step waterfall, we splurged and hired a Pajero 4WD. That was our first bad decision, the second was the driver's, for trying to go through rather than around this puddle! The road itself, the main highway from Ban Lung to the Vietnam border, was the worst road I have ever travelled on in all of my time in Cambodia. It was even worse than the old road up into Preah Vihear province, and that was bad. The rain made it almost impassable in places and along the route, trucks, 4WDs and cars were regularly falling victim to the conditions. The photo above was taken just over an hour into our trip, it took ten helpers to get up dislodged and if you think I was going to get dirty and help push, think again. We never made it to Andong Meas as we got stuck again and on our return trip, along the same stretch of highway, we broke down for four hours! All in all, not the best day I've had but it all adds to the 'Cambodia experience.' More from my Ratanakiri trip soon.

A new school - beware!

Whilst this photo of my brother Tim in a beat-up truck isn't significant in itself, it brings back memories of pain and anguish for me personally. We were in the wilds of Ratanakiri province and seeking out waterfalls and gem-mining villages near Bey Srok town when we came upon an elementary school being built near a pagoda called something like Wat Sayos Moniram. We hopped off our motos to investigate as we're both incredibly inquisitive and were enjoying our interaction with the builders and the children when I stepped on one of the numerous planks of wood, but this one was different - it had a nail protruding upwards and it went straight through my training shoe, sock and into my heel. As I hopped around for a few moments with the plank of wood nailed firmly into my foot, the kids, and Tim, thought it was hilarious. I on the other hand was in a lot of pain and carefully pulled the offending object out of my foot, once I'd recovered my composure. The builders' cook rushed over to offer her healing hands, and water, tigerbalm and bandages appeared from nowhere to administer first-aid and to wash away the blood. Fortunately, the nail was new and two hours later I was getting the wound properly cleaned and tended to by a medic in Ban Lung. No after-effects I'm happy to report but the picture reminded me that Tim showed no concern for my predicament whatsoever, preferring to carry on playing with the children. Thanks bro.

Water festival kicks-off

This is the illuminated boat from the Ministry of Tourism
Whoever said it gets very busy at the riverfront during water festival hit the nail on the head. It was pandemonium. Busy, noisy and a bit dangerous with so many people walking the streets but moto’s were still allowed to weave in and out of the pedestrians, which I thought was extremely stupid. A complete ban on motorized traffic should be enforced with that many people on the streets of Phnom Penh including lots of very small children. Anyway, I only went to the riverfront after dark for my evening meal at the Bopha Phnom Penh restaurant, my favourite chicken curry eating place so far. The chunks of chicken are stupendous and the curry sauce is spot-on. But the main feature of the Bopha is the view across the river and my 6.30pm booking was timed to perfection as I caught the last half of the fireworks show and the first and second parade of the illuminated flotilla of boats that included entrants from the Royal Palace and all the major government ministries - see my photos. They were pretty impressive and made a great spectacle as they sailed up and down the Tonle Sap River. In various locations around the capital, large stages have been set up for music and dance concerts and I watched the ones in front of the Bopha, the Post Office and Wat Phnom before making my way home. One sour note from the day's racing is that five Singaporean rowers are missing feared drowned when their boat capsized.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Kachon cemetery in Ratanakiri

So, in your view, which one is the wooden dummy? Being serious for a moment, this is a wooden effigy next to a grave in a chunchiet cemetery in the Tampoun village of Kachon Leu, on the banks of the Sesan River near Voen Sai in Ratanakiri province, in the northeast of Cambodia. There are about 100 graves there and the wooden and stone carvings are meant to represent the deceased when they were alive. Perhaps this gentleman was a police official in a former life. Little did I know that just inches from my ear was a poisonous spider which was taking a siesta on the side of the policeman's head! And yes, it was sweltering hot.

When We Were Young

Ahead of his forthcoming visit to Cambodia at the beginning of 2008, Battambang-born singer/songwriter Jimi Lundy will release a new single, When We Were Young, on 12 December. Jimi lives in Melbourne, Australia and his melodic debut album, Steal My Heart was recorded and released in 2004. Seek it out, you won't be disappointed. Link: myspace.


Not only is it the first official day of the 3-day water festival but it's also the birthday of the Hanuman boss, Kulikar, and to celebrate the staff presented her with flowers, a birthday cake, bracelet and hair-pin, more flowers, oh and some flowers. By the way, birthdays aren't that popular as a celebration in Cambodia where for many people, their actual birthdate was never recorded. Kulikar is the one in the centre holding one of the bunches of flowers and is surrounded by some of the staff. The oldest member of staff was taking the picture, as everyone was keen to point out to me! As a gentleman I won't reveal Kulikar's age, which I also hope will earn me a small salary increase.

Cambodian volleyball

The Economist has a view on the changing face of Cambodian volleyball.

Sport returns to Phnom Penh - One area where Cambodia is ahead of the game
Monsoon season in Cambodia brings muddy roads, swollen lakes—and volleyball. The timing is not coincidental. The players are mostly farmers, who have a short respite from their fields then. The game's other distinguishing feature is that its high-flying athletes, who strut their stuff in front of adoring fans, are all disabled. Littered with landmines, Cambodia has no shortage of amputees. The volleyball league began in 2002 with eight teams. This year it expanded to 16, each supported by a sponsor—an aid agency, a private company or, in one case, an international school. By world standards, it is a bargain: the league's annual budget is around $130,000, for everything. That is less than a day's worth of David Beckham's time.

This year's excitement has not ended with the league play-offs (won by the Phnom Penh Koupreys). From November 24th Cambodia hosts the World Cup for disabled volleyball, its first international sporting event since the 1960s. Reigning champions Canada will compete with other national teams to lift a metal trophy sculpted from melted-down AK-47s. Ranked fourth in the world, Cambodia fancies its chances. On an overcast afternoon at a weather-beaten outdoor court in Phnom Penh, training is under way. Most players wear made-in-Cambodia prosthetic limbs, a far cry from the high-tech artificial limbs favoured by international athletes. Practice is frenetic. During one volley, the ball hovers above the net for a split second before an airborne player punches it down with his left arm. He turns to slap hands with his whooping teammates. His right arm, which tapers off below the elbow, hangs at his side. Money is changing the league. Teams lure away top players with sign-on bonuses, including plots of land. Chris Minko, an Australian who helps run the league, says transfer fees are a sign that the league is no longer just a handout. A bigger concern is persuading companies—not just foreign NGOs—to adopt teams. As more investors take a peek at Cambodia's economy—General Electric opened a branch office in July—that, too, may prove just a bounce away.

Cambodia's best

As one of Cambodia’s first generation of international chefs, Luu Meng is hailed as the top Khmer chef, having spent eleven years learning and perfecting his trade, first at the Hotel Cambodiana and then at various hotels for the Sofitel and Sunway groups. His contemporary style is forged on the traditions of old but now brought up to date utilizing the full range of herbs and spices, meats and vegetables, creating his own culinary delights using specific Cambodian ingredients like prahok, a fermented fish paste, whilst striving to achieve and balance the four basic Cambodian flavour elements: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. He was brought up in the kitchen, his mother ran a Phnom Penh restaurant before 1975 and his grandmother was also a chef. Whilst his mother influenced his cooking, he was trained in the traditional French style and cut his teeth at the Cambodiana and in Malaysia with Sunway. He returned to become head chef at the Sunway in Phnom Penh before opening his own restaurant, the elegant Malis, in November 2005. Still only 34, he is the director of operations at Topaz, which offers sophisticated French cuisine, he heads the Terrace restaurant at the new Anise hotel and has just opened a new Thai eatery and a coffee shop called Cafe Sentiment as well. His plan is to open another half dozen coffee shops in the next twelve months. His reputation in Cambodia is growing quickly - if Luu Meng lived in the UK, he would have a string of his own cookery shows already under his belt and would be a household name. In Cambodia, the name of it’s best chef is still known to only a select band.

A Thanksgiving to Remember

I wanted to let you read this piece from Loung Ung's website blog. I know she won't mind me posting it here. Link:

A Thanksgiving to Remember
In my 27 years of living in America, Thanksgiving comes and goes in my life without much flare. But when I sit down to enjoy the holiday tradition tonight with family and friends, I know this year what my gratitude rests on—the commencement of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia.
On Monday, November 19, Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state was arrested and charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Samphan’s arrest makes him the fifth high ranking Khmer Rouge official detained by the UN backed tribunal, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) , along with Kaing Khek, Iev, also known as Duch, the notorious director of S-21 prison, Nuon Chea, former foreign minister and Ieng Sary, deputy prime minister, and his wife Ieng Thirith. Ten years in the making, and finally, the prospect of justice is drawing ever near. After I read this, I put my head down on my desk and cried.
I’m not big on tears. There are only a few times in my life when my emotions overtake me. The first time this happened was April 15, 1998—the day Pol Pot, aka Saloth Sar, aka Khmer Rouge’s Brother Number One died. I was in my office in Washington DC when I heard the news on NPR. With trembling hands I closed my door and locked myself in. I sat leaning against the wall, knees pulled closed to my chest. It was a beautiful blue sky. I stared at the green spring buds on the tree outside my window, heard the birds chirping, but I was numb.
On NPR, a reporter described Pol Pot as a charismatic, grandfatherly, and gentle leader to his followers. Someone mentioned he was a good father to his 12 year-old daughter Sitha. This was the man whose policies killed an estimate of 2 million Cambodians from 1975-1979, almost a third of the country’s population of 7 million. Among the victims were both my parents, two sisters, and many relatives. On the radio, Pol Pot’s victims were mentioned only in numbers. Their names, family, and humanity buried while this mass murderer will live on in infamy. In my mind, I was back in the war, the deaths, the starvation, the pain, the sadness, the horrors, the soldiers. The tunnel was deep and dark. I curled into a fetal position on the floor and sobbed. Pa, Ma, Keav, Geak. The world may forget but I never will. I don’t know how long I was on the floor before I was pulled out of the killing fields by a booming laugh. My friend Aaron’s voice echoed in the hall as he and several colleagues walked past my door. It saddened me that life went on as usual for others. My life had changed, time stopped, and I was frozen in it. I wondered how many people in the world this news even mattered to.
In 2001, I finally made my way to Anglong Veng, a place where Pol Pot was buried. At the site, I stood on the edge of the small dirt mound. Around it, the beautiful land—red patches of earth in the midst of lush, green trees and shrubs—breathed of new life and hope. Inside me, flames combusted in my stomach and sucked air out of my lungs. But instead of breaking down, I was fueled by anger. When I returned to the city, I contacted the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a group that headed up the movement to call for a Khmer Rouge tribunal. I asked what I could do. The director, Youk Channg said they would like to translate my memoir into Khmer. I gave them the rights to the book and helped with fundraising. Today, both my books are published in Khmer, and First They Killed My Father has even been serialized in two Khmer newspapers and on the radio.
Over the years, I continued to support the call for a tribunal. As the negotiations for the trial drag on, I returned to Cambodia another 20 times, and waited. Then in July, it happened. The ECCC formally charged its first defendant, Comrade Duch. A flurry of emails bounced back and forth between my friends and I. Could this really be happening? I was dizzy with joy. I reserved my tickets to travel to Cambodia in January. At the moment, due to lack of funding, the state of the tribunal is still far from certain. But we are nearer now to the end goal than we’ve ever been. So when I sit down for my Thanksgiving dinner, I will give thanks to everyone involved for bringing the ECCC to life, the Khmer Rouge criminals to trial, and giving the Khmer people our opportunity to tell the world our side of the story. And then I will tell my father, mother and sisters I have not forgotten them. Peace and good karma to all.
Loung Ung

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Practice makes perfect

This boat came out from behind a potted plant with the cox on his mobile!
I was at the riverfront at lunchtime today, with a gang of work colleagues at the Gold Fish restaurant, which was a perfect spot on the riverside for watching today's practice for the numerous boat crews in this year's dragon boat races, for many the highlight of the water festival, which begins on Friday. I'm told some 432 boats will participate this year. And at times the Tonle Sap river today was like Piccadilly Circus at rush-hour (ok, slight exaggeration). However, it was nice to see the crews limbering up, without the presence of the mass hordes expected on Friday through til Sunday. The funnest moment came when an all-female crew cut right across a much larger all-male boat and the air turned blue with expletives...and that was just from me! The majority of the boats were sheltering from the strong wind and current along the shore on the Chrouy Changvar peninsula until it came to their turn to do their practice laps.

The all-female boat is dwarfed by the larger all-male crewed boat

Team photo

Another picture from my recent Ratanakiri visit, that includes my brother Tim, who was over in Cambodia for a couple of weeks and joined me for my northeast adventure. Tim's in the back row of this group shot (no, he's not wearing the cap), I'm at the front, in case you couldn't tell us apart from the startled villagers we persuaded to join us for the photo. This is the road that leads south from Ban Lung towards the old provincial capital of Lumphat, now literally a ghost-town.

Trainee iceman

This 'iceman in training' was captured on film during my recent visit to Ratanakiri, which I will talk about a lot more in the next few days. He's a resident of Ban Lung, the provincial capital, which I used as a base to explore the northeast province on my first-ever visit. Stay tuned.

Business as usual

It’s all gone a bit quiet this week in the run up to the water festival – known locally as Bon Om Tuk - which officially starts on Friday. I plan to be at the riverfront in the early evening to see the fireworks and the illuminated large floats and then return on Saturday to watch some of the actual dragon boat races, where crews of up to seventy people from villages all over Cambodia take part in hotly-contested races along the Tonle Sap River, in front of the Royal Palace. If I’ve enjoyed it, I’ll return on Sunday. I’ve never been in Cambodia during the water festival celebrations, so I’m looking forward to the experience. Everyone has warned me about the crowds that flock into Phnom Penh and particularly along the waterfront, and to be wary of pickpockets, etc, so I will. The authorities here are expecting upwards of four million people to be in the capital for the festival and will close off parts of the city near to the river to motorized traffic. Bring it on.
The world’s media has focused on Cambodia again this week, with the first public hearing in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, albeit to hear a plea by the defence counsel for Comrade Duch, that he should be released on bail, having already spent more than eight years in custody. Duch was the commandant of the Khmer Rouge prison and execution centre called Tuol Sleng, or S-21 and quote of the week goes to his sister who said, ‘My brother was a gentle man.” For goodness sake the man has more blood on his hands than most. With five of the surviving top echelon of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy now in custody and awaiting trial, that in itself is a considerable achievement, nearly thirty years after they were ousted from their reign of terror by the invading Vietnamese in 1979.
On a lighter note, I was handed another wedding invitation this week, my third in as many weeks, but this one is a bit special. It’s an all-Hanuman affair with our top tour guide in Phnom Penh, Eak due to marry one of our finance team, Nearyrath on Monday 3 December. They make a lovely couple and it’ll be another chance for the youngsters in the office to let their hair down and enjoy themselves. They don’t need to be asked twice.
I spoke to a friend of mine in Siem Reap last night, who is working for the brand new Angkor National Museum and was told that for their opening month promotion, the cost of entry is $8 for foreigners and a dollar for Khmers, though the prices will go up in early December to the set price of $12 and $3 respectively. They told me that very few Khmers have been through the doors as yet and the $3 price-tag will act as a barrier to most Khmers I know from going. At the National Museum in Phnom Penh, and of course at places like the Angkor complex of temples, Khmers are allowed in free of charge and with $3 representing more than the normal daily income of most Cambodians, you can see why they will stay away in their droves.
Finally, I stayed awake til 5am this morning to watch the England international footy match on Star Sports. I really, really wish I hadn't bothered. They perpetually fail to deliver and their 3-2 home defeat by Croatia means they are out of the European Championships at the group stage. What a shambles.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Behind the headlines - Khem Nguon

Khem Nguon was charged last week by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with the kidnapping and murder in 1996 of Christopher Howes, a British de-mining expert from Bristol in Southwest England, working in Cambodia with the Mines Advisory Group. Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth were captured by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in a remote village in Siem Reap province in March 1996, transferred to the KR stronghold of Anlong Veng and murdered. Though Nguon denies his involvement, it’s alleged that he supervised the killing on the instructions of his commanding officer, the brutal one-legged Ta Mok. Arrested alongwith Nguon were Loch Mao, a CPP-affiliated district official in Anlong Veng, who is alleged to be the man who pulled the trigger, and Chep Cheat, believed to be their driver. Further suspects are also being sought.

