Friday, February 29, 2008

Hang-in there

The addition of my Blog under the umbrella of my website and adding some files to my server are taking longer than expected. One result is that some of the photos on my website are not loading. Please hang-in there, it will be sorted early next week. However, there's a new front page at, so please tell me if its easy to use and pleasing on the eye (except for the photos of me, obviously).
I popped into the Rising Sun for dinner this evening to find out that Samnang, the barmaid who I've known for quite a few years now, was sporting a maternity slip and she tells me she's three months pregnant. That's great news for her and her husband and I wish Samnang a painless and easy labour. Another pregnancy that I forgot to mention is that of Kulikar Sotho, the Executive Director of the company I now work for, Hanuman Tourism. Kulikar is around 4 months already and her, and husband Nick, are looking forward to a 2nd Ray to join their son, Julian.
Lots going on in Phnom Penh right now, so don't forget that its Cambodia - The Betrayal at Meta House tomorrow evening (Saturday), the film by John Pilger that showed the disgraceful lengths to which the Western governments went to keep the Khmer Rouge seated at the United Nations and a credible fighting force against the Vietnamese-installed government here in Cambodia at that time. An episode of time for which all those governments should be absolutely ashamed of their actions.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chandler on S-21

Tuol Sleng and S-21 - by David Chandler
Author of Voice from S-21, Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison (1999)
I began reading documents from the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes in the early 1990s, and since that time I have read thousands of them, and I have also given many talks and seminars about the museum and the DK prison, known under Pol Pot as "S-21", that used to occupy its grounds. In my book, Voices from S-21 , I summarized my research, drawing on these documents and on interviews with survivors of the prison, and with people who had once worked there. The book has been translated, chapter by chapter, in the pages of Searching for the Truth (a monthly magazine of the Documentation Center of Cambodia). On several occasions, Cambodians have suggested to me that S-21 was invented out of whole cloth by the Vietnamese, so as to blacken the reputation of the Cambodian people and to indict them en masse for genocidal crimes. None of the Cambodians who spoke to me could be considered a "Khmer Rouge". I always replied to them that I believe that their suggestions were mistaken. The effort to invent S-21, I think, would have been far too costly for the Vietnamese, and far too complicated. The Vietnamese did not have the resources, for example, to compose the documents discovered in the S-21 archives (and thousands of others related to S 21, discovered elsewhere in Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese withdrew), to invent the names and backgrounds of workers at the prison, to fake the photographic evidence, and to invent biographies for the survivors and former workers at the facility. Moreover, had they mounted such an operation, it seems likely that someone who participated in it would have talked about it, especially after the Vietnamese withdrew their forces in l989.
To be sure, the impetus to turn Tuol Seng into a museum came from the Vietnamese., under the guidance of a Vietnamese army colonel named Mai Lam, who is now retired and living in Ho Chi Minh City. Mai Lam has been interviewed on several occasions. He says he is proud of his work in the site S-21 into a museum of genocidal crimes. He is also happy to have turned the killing fields at Choeung Ek, where over 10,000 prisoners at S-21 were executed, into a terrifying tourist destination. The Vietnamese established the museum at Tuol Sleng in 1979-1980 for several reasons. In the first place, I believe, it was important for them to base the legitimacy of their presence in Cambodia, and the legitimacy of the PRK government, on the fact that they had freed Cambodia from the "genocidal clique" of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, who were tried and condemned to death in absentia in August l979. It was also important for the Vietnamese, and for their allies in the Soviet Bloc, to distance the Vietnamese Communist party, and its Cambodian counterpart, from the communist regime of Democratic Kampuchea. It was important for the Vietnamese and the PRK to label Democratic Kampuchea a "fascist" regime, like Nazi Germany, rather than a Communist one, recognized as such by many Communist counties. Finally, it was important for the Vietnamese to argue that what had happened in Cambodia under DK, and particularly at S-21, was genocide, resembling the Holocaust in World War II, rather than the assassinations of political enemies that at different times had marked the history of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Vietnam.
The Vietnamese organized S-21 into a museum, using the massive documentation that had survied at the site. Similarly, they turned Choeung Ek into a tourist destination after exhuming thousands of bodies there. In neither case did the Vietnamese invent an institution. Instead, the documents from the S-21 archive, the photographs of prisoners, and the interviews that have been conducted with survivors and former workers at the prison all convince me that S-21 was a Cambodian institution, serving the purposes of the leaders of a terrified and terrifying Cambodian regime.


Don't worry...there's changes afoot

If you've experienced some access problems with this Blog or my main website this afternoon, then don't worry, it's not your pc or your web-host that's faulty, it's me - as I'm loading a new frontpage of the website at and then making sure my blog now sits under the umbrella of my website. There's been some unforseen problems recently with my blog - the full story will unfold soon enough - so I need to do a quick-fix and at the same time freshen up my website's frontpage. All good fun.

Be very afraid...

This Dvarapala welcomes and warns you on your arrival at Wat Nokor
I have brought you some of the beauties of Wat Nokor in the form of the heavenly Devatas, so now here are some of the less attractive characters to be found there, the temple guardians, also known as Dvarapalas. They are the guardians of doors and entrances of temples and other holy sanctuaries, they frighten away the evil spirits and are powerful in battle and uproot trees, and hurl the tops of the mountains against their enemies - so I advise you to be on your best behaviour when visiting Wat Nokor. With their bulging eyes, large nose and fierce expressions they always appear fearful and with an imposing strength. They hold a large club, or gada, as their weapon both of attack and knowledge, and are adorned with a crown, ear-ornaments, a necklace, bracelets, anklets and ornaments. There are four of these guardians at the eastern entrance to the temple.

Make sure you are on your best behaviour or you incur the wrath of the guardians
This Dvarapala is inside the first gopura of the eastern entrance to the prasat

Am I mad?

I think the heat and humidity is getting to me. I've just put my name down for a more than challenging cycling tour through the protected forest of northeast Mondulkiri province next month! Am I mad or what? I haven't ridden a bike seriously since I was a teenager. The tour will be 4 days of about 50kms riding each day, which doesn't sound so bad until you realise that its in one of the most remote places in Cambodia. Alongside the Vietnam border, the Srepok Wilderness Area, operated by the environmental organisation WWF, is hours from anywhere and target villages on the itinerary like Trapeang Thmier, Merouch, O'Rovei and Nam Ram don't even appear on the new Total Atlas of the country! It's part of a plan to develop ecotourism as a way of supporting the communities in that area, introducing alternative livelihoods and assisting conservation projects - but whether I should be putting myself through all this is another discussion altogether. It'll be incredibly hot, even in the cooler climes of Mondulkiri, and the route is untried but its a great opportunity to see a part of Cambodia that I've not yet visited, so I'll just shut up and get on with it. Wish me luck, especially my poor arse.

This Saturday evening at 7pm will see the screening at Meta House of one of the John Pilger films that did so much to raise a storm of protest over Cambodia in the UK when it was shown in late 1990. Cambodia: The Betrayal was Pilger's examination of the continued secret support given by Western governments to the Khmer Rouge and their allies. It won an international Emmy Award for Best Documentary and Pilger himself received the Richard Dimbleby Award for factual reporting at the 1990 BAFTA Awards. At the time, it got me writing furiously to the Prime Minister, the Labour party spokesman, my MP, literally everyone and their dog to show my disgust for the actions of my own government and even the SAS in backing the Khmer Rouge and allowing such a genocidal group to remain seated at the United Nations. Read a review of the film by Helen Jarvis, the current Publicity Chief of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal here.

Also coming to Meta House very soon will be an exhibition by Japanese artist and photographer Yoko Toda of photographs he took in Cambodia in 1965 and 1966 of a country at peace. Entitled Silence Remained, the exhibition will be officially inaugurated on March 4 and goes on until the March 14. Read more here. The artist himself says; "The beauty and the truth of this sacred place prior to the nightmare of destruction breathe their eternal light and shadow in these images" - make sure you see the exhibition.

The Devatas of Nokor

A devata at the eastern entrance under threat of a new green coat
Two different styles of devata, the one on the left carries a mirror, the other a flower bud
Wat Nokor was built during the reign of the master temple-builder, Jayavarman VII, at the beginning of the 13th century. And throughout the complex, an array of unique Devatas - also known as Apsaras, where the term seems to be interchangeable - can be found, with simplistic decoration or more intricate head-dresses. These are ravishing beauties, born of the Ocean of Milk and adding glamour and a fantasy element to the temples which they adorn. There are of course nearly two thousand of these deities on the walls of Angkor Wat but Wat Nokor has its share too and each one, as far as I could see, was unique.

A long-haired, almost dwarf-like devata standing on a large plinth
One of the more intricate head-dresses on a devata at Wat Nokor
One of the slim-waisted and sensuous devatas at Wat Nokor, with yellow lichen on the wall

Welcome to Wat Nokor

The western entrance into Wat Nokor through a line of palm trees
The southern entrance to Wat Nokor through a simple, unadorned laterite gate
I visited Kompong Cham recently and no visit would be complete without another viewing of Wat Nokor, one of the best-preserved provincial temple sites, with a variety of carvings and statues and an unusual merger between the ancient prasat and the modern pagoda. I have over 40 photos that I want to publish here, so be prepared for a long series of posts over the next couple of days. Don't say I didn't warn you. It's a temple that I've visited on a few occasions and I never tire of seeing it again. As well as the Angkorean temple, it also has a genocide memorial that had been moved since my last visit, a resident monkey, a $2 entrance fee - if you can wake up the tourist policeman and a children's NGO in the grounds of the pagoda that puts on a dance performance most days. The photos here represent the 'welcome mat' to Wat Nokor.

