Thursday, January 31, 2008

Comfort and style

The pool at Borei Angkor was a pleasant haven after a morning at Angkor Wat
My spacious & comfortable accommodation at Borei Angkor Hotel
My understanding is that there are over 100 hotels already in operation in Siem Reap with another 10 at least, scheduled for completion sometime this year. There seems to be no end to the accommodation boom in the town that acts as the gateway to the Angkor complex of temples. My own 2-night stay in Siem Reap at the weekend was at the Borei Angkor Hotel, located on Route 6 and a very enjoyable and comfortable stay it was too. My room was spacious with a private balcony and decked out in a mix of art-deco and Cambodian themes. I used the Borei Cafe restaurant for my buffet breakfasts and the gorgeous pool/jacuzzi pool for my cooling down session after a visit to Angkor Wat. The hotel staff were helpful and very pleasant, from the front-desk to the room cleaners. It's so important for any hotel's image that the front-desk staff are warm and welcoming, which I've found is not always the case when paying visits to hotels for inspections as part of my role at Hanuman. I won't name names but it's something that some hotels need to work on. Competition for customers is red-hot in Siem Reap now so competitive pricing and attentive top class service are no-brainers for the hotels looking to succeed.
The photo below is of a building that has caught my eye on a few trips to Siem Reap. It's a Youth Center that is located along the main road to the temple complex. It's opposite the entrance to the Le Meridien Angkor Hotel. The style I believe is in the modernist 1960s art-deco category but I'm sure someone will put me straight on that. Its in an area that is seeing a lot of development, so don't be surprised if it disappears over the course of the next 12 months. Siem Reap is changing so rapidly, that's its impossible to keep pace with it all.

A stylish art-deco Youth Center building on the road to Angkor

WWF update # 2

The wild of Cambodian dry forests - by Tep Asnarith, WWF
It was inside the Cambodian dry forests where Sophoan, Porny, Soeun and Asnarith, all from WWF Cambodia’s head office, spent four nights in early December to participate in a team building workshop, organized annually by the Srepok Wilderness Area Project (SWAP) this time at its Mreuch headquarter, as they respectively gave presentations about WWF and financial policy and guidelines, and in particular to see for themselves the beauty of the unique Cambodian dry forests and the magnificent wildlife it harbors. The forests are located in the east of the country in Mondulkiri province and are one of the WWF’s important protected areas, called Mondulkiri Protected Forest (MPF).All of them joined WWF within the least one or two years and used to hear project staff describe and tell stories about the area, project activities, things that happen in and around the landscape. They had only seen the forest and wildlife from photos and other visual materials. This was the time they were able to admire these significant flora and fauna of the Cambodian Eastern Plains for themselves. “These forests are absolutely splendid! It is so exciting to be here in the middle of such a wonderful landscape,” said Soeun, former admin and finance manager. “What we use to hear about the area and see from photos has almost nothing to compare with what we see and learn in reality. Tall canopy trees with similar spacing between and diverse grass types in the ground layer make this whole area the most incredible forest landscape I have ever seen,” he said. “We now know what we are working hard everyday for and the reason why WWF is making great efforts to protect this beautiful dry forest and the globally significant wildlife it supports. Also we understand better why we help the Cambodian government and local communities sustainably manage these valuable natural resources, on which Cambodian generations including ethnic Phnong depend for many years,” he added.

Dry forest, or deciduous dipterocarp forest, consists of large tropical hardwood trees that are long-lived and can grow up to 30 meters high. It has an open canopy and grassy understorey. Despite the name, the dry forest is wet too because of its incredible rainy season where 90% of the annual rain falls in just seven months (May-November). Many of these trees are prized for their timber. The fruits of dipterocarp trees have conspicuous long wings (sepals) to aid in dispersal by wind.Despite years of war and isolation, the Cambodian dry forests are still relatively intact and provide home to one of the most diverse large mammal communities in Asia, including key species such as Tiger, Gaur, Banteng, Wild Water Buffalo, Asian Elephant, Leopard, as well as bird species such as Great Hornbill, Green Peafowl, White-rumped and Red Headed Vultures. According to the most recent research as part of wildlife monitoring annually conducted by the SWAP team, all of these bird species have been directly sighted, while tracks of Tiger, Leopard and other large mammals have also been recorded. At the same time, the result of the research confirmed the presence of Eld’s Deer and Douc Langur in the area. “Look there, three of them, those are Eld’s Deer!,” Sophoan, finance officer, shouted from the back of an elephant during a morning ride into the landscape as she wanted other colleagues to follow what she had spotted. “The mahout told us that those Eld’s Deer we have just seen were all males and that we were lucky to see them during such a short elephant ride. Project rangers and mahouts normally spend longer time to be able to sight wildlife,” she said. “Beside Eld’s Deer, we also saw wild pigs, around ten of them running so fast trying to escape from us and our elephants, as well as birds coming to small ponds for water,” Porny, communications officer, described to other colleagues when returning to Mreuch office after she dismounted from the back of the elephant.

The connection of these forests with one of the important Mekong river tributaries, the Srepok river, makes the whole area one of the most outstanding habitats in the region for large waterbird populations. Its seasonal wetlands provide breeding grounds for threatened species including the White-shouldered Ibis, Black-necked Stork, Giant Ibis, Sarus Crane and Greater and Lesser Adjutant. “Based on the results of our latest research, the project counts significant numbers of waterbirds including 19 Sarus Crane, 18 Giant Ibis, as well as 74 Woolly-necked Storks,” said Sopheak, senior SWAP officer. While wild cattle, large cats and birds still roam the surrounding plains, the Srepok river itself stands out as special and unique in the Greater Mekong Area as it boasts some subpopulations of at least 140 Mekong fish species including the 2.5-foot giant carp, a close relative of the Mekong giant catfish, and hosts an immense diversity of aquatic life including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile. The exotic fish the river teems with are a very important food and water source and constitute in the river catchment nearly 90% of the animal protein supply of the local people. Attempting to retain their cultural and agricultural practices, a remarkable diversity of minority ethnic groups, including Phnong, Tampuan, Kraol, Thmon, Jarai, Kreung and Stieng, as well as Khmer, Cham, Chinese and Lao living throughout the Cambodian Eastern Plains landscape, are heavily reliant on the area's natural resources, including forests where they collect non-timber forest products. The Phnong is the largest group. And like many groups who live in the dry forests in Mondulkiri province, they collect liquid resin from certain trees. Natural resources support development in many ways. Ecosystem services, like the provision of clean surface water from protected upper watersheds, are an undervalued, but vital benefit of healthy natural areas. Local people rely on plants, animals and fish for subsistence needs, and ensuring the sustainability of these harvests is the first step towards greater development. Some kinds of natural resources also can be sustainably managed for commercial uses. Nature tourism has great potential in the dry forests if wildlife populations recover. In many of the more open patches of the dry forest mosaic landscape, key wildlife species could be viewed as easily as in the great game parks of Africa, India, and Sri Lanka, if their numbers were restored. Together with government and NGO partners, WWF is working towards finding a balance between development and conservation, for the long-term benefit of the people, plants and animals which share this globally significant ecoregion. “WWF Cambodia’s SWAP is implementing a very successful Southern African approach to protected area management in the MPF in Cambodia’s Eastern Plains landscape. The project’s main objectives are to protect and conserve plants, country’s rare and endangered wild animals including large mammals and large water birds, and water sources; while at the same time promote sustainable use of natural resources and ecotourism,” Sopheak said. Link: WWF.

WWF update # 1

Cambodian conservation work – not just a man’s world - by Porny You, World Wildlife Foundation (WWF)
Women are working as hard and sweating as much as the men in WWF conservation programs in remote areas of Kampuchea. In WWF-Cambodia’s Srepok Wilderness Area Project (SWAP), in the country’s eastern plains, Khmer, foreign and local indigenous Phnong women play a vital role in preserving the Mondulkiri Protected Forest (MPF). Hy Somaly, a Phnong indigenous woman, joined SWAP’s Community Extension Team to inform and educate the indigenous community on the importance of wildlife conservation. “I have to go to different communities to inform and educate them on how to improve their livelihoods with sustainable natural resources use”, she explains. It is testament to Somaly’s skills and talents that she can work across three cultures – her own, Khmer and that of her foreign colleagues. Her Khmer colleague, Att Sreynak, a data assistant with the Srepok project, notes that though Khmer and Phnong people have different traditions, they can work together very effectively to reach the projects goals. “Luckily Somaly can speak Khmer, so there is no language barrier between her and other colleagues”, she says.Sreynak is no stranger to hard work on the project. While collecting data, she often has to walk long distances into the forest. She acknowledges it is quite demanding, but would never let the mainly male ranger team that accompanies her know. “Even though the conditions can be quite bad, especially in the rainy season – we would never give up – because we are responsible for getting the job done”, she says.
As SWAP has planned to develop its site for ecotourism, Olga van den Pol has been a recent new female addition to team, joining as ecotourism team leader. Originally from Holland and fluent in many languages, she is still struggling with the Khmer language. “Though I cannot speak Khmer language, I can ask for help from any Khmer colleagues who can interpret for me. The system works and we recently had a reward from our conservation efforts with the “capture” by a camera trap, of one tiger we knew was in the forest, but which we had not seen for two years. It was good to know it was still thriving in the forest area we are protecting and developing”, she explains. She hoped, as a result of WWF-Cambodia’s work in this area, that wildlife populations would increase and alternative livelihoods could be developed to reduce the local communities’ dependence on natural resource use. The MPF is a quiet place with fresh air and bird sounds, where some people wish to visit or stay at for a while for pleasure. However, as it has not yet been developed as an ecotourism site, it also can be considered as a dangerous place, in particular for women who live there for work. All rangers and police have to leave their posts to go patrolling – leaving only women, who are chef and cleaners at the posts. According to Keo Sopheak, senior SWAP officer, women do not dare to walk at night around in the open, because they are afraid of dangerous wildlife. “I can not blame them as in the past we have seen tiger tracks around the camp sites. It is not only wildlife that is dangerous, humans can be worse with hunters and poachers who might take the opportunity to visit the post sites while the rangers and police are not there”, he said. “Though they feel scared, these women never ever give up their work. They all play a vital role in supporting WWF-Cambodia’s conservation work by keeping our staff strong and healthy. Working in the hard conditions of the forest might seem like a job more suited to a man, but in the SWAP, the women play just as important a role at every level of our conservation work”, Sopheak says. Link: WWF.

Angkor Pass

The new 1-day Angkor pass with photo - please excuse the mug-shot!
As it was my first visit to Angkor for a few months, the 1-day pass I purchased for $20 on Sunday now includes a photo of the recipient, ie. me. Due to a high demand from foreign tourists visiting Angkor and wishing to retain their ticket as a permanent souvenir of their trip, all passes now contain a photo. Previously it was the 3-day and 1-week passes that contained a photo and were laminated. Now everyone gets their photo on their own pass, the process takes less than 2 minutes with the ticket-seller advising you not to lose your pass and to show it on request, but as you can imagine, when a few coachloads of Koreans arrive at the same time, the queues can quickly build up.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The shrines of Phnom Thom

This is the main shrine of the temple of Prasat Premea Cheung Prey, that sits atop Phnom Thom, dedicated to Preah Meada and Preah Ang Pheap. Smoke from incense sticks fills the air.
The summit of Phnom Thom contains Prasat Premea Cheung Prey and a series of smaller structures, each with its own unique shrine and background story, housed within each building. The main prasat was being watched over by a sole lay-woman who was a recent arrival at the temple and didn't know the history or any details of the various shrines. No-one else was around at the time of my visit. I have visited this temple on three occasions now and always find something of interest that I didn't notice before. I'll post more pictures from Prasat Premea Cheung Prey tomorrow, including its collection of interesting lintels.

Another shrine located in an adjoining building

This reclining Buddha is flanked by two nagas, a small stone lion and several severed heads

Another colourful shrine on top of Phnom Thom with a stone bed

A small open-air shrine at the foot of the hill, contained within a separate laterite prasat

Neak Ta at Cheung Prey

An Indian-inspired Neak Ta at Phnom Thom in Cheung Prey
A more classical Buddhist pose for this Neak Ta at the foot of the hill
The hilltop temple of Prasat Premea Cheung Prey is well worth a quick visit if you are travelling Route 6 between Phnom Penh and Skun. There are two hills, male and female, a few kilometres east of Skun as you approach Phaav market. More on the temple soon but in the meantime, here are a couple of examples of Neak Ta shrines- powerful guardian spirits - to be found at Phnom Thom, where the main prasat is located. I don't know any details about these two shrines, though the top one looks Indian in its origin to me. I must admit I haven't taken much of an interest in Neak Ta until recently, so I need to find out much more about these intriguing shrines that you can find literally everywhere in Cambodia. The two lower photos were also taken at Phnom Thom, with the large red-coloured faces atop one of the entrance gates to the hill and the 4-armed figure at the top of the flight of 153 steps to the summit.
Don't you just love these huge faces that greet you at some of the pagodas around Cambodia
A 4-armed figure at the summit of Phnom Thom

Hanuman Films update

An elephant shoot with Radical Media
It's been a busy few months for Hanuman Films with a number of major commercials coming to Cambodia to shoot. Radical Media arrived in October to shoot a major commercial for Pepsi's 2008 global campaign. Locations included the East Gate of Angkor Thom, the temple of Ta Prohm and the old market area of Siem Reap. Body doubles were in town for Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Frank Lampard, plus some pretty good footballing skills on display by the stand-ins. At the end of the year, Radical Media returned to shoot a TUI commercial with elephants at the East Gate of Angkor Thom, plus there was a small Cisco shoot involving 300 extras and a refugee camp to showcase their satellite and communication business.
On the television side, Destination Truth came over to investigate the story of Jungle Girl who came out the forests of Ratanakiri last year and looked into the existence of 'forest people'. The filming was raw and felt a lot like the Blair Witch Project. Other projects included a film about the Khmer Rouge tribunal for HBO and an inspirational documentary about conquering disability called Beyond the Chair. More projects are in the pipeline and I'll let you know about these as and when they happen. Link: HanumanFilms.

Angkor Wat artist

Pisey paints in oils with one of the world's most stunning backdrops for inspiration
I spent a couple of hours with a few of my souvenir selling pals at Angkor Wat on Sunday morning and also had the opportunity to meet Chan Pisey, a painter and seller, who has a stall to the left of the causeway as you enter the complex. Pisey, who is 26 years old, studied for two years at the home of his teacher as there is no art college in Siem Reap. He's now been out on his own for the past four years, painting in oils and watercolours and selling his work directly to visitors to Angkor Wat, or at his home-cum-shop a few kilometres on the road towards Banteay Srei. I sat with him, with Angkor Wat looming large in the background, as he used a pallet knife to begin an oil-painting of Jayavarman VII, though he stopped frequently to serve customers to his stall, where he also sells wooden carvings and t-shirts. His paintings sell for $25 and upwards depending on the size and style; he paints traditional scenes as well as abstracts and his stall is alive with colourful examples of his own work, and that of some of his artist colleagues. If you'd like to contact him, his mobile number is 012 567 649.