I’ve peered into the murky world of the Khmer Rouge to try to find out more about Khem Nguon but as you might expect, permeating a guerrilla organization isn’t easy sat at a desk and hard-line fighters don’t as a rule issue detailed biographies. However, Nguon, 58, originally from Takeo province, joined the Khmer Rouge movement in the ‘60s and was a Ta Mok loyalist from the days when ‘The Butcher’ ran the Southwest Zone with an iron fist. After the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, Nguon served in the Military Division 502, an air-force unit. Later, he was sent to Shanghai in China for three years of military training specializing in radar, air-strikes and artillery. In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post in 1998, Nguon said he did not return to Cambodia until after the 1979 ousting of the Khmer Rouge by the invading Vietnamese when he joined Ta Mok’s forces at their Anlong Veng base in northwest Cambodia as the Chief of Military Division 980.

During 1997 and 1998, Nguon was a key player and very vocal in the internal drama within the Khmer Rouge leadership over the control of the movement. After Pol Pot had his Defense Minister Son Sen and his wife Yun Yat executed in June 1997 over their alleged secret negotiations with the Phnom Penh government, Ta Mok with Nguon, as his chief lieutenant, arrested Pol Pot alongwith senior cadre, Saroeun, San and Khan. The resultant show-trial of Brother Number One was held on 25 July 1997 and all four were convicted of betraying the movement; Pol Pot was placed under house arrest, the other three cadres were executed. At the time, Nguon courted the media and told reporters he had destroyed Pol Pot and rid the world of a tyrant. After Pol Pot’s death in April 1998, Nguon said he had hoped to hand over Pol Pot to a war crimes tribunal but he’d died of a heart attack. His quote at the time was; “What I can tell you is that he was quite old and he dropped his life like a ripe fruit.”

Just days later, he was again in the news when he announced he’d replaced his long-time mentor Ta Mok as commander of the Khmer Rouge, had changed their name to the National Solidarity Party and was making peace overtures to the Cambodian government, citing; “…to bring about national reconciliation where all parties announce an end to the war which no one has won, no one has lost.” With the Khmer Rouge in their final death throes, Nguon and half a dozen military generals finally surrendered to the Cambodian government on 6 December 1998 in exchange for amnesty and exemption from prosecution. He said he brought with him 5,000 troops and 15,000 civilians living under KR control. However, less than a month later he was threatening a resumption of hostilities if attempts were made to arrest other former Khmer Rouge leaders. It seems Khem Nguon had a quote for most occasions and a hot-line to the world’s press around that time. He’s been conspicuously silent in more recent years.

A part of Nguon’s amnesty was the award of a position as Brigadier-General in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, acting as an advisor to the defence ministry. One of his most recent responsibilities with the RCAF was to participate in the military commission tasked with resolving border issues with Thailand. He speaks Chinese, Thai and reasonable English and has been living in Phnom Penh until his arrest. In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post in 1998, Nguon claimed he was not present at the shooting of the British de-miner, though he had spoken to him before his death, the shooting was ordered by Pol Pot and supervised by Saroeun, one of the cadres tried and executed after the Pol Pot show-trial. However, eyewitness testimony provided to British police detectives tells a different story. It alleges that Howes was shot from behind on the order of Ta Mok and his deputy Khem Nguon, who supervised the killing and was the last one to speak to him. The Scotland Yard report named those responsible as Ta Mok, Khem Nguon, Colonel Kong, the cadre who pulled the trigger and three members of Nguon’s bodyguard unit, known only as Rim, Lim and San.

Until now, the Cambodian authorities have not had the appetite to arrest the men responsible, despite lobbying from the former British Ambassador Stephen Bridges that resulted in deputy prime minister Sar Kheng saying that any prosecution must wait until the time was right. That time arrived last week and Khem Nguon is now in custody awaiting trial, alongwith two Khmer Rouge cohorts. If found guilty, the men face sentences of between 10 and 20 years imprisonment.
For more on Christopher Howes, please visit my website here. Photo by PPP.

Rathie on Lao links

My apologies, I must admit to forgetting to bring an article by Martin Rathie to your attention. It delves into the links between Laos and the Khmer Rouge and is fascinating. I know Martin is due to return to Cambodia in the next month or so on another research visit. He's a PhD scholar formerly with the Department of History at the University of Queensland, Australia and is currently based in the Lao capital, where he works as a teacher at Vientiane College. Read the article at New Mandala here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Under lock and key

This is former Khmer Rouge military chief of staff Khem Nguon, who was charged last week with the abduction and murder of British de-miner Christopher Howes in 1996. Though its eleven years since the death of Christopher and his interpreter Houn Hourth, the slowly-turning wheels of Cambodian justice have finally caught up with Nguon and two other former Khmer Rouge guerrillas - Loch Mao and Chep Cheat- who are now behind bars awaiting trial at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh. Arresting Khmer Rouge leaders is the flavour of the month in Phnom Penh right now and though the Cambodian authorities have suspected his involvement in the Howes murder for many years, its only now that the climate is ripe for his arrest, even though he's been living in Phnom Penh and on the payroll of the defence ministry as a Brigadier-General in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. I will post more background details on Khem Nguon, also identified in some sources as Ngun, tomorrow. Photo by Ou Neakry/PPP.
I won't give it too many column inches, but history was made today when Comrade Duch appeared in public in front of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Court in the full glare of tv, and hundreds of the world's press. Five of the top Khmer Rouge hierachy have now been arrested and charged with crimes against humanity, the latest being the former KR head of state, Khieu Samphan. The Tribunal is really clicking into gear now after so many delays and much feet-dragging, but it's happening and maybe, just maybe, some Cambodians will be able to take comfort that the surviving leaders are finally being brought to task for their horrendous crimes.

Knight in shining armour – take 2

Socheata and Plon
Coming to the rescue of waifs and strays can be habit-forming. Hot on the heels of my personal guided-tour for my two Bangkok friends at the weekend, I had open-house last night for two more pals, this time from Siem Reap, who were more than happy to accept the offer of my spare bedroom for a night – me and my big mouth! I’m only kidding, as Socheata and her brother Plon were more than welcome guests and we dined at the Vimeanangkor restaurant just around the corner before thumbing through some of my old photo albums, where they were in fits of giggles as they chanced upon pictures of themselves on a trip to Banteay Srei some eight years ago. I recalled in graphic detail as both of them were sick as parrots leaning out of the car window on the way there from their home near Srah Srang lake. Travel sickness and the Khmers go hand in hand I’ve found. They were in town again, firming up their visas to visit Japan in a few days time. For Socheata it will be a return to her Osaka home to see her deceased husband’s family, he passed away last year and Socheata returned to live with her own family at Angkor, while for Plon, it will be his first visit, achieving one of his ambitions, as he’s actually a Japanese-speaking tour guide at Angkor. Trips like these are not undertaken lightly, the air-fares alone will make a massive dent in the family’s income from selling souvenirs at Angkor Wat, Banteay Kdei and Neak Poan.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lightman's Dream & Sage Foundation

The Harpswell Foundation is on a mission to provide educational opportunities for disadvantaged children and young people. I met Alan Lightman, its founder, a few years ago and in recent years they've built a school and a dormitory for women in Phnom Penh attending college. Find out more about the foundation here.
The following story about Alan Lightman and Harpswell appeared in today's Boston Globe and is reproduced here with the author's permission. Thanks Tinker.

Lightman's Dream : MIT physicist and author empowers young Cambodian women by building a dormitory for them in Phnom Penh - by Tinker Ready, Globe Correspondent, Boston Globe (Mass., USA).

The new three-story Harpswell Foundation Dormitory for University Women is named for a town in Maine. But it's on an unpaved street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, populated with fried fish vendors, motorbike taxis, and roaming chickens. The name is a nod to the building's founder and chief supporter, Alan Lightman, the MIT physicist and celebrated author. Lightman, a soft-spoken, deep-thinking Southerner who summers on a quiet island near Harpswell, said he now spends about a third of his time running the dorm for rural women he built in Cambodia. While working on another aid project there in 2003, Lightman learned that a lack of secure housing prevents many village women from going to college. All the schools are in the gritty capital, and few offer dormitories. Lightman saw a clear solution. He raised money, bought a piece of land, hired contractors, and built a dorm. Now, he is "Dad" to more than 30 women. Until the dorm opened about a year ago, they faced lives as rice farmers, tour guides, or possibly brides in arranged marriages. Now they want to work for the government, earn PhDs, and study overseas. "As unexpected as it was to find myself on the other side of the planet in the culture I knew nothing about, I felt like I could make a difference," Lightman said. "It wasn't a lost cause. This is something that was not beyond my reach." Lightman's vision for the dorm goes beyond offering a safe haven and a leg up to young scholars. A brass plaque inside House 50 on Street 508 spells it out in both Khmer and English: "Our mission is to empower a new generation of Cambodian women." A similar bilingual plaque outside the building announced the name of the dorm, but it has disappeared twice. Local kids can get $5 for the brass, Lightman said. A Memphis native, Lightman is a theoretical physicist by trade. In the 1980s he taught astronomy at Harvard and moved on to MIT, where he is still part of the science writing program. He has two adult daughters, and he and his wife, painter Jean Lightman, split their time between Concord and Maine.

Change within reach
A phone call from a stranger started Lightman's journey to Cambodia. Frederick Lipp, a Unitarian minister in Portland, Maine, wanted to use Lightman's book "Einstein's Dreams" in a sermon. The two men became friends, and eventually Lightman joined Lipp's effort to help a small, Spartan Cambodian village about 50 hard miles from Phnom Penh. Lightman recalled the day he and his daughter Elyse first went to Tramung Chrum to meet the villagers. He was thinking he might want to join Lipp's effort, but he was unprepared for the emotions that hit him. "The women started coming up to us, holding their babies, and said, 'Please help us build a school,' " he said. "I was just amazed that in this remote village with no electricity, no plumbing, no toilets, they were talking about education. . . . I was overwhelmed by their courage and their ability to think in the long term."So Lightman - a serious and unflashy person - did something he finds extremely difficult. He asked family and friends for money. He talked about Cambodia's painful recent history, which remains defined by memories of the 1970s, when the United States bombed provinces at the Vietnam border and the Maoist Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and sent everyone to virtual prison farms. Almost four years later, the Vietnamese invaded, but not before about 1.7 million people were summarily executed or died of disease or starvation. In 1994, the Vietnamese left, and the United Nations sponsored elections, but the country still suffers from years of isolation, decay, poverty, and corruption. What this meant for Tramung Chrum is that no one ever remembers having a "concrete" school, Lightman told potential donors. Instead, they hold classes in a makeshift palm-leaf shelter. The 50 or so contributors who stepped up became the core supporters of the Harpswell Foundation. In the process, Lightman met Chea Veasna, a Cambodian lawyer working on the Tramung Chrum school project. She told him that she lived in an unfinished space underneath the law school building while studying there. There were no college dorms in the city then, and there are few now. Male students can bunk in the city's many temples, but Buddhist rules bar women, she explained. "Veasna convinced me that this was a critical problem, and she and I together hatched the idea of building the dormitory," Lightman said. The dollar goes a long way in Cambodia; they were able to do it for $150,000.Lightman travels to Cambodia several times a year. Even when the family retreats to the quiet of their purposely unwired house in Maine, Elyse Lightman said, her father often slips into town to check dorm-related e-mail. "It's like anything else in his life; he puts a lot of his own care and time into," she said. "He is very passionate about it."Lipp called the dorm project " 'Einstein's Dreams' live.""In Alan's book, you're captured by something that you have never thought before," Lipp said. "You dream yourself into a new reality where the world has changed. . . . That's what happened here."

The smartest and bravest
For So Dany, a smiley 20-year-old from a village in western Cambodia, "new reality" might be an understatement. So's parents are farmers, and both are Khmer Rouge survivors. She wanted to go to college, she said, but her parents were afraid to send her to the city.One day, dorm manager Peou Vanna appeared at her school, asking for the smartest, "bravest" girls in her class, she said. After a series of interviews and tests, So was chosen. "If I did not have the opportunity to get a college education, I would end up being a market seller in my village," she said in Khmer. Instead, she and the inaugural group of about 30 women - also plucked out of their villages - moved into the pinkish, cement building about 15 minutes from the city center. By habit, they head out to school on their bicycles wearing the traditional white shirt and pleated skirt uniforms. But unlike the generation before them, they tend toward jeans instead of sarongs.In the dry season, Street 508 is dusty; during the rains, it is flooded. The air smells of cooking fires, roasted fish, or whatever street-food vendors have to offer. The dorm is set back a bit but stands out among the vegetable shops and run-down villas for its newness and for the large, medallion-like facade vents on each floor sculpted into the shape of Cambodian dancers. Inside, some of the residents listen intently as an American volunteer teaches computer skills, in English. In addition to room and board, life in the dorm includes English classes, access to Internet-equipped computers, and weekly discussion of the news in The Cambodia Daily. They also have 24-hour security.Back home in leafy Concord, Lightman tries to manage problems like sleeping guards via e-mail. He has other things to worry about - like reviews of his new book, "Ghost." But the dorm is now a part of each day. When he talks of what drew him so deeply into the project, he always goes back to that first day at Tramung Chrum. The well-traveled Lightman said he is sure he wasn't reacting to the shock of seeing desperate poverty firsthand."I was reacting to something that rose above the poverty," he said. "I guess hope is what really got under my skin. I found there was hope there."
* * * * *
My pal Andy Booth and Sage Insights have a new website for their Sage Foundation at Please pay a visit. The Sage Foundation helps Cambodian children gain a valuable education, providing them with opportunities and choices in life many of us might take for granted. They build and renovate schools, provide support in the form of native English speaking teachers, volunteer classroom assistants, vocational local teachers (farming, crafts and hairdressing) and the funding of additional materials not supplied by the Ministry of Education budget. The Sage Foundation requires volunteers to assist with teaching English, painting, decorating, gardening and other general maintenance of the school grounds. Contact Andy at the website for more details.

Cry No More Christmas Show

It's just been announced, this year's Christmas Show and Farewell Appearance for Roy Hill and Chas Cronk, aka Cry No More, will be at the Turks Head pub in Twickenham on Friday 28 December (8.30-12). As usual, it is guaranteed to be a fantastic night, so make sure you attend this 'event of the year.' The guys are also working on a DVD - The Cry No More Story -which should be out early next year.
For those of you who need a Cry No More fix before the big event... their video for their Tears on the Ballroom Floor single has found it's way onto youtube - here - and there's a myspace site which plays four tracks from their Love and Power album. For my own tribute to Roy Hill and Cry No More, click here.

India to help with Preah Vihear

The Preah Vihear temple area in the northern reaches of Cambodia has been in the local news recently with village protestors being fired at by local police, in which two villagers lost their lives, all over a potential land-grabbing problem, which is becoming so prevalent in Cambodia at the moment. I don't begin to know all the nuances behind the problems but the loss of lives is a really serious matter and stories are appearing in the local papers daily about villagers being chased off land by developers, without anything being done by the authorities to protect the rights of the villagers.