The eastern entrance with four garudas on naga, four lions and a guardian figure
Also at the east entrance are another series of garudas, lions and a guardian. In the background, the large stupa previously housed the genocide memorial
One of the best preserved garuda on naga carvings at the eastern entrance

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bun's latest children's book

The latest children's book from ace animator and cartoonist Bun Heang Ung, titled Wally's Bedroom Aviary, and written by Sara Bednark, has been published and is available here. Bun Heang Ung is better known as a political cartoonist for the Far Eastern Economic Review and for his vivid drawings that accompanied his life story in The Murderous Revolution, written by Martin Stuart-Fox. Read more about Bun here and see his own view on Cambodia today at sacravatoons.

There's more to Wat Moha Leap

My boat ferry across the peaceful Tonle Touch river
Wat Moha Leap is of course known for its well-preserved wooden pagoda. It stands on the bank of the Tonle Touch river in the Koh Sotin district of Kompong Cham province and enjoys its notoriety as it was left standing by the Khmer Rouge and their disregard for the Buddhist faith, when most other wooden pagodas of its type and age were trashed. Next to the main vihara is a sala, or resting house, which was used as the King's sleeping quarters when he stayed at the pagoda and on both the sala and the main temple, the intricate wooden pediments at the front and back remain intact. Few of these wooden pediments remain in situ and some of the best examples can be seen at the Angkor Conservation compound in Siem Reap. To add to the interest at Wat Moha Leap, the grounds contain a large number of statues, the front gate is of unusual design whilst a 12 metre reclining Buddha is a recent addition and located just outside the complex.

The unusual front gate of Wat Moha Leap
The wooden sala built especially for the King's visit and used as his sleeping quarters A rare wooden pediment with intricate design on the back of the King's sala
The 12 metre long reclining Buddha

The 5 Ang's

Vo (left) and the author face the setting sun

The mound with sandstone remains at Ang Pichiva
The inside brick wall at Ang Prum
These are likely to be the most uninspiring pictures I have posted during my temple-hunting adventures! The 5 Ang's that surround the village of Krang Metrei in Kompong Speu povince are nothing to write home about. Five brick prasats, probably pre-Angkorean but almost impossible to tell due to a complete absence of carving at each temple. The prasats are spaced between 200-500 metres apart except for the fifth and final site, at least a kilometre from the others and much nearer the village, where I judged there to have been three brick towers in its hey-day with lots of bricks and a few slabs of sandstone scattered around the ruin. In order of our visits, Vo told me their names were Ang Pichiva, Ang Prum, Ang Kavuth, Ang Yeay Pheang and Ang Sakae. I have no reason to doubt him, though the old French history books indicate the name, possibly of the group of five temples, as Ang Trapeang Prei. Meeting Vo, his family and seeing the temple sites brought an end to my day of exploration in Kompong Speu province.
The ground is littered with bricks around the tower foundations at Ang Kavuth
A fire has burnt off the undergrowth at the mound of Ang Yeay Pheang
The rubble-strewn three tower ruins at Ang Sakae

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Prasat hunting in Kompong Speu

A slate pedestal at Wat Ang Serei, on top of the hill
The inside brick wall of one part of the broken prasat at Wat Ang Serei
Kompong Speu is not known as a hotbed of Angkorean temples for prasat-hunters like me to gorge themselves on, as there are in provinces like Siem Reap of course, Preah Vihear, Kompong Thom and so on. However, with the aid of the new Ministry of Culture/EFEO maps that I highlighted recently, you can certainly scout around the sites indicated on the maps to see what you can find and these can lead you onto sites that aren't mentioned on the maps, as I did last Sunday. The first of the prasats were at Wat Ang Serei, which they also called Wat Saportep, just aouth of Route 4 between Samrong Tong and Kompong Speu town. On a small hill, a brick tower was cut into the side of the hill, but all carvings, except for a broken slate pedestal, were long gone. The monk suggested that a tunnel led from the bottom of the tower to Wat Ampe Phnom, a couple of kilometres away but talk of underground tunnels is common at such places. The next ruin was in a field next to a newly-built canal and was called Neak Ta Thma Bang, a couple of kilometres from Wat Ang Po. A cluster of trees hid the site from the road and on closer inspection, the foundations of the brick tower remained but little else of note, except one piece of carving that I found under a carpet of leaves and pieces of colonettes that had been converted into a seat.

Returning to my moto, I was met by a local villager, Vo, who asked if I wanted to see the five temples that surrounded his nearby village. As these weren't mentioned on the map, I gave him a big beaming smile and asked him to lead on. We left the moto at the home of one of his neighbours in the village of Krang Metrei and began the start of our two-hour exploration on foot. Walking in a large semi-circle across burnt rice fields and shrub-land we visited five brick-built prasats that in each case consisted of a large hole inside brick foundations on top of a small rise in the middle of a field. In most cases, the temples had been broken apart by robbers looking for loot and large holes dug inside where the tower had stood on the hunt for whatever they could find. The prasats were spaced between 200-500 metres apart except for the fifth and final site, at least a kilometre from the others and much nearer the village, where I judged there to have been three brick towers in its hey-day with lots of bricks and a few slabs of sandstone scattered around the ruin. In order of our visits, Vo told me their names were Ang Pichiva, Ang Prum, Ang Kavuth, Ang Yeay Pheang and Ang Sakae. Not earth-shattering discoveries by any stretch of the imagination and for 99.9% of people, the two hours would've been a waste of time, but my view is that if you don't make the effort to visit these sites then you will never know what's there. Vo had been good company. He told me that he was married with two baby girls and that when he wasn't working as a carpenter, he helped his father grow cucumbers on his plot of land, on which Ang Yeay Pheang sat. We then returned to Vo's home for cold drinks and to chat to his father, Prak Doh, who related the history of the temples, as had been told to him by his father, and claimed that as little as ten years ago the prasats had been in much better condition until thieves came looking for their bounty. The sun was setting as I said my goodbyes to Vo and his family and closed the page on my prasat-hunting in Kompong Speu, until next time.

The colonettes at Neak Ta Thma Bang have been converted to seats
The remains of the brick tower at Neak Ta Thma Bang
The only piece of carving I could find at Neak Ta Thma Bang, under a carpet of leaves

Scot shot by Pol Pot

History is revisited with this report from Scotland's Sunday Herald newspaper.
Pol Pot murdered Scot in Cambodia : Report shows dictator ordered shooting of academic

More than 1.5 million people died in the killing fields of Cambodia, but one of the most puzzling footnotes in the slaughter and destruction of that country is the unsolved murder of the only British victim - the first Westerner caught up in the violence. Gunmen burst into Scottish academic Malcolm Caldwell's Phnom Penh government guesthouse and shot him repeatedly in the chest and leg, killing him instantly. He was found with his apparent assassin slumped by his body and also riddled with bullet holes. At the time, the BBC reported he was killed by Vietnamese agents to discredit Pol Pot, but 30 years after the murder documents newly obtained by the Sunday Herald under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the genocidal dictator himself ordered the assassination, early in the morning of December 23, 1978. Just hours earlier, the 47-year-old father of four had met the despot, demanded to see deposed leader Prince Sihanouk and had asked about missing Cambodians and ministers, most of whom, it transpires, were already dead.
According to the classified documents, journalist Wilfred Burchett had seen an official Cambodian report a year later which said: "Caldwell was murdered by members of the National Security Force personnel on the instructions of the Pol Pot government." An unnamed British civil servant adds: "Caldwell told Burchett he had every intention of asking some pointed questions and that he was absolutely determined to see Sihanouk. It is likely, therefore, that he upset his hosts, who were probably concerned that a prominent supporter/apologist of the Pol Pot regime might report in a critical vein on his return home. Matters probably came to a head after a private interview which Caldwell had with Pol Pot." The papers also reveal a chilling account of the murder from eyewitness Richard Dudman, made five days later at the British embassy in Washington. The journalist for the St Louis Dispatch told officials of the moment a young gunman shot at him and Caldwell in the Khmer Rouge VIP guesthouse at 12.55am.
Born in Stirling into a middle-class Tory-voting household, Caldwell went on to get a double first at Edinburgh University by the time he was 21. He became a Marxist academic at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies and a left-wing activist, serving as head of CND in 1968-70. A supporter of the Khmer Rouge, he was one of the first Westerners allowed into the country after 1975, and travelled to Cambodia with Dudman and fellow American journalist Elizabeth Becker just as the true horror of the genocide was becoming apparent.
Caldwell had spent three weeks touring the country surrounded by Khmer Rouge minders but had seen and surreptitiously photographed the impoverished peasants. Dudman reported that in Phnom Penh he knocked on Caldwell's door as a young uniformed man appeared in the corridor with a machine gun on his shoulder and a pistol in his hand and fired at the two men. Dudman ran into his room and two shots were fired into the door. Then he heard more shots. 90 minutes later, a Cambodian security officer told Dudman that Caldwell was OK and he had to stay in his room. But, Dudman then said, "An hour later a high ranking foreign office official told me Malcolm Caldwell was dead and asked me to witness the scene."
Dudman went to look and saw the open door of Caldwell's room and saw his dead body "supine, eyes wide open and body soaked in blood". He estimated Caldwell had been hit at least three times. The official told Dudman that the dead gunman had shot Caldwell and then shot himself.
Becker's account indicates that the murder scene could have been staged. The Washington Post journalist found herself face to face with the killer and ran back into her room and hid in her bath. After the shots, she then heard bodies being dragged up and down stairs on three different occasions. Dudman and Becker later noticed that there were bloodstains on the stairs and corridor. The Foreign Office officials speculate that because of the time lapse and Becker's account, it was very possible that Caldwell's murder scene had been stage-managed.