Some examples of his work and other artists on his stall at Angkor Wat

More paintings on sale at Pisey's stall, from $25 and upwards

Fresh-faced Pisey holds up an example of his art at his Angkor Wat stall

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cambodia Border Crossings

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you'll know that I now work for Hanuman Tourism in Phnom Penh. One of our more mundane tasks is to try and keep track of the myriad number of international border crossings that seem to open up almost on a monthly basis in recent times! It sounds easy enough but believe me, it ain't. Cambodia shares a border with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodian visas are available at all land borders with Laos and Thailand, but only two of the land borders with Vietnam. They are not currently available at Phnom Den. Here's a look at the international border crossings currently in operation. There are dozens of 'locals-only' border crossings between all the countries.
From Laos:
The only border crossing with Cambodia is at Voen Kham (L). Confusingly there are two Cambodian posts that service this crossing, which connects Si Phan Don in southern Laos to Stung Treng (C): one on the river (Koh Chheuteal Thom) and one on the new road to Stung Treng (Dom Kralor). The river route is rarely used these days, as minibuses ply the road.
From Thailand:
There are now as many as six land crossings between Thailand and Cambodia, but only two are popular with travellers. The border at Aranya Prathet (T) to Poipet (C) is frequently used to travel between Bangkok (T) and Siem Reap (C). Down on the coast, crossings can be made from Hat Lek (T) to Cham Yeam (C) by road, which connects to Koh Kong (C) and on to Sihanoukville (C) or Phnom Penh (C).
There are also three more remote crossings, which see little traffic: Chong Jom (T) in Surin Province to O Smach (C), connecting with Samraong (C); Choam Sa-Ngam (T) to Choam (C), leading to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng (C); and Ban Pakard (T) to Pruhm (C) leading to Pailin (C). Bear in mind that road conditions on the Cambodian side are pretty poor.
There is also a border at Prasat Preah Vihear (C), the stunning Cambodian temple perched atop Phnom Dangkrek mountain range. This is currently just a day crossing for tourists wanting to visit the temple from the Thai side, but may open up as a full international border in the near future.
From Vietnam:
There are new border-crossing options opening up every five minutes! The most popular option is the road border linking Moc Bai (V) and Bavet (C) for quick passage between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. The most evocative route is the river crossing linking Chau Doc (V) to Phnom Penh (C) via the Mekong border at Vinh Xuong (V) and Kaam Samnor (C). There is also the rarely used option of Tinh Bien (V) to Phnom Den (C) that connects Chau Doc (V) and Takeo (C). More recently, there is the new border at Xa Xia (V) and Prek Chak (C) linking Ha Tien (V) and the island of Phu Quoc (V) with the popular Cambodian destinations of Kep (C) and Kampot (C). Finally, there is a new border just opened in remote Ratanakiri at Le Tanh (V) and O'Yadaw (C) which links Pleiku (V) with Ban Lung (C).
Tourist visas, costing US$20 and requiring one photo, are available on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports and all land border crossings except the Phnom Den/Tinh Bien border crossing with Vietnam.
It is also possible to arrange a visa through Cambodian embassies overseas or an online e-visa (US$25) through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: here. Arranging a visa ahead of time can help prevent potential overcharging at some land crossings. However, this e-visa cannot be processed at certain land border crossings. Anyone planning an extended stay should get a one-month business visa for US$25, as these are easier to renew.

Snaps from my weekend away

Angkor Wat souvenir seller, Now with the bride, Yeay Panh
I've got some more 'stuff' to share with you from my weekend away in Siem Reap, but in the meantime, here's a few more photos to keep you 'in the picture'. On Saturday night I was a last-minute invitee to the wedding party of Yeay Panh and her husband Somach. Yeay Panh had heard I was in town and invited me to her wedding bash alongwith just about every souvenir seller that I've ever seen on duty at Angkor Wat. The next morning I spent a couple of hours at Angkor Wat, visited a few hotels after lunch and then attended the excellent Hanuman Annual Party in the evening. We drove back yesterday and visited the hilltop temple of Prasat Premea Cheung Prey en route.

A monk inspects the 8-armed Vishnu at the entrance gopura to Angkor Wat. The original head of this statue was re-attached in 2004.

Talking of heads, the giant's head was detached by an arrow on this painting on the wall of the pagoda's vihara next to the Angkor Wat causeway

Respected historian Ang Choulean at the Hanuman Annual Party, introducing his latest work, Khmer Renaissance

The unusual laterite hilltop temple at Prasat Premea Cheung Prey, a few kilometres from Skun

Spean Praptos

A view of Spean Praptos from the west
The east section of the bridge showing the corbel arch and the embankment faced with laterite blocks to deter slippage
The best example of a laterite Angkorean bridge in Cambodia can be found at Kompong Kdei, on the route between Kompong Thom and Siem Reap. Its called Spean Praptos and I never tire of visiting it. It also happens to be the longest corbelled stone-arch bridge in the world and is called Phra Phutthos by the folks at UNESCO. Now that the main highway has been diverted, it only sees light motorized traffic these days and should survive for many years to come. I wasn't aware until recently that the French restored it between 1964-7 but they made a good job of it and the bridge now resembles how it must've looked in its heyday. It was one of the many construction projects completed during the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century, as he built temples, royal roads, monumental bridges and rest houses across his kingdom. Spean Praptos spans the Chikreng River at a length of 87 metres, is 17 metres wide and has 21 corbel arches, topped by a Naga balustrade of sandstone, with multi-headed serpents at the end of each balustrade. If you've never seen it for yourself, make sure you take a few minutes when travelling along Route 6 to marvel at this feat of Khmer engineering. I nearly forgot to mention, there are another nine laterite bridges, considerably smaller but of the same era, located between Kompong Kdei and Siem Reap. Keep your eyes open for them when travelling along the highway.

The north-west Naga on Spean Praptos with multi-heads. There are 4 Naga heads like this.

A guardian figure on a boundary stone that marks the walkway at the side of the road that spans the bridge

A gormless tourist who got in the way of my photo - oh so predictable!

Angkor National Museum

A window into the gallery of 1,000 Buddhas
A lion-headed kneeling Asura demon guardian from the 10th century Banteay Srei temple
Saturday afternoon was my first opportunity to visit the new Angkor National Museum, which opened its doors to visitors in November. I must concur with previous reports that the museum is well presented using state-of-the-art technology with collections themed by temples, kings, beliefs and religions. The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas is particularly striking and all the main collections include interactive multimedia presentations. However, the stylish presentations can't hide the fact that that the overall collection is way short of the quality to be found in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. It's also pretty small by comparison though that's deftly disguised through the technology and presentation. Entry is $12 per foreigner, $3 for Khmers, which is very expensive when compared with the museum in the capital or the Temples of Angkor. My view - an interesting addition to the range of visitor attractions in Siem Reap and an informative introduction to the Angkor story, but its over-priced and crying out for a bigger collection. I didn't have time to visit the attached shopping gallery, so can't comment on that. The museum covers 20,000 sq metres and has attractive water features including a pond at its center. A $2 camera fee will allow you to take photos in the public areas, so you can snap away at a few lions, heads from Angkor Thom and Preah Khan and a few other pieces of sculpture but cameras are not allowed in the main collections. I was disappointed that 40% of the items on display do not have any signage or explanation of their provenance, whilst the lighting on some exhibits could be improved. The galleries of inscription stele and lintels were quite poor and I have seen much better examples myself in the storage areas of Angkor Conservation. I loved the 1,000 Buddhas gallery though, with the walls inlaid with small back-lit Buddhas and larger items including the highly-unusual Sumethabos, a 9th century prostrate Bodhisattva from Phnom Vak, presented in the middle of the room. I'm glad I went but there's work still to do to bring it up to an acceptable standard for the price they are charging.
This eight-faced head of Brahma was found at Tvear Khmoach, near the west gate of Angkor Thom. It's from the 12th century.
A lion from the 12th century temple of Banteay Kdei
One of the demons, with a typical grimace and headdress, from one of the entrance gates to Angkor Thom. Hundreds of these original sandstone heads are in storage at Angkor Conservation.

Art of Survival exhibition

The new Art of Survival exhibition at Meta House made the headlines yesterday in Reuters Life! It opened on 24 January with over 20 Cambodian artists, including Vann Nath, Chhim Sothy, Hen Sophal, Vandy Rattana, Prum Vichet and more, reflecting on the genocide of the Pol Pol regime.
Pol Pot artist links past to present with "Art of Survival" - by Chantha Lach
Cambodian artist Van Nath's talents saved his life in the 1970s, when he was forcibly put to work painting pictures of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Now the artist, one of a handful of remaining survivors of the regime's notorious Tuol Sleng prison, hopes his latest works will expose the reality of Pol Pot's rule to a new generation. On show at Phnom Penh gallery Meta House as part of the "Art of Survival" exhibition, his paintings of prison life are aimed at helping visitors deal with the trauma of the Khmer Rouge's 1974-1979 rule, when an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of starvation, torture or disease. But they also hold a mirror up to the present, said Van Nath, throwing the treatment of Khmer Rouge officials currently on trial for crimes during Pol Pot's rule, including "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, who has been linked to Tuol Sleng, into sharp relief. "If I compare the prison where I was to Nuon Chea prison, it is very different. The prison at the Khmer Rouge court is very good. It has televisions, electricity, mattresses and they have enough food to eat," he told Reuters."At the prison where I was, I was in handcuffs 24 hours a day with no food and no medicine. Now even with today's good prisons, prisoners can still ask to be released on bail. They complain that they cannot stay there. But what about me and the nearly 20,000 people who were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng?" Van Nath said.
An estimated 17,000 to 20,000 Cambodians were crammed into Tuol Sleng, also called "Security Prison 21" or "S-21" under the Khmer Rouge, a black-shirted communist guerrilla movement who declared war on modernity after overrunning Phnom Penh in 1975. They were ousted four years later by a Vietnamese invasion.Of the tens of thousands accused of betraying the regime at Tuol Sleng, only a dozen are known to have made it out. The plain three-storied high school building, in a quiet quarter of the capital, is now a public memorial site and museum. It draws thousands of visitors every year, as do the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, about 15 kilometres (9 miles) out of the capital, where the remains of many of Tuol Sleng's victims are buried in mass graves. But some worry the country has not yet processed the trauma of the Pol Pot years, even as high-profile trials of former officials, including Tuol Sleng's former governor, Khang Khekh Ieu, or "Duch", make their way through a United Nations tribunal. This is where artists such as Van Nath can contribute, said Metahouse gallery owner Nicolas Mesterharm. "The young generation we work with knows a little bit, so we try to educate them and we try to bring young and older artists together," German-born Mesterharm told Reuters. "We try to address that issue of genocide and the Khmer Rouge atrocities through art within the society that has not learnt yet to speak openly about what happened 25 years ago," he said. A number of international documentaries and films, such as the 1984 Oscar-winning "Killing Fields", have brought the country's violent past to international audiences. And several memoirs written by survivors of the regime sell at tourist sites such as Angkor Wat in the country's north, and Phnom Penh. But book sellers often say they have not read the English-language stories themselves. For many young Cambodians, like student Sar Sayana, exhibitions such as the Art of Survival give a more accessible window to the past."It is important that these artist know what happened and that they made this exhibition so that others can know all about it too," she said, walking through the gallery.

Monday, January 28, 2008

And there's more...

Two of the welcoming committee at Kohak Nokor - the numbers of kids grew steadily during our visit
This was part of the crowd of children that saw us off at Kohak Nokor
Detail from the giant Nagas at Spean Praptos. Considering their age, the bridge and its Nagas are in fantastic condition
One of the lions from Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, on show at the new Angkor National Museum
Just before I leave the office, here's a few more photos from my weekend trip. We left Phnom Penh at 9am on Saturday and arrived in Siem Reap at 4pm. We immediately headed for the new Angkor National Museum, which I will give you my thoughts on, a little later. Stay tuned!

Just back!

We called into the 11th century temple of Kohak Nokor, as many of our Hanuman team had not visited it before
At our food stop in Kompong Thom, I popped to see Sokhom's daughter, Kunthea (right) and her friend Pisey. Sokhom was with a tourist at Sambor Prei Kuk.
Another stop en route was at Spean Praptos, the best example of an Angkorean bridge in Cambodia at Kompong Kdei. The main road has been diverted away from the bridge to protect it.
I've just arrived back - 4pm Monday - from a couple of days in Siem Reap. My days were packed solid so no free-time to get on-line. It was the Hanuman Party on Sunday night, and I also went to a wedding party the evening before. Above are some photos from the trip to Siem Reap. More photos and comment to follow when I get a chance to catch my breath!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Reunion at Romdeng

LtoR: Author, Rachel & Sak
Paying a surprise visit to Phnom Penh tonight was my pal Sak from Battambang, and another friend, Rachel Madden. I first met Sak a couple of years ago and have remained in contact ever since. He's a genuinely nice fella, a very knowledgeable guide around Cambodia's 2nd city and met Rachel and her husband on their visit to Cambodia in November. Rachel has returned to take a six-week sabbatical to help out at a school, an orphanage and at Cambodia Trust and brought Sak to Phnom Penh so he could get his passport and apply for a visa. The intention is to give Sak the holiday of a lifetime, in his words, with a two-week trip to England in April, courtesy of Rachel's generosity. He is deeply touched by the gesture and his family, especially his wife and four children, are so proud that he will be going abroad, the first person in their family to ever do so. He was also chuffed to bits that the second floor of his house has now been completed, the final brick was laid only yesterday, so in his words again, he's in dreamy-land. Tonight's meal was at Romdeng, billed as the taste of the provinces and run by the Friends' organization. We didn't take the spiders option, instead going for Muslim beef and squid, whilst outside the rain came down in sheets, for the 2nd consecutive night. It's pretty unusual to get such downpours in January by my reckoning, about five months too early! In my absence tomorrow night, don't forget the Flute Player documentary, being shown at Meta House from 7pm, which will be attended by the film's subject Arn Chorn-Pond, the founder of Cambodian Living Arts.