Talk of Preah Vihear brings me to this story that appeared in the Indian newsires today.
11th century Cambodian temple to be renovated by India - by Devirupa Mitra, Indo-Asian News Service
An 11th century temple in Cambodia, located near its border with Thailand and the subject of lingering tension between the two Southeast Asian countries, will now be renovated by India. The Preah Vihear temple has been in the limelight this year over Cambodia's bid to get a Unesco world heritage status for it, but was objected to by Thailand. A senior official in the external affairs ministry said Cambodia had approached India to take up the conservation of the Preah Vihear temple about six months ago. 'The request had been routed through our ambassador,' the official, who could not be identified as per service rules, told IANS. The government has already asked the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to start work on a conservation plan for the temple. It is expected that an announcement would be made to coincide with the visit of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to India next month. India has been conducting temple diplomacy across Southeast Asia, harnessing the ASI to renovate important medieval temples in the region built by dynasties that had links with India. An ASI team has been conserving the Ta Phrom temple in Cambodia's world-famous Angkor Wat complex since 2004, with the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai conducting the structural study. Similarly, ASI had also been asked to draw up a conservation plan for the ruins of Wat Phou temple in Southern Laos. In Indonesia, Indian archaeologists are helping to renovate the Hindu temples at Prambanan, Yogyakarta, that were damaged by the 2006 Java earthquake. Indian diplomats said the strategy is to stress the common cultural links between India and Southeast Asia as medieval trade links with south Indian kingdoms led to the spread of Indian religion, language and culture in the region. The Preah Vihear temple built during the Khmer empire is perched on a cliff in Dangrek Mountains, just across the Thai border. In fact, the easiest access to the temple is from the Thai side, while the Cambodian way is a ride through a mountain dirt road. With its grand causeway climbing up the hill, the temple is supposed to be a stylised representation of Mount Meru, the habitat of gods according to Hindu mythology. Among the sculptures carved on the walls is a depiction of the Hindu mythological story of 'churning of the ocean'. In 1962, the International Court of Justice had ruled that the temple was firmly in Cambodia. But with the country plunging into civil war soon after, the temple witnessed pitched battles between the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian army, with the former using it as a military camp.

Friends from Thailand

LtoR: Dolly, the author & Aon
LtoR: Sophoin, Dolly & Aon
In recent posts I mentioned a couple of friends, Dolly and Aon, who came to Cambodia for the weekend and who left for their Bangkok home yesterday afternoon. Above are two photos, one taken with some old guy who was wandering past (!) and the other in the grounds of the National Museum - I think you'll agree, four very attractive ladies, though the one at the back doesn't say much!
I was dismayed this morning to hear that the Cambodian Premier League football competition has just ended. Yesterday. I was planning to watch a couple of games in the next few weeks as I am seriously missing my fix of live football - it's simply not the same on the tv - but I'm too late. NagaCorp were the league winners of the eight-strong semi-professional league, with a 5-1 win over second-place Khemara. The season ended on a bum note when the game between RCAF (the Army team) and Build Bright University was abandoned after six red cards were issued by the referee. Wish I had been at that game!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Swain on To the End of Hell

Jon Swain writes in today's Sunday Times in the UK about the Denise Affonço book, To the End of Hell, having already penned a foreward to the book, alongside another name synonymous with Cambodia, David Chandler. I've just started reading the book myself and will give my own verdict in the near future. Go here to read Swain's account of the book. And whatever you do, get a copy of his own River of Time that looks back at his own time spent in Southeast Asia including his time in the French Embassy as one of the last foreigners out of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge takeover.

A busy day for yours truly today, shopping in the morning for mundane items like wicker bookshelves, wicker seats, tablecloths, material for cushions, pillows, kitchen utensils, etc, etc. The Russian Market was predictably hot under its tin roof and was as usual, awash with foreigners buying their cheap cd's and dvd's. My negotiator for the best prices was Sokheng who has been a revelation in helping me get the best deal for all manner of things, including my apartment. She's the auntie of my god-daughter Vansy and has been unstinting in her efforts to make my settling-in period, as easy as possible. Another great help since my arrival has been Sophoin, who I met in the early afternoon and accompanied me as we collected Dolly and Aon from their Siem Reap bus, for a whistle-stop visit to the National Museum and the Russian Market, a bite to eat at one of the foodstalls there and then out to Pochentong to catch their return flight to Bangkok. They had a great time in Siem Reap and bemoaned the fact that their 3-day trip was way too short. Sophoin is still smarting from the leg injury she sustained in a moto-accident last week and was a real trooper as she helped to show Dolly and Aon around. Afterwards, we watched the Killing Fields movie on dvd and had dinner at the Red Orchid restaurant, before I popped into the internet cafe to type this. Sophoin was never taught about the Khmer Rouge period at school, so watching dvd's like S-21 and the Killing Fields is helping her to better understand that period in her country's history. Her parents have also told her their stories, and she now understands them better in a wider context, though rightly feels aggrieved that information about the Khmer Rouge was completely absent from her schooling.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

More party photos

Daroeurn, Delice, Bong Lin and me
The Hanuman office team-photo
Two more photos from last night's wedding party, these are courtesy of Sophea. I wasn't in the team-photo, as I was taking pictures. For the record, the lineup is: Back Row (LtoR): Daroeurn, Nearyroath, Delice, Ponlork, Sophear, Nary. Front Row (LtoR): Seangdy, Pheap, Polonge, Leak, Pisey.

End of a busy day

Daroeurn (left) and Delice in typical wedding party style
I concluded a busy day yesterday with a wedding party at the popular group of Phkar Chhouk Tip restaurants near the Olympic Stadium, the area was awash with wedding parties and ours was as loud and frantic as all of them. It was the wedding of Buntha and Dina, I knew neither of them, but the bride’s father, Pheap is one of Hanuman’s drivers and he graciously invited all of the office staff to the big occasion, and we didn’t disappoint, with the majority turning up. Of course, the guys just don a clean shirt and trousers but for the ladies it’s a chance to get their hair coiffeured and their make-up done at the beauty salon and to wear their latest figure-hugging and colourful creations. The photo above is of two of our senior sales staff, Daroeurn (left) and Delice. I took other photos but I’m really not happy with my Sanyo digital camera, it has an aversion to taking pictures at night - or maybe it’s just the guy operating the camera!
We arrived at the party a little late as the traffic jams around the Olympic Stadium were horrendous. I imagine it’s going to be considerably worse in a week’s time when the water festival circus comes to town and the city swells to double its normal size. Everyone has told me to leave town but it’s my first water festival, so I’m going nowhere, except the riverside area to experience what all the fuss is about.
A brand new hardbook edition of Denise Affonco’s memoir, To The End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, arrived in the post yesterday, exactly on the day of its official publication by Reportage Press. They are a new London-based publishing house specializing in books on foreign affairs or set in foreign countries and they’ve sent me a copy of Denise’s book for review. Her testimony of life under the murderous Khmer Rouge sold 50,000 copies when published in 2005 in France as La Digue des Veuves and is now published for the first time in English. From the first few pages, I think it’s one of those books that when you begin reading it, it’s hard to put down.
As I was leaving the office for the day I took this photo of my desk which received some interesting comments when I posted a photo of it a few weeks ago, so here’s another, with some of the more interesting paper-weights on display. Next week a photo of my chair!! Only kidding..

Friday, November 16, 2007

Doug and the Palace

Doug (left), a jacket and Mr Sarat from the Royal Palace
There I was this afternoon, waiting for a call from Doug Mendel to tell me what time I should arrive at the Royal Palace and what I should wear. The call came, but the venue for the ceremony - Doug handing over two boxes of fire-crew gear to someone from the Royal Palace - had been changed from the Palace itself, to the New York Hotel on Monivong Boulevard. Not really the same impact. However, Doug doesn't do this for the glamour, he does it because he cares and wants to help the Cambodian fire service as much as he humanly can. So we had the ceremony, Doug posed for the obligatory photo with Mr Sarat from the Palace, handed over the gear and that was that. I did manage to earwig that the Palace has two Korean-built fire trucks and ten fire fighters. They were picked from the royal household - transport division, and are currently undergoing training. The arrival of Doug's top quality gear from the States is timely indeed. Doug has one more ceremony at the Phnom Penh fire station tomorrow and then he's on his way back to the States on Sunday, armed with four boxes of Khmer crafts which he will sell to raise more money, and so the circle continues. Way to go Doug! Find out more here.

Knight in shining armour!

Aon (left) and Dolly - on the way into the city for the 1st time
My good deed for today was to collect my Thailand e-pal Dolly and Aon from the airport and escort them to the bus station next to the Central Market for their onward journey to Siem Reap. It was their first-ever visit to Cambodia and they wanted to meet a friendly face on arrival - so I volunteered. Someone had to do it. Dolly, an accountant, and Aon both live in Bangkok and have travelled quite widely, with Aon recently returning from a trip to London, Manchester and Leeds! They tucked into breakfast at a street stall near the market and I left them, bursting with enthusiam for their new adventure, with their bus seats booked - $4 apiece with Phnom Penh Sorya bus company - and a room confirmed at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse in Siem Reap. They will be back in Phnom Penh on Sunday for an hour or so before they get back on their plane and head home, having experienced Cambodia in the blink of an eye! I'm sure they'll have a great time.

The next big thing

A few people in the know will tell you that the Cardamom’s are the next ‘big thing’ in Cambodia for eco-tourism, adventure and unspoilt wilderness. From 30 November thru 20 December, an exhibition of images and narrative by Wayne McCallum entitled Faces of the Cardamoms: A Journey across an Asian Wilderness, will take place at the Two Fish gallery café on Street 278 in Phnom Penh.

To give you a flavour of Wayne McCallum’s adventures in the Cardamom’s in 2005, here’s his report that appeared in the Cambodian Scene Magazine in their Mar-Apr 2006 edition.

A Cardamom trail - by Wayne McCallum
The Cardamom Mountains, in southwest Cambodia, comprise one of the last great wilderness areas of Southeast Asia. Their mixture of forests, rivers, tropical animals and indigenous peoples mark them as an area of exceptional biological and cultural value. Yet the Cardamoms remain largely a mystery to the outside world, with few non-locals venturing into its evergreen valleys or along its cooler pine-clad uplands. In December 2005 a party of Khmer and ex-pat locals (author included) sort to redress this situation by undertaking a survey of a potential eco-tourism trail across the Cardamom Mountains. Dubbed the ‘Hornbill Trail’, this route took us across from the eastern side of the Cardamoms (Kompong Speu province), over and across the range to the southern portion of Koh Kong province; our journey ending at National Route 48 and a main ferry crossing. We started our trek across the Hornbill Trail at a small rural village tucked beneath the sandstone escarpment of the eastern Cardamoms. Our party of five ascended slowly through the hardwood forest, accompanied by two guides; one of whom carried a live chicken for the evening meal. Here, in this portion of forest, old logging tracks were slowly being reclaimed by the forest, while the whining of chainsaws has again given way to the whirling of woodpeckers through the upper canopy. At one point, as we climbed, our party disturbed a large flock of hornbills feeding on the ripe fruit of a tall fig tree. The lonely hoot of gibbons echoed around us and an occasional troop of long tail macaques crashed through the undergrowth. Our climb ended after six hours, on the top of a pine-clad phnom; a cool breeze revived our exhausted bodies. In this colder environment, spaced forest and grass dominate the vegetation, with small deer feeding in the open areas. From where we now stood we were miles from any other humans, 1000m up, with a spectacular view of Kompong Speu before us; the panorama swept all thoughts of tiredness away.

On our first night we camped on the edge of the forest, using over-sheets and hammocks. As the sun disappeared, the loud growl of a barking deer rang out across the grasslands in front of our camp site, sounding more like a mountain gorilla than a small browsing animal. As the last light disappeared, night-jars appeared out of the trees, flying like bats, capturing insects on their wings. The night passed without any disturbance, save for a shower that forced some of our team to stumble in the dark to find covers for their hammocks. By mid-afternoon on the second day, our party was at the location of one of several ‘jar sites’ scattered around the Cardamoms. The jars are a unique feature of the Mountains, being about 60cm high and containing the bones of various long-deceased Khmers. The origins of the bones themselves are unclear, but local legend suggests they are the remains of Cambodian royals. From the cultural to the natural, we then descended down a steep cliff face to the site of a large cave in the side of an escarpment. From the top, a small trickle of cooling water cascaded down over the front of the cave entrance. Inside, our tracks quickly mixed with those of past animal visitors, including snakes, civets and pangolins. A pile of desiccated dung near the front of the cave revealed that larger visitors, in the form of elephants, had previously sought sheltered here as well.

Two days into our trek across the Cardamoms, our party remained largely unscathed by insects or injury. The occasional mosquito or tick searched for a free meal, but their low numbers barely demanded attention. At one point, one of our guides walked into the web of a large elephant spider. I watched the guide skillfully unwind himself, while the spider hardly seemed to notice the intrusion, staying mid-web throughout the incursion. Evening found us camping on the edge of the forest. In what had now become a ritual, we each set-up our hammocks and rain covers, washed and prepared our dinner before turning in early, very tired. On the third day, on our way down through the valley in the morning, we passed evidence of extensive logging that has scarred the region, removing many tall trees. Now, in what is a legally protected area, new trees are growing, each competing to out-shade the other. We also passed through remnants of the Cardamoms’ dark past, when we wandered through a derelict village forcibly abandoned by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s; open sites in the forest where houses had once stood, and the eerie skeletal remains of an old wat surrounded by re-growth forest, were all that remained. Descending down through the moist evergreen forest into a low-lying valley, we reached the banks of a beautiful forest-edged river. Its cool and deep water demanded a swim and a wash from each of us, before we set about cooking a meal and taking a rest.

The walking part of our trip was now over, as were our nights in the forest. We spent the third evening of our trek in a small rural village, sleeping on the deck of the commune chief’s house. During our stay, various locals dropped by to say hello and to see the ‘strange barangs’ who had walked across the mountain. Some recounted, through our translator, how they had once traveled over the Cardamoms, using elephants to take goods to markets in Kompong Speu. One village elder described how there had once been 50 domestic elephants working in the valley; animals which had disappeared during the Khmer Rouge era and the ensuing post-conflict struggle. In this community, as in other parts of rural Cambodia, it was easy to see that the family and rice bowl remained the center of life, with the village elders who visited us being regarded with special respect. Younger generations of village children also ventured past our overnight home, a lack of confidence preventing all but the most daring from coming closer. As it darkened, we started to drift-off to sleep, the echoes of the village and quiet Khmer voices following us into sleep.

We woke early, on the final day of the trek, village roosters and the Khmer morning routine making any thought of a lie-in impossible. After breakfast, we said farewell and thanks to our guides, who left us to return back across the mountain to their village. None of the remaining team envied the walk before them. We then negotiated and departed on a short moto-trip to a village down the river, followed by a longer two-hour ride to the penultimate stop on our trip and a final jungle town, this time on the banks of one of the region’s largest rivers. Again, as the day before, evidence of the area’s logging history were easy to see, forest re-growth struggling to heal the wounds left by man and machine. But despite this disturbance, we noted fresh elephant signs on the road, while two rare giant hornbills flew across our path as we headed southwards. The moto-trip over, we ate a quick meal before negotiating passage downstream to National Route 48 and the end point of our trip. As our boat pulled away from the dock the remaining three of our party felt privileged for the experience of the trek and for the secrets the trail had revealed to us. Our journey proved what we already knew though: that the Cardamoms have much to offer to the traveler seeking something different in Cambodia, where effort and perseverance can repay with dividends. Link: Cambodian Scene.

Paying my respects

The plaque honouring Christopher Howes, across the street from Raffles' Hotel Le Royal
With yesterday’s startling news that three of the alleged killers of Christopher Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth have been charged and detained awaiting trial, some eleven years after their murders took place, I paid a visit this morning to Street 96, re-named Christopher Howes Street in memory of the British de-miner. I never met Christopher, who was killed in March 1996 after his abduction by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, but I was affected by his disappearance both because he was a fellow Brit in Cambodia – I first visited Cambodia at the end of 1994 and was deeply in love with the country - and also because he came from Bristol, just twenty minutes drive from my own home. I was so stunned by yesterday’s news that I felt compelled to pay my respects at the place in Phnom Penh which bears his name. Located in front of the National Institute of Management, a few blocks from the US Embassy compound, a plaque recalls Christopher’s name.