More from Ampe Phnom

The sandbanks of the Prek Thnoat river, popular amongst the bathers at Ampe Phnom
One of two Neak Ta at the resort - this one looks very sporty
This is the last batch of photos from my visit to the Ampe Phnom resort a few kilometres outside Kompong Speu on Sunday. There were a few Khmer families enjoying the food and the fortune-tellers but it was pretty quiet, the noise intermittently broken by squealing monkeys as they fought over scraps. The water level of the Prek Thnoat river was low so not many people were bathing but splashing around in the water and eating snacks in small bamboo huts is a Khmer tradition, especially popular at festival time. The pagoda that crowns the island isn't much to look at, though a wat has occupied the site since 1632 and a large stupa in one corner was built in 1914. I counted no less than ten fortune-tellers dotted around the pagoda and though the Khmers I met didn't necessarily believe what they were told, they paid their money to receive the news anyway. To close, the sign at the front of the resort read Ompe Phnom, so I'm not really sure which spelling is correct - does it really matter? In future posts I will give the low-down on my prasat hunting in Kompong Speu province - not overly successful, but they are there if you look for them.

A family stupa built in 1914 next to the Wat Ampe Phnom
Ampy, the $2.50 a ride elephant that lives at the resort
The 500 riel per person suspension bridge over the river, looking out from the island

The Red Sense revealed

Tim Pek's directorial debut, The Red Sense, will get it's world premiere at a gala event in Australia at The Drum Theatre, Dandenong, Victoria, Melbourne on Saturday 8 March. Shot in Australia, the story centres around a young woman who discovers that the Khmer Rouge soldier who killed her father, is alive and well and living closeby. She is torn between wanting to take revenge or if in forgiving her father’s executioner, she could bring healing to herself and her people. The film features a Khmer cast, all of whom have their own connection to the Khmer Rouge genocide. Following the film's premiere in Melbourne, Tim Pek (right) will bring the film to Cambodia - very timely of course with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal currently occupying everyone's attention in Phnom Penh.

I spoke to the film's director Tim Pek by email today for an update:
Q. We spoke in Dec 2006 about your debut film The Red Sense, what's been happening to it, and you, since that time? A. Hi Andy, Nice to hear from you again. That was a long time since we spoke, yeah I did recall that since that Christmas time we’ve been really busy in post production, from editing, music composing, scene swapping and ADR (Audio Dialogue Replacement) which we weren't so happy about, and of course, heaps of fine tuning.
Q. What have you learnt about the film-making process in that time? A. It was the most eye-opening experience I ever had, its a mixture of fun and headaches. It was slow and very time consuming, if you really love your work and want to get it right. My principle in this nature is that the audience will give you one shot only when you are making your debut film, so you must follow the guidelines as close as possible. These are the experiences and knowledge I have adopted with my film and I will learn from them.
Q. Do you think the Khmer Rouge Tribunal taking place in Cambodia, will give the film a real currency for the audience? A. It’s hard to say, but I am sure for the western audiences this will be their cup of tea as well as Khmers living abroad.
Q. When's your target date for a Cambodian Premiere for the film? As 80% of the film's dialogue is in Khmer, do you believe this will encourage high audience interest in your homeland? A. I have lodged the paperwork for the film with the Cambodian Culture department for more than a month now, and am awaiting their approval. Once I have their approval then it shouldn't be too long and a month’s promotion will be enough. The dialogue in the film is still that figure, there will be English and Khmer subtitles, so everyone can understand it easily. As this film is classified as an Arthouse film, I hope this will prove popular.
Q. I see you have also produced two more films, Bokator & Annoyed, what are your future film plans? A. Well they are not yet released - Bokator is still in post production, while Annoyed will be out later this year. Talking about my future film plans, I have heaps in mind and already have a few film productions that have given me scripts though I haven't made any decisions yet, but I can assure you that Khmer history and heroes, legendary artists and singers are top of my priority list. Let’s see how The Red Sense goes first, and we take it from there.

Visit the film's website for more and also read my original interview with Tim Pek here.

Exciting opportunities

Today's Cambodia Daily, the popular English-language newspaper, carries this advert for new staff at Hanuman. We are finding it very difficult to recruit suitable people possessing the necessary qualities to flourish in a go-ahead company like ours. There's a wealth of people leaving the universities armed with degrees for this and that but few are able to convert those degrees and the knowledge they've amassed into convincing me at interview that they have what it takes. Working in our environment, written and spoken English is absolutely paramount but the absence of practicing their English with native English speakers leaves many of the applicants struggling at the interview and testing stage.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Remembering the victims

An all too common a sight in Cambodia at one of 70+ memorials across the country
The genocide memorial at Wat Ampe Phnom, next to the river
Wat Ampe Phnom is a holiday resort for Cambodians, usually resounding to the squeals of laughter, the patter of the fortune-tellers and the smell of cooked food, but it also has a dark history, as a killing zone of the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975-79, the KR used Wat Ampe Phnom as a prison and the area surrounding the pagoda as a mass gravesite, containing an estimated 4,000 victims. A lovely old nun, Reung, told me that many of the pits containing the bodies were dug up as desperate locals searched for gold in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion before the local authorities began exhuming the bodies properly in the early 80s. She said that a large number of pits remain untouched. The genocide memorial stands close to the riverbank and has skulls on the top level, with leg and arm bones, and clothing, on the lower level. Another witness was Un Hak, who showed me a tree where women were tied or nailed to the trunk and their stomachs slit open and their bodies buried at the base of the tree. Scratch the surface anywhere in Cambodia and these stories are common place. That's why a trial, even after all these years, is important for Cambodians to feel as though all that pain and suffering has not been forgotten, and those who gave the orders, are brought to justice.

Leg and arm bones, and clothing, on the lower level
The skulls are kept on the upper level of the memorial
The frail but lively nun named Reung

Let's talk Tribunal

Tonight's panel: LtoR: Tom Fawthrop, Peou Dara Vanthan, Ray Leos, Benny Widyono
Tom Fawthrop gives his usual incisive views
Tonight at Pannasastra University, the 4th in a series of half a dozen forums on the Khmer Rouge Legacy, hosted by Meta House and Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, covered the period after UNTAC's presence in Cambodia and the changing situation that eventually resulted in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal that we see taking place at the moment. On the panel were two men who saw it all happening, namely veteran journalist Tom Fawthrop, and a man at the centre of much of what took place with a UN badge on it in the 90s, Benny Widyono. Dr Benny gave us a history lesson in UN power-politics, having been a key UNTACist and then returned as the UN's envoy in Phnom Penh, whilst Tom gave his usual forthright views on events as he saw them. Joining them were the DC-Cam's deputy director Peou Dara Vanthan and moderator Ray Leos. As you might expect there were a few plugs for Benny's new book, Dancing in Shadows, available at Monument Books and which I'm currently half-way through, in which he gives the inside story of what took place during much of that decade. I also grabbed the opportunity for a photo with the joint authors of the excellent book Getting Away with Genocide?, the story of the struggle to bring the KR to justice by Tom and the Tribunal's public affairs chief Helen Jarvis, who is a regular at these forums.

Benny Widyono spent much of the 1990s in Cambodia
Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis, co-authors of Getting Away with Genocide?

Ampe Phnom resort

The suspension bridge across the Prek Thnoat River
It costs 500 riel to cross to the island of Wat Ampe Phnom
The Ampe Phnom resort near Kompong Speu is a locals-only resort in the main, as its about 50kms from Phnom Penh and very few foreigners bother to spend any time in the city or its nearby attractions. That was my impression after spending a couple of hours at Ampe Phnom yesterday. For Cambodians it holds the usual fascination of a myriad number of bamboo huts and food-stalls, a river to bathe in, a swinging suspension bridge, elephant rides, feeding bananas to monkeys and more fortune-tellers than tourists! It gets incredibly busy at the new year holiday time so I was told, when traditional games and dances are held, though the music blaring out of the massive speakers was loud enough for me to avoid that corner altogether. The island housing the pagoda of Wat Ampe Phnom, where the fortune-readers do a roaring trade, is reached by the suspension bridge across the Prek Thnoat river which has a toll of 500 riels per person and has a few planks missing, so watch your step. There is a troop of monkeys present - isn't there always - and an elephant that will give you a tour of the island on his back for $2.50 per ride. There's also a quiet spot amongst the trees where a genocide memorial contains the remains of victims of the Pol Pot regime. Here's a few photos with more to follow.