Looking at Angkor

Angkor Wat in 1928
I mentioned the National Geographic Magazines I have in my possession yesterday and I will close that chapter with a couple of photos from two of the magazines. In the September 1929 edition, Robert J Casey's article, Four Faces of Siva: The Mystery of Angkor - which the author also released as a book, a 1st edition of which I also have in my library - is accompanied by colour photographs from Gervais Courtellemont, including the one above of Angkor Wat. The April 1960 edition contains an article by W Robert Moore, who combined his 35 years of research with fourteen remarkable paintings by Maurice Fievet for a stunning pictorial, recreating the daily life of a lost civilization. The Nat Geo that is most common is the May 1982 edition which contains a fold out section of the Angkor temples, showing them in their full glory, courtesy of the magazine's art team. The photo below is part of that section.
Continuing the Angkor theme, the Wall Street Journal - Asia edition and writer Leslie Hook focuses on the splendour that is Angkor Wat in an editorial article today. Find out more here. And last but not least, bio-toilets from Japan are on their way into the complex later this year - you heard it here first!
The Angkor complex from the Nat Geo of 1982

Party time - again

Birthday girl Molyda is in the white t-shirt in the middle of this group of friends
This time of year seems to be one long party in Cambodia. We all know it's the wedding season - I think I've been to half a dozen wedding parties in the last few months - but parties in general seem to be coming thick and fast right now. Last night it was the 15th birthday party of a friend's niece, whilst this coming weekend, the thrice-postponed Hanuman party will take place in Siem Reap - well... I'll let you know if it actually goes ahead. Last night's bash was to celebrate the birthday of Molyda, who looked a picture in her bouffant hairstyle, and was held on the roof of her parent's brand spanking new home, just off the toll road on the way to the airport, and hidden in a rabbit-warren of gleaming new houses, that are sprouting up all around the outskirts of the capital city. The neighbours were all invited so that they didn't complain about the karaoke sound-system blaring out til midnight. The drink flowed freely, the chicken curry was delicious and made especially for me, whilst the cake-cutting was delayed until I arrived too. Anyone would've thought it was my party, as foreigners certainly do seem to get a very honoured status at these functions. And in age-old tradition, nearly every man at the party asked me to dance with them - something very alien in British culture, but very routine and acceptable in Khmer culture. A good time was had by all.
'Happy Birthday' is being sung just prior to the cake-cutting and streamer fight
Some of the younger element at the party. The older partygoers were too busy drinking beer

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Nat Geo gems

The front cover of the March 1912 National Geographic containing the first mention of Angkor
Rummaging around in second-hand bookshops often produces the odd gem, and my own rummaging back in England a few years ago, came up trumps in the form of a couple of National Geographic Magazines with articles focusing on Cambodia. A search of the Nat Geo articles listings also highlighted three other editions worth searching for and with the help of e-Bay, I now have all 5 in my possession. The earliest is the March 1912 edition (Vol XXIII, No 3) with two-thirds of the edition devoted to a story by Jacob E Conner titled The Forgotten Ruins of Indo-China: The Most Profusely and Richly Carved Group of Buildings in the World. It tells of Conner's visit to an Angkor that was only navigable by boat for two months of the year from Saigon and explains in detail what he found, accompanied by 63 illustrations (pictures) and 2 maps. The majority of the photos were lifted from the photographic collections of Dieulefils and Fournereau, two adventurous gentlemen who documented Angkor around that time. This edition of National Geographic helped to being Angkor to the attention of the public at large, especially in America, where the magazine was produced.

Stairway leading to the central tower of Angkor Wat (Dieulefils)

The 4 other Nat Geo's which any self-respecting Cambodia lover should endeavour to obtain - I would say that because I have mine already - are the following:
September 1928: Vol LIV, No 3. Four Faces of Siva: The Mystery of Angkor by Robert J Casey (with 14 illustrations).
April 1960: Vol 117, No 4. Angkor, Jewel of the Jungle by W Robert Moore & paintings by Maurice Fievet.
May 1982: Vol 161, No 5. The Temples of Angkor by Peter T White & Wilbur E Garrett.
August 2000: The Temples of Angkor by Douglas Preston & photos by Steve McCurry.

One of the few pieces of the ornately carved wooden ceiling from a gallery at Angkor Wat (Fournereau)

Women that care

Strong women in Cambodia are an absolute MUST for the future of this country. The story of 4 such women, leading the way for change in Cambodia, are featured on the CARE website
here. CARE are a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. Women are at the heart of CARE's community-based efforts to improve basic education, prevent the spread of HIV, increase access to clean water and sanitation, expand economic opportunity and protect natural resources.
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The railways in Cambodia are getting an overhaul. Two companies, French and Thai, will give all existing lines a total makeoever, that's 600 km of rail track, as well as extend the line to Poipet. The cost is $55 million with completion in two year's time. The end goal is to connect the Asean countries from Singapore to China, but Cambodia has been the fly in the ointment, until now. The renovation will begin next month. Cambodia's railways were constructed between 1929 and 1942 but have declined to a very poor state over the last 30 years.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Precocious and cute

BosbaPanh and her guitar at last night's performance
BosbaPanh did what she does best last night at the Meta House, wowed the crowded bar with her musical prowess, her precocious talent and her cute personality. The 10 year old starlet will undoubtedly continue to progress riding on the crest of a wave of publicity and PR that puts Hun Sen to shame but to back that up, she has got a gift for her art and a natural talent that her parents and teachers must continue to nurture and grow. The concert at Meta was a joint effort with her band, La Compagnie bospaPANH, and kicked off with a series of instrumental pieces led by Bosba's equally gifted younger brother Panhlauv, on the flute. The second half saw Bosba take on centrestage with her sweet voice, accompanying herself on guitar and violin, backed by her band. A tribute to Sinn Sisamouth in Khmer was followed by Reputation in French. Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind sounded even better sang in Khmer, while Samnang's violin and Bosba's English vocals on Love Story were top drawer. Mona Lisa was a joint English and Khmer version with a curt Phnom Penh bringing the evening to a close. It was a great showcase for the youngster and her band, the event was filmed by at least 4 camera teams including a tv station, and I'm sure maximum publicity will be squeezed out of the occasion. That said, Bosba is a real talent that could bring her and Cambodia some international recognition if handled with care. Link: website.

Bosba takes time out to sign copies of her CD


This story turns my stomach. Anyone found recruiting children into Christianity, either with animation, free gifts, other tricks of the trade or by word of mouth, should be deported. Full stop.
Young boy's story of faith is first of many to come - Mission Network News
The GodMan film debuted in Cambodia last November. It is a 3D animated story of Jesus Christ. Book of Hope is showing the film in schools and churches. In the Buddhist nation, public showings would likely have adverse effects. "Inside church facilities, they are free to invite anybody who wants to come. And people are able to come without hesitation," said Ty Silva with Book of Hope. During the first showing in November, a young boy watched the film with great interest. Silva later found out that the boy was the nephew of the Book of Hope director in Cambodia. The boy had come to live with the director's family from his rural home.
The night after the boy had seen the GodMan, the director's family had a water leak in their home and had difficulty finding the leak. They decided to pray, and the little boy offered a prayer, for the first time, asking God to help them. "Even though he had been around a Christian family for several weeks, it hadn't made any softening in his heart. But when he saw the GodMan, when he saw Jesus there on the screen, it got his attention, and it changed his attitude and feeling. Now he has made that commitment to Christ," said Silva.
Silva adds that there will likely be more of these stories as the film is shown in more places.
To show it in more places, Silva says they have a unique idea. "The idea is to put all this equipment into a little mini-van and be able to go around to rural provincial areas and be able to show the GodMan and then to give all the children a free gift of a Book of Hope," he said. Usually generators are required to take to rural villages in order to show the film. The mini-van outreach would be done in conjunction with local churches and in turn strengthen them. Christianity is relatively young in Cambodia.


Last night and this morning have been more than enjoyable. Making new friends and meeting old friends will always be a big part of my life here in Cambodia, so meeting Kari and George Grady Grossman for the first time last evening, and then Loung Ung earlier today has put a big smile on my face.
Kari called me yesterday when she, George and their two children, Grady and Shanti, returned to Phnom Penh after weeks beavering away at their school and fuel project in the shadow of the Cardamom Mountains, hours from anywhere. We enjoyed a long chat on too many topics to recall whilst enjoying an Indian/Nepalese meal at Mount Everest on Sihanouk Blvd, accompanied by Kari's two Nepalese sustainable fuel specialists, both called Sanu. Kari and George are effectively full-time fundraisers for their project back home as Kari does speaking engagements across the States, and supplements that with sales of her book, Bones That Float, and Khmer handicrafts. They have a passion for their project and a passion for Cambodia, that is undiminished despite the problems they encounter on an almost daily basis.
Another friend who is chockablock full of passion and positive energy is Loung Ung. It's a year since we last met, but it felt like yesterday, as we spent a couple of hours catching up over coffee at The Living Room cafe, a block away from my office. Loung is in Cambodia visiting family members in various locations around the country and taking a relaxing break from her busy schedule in the States. She's earned a rest in my view. Fifteen years of working in human rights, writing her books and lecturing across the States and beyond have made her a well-known public figure, but here in Cambodia she can just become one of the crowd and that suits her just fine.
Links: Kari; Loung.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dar-laing around Kampot

A copy of the Kampot Dar-laing newsletter landed on my desk today, issue # 3, so I'm a bit behind the times, but nevertheless, it's a pleasant read as it highlights what to do and where to go in and around Kampot - the lovely, sleepy riverside town in Southwest Cambodia - as well as providing info on grass roots volunteer opportunities. These include teaching English, giving your time to orphans, deaf, blind and disabled children, supporting programs that assist rural and disadvantaged people and so on. The newsletter is put together by some of the locals in Kampot and is worth getting hold of a copy. I've always enjoyed my visits to Kampot, I have friends there and hope to return again sometime soon. And if you haven't seen them, the sunsets across the river are well worth the visit - not as amazing as the sunset views at Kratie - but nevertheless, a pleasant way to while away the time at one of the riverside bars like Rikitikitavi or Rusty Keyhole. More at the Kampot Interact website here. By the way, Dar-laing means strolling and cruising - either along the riverfront or around town in the case of Kampot.
The new road to the top of Bokor Mountain - one of the main tourist sites in the area around Kampot - was inaugurated last weekend by the PM Hun Sen. The Sokha group are renovating the old casino and hotel on the top of Bokor and got the contract because they agreed to build a proper access road to the top. It's expected to take thirty months and $20 million to complete the road! The road itself winds around the mountain for 32 kms. The resort was originally built by the French in the 1920s but abandoned in the 1970s due to heavy fighting. At the moment its not really clear whether tourist access to the top will still be allowed whilst this work takes place. The renovation of the buildings at the mountain top will take place in stages and many more hotels, casinos, villas and other facilities are on the development plan for Bokor. It's all going to look very different to when I paid my first trip to Bokor in December 2000, that's a certainty.
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Jimi Lundy, the Australian-based, Khmer-born singer-songwriter popped into the office to say his goodbyes this afternoon. He's been in Cambodia for a month and leaves for his Melbourne home tomorrow. Jimmy (right) was a big hit on his last visit to Hanuman and his self-released When We Were Young single went down a storm. His hopes of playing a few gigs during his stay were shelved after he got into serious talks with a major record label and decided that the gigs and air-play on radio and television had better wait for his next visit. When there's something concrete to report, you'll hear it here. In the meantime, listen to Jimi at his myspace site.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Skinny frog

Matey, on our first meeting in December 2003
Everyone knows it, Cambodian kids are adorable, and they don't come much more adorable than Matey - or 'skinny frog' was how she was introduced to me when we first met in December 2003. She's the younger sister of my god-daughter Vansy and if its possible, she's more of a tomboy than her elder sister. She was missing her front teeth when we first met - hence her closed-mouth smile above - but at the party in Kien Svay yesterday, she's sporting a brilliant row of beaming white front teeth that any kid would be proud of. I've met her on a few occasions now, on various trips to her parents' house in Kien Svay district, and whenever we meet she welcomes me with the shout of "Andy Garredo" and "Smackdown" - who are in turn, her favourite wrestling star and her favourite sport! And then engages me in her latest wrestling move - as I said, she's a real tomboy, with such an adorable and outgoing personality that you can't fail to be won over. She spent most of the party clearing tables and picking up litter, as is the task of the younger kids at these events but she also found time to play and run around like a lunatic as she always does, and of course, to practice her latest wresting move on me!
Matey, with beaming smile, at yesterday's party

Unplugged at Meta House

Try and visit the Meta House on Street 264 in Phnom Penh this Wednesday to catch up with a future Khmer star in the form of 10-year-old Bosba Panh (right), who will be performing 'unplugged' on the night from 7pm. A coloratura soprano, she's mature well beyond her age, sings in several languages, plays guitar and leads her own group, La Compagnie BosbaPanh. She comes from a talented family - she's the niece of the famous film director Rithy Panh - and has travelled widely, including a visit to Everest base camp! Already a regular face on Khmer television, she released her first cd - Phnom Penh - last year, an album of songs that recall the happier times of the 1960s including compositions from Norodom Sihanouk, and followed that up with a second release, SrorMay, last month. Her group are all teachers or students from the Royal University of Fine Arts, who play traditional songs in a contemporary style. Bosba was born in Thailand to a Laotian mother and a Cambodian father, Meng Heng Panh, who studied in France and worked as a journalist there during the Khmer Rouge period. You can listen to Bosba on her own website here. Amidst new exhibitions at Meta that seem to be happening every five minutes, the film evenings will continue this coming Saturday when the founder of Cambodian Livings Arts, Arn Chorn-Pond will be present to show the film The Flute Player by Jocelyn Glatzer, whilst The Killing Fields gets a run out on Sunday night. Link: Meta; Flute Player.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Party time

Four of the younger generation at the party, including on the far right, Matey
My excuse for missing the Mia Farrow-versus-Cambodian authorities show-down at Tuol Sleng on Sunday, which turned out to be a non-event, was a party that I attended in Kien Svay, some 25kms southeast of Phnom Penh. It was a house party with about 100 guests and judging by some of my snaps, a multitude of children. The food was generous, the music was loud and everyone had a great time. The water-fight instigated by the host left everyone soaked to the skin, except the top military guests who included a general and colonel! I met many old friends and made lots of new ones. On the way home, we avoided the National Road 1 road-widening dust-bowl that starts at Koki and heads 20kms towards the Vietnam border, by taking a back-road. I also noticed that the massive Buddha being erected at Wat Niraud Rainsey, a few kilometres over the Monivong Bridge, has been reduced to rubble after years of seemingly inactive construction.

Socheata was a can-collector extraordinnaire

This swing-seat provided hours of fun for the kids

Sokheng and her two daughters, carrying her neice

Two of the older generation, at sixteen years old, are Srey Nin (left) and Srey Noch

The four 'ice maidens': LtoR: Dany, Srey Pich, Sampoh, Sophia

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Giving children a chance

To Touch the Soul is a documentary that follows the experiences of educator Carlos Silveira and several California State University students who traveled to Cambodia in 2005 to create art projects with children living with HIV/AIDS. It highlights the emotional ties that Silveira and the students make with the children as they discover a wealth of talented and loving kids. It also shares a message of hope for the future that Cambodian students will replicate what the American students have done and take a lead in educating and caring for their own kind. The 70-minute documentary focuses on two NGOs called Little Sprouts and Little Folks, where the children are either HIV-positive or orphaned by AIDS. It's full to brimming with the unconditional love and affection that Cambodian kids are renowned for, the courage of a child like Seima who has plans to run his own school but may never live long enough to achieve his goal, and the dedication of people like John Tucker, who has worked tirelessly for the last seven years in making a difference to the lives of children living with and affected by HIV. The Meta House showing tonight was well-attended and included Silveira, Tucker and director Ryan Goble, who were on-hand to answer questions after the screening. The documentary will get its first international film festival showing in Australia very soon and fingers-crossed, someone like PBS will pick it up and show it across the United States. Despite their situation, the film illustrates that children living with HIV can flourish given the opportunity and that message of hope is a beacon in the lives of those suffering with the disease.