I felt the frustration of his father Roy, when I talked to him on the telephone last year, that although the names of his son’s murderers were known to the Cambodian authorities, no action had been taken, though prophetically, deputy prime minister Sar Kheng had said any prosecution must wait until the time was right. Obviously that time has now arrived and warrants for the arrest of the three suspects were issued earlier this week. The appetite for taking senior Khmer Rouge leaders into custody has been never been so great, now that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is gathering steam and after Ieng Sary’s recent arrest, despite a royal pardon in the past, the impunity that was granted to former Khmer Rouge cadre like Khem Nguon, one of the three now standing accused of Christopher’s murder, is no longer worth the paper its written on.

Besides the street bearing his name in Phnom Penh, Christopher is also remembered at a small primary school in the village where he and thirty of his de-mining team were first abducted and held captive. The Christopher Howes Memorial Primary School at Kork Srok village in the Varin district of Siem Reap province was named in his honour in 2000. The school was built with funds from the British Embassy after United Nations representatives working in the area felt it would be a fitting tribute to a man who gave his life whilst trying to save others. The school is about sixty kilometres from the provincial capital, Siem Reap. Although it will still be some time before the accused are brought to trial, this is a breakthrough I honestly thought I would never see, so I applaud the Cambodian authorities for taking this action and hope that justice for Christopher and Houn’s families can be found in time.

Street 96 is Christopher Howes Street

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Activism really matters

Loung Ung at the Univ of Wisconsin [photo - Jared Guess]
Genocide survivor encourages activism abroad - by Felicia Clark Advance Titan (Univ. of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, USA)
Educating people about the dangers of land mines and consequences of genocide has become a top priority in Loung Ung’s life. Ung brought tears and laughter to over 300 audience members in Reeve Memorial Union Wednesday night when she told her story of survival during the Cambodian genocide, sponsored by the University Speaker Series. “Here on this campus, it is possible to forget that we actually live in a world populated by 6.3 billion people, where 50 percent suffer from malnutrition… and 120 million people in the last century have survived some kind of war in their country,” Ung said. She penned her memoir, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” and more recently became an activist to educate others about the dangers of land mines that injure up to 18,000 people each year, according to Ung. “I am an activist writer,” Ung said. “But I’m an activist first and foremost.” She said she kept a diary to write about her pain and bitterness because she couldn’t talk to her American friends about what had happened, and she wasn’t able to contact her family in Cambodia until 1993.
In Ung’s book she describes her journey from the start of the genocide in her village Phnom Penh, where her siblings and parents were killed, to being trained as a child soldier and her escape to Thailand and eventually America. One of her most vivid memories took place when her father, Seng Im Ung, was murdered by soldiers in the countryside. “I knew what was going to happen but didn’t want to believe it,” Ung said. “We knew we couldn’t hide forever.” One month after her father was killed, her mother, Ay Choung, pushed Ung and her siblings out of the house, telling them to leave and that she could no longer take care of them. “How could there be beauty when there was only hell on my Earth?” Ung recalled. She said she became filled with hate for the world that had turned a blind eye to the genocide and death of her family. She said she also began to believe that her mother was weak and never really loved her. It wasn’t until she came to America and spoke with other female victims of war and genocide that she finally understood why her mother had pushed her out of her life forever. Suddenly, Ung’s view of her mother completely changed. She did it to save her life. “She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” Ung said. “I regret that I didn’t see that for 18 years.”
There were 20,000 mass graves in Cambodia, a country the size of Oregon, according to Ung. “They weren’t just numbers and statistics, they were people’s brothers and sisters ...” Ung said. As a child soldier she attended classes where “teachers” told her that everyone thought she and the other soldiers were enemies because they were the future of Cambodia. “Hate works in not all that mysterious way,” Ung said. “It works because you take hurt children and people and you train them to kill when there’s nothing else left for them to live for.” Three years, eight months and 21 days later, she found herself in a bomb shelter with friends she made in the labor camps, and at nine years old she felt bombs strike her shelter. “What games were you playing when you were nine?” Ung asked. “What kind of … plastic guns and weapons did your brothers shoot you with?” After 15 years of being away from home, she returned to Cambodia, reuniting with her remaining siblings and attended a memorial service for the victims of the Cambodian genocide. During the ceremony she learned that 20 members of her family had been killed by the Khmer Rouge troops, the communist group responsible for the Cambodian genocide.
Since then, she’s devoted her time to bringing justice and reconciliation to Cambodian genocide victims. “It’s really easy for us sometimes to feel powerless, to feel like we don’t have the power to make a difference to do something about it to change the state of our world,” Ung said. “… I hope to share with you that [that] is wrong, [and] that we do and can make a difference in this world.” Ung said peace activists have taught her the most important lesson in her life: the understanding that peace is not automatic. “We’re all lucky to be here in this room, and yet many millions of people all over the world are not as lucky and not as fortunate as us,” Ung said. She said she believes her testimony proves that activism matters and that people can make a difference. “Twenty-five years ago I was living on the streets, eating out of garbage cans, hating the world wondering why the world hated me,” Ung said. “And yet somebody somewhere… they got off their couch, they got out their comfort zones… None of us got here on our own, and that’s why we need to give others that helping hand.” Link: Advance Titan.

Luxury and craftsmanship...and female warriors!

No, its not Tracy Island for all your closet Thunderbirds fans in the UK (children's tv show from the mid-60s), it’s a brand new luxury resort on a private island off the Cambodian coast, some six kilometers from Sihanoukville. Its called the Mirax Resort, its perched high on the island of Koh Dek Koul and is the height of luxury and privacy in its twelve exotic suites, with one-of-a-kind antiques, custom-made furnishings, Chinese gravures and local hand-woven silks. The ocean views are spectacular as the rich and famous enjoy romantic alfresco dining at Nautilus or the Mirax Club, or relax and get pampered at the Mirax O’Spa. The presidential suites cost $3,000 a night while the standard suites pitch in at a mere $360 per night. Russian backing is behind the Resort and I sailed past the island on my way out to Koh Rung a couple of weeks ago.
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The November edition of fah Thai magazine, the in-flight glossy produced by Bangkok Air, carries an article, Ahead of Time by Jenny Hall, who visits the Siem Reap workshops of Artisans d'Angkor and highlights the success of this organization in resurrecting the craftsmanship of bygone ages. Read the article here.
Artisans d’Angkor offers regular guided tours of both the Siem Reap workshops on Stung Thmey Street and the Angkor Silk Farm. Tours are conducted daily from 8am to 5pm at the Angkor Silk Farm and from 7.30am to 6.30pm for the Siem Reap Workshops at Chantiers-Ecoles. There is a complimentary shuttle bus service to the silk farm if a reservation is confirmed at one of the boutiques, with daily departures from Chantiers-Ecoles at 9.30am and 1.30pm. For more information, visit their website.
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Women warriors may have battled in ancient Cambodia by AFP
Archaeologists have found female skeletons buried with metal swords in Cambodian ruins, indicating there may have been a civilisation with female warriors, the mission head said today. The team dug up 35 human skeletons at five locations in Phum Snay in northwestern Cambodia in research earlier this year, said Japanese researcher Yoshinori Yasuda, who led the team. "Five of them were perfect skeletons and we have confirmed all of them were those of females," Yasuda told AFP. The skeletons were believed to date back to the first to fifth century AD. The five were found buried together with steel or bronze swords, and helmet-shaped objects, said Yasuda, who is from the government-backed International Research Center for Japanese Studies. "It is very rare that swords are found with women. This suggests it was a realm where female warriors were playing an active role," he said. "Women traditionally played the central role in the rice-farming and fishing societies," he said. "It's originally a European concept that women are weak and therefore should be protected. The five skeletons were well preserved because they had been buried in important spots at the tombs," he said. It was the first time that large-scale research was conducted on the Phum Snay relics, which were found in 1999. It is believed there was a civilisation inhabited with several thousand rice-farming people between the first to fifth century.

Christopher Howes - Justice at last?

Major developments at last in the hunt for the men responsible for the kidnapping and killing of British de-miner Christopher Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth in 1996. Three men were charged on Tuesday in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with the illegal detention and premeditated killing of Christopher and his translator, and for Christopher's parents, Roy and Betty - who sadly died earlier this year after a short illness - its the first real development in their quest for the truth behind what really happened and for justice. Roy Howes, told the Western Daily Press that he was pleased by the arrests, not only for himself and the interpreter's family, but also for the people of Cambodia. "At last they are collecting some of these people [the Khmer Rouge]. They have been on the loose for eleven years now. Emotionally, it's never gone away for me, and for my wife before she died. As far as I'm concerned, I hope that the full force of the law comes down on the people responsible for Christopher's murder. If that means they are imprisoned for the rest of their lives, then so be it - irrespective of their ages and frailty." Abducted in the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng in March 1996 whilst working for the Mines Advisory Group, Christopher and his colleague were shot dead some days later on the command of the ruthless one-legged Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok.
The names of the killers have been known to the Cambodian authorities for many years and now, as the high-profile arrests of top Khmer Rouge leaders for the impending Khmer Rouge Tribunal gathers pace, three suspects have finally been taken into custody and are being detained at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh. Pre-trial detention can last up to six months and the maximum punishment for premeditated murder is 20 years in prison and for illegal confinement, 10 years. The three men are RCAF Brigadier-General Khem Nguon, 58 and Loch Mao, 56, a local government official in Anlong Veng district - who've been charged with illegal detention and premeditated killing - and Chep Cheat, 33, a villager from Anlong Veng, who is charged with premeditated killing. It's the first serious development in the case for years and though the wheels of justice here are slow moving, there's at last a chink of light at the end of this dark tunnel for the families of the deceased men.
In July 2006, I posted a blog article called Remembering Christopher Howes:
It's ten years since British de-miner Christopher Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth were captured and executed by Khmer Rouge forces under the command of Ta Mok, the ruthless one-legged guerrilla commander who died yesterday. Christopher was a landmine specialist working for the Mines Advisory Group a few miles north of Siem Reap in the village of Preah Ko when he and his twenty-strong de-mining unit were abducted at gunpoint by Khmer Rouge cadre in March 1996. Told to return to his base for ransom money, Christopher selflessly refused so he could remain with his team and negotiate their safety. Instead the guerrillas released his team but kept the Bristol-born former Royal Engineer hostage for a few more days before he was executed. However, his fate remained a mystery for more than two years until evidence emerged in May 1998 that he was taken to Anlong Veng and shot twice on the orders of Ta Mok by men under his command.
Throughout those two years, numerous stories emerged to suggest Christopher was still alive. These included declarations from First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh that he'd escaped and was on his way to freedom, and others that photos proved he was alive and well or that the soldier-turned-deminer was being forced to teach the guerrillas how to make their own mines. He was reported to be suffering from malaria and chronic diarrhea and in November 1996 his employers, MAG, reportedly paid $120,000 to a man who claimed he could gain his release but then vanished with most of the money. Each story turned out to be a cruel fabrication until May 1998, when Scotland Yard detectives recovered ashes from the site where Christopher's body had been cremated. His was not the only death around that time - between the period 1994 to 1998 the Khmer Rouge abducted and killed at least ten foreign tourists.
Christopher had served with the Royal Engineers for seven years prior to his three year association with MAG, initially in northern Iraq and then in Cambodia for just five months before his abduction. An acknowledgement of his humanitarian work and bravery in negotiating the release of his men was honoured with the naming of a Phnom Penh street after him and the posthumous award of the Queen's Gallantry Medal in 2001. A memorial service was held in his home village of Backwell near Bristol in July 1998, once his parents had received confirmation of Christopher's death from Scotland Yard and Foreign Office officials. At the service, Rae McGrath, founder of MAG, said: "Having known Chris as a friend and as a colleague I cannot find it within me to mourn. I will celebrate a heroic friend, a deminer who put into practice his engineering skills to make this world a better place and who, at the cost of his life, showed his love to and loyalty for his fellow men."
For a detailed look at the background behind Christopher Howes' kidnap and killing, click here.

Doug’s in town

The author (left) and Doug at The Rising Sun last night
Not a new restaurant last night, but a new pal, fireman’s friend Doug Mendel. I’ve blogged Doug’s efforts a few times in the past as his sterling work on behalf of the fire-crews throughout Cambodia deserves praise and support. A former fireman himself, Doug, through a combination of tenacity and sheer hard foot-slogging, has provided no less than two fully-functional fire-trucks to two fire stations, in Sihanoukville and last week, to Ratanakiri. He’s also supplied boxes and boxes of equipment to those and other fire stations around the country. The man simply never stops. He raises funds by returning from his Cambodia trips laden with purses, scarves and other items which he then sells in the United States to raise more funds for even more fire equipment and disadvantaged children. He’s now thinking of raising the money to give Phnom Penh a new fire station. Tomorrow there’s a ceremony at the Royal Palace where Doug will hand over some much-needed equipment to the Palace’s fire-crew, and another one on Saturday, at the capital’s current fire station. He deserves all the plaudits he gets, this is a man who devotes his spare time and energy to making a difference. If the world was full of Doug Mendel’s, the world would be a far better place.
I had a drink and some good old English grub with Doug at one of my favourite watering-holes, The Rising Sun on Street 178, served as usual by the effervescent Samnang. Cambodia’s fire-crews are poorly trained, inadequately equipped and paid a pittance, so I can’t speak highly enough of Doug’s tremendous work to give those fire-crews some of the essential tools of their trade. If you want to find out more about his relief fund, go to his website.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Reflections on the past

For expert opinion, news updates and future webcasts from the courts next year, keep a close eye on the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor. It currently hosts two documentary films produced by DC-Cam. Each film chronicles the plight of individuals who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime. The films are The Khmer Rouge Rice Fields: The Story of Rape Survivor Tang Kim (produced in 2004 by Youk Chhang and Rachana Phat) and Behind the Walls of S-21 : Oral Histories from Tuol Sleng Prison (produced in 2007 by Youk Chhang and Doug Kass). See both films here.
A new book - Reflections of a Khmer Soul - is a lyrical journey of self-acceptance as the author, Navy Phim (right), questions and comes to terms with the Killing Fields and other genocides. This journey involves traveling inside oneself and to a distant past to discuss what it means to be Khmer, a hyphenated American, and different misconceptions about Cambodians and Cambodia, a place that still haunts and inspires her. I've blogged Navy's book before but you can also keep up to date with her news at her blog, here. I'm looking forward to getting hold of a copy of her book myself.
A recent article in the New Jersey Times by N J DeVico focuses on the story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, who has also been featured on my blog in the past. To read more, click here. Pond survived and went onto co-found Children of War, an organization that elicited dialogue among young people of warring countriesand then founded, Cambodian Living Arts, about 10 years ago. Link: cambodianliving arts.
The Walrus, Canada's Magazine of the year, has reproduced an article from October last year titled Bombs Over Cambodia, in which Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan present new information revealing that Cambodia was bombed far more heavily than previously believed, by the United States between 1964 and 1975. Read the article, here.

The Global Child

One of the more worthwhile charity organizations operating in Cambodia is The Global Child (TGC), a non-profit, non-political, non-partisan group founded to build and operate specialty schools and safe-houses for gifted street-children. At TGC Schools, selected disadvantaged children - hungry for food, education and health care - are nurtured and empowered for a proactive role in the future betterment of their own lives and for the communities in which they live. In 2003 Alan Scott-Moncrieff, with a lifelong empathy for the plight of children, travelled to Cambodia and decided he had to do something. So TGC carefully selected 26 remarkable, charismatic street-kids (who were either homeless, or who had been sent out to beg or work by parents or guardians) and proceeded to tailor-design a curriculum that would evolve with them as they grew and progressed. In what was a landmark initiative at the time, each attending child was (and still is) compensated a dollar a day thus allaying their necessity to work or beg. They receive a high level of education, three square meals, health & dental care, safe-housing, and the initiative and tools to ‘give back’ to their people. Effectively, TGC are training Cambodia’s first dedicated local humanitarians.
TGC’s school in Phnom Penh is located in a three-storey building on the city’s riverfront street, Sisowath Quay. It has been divided into an eatery, Café 151, and a small shop selling TGC merchandise on the ground floor, two classrooms and a rooftop garden retreat. They have also opened up a coffee shop in Siem Reap called Joe-To-Go, where all profits are channelled back into providing the right style of education for TGC’s street-kids. And in 2008 they are planning to open a school on a new plot of land just five kilometres from the Angkor temples in Siem Reap. On the downside, everytime I access their website, my pc holds up for ages!