This is what will happen if you commit a deadly sin of adultery, lying, etc
This monkey was guarding the bridge against toll dodgers!

Yes...even more Neak Ta

Neak Ta Ang Chey at Wat Salong
Ma, pa and sonny Neak Ta at Wat Kambol
Another trip, this time to Kompong Speu, means more photos of the Neak Ta - spirit images - that I found on my travels. 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, as seen in these photos. 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 please, never ever disturb the contents or you might face the wrath of the all-powerful Neak Ta spirits.
The top Neak Ta can be seen at Wat Salong, in Samrong Tong town, where he's highly-regarded and is called Neak Ta Ang Chey. The two monks I spoke to at this pagoda said their Neak Ta was very popular amongst the local people. The second photo is from Wat Kambol, on the main highway between Phnom Penh and Kompong Speu, and I nicknamed it 'ma, pa and sonny' Neak Ta. It was in an overgrown corner of the pagoda, which is undergoing extensive renovation.
The well-tended Neak Ta at Wat Trapeang Kong
A hermit-like Neak Ta at Wat Ampe Phnom
The series of Neak Ta at Wat Mrom
The lower 3 photos were taken at: a well-tended Neak Ta at Wat Trapeang Kong, which has a wooden interior, having been built in the early 60s; this hermit-looking figure was one of two Neak Ta at the pagoda, Wat Ampe Phnom, at the resort of the same name, a few kilometres from Kompong Speu town itself; the final series of figures are to be found at Wat Mrom in Kompong Speu town. Note the chest-hair on the central figure.

Benny Widyono and UNTAC

Tonight at Pannasastra University on Street 370 will be the next round of the panel discussions organised by Meta House and Konrad-Adenauer Foundation on the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge. It'll kick-off at 7pm, its titled 'Cambodia After UNTAC and a New Genocide Diplomacy' and the panel will include United Nations staffer Benny Widyono who has recently published his warts and all book on his time in Cambodia, called Dancing in Shadows. Benny was the UNTAC Siem Reap shadow governor in the early 90s and returned later in the decade as the envoy for the UN secretary general, so he knows the inside-story of the UN and Cambodia at that time. I'm in the middle of reading his new book and I'm kicking myself that I haven't managed to finish it before tonight's forum. Joining him will be two more very well-informed individuals, Tom Fawthrop, author, filmmaker and journalist, who knows Cambodia extremely well, having written Getting Away with Genocide with Dr Helen Jarvis, and the DC-Cam deputy director, Peou Dara Vanthan. Moderation will come from Ray Leos.
* * * * *
Just heard some extremely worrying news. A very good friend of mine, who's been ultra helpful since I arrived in Cambodia, has just told me that her brother has been sentenced to five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He was giving a lift to a friend and a third person when the latter was involved in a street robbery. The police stopped and arrested her brother, and without the robber or anyone else in custody, charged and accused him of robbery and theft. Whether you are guilty or innocent doesn't really matter here and despite negotiations to offer the police and the judge an alternative way out of the situation over the last few months, he's been sentenced and will remain behind bars, where he's been for the last sixteen weeks pending the court case. I feel for him and his family but injustices happen the world over and Cambodia isn't any different.

Direct action

On my way to Kompong Speu, I called into a few pagodas that are highlighted on the new Ministry of Culture/EFEO archaeological maps that I bought recently and at one such stop, at Wat Salong in the town of Samrong Tong, I met these two old monks, Preak Meah (on the left) and Vysuan. We chatted about the history of the pagoda and surrounding sites - more on that in future posts - but it also gave me the opportunity to hand them some copies of a book that I have begun distributing on my travels. It's called Buddhist Ethics in Daily Life and it's written by Ven Dr Dhammapiya. I was given a supply of the books by a monk at Wat Langka in Phnom Penh and in my small effort to try and keep Buddhism at the forefront of people's thoughts and in their daily lives, I have asked the older monks at some pagodas to read the book themselves and if they feel its suitable, to pass it onto the younger monks and others living at the pagoda. I've also handed out the book to other individuals I've met along the way. The book is written in the Khmer language and has been donated by a Buddhist society in Malaysia. You may've read my anti-Christian missionaries posts a while ago and this is my 'direct action' to counteract their influence. It's a drop in the ocean I know but it's better than simply moaning on my blog.

Full of life

This weekend's Sunday outing was to Kompong Speu. In fact it was my first proper visit there, rather than just passing through en route from Sihanoukville. I'll post a lot more from my jaunt over the next few days. In the meantime, here's a photo of me with a lovely nun by the name of Reung, who was incredibly frail though came and sat with me to tell me what she knew about the genocide memorial at Wat Ampe Phnom, a few kilometres outside of Kompong Speu town and popular with the locals at weekends. Reung moved there to become a nun at the pagoda after the Khmer Rouge era from a neighbouring commune and gave me the background and history of the wat, which was used as a prison, while the riverbank area around the memorial had been the site of many burial pits, from which the remains in the stupa had been taken. She was 81 years old, her few teeth were stained red from chewing beetlenut and she was still full of life. If you visit the pagoda at the Ampe Phnom 'resort' make sure you seek out Reung for a chat.
In the bottom photo, I was joined at the Rising Sun for my Sunday dinner by my good friend Sophoin who was introducing her neice, 17 year old Phana and her nephew, 14 year old Phano to a whizz around the sights of Phnom Penh. Both of them were making their first-ever trip to the capital from their home in the rubber plantation center of Chup in Kompong Cham province and their auntie was doing the honours by moto. I was the first foreigner they'd ever spoken to and their extra English lessons came in handy, though like most Khmers in the sticks who learn English, their lack of practice is a real inhibitor. Nice kids though and I hope to see them again at a wedding in Kompong Cham in April.
LtoR: Phana, me, Phano, Sophoin

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Personal and national identity

Still no progress on regaining access to my original blog, so for the time being it looks like this will be my Blog home. As you might imagine, there is steam coming out of my ears!

The Governor of Phnom Penh 'opened' two new statues in the city yesterday, both near the riverside and close to Hun Sen Park. Both are celebrated Cambodian scholars and display a sense of pride in their national identity that I like. If it means that more Khmers ask about their culture and history by asking 'who's that?' then I'm all for it. The statues are of the Buddhist Patriarch Chuon Nath, the foremost scholar of Khmer literature and Buddhism in the 20th century - and - famed 19th century Khmer poet Phirum Pheasa Ou, also known as Ngoy. The statue of Nath is on the roundabout opposite the Khmer Buddhist Institute building, whilst Ngoy is in the garden opposite the Cambodiana Hotel.
Also opening soon will be the first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, at the Asia Hotel on Monivong Boulevard. That's more of an international identity crisis.

Forgotten victims at Wat Chy He

Wat Chy He, a stone's throw from the Mekong River in Koh Sotin district
A part of my recent excursion to Kompong Cham was to visit a couple of the genocide memorials that reside in the province, as identified by the Documentation Center of Cambodia - the organisation that is collating all material and information relating to the Khmer Rouge period of the country's recent history. What I have found from visiting memorial sites across the country including Kompong Cham, is that of the 80 memorials that DC-Cam have published as existing countrywide, some of these memorials have since been destroyed, removed or fallen into serious neglect. DC-Cam did a lot of their investigation work in the late 90s and things have changed and moved on in the intervening years. Take the genocide memorial at Wat Chy He as an example.

Above & below: A burial pit at Wat Chy He, where the four jars are buried

I crossed the Mekong River on the local boat ferry from Koh Sotin island and passed through the busy market area to locate the pagoda at Wat Chy He, close to the riverbank. The memorial that I expected to find was nowhere to be seen. I asked a couple of young monks but they looked at me with blank stares. Then an old man appeared and told me that the memorial stupa that stood in front of the wat had been demolished many years earlier. I asked what happened to the remains of the Khmer Rouge victims that had been held in the stupa and he took me to a cemetery just outside the grounds of the pagoda and pointed to a series of holes in the ground, where one large burial jar could be seen. He told me that there were four such jars, containing the bones of the victims, that were buried here at the beginning of the decade. The original killing sites in the area were at the prison at Wat Chumnik, which I blogged recently, and at Neak Ta Chen, where remains from the killing pits there had been kept at the Chinese school near Chy He market. However, in 1993 the Chinese comminity took back the site as a school and the four jars were brought to the pagoda as their final resting place, though the stupa they were originally housed in was later destroyed. Today, few people know of the jars' existence and the estimated 1,500 victims who perished at Neak Ta Chen (it means Chinese spirit altar).