To Touch The Soul director Ryan Goble (left) and your blogging correspondent

The intriguing Wat Prasat

The white-washed tower of Wat Prasat
The pagoda of Wat Prasat has a very intriguing white-washed tower in the corner of the temple grounds, which I visited on a recent trip to Tonle Bati. The pagoda is in the Kandal Stung district and my visit coincided with a ceremony where the head monk blessed buckets of water which he then proceded to pour over a group of followers wearing sampots and t-shirts. The ceremony is supposed to bring good luck to the recipients. I wasn't so fortunate. When I asked a few questions about the tower, the lay-men at the temple knew little of its history other than it was renovated in 1988 and they called it by another name, Prasat Pos. On my previous visit to this pagoda in 2002, a monk in his 90s had told me the tower was more than 300 years old but that is the sum total of what I have been able to find out about it's heritage. The lintel above the doorway looks like a copy of a pre-Angkorean era lintel of the 7th or 8th century, the decorative rings on the colonettes also point to that period, whilst the lions are slim and upright, smaller lions sit atop the upper levels of the tower and all in all, its unlike anything else I have seen on my travels. Inside there are a collection of buddhas and a painting of Angkor Wat. Two guardian figures with fierce faces glare at you as you approach and other remnants include an elongated broken pedestal and headless figures. If you know anything of this prasat's history, please let me know.

The doorway to the tower, guarded by fierce figures

Is this lintel, in a pre-Angkorean style, an original or a copy?

Part of a large collection of buddhas inside the tower
One of two upright lions at the front entrance of the tower of Wat Prasat

Touching the soul

If I can recover from a debilitating bout of diarrhea and vomiting - you really didn't want to hear that did you - I will attend the Meta House film night this evening (starting at 7pm), which is showing a brand new feature-length documentary called To Touch the Soul. The film's director Ryan Goble will be present at the screening, having made the trip back to Cambodia armed with sixteen computers for children featured in the documentary.
Here's the blurb on the film: Its a 70-minute documentary that follows American University Professor Carlos Silveira, an artist educator and social activist, who wants to bring a sense of joy to impoverished children in Cambodia affected by HIV/AIDS. He recruited 27 American university students to join him as part of a pilot program in using drawing and painting to help these children express their wishes and desires for their futures. As Carlos and the students grapple with the realities of a culture much different from their own, a language they don't understand, art projects that don't go as planned and a three-week deadline, they form a bond with the children. Through these young Cambodian mentors—all of them abandoned by society—the Americans empower their own social activism and learn the true meaning of kindness, selflessness, courage and community. Told from Carlos’ and six of his students’ perspectives through a mix of spoken (voice-over) diary entries, interviews and interaction with the children as they create art projects together, this documentary shows that even the smallest attempt at making a difference can have life-changing consequences for all the people involved. The film also highlights the growing problem of the 77,000 children in Cambodia who have become orphans due to their parents dying from AIDS, a population expected to grow to 108,700 over the next five years. Yet, the audience is left with a sense of hope that adequate funding, proper food and medical care, as exemplified through the featured NGOs Little Sprouts and Little Folks, will allow these children to thrive until hopefully there is a cure for this unforgiving disease. Link; Film website.
On the subject of films on Cambodian issues, another documentary, Year Zero: Story of a Khmer Rouge Soldier, is in post production and is hoping to snag Hollywood actress Sharon Stone as narrator, following the lead of Rain Falls From Earth, which has Sam Waterston doing the narration. Sam of course will always be remembered for his portrayal of Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields movie. Both Year Zero and Rain Falls have yet to be released for public viewing. Links: Year Zero; Rains Falls From Earth.

Touching the soul

If I can recover from a debilitating bout of diarrhea and vomiting - you really didn't want to hear that did you - I will attend the Meta House film night this evening (starting at 7pm), which is showing a brand new feature-length documentary called To Touch the Soul. The film's director Ryan Goble will be present at the screening, having made the trip back to Cambodia armed with sixteen computers for children featured in the documentary.
Here's the blurb on the film: Its a 70-minute documentary that follows American University Professor Carlos Silveira, an artist educator and social activist, who wants to bring a sense of joy to impoverished children in Cambodia affected by HIV/AIDS. He recruited 27 American university students to join him as part of a pilot program in using drawing and painting to help these children express their wishes and desires for their futures. As Carlos and the students grapple with the realities of a culture much different from their own, a language they don't understand, art projects that don't go as planned and a three-week deadline, they form a bond with the children. Through these young Cambodian mentors—all of them abandoned by society—the Americans empower their own social activism and learn the true meaning of kindness, selflessness, courage and community. Told from Carlos’ and six of his students’ perspectives through a mix of spoken (voice-over) diary entries, interviews and interaction with the children as they create art projects together, this documentary shows that even the smallest attempt at making a difference can have life-changing consequences for all the people involved. The film also highlights the growing problem of the 77,000 children in Cambodia who have become orphans due to their parents dying from AIDS, a population expected to grow to 108,700 over the next five years. Yet, the audience is left with a sense of hope that adequate funding, proper food and medical care, as exemplified through the featured NGOs Little Sprouts and Little Folks, will allow these children to thrive until hopefully there is a cure for this unforgiving disease. Link; Film website.
On the subject of films on Cambodian issues, another documentary, Year Zero: Story of a Khmer Rouge Soldier, is in post production and is hoping to snag Hollywood actress Sharon Stone as narrator, following the lead of Rain Falls From Earth, which has Sam Waterston doing the narration. Sam of course will always be remembered for his portrayal of Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields movie. Both Year Zero and Rain Falls have yet to be released for public viewing. Links: Year Zero; Rains Falls From Earth.

Friday, January 18, 2008

In the news - round-up

An article on the Celebrating Cambodia exhibition can be found on the Daily News site here. It's a show of 50 pieces, and includes work by five artists with roots in the SEAsian country, including two Cambodians living in the US, two living in Cambodia, and one non-Cambodian who visits the country frequently. Artwork in the show ranges from paintings to pottery to modern photographs of Cambodia and the exhibit depicts events from Cambodian history, as well as everyday pastoral life.
A very different type of show will be premiered in New York on 21 January. Seven, a documentary theatre piece based on the real-life stories of seven extraordinary women who are part of Vital Voices Global Partnership, will make its stage debut in the Big Apple. The production, featuring seven individual monologues told by seven actresses, is a collaboration between Vital Voices and seven award-winning playwrights. The lives of these diverse and courageous women illuminate the work of Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international women's nonprofit in Washington, USA that identifies, trains, and connects emerging women leaders around the world. Cambodia's Mu Sochua will be featured. The former Minister of Women's Affairs in Cambodia (one of only two women in the cabinet), she was co-nominated in 2005 for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work against sex trafficking of women in Cambodia and neighbouring Thailand. More here.
Seattle Times reporter Haley Edwards is travelling around SEAsia and is currently in Cambodia. Read her features on the dancing road between the Thai border and Siem Reap, and the killing fields memorial near the town, here.
The big buzz around the newswires in the last few days has been the intended rally at Tuol Sleng by the US-based Dream for Darfur advocacy group, who'd planned to light an Olympic-style torch on Sunday at the Khmer Rouge's infamous prison in Phnom Penh to remember the victims of genocide and to urge China to press Sudan to end abuses in Darfur. The Cambodian government have said no, though its not yet known whether the rally will take place. Those intending to take part were the US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, Hollywood actress Mia Farrow, campaigner and politician Mu Sochua, authors and survivors Theary Seng and Loung Ung and former S-21 inmate Vann Nath. If it goes ahead, 9.30am is the start time.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Skyscrapers galore!

The skyline of Phnom Penh is changing fast these days, and in the next few years it will change beyond all recognition. The 12-storey building above is a mere minnow in the face of three projects that are either in the throes of building already or under development. The Gold Tower 42 is due for completion in 2011 at the corner of Sihanouk and Monivong Boulevards, will cost $2.4 billion and as the name suggests, will be 42 storeys high. It's gonna be a whopper. However, a Korean developer has announced plans for a 52-storey residential and office monstrosity near the Russian Embassy, costing $1.1 billion and completion set for 2012. The other biggy in the works is a 30-storey, $20 million project near the Railway Station, which will complete next year. Everywhere I look in my own area of the city, Boeung Keng Kang 1, my view is obstructed by green netting surrounding constructions like the one above. They are literally everywhere, most of them are new residential apartment blocks available only to the wealthy - so that's me out of the equation. Someone once told me it's a sign of progress - but as a long-time lover of the 'good old days' in Cambodia, it's extremely painful to my 1 eye!

Meta student night

Punisa and her roneat dek xylophone
For the third of Meta House's Wednesday night Khmix It! performances - focusing on traditional Cambodian music from students of the NGO Cambodian Living Arts - 17-year-old high school student Pov Punisa displayed her adept skills on the roneat dek, a metal xylophone or metallophone, for an hour and answered a variety of questions from the audience. Punisa began studying the roneat dek three years ago, memorizing the teachings of the master of an instrument that is usually part of a pinpeat ensemble. The undecorated sound box is supported by four legs and is made of hardwood while the twenty-one sound bars are usually made of bronze. Like most of CLA's students, Punisa is paid a stipend by the NGO to encourage her and her parents to maintain her studies against the distractions of teenage life and the need to survive in a tough environment like Phnom Penh. The CLA has around 300 students like Punisa, who are making a major contribution to the revival of traditional Khmer art forms across the country. Links: CLA; Meta House.
After the performance I had a drink with a good friend of mine, Eric de Vries, who gave me a much-appreciated present of copies of some of his photographs that will soon go on exhibition at the McDermott Gallery in Siem Reap. Eric is on assignment in Cambodia for six months and is loving it here. Read my review of Eric's book, Images of Cambodia, here and visit his excellent new website here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Traditional potions

Opposite the Hanuman offices on Street 310 here in Phnom Penh, is a traditional medicine shop that produces various potions and pills on site. I often see a group of women sorting pills, pellets, tablets, herbs, roots, or just about anything into packets or drying the medicines in the sun on the pavement, as you can see above. These particular pills were a gorgeous violet colour when I spotted them at midday today and on closer inspection, were the size of a pea, rock-hard and artificially coloured. The shop owner, part of the famous Tep Leap traditional medicine chain of shops, told me the pills are used to alleviate problems with male constipation, though I couldn't work out why men and women might have different pills for this ailment. Though I know absolutely nothing about it, this fascinating form of medicine has its roots firmly in Asia and modern drugs have been developed from some of the herbs, trees and scrubs used for centuries by local inhabitants who swear by these remedies.

Neak Ta at Wat Prasat

The pagoda of Wat Prasat, in the Bati district just off National Road 2, has a very interesting building in the corner of the temple grounds, which I'll introduce you to very soon. In the meantime, this Neak Ta, or powerful guardian spirit, was residing in a small stone-built spirit house in the grounds of Wat Prasat. Even though Neak Ta are essentially part of the animist beliefs of Cambodians, they are often found in Buddhist pagodas or located elsewhere in a village where the locals believe their powers and energy force will do most good. The shrines or huts of Neak Ta literally contain anything, natural or man-made. The objects represent the land, water and spirit elements and often house small figures, some gaudily painted or worn through time, like the one above. The offerings to the Neak Ta can also be seen in the photo. In many instances, I have seen sculpted items taken from ancient temples and statues and worshipped as Neak Ta. If you see a shrine on your travels, take a moment to look in and see what treasures you can find - but never disturb the contents or you might face the wrath of the all-powerful Neak Ta.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Kari leads from the front

Wow, I feel tired just reading about the work going on at the Chrauk Tiek Primary School in the shadow of the Cardamom Mountains. That's where Kari Grady Grossman, her family and helpers are at the moment, assisting the local school and community to change the dynamic of environmental destruction and rural school poverty in Cambodia. From little acorns...
Kari is the author of the fantastic book, Bones That Float, about her adoption of a son and his country. The book is magnificent and the work she has pioneered at the school and with the community of Chrauk Tiek is equally laudable. I urge everyone to read her blog, find out more about the school and its 500 students, and to buy her book. I challenge you not to be moved by all three.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Yaz on CD Baby

You already know that Yaz Alexander's debut CD, Life Begins, has been released by Fully Fledged Productions. The silken-voiced artist has been a well-known secret in and around Birmingham for many years but she's now stepped out of the shadows of her former collaborators Pato Banton and Steel Pulse and into the limelight, to bring her own brand of reggae-fused music to a wider audience. Now, the 17 songs on this eagerly-awaited album are available to buy at CD Baby, alongwith two minute samples of each song. Click here. Yaz Alexander is a captivating performer in every sense of the word. Check her out today!


I was very pleased to meet Asad and Olivia in person for the first time this morning. They visited me at the Hanuman offices as they were passing through Phnom Penh. They've formed an organization called Project Enlighten to help children in Cambodia with educational and vocational skills opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise had. Both are wildland firefighters in the United States and have been in Cambodia since early December, assessing the needs that their organization can fulful and doing what they can on the ground. They will return to the States later this week. Their dreams and goals for the children of Cambodia are heart-felt and passionate and I wish them every success. You can keep up to date on their travels via their blog.

Another form of enlightenment comes from the Mujestic music camp where Cambodian-born rap artist praCh has posted some of the tracks from his forthcoming album - Dalama...memoirs of the invisible war - onto his website. Click here to listen to eight of his new tracks focusing on the past and the present. For my own exclusive interview with praCh, click here to find out more about his current projects.

For photographer Deborah Groves, a visit to Cambodia in 2004 simply changed her life. Read Deborah's story and the charity to help Cambodians help themselves that she has set up called Helping Hands Cambodia, at the online The Daily newspaper here. And visit Deborah's own website here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The new 2,000 Riel banknote

The 5th gopura at Preah Vihear is denoted on the new 2,000 Riel banknote
The National Bank of Cambodia has just entered into circulation a brand spanking new 2,000 Riel banknote, which has taken days for me to get hold of a copy. I'd heard it contained a picture of Preah Vihear on the new note, and so it does. Its particularly topical as Cambodia has been desperately trying to get World Heritage status for the temple and as well as this extra slice of publicity amongst the country's currency, the authorities are also making changes at the temple itself. The souvenir and drink vendors have been moved out of the temple courtyards and down to the bottom of the first flight of stairs, and the word is that the village which sits next to the border crossing with Thailand, will also be cleared away pretty soon. Back to the banknote, it's equivalent to half a US dollar and replaces an equal value of tattered 1,000 Riel notes that have been taken out of circulation and destroyed.
The other side of the 2,000 Riel banknote shows harvesting in the shadow of Angkor Wat

Prasat Preah Theat revisited

The 7th century lintel of Prasat Preah Theat
Nearly six years after my previous visit, just off National Road 2 on the way from Phnom Penh to Tonle Bati, I called into Wat Preah Theat. There's a new vihara under construction and if you didn't know it was there, you'd miss the remains of Prasat Preah Theat, as its tucked away at the back of the pagoda compound. The monks were meditating so no-one was around to pump for details, which was a similar story six years ago, so I'm still no further forward in understanding the history behind this temple. Can anyone shine a light on Prasat Preah Theat, located in the Bati district? There's a couple of prasats that go under the same name, so make sure its the Bati one.
So what did I find? Under some sheets and tarpaulins were two sandstone lintels, both similar in style, though one was quite literally worn away. The other, shown above, appears to be in the Sambor Prei Kuk lintel style, so that would date it to early to mid 7th century, definitely pre-Angkorean. There are four arches with three medallions, with the central one carved with the figure of Indra on an elephant, and inward-facing makaras or sea monsters, with figures on each makara. Below are jeweled garlands and pendants with beading and vegetal motifs. If these two lintels are from the original temple, it would suggest that the prasat was primarily constructed of brick though I could only find a few laterite blocks on the mound where the temple was located. The lintels and doorways were always constructed of sandstone. Now, a bell-shaped stupa is at the summit of the mound, around which a new wall is being built.
Next to the lintels were a pedestal and four half-standing lions in varying degrees of repair. Again, experts can tell the date of a temple by its style of lion guardians, showing their fangs, their bulbous eyes and their jeweled pendants. I can't. In a locked room nearby, I could make out through the dirty glass, a couple of statues of Buddha seated under a naga but no-one was around to unlock the door, so their age and exact relief remains a mystery. I get the vibe that Prasat Preah Theat was a pre-Angkorean temple with later additions, but its an unrecognisable ruin nowadays with some interesting sculpture still in situ.