Where next?

Eating out has become an everyday occurrence since moving to live in Phnom Penh. I merely pass through my kitchen area each day rather than ever contemplate slaving over a hot stove, so restaurants are my third home right now, my second being the office!
Last night saw me sample the delights of Romdeng on Street 278, just around the corner from my apartment, in the engaging company of Rachel and Craig, who were in Phnom Penh on holiday. Rachel, in particular, has a severe case of Cambodiaitus and will be out here again in January working for five weeks with Cambodia Trust. In her spare time she has her own website and blog on her specialized topic, Cambodia. The word is certainly out about the tasty dishes served up at Romdeng – a non profit training restaurant for former street youths who learn cooking and waiting on table and is part of the Friends’ empire – as the place was heaving and clients were turned away while we were there. Promoted as ‘a taste of the provinces’ my chicken dish was spicy and full of flavour.
Earlier in the day, I had lunch at another new location, Khmer Borane, on the riverfront under the shadow of FCC’s tapas bar-café called Pacharan, and which serves tasty Khmer food. I chose my usual chicken curry. It’s easy to tell it’s the high season, as every table in the restaurant was taken. For the previous two lunchtimes, I’ve sampled the fare at two different restaurants, situated along the ten minute walk from my home to the office, with Khmer Kitchen and Khmer Surin providing my authentic Khmer food experience, as their names suggest. Both are incredibly popular with expats and tourists and lie in the heart of the NGO quarter of the city. There is a wide selection of restaurants to choose from in Phnom Penh, I am not intending to sample all of them, but I’ll have a jolly good stab at it! Oh, and don't expect any gourmet food reviews either, I'll leave that to the experts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Seeing By Hand

The number of Seeing Hands massage shops has grown tremendously in the last couple of years. I seem to see them everywhere. I must admit when I've visited them in the past, I've come out thinking, "never again" but have always gone back for more punishment! If you're not aware of what Seeing Hands is all about, I recommend you read this article by Karen Coates, who penned it for the Nov/Dec 2003 edition of Massage Magazine.

Seeing By Hand - by Karen Coates

Ten years ago, a thief yanked Boun Mao's motorbike from his grasp, threw battery acid in his face and blinded him for life. "I was hopeless, so hopeless," he says now. For months, a German doctor soothed the injuries that scarred his head, his hands, his inner spirit. He didn't want to face life as a blind Cambodian. "I told the German doctor, 'Please kill me.'" But today, Boun Mao is a different man, as head of the Association of the Blind (ABC) in Cambodia. He knows a decent job can restore hope to the hopeless, so ABC is turning blind Cambodians into massage therapists. "The blind can see by hand," he says. And they can work by heart.
Just a few miles outside the world-renowned Angkor temples, down a quiet alley in Siem Reap town, is Seeing Hands 4. It is, as the name connotes, Cambodia's fourth such venture. Sunlight dribbles through windows and doors - the room's only light; the workers need no more. Foam mats, white sheets and towels, and cotton pillows are set on hardwood tables. The floor is spotless; the air imbued with the sound of soft flute music. A standing fan breaks the stifling heat. Masseuse Wan Som starts with a client's head, face down, with cloth between hair and hands. Her fingers travel down the body, slowly pressing on meridian points; then she slaps her hands, up and around. She leans into her work, climbing upon the table, lifting legs, stretching muscles. Wan Som was blinded by fever at the age of one. She says her new skills will keep her employed. "If I didn't know how to do massage, I would ... just stay at home." But now, home is here at Seeing Hands, where work and family merge. A massage teacher affiliated with ABC travels the countryside, looking for prospective employees. After successful training, the recruits work in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or the coastal town of Sihanoukville. Each Seeing Hands venue has a sighted receptionist to handle scheduling and accounting, and customers pay $3 an hour for Japanese-style Anma and shiatsu massage. Employees can earn "more than sighted people," Boun Mao says - up to $200 a month. "They run those businesses themselves," he says with pride.
Sam San, the 24-year-old Seeing Hands 4 proprietor, was blinded in childhood. "It just happened," he says. "When I became blind, I did not want to be a beggar ? It's very hard to look for a job. Before, I lived in the countryside. I did nothing - just played music. But that wasn't a job." Now he runs a business. On good days, he averages 35 customers. In good months, he earns $300 for rent and $50 to $100 to pay employees - but not always. "This month," he says, "[there's] only enough for rent." Still, a fluctuating income is better than none. There are an estimated 132,000 blind or visually impaired Cambodians, and the causes vary: landmines, vitamin deficiencies, traffic accidents, disease. According to an ABC report, the blind are "socially and economically marginalized," because people think their disabilities preclude an active life. "The blind is lowest in society," Boun Mao says. Begging is a common fate - but not for his protégés. After his own recovery, Boun Mao studied massage through Maryknoll, a Catholic organization whose work preceded ABC's. "This is a good opportunity for the blind," he says. Travelers, foreign aid workers and diplomats are frequent customers, and the more Cambodians see the blind successful at work, the more they "release the discrimination from their mind," Boun Mao says.
Some patrons choose Seeing Hands specifically because of its mission. "I was happy I could help," says Sarah Knight, a tourist from San Francisco. She gives the foot massage top ratings, and the intensity improved her lower back. "It was wonderful. I wasn't expecting quite as much of the deep bone work, but actually that was really great after walking around the temples."
A spin through the Seeing Hands 4 schedule book finds similar sentiments. There isn't a bad comment in the book; just repetitions of "best ever" and "brilliant," written in script the masseurs and masseuses will never read. Knight exits into bright sunlight, leaving a tip for Sam San. He can't see the amount she has left, but one thing is certain: He knows the feel of crisp money between his fingers, earned in an office he calls his own.

Sacrava's view

Here's Bun Heang Ung's (aka Sacrava) view, titled 'Two Courts,' on the recent arrest of former Khmer Rouge leaders Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith from his website Sacrava Toons. The majority of his output is a bit too politicized for reproducing here but I have been a big fan of his work for a long time, and his artwork for some of his children's stories is absolutely superb. You can see one of his book covers below. For more, click here. And for more on Bun himself, click here.

Friends come to town

Last night I had dinner with some friends from Siem Reap at the Kandal House restaurant on the riverfront and afterwards took a stroll to visit the brand new night market that has opened up in a designated area opposite Wat Ounalom, for the next few months. Siem Reap already has a well-established night market and city officials have decided its time Phnom Penh has one too. As we perused the stalls, the paintings that you see almost everywhere by the prolific artist Sophannarith were prominent, and I was intrigued when Socheata, who is a souvenir seller at Banteay Kdei and Angkor Wat temples, pointed out that the exact same wooden carving on sale for $13 at a stall on the riverside, sells for just $6 on her own stall. That is a considerable mark-up in anyone’s book. So buyers beware.
Socheata, her brother Plon and their father were in town for just one night as Socheata and Plon are planning a holiday in Japan and needed to visit the Japanese Embassy to obtain their visas. Socheata actually lived in Osaka in northern Japan for the past six years until her husband passed away and she returned to live with her family in the village of Rohal, near Srah Srang, in the Angkor Park. All three of them felt ill at ease with the crowds and traffic they encountered along the riverfront, preferring the less frenetic pace of life in Siem Reap.

On Sunday afternoon, I paid a visit to my injured friend Sophoin - who was knocked off her moto by a drunken boy-racer who turned out to be a famous Khmer kick-boxing champion - and who had been confined to her bed for the last five days. She had just taken her first tentative steps but the deep gash on her right shin was clearly causing her a great deal of pain and the paltry sum of $70, handed to her by her assailant before he disappeared, has gone only part of the way to paying her medical bills, let alone the repairs to her own moto. The country’s PM, Hun Sen has publicly stated his determination to crack down on those lunatic drivers who have little regard for other road users, and the sooner it happens, the better for all who use the city’s streets.

Notes: The night market in Phnom Penh is currently open six nights a week (6pm-12 midnight) until after the water festival later this month. Then it will be open only on Saturday and Sunday. As for the Bon Om Touk festival, the population of Phnom Penh is said to double for the festival period. Over 400 boats have been entered for the boat racing that takes place along the riverfront and in front of the Royal Palace. I see they are already setting up some of the awning ready for the festival which starts on Friday, 23 November. I'm a virgin when it comes to the water festival, so wish me luck.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Camkids charity show

On Thursday 13 December, well-known UK comedian and tv presenter Al Murray, 'The Pub Landlord' (and CamKids Patron) will host a special variety show at his pub of choice in aid of CamKids at the George IV Function Room, 185 Chiswick High Road, London W4. All money raised will be used to benefit orphaned, abandoned and poor children in Cambodia. Tickets cost £25 and doors open at 7.30. Other acts will be added to the line up in the next few weeks but tickets are strictly limited to 250 and you need to be quick to get one. Contact Camkids here at their blog and to find out more about their valuable work. The Cambodian Children’s Charity (‘CamKids’) is a development and relief organisation, dedicated to providing direct aid to poor children in Cambodia. Their principal objective is to help children in Cambodia who are either poor or whose parents are not there for them: orphans, street children, children living in poor rural areas and children affected by natural disasters, such as flood or famine. More at their website.

Newsy bits...2 more arrests this morning as the net closes around the former Khmer Rouge leaders still alive and living in freedom. Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith are the newly-arrested captives, to add to the detention of Duch and Nuon Chea, ahead of the long-awaited Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Read more about Ieng Thirith, the sole woman expected to be charged with crimes against humanity, in the Comments section.
The brand spanking new Angkor National Museum was officially opened by the PM, Hun Sen, today in Siem Reap. I want to visit the new museum as soon as possible, to see whether its more a museum or a shopping mall which has been the speculation prior to today's unveiling. The cost of the museum was $15-million, with a Thai business interest holding a 30-year concession for the museum. With an entrance fee of $12 for foreigners, compared to Phnom Penh's National Museum admission fee of $3, it had better be good! Or more likely is that the National Museum's fee will suddenly shoot up. Watch this space.
The temple of Preah Vihear was out of bounds for a day on Saturday. Although the details are sketchy, the police closed the road following a dispute over land ownership, though it was re-opened again Sunday. If the Cambodian authorities are serious about making the temple much easier to access on the Cambodian side, they can't afford incidents like this to re-occur.

Music to my ears

Cambodian-born singer Jimi Lundy (right) will be returning to the country of his birth at the end of the year for a series of concerts to be organised in Phnom Penh and beyond. Keep your eyes peeled in the local Cambodian press for details. Jimi has a new single out very soon and production on his new album will commence in February, after his trip to Cambodia. To watch Jimi's video of his song Cambodia, click here. Next year, Jimi, who now lives in Melbourne, Australia, will begin a new project, a non-profit children's organisation called Children of Cambodia.

Top reggae vocalist and musician, Percydread, has just released a 1,000 limited edition double-A sided 7 inch vinyl single. The two tracks are Father's Love and Dungeon and will be released on CD in due course, on his own Lemonapple Records label. To keep up to speed with Percydread, click here.

Indigo, vocalist with Gabbidon and the duo, Rainy Days and Mondays, is awaiting the birth of her third child at the end of this month, so she's taking a well-earned break from live performances. And with Leonie Moore spending more time performing with Legend, her Bob Marley tribute band, both Gabbidon and Rainy Days are taking a backseat for a while. Gabbidon have recruited two new vocalists to replace the girls.

Finally, a new Yaz Alexander electronic press kit, can be accessed here. On 17 November, Yaz will be performing with her backing singers Black Pearl at 'La Tenda' in Modena, Italy. The eveny is called 'Voice of the Voiceless,' a night of Music, Dance and Art organized by the organization SenzaVoce based in Modena.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

War tourism in Cambodia

The guy next to me in the office penned the following 'war tourism' article that appeared in today's Times Online.

Cambodia's genocide museum
The Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a shrine to suffering under the Khmer Rouge - by Nick Ray, The Times (UK)

Tuol Sleng, or S-21 Prison, in Phnom Penh is an open wound for many Cambodians. My wife, Kulikar, shivers at its mention. Her uncle, Ang Choubee, was incarcerated there, tortured and executed. Kulikar flipped through Choubee’s folder, scanning the record of his arrest and execution, and broke down in tears. All that remained of her uncle was the mangled frame of his spectacles, a telling symbol of the communist regime in the Seventies that targeted intellectuals. Nothing prepares you for an encounter with Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the original Khmer Rouge security prison: the rusty manacles spattered with the stains of suffering; the graphic photos of the last victims bludgeoned to death. This is a walk on the dark side of humanity. Wandering through room after room of black-and-white photographs of the anonymous victims of a revolution, some faces are defiant, some terrified, while others are bemused. All look imploringly at their audience; they seem silently to utter the same question: why?

Haunting images implant themselves in the mind. A young woman, Chan Kim Srung, holds her newborn baby. They were “smashed” soon after May 14, 1978. A popular Khmer Rouge slogan was to “pull the roots when cutting the weeds”. It’s hard to imagine this place, which was built as a high school, as a playground. There are a few clues in the courtyard, including some climbing bars, but our guide, Chamreoun, soon shatters any illusions of normality. “Here is where they tied the prisoners upside down and dumped their heads in jars of water,” he tells us. One of the rooms is lined with primitive paintings depicting the brutal forms of punishment meted out for disobeying the rules. As many as 17,000 prisoners passed through the gates of this prison and were later executed at the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Driving out towards the killing fields, it is almost impossible to make sense of the violence unleashed in this indolent land, to square the heavenly vision of rural Cambodia today with the hell of the past. Prisoners arrived at Choeung Ek under the cover of darkness and were executed with hoes and spades to save precious bullets. Many of the mass graves remain undisturbed, fragments of bone poking through the baked earth. Clothing fragments are mixed into the soil as if the ground opened up and swallowed the living. The remains of 8,985 bodies that were exhumed are on display in a memorial stupa. We burn incense to remember them.

The killing fields of Choeung Ek were one of hundreds of mass grave sites scattered throughout the country. In Battambang province in the west of the country there were widespread killings. The holy mountain of Phnom Sampeau is littered with shrines and stupas. This brutal civil war rumbled on until 1998. After 30 years of turmoil, if any country has a shot at making a success of its history, drawing in visitors to teach them vital lessons about its terrible past, surely it is Cambodia. But it’s not just “war tourism” that is bringing people to the country. Angkor has a spectacular collection of temples, the south coast conceals tropical beaches and the forests of northern Cambodia are home to rare wildlife and dramatic waterfalls. However, more than its culture and nature, the Cambodian people are the national treasure. The Khmers may have been to hell and back, but somehow they returned with a smile. As we cruise down Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh’s lively riverside boulevard, in the back of a tuk-tuk, we pass designer restaurants on every corner, bars packed with bon viveurs and the beautiful people parading the latest selection of designer mobile phones. Blending in are cyclos that double as family saloons carrying up to six people, an elephant sauntering along the promenade on the hunt for bananas, and pigs and chickens dangling off motorbikes on their way to market. Old Asia meets new Asia and it makes for a dizzying ride. The past has not been buried, it has been disinterred and dragged up for all to share, lest the world forget. But the new Cambodia is looking forward to a brighter future with open arms. Link: Times Online.