The colourful vihara of the pagoda of Wat Chy He

Wat Moha Leap

The unique wooden pagoda at Wat Moha Leap
Wat Moha Leap is one of the last remaining wooden viharas in Kompong Cham province and attracts visitors from far and wide to its remote location in Koh Sotin district. We crossed the Tonle Touch river by boat and on the opposite bank of the river stood Wat Moha Leap, it's vihara was built more than 200 years ago with a complete wooden interior including giant teak supporting pillars, and wooden walls. The ceiling is painted with the usual assortment of Buddhist stories and in addition, other paintings could be seen in some of the vihara's nooks and crannys. Miraculously, it was not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, as many of the older viharas had been, as it was used by the genocidal regime's cadre as a hospital. Today, it's interior is home to roosting pigeons and sparrows and the floor was covered in bird droppings and feasting ants. Nearby the vihara is a sala that was used as the King's sleeping quarters when he stayed at the pagoda and on both the sala and the main temple, the intricate wooden pediments at the front and back remain intact.

The well-preserved pediment on the main vihara at Wat Moha Leap
The beautiful teak supporting columns
The well-preserved painted ceiling of Wat Moha Leap
Each of the teak supporting columns is gorgeously decorated

Friday, February 22, 2008

Earth in Flower

Timeless classical Cambodian dancers
An old friend and contributor to my own guidebook, To Cambodia With Love, Kent Davis, is the publishing force behind a forthcoming book that has been over thirty years in gestation. Paul Cravath first researched the royal ballet dancers of Cambodia during the turbulent early 70s and its taken his painstaking research and Davis' search for a book to act as the definitive analysis of Khmer dance that has produced Earth In Flower - The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama. It's due out in May according to the press release, is 544 pages long and will cost you $128 to buy from DatASIA. Read more about the book here.

Vann Nath meets Stein

Rick Stein (left) and Vann Nath
A few days ago, on my original Blog, I mentioned that Rick Stein, the celebrity seafood chef from the UK, had been in Cambodia recording his latest series of tv cooking specials from around Asia. Whilst in Phnom Penh, Stein hooked up with Vann Nath, the painter-survivor of Tuol Sleng, who happens to run a restaurant in the city, and here's the evidence to prove it. They filmed a segment for the new series in Vann Nath's restaurant, which my sources tell me he's just about to lease, so he can concentrate on his painting, and take life a bit easier because of his on-going health concerns. Thanks to G for the photo.
More on Stein: Rick owns and runs four restaurants in the small Cornish fishing village of Padstow with his ex-wife, Jill. He has written 11 cookery books, recorded several cookery series and a couple of one off documentaries. His passion is still for seafood; as he says, “nothing is more exhilarating than fresh fish simply cooked.” It is the daily bounty of local fishermen of perfectly fresh fish which is the reason for the success of The Seafood Restaurant. He has cooked for many famous people including the Queen and Prince Philip Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.

Anyone for a gong?

A debut solo performance on the Kong Vong Thom
Wednesday night's Khmix It! traditional Cambodian music session at Meta House saw the solo debut of a petite sixteen year old Cambodian Livings Arts student who played a series of time-honoured tunes on the Kong Vong Thom, or large circle of gongs, usually heard at weddings or funerals and as part of a much-larger pinpeat orchestra. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask her name! She was naturally very nervous and keen to get home but did tell me that she has been playing the gongs for five years, knows about 100 tunes from her master teacher Tep Mari and lives in the Bassac community, where the majority of artists and performers reside. Currently in 8th grade at High School, she practices for two and a half hours every day and the Kong Vong Thom is one of five instruments that she can play to a good standard. She used a soft mallet to play the tuned instrument which had sixteen cymbal-like metal gongs arranged in a circle around her and suspended on a rattan frame. The gongs were in order of size with the smallest, highest-pitched on her right hand-side, and the largest, lowest-pitched on the left with the others in order between. The gongs are made of a copper and bronze and contain a mixture of lead and beeswax inside. I knew practically nothing about these traditional instruments, so these regular Meta House Wednesday night sessions have been a great way to find out more about Khmer music and whilst the Kong Vong Thom isn't my favourite, it's one of the many that go to make up the larger pinpeat ensemble that you can see at traditional performances, like the one I attended on Monday, accompanied by the Royal Ballet dancers.
Note: After my unforgiveable sin of not getting this young lady's name, I rang a couple of people and can reveal the dedicated gong debutant as Tum Chandy. Long may she gong.

Wooden ceiling

The brightly-painted wooden ceiling at Wat Potiret on Koh Sotin
On my recent visit to Kompong Cham I came across a few of the older-style pagodas, with two of them having a quite rare internal wooden construction and another, Wat Potiret, also still boasting its wooden ceiling. Wat Moha Leap was perhaps the best example of this wooden construction and I'll post some photos from my visit there very soon. In the meantime, this painting in good condition of a chariot flying through the skies, can be found on the wooden ceiling at Wat Potiret, located on the island of Koh Sotin, stuck in the middle of the Mekong River, south of Kompong Cham city. This old vihara is now only used by birds and bats and was locked, so meant I had to get the key from one of the friendly monks. I doubt whether it will still be standing in a year or two and that's the problem with a lot of the older pagodas, they are being dismantled and newer concrete versions being built with donations from wealthy Cambodians, both home and abroad. This is effectively a loss of Cambodia's heritage and is a sad example of a 'new broom sweeping clean' regardless of the impact for the current and future generations. Maybe I should begin/join a campaign to preserve all of Cambodia's wooden viharas that are still standing in Kompong Cham, Battambang and Kratie provinces?

There's a lot going on, news-wise, in recent days so I'll leave the media bloggers to relay all of that detail, from the visit of the Queen of Spain, to the inauguration by Hun Sen and the ADB of the millions of dollars being spent on renovating the Cambodian railway system, a new law on sex trafficking to replace the ineffective one previously in place, the arrival of baseball in the country (in a newsprint version of the film, Field of Dreams), Cambodia (and me) laughing at the United States claims for $340 million worth of debts from the 70s, to the on-going saga of Thailand trying to get a piece of the Preah Vihear cake. Oh, and it's another public holiday today, yet another Buddhist holiday, this time it's Meak Bochea Day.
The local press report today that the road to the summit of Bokor Mountain could be open again this week - two years ahead of schedule! I wouldn't put my house on that news but if access to the top of Bokor is again possible then the authorities and the Sokha Group who are renovating the road and the mountain-top facilities need to be very clear about who, when and how the public can gain access. This is a gem amongst the attractions along the south coast of Cambodia so they need to be clear over accessibility - to-date they have been as clear as mud!

Personal and national identity

Still no progress on regaining access to my original blog, so for the time being it looks like this will be my Blog home.
The Governor of Phnom Penh 'opened' two new statues in the city yesterday, both near the riverside and close to Hun Sen Park. Both are celebrated Cambodian scholars and display a sense of pride in their national identity that I like. If it means that more Khmers ask about their culture and history by asking 'who's that?' then I'm all for it. The statues are of the Buddhist Patriarch Chuon Nath, the foremost scholar of Khmer literature and Buddhism in the 20th century - and - famed 19th century Khmer poet Phirum Pheasa Ou, also known as Ngoy. The statue of Nath is on the roundabout opposite the Khmer Buddhist Institute building, whilst Ngoy is in the garden opposite the Cambodiana Hotel.
Also opening soon will be the first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, at the Asia Hotel on Monivong Boulevard. That's more of an international identity crisis.

More wooden pagodas

The main vihara at Wat Sunkumtear Ream pagoda (right)
Kompong Cham is known for its share of older-style pagodas including one of the country's best preserved examples of this serious slice of Cambodian cultural heritage at Wat Moha Leap. I will post more about Moha Leap soon but another of the wooden pagodas can be found nearby in the village of Pongro, at Wat Sunkumtear Ream, just across the Tonle Touch river. Used as a food stall by the Khmer Rouge, the main vihara was opened up by one of the caretakers and was delightfully cool though the floor was awash with bird droppings and hungry ants. The walls were made of concrete but the ceiling was wooden and tiled and the large teak uprights were beautifully painted with dragons and other patterns. In fact the whole of the inside of the pagoda was covered with paintings, with a series of chariots highlighted on the ceiling. Not quite the treasure that Moha Leap has become but well worth a visit if you are in that part of the province.
The brightly-painted interior wooden roof of the main vihara
Paintings adorn all surfaces inside the main viharaIntricate patterns and dragons illuminate the teak structural supports
One of the many wall paintings inside the vihara

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Somehow and somewhere my original Andy's Cambodia Blog has been hijacked and for the time-being I can't post any updates. So until I get this identity theft resolved, I will post my Blog updates on this temporary Blog. It's a real pain in the bum as you can imagine but I hope I can get it resolved soon. If not, this will become my new Blog location.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Buddha's view

This is the serene face of the giant reclining Buddha and the view that he sees from his resting place near the top of Phnom Baset, some 30kms north of Phnom Penh. This Buddha is known locally as Roob Preah Chol Neapeau and just below him sits an 8th century brick sanctuary called Prasat Srei Krup Leak- temple of the perfect woman - complete with flying palaces carved on the outside walls, a natural cave grotto and a large tree that splits the temple in half. More to follow.
The view from Phnom Baset across the Kandal province plains below

Deadly sins

Be warned, commit a deadly sin and this may happen to you
I have a stack of photos and stories from my recent visit to Kompong Cham and simply not enough hours in the day! I will post more in the next few days, I promise. In the meantime, here are a couple of photos. The painted wall above, at Phnom Theat Srei, 30kms northwest of Kompong Cham, hosts a scene showing what will happen to you in hell if you commit deadly sins such as adultery, stealing land, talking behind someone's back, even breastfeeding your baby in the pagoda! You can find similar examples in some of the older pagoda's - take time to look at the wall paintings inside as well as outside the viharas. In the picture below, I was joined by three young boys as I watched the sun set from a small hill next to the disused airfield just outside Kompong Cham. They were sat on the wall of an old army lookout post.