The bell-shaped stupa with the blue hood marks the center of the ruined prasat

One of the guardian lions bearing fangs and bulbous eyes

This half standing guardian lion is one of four at the site of the ruined prasat


The dying Buddha reaches Mahaparinirvana at Ta Prohm
There are many unusual scenes depicted on the walls, pediments and lintels of Prasat Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati. There's the woman condemned to carry a box on her head for the rest of her life which contains the afterbirth of her newborn child and in another relief, the King has his wife trampled to death by a horse for her unfaithfulness. The most striking relief with the most colour is the one above. Its located above the doorway of the main eastern entrance of the central sanctuary. This remarkable lintel shows the Mahaparinirvana, the dead or dying Buddha reclining on his right side with his head raised on pillows, flanked by two mourning acolytes. The pediment above is decorated with a pyramidal sequence of lotus petals which protects Buddha under a three-tier parasol. The style of the relief, according to the experts, is from the 16th century, so was added maybe three centuries after the temple's construction, while the painting was completed even later. For the record, Buddha's last words were: "All things are perishable; work diligently on your own salvation." You don't read that in a guidebook!

The east gate to Ta Prohm's central sanctuary, showing the dying Buddha lintel

The reliefs of Yeay Peau

The dancing Vishnu of Prasat Yeay Peau
The small sandstone tower of Prasat Yeay Peau is nestled right up against the vihara of Wat Tonle Bati. Besides the legend of its construction - a race between men and women to build the tower, which the women won by deception (don't they always!) - it has two notable reliefs, the one shown here above the false western doorway, and a less-appealing Buddha seated in meditation over its main eastern doorway. I will concentrate on the western relief. The tower dates from the late 12th century but there is a mix of Hindu and Buddhist iconography in the carvings which indicates some of the reliefs were introduced many years after the original. The main pediment over the western door is of Vishnu (or Shiva) dancing, holding a conch in his upper right arm and a discus in the upper left hand, with similar attendants immediately below. This is the Hindu influence, whilst the three registers of the lintel underneath the dancing figure, is unmistakingly Buddhist in nature. The highest register shows the common scene of the bodhisattva being tortured, with the little old man standing to the right leaning on a stick; the middle register has kneeling figures with simple hairstyle wearing a long robe, probably monks, with hands raised in veneration. The lower register has crowned worshippers with hands in prayer. What does it all mean? - your guess is as good as mine, but similar scenes can be found on lintels and pediments across the Khmer kingdom. One meticulous and lengthy tome that gives a wonderful insight into Khmer mythology and iconography is Vittorio Roveda's exhaustive study, Images of the Gods. Without his insights, i wouldn't know where to start!

The lintel of three registers on the western doorway at Yeay Peau

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The tale of Prince Vessantara

A two story lintel at the eastern entrance to Ta Prohm temple at Tonle Bati
Directly opposite the Churning of the Ocean of Milk lintel at the eastern entrance to Ta Prohm temple at Tonle Bati is a lintel that tells two stories in its carved narrative. To the left Prince Vessantara is pouring water over the hands of a smaller figure to signify the donation of the precious white elephant. To the right, the prince and his wife and two sons on a chariot begin their journey, preceded by attendants holding banners and parasols. Who was the prince you cry? ... well, he was the prince of Jetuttara, a small kingdom. Jetuttara had an auspicious white elephant that brought good rains and abundant food to the state. However, when the neighbouring state Kalinga had a chain of drought and famine consecutively for twelve years, the compassionate prince donated the elephant to Kalinga. Guess what, Jetuttara now had to suffer drought and famine, and the aggrieved citizens forced the King Sanjaya to banish Prince Vessantara from the state. Respecting his subject's sentiments and his father's command, Prince Vessantara left the kingdom with his wife Madri and two sons. It worked out well in the end, as the king repented and called his son and family back to the kingdom, with everyone living happily thereafter. This is one of the Jatakas, the stories of the Buddha's various incarnations, reflecting on his charitable and generous nature.

The charitable Prince Vessantara and his family are banished from the kingdom

Churning at Ta Prohm

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk at the eastern entrance to Ta Prohm
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk is often depicted in ancient Khmer iconography and is twice represented at the Ta Prohm in Tonle Bati. The more dramatic of the two is lying on the ground at the eastern entraceway to the temple. The second depiction can be found above the north-western false window, but is far more minimal in its detail. Both tell the tale of the elixir of immortality, needed by the gods to bring stability to the world. The asuras and devas are pulling the naga Vasuki, twisted around Mount Mandara, which is perched on the back of the tortoise Kurma, while Indra sits atop the mountain, applying suitable pressure. Vishnu oversees the whole scene. This spinning of the mountain produces the churning for 1,000 years, and eventually, the magical elixir called amrita. Well that's the textbook detail of the narrative. I'm always fascinated by the craftmanship and incredible detail that you find on lintels such as these. The most famous depiction of the Churning scene is at Angkor Wat but can also be found at other temples such as Banteay Chhmar, Preah Vihear, Banteay Samre and many more.

The more minimal Churning scene on the north westen wall of the central sanctuary

Admiring her beauty

The 12th century prasat of Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati, 30kms south of Phnom Penh has quite a few unusual carvings that you rarely find anywhere else amongst the thousands of Angkorean temples that once flourished throughout the kingdom. Take the devata - heavenly goddess - above, in a niche of the main sanctuary. There's a faint trace of red lipstick on her full smiling lips but its the mirror that she's holding in her right hand, to admire her face which is adorned with a jewel in her forehead that is so unusual. Her head-dress is extravagant and her demeanour is of a refined elegance. Each of the devatas of Ta Prohm is unique.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Lolei students disrupted no more

The students at the Schools for Children of Cambodia school at Lolei, had to rope off the school grounds this week in an effort to keep tourists from wandering onto campus, photographing them in class, and disrupting their education. The school stands within one hundred meters of the entrance to the 9th-century Lolei temple ruins, which attracts hundreds of visitors each day - as part of the Roluos Group of temples about 13 kms east of Siem Reap. While some tourists enter the school grounds to use the toilets, the nearest facilities to the temple, others enter to get a glimpse of everyday Cambodian life. What tourists don't always realize is that their presence results in daily disruptions to students and teachers, making it difficult for them to focus on their lessons. The land is subject to a royal decree which prohibits building a fence, so a rope with no entry signs is the best alternative. In addition, SCC has taken other actions to address this unique problem. Discussions have been held with various tour companies who have repeatedly parked their buses on school property and allowed guests to use the school toilets. Padlocks have been provided to the school director so that bathrooms can be locked. And, a proposal has been submitted to Apsara Authority to encourage the construction of appropriate toilet facilities near the temple entrance. Nevertheless, SCC recognizes the value of travelers visiting schools and learning about the education-related challenges in Cambodia, so they have implemented scheduled school visits. The bi-weekly visits include a short presentation by SCC's General Manager and a tour of the school led by the school director. Find out more here.

Photos from the field

Three young girls at Wat Ka Koh, armed with their fishing net and bucket
The tiny Prasat Yeay Peau is snuggled up to the vihara of Wat Tonle Bati
Whilst I'm penning my Tonle Bati field trip report, here's a couple of photos from my visit: the top picture was taken at Wat Ka Koh and these three girls had just finished fishing for small fish and anything else that they could catch in their net, in a flooded field next to the pagoda. Their bucket was half-full of tiny fish, crabs and an eel and they were moving to another pond nearby to continue their daily routine. The bottom picture is of the prasat known as Yeay Peau, which sits adjacent to the main vihara of the pagoda at Tonle Bati. The temple was built in the late 12th century and is dedicated to the mother of the king. There's a tale that suggests the king was so taken by his mother's beauty that he wanted to marry her, after he'd lived away for a long time and returned and failed to recognise her. Yeay Peau is the considerably smaller sister temple to Ta Prohm, retains some worn-looking carvings on its two doorframes and a couple of headless statues inside the sanctuary.
A couple of things I forgot to mention whilst I was blogging about my Tuol Sleng visit - there's also a forensic photo exhibition at the museum, in Block D, which focuses on the skulls found buried at the site. Its in one of the rooms on the first floor. The price of entry into the museum was $2. The other footnote was that Nean Yin and Sokhyn Em from DC-Cam are currently researching a new book to be called the History of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and will be out sometime in 2008.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Time out at Tonle Bati

A club-wielding guardian on a doorway at Ta Prohm
With my photo-documentary of Tuol Sleng taking up so many posts, I've neglected to complete my postings on my recent visit to Tonle Bati, some 30kms south of Phnom Penh - an attractive weekend retreat for many Khmers. I will remedy this before the weekend. Tonle Bati is the collective name for two well-maintained Angkorean temples and a lakeside resort of wooden huts that the Khmers love so much. The photo above is one of two unusual guardians wielding clubs either side of the doorway that greets you as you enter the main sanctuary of Ta Prohm, the largest of the two prasats. In the background, you can see an Apsara and half-shuttered windows, alongwith a colourful plant, a feature at the temple of Ta Prohm over the years, which is tended to with care and affection by nuns and lay people.


Following my visit to Meta House last night for the Nhok Sinat classical performance, I popped into the Bai Thong Thai restaurant, close to the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument on Sothearos Boulevard. Lovely food, nice price and beautiful decor. Its another of the Luu Meng chain of eateries that are proliferating in Phnom Penh.

Speaking to Charley Todd last evening at Meta, he'd been busy this week with the local television company, CTN, filming an hour-long special for a Cambodian audience of the east-meets-west opera, When Elephants Weep, a love story, sung in English and Khmer, unfolding in the horrific aftermath of Pol Pot's genocidal regime and featuring a blend of traditional Cambodian music, Western classical, and rock. Where Elephants Weep is Cambodian Living Arts’ most ambitious new commission to date — the first-known contemporary Cambodian rock opera. Prior commissions have included a hip hop/traditional Khmer fusion CD by the US-based Khmer trio SEASIA and a new shadow puppet production and nationwide tour by the Phnom Penh-based theater company Sovanna Phum, in which traditional shadow puppet theater was used as a forum to educate about HIV/AIDS. Read more here.

My sources tell me that GST Express, one of many local bus companies that have increased services and routes across the country as the roads have improved over the last few years, have now begun operating a route that will take travellers and locals into areas that were only readily accessible by more adventurous souls on motorbikes and by 4WD in the past. I'm trying to get more info on the route, but it looks like a service now operates from Siem Reap to Svay Leu (near the Beng Mealea temple) and onto Sroyang (the nearest village stop-off point for the Koh Ker complex of temples). The bus continues onto the large village of Koulen and then Tbeng Meanchey, the provincial capital of Preah Vihear province. This would allow travellers access to this previously remote province which has a proliferation of ancient temples such as the breathtaking Preah Vihear and the cluster of temples around the village of Choam Khsan. The bus then drops southwards to Kompong Thom and onto Kompong Cham before ending its journey at Phnom Penh. That's the gen I've heard, not yet confirmed as no-one at GST spoke English when I called them a few minutes ago - and my Khmer is practically non-existent! If that route is now operating, its another way for travellers to gain access to some of these locations, cheaply and in some comfort - considerably different to my first experience in that part of the country, way back in November 2001. Read more here.

Update: GST, when quizzed on the bus route, tell me that they do indeed run some new routes into the north of Cambodia but at the moment, they only do the Phnom Penh to Tbeng Meanchey route every day. It leaves the capital around 7am and takes about 6 hours, costing $10. They don't run a bus from Tbeng Meanchey to Siem Reap. So, the route is less extensive than I thought, but its still a great way to get into Preah Vihear province in some comfort. From Tbeng Meanchey the whole province is your oyster!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Master in the making

Nhok Sinat performing on the classical musical instrument, the tro khmer
Tonight, I watched a confident young man playing a very classical musical instrument with consummate ease and composure and can see why Charley Todd feels that Nhok Sinat is a master musician of the future. Charley is the co-president of the Cambodian Living Arts organization and Sinat is one of their star students. Learning the traditional art form of how to play and master the tro khmer and khsae diev instruments from Cambodia's two surviving masters under the patronage of CLA, Sinat is a born natural and is destined to become as good if not better than his teachers. For tonights' performance at Meta House, he chose to play the tro khmer, a three-stringed fiddle best known for its plaintive sound at weddings and spirit ceremonies, and a whistle-flute. The typically Khmer sound he produced, sad and sentimental to my untrained western ear, is rarely heard these days because the musicians who know how to play it are scarce and growing old, so it was great to see a 22 year old fulfil his promise with aplomb. A former pagoda boy at Wat Bo in Siem Reap, Sinat's story is one that CLA are seeking to emulate amongst their 300 students as they seek to revive Cambodia's traditional art forms. Link: CLA.
Nhok Sinat, a master musician in the making

Change the world

The World Changing - Change Your Thinking website features an article on the good works being achieved by some friends of mine from PEPY.

Biking for Development in Cambodia - by Maria Hvistendahl
It started simply enough. In early 2005, Daniela Papi was finishing up a three-year stint as a English teacher in Japan and looking for a meaningful next step. She'd visited Cambodia a few years back and wanted to return. Her friend Greta Arnquist had volunteered there the summer before. The two decided they would bike across the country – and make a contribution along the way. Papi had experience with other “voluntourism” trips and knew it would be difficult to find a project that benefited locals as much as it did her and Arnquist. Still, she says: “I felt like we could be using our funds toward something sustainable and ongoing.” The friends found American Assistance for Cambodia online and asked them how much money it took to build a school in Cambodia. AAfC said $16,000. Giving themselves a year to raise the money, they set out on a tour of churches, synagogues, and community centers back home in America. (Papi is from New York, Arnquist from Minnesota). They met their target in three months – and kept going. By the end of the year, they had raised $100,000, most of it in checks of a few hundred dollars or less. The largest individual donation was $2,000.
Partnering with AAfC, they funded an addition on a primary school in Siem Reap Province. The school had been struggling to house 500 students in five classrooms. The money paid for a new building with another five classrooms, a solar panel, a generator, an Internet connection and salaries for computer and English teachers. And they had funds to spare. They scheduled their bike trip to coincide with the opening of the school. Meanwhile, their fundraising campaign had an unintended side effect: a number of people who heard them speak wanted to tag along. As long as riders agreed to pay their own way and contribute funds to the school, they consented. By December 2005, they had assembled a group of 35 people from 13 countries – and they were turning people away. Protect the Environment Protect Yourself (PEPY) was born.