Ara's big day # 2

Ara keeps her eyes on proceedings, and looks immaculate
The author with long-time friend Lina, Ara's best pal
Cheeky Lida stops for 1 minute to pose for a photo
The famous comedy duo of Chhoy (left) and Sorng Sis kept the wedding party amused

Ara’s big day

Ara, looking a million dollars
I was so pleased to be a part of Ara’s wedding day on Saturday. I’ve known her for the last seven years and she’s been a great friend and if anyone deserves happiness, it’s her. She’s had a medical scare recently but you wouldn’t know it. She maintained a regal air throughout the day and looked a million dollars. Following in the Cambodian tradition, she reminded me of a film goddess in the 60s with her bouffant hair-do. Throughout the day, she changed into eleven outfits and looked gorgeous in all of them. Ly, her husband is a lucky man. The main wedding ceremony was held at their new home, just off Veng Sreng road, a few kilometres from the airport. I got there at 6.30am and took part in the fruit-carrying procession and the pretend hair-cutting segment, as well as scoffing breakfast and lunch, and watching the other parts of the ceremony, including a performance from the well-known male and female comedy duo, Sorng Sis and Chhoy, which had everyone in stitches. It was wonderful to see old friends like Lina, Sokrum, Alis, Thida, Phea (who chauffeured me everywhere), Kalyan, Sarein, Vourch and many more. I also made a host of new friends including 16 year old Soksay, niece of the groom, who had come with a coach-load of relatives from Kompong Cham, where the happy couple were both born, and who was keen to practice her English on the only foreigner there, as well as twelve year old Lida, a bright and bubbly niece of Ara, who had a cheeky streak and became my shadow for the day.
At 3pm, I returned home for a shower and forty-winks before heading for the wedding party at the Mondial Center in the city a couple of hours later for the usual copious portions of food and dancing. I am now a fully-fledged member of the madizone line-dancing squad! As the only foreigner amongst over 700 invited guests, I was very popular and enjoyed the ramvong, saravan, cha-cha-cha and more before the live band called time around 9pm. It was a great occasion, Ara was immaculate throughout her exhausting day and whilst many of the expat community pooh-pooh Khmer weddings, I love them.

Ara and Ly with guests before the main ceremony

Ara and Ly with attendants

Fleeting visit to Kompong Thom

Sokhom - the best guide in Kompong Thom, bar none, & the author
During a flying visit to Kompong Thom recently, I hooked up with Sokhom, my great friend and guide for my ‘off-road’ adventures in northern Cambodia over the last eight years. He gave me a hug as soon as I stepped off the bus. We then paid a fleeting visit to Sambor Prei Kuk via the back roads. Interestingly, there was no entrance fee payable for the temple complex as the two authorities in charge were in dispute as to who should collect it and a donation was suggested, when you signed the visitors book. The photos below are of the author with two of the children that frequent the temples, selling postcards, etc. These two were on their way home when they stopped to join my photo shoot. The last two photos are the same temple, I forget the name but its on the right as you leave, from two different angles. I always enjoy a visit to Sambor Prei Kuk, it has its own magic and though it’s become a lot more popular these days, it still sees only a fraction of the crowds that you experience at Angkor.

Author and two souvenir sellers on their way home
Isn't nature wonderful - Sambor Prei Kuk
Same temple, different angle

Friday, November 9, 2007

Sunset at Boeung Kak lake
For how much longer will this scene at Boeung Kak lake, where two young boys are paddling their small boats across the lake at sunset, be repeated? The master plan to drain and fill-in the lake for land reclamation and redevelopment was due to begin this month, but so far nothing has happened, which will please the owners of the numerous guesthouses and businesses in the lakeside area that cater to the backpacker crowd who frequent the area. They will lose out big-time when the plan finally does kick-off but Phnom Penh could lose out too, as the lake currently acts as a natural drain for some of the city’s floodwaters. Once the lake is reclaimed, no-one seems to know where the floodwaters will end up.

I have a wedding to enjoy tomorrow. I even went to Parkway for a timely $4 hair-cut last night in preparation. It’ll be an all day affair, kicking-off at around 6.30am and going on until late into the evening. It’ll be the second time I’ve spent the whole day at a wedding. This time, a close friend of mine for the last seven years, Ara, will marry Ly, somewhere west of Pochentong Airport and then the afternoon/evening party will be held in one of the wedding restaurants at the Mondial Center in the city. Ara tells me that over 600 people have been invited to the party! I’m sure it’ll be a great success and I’m looking forward to the usual outfit changes throughout the day, the ceremonial hair-cutting, the tying of string on the bride and groom’s wrists and so on. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun but having only experienced it once before, it still holds a fascination for me, as to the sheer effort, stamina and endurance required for a typical Khmer wedding. It’s the beginning of the wedding season, so if you are visiting Cambodia sometime soon, you can’t fail to see one somewhere on your travels. Look out for the tell-tale tented village projecting across much of the road and the loud music blaring out at all hours.
I was talking yesterday about that elusive photograph of a lone boy sat on a water buffalo and it brought to mind one of the iconic images that I've always associated with Cambodia. The Killing Fields movie will always be a watershed in my life. When I saw it in the mid-80s, it gave me a window into the recent history of Cambodia and vividly brought home to me, as films very occasionally do, the human tragedy that took place at the end of the previous decade. It spurred me on to find out more about this incredible country and just over twenty years later, I'm now living here. The photo of the boy on the buffalo was reproduced on the cover of the book, The Killing Fields by Christopher Hudson - published by Pan Books in 1984 - and stuck with me. The photo I'm looking for in my mind's eye is of a smiling boy, astride a water buffalo, in the middle of green paddy fields with a gorgeous orange sunset behind him, and an Angkorean temple creeping into the edge of shot. I know that I haven't got a cat-in-hell's chance of getting the photo, but I'll keep looking!
Link: For more on The Killing Fields movie, click here.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Cambodian wildlife

Butterflies are common in Cambodia, but this was a real beauty
Spiders are also common, but not usually close to my face
Continuing my Cambodian wildlife theme. As I've said before, my knowledge of wildlife in Cambodia is pretty poor so above are a couple of likely suspects I've caught on camera recently and I'd like your help in identifying them. The butterfly was beautiful and harmless, but I'm not so sure about the spider which I didn't realise was just inches from my face. Can you name them? Both were photographed in Ratanakiri province.
Below is wildlife of a pretend kind, this time a colourful dragon in the grounds of the Sokha Beach Resort in Sihanoukville. Its tail can be found on the beach itself.

Holly and Landmines

As Holly gets its New York premiere tomorrow, MaryAnn Johanson interviews its leading man, Ron Livingston here. She recently reviewed the film as well. Click here for her review. To visit the official Holly film website, click here.

Pupils' landmine film to screen in London - by Gordon Rogers (Oxford Mail, UK)
A documentary made by pupils at Abingdon School about Cambodia's land-mine victims will have its premier at the National Film Theatre. Gravel and Stones will be shown on Friday, November 16. The 30-minute documentary focuses on the impact of disability on people in Cambodia. The country has one of the highest rates of disability in the developing world - more than 40,000 have lost limbs because of landmines. Four pupils from Abingdon School - Edward Hofman, Tom Wakeling, Andrew McGrath and Ben Hollins - filmed the documentary on an 18-day trip to the country last December. Ben said: "It was both chilling and wonderful. We saw for ourselves that behind its shocking past and difficult economic situation, the people can be warm, quick-witted and hard-working. "They accepted us, without prejudice, into their homes and told us their histories with honesty and candour. We all forged friendships that will not be easily forgotten." The project, which took three years to complete, promotes the work of Landmine Disability Support, a small UK non-governmental organisation.

It follows three people who are living with disability, poverty and discrimination. Kosal, a teenage polio victim, earns money by singing at the local market. Um Sopha is a 22-year-old woman, who lost both her legs to disease but dreams of becoming a dancer. Chiang Yin is a 50-year-old landmine victim who has learned to walk on his hands to make a living as a farmer.
The film was made under the guidance of documentary-maker and Abingdon alumnus Michael Grigsby. He said: "Gravel and Stones is a natural and ambitious extension of the work encouraged by the school's film unit. Students found a voice that is their own which gives space to - and engages with - people around them." The AFU, together with the pupils, parents, staff and Old Boys of the school raised money to send the team to Cambodia. They plan to enter the film in national and international film festivals across Europe.

Landmine Disability Support (LMDS) operate out of Kompong Chhnang in Cambodia and are an organization committed to facilitating and encouraging disabled people and their families to project “their own voice” and to enjoy the same means and opportunities generally available to other citizens. Greater equality and a fairer environment will allow many to work their way out of poverty and to play a full part in the community. Disabled people become automatic members of the LMDS organization and contribute to decision-making. The HQ is at Mong Baraing Paer Commune, Kampong Chhnang and contact details are: +855 (0) 26 988 907.

That elusive photograph

I tend to believe that everyone likes the quintessential photo of the lone boy sitting on a water buffalo surrounded by hectares of bright green paddy fields. Unfortunately, its a picture that's always managed to elude me despite my exhaustive travels across this beautiful country. I always seem to see the opportunity in the distance and when I get close, the boy usually dismounts or turns away at the moment of truth. Its happened so many times that I'm definitely jinxed when it comes to that photograph. Anyway, here's a shot of four boys astride a headless water buffalo no less - which is their version of four schoolkids on a moto in Phnom Penh. The picture was taken on a recent trip to Ratanakiri province which I will tell you about pretty soon. As for the boy's mount, for a moment I was hoping it was a rare and camera-shy kouprey - fat chance - and indeed it turned out to be a bog-standard water buffalo munching on grass and leaves. I will continue my search for the elusive boy on a water buffalo!

Newsy bits... AFP tells us that tourist arrivals into Cambodia are up 19% for the first three quarters of 2007 compared to the same period last year, with 2 million visitors expected by the end of this year. Cambodia is still waiting for its own national airline carrier, with talks still underway with two rival companies, in which the Cambodian government will hold a 30% stake. Several attempts to form a national airline have failed since Royal Air Cambodge, the country's last carrier, collapsed in 2001 under the weight of mounting financial debts. Meanwhile, the Cambodian public are grumbling at a recent 10% hike in gasoline & diesel prices - I was given an ear-bashing about it at lunchtime yesterday by some of my colleagues who own cars. I wasn't sure why they directed their tirade towards me, maybe they think I have links to those in power!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Another Angkor Wat

If you're in Phnom Penh and you don't have time to visit Angkor Wat, you can visit this concrete representation in the grounds of the extensive Cambodian Buddhist Centre in Kien Svay, some 30 kms or so outside of the city. Its just been completed and is sandwiched between some substantial pagodas, a large seated Buddha and monk's quarters. You can also see similar models at the home of sculptor Dy Preung in Siem Reap, even closer to home at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and a Thai-stylised version at the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Anyone know of any more?

What is this?

I'm a bit crap when it comes to wildlife especially insects, so I would be interested to hear from anyone who knows what type of insect this is. My Khmer friends told me it was poisonous and they should know, though they then jokingly attempted to flick it in my direction. It was resting on a tree stump in Kien Svay, near Phnom Penh. It was a strange and intriguing looking insect with dazzling colours and a large proboscis, and I would appreciate more information, if you have it. Thanks in advance.

Home Sweet Home

My new abode, a flat on the 1st floor with sunblinds
I mentioned a few days ago that I'm living in a flat (others call it an apartment, Khmers call it a house) a few blocks away from the Hanuman office – in the expat-favoured Boeung Keng Kang 1 area of the city. I have two bedrooms, both with air-con and en-suite bathrooms, a living room with tv/dvd, bulging bookcases, rattan settee and chairs, writing desk and coffee table, a long hallway and a kitchen, with brand new washing machine and fridge but where I spend as little time as possible. My landlords, Thou and Oun, live with their half dozen children in the quarters below and are a very nice bunch of people. I employ the services of a maid three afternoons a week, and Sophan has already become indispensible. The flat is within spitting distance of some handy restaurants, bars and a Lucky supermarket and the neighborhood is very popular with NGOs and expats who want some peace and quiet away from the bustling riverfront district.

Not a good day

Some days just go from bad to worse. It started off well with a few giggles from my office colleagues after I showed them my blog posting – with photos – from our trip to the south coast. They seemed pretty chuffed that they were on the world wide web, so expect more postings of my work colleagues over the coming months. Then the first bombshell, a text message to say that one of my friends, Sophoin, had suffered a leg injury in a motorbike accident the previous evening and had been hospitalised. I immediately rang her and she told me through tears and pain that she had been on her way home at 9pm the previous night when a speeding moto-driver had ploughed into her moto side-on at a junction. Her leg was very badly gashed and her head hit the road as she was sent sprawling but her newly-purchased helmet had saved her from any head injuries. Luckily, she had bought the helmet the day before for $7 and boy, was that $7 well spent.

She had been released from hospital so I visited her later in the afternoon to see how she was and to find out a bit more about the accident. No bones were broken but blood from the deep gash on the shin-bone was seeping through the bandage and she was a little drowsy after taking some strong pain-killers. It turns out that not only was the driver who caused the accident driving dangerously, he was on the wrong side of the junction and had also been drinking. His moto came off badly in the crash and the police who witnessed the incident, took him briefly into custody. However, they soon realised that the driver was none other than one of the top sportsmen in Cambodia, a champion and veteran of over 200 Khmer kick-boxing matches and a famous face on television. He agreed to pay Sophoin $70 for the incident and disappeared – a small price to pay as her hospital costs, bike repairs and $10 to the police fund will easily amount to over $100, money she can ill afford to fork out.

Its clear to me that a major reason for the increase in road traffic accidents in the city is the atrocious driving skills of many of the speeding motorbike riders and equally poor car drivers. Literally, anyone can take to the road and speeding youths weaving in and out of the traffic is a common sight, as are maniacal car drivers who have no regard for the already clogged streets of Phnom Penh. I don’t have an answer, other than the introduction and enforcement of stricter driving laws (and compulsory helmet wearing) but I don’t see anything changing in the near future, so I too will be purchasing a helmet forthwith for my moto-rides around town. The facts are that four people die in Cambodia every day through road accidents and motorcyclists account for 70% of all traffic casualties.

I also received some bad news about monetary matters back in England and to cap it all, I visited one of my favourite eateries, Hagar on Street 288, just around the corner from my flat. It’s a quiet restaurant, under-utilised in my opinion, especially as they do a great $6 set-menu in the evenings and have friendly and attentive staff. But perhaps the reason for the lack of clients is the conversations one overhears. Christian missionaries, bible-thumpers, god-botherers, whatever you want to call them seem to be around every corner in Phnom Penh these days and the Hagar is one of their regular haunts (perhaps understandably as it’s a charity formed by a Swiss-based Christian organization!). But as a confirmed atheist and heathen, I have no time at all for evangelists and really don’t want to hear their inane conversations about bible practice and prayer meetings when I’m eating, well actually, at any time. So I will give the Hagar a wide berth for a while until I feel inclined to give it another chance. A crying shame as the food is so good and it’s so convenient.
* * * * *
For an overview of Cambodia's education system, read this latest report from BBC's Guy de Launey. It doesn't make positive reading. However, some good news for the endangered Sarus Crane which has been given its own reserve in Takeo province by the Cambodian government, read more here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Extra photos from the south coast

Then & Now. This photo was taken in Dec 2000 of the 19th century villa overlooking Kep beach
This is how the same building looks today, beautifully renovated and called La Villa A group photo of the early risers outisde the Borey Bokor hotel in Kampot
The author with sales supervisor Daroeurn, who sensibly wears a hat against the strong sun
Here's a few more photos from our Hanuman 'fam' trip visit to the south coast. I have dug out one of my photos of Hotel de Kep that I took in 2000 and how the same building looks today, beautifully restored and part of a new hotel complex called La Villa.