Lazy days and sunset views

Teaching Genocide

Khamboly Dy, who published A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) through DC-Cam in Phnom Penh, argues that its time to teach the schoolchildren of Cambodia the facts about the Khmer Rouge period. Until now, the Khmer Rouge regime is scantily covered in textbooks and many children simply don't believe the stories of their parents and grandparents, or don't care. However, with the KR Tribunal progressing, the topic has never been so hot, so its a good time to press the Education Ministry to get it sorted. It's not just the addition of a new textbook that will do the trick as Dy argues but curriculum reform, teacher training and much more besides will be required. I can't agree more. Read Dy's assessment here.

Here's my April 2007 post on the publication of Khamboly Dy's book:
On Wednesday of this week, the first history book written by a Cambodian about the Khmer Rouge was published by DC-Cam in Cambodia. A History of Democratic Kampuchea was written by Khamboly Dy and will be avalable free to high school teachers and students as a core reference book. Cambodian schools teach little about the Khmer Rouge, largely because the subject is sensitive among political groups and high-profile individuals once associated with the guerrilla movement. And previous books about Cambodian history have been written almost exclusively by foreigners. Dy has worked with DC-Cam since 2003 and published a lot of articles in the Center's magazine, Searching for the Truth, as well as leading its Genocide Education project. He holds a bachelor's degree in English from the Royal University of Phnom Penh and is a Bachelor of Business Administration from Cambodia's National Institute of Management. Link.
posted by Andy at

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Rattana Pok's life story

How did I miss this book when it was published last October? With a title this long, I must've been looking the other way! Rattana Pok's memoir When Slaves Became Masters: A true-life story of a little boy before, during, and after the unfathomable evil of Pol Pot’s regime, is a self-published real-life narrative of his experiences growing up in Cambodia. Pok was born in the southwest of Cambodia, in Kampot province, in 1964. He managed to get to the United States in 1981 and has been an interpreter since 1993, currently working for the US Dept. of State, interpreting for numerous Khmer delegates and dignitaries on tours, conferences and training sessions throughout the US. and abroad. His life story is available through Amazon.
* * * * *
My apologies to Sarith (the groom) and Sreyla (the bride) for forgetting to post a picture of the happy couple during their wedding party celebrations on Saturday 16th. I even had my hair cut especially. It was my eighth wedding party in the few months that I've been living in Phnom Penh and this one was held at their home in Prekreang village, miles out in the Takhmau countryside. It was the usual riotous affair, especially weddings out in the sticks, but surprisingly, I wasn't the only westerner present. In fact, I felt affronted that other foreigners were invited - just kidding. Anyways, here's the happy couple.

The happy couple: Sarith (left) and Sreyla

Closure on classical dance

Sam Sathya has been Cambodia’s prima ballerina for more than a decade. She's also a teacher at RUFA
In this my final post from yesterday's introduction to the highest-level of classical Cambodian dance, I hope my posts have given you a thirst for more of this unique art-form and I sign-off with a few remaining photos from the morning's performance. I was able to gain some backstage access though all in the troupe were so friendly and accommodating that everyone was welcome. And the truth be told, I think the girls simply love having their picture taken.
A scene from the performance involving Vicheaka, Limsothea and Mony
The pinpeat orchestra musicians take their bow
All smiles from Vuth Chanmoly (left) and Topla
Thanks to Savin for my invite to the performance
posted by Andy at

Monday, February 18, 2008

UNTAC unveiled

The UNTAC years' panel: LtoR: Dina Nay, Tom Fawthrop, Andrew Thompson
The latest in a series of forums reviewing the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge took place at the Pannasastra University tonight in Phnom Penh and focused on the UNTAC period, from the signing of the Paris Peace Accords to the election in 1993. Author and journalist Tom Fawthrop again took the moderator's chair and enlightened the audience with his in-depth knowledge of the period. He was supported by panelists Dina Nay, who spent the UNTAC period as an assistant to the force's military commander General John Sanderson, while doctor Andrew Thompson worked for the UN's human rights component. Both speakers provided the audience with their own perspectives on the period and encouraged questions from the floor. One of the points that became clear in the discussion, was the UN's refusal to acknowledge the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, and instead to focus on reconciliation and the elections, even though the KR eventually refused to take part. Miraculously, election day went off without a hitch - that can't be said for the UNTAC operation itself or the messy political aftermath. Next Monday's (25th Feb) panel will be on Cambodia after UNTAC (in the 1990s) and will include author and former UN staffer Benny Widyono. This series of panel discussions is hosted by Meta House and Konrad-Adenauer Foundation.
posted by Andy at

Three faces

Savin's public face as a top-class classical dancer, wearing her single-spired mokot crown
Savin's private face, when not in the public arena
She'll hate me for this but here are three faces, two of them natural, the other an artistic impression, of one of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia's leading classical dancers, Sam Savin. She first toured abroad at the age of fourteen and will soon go to France for the fifth time in her professional career. She has also toured the United States a few times, as well as Europe and Japan amongst other countries, helping to promote Cambodia's art around the world. As an artist, you really don't need to guess where she lives - yes, that's right in the Bassac, which is traditionally home to Phnom Penh's community of performing artists from musicians and singers to dancers. Now twenty-eight, she is a teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), though with such a busy calendar of performances and a hectic touring schedule, she regrets that she doesn't have enough time to devote to her students. Keeping Cambodia's traditions alive is a tough task because of the small number of artists accomplished enough to perform at the highest level. Savin has performed at the top level now for fourteen years and shows no sign of taking it easy. An artistic impression of Savin's classical dance face and crown

Ethereal and full of grace

Four different costumes from this morning's classical dance performance. LtoR: Sopheap, Limsothea, Chanmoly & Bunnavy
Here are some more photos from this morning's classical dance performance hosted by Amrita Performing Arts in the company of the Culture Minister. The costumes and stylized movement of the dancers were ethereal and gracefulness personified throughout and told a story much like a mime. The kbach hand gestures and accompanying foot movements require years of practice and stretching at a young age so the limbs become very flexible. The cast was all-female and they played all the roles, neay rong (men), neang (maidens/heavenly creatures) and yeak (giants). I'm kicking myself for not finding out the full story of this morning's performance but Savin was busy as you can see from the photos and I was busy taking pictures! As far as I could make out the main story-line was centred around a male character (the King) rescuing a damsel (the Princess) in distress, but don't quote me on that. Savin's costume was very ornate and embroidered with sequins and she wore a mokot headpiece to denote her status as a divinity with its tall single-spired crown. On her right ear was a rose and a phuong (flower tassel made from jasmine and michelia blossoms) on the left side of the crown. I will find out more and post the result of my findings in the comments section in due course. For now I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Onstage and 'in the moment' - Vicheaka is the dancer

The main performers and orchestra take their bow at the end of the show

Two of the lead characters pose after the performance, Vicheaka and Mony

Savin (left) and two of her heavenly half bird, half human colleagues, Vichary & Sopheap pose after the show

A taste of Khmer dance

Principal Royal Ballet classical dancer Sam Savin
This morning I gate-crashed a performance by members of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and the Royal University of Fine Arts performing as part of an event organised by Amrita Performing Arts and presided over by the Culture Minister, Veng Sereyvuth. Hard to believe but this was my first-ever viewing of the top-level of classical dance performers in Cambodia and my inside contact was one of the troupe's best dancers, Sam Savin. Today's performance was a break from the rigours of daily practice for the troupe, of which twenty will be off to perform in France for a month very soon. Savin has been dancing since she was twelve, she's now 28 and has performed abroad many times in major performances and tours such as Dance - The Spirit of Cambodia, Seasons of Migration, she starred as Pamina Devi in the dance of the same name and recently performed in L'Nuits d'Angkor Festival at Angkor Wat. We are talking the very pinnacle of classical Cambodian dance. I managed to grab a few photos before, during and after the performance, which I'll post here. As for the details of the dance itself, Savin tried her best to explain but I need to do some more research before I commit myself to print! More later.