Two years later, Papi is leading several trips a year and overseeing seven full-time Cambodian staff members, along with eight foreign volunteers. (Arnquist now works for an NGO back in the U.S.) In March 2007, PEPY opened a middle school in Streung Treng province. The first school, meanwhile, has become a pilot for the One Laptop Per Child program. PEPY has grown so quickly that it has split into two nonprofits, a development organization that funds and oversees schools and other initiatives and a separate tour company. Next year, PEPY Ride will have a Cambodian executive director. But the priorities that first sent Papi and Arnquist across Cambodia - an interest in education and in finding a way to spur sustainable tourism – are still very much in focus. Before each trip, PEPY organizers consider how riders might be most useful. On-the-ground local staff help identify community needs. While on the road, bikers strive to minimize their impact on organizations’ time. Rather than stopping at orphanages to play with kids or pounding nails into houses and schools, they might donate to worthy local projects – today’s riders commit to raising $1,000 each - in exchange for a quick introduction to a local development issue. “People like to paint something and get dirty,” Papi says, “and that’s when they feel like they’re most valuable. But actually they’re being useful just by being there and talking to people.” Riders might also talk with kids at PEPY schools about career options or teach them English. In exchange, children lead lessons on Cambodian culture. “We try to show people that they can learn as much as they give,” Papi says.
The emphasis on learning ensures that after the trips riders go home armed with ideas about how to keep working on some of the issues they encountered in Cambodia. After the first PEPY ride, one woman spearheaded a similar project for Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans. Two riders developed master’s thesis topics based on their experiences. The program has also had less tangible outcomes. When asked what they want to do when they grow up, many local kids used to say they want to be shop owners. After exposure to other opportunities, many now say they’d rather become teachers. “They’re learning to expand their horizons,” Papi says. Link: PEPY.

S-21 Paintings # 3

A wooden water bath was used to extract confessions at Tuol Sleng
Prisoners are led blindfolded to their execution at Choeung Ek
Vann Nath depicts the execution of prisoners at Choeung Ek, on the city's outskirts
Another scene depicting the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge cadre
This final photo shows the Khmer Rouge cadre giving no mercy to anyone, children included
The final 5 paintings by artist Vann Nath, that currently hang in Block D at Tuol Sleng/S-21 in Phnom Penh. Vann Nath completed them at the back-end of 1979 for the international visitors that were taken around in groups before it's doors were opened to all, the following year. His paintings and his experiences, recorded in a book about his life at S-21, have made his name synonymous with Tuol Sleng in the eyes of many western journalists and visitors. He also featured heavily in Rithy Panh's award-winning docu-film on S-21. His paintings at S-21 have now been put into glass-frames, hence the reflections you can see on some of the photos. The photos complete my photo-documentary of my recent visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

S-21 Paintings # 2

An impression by Vann Nath of how the gallows in the school grounds were used for torture
Water torture of varying degrees was a common torture technique
Another type of water torture, inflicted on prisoners to obtain confessions
More of the torture techniques employed by the KR interrogators
Scorpions and electric shocks were also employed to obtain confessions
A further 5 paintings by artist Vann Nath, that currently hang in Block D at Tuol Sleng/S-21 in Phnom Penh. Vann Nath painted them at the back-end of 1979 as the museum was opened to international visitors before opening to Cambodian visitors the following year. He painted a new series of scenes from his own arrest and imprisonment for an exhibition at the Bophana Center last year, and I understand the exhibition will soon travel to Bangkok and then into Europe later in the year. The paintings at S-21 have now been put into glass-frames, hence the reflections you can see on some of the photos.

S-21 Paintings

A self portrait of Vann Nath during his S-21 incarceration
One of the mass detention cells in which more than 50 prisoners were shackled together
Khmer Rouge guards carrying one of the prisoners after interrogation
Mothers and children were separated on arrival
An example of one of the torture methods employed by the S-21 interrogators
These are 5 of the paintings that hang in Block D by the artist Vann Nath, who experienced Tuol Sleng/S-21 for a year before the Vietnamese expelled the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh in January 1979. He was asked to return by the prison authorities to document his experiences of what took place at the prison, and these paintings, completed at the end of 1979, have remained on display at the museum ever since, and for which Vann Nath has become internationally renown. The paintings have now been put into glass-frames, hence the reflections you can see on some of the photos.

Final Chapter

The closing chapter of my photo-documentary of my visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum will be the Vann Nath paintings. Vann Nath, a gentle and proud man who I have met during an exhibition of his paintings at the Bophana Center, was one of a handful of survivors to escape from Tuol Sleng. He recalls that in November 1979 he was asked to return to S-21 to record his memories onto canvas - it was his skills as an artist that had kept him alive during his year at Tuol Sleng. There are 15 of his paintings hanging in the final room of Block D. Most of them are now in glass-frames which makes it difficult to photograph them due to reflections showing in the glass. The same applies to most of the pictures of the S-21 victims. On my earlier visits, there were no glass-frames but in order to preserve the materials, this has been a necessary addition. Tuol Sleng is also a necessary, though heart-wrenching, museum dedicated to the Cambodian nightmare. To gain a measure of what took place in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime, a visit to Tuol Sleng is essential.

Block D exhibits

A memorial to the deceased in the final room of the Tuol Sleng museum
Over 300 skulls are kept in glass cabinets in the room
These skulls used to form the wall map of Cambodia composed of skulls and bones Khmer Rouge cadre Tuy Kin, pictured at home by Heng Sinith
Another former cadre, Soam Nim, a KR group leader during the '70s
The most dramatic of the exhibits at Tuol Sleng was the map of skulls, which could be found in the last room of the whole museum, after it was set up in 1979. Tuol Sleng was opened to international visitors for the first time in March of that year but it wasn't until July 1980 that Cambodian visitors were allowed in. The map of Cambodia, composed of human skulls taken from the mass graves at the site was the idea of Mai Lam, a Vietnamese colonel who was given the task of creating the Tuol Sleng museum immediately after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge. For many, the map was the final straw in an emotional roller-coaster that is Tuol Sleng, and I witnessed many visitors breaking down in floods of tears on my earlier visits to the museum. The map was removed in March 2002 and the 300 skulls and bones are now in glass cases in the final room of the exhibition. On the first floor of the building is a DC-Cam photo exhibition showing former Khmer Rouge cadre who survived the war. DC-Cam investigators tracked down some of the cadre and the photos show a 'then and now' view. Some visitors have scrawled messages on the old photos.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Block D at Tuol Sleng

The northern most building at Tuol Sleng, Block D
Implements of death and torture used at Tuol Sleng
Public Enemy & Brother Number One - Pol Pot
Some of the famous faces that died under the Pol Pot regime include the singers Sin Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Houy Meas
The S-21 Seven, initially believed to be the only survivors from Tuol Sleng. Subsequently, the number has risen. Vann Nath is the tallest of this group
The final building at Tuol Sleng is Block D at the northern end of the complex, which contains a series of photographs, original paintings by Vann Nath and the skulls of some of those killed at the prison, on the ground floor. The horrific wall map of Cambodia composed of skulls and bones was taken down a few years ago. It was meant to shock when the museum was first opened in 1980 and it succeeded but stepped over the line of decency in more recent times. The first floor of this renovated (or simply given a lick of paint) building contains a photo exhibition from DC-Cam with pictures of Khmer Rouge personnel and more recent photos of the same individuals as they are today. The second floor houses a screening room where a film by Rithy Panh called Bophana is shown twice a day, and some empty rooms.

Wood and brick cells

Tuol Sleng: A decrepit wooden stupa used to stand in front of Block C, with its barbed-wire frontage
Individual cells made of house bricks or breeze-blocks are on the ground floor
Far fewer of the cells contain leg irons, chains and old USA ammunition boxes these days
The barbed-wire frontage of Block C to prevent suicide attempts
The individual wooden cells on the first floor of Block C
Block C at Tuol Sleng houses on two floors, individual cells constructed of brick (on the ground floor) and wood (on first floor). On the second floor are mass detention rooms, but on the day of my visit, this floor was out of bounds as a camera crew were filming there. The barbed-wire has been left at the front of the building to show how prisoners were prevented from throwing themselves off the upper floors to their death. In the individual cells, there are some rusting leg irons and ammunition boxes (put to use as toilet boxes). Years ago I also saw other items like plates and bowls and such like but these have now vanished, either taken by visitors as souvenirs or removed for safekeeping by the museum curators. The courtyard in front of Block C originally housed a wooden stupa but this has long since disappeared.

Innocence lost

I've been waiting for Somaly Mam's memoir to be published in English for ages and I see its due out, through Virago Press on 17 January in the UK, priced at £12.99. However, its already in the bookshops in Australia and I need to get my copy as soon as possible - as it's required reading. Published in French at least a couple of years ago, The Road of Lost Innocence tells the story of Somaly Mam, who was abandoned as a baby and looked after by her grandmother until she disappeared. She was then taken into the care of a man she called 'grandfather', but was treated no better than an unpaid servant. Raped at twelve, Somaly was forced to marry at fifteen and then sold to a brothel. She endured years of abuse before managing to escape. Her memoir is a moving account of a traumatic childhood and also the inspirational story of a determined and courageous woman devoted to helping other girls caught up in the illegal sex trade in Cambodia. In 1997 Somaly Mam co-founded AFESIP to combat trafficking in women and children for sexual slavery. You can read more about Somaly's crusade here.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Forever linked

The stark numbers involved at Choeung Ek include 8,985 victims' remains uncovered
The Choeung Ek site during exhumation in late 1980
Some of the victims blindfolds remained intact
Rows of victims skulls were shown on tv news stations across the globe
The wooden charnel house at Choeung Ek was finally replaced in 1988
Tuol Sleng and the killing fields of Choeung Ek will be forever linked. The latter was in essence the burial ground for those arrested and tortured at Tuol Sleng. A few were killed and buried at the prison itself, but most victims were shipped the fifteen kilometres out of the capital at night by truck, many blindfolded, some were even made to dig their own graves before they were bludgeoned to death by pick-axe, hoe, iron bar, wooden club or whatever else served as a weapon of death. The Khmer Rouge refused to waste precious ammunition on their victims, many of whom were their own cadre and their families. The photographs above are on display in Block B at Tuol Sleng. They show the burial site before the white marble memorial chedi was erected in 1988. They show it during exhumation in late 1980, when pictures of the skulls - some still with their blindfolds intact - laid out in neat rows on the ground were some of the most graphic images I recall from television documentaries of the time. They tell of the numbers: 129 burial pits, of which 86 were exhumed - 43 mass graves remain untouched - and the remains of 8,985 people were recovered. The stark wooden charnel house was their home where Buddhist funeral rites were performed to allow the spirits of the deceased a more peaceful passage to the afterlife, until the large white chedi was erected, which you see today.

Captured on camera # 2

Even the youngest were pictured before their deaths. Over 2,000 children are believed to have died at Tuol Sleng
20 prisoners photographed immediately after their death in custody
All of these prisoners arrived at S-21 in 1978. None survived Some of the female staff at S-21
The male cadre at S-21, none of which were exempt from suspicion and custody themselves
Block B and Block D at Tuol Sleng house hundreds, nay thousands of such images, taken by a team of Khmer Rouge photographers as the prisoners entered the S-21 interrogration and extermination facility in Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot regime from 1975-1979. These are just a small example. The meticulous prison authorities also recorded the immediate aftermath of death for many prisoners too. And of course, they always had time to take pictures of their own rank and file, female and men, who worked at S-21 as interrogators, guards, cooks, drivers, admin staff, and so on. Fuelled by paranoia, most of the rank and file cadre pictured here were killed too.

Captured on camera

A foreign visitor views a photo of Chan Kim Srung, holding her newborn baby
A young female is photographed on her arrival at Tuol Sleng
Two Cambodian students finding out more about their country's recent history
Another frightened youngster, his neck in chains, is pictured on arrival
Prisoners were brought into S-21 blindfolded and then photographed before they were put in their cells prior to interrogation
Photographs are everywhere in Tuol Sleng. On the walls, in your own camera, in your mind. Some of those pictures stay with you forever. Whether its the mangled bodies of the deceased chained to their beds, the frightened children and adults photographed on entry into S-21, still unware of their fate, the pictures of the dead, provided to the Khmer Rouge hierarchy as confirmation of their deaths, and so on. The photos above, from the exhibition in Block B, are some of those I first saw many years ago and can recall instantly if I close my eyes today. I don't think I will ever forget them. Tuol Sleng is that type of place.

The Golden Age

Bangkok-based art dealer and internationally-recognised expert on Khmer Art, Douglas Latchford, has donated two sets of gold and crystal royal regalia to the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Hats off to Doug (pictured right), a 76 year old British collector whose donation has greatly enhanced the museum's flagging collection of gold items, as the very few pieces of Angkorean gold in existence are in private collections. The king and queen sets are believed to date from the 12th century. Latchford's latest book, co-authored with Emma Bunker, is called Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods, and follows on from the duo's joint effort in 2004, Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art. Quirkily, when the book was released in Bangkok, Latchford, who is big into body-building competitions, hosted the event with the help of Thai tv and his body-building chums who modelled some of the pieces from his collection.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Tuol Sleng's Block B

The out-of-bounds first floor of Block B contains the S-21 archive
The top floor of Block B houses an exhibition of photos and stories from the book, Stilled Lives
One of the Stilled Lives stories involves sisters Mong Sam Oeun (left) and Kep Sothea (right)
Four effigies of Pol Pot behind bars - something that never happened whilst he was alive
Some of the leg irons and shackles found in Block B by the invading Vietnamese forces
The building known as Block B houses the S-21 archive of confessions, lists, photos and papers left by the Khmer Rouge as they fled from the Vietnamese invaders on its first floor. This floor is off-limits to all except those with a key to the padlocked gate. The second floor has been cleared - it was found by the Vietnamese to contain heaps of shackles, handcuffs, whips and lengths of chain - and now contains an exhibition of photos from the DC-Cam produced book, Stilled Lives. This is a look at the families of Khmer Rouge cadre. On the ground floor of Block B is a vast collection of photographs of victims, Khmer Rouge guards and interrogators, pictures of killing fields' sites and other paraphernalia.

The courtyard at Tuol Sleng

An introductory sign at the entrance to Tuol Sleng, in three languages
Block A seen from the top floor of Block B. The two upper floors are usually closed to visitors
The graves of the last 14 victims of the S-21 interrogators
The tall gallows and large water jars in the courtyard
The southern courtyard at Tuol Sleng is hemmed in by Block A and B and the one-storey central administration building. It also contains the graves of the fourteen prisoners found with their throats cut and chained to their beds in the detention cells in Block A. Another feature is the tall wooden beam or gallows from which prisoners were strung upside down and their heads ducked into the large jars of water, as vivdly depicted in one of Vann Nath's paintings to be seen in Block D. Vann Nath was one of a handful of survivors of Tuol Sleng and it was his artistry as a painter that saved his life. He later returned to the prison to portray the grisly workings of Tuol Sleng on canvas.