A weekend away on the south coast

My work colleague Chhrep and I decked out in our life-vests
The deserted beach at the Sokha Resort
A timeless lagoon behind the main beach on Koh Rung
Our boat is beached on the gorgeous 8 km Koh Rung beach
My colleagues suffering from the dreaded sea-sickness
My first-ever visit to the south coast beaches of Sihanoukville was both brief and work-related. Its one of Cambodia’s premier tourist attractions but a place I’d studiously avoided until now. With no ancient temples to uncover and its main attraction being its beaches and nearby islands (sunbathing has never been high on my list of must-do’s) it was with a mixture of reluctance and curiosity that I took my first ‘fam’ trip to the south coast with sixteen other members of our office staff. ‘Fam’ is quite simply a familiarization trip which Hanuman send their staff on two or three times each year, so they get a better understanding of the different locations around Cambodia as well as using the trips as a team-bonding exercise. The previous ‘fam’ trip was to Ratanakiri, a few months before I joined. This trip was a much-shorter bus ride down to the south coast and would be a combination of business and pleasure, though we set out much later than we’d originally planned on Friday afternoon and ended up heading straight to our overnight stop at the run-down Borey Bokor hotel in Kampot. A group meal at the Ta Ouv restaurant on stilts over the Kompong Bay River and a few drinks at the Rusty Keyhole pub completed the first day.

Saturday was scheduled to be the trip’s business day while Sunday would be the relaxing part of the visit. However, I wasn’t really prepared for visiting no less than 13 hotels and guesthouses in one day and to do it in a group of seventeen was tough going to say the least. We began early with breakfast at a popular spot along the riverfront before heading out for the twenty-five minute drive to the seaside resort of Kep, some 25 kms from our overnight stop in Kampot. As I’d visited both Kep & Kampot in previous years I was focused on the hotel visits rather than seeing the sights, which was just as well, as we had no time to fit anything in besides our hotel inspections. The stylish Knai Bang Chatt, with its infinity pool and boutique feel was our first stop before we moved onto visit the Beach House and its ocean views on the hillside overlooking Kep beach. With no time to spare, let alone an opportunity to taste the crab or seafood for which the resort is famous, our next stop was the La Villa, with construction work still underway and the opening delayed until next year, followed by the wooden walkways and friendly charm of the Veranda Resort on another hillside. With so many ruined villas still to be renovated, I can only imagine that more hotels and lodges will be opening in the next few years as Kep recovers from its thirty years in the doldrums.

Returning to Kampot, we called in to visit two guesthouses on the riverfront, Bokor Mountain Lodge and Rikitikitavi, who offer gorgeous sunset views, good food and a friendly welcome. After lunch at the Ta Ouv restaurant, we made a brief stop at the Sopheak Mongkol guesthouse before our ninety minute drive along a good road to Sihanoukville (or Kompong Som as the Khmers prefer). The 5-star luxury of the Sokha Beach resort was our first port of call. Easily the town’s best accommodation, its private beach and facilities are top drawer. The hillside bungalows of Chez Claude beckoned before we enjoyed the sunset views from the suites at the newly renovated Independence Hotel and a final call into the chalets at Chez Mari-yan. My overnight stop was to be at Malibu Bungalows but I was welcomed by a power-cut so headed out to join the rest of the team at their Seaside Hotel location and our group evening meal of seafood at Chhner Molop Chrey restaurant. We ended the evening with drinks at the Mermaid beach-bar on Ochheuteal Beach, and I nodded off to sleep to the sound of waves lapping gently against the Malibu’s rocky beach.

Sunday was fun day and a chance for the group to relax and unwind. We donned our life jackets and boarded the boat at 8.30am for a two-hour excursion to the largest of the nearby islands, Koh Rung. It was great to see the excitement on the faces of my young companions as we set off but that soon turned to agony as the roll of the waves brought on the Khmer propensity for travel sickness. Landing at a tiny fishing hamlet, the white sands of the secluded eight kilometre beach on the west side of Koh Rung was our sun-bathing and swimming haven for a couple of hours followed by another small beach and lagoon for an hour, before heading back to the port area at Sihanoukville. On the way we passed the tiny island of Koh Dek Koul and its brand-new Russian-owned swanky hotel, though most of my colleagues were by this time either asleep or retching over the side of the boat! Back on dry land, we left Sihanoukville at 5pm and headed home along the excellent Route 4 with a brief food stop at Kompong Speu, the journey taking four hours exactly. Whilst not being my ideal retreat, I have to agree that the beaches are a delight, the opportunities to visit unspoilt islands with snorkelling and scuba diving on offer are tempting and the slow pace of life along the south coast will be a magnet for many, especially after a bout of temple touring at Angkor and the frenetic pace of rush-hour in Phnom Penh.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The South Coast beckons

The deserted white sands of Sokha Beach in Sihanoukville
I've been a busy boy since I arrived in Cambodia and will post a short report from my first-ever visit to Sihanoukville in the next couple of days, once I've had a spare moment to pen it. It was primarily a business trip as I was visiting hotels in S'ville, Kampot and Kep with a group of colleagues from Hanuman Tourism but it did give me the chance to sample some of the beautiful beaches that Cambodia and its neighbouring islands have to offer. More in due course.

Rain Falls from Earth

For a while now I've been eagerly awaiting the release of a film by director Steve McClure called Rain Falls from Earth. It will feature personal interviews with Cambodian holocaust survivors such as artist Vann Nath, ballet dancer Em Theay and Teeda Butt-Mam, all of whom I've featured individually in my blog, and the film will be narrated by Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated actor, Sam Waterston, who starred in The Killing Fields movie in the mid-80s. In addition, Hanuman Films provided their expertise in producing the scenes filmed in Cambodia. So I was extra pleased to see the SE Globe magazine, an excellent glossy magazine published in Cambodia, carrying a review of the film in their November edition. Here it is:

Rain falls from Earth
A new documentary uncovers the surreal facts of existence under Cambodia’s most infamous regime, by Paul Brisby.

While visitors to Cambodia can hardly avoid being confronted with some aspect of the blood-soaked history of the Khmer Rouge regime, international attention on one of modern history’s deepest stains has been decidedly ephemeral. One best-selling film, a handful of documentaries, and a number of books (mostly sold in Cambodia) are the only mementoes of a holocaust that in terms of intensity – a third of the population destroyed in four short years – eclipses the more celebrated atrocities of Vietnam, the purges of Stalin, or the mistakes of Mao. Even the global media spotlight that accompanied the start of the Khmer Rouge Trial (KRT) has faded rapidly as the proceedings sink into a quagmire of legal bickering. In fact, with the mere settling of procedural rules taking longer than the complete judicial process of Nuremberg, the trial threatens to be remembered, internationally at least, for all the wrong reasons.

When young Florida filmmaker Steve McClure first read a magazine article on the Khmer Rouge regime ten years ago, he was taken by surprise: “I was shocked that I was never taught about this in school. I couldn’t believe that an event so disastrous seemed almost forgotten.” This proved to be the start of a seven-year long journey to the very heart of what the regime really meant to the people who were its victims. “I started by finding one person to talk to. Then I would find another contact or someone would refer me to another witness, so it just grew from there,” says McClure.

The result is his powerful new documentary, ‘Rain Falls from Earth’. The title of the film, culled from a survivor’s story, illustrates the chilling subversion of realities that followed the commencement of Year Zero: “When the Khmer Rouge told you that the rain falls from the Earth, not from the sky, you agreed, or you’d be killed for being an intellectual.” The film focuses on the harrowing personal accounts of what a few individuals underwent during the period - people who were basically eyewitnesses to genocide. As one survivor, Monirith, puts it:
“I thought if I’m going to die at least I’ll die in the same grave as my family. That was my only wish.” The film is narrated by ‘Killing Fields’ actor and engaged humanitarian, Sam Waterston. “I think this project appealed to him on a personal level. Sam was the perfect choice,” says McClure. The stories are backed by footage and stills from the era, and a brooding musical score by Chris Piorkowski.

In the film, survivors reveal their thoughts, ideas and emotions – the very things they were told to abandon in the Cambodian ‘Killing Fields’. As another survivor Cham says, “We couldn’t cry. We just go to sleep and cry in our sleep.” Contrary to his expectations, McClure had little problem in getting people to talk about their experiences: “I was surprised how willing people were to share their stories with me. It seemed that everyone I talked to wanted to participate.”
He became aware that by allowing his subjects to share their experiences for the first time in a long time, he found himself at the cutting edge of their personal healing process: “The interviews were a lot harder than I had anticipated. As you would expect they were very emotional. At times I wasn’t sure whether to stop asking questions or just keep the camera rolling.”

The film follows the survivors right through to the little-documented end of the regime, and the benumbed relief that brought: “Someone started hitting a drum and we all started singing. All of us looked like ghosts, but the spirit was high.” McClure also includes interviews with three top-level KR members, including Ta Mok’s daughter. “Everything about that interview process was surreal,” says McClure, “including our stay in Anlong Veng. It will be up to the viewer to decide if what they are telling is actually the truth.” Not a dissimilar choice to the one that (hopefully) awaits the KRT judges in the not-too-distant future. As McClure says, “That seemed to be the one thing everyone I talked to hoped for - closure.”
Links: Film website, SE Globe Magazine.

Putting Cambodia on the screen

Oth Phouthang - Khmer kick-boxing Champion

I've mentioned before that Hanuman is a brand that has different entities - providing tours in Cambodia, Vietnam & Laos (that's the area I'm involved in), its own boutique hotel in Siem Reap, fine arts, antiques and clothing outlets as well as a film production servicing arm. The latter, Hanuman Films is the brainchild of Nick and Kulikar, who did such a good job on the filming of Tomb Raider back in 2000, they established the company which has gone from strength to strength ever since. Between them, Nick and Kulikar have unrivalled experience across the Mekong region and are kept very busy with numerous film, television and commercial shoots in Cambodia and beyond.
Just to mention a few of the recent filming productions:
They collaborated with a US television documentary team for a programme called The Human Weapon - Cambodian Bloodsport. The program pitched Cambodian kick-boxing (Pradal Serey)champions like Oth Phouthang (who posed for this picture for me) against American opponents, Jason Chambers and Bill Duff and will be shown on the History Channel on 16 November. If anyone is interested in watching live Khmer kick-boxing, CTN has live action every Saturday and Sunday between 2-5pm atheir studio, whilst TV-5 promotes shows on Fridays and Sundays. When Al Jazeera television arrived in Cambodia to film a one-hour special titled I Knew Pol Pot, Kulikar arranged interviews with senior Khmer Rouge figures and survivors, including Brother Number 2 Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan.
The programme Digging For The Truth - Angkor Wat was aired on the History Channel last week as Hanuman helped the filmmakers to tell the secrets and story of the Angkor temples and the ancient Khmer civilization.
Pepsi recently came to Siem Reap to film scenes for a new commercial that will be aired across the globe and will feature some of the top Premiership football stars. I was roped in to whizz around town getting snap-shots of market stalls so they could decide what to put in one of the scenes. More productions are taking place and as Cambodia takes off as far as filmmaking is concerned - amazing locations, places and faces bursting with colour - even more are sure to follow. Find out more about Hanuman Films here.

Forthcoming events

Apsara Dancers - by Charles King
The 5th annual Khmer Heritage Celebration, hosted by the Cambodian-American Community of Oregon, will be held on 29 December in Portland, USA with cultural dance performances by the Apsara group above, and much more. Find out more about it here.

Next weekend the University of Hawaii and the East-West Center will host a series of Cambodia events, including round-table discussions, public lectures, music and an exhibition titled 'Living Angkor' with images by National Geographic photographer Paul Chesley which will depict both the monuments and the contemporary Cambodian people, several 13th and 14th century sculptures and motifs found in traditional textiles, puppets, and masks that are found within the 13th century friezes will be displayed. Find out more here.

Closer to home, Phnom Penh that is, an exhibition of comic art by Em Satya will open tomorrow (6 November) at the Meta House on St 264. Artist Em Satya has worked for decades in almost every field of illustration. He has drawn for children's magazine 'Mom' and 'Mab', been a cartoonist for 'Rasmei Kampuchea', and a cover artist for novels. Foreigners have seen translations of his cartoons in the pages of Cambodge Soir under the pen name 'Nono'. Cambodians know him from his popular comic adaptations of stories 'Sovannasam' and 'Sopaset' and more recently, his paintings for the Buddhist Institute's series of folktales. His most recent book is the graphic novel 'Bopha Battambang' (Flower of Battambang) begun over a decade ago, and completed this year. He is currently working on painted art for children's books.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Opening date for Angkor National Museum

The brand new Angkor Museum
I've just heard from the folks at the Angkor National Museum, it opens on Monday 12 November, with the ceremony being presided over by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vice PM Sok An. They even gave me an invitation to join the celebrations, what nice folks. After a few false dawns the building is finished, the exhibits have been shipped in from the nearby Angkor Conservation Depot and from the National Museum in Phnom Penh, and the staff are being trained as I type. Also included in the ultramodern new complex, which you can see on the main road to the Angkor site, will be a cultural mall which will house restaurants, shops, a library and a spa. Its set to cost foreign tourists $12 to enter, $3 for Khmers, and the museum's aim will be to show visitors Khmer cultural heritage through various collections that will be displayed in eight galleries. The galleries will be: 1,000 Buddha Images; Pre-Angkor Khmer Civilization; Pre-Angkor Religion & Beliefs; The Great Khmer Kings; Angkor Wat; Angkor Thom; Story from Stones; Ancient Costume. It will house an 80-seat theatre where visitors can watch multimedia presentations featuring stories about the Khmer empire, while audio tour guides will be available on request in various languages such as Korean, Japanese, French, Chinese and Thai. Find out more at the ANM website.

The big Angkor secret

According to Stephen Brookes in the Washington Post tomorrow, the big Angkor secret is.... Angkor: When It Rains, You Score - he recommends you visit Angkor in the rainy season to avoid the crowds. Read his trip article here. Hardly a secret, but it is a great time to see the temples without the bus-loads of Koreans, Japanese, etc that are invading the Angkor complex at the moment. I was talking to someone last night at the monthly Elsewhere party (which I really disliked) who went to Angkor Wat for an hour or so, couldn't cope with the crowds at all and decided to retire to a watering-hole in Siem Reap to recover from the shock. Another related their visit to Ta Prohm where some tourists were climbing the trees that choke the temple, to get their 'special photo souvenir' of their visit, without any regard for other visitors, the sanctity of the temples and the potential damage they could cause.

Another news article from Cambodia, What's new? by John O'Mahony, looks at Cambodia's idyllic beaches in today's Guardian newspaper in the UK. Read his report here.
Friday saw the opening of a new museum in Siem Reap. Its called the Preah Norodom Sihanouk Angkor Museum and was officially inaugurated by King Norodom Sihamoni, who took the opportunity to visit the Angkor complex today. The museum was built with the assistance of Sophia University in Japan and was funded to the tune of $1 million by the Japanese retail company, Neon. Named after the former king, Sihamoni's father, it will house 274 statues excavated at the Banteay Kdei Temple in 2001 by the Sophia University Angkor International Mission. The building is equipped with high-tech security measures to prevent thievery. My sources also tell me that the brand spanking new Angkor National Museum may well open its doors for the first time on Monday 12 November. I will believe it when I see it.
Talking of Cambodia and its Museums, does anyone have a spare copy of Museum International Magazine, volumes 213/214, that was published in 2002? It was titled, Angkor, a living museum and was full of interesting articles on Angkor & Cambodia. You can read more about this particular issue of the magazine here. If anyone has a spare copy that I can have, I will be eternally grateful.
* * * * *
DPA Microphones has donated a pair of 4091 omnidirectional instrument mics to Studio CLA in Phnom Penh. The studio, set up by US producer Scot Stafford in conjunction with the Cambodian Living Arts project, documents and records the repertoire and skills of Cambodia's master musicians for the next generation of musicians. The project is supported by Peter Gabriel's Real World organisation, which arranged the donation of audio equipment as well as sending experienced recording technicians to assist on key projects. Real World became involved last year when Gabriel's studio and monitor engineer Richard Chappell visited Cambodia and met Kong Nay, one of Cambodia's few surviving master musicians. Kong Nay subsequently performed at last summer's WOMAD festival, followed by a UK tour organised, booked, promoted and engineered by Chappell to raise funds for the musicians' cause. Chappell then returned to Cambodia to deliver the mics and other equipment to the studio. They were put to work recording music for a rock opera, Where Elephants Weep, which combines traditional Khmer music with Western styles to create the first-known contemporary Cambodian opera. The recordings are for a CD to support the opera when it opens in Phnom Penh next year.
The score, by Russian-trained Cambodian composer Sophy Him and co-producer Scot Stafford, draws on classical western, ancient Cambodian, and contemporary popular American music. Sophy Him worked together with an instrument designer to 'reinvent' some traditional Cambodian instruments, called a Gong thom chromatique and Roneat aik chromatique, which have both Cambodian and Western scales. "These are twice the size of normal Cambodian instruments so it was great to have the DPA omnis, as they gave us a much larger pickup area due to their sensitivity," says Chappell. "We used them as the main recording mics for both instruments, the optimum position being as left and right overheads. The sound of the capsules is very open and uncoloured; a great way of representing something which has such a unique sound. "When it came to recording the kick drum, I found that a single 4091 was a great addition. Sophy was very excited with the representation of his instruments, and with the help of DPA Microphones, Studio CLA is being brought right up to date." - by Jim Evans.