The beauty and the beast (the beauty has wings, the beast is wearing the trousers!)
Some of the leading dance performers and their teachersSavin takes center stage during this morning's dance performance
Savin and her fellow heavenly creatures pose for the camera after the performance. LtoR: Savin, Vichary, Sopheap & Sakada

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rarely-visited Prasat Srah Keo

Head monk Touch Seam Lean poses proudly in the main vihara of Wat Srah Keo
On my return journey from Phnom Chisor a couple of weeks ago, I decided to trek across country from Route 2 to Route 3 on the hunt for an ancient prasat by the name of Prasat Srah Keo. As it turned out, my findings didn't exactly set the world alight but it made for a pleasant way to end my day's exploration. Prasat Srah Keo lies fifty kilometres south of Phnom Penh and about a kilometre from Route 3. Nearby is a large expanse of water called Thnal Dak Baray, and the shouts of the boys jumping into the cooling water was ringing in my ears as I entered the grounds of the pagoda, Wat Srah Keo. My arrival sparked the interest of the wat's head monk, Touch Seam Lean, who literally skipped over to meet me. We talked about the prasat we stood next to, which retained brick foundations and two colonettes but little else. He said that the prasat had been broken during the Khmer Rouge era, when the main vihara had been used as a prison. I told him about my own interest in genocide memorials and he asked if he could join me on my next foray into his province to visit them. He was very interested in Khmer Rouge history. He unlocked the door to the prasat to reveal a worn lintel very similar to one at Phnom Chisor. It was an image of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana flanked by two worshippers, above a grinning kala, though it was difficult to see clearly and the monk warned me that a snake was thought to live in the dark recesses of the prasat. I exited pretty smartish. He then guided me into the main vihara for some photos with him and the younger monks before we visited some of the laterite foundations on which the vihara is built and spotted a large lotus flower which would've been mounted on the top of the prasat. In his time at the pagoda, I was one of just a handful of visitors who'd come looking for the prasat, and most of the others had been with the fine arts department. We parted with friendly handshakes and an exchange of mobile numbers.

The sandstone doorway to the prasat with two colonettes in place

This lintel shows Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana above a grinning kala

A sandstone lotus bud which would've adorned the summit of the prasat. Note the laterite foundation blocks

These children were fishing in Thnal Dak Baray, next to Wat Srah Keo

Neang Khmau continued

The two remaining towers at Prasat Neang Khmau
The two brick towers of Prasat Neang Khmau are a popular stop along Route 2, approximately 50kms south of Phnom Penh and usually incorporated into a visit to nearby Phnom Chisor. From Neang Khmau I took the back roads to Chisor through dusty villages rarely seen by travellers and recommend the route if you prefer avoiding the main highway. The only downside were the trucks shifting slate and rocks from the quarries at Chisor kicking up dust through the villages en route. Back at Neang Khmau, the north tower is less well-preserved and its lintel is in complete comparison to the one in place on the south tower. It's been completely eroded or hacked away by thieves or vandals and the altar inside is a pedestal covered in bat droppings. Wooden supports hold up the load-bearing and decorative lintels. Chea Chhang, the old man with the key to the south tower recalled that two statues found at the site were now in the museum at Phnom Penh and that if I could arrange it, could they be returned to attract more visitors to his prasat. I said I would ask! The statues in question are a headless female figure with pleated skirt and a Vajimukha, with the body of a man and the head of a horse, both from the early 10th century Bakheng style. Stop by Prasat Neang Khmau and say hello to Chea Chhang if you get the chance - tell him the museum was unwilling to release the statues!

80 year old Chea Chhang, the man with the key
The less-preserved north tower and a stupa where the 3rd tower would've stood
The lintel of the north tower has been destroyed beyond recognition The doorway to the north tower with its colonettes in reasonable condition flanked by wooden supports

The Black Virgin

The best-preserved south tower at Prasat Neang Khmau
The gist of the story is that the lady in question was locked in the prasat to deter the advances of her sweetheart. Where the 'black' part of the story comes from, I didn't find out, on a recent visit to Prasat Neang Khmau, a worthwhile stop around 50kms south of Phnom Penh on Route 2. The two remaining brick towers are located a few meters from the modern pagoda, though it's believed there were at least three if not five towers when it was orginally constructed in the first quarter of the 10th century. It's dedicated to Vishnu, it's sister temple is Prasat Kravan at Angkor and though I didn't know they were there, there are supposed to be barely-legible wall-paintings inside the south tower. At Neang Khmau I met with 80 year old Chea Chhang, who unlocked the bolted door to show me the altar and tell me what he knew; what he forgot to show me were the frescoes on the wall and why she's called the black lady! Chhang needs to brush up on his guiding skills but otherwise, he's a nice old guy.
The best-preserved tower opens to the east and is crowned with a magnificent lintel in excellent condition. The figures atop and below the horizontal floral swag held in the mouth of the grinning kala are most likely Vishvakarma with numerous worshippers in support and in the top register. At the ends of the floral swag, the makaras spew out a trio of naga heads. The octagonal colonettes are in great condition too and an inscription on the doorframe is also in good nick. The tower is square with four receding tiers and false doors in the middle of each side. The lintel and colonettes are made of sandstone, the rest of the towers are of brick construction.

A gorgeous lintel with kala as its central theme, at Prasat Neang Khmau
Detail of Vishvakarma and a grinning kala, aided by worshippers, that adorn the lintel
Inside the tower is the main altar, dedicated to the Black Virgin
A well-preserved inscription on the doorframe to the south tower

News round-up

Cambodian Living Arts have teamed up with TVK television station in Phnom Penh to show a performance of their When Elephants Weep contemporary rock-opera, that debuted in America last year. The hour-long special tv programme will be shown on the eve of National Culture Day on 2nd March. Auditions are now taking place for a premiere of the opera in Phnom Penh, slated for November this year. More here. CLA and their partner Amrita Performing Arts will also be taking part in the forthcoming event, Spotlight - An Asian festival of Inclusive Arts, where for the first time ever, disabled and able-bodied artists from across Asia will join together in Cambodia to present an arts festival featuring performance, film, music and visual arts with a focus on the abilities of all people. Click here for full details. If you are in Siem Reap, look out for the Giant Puppet Parade on 23 February, the same night as the Spotlight Festival opens in Phnom Penh.

Greg Mellen of Long Beach's Press Telegram newspaper has been back in Cambodia. His story about the Khmer Arts Academy founded by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and her husband in Takhmau, just outside Phnom Penh, is the focus of his latest article. Read it here.

Rick Stein, the celebrity chef from the UK, has been in Cambodia recording his latest series of tv cooking specials from around Asia. Whilst in Phnom Penh, Stein hooked up with Vann Nath, the painter-survivor of Tuol Sleng, who happens to run a restaurant in the city. Also in town soon will be Tim Sorel who's putting together a documentary, 30 years after Pol Pot, and Vann Nath is also on his life of interviewees, as is the dancer, Em Theay, known to many as the Tenth Dancer. In preparation for the visit, I met Theay's daugher Thong Kim Ann yesterday, who also happens to be deputy head of the classical dance section of the department of performing arts and one of Cambodia's best classical dancers. Theay is a living embodiment of Cambodia's cultural past and in my view a national treasure. All of her children and her children's children have become performers, to carry on the example set by this incredible woman.

The next Khmer Rouge Legacy panel discussion and debate from Meta House will take place tomorrow (Monday 18th Feb) at Pannasastra International School on Street 370 from 7pm. This week's subject is UNTAC - The UN and Cambodia, with Raymond Leos moderating a panel of speakers. Also at Meta House this week, at their Street 264 HQ, will the Cambodian Living Arts' student classical music performance on Wednesday 20th, and on Saturday 23rd a screening of Rithy Panh's much-acclaimed film, S-21 - The Killing Machine.

More from Dey Krahom

The dark and dank corridors of the Bassac's White Building
The rubbish-strewn backside of the White Building
Here's a few more pictures from my Saturday morning visit to the Bassac and Dey Krahom area of Phnom Penh. In the 1980s the Cambodian government made a concerted effort to lure all surviving musicians back to Phnom Penh, and many artists joined scores of other returnees in setting up makeshift homes in Dey Krahom (it means Red Soil), very close to the Bassac theatre. Growing to 5,000 people by 1994, the shantytown community occupied a central strip of land between celebrated architect Van Molyvan's dilapidated White Building, erected in 1964 to house municipal staff (and now housing the rehearsal room for CLA students), and his Grey Building, once fancy apartments but now completely altered and home to Build Bright University and others. The settlement at Dey Krahom grew to around 12,000 people a decade later, of which at least 300 were artists. Whilst many residents eke out a living selling garbage or groceries or scouring the waterfront for work, the unsanitary conditions in which they live - surrounded by the stench of open sewers and uncollected rubbish - make it an area ripe for redevelopment and that's exactly what is happening. Many families have already been forced out, to land many kilometres from the city, while the others are holding out for higher recompense for their land but could face forced eviction at any moment. This dislocation has affected the strong artist community that existed though people like blind chapei master Kong Nai, quickly developing a worldwide reputation as the Ray Charles of Cambodia, still live in the slum and continues to pass on his skills to the artists of the future, like his near neighbour Och Savy, with whom he toured England last year. The outlook for Dey Krahom is uncertain but the seeds have been sown by Cambodian Living Arts and the music masters of yesteryear, to ensure the next generation carry forward the performance skills and culture that will enrich Cambodia's future.