Entry into Block A at Tuol Sleng

A new sign hanging on Block A explains the different types of cells on each floor
One of the larger cells on the second floor of Block A
One of the original photos showing the recently murdered prisoner as he was discovered
One of the ten smaller cells on the ground floor of Block A, reserved for important prisoners

An original iron bedstead with latrine box, leg irons and plate

Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was discovered by two Vietnamese photojournalists who accompanied the invasion forces, drawn to the former high school by the stench of decomposing bodies, on 8 January 1979. They found four whitewashed concrete buildings, each three stories high, a series of recently murdered prisoners, instruments used for torture and a huge, hastily abandoned archive. It was clear the school had been used for an important function. History has since revealed up to 14,000 people were brought to Tuol Sleng, tortured and murdered.
In the ground floor rooms of Block A, they came across corpses of several recently murdered men, some of which were chained to their iron beds. The prisoners' throats had been cut. The journalists took photos of all the rooms in the school and informed the Vietnamese authorities. That night all the corpses were burnt. Some of the photos taken at that time now hang in the rooms where the bodies were found. Their macabre discovery became the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum soon after.

Alternative Tuol Sleng

With my regular motodop feeling unwell, my plan to visit Phnom Chisor bit the dust so I seized the opportunity this morning to revisit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which I've visited many times in the past. It's always a place that has held a morbid interest for me after I heard of its existence in John Pilger's Year Zero documentary in 1979. My first visit was in 1994 and at that time it was still very raw in its impact and the site was poorly-maintained, compared to the more sanitized conditions you see today. Nevertheless, the overall effect remains and for some its too much - I saw a few western visitors weeping silent tears in a couple of the rooms - though the number of tourists at the site today implies it remains one of the 'must see' stops on the tourist trail in the capital.
I will post photos from my visit soon but I thought I'd kick-off with some alternative views from Tuol Sleng. These are a few of the graffiti drawings that can be found on the white-washed walls between floors, depicting a Wild West style gunslinger holding the head of Jesus, and a series of sketches of the typical '60s style bouffant hair-do's that were all the rage at the time and can be seen in pictures of legendary singers like Ros Sereysothea. The final set of graffiti is scrawled across a picture of Son Sen, the Tuol Sleng supremo, which is housed in Block D as part of a permanent exhibition by DC-Cam. I'm informed that the translation of the Khmer writing across the picture is much too rude to print here.

This looks like the head of Jesus being carried by a Wild West syle gunslinger!

The 1960s bouffant style hair-do's are reflected in the two graffiti drawings

Another '60s bouffant as worn by singer Ros Sereysothea, who disappeared under the Khmer Rouge, presumed dead

A defaced photo of Son Sen, the Khmer Rouge Defence Minister with responsibility for the activities that took place at Tuol Sleng


A scene from the film Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers
My lasting impression of Rithy Panh's 90-minute expose of a group of prostitutes living in Phnom Penh called Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers was a feeling of utter hopelessness and a grim acceptance of what they see as their fate in life. The screening at the Meta House last night was full to brimming and the audience watched in stony silence as Panh documented the lives of a small group of working girls, warts and all. It's a vivid and hard-hitting documentary that delivers a real punch to solar plexus, it's uncomfortable viewing because it's a searing look at the real lives of women who are exploited and destroyed, mentally and physically, purely for male satisfaction. I really didn't enjoy the film at all, but that wasn't the point, it was a film everyone should watch not for entertainment but for the gritty reality of life in the city in which I now live, and from which most of us turn our heads and look the other way. To his credit, Rithy Panh didn't.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Remembering the victims

A memorial stupa dedicated to those killed by the Khmer Rouge at Wat Ka Koh
Having recently visited a handful of smaller genocide memorials near Phnom Penh, erected to honour the 1.7 million deaths that occurred under the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979, I expected one or both of the two key locations in the city, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or Choeung Ek Genocide Center, to hold remembrance services on Monday 7 January, as part of the Victory over Genocide Day anniversary - recalling the day 29 years ago that the KR were kicked out of Phnom Penh. However, the response to my telephone enquiries proved negative, with Choeung Ek informing me that ceremonies are held only on 17 April (the anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge) by the Sam Rainsy Party and on 20 May, which has been declared the National Day of Hatred since 1984. As a newcomer to living in Cambodia, this came as news to me, especially with the prime minister, Hun Sen's recent reminder to the nation: “Forgetting 7 January is like forgetting one’s parents, because if we look at ourselves, the grandfathers and grandmothers, everybody during that time, if they were not liberated on time, will they live today or not? No, they wouldn’t live.” Monday will be a public holiday for all government and private sector staff and I expect there to be some public recognition of the event, but it appears it's not taking place at either of the sites I would've expected it to be at.

The New York Times reported the first National Day of Hatred back in May 1984 was the scene of a mass gathering held in Phnom Penh. It said the Day of Hatred was called to allow people to vent their anger against Mr. Pol Pot and other enemies of the nation, including the ''American imperialists'' and the ''Chinese expansionists.'' The Cambodian press agency said May 20, 1975, ''was the day the Pol Pot gang began to implement its systematic, overt and savage genocidal policy against the Kampuchean people throughout the country.'' Throughout the '80s, “the radio played lugubrious music punctuated by crying to recall the horrors of the Khmer Rouge; theatrical productions reminded audiences of the massacres [by the Khmer Rouge] in detail,” while the '90s saw "officials and schoolchildren…summoned to ceremonies at which they heard speeches and burned paper effigies of Pol Pot.”
Whichever date is chosen, 29 years after the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh, I think it's still vitally important that Cambodia remembers those that died, and equally those that lived, scarred forever by their experiences, with a suitable remembrance service.

Tonle Bati & the Three Srey's

The Three Srey's look decidely nervous next to the 'barang'
Typical smiles from the Three Srey's on the steps of Yeay Peau
The Three Srey's framed by a doorway at Ta Prohm temple
And of course, no photos of my visit to Tonle Bati would be complete without the Three Srey's, who kept me entertained on my two hour visit to the temples. In age order, Srey Ng was the youngest at six years old and is wearing the striped top; Srey Lin was seven and has long hair, while Srey Nean was the older of the trio at eight years old and can be seen carrying the incense sticks in every photo. They were great fun and certainly enhanced my visit to the temples of Ta Prohm and Yeay Peau.

Tonle Bati moments

Three worshippers in stone at the entrance to Ta Prohm temple at Tonle Bati
A headless statue in one of the chambers deep within Ta Prohm temple
A view of the central sanctuary at Ta Prohm taken from the temple wall
Today, and over the next few days I will post some of my photos from my New Year's Day trip to Tonle Bati. And I will also post a trip report when I can find a few spare minutes to write it up. Each Sunday or public holiday I've been trying to get out of the city and into the countryside, where for me, the real Cambodia comes alive. I've visited the two temples at Tonle Bati, about 30 kilometres south of the city, a few times before on my various trips to Cambodia and I've always found them a quiet and relaxing haven away from the madness that is Phnom Penh. The same can be said for Phnom Chisor and Phnom Da, both of which are on my list to re-visit in the next few weeks.

Friday, January 4, 2008

What's been happening?

Well, last night I met up with Dave and Colleen from the Peace of Angkor guesthouse in Siem Reap, at the Rising Sun for our annual 'hello'. Both of them were in good spirits and Colleen has now pledged her future to Cambodia after a few months back home in England, which she hated. Also joining us for refreshments was Keith Kelly, the graphic design chief for the flashy free magazine available here called Asia Life. I can't believe its connected but this morning I had another bout of diarrhea that didn't stop until after lunchtime. I really don't feel well and went home during my dinner-break for a siesta. If I'm going to be ill, I always want to be at home when it happens. In fact I should be on the road to Siem Reap today in preparation for the annual Hanuman Party, where the boss will thank the staff for another great year of effort and everyone lets their hair down. Unfortunately, a series of reasons has meant a postponement until the 19th, but never fear it will take place.
Lots of gnashing of teeth over at the seaside in Sihanoukville after a fire virtually wiped out their main market, and over 900 stalls and livelihoods, late on Wednesday night. Its not the first time a market has gone up in flames in the town, and it comes on the back of the authorities wanting the stall owners to vacate the land in favour of a new market area. A similar thing happened in Pursat in April last year, when 700 stalls were razed to the ground in a 16-hour long inferno. I hope the Russian Market stall-owners in Phnom Penh have insurance!
Whoops, nearly forgot. As widely predicted, tourist arrivals hit the 2 million mark in Cambodia last year. There's already a tight squeeze on hotel accommodation in Siem Reap and now we're seeing the same thing happen in Phnom Penh. Where will it all end? Answers on a postcard to the Minister of Tourism, whoever that might be this week.

Searching for the truth

The genocide memorial stupa at Wat Troap Kor in Bati district
The neatly displayed remains of genocide victims at Wat Troap Kor

Human bones and incense sticks

Some of the 30 skulls on display at Wat Troap Kor

The third genocide memorial I visited in the Bati district of Takeo province on New Year's Day was at Wat Troap Kor. Half an hour further south from Wat Ka Koh, this pagoda was about 10 kilometres west of the market at Samraong Yaong village on Route 2. I passed through sleepy villages and two other pagodas before reaching my destination. The pagoda itself was closed, the monks asleep and there was no-one around who knew the whereabouts of the memorial. That meant a search of the grounds until I located the memorial stupa near the front gate. Built in May 2006 thanks to donations that totalled $2,750 according to the writing on the stupa wall, the door was unlocked and the bones were neatly stacked, with approximately thirty skulls on display. Wat Troap Kor was the site of more than 70 mass graves that are believed to have contained upwards of 40,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, according to the DC-Cam files. In total, within Takeo province there are nine such memorials honouring the deceased, and eighty across the country as a whole.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

More from Route 3

The newly-painted pagoda at Wat Kork Ksang
A story from the life of Buddha on the walls of the first floor at Wat Kork Ksang
4 of the pagoda's seima stones with intricate patterns
The demon Rahu is depicted eating the Moon on the ceiling of Wat Anlong Romead
The old vihara at Wat Anlong Romead
I had an afternoon to fill a couple of weeks ago, so a moto-ride out past Pochentong Airport and along Route 3 seemed like a good idea, and so it proved. Half an hour into my ride and having left the busy highway to investigate a pagoda surrounded by lush paddy fields well off the beaten track, I arrived at Wat Kork Ksang. This fifty year old two-storey pagoda, resplendent in a coat of fresh paint outside, was in dire need of renovation inside its first-floor interior, though its wall paintings remained in reasonable condition and it's seima stones looked to be very old. My next port of call was to meet Koah Nin, the head monk at Wat Teuk Khla, nestled alongside the Tumnap Prek Thnal river. Read about my meeting here. After a mini interrogation from a gang of children at an irrigation canal, I called into Wat Anlong Romead, another pagoda that I found at the end of a dusty track a few kilometres from the main highway. The older pagoda, built in 1961, sat behind a recently built vihara and was of considerably more interest, with its roosting bat population and still remarkably fresh wall and ceiling paintings. In the village next door, I joined in a game of football with a bunch of youngsters and called into a couple more pagodas before heading back to town, waving at the multitude of open-top trucks carrying girls back to the villages from the garment factories that abound on the edges of the city.
This young girl had been collecting grass in the fields

These cheerful youngsters were soon kicking lumps out of me on the football pitch

Route 3 friends

A couple of weeks ago I went for a Saturday afternoon moto-ride along Route 3 in a westerly direction from Phnom Penh with no agenda, just to stop where the whim took me. The above photo was snapped as I paused to inspect a new canal and irrigation scheme built with funds provided by the Japanese development agency. The gaggle of children at my side thought they would investigate who I was and the eldest two girls asked me what was I doing, where was I from, what was my name and so on. I was impressed by their forwardness and lack of fear, which isn't always the case on my travels into the countryside. In fact, quite the opposite has been the response on many occasions, with small children running away as fast as their little legs will carry them, screaming at my arrival. I can understand that...

Lightening the mood

The adorable Three Srey's: LtoR: Srey Ng, Srey Nean and Srey Lin
I'm conscious that my last few posts might be a little depressing, even morbid, to some readers, so to lighten the mood, here's a photo of the cute Three Srey's, who for two hours during my visit to the two prasats at Tonle Bati, kept me entertained and smiling throughout. Their own smiles were infectious and their playful innocence a real joy. In return, they asked for nothing except my attention and company. Often I fear for the future of my adopted country, but for two hours on New Year's Day nothing else mattered but having some innocent fun.

Wall paintings at Sala Trapeang Sva # 2

No-one was spared, monks in particular were targetted by the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime These prisoners are being led away into the forest to be killed
To save ammunition, hoes were used to kill victims at the side of mass grave pits
Women and children were slaughtered by the ruthless Khmer Rouge
The wall paintings in the sala next door to the genocide memorial stupa at Sala Trapeang Sva are fairly recent additions. Whilst the stupa was constructed in 1999, the vivid paintings, reminiscent in style to those painted by Vann Nath that hang in the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, were completed in September 2004. Each of the seven panels was painted at a cost of $35 by an unknown artist. Unfortunately, there was no-one around to provide any more detailed information.

Wall paintings at Sala Trapeang Sva # 1

Four of the victims of the Khmer Rouge who've been identified by family members and their likenesses painted in their honour
A painting depicting the building of canals and dykes under the orders of the Khmer Rouge
Torture including the ripping out of tongues, recalls the work of Vann Nath, which can be seen at the Tuol Sleng Museum
Victims were tortured in water containers by the black-shirted Khmer Rouge
The wall paintings in the sala next door to the genocide memorial stupa at Sala Trapeang Sva are fairly recent additions. Whilst the stupa was constructed in 1999, the vivid paintings, reminiscent in style to those painted by Vann Nath that hang in the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, were completed in September 2004. Each of the seven panels was painted at a cost of $35 by an unknown artist. Unfortunately, there was no-one around to provide any more detailed information.