The big Angkor secret

According to Stephen Brookes in the Washington Post tomorrow, the big Angkor secret is.... Angkor: When It Rains, You Score - he recommends you visit Angkor in the rainy season to avoid the crowds. Read his trip article here. Hardly a secret, but it is a great time to see the temples without the bus-loads of Koreans, Japanese, etc that are invading the Angkor complex at the moment. I was talking to someone last night at the monthly Elsewhere party (which I really disliked) who went to Angkor Wat for an hour or so, couldn't cope with the crowds at all and decided to retire to a watering-hole in Siem Reap to recover from the shock. Another related their visit to Ta Prohm where some tourists were climbing the trees that choke the temple, to get their 'special photo souvenir' of their visit, without any regard for other visitors, the sanctity of the temples and the potential damage they could cause.

Another news article from Cambodia, What's new? by John O'Mahony, looks at Cambodia's idyllic beaches in today's Guardian newspaper in the UK. Read his report here.
Friday saw the opening of a new museum in Siem Reap. Its called the Preah Norodom Sihanouk Angkor Museum and was officially inaugurated by King Norodom Sihamoni, who took the opportunity to visit the Angkor complex today. The museum was built with the assistance of Sophia University in Japan and was funded to the tune of $1 million by the Japanese retail company, Neon. Named after the former king, Sihamoni's father, it will house 274 statues excavated at the Banteay Kdei Temple in 2001 by the Sophia University Angkor International Mission. The building is equipped with high-tech security measures to prevent thievery. My sources also tell me that the brand spanking new Angkor National Museum may well open its doors for the first time on Monday 12 November. I will believe it when I see it.
Talking of Cambodia and its Museums, does anyone have a spare copy of Museum International Magazine, volumes 213/214, that was published in 2002? It was titled, Angkor, a living museum and was full of interesting articles on Angkor & Cambodia. You can read more about this particular issue of the magazine here. If anyone has a spare copy that I can have, I will be eternally grateful.
* * * * *
DPA Microphones has donated a pair of 4091 omnidirectional instrument mics to Studio CLA in Phnom Penh. The studio, set up by US producer Scot Stafford in conjunction with the Cambodian Living Arts project, documents and records the repertoire and skills of Cambodia's master musicians for the next generation of musicians. The project is supported by Peter Gabriel's Real World organisation, which arranged the donation of audio equipment as well as sending experienced recording technicians to assist on key projects. Real World became involved last year when Gabriel's studio and monitor engineer Richard Chappell visited Cambodia and met Kong Nay, one of Cambodia's few surviving master musicians. Kong Nay subsequently performed at last summer's WOMAD festival, followed by a UK tour organised, booked, promoted and engineered by Chappell to raise funds for the musicians' cause. Chappell then returned to Cambodia to deliver the mics and other equipment to the studio. They were put to work recording music for a rock opera, Where Elephants Weep, which combines traditional Khmer music with Western styles to create the first-known contemporary Cambodian opera. The recordings are for a CD to support the opera when it opens in Phnom Penh next year.
The score, by Russian-trained Cambodian composer Sophy Him and co-producer Scot Stafford, draws on classical western, ancient Cambodian, and contemporary popular American music. Sophy Him worked together with an instrument designer to 'reinvent' some traditional Cambodian instruments, called a Gong thom chromatique and Roneat aik chromatique, which have both Cambodian and Western scales. "These are twice the size of normal Cambodian instruments so it was great to have the DPA omnis, as they gave us a much larger pickup area due to their sensitivity," says Chappell. "We used them as the main recording mics for both instruments, the optimum position being as left and right overheads. The sound of the capsules is very open and uncoloured; a great way of representing something which has such a unique sound. "When it came to recording the kick drum, I found that a single 4091 was a great addition. Sophy was very excited with the representation of his instruments, and with the help of DPA Microphones, Studio CLA is being brought right up to date." - by Jim Evans.

Friday, November 2, 2007

New Mandala interview with David Chandler

Hot off the press is this interview with Professor David Chandler, one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of Southeast Asia and in particular, Cambodia. Read the full interview by Nicholas Farrelly here. It includes a link to Chandler's recollections of his earliest involvement with Cambodia. Professor Chandler has penned The History of Cambodia, Voices from S-21, Brother Number One and many more books and papers. Link.

Phnom Penh snap-shot

Not that anyone will be remotely interested but here’s a couple of photos from my new existence in Phnom Penh. The top photo is my desk at Hanuman Tourism HQ in the Boeung Keng Kang 1 area of the city. The building and my office are decked out with some beautiful and rare Khmer antiques and the room is air-conditioned too thank goodness. I’ve been presented with a brand new Lenovo lap-top, but the downside is that I share the office with Nick (only kidding Bong Ray). Below that is a view of the living room at my new flat, a few blocks away from the office. The whicker bookshelves are groaning under the weight of all my books on Cambodia that I’ve had shipped over and the room is a bit sparse right now aside from my tv/dvd, settee and chairs, writing desk and coffee table. The neighborhood is very popular with NGOs and expats who want to live away from the bustling riverfront district (like me), and aside from the beer-garden-cum-karaoke nightspot around the corner, it’s a quiet haven. There’s a lot of construction work happening within a few blocks though, as more high-rise apartments are built to cater for the upwardly-mobile sector of the city.

Reporting from Phnom Penh

UK Daily Telegraph reporter Thomas Bell has been busy with two reports from Phnom Penh on the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal, with S-21 photographer Nhem En his first subject of enquiry and the recent corruption scandal his second focus. Read both here. Below, Nhem En is pictured on a return visit to S-21.

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Prosthetic Prowess - by Simon Montlake, Time (USA)
Cambodia hasn't excelled at much lately on the world stage, unless you're ranking countries for genocide and undetected landmines, of which it has an estimated 4-6 million. But the latter, grim though the connection may be, are the reason that the country is competing for a world title at the 2007 Standing Volleyball World Cup, taking place in its capital Phnom Penh. Planned by World Organization Volleyball for Disabled (WOVD), the event runs from Nov. 24 to Dec. 2, and is open to disabled athletes capable of standing, with or without a prosthesis (the WOVD also holds "sitting" volleyball tournaments for wheelchair-bound players). Ranked top in Asia, Cambodia is one of eight national teams competing for a trophy that local artists have fittingly sculpted from melted-down AK-47 assault rifles. Canada, the reigning champion, is the team to beat. The German squad is also highly rated. Out of the running are Afghanistan and Rwanda, who pulled their teams at the last minute, pleading lack of funds. Like those troubled nations, Cambodia has been ravaged by civil strife. The poisonous aftermath still lingers in mine-strewn soil, where the nation's farmers scrape a living. One of the consequences is that there's no lack of amputees keen to strap on an artificial limb and hit a ball over a net. Since 2002, a wet-season disabled volleyball league has nurtured a squad of high-flying semipro athletes who came fourth at the 2005 World Cup in Canada and are gunning for gold on home soil. Christian Zepp, 26, the team's German coach who arrived in September, reckons a place in the finals, or even victory over the favorites, is within reach. "This is our moment," he says.

Not all of Cambodia's volleyball players lost limbs to land mines. Some suffered polio or other childhood diseases, or were maimed by motorbike wipeouts on dangerous roads. Others are ex-combatants with nowhere to go: the Hawks, in the notorious Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, field a mixed team of cashiered former rebels and government soldiers. From eight teams in 2002, the local league has grown to 16 sponsored squads in two divisions who compete for an annual $3,000 prize — a sum that goes a long way in rural Cambodia. Disabled volleyball might sound like a charitable exhibition sport, but don't be fooled, says Neil Wilford, a British adviser to the Cambodian league. When an Australian Navy ship docked two years ago at the southern port of Sihanoukville, its volleyball team agreed to a friendly game against a local disabled squad. Before it started, one of the Australians took Wilford aside and asked how easy they should go on their opponents. "Just play as normal," Wilford smirked. The Cambodians trounced the Australians, spiking ball after ball past the red-faced servicemen. The game has since become an annual fixture.

The National Sports Complex, completed in 1964, is the venue for the WOVD tournament. Designed by the nation's architectural doyen, Vann Molyvann, the Modernist facility was one of the high-tide marks of Cambodia's post-independence achievements, but the nation slid into civil war before it could be properly put to use. Today, the complex is hidden from view by a garish Chinese shophouses that obscure its perimeter walls, but the facilities have been restored. All the matches in the WOVD competition will be played in an indoor stadium and are free to the public. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the patron of the disabled league, will preside over the opening ceremony.Staging a successful World Cup is symbolic of Cambodia's sporting rebirth, says Chris Minko, 51, the league's full-time secretary general. Back in the 1960s, then Premier Norodom Sihanouk promoted Phnom Penh as the sporting hub of Southeast Asia, until Indonesia stole his thunder by staging a nonaligned version of the Olympics. Secret U.S. bombings and the Khmer Rouge did the rest. But Minko, a combative, shaven-headed Australian, wants to see Phnom Penh back on top. The first step is victory on Dec. 2, which Minko hopes will help reclaim Cambodia's stature as a sports power to be reckoned with in Southeast Asia. "We're going to bring that back," he says.

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Soon to be reporting from Phnom Penh will be author Anne Elizabeth Moore, who is coming to Cambodia in December to explore an underground comics scene few have heard of in order to gain insight into the country and its government. She's been invited to live in an all-women dormitory, set up by the Harpswell Foundation, dedicated to educating Cambodian women. Moore will be a Leadership Resident, and plans to stay at least two months, initially. You can read about her trip at

Finally, if you are not familiar with the work of Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program, click here. Yale's GSP is instrumental in the study and analysis of atrocities worldwide. In the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Ben Kiernan, the program’s director, has made significant contributions to the field. “In 1996, our Cambodian mission discovered over 100,000 pages of secret police files,” said Kiernan. The files included lists of names produced during torture sessions with execution orders at the bottom signed by Pol Pot. GSP was founded in 1994 as the Center for Cambodian Genocide Studies, but Professor Kiernan expanded its mission and changed its name in 1998. Since inception, affiliates of the project have produced ten books and 35 working papers.

Two new books about the Khmer Rouge experience

I have a couple of new books to tell you about and I’ll begin with the memoir of Denise Affonço who survived the Khmer Rouge regime after her comfortable life in Phnom Penh was shattered in 1975. In To The End of Hell, Affonco, who was born and brought up in Phnom Penh, with a Vietnamese mother and French father, tells the story of how she was deported with her husband, a communist idealist, and their two children to the countryside, where her husband was taken away by the Khmer Rouge and never seen again, and her daughter died of starvation. In 1979, four hellish years were brought to an end when the Vietnamese invaded. With Introductions by Jon Swain and David Chandler, part of the profits from the book will go to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), where a scholarship has been set up in the name of her nine-year-old daughter Jeannie, who starved to death in 1976 under the Khmer Rouge regime. Published by Reportage Press, what gives this book its remarkable freshness is that much of it was written in the months after her liberation, in 1979. After that, she had to rebuild her life with her surviving son in France and the carbon copy manuscript was all but forgotten. It was only when some 25 years later she met a European academic who told her that the Khmer Rouge did “nothing but good” for Cambodia that she realised it was time to end her silence. Her phenomenal testimony sold 50,000 copies when published in 2005 in France. Today, Denise is remarried, lives in Paris and works at the EU's Institute for Security Studies. Her book will be serialised by the Sunday Times in the UK.

The second book is Corpse_Watching, a book of poems by Sarith Peou, who is currently serving prison time in Minnesota. While incarcerated, he converted to Christianity, and earned a GED and an Associate of Arts degree. He has dedicated his life to education, and moral and spiritual transformation within the prison. Peou is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide – he fled to Thailand in 1982 and relocated to the USA in 1987 – and his stark poems are accompanied by equally stark photographs from S-21. TinFish Press are the book’s publishers. Read a review of the book here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Article links

A couple of online articles worth a look.

Its a few days old but Dante Ramos in the Boston Globe gives his view on Cambodia today here.

Meanwhile, Kate Chaillat in 'Fields of Khmer' for the Central Chronicle, talks about the Angkor civilization here.

Finally, I found this 1998 article in the UNHCR Refugees Magazine Issue 112, titled Cambodia: The 'Killing Fields' Revisited. Worth a read.

Hanuman, air-con and Chum Mey

I mentioned yesterday about a new job and a place to live now that I’ve relocated – lock, stock and barrel – to Phnom Penh. I’ve been fortunate to hook up with my pals Nick Ray and Kulikar Sotho at Hanuman Tourism, where Kulikar is Executive Director and my boss. Hanuman is a brand that is going places – providing tours, its own boutique hotel, fine arts, antiques and clothing outlets and film production services – and I’m extremely pleased to be on-board. I’ll be working on the tours we provide in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos as well as hotel liaison, website, brochure and all things in-between.

This is a Cambodian-owned company brimming with fresh, talented young Khmers and I’ll be the ‘old-hand’ helping out where I can add value. The tourism industry is new to me after thirty years in banking back home in the UK, but it’s at the core of what I’ve been doing in Cambodia since 1994, so some might say, the job is ‘tailor-made’. It’s abundantly clear that my new colleagues are very committed to their work and to Kulikar’s vision of providing ‘travel with a personal touch’. To that end, I’ll be working closely with Nick, the editor of the Lonely Planet Guide to Cambodia, and with his encyclopaedic knowledge of all of the Mekong countries, it’s an ideal opportunity for me to learn from him and to pass on what I know. It’s a challenge but one I’m up for, after a tumultuous last nine months in my life.

As for my new living accommodation, with the help of a tenacious Khmer friend, I’ve secured a tw0-bedroomed flat a few blocks away from the Hanuman office – in the expat-favoured Boeung Keng Kang 1 area of the city – living above the landlady and her family and within spitting distance of some handy restaurants, bars and a supermarket. Thank goodness I have the essential air-con, having already experienced the heat and humidity, which is far greater than my usual visits in the cooler months of December/January.

I made a bee-line for the Vann Nath exhibition of paintings on display at the Bophana Center and whilst the artist wasn’t around, I did meet another of the survivors of Tuol Sleng, Chum Mey. He was at the Center to record his recollections for their living archive and was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions. Chum Mey was incarcerated in Tuol Sleng and suffered interrogation and torture before the Vietnamese invasion and was one of the S-21 Seven, lucky enough to escape alive. His own family and up to 17,000 others at Tuol Sleng weren’t as fortunate. Whilst he told me in detail about his treatment at S-21 and his views on the ongoing tribunal, its clear the memories of the Khmer Rouge regime still haunt him to this day. I wanted to ask him about the period after Pol Pot was ousted and his life outside Tuol Sleng but I felt I’d intruded on his memories enough already and thanked him for his time. I hope he can find the answers he is still seeking.
The author & Chum Mey at the Bophana Center.