Sala Trapeang Sva today

The white-washed stupa at Sala Trapeang Sva
The stupa at Sala Trapeang Sva is full of the remains of victims of the Pol Pot regime
At Ta Prohm temple in Tonle Bati, I asked about getting a boat to Sala Trapeang Sva and the guys lazing in hammocks told me that in the dry season, it was easy to visit the genocide memorial by road. Retracing our steps a few kilometres back along Route 2, we took a dusty red-dirt road for ten minutes before spying the white-washed memorial in a field next to an open-sided sala. I could see a pagoda in the distance but there were no houses anywhere in sight, in an area of deserted scrub-land. The writing on the stupa indicated it was built in 1999, there was no lock on the door and the shrine was full to brimming with human bones and a few skulls. Wax on the floor by the door suggested that remembrance services had taken place in the past but there was no-one to ask if they would take place in the future. The DC-Cam records indicate that more than 95 mass grave pits were discovered at the site and around 10,000 victims were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime in the immediate vicinity. The sala next door was adorned with colourful paintings depicting scenes from the Pol Pot years, which I will post separately. Away from any village or even a pagoda, Sala Trapeang Sva appears to be a forgotten and lonely place, though the villagers we asked along the route all knew of its existence.
Some of the remains of 10,000 victims found at the site in mass graves
Only a few skulls remain inside the stupa at Sala Trapeang Sva

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The story behind Sala Trapeang Sva

The former memorial at Sala Trapeang Sva (photo Darren Whiteside)
One of the genocide memorials I've never previously managed to locate was on my schedule for yesterday's trip to Tonle Bati, about 30 kms south of Phnom Penh along Route 2. It's called Sala Trapeang Sva (or Kuk Sang) and was a mass burial site and prison in the grounds of a former teacher training college, during the Khmer Rouge regime. I had been told nearly ten years before that you needed to catch a boat to an island to see the site, but this turned out to be misinformation. However, before I tell you the story of my trip, here is an article by Kosal Phat of DC-Cam, that throws considerably more light on this particular genocide memorial:
Very recently, a DC-Cam team made a visit to a genocide site called Kuk Sang (Sang Prison) in Trapeang Sva village of Kandal province, a site that was also visited by the UN Group of Experts during its mission to Cambodia in November, 1998. The team noted that the remains of the Khmer Rouge victims there had been disturbed. Below are excerpts from our interview with a local Patriarch Monk:
Question (Q): We are from the Documentation Center of Cambodia. We are here to see the remains of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime in Kuk Sang. When we arrived, we noticed a proper memorial for the remains. Villagers have told us that you initiated the construction of the memorial. What was the reason for your constructing this memorial for the remains?
Answer (A): One reason I got the idea to construct this memorial is that one member of my family was killed at Sang Prison. Another reason is that I observed the remains in a sad state, just sitting there exposed to the sun, wind, and rain. The remains have decayed and have even been eaten by cows. That inspired me to think that if the remains continued to lie in the state they were in they would certainly vanish and no evidence would be left for younger generations to see. In addition, if Buddhist followers wanted to come to light incense and pay homage to commemorate the souls of the dead, there was not a place for them to do so. So this idea of building a memorial for the remains came to my mind. I started with the idea of gathering Buddhist followers from many localities, including the local authorities such as the District Governor and Provincial Governor. Then, with their contributions, we built this memorial and stored all of the remains inside it. Contributions continued to come from generous individuals until the building of the memorial was finished. Another problem is that when people come, they do not have a shelter. When we had a religious ceremony during Phchum Ben Day (day to pay homage to the dead), it rained and everyone got soaked. But in remembrance of the souls of the dead, the monks ate the offered food in the rain. When we held an inaugural ceremony for the memorial, the governor of Kandal province himself came.
(Q): What is his name?
(A): His Excellency Khoem Bo came and I solicited a contribution from him, which he agreed would be used for the building of an eating hall. However, his contribution was not enough, and I could only build pillars. I think that this project should be carried on gradually every year. The Governor has also told me to keep going, and that he will help.
Q): So you first started to put this idea into motion?
(A): Yes, it was me.
(Q): Did the district authority support this idea initially?
(A): Yes, they supported it. I just started the idea, and was immediately joined by commune, district, and provincial authorities so that we were then able to really take off.
(Q): So the main reason you have is that your father died?
(A): One reason is that my father died, but an especially important additional reason is that I pity people who do not have the ability to build a memorial. They depend on monks who can solicit contributions to build this.
(Q): Why not take the remains somewhere else? Why have you built the memorial in the vicinity of the original site?
(A): Before, there was a suggestion to remove the remains to Koh Sokram pagoda, but years went by, and we never saw any one take the remains there. That is when I pointed out to the district governor of Kandal Stung that if we took the remains away from their original location, we would be separating the evidence from the scene. So I requested permission to build a memorial there. The government has given the land on the left-hand side of the site exclusively to me, while the land on the right-hand side belongs to the state.
(Q): What about the original place?
(A): The original ruined structure is said to be designated as a building for the Royal School of Administration. I do not know when they will begin.
(Q): What will be done with the structure of the former Khmer Rouge prison?
(A): The plan is to demolish the prison and replace it with a new building. This used to be a big prison and where the memorial stood is where the Khmer Rouge chiefs in charge of the prison lived during that time.
(Q): How did you feel, as someone who wishes to see the evidence and scars of the genocidal regime preserved for Cambodia’s younger generations, when the authorities attempted to demolish it and build a new building?
(A): If we could keep the former Khmer Rouge prison where it is, it is very good. But if the district authorities need it, we can not prohibit them because they said if we keep it without using it, we will lose our rights. If for this reason, they build something new, it is good too.

(Q): What year was that when you started building the memorial?
(A): In late 1999.
(Q): Why, in the first place, did you not think of rebuilding the roof of the old structure to shelter the remains from the rain?
(A): I aimed to do so, but the circumstances at that time were that even if we wanted to keep the remains there, the authorities would not let us keep them there. Possibly the remains could be brought somewhere else. I was not able to tell them to keep them where they were. And if I did not move them, the remains would be lost gradually every year until nothing would have been left there.
(Q): What about the officials who made contributions to build the memorial? Did they have relatives who were killed at Sang Prison?
(A): Some did, but others did not have relatives who were killed there because they come from distant places. Most people who died were people from Kandal Stung district.
(Q): Many people here went to the site to light incense. Were many of their family members killed there?
(A): Yes, many relatives of people here in Kandal Stung were killed, but not people in Trapeang Sva village, because in the Pol Pot time, they were the killers. So what we did would not please them, because they wanted to erase the evidence from our sight that would trigger our anger toward them. They do not want us to build this memorial.
(Q): So there are people against your idea?
(A): There are... but they dare not oppose...because the authorities stand behind me. So they are reluctant to do anything against us. If they dare, we have the authorities to protect us.
(Q): So you have their support because many of their relatives died here in the Pol Pot time?
(A): Many people from here died in the Pol Pot time, as we know from people who live nearby and those who made contributions, not to mention many others living at some distance from here. We just spent a small sum of money to disseminate our plan to build. Then people came with their contributions and help.

(Q): The death of your father at Sang Prison partly motivated you to build that memorial. Were you aware of how your father was killed?
(A): No I was not. I did not know because I was small, but my mother told me that he only worked as a plumber but the Khmer Rouge said my father was a high-ranking officer in the Khmer Republic regime. Then they took him from Sang to be killed.
(Q): How do you know that he was killed?
(A): There are people who saw and told me, and the Khmer Rouge cadres who took my father to be killed are still alive.
(Q): What are their names?
(A): They are Roeung and Mao. They controlled this prison. Many Khmer Rouge killers from Trapeang Sva are still alive.
(Q): A moment ago someone mentioned about stealing skulls and remains. Is that true?
(A): There was no stealing of skulls! But shackles were stolen. Before there were many shackles, youngsters stole shackles to sell. A few years ago, I saw a lot of shackles but when I was there to remove the remains, I found few shackles left there. Skulls were eaten by cows and bones were scattered around. I once gathered the bones to keep them where they were. Before the election in 1993, the remains were taken care of and provided with shelter. Trea sub-district took good care of them. But since the election, concern has diminished.
(Q): So the remains that you have collected and stored are all there were, and nobody cremated anything?
(A): No, I brought all the remains.
(Q): Do you believe that by doing so, you can keep the remains for long?
(A): I am not so sure, but they are not exposed now. They may continue to decay, but it will take a long time, unlike when they were exposed to the wind and rain. If they remained in those circumstances much longer, they would have quickly been turned into earth.

(Q): What about Hatred Day of May 20? Did the district authority go and organize a ceremony there?
(A): We did. Many people from Kandal Stung district went there.
(Q): So from now on, do you think that the celebration of Hatred Day May 20 will take place at the memorial?
(A): Yes I think so. The last food offering ceremony took place there, and the provincial governors also came.
(Q): Among the reasons that you have set forth-first the death of your father, second, concern about losing the remains, third, concern about a shelter for holding ceremonies-which is the most important that so inspired you to build this memorial?
(A): The second reason-worry of losing remains-is the most important reason. My father is gone and I cannot get him back. But the loss of the remains is what I have worried about the most. Because if people say “many died there”, but there are no remains there, how can we believe? So preserving the remains is the most important reason. I am not conceited. Many people have contributed their money. I did not build this on my own. I do not want to lose the evidence, so that people from various places can come to pray and pay homage to the dead. And I will request the district governor that this memorial for the remains should exist forever. And I am thinking of having monks stay there and for people to come and pay homage because some souls of the dead have made their parents or children dream of them, and told them that they are wandering around and have not reincarnated in another world. I want to have monks meditating there so that the souls of the dead will rest in peace. In Buddhism, when someone dies and their mind is still with this world, then their souls wander around. The remains are a legacy for the younger generation so that they may know how vicious the Khmer Rouge regime was, because the young did not experience the regime. I experienced this regime. Some lived through this regime as children but they still do not believe; how can those who did not live through believe? What can they base belief on?
(Q): If they want to demolish the old prison, would you dare to oppose them?
(A): No, I wouldn’t.

(Q): There are many big mass graves at the site, what do you think the local authorities might develop the area into? Because I think that if they clear up the area for development, then they may erase all, including the mass graves?
(A): Yes, all will be gone. The whole area will be developed. There are many graves at that site but I do not know how many are on the land that was given to me to build the memorial. Before, piles of victims’ remains were taken from those mass graves, not just 5-6 cubic meters like this. Only about 30-60 mass graves have been excavated. There are many more left to be excavated-some with 2 bodies each, some with 5 bodies each and some others with 6 bodies each. The sub-district chief told me that there are many small pits with victims’ remains there.
(Q): If they erase everything, what will you think?
(A): Personally, I want to keep the killing site just the way it is. But the authorities think that if we leave the land like that, and do not develop it, then we will not gain any benefit. Their idea is different from ours. It would be great, if they could think like us and we could preserve it like that in Japan (Hiroshima). We could put a fence around it so that the younger generations could come and see.
(Q): So if one day, someone in authority comes to you and orders you to burn all the remains, and they say it is not worth keeping the remains, what will be your reaction?
(A): I would not dare to oppose them at all. I could only request that they do not burn them, but give them to me. Please do not touch the remains because I have a stupa for them already. If they do not want that, I can bring them to my pagoda here. But if they still insist that the remains be burnt, I dare not oppose them. In my opinion, if they do not want us to keep the remains there, I would like to keep them in my pagoda so that people can come and hold religious ceremonies for their dead relatives.
(Q): When you built the stupa, were you thinking of your father?
(A): I did think about my father. I prayed that “when I was small, I could not fulfill my duties in return for your raising me. But now that you are dead, I am only able to build this memorial for you to lie in. I can only light incense and pray when I have food.”
(Q): Were you born here in Kandal Stung district?
(A): Yes, I was born here; I was a monk in Moha Montrei pagoda in Phnom Penh for about a year. Then I was asked to come back to this pagoda in my native village because my predecessor was too old. And the villagers invited me to be Patriarch and I have been here for 6 years. I think that in the eating hall at the memorial, after the roof is built, I will have pictures of the Khmer Rouge tortures and atrocities committed against the prisoners at Sang Prison painted on the ceiling and walls for the younger generations to see how heinous the Khmer Rouge were.
Reproduced as part of an article entitled Necessity Of Preserving Physical Evidence - by Kosal Phat. Link: DC-Cam.

Total Road Atlas of Cambodia 2008

The latest and most comprehensive road atlas for Cambodia has just arrived at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh and is well worth getting a copy. I got mine today, priced $15. The Total Road Atlas is in English and French and contains more complete maps and considerable detail on hundreds of tourist sites, both natural and archaeological. It's aimed at the serious and adventurous traveller who wants to delve deeper into Cambodia, outside of the three main areas of Phnom Penh, Angkor and Sihanoukville. It's a bit bulky at 145 pages and if I was being ultra critical, the province maps, with the addition of more villages and the smaller historic sites, and the town maps, can still be improved with greater detail, but the atlas is the best so far that's available on and in Cambodia. Link: monument books.

Headwear selection

A cobweb covered devata on the wall of Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati
The author looking considerably less stylish, pictured at Wa Ka Koh yesterday
Two very different types of headwear are on display in the above photos. The top photo is one of the Apsaras or devatas (heavenly goddess) that adorn the walls of the main Ta Prohm sanctuary at Tonle Bati, which I visited yesterday. This carving is from the late 12th century when this temple was constructed under the kingship of Jayavarman VII, the master temple builder of the ancient Khmer kingdom. Like the devatas at Angkor Wat, each of the figures at Ta Prohm are individually unique. You can also see a faint trace of red paint on her lips.
The bottom photo is a very different, if not unique, head-covering. This is a 'barang' wearing a krama very badly and without any of the style and poise shown in abundance by the heavenly goddesses. In fact, someone should really tell this individual that a barang in a krama looks decidedly silly. For other awful headgear worn by this individual, click here.

Remembering the 20,000

The genocide memorial at Wat Ka Koh, seen from the rice fields in front of the pagoda
The memorial at Wat Ka Koh contains the remains of 3,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge
Yesterday I took a return trip to visit Wat Ka Koh, located just a few kilometres from Tonle Bati. Wat Ka Koh, which is also known as Wat Sauphy, houses a genocide memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge slaughter that took place in the immediate vicinity of the pagoda between 1975 and 1979. Conservative estimates put the total number of dead at more than 20,000, when the locale was investigated by the DC-Cam team seven years ago. I visited the memorial a few weeks ago - read my report here - but my camera was stolen and the pictures lost, hence my return visit yesterday. The wind picked up as I arrived at the site and leaves and flower petals were being blown around the memorial as I took my photos. The building itself creaked in the wind and I felt goosebumps on my arms as I photographed the 3,000 skulls and skeletal remains of the deceased through the dirty glass window. Memorials like Wat Ka Koh are not to everyone's taste, the prime minister has resisted calls for many years to take them down and cremate the remains, that are presently housed in around 80 memorials across the country. These memorials were built to honour the dead and where religious rites are still performed, as well as a vehicle to maintain evidence of the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. At some of the memorials, remembrance services will take place in a few days on 7 January to mark the 29th Victory over Genocide anniversary.

The memorial stupa was constructed and designed by the daughter of one of the victims

3,000 of the best-preserved skulls were selected to be housed in the memorial stupa

One of the 1.7 million victms of the Khmer Rouge genocide, honoured at Wat Ka Koh

The Three Srey's

The adorable Three Srey's: LtoR: Srey Lin, Srey Nean and Srey Ng
New Year's Day was spent along Route 2, foraging south of Phnom Penh, revisiting old favourites and investigating new venues. The 12th century temple of Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati was the main target. I'd not visited the area for a few years and it's a well-kept shrine with impressive carvings and well worth a visit. I also stopped by a couple of other pagodas that house Angkorean relics as well as visiting three sites where more modern-day reminders exist, in the form of genocide memorials. However, the real highlight of my day was meeting the Three Srey's. They appeared at my side as soon as I arrived at the Tonle Bati temple and never left it for the rest of my two-hour visit. They were so adorable. Six year old Srey Ng was the cheekiest and kept punching my bum before running away squealing with delight. Srey Lin, a year older, was the quietest of the trio as she held my hand, while eight year old Srey Nean was the leader of this gang of cuties, spoke a few words of English and had the biggest smile to melt any heart. We played hide and seek in the temple complex, they told me they come to the temple every day and that the weekends and holidays were the busiest times for visitors. On rare occasions, the children that frequent some of the temples around Cambodia can be a little annoying but the Three Srey's enhanced my visit immeasurably, as I flashbacked to my earliest visits to the temples of Angkor in the mid-90s, when every souvenir-seller I met was called Srey (= young girl).