An ariel view of part of Dey Krahom and the University buildings behind it - many of the plots have already been emptied and cleared

Another view of Dey Krahom and the Bassac's White Building

The simple home of chapei master musician, Kong Nai

Dancing with pride

The Bassac slum, home to the CLA practice class on the 4th floor
The class practice a new dance about planting rice
Yesterday morning I visited the Bassac slum area of Phnom Penh to get a better insight into the work of Cambodian Living Arts. I was very lucky to be given a personal guided tour with none other than Arn Chorn-Pond, the founder of CLA and the subject of the acclaimed documentary The Flute Player. As I found out, Arn was as passionate about the arts - and everything else - as the teenagers I watched during their practice. Their spirit, sense of fun and commitment to working hard was so evident in the hour or so that I spent with them. They clearly loved performing, even in this practice session inside a tiny rented room on the fourth floor of the tenement building. This was the CLA practice studio in the building where many of the kids live, surrounded by the dangers and perils that accompany life in a slum. But CLA has given them an opportunity and an alternative to the drugs, crime and prostitution that for 25 of them will include a trip to Europe later this year. The ages of this troupe, mentored by Ieng Sithul, one of Cambodia's best-known artists, range between eight and nineteen and total no less than 52 youngsters, out of approximately 300 that CLA support. They also support 16 master musicians including Kong Nai, the blind chapei master, who was such a hit at last year's WOMAD festival in England. After watching the practice session, I visited his home in Dey Krahom, the area under constant threat of forced eviction, though the master was in Kampot with his family. Opposite his house, we visited the home of his best protege, Ouch Savy, who was also out performing at a wedding, and chatted to her mother, a respected performer herself. CLA has given so many the opportunity to practice and revive the arts and encouraged them to take their art into the public arena, whether it be at a wedding, hotel performances or prestigious events such as WOMAD. I can't speak highly enough of the work being done by CLA and the performers in bringing back traditional performance art and inspiring new contemporary performances, as I witnessed myself with the youngsters in their cramped practice room. Link: CLA.
This 2nd new dance is all about the traditional Khmer scarf, the krama
End of the performance, serious faces = serious commitment
Arn (left) and teacher Nop Thida, talk to the class about their art

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Reviving the arts - with a smile

Teenage boys & girls practice a new dance based on the traditional scarf, the krama
Early this morning I visited the Bassac and Dey Krahom area of Phnom Penh. It's the slum area that has been the scene of much aggravation in recent months with many residents holding out against the efforts to remove them from their squatter community. Not too long ago, as many as 12,000 people lived there, today, it's far fewer. I was there with Arn Chorn-Pond, the founder of Cambodian Living Arts. I was tagging along as Maria Bakkalapulo, from Time Magazine, was researching an article on CLA, as it was my first opportunity to visit the Bassac and see for myself the revival of the arts, about which Arn is so passionate. We visited a practice class of teenage performers in one of the rented rooms on the fourth floor of the tenement building. It was wonderful to see how much they enjoyed their practice and how dance has given them an opportunity to escape the evils that lurk around every corner for these youngsters, all of whom live in the Bassac community. The troupe we visited were trying out a couple of new contemporary folk dances, put together by their mentor and teacher, Ieng Sithul and Nop Thida. And they all broke out into beaming smiles when they told us that later in the year they will be performing in France and England - opportunities like this are few and far between and the teenagers are putting in massive efforts to ensure they get a place in the 25-strong group that will be making the trip abroad. More on my visit later.

A passionate Arn Chorn-Pond explains his reasons for starting CLA
A small shrine against the backdrop of the Bassac slum

Friday, February 15, 2008

Author at Wat Nokor

Wat Nokor, on the outskirts of the city of Kompong Cham has always been one of my favourite Angkorean temples. It possesses a wealth of carvings, it is fused and merged into a modern pagoda and has lots of nooks and cranny's for a temple-nut like me to investigate. I will post a flood of pictures in the next few days to ensure you get a good feel for the place, which you must visit if you are passing through Kompong Cham on your way to the northeast of Cambodia. For now, here's a photo of yours truly next to one of the intricately-carved doorways that house a seated Buddha. In case you can't tell which one I am, I'm in the less colourful clothing!

Painter to meet his Jailer

Painter to Meet His Jailer at Khmer Rouge Trials - by Marwaan Macan-Markar (Inter Press Service news agency)

Sometime this year, two men who stood on either side of the genocide unleashed in Cambodia in the 1970s may finally face each other in a special war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh. For one of them, Vann Nath (right: self portrait), it is a moment that he has waited patiently for over almost three decades. He was one of only seven people who came out alive from Tuol Sleng, a high school in the Cambodian capital that was converted into a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime’s brutal grip on power from April 1975 to January 1979. At least 14,000 people who were imprisoned there were not as fortunate. They were all tortured and killed. The other is Kaing Khek Eav, or ‘Duch’, who was the chief jailer of Tuol Sleng, or S-21, as it was known by the extremist Maoist group. He is currently under custody, along with four other surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, of the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the special tribunal is officially called, is expected to hear its first case this year.
‘’I have been hoping for this tribunal for nearly 30 years. I wanted the Khmer Rouge leaders to face justice for what they did,’’ says Nath, who has carried the torment of his one year in S-21 since he found freedom in January 1979. ‘’I will go and attend the trial of Duch to see if the tribunal will deliver a good verdict.’’ But the 61-year-old, who has a shock of white hair and thick black eyebrows that have whitened at the edges, is prepared to do more. ‘’I am ready to go and testify if the court needs me as a witness,’’ he said in an interview during a recent visit to Bangkok. ‘’I think it is a secret of the court: to invite me or not.’’ Such an appearance will inevitably add to Nath’s legendary status in his country. For not only is he an inmate who witnessed the horrors that unfolded in S-21, but he has made it his mission, since his freedom, to tell the story of his nightmare through paintings that have a raw, immediate and blunt quality. They are frozen moments of agony that have flowed from his memory. The exhibitions of his paintings since 1980 - the first in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - have scenes of prisoners being whipped and their fingernails pulled out, of one having his neck sliced by a Khmer Rouge guard, and of a mother being beaten as her baby is grabbed from her hands by a prison guard. His most recent exhibition, which opened in Bangkok this month, has disturbing portraits of prisoners in chains and an emaciated figure of Nath being led away by two prison guards. They are paintings, moreover, that have come to graphically represent the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for killing close to 1.7 million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s population at the time. Most of the Cambodian victims, even babies, were either executed or died due to forced labour or starvation. Among them were two of Nath’s sons, who died of starvation while he was imprisoned.
But dredging up such memories for his next canvas brings little relief or creative joy. ‘’When I paint the scenes of prisoners being dragged by the guards, it is still very hard for me,’’ he explained in a flat, controlled tone of voice. ‘’They bring back memories of my time there. It makes me go into the painting and remember the painful moments of that dark period.’’ In fact, a book Nath wrote about his experience in S-21 confirms how close to the truth his images of torment are. During an encounter with ‘’the former butcher of Tuol Sleng,’’ as he described a former prison guard, Nath asks him how accurate the images of the prison were. ‘’No, they are not exaggerated,’’ the guard had said during that early 1996 meeting. ‘’There were scenes more brutal than that.’’ ‘’Did you see the picture of the prison guards pulling a baby away from his mother while another guy hit the mother with a stick?’’ Nath writes in his book, ‘A Cambodian Prison Portrait’, of the question he next posed to the now freed Khmer Rouge guard. ‘’What did you and your men do with the babies? Where did you take them?’’ ‘’Uh ... we took them out to kill them,’’ the guard replies. ‘’We were ordered to take all of them to be killed.’’ ‘’You killed those small babies? Oh God!’’ writes Nath of his pained response. Then, he adds: ‘’My words dried up. His last statement was not a lie. All these years, in the back of my mind, I had always thought that they had spared the children.’’
Yet the ‘Painter of Tuol Sleng’ is the first to admit his work as an artist, which evokes so much pain, is also the reason why he survived the prison. For when Nath, who was born into a poor farming family, was arrested and dragged into S-21, he was singled out for his talent. Till then, he had been a painter of billboards in Battambang, a city in north-west Cambodia some 300 km from Phnom Penh. He was ordered by the prison’s tormentors to paint the portrait of a man he had little knowledge of - Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader. His first painting, in black and white, was based on a black-and-white photo of the reclusive tyrant. Later, he shifted to a painting in colour. He knew, then, that he was painting for his survival. There was no provision for error. Some of the other imprisoned painters who had been ordered to do likewise had been executed for their failure. The final arbiter was Duch, who had said ‘’good’’ and ‘’it’s all right’’ after studying one of Nath’s portrait of Pol Pot. Yet how good Nath was in the eyes of Tuol Sleng’s chief jailer came to light after the Khmer Rouge was driven from power by the Vietnamese army. In 1980, while working at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Nath was shown a list by a researcher examining the prison’s documents. It was a list of prisoners that Duch had authorised to be killed on Feb. 16, 1978. On it was Nath’s name. But next to it was an entry written in red ink. ‘’Keep the painter,’’ it is reported to have said. Link: IPS.

Red Sense - World Premiere

It's taken a bit longer than expected but the World Premiere of Tim Pek's directorial debut, The Red Sense, will open at a gala event in Australia at The Drum Theatre, Dandenong, Victoria, Melbourne on Saturday 8 March.
Shot in Australia, the story centres around a young woman who discovers that the Khmer Rouge soldier who killed her father, is alive and well and living closeby. She is torn between wanting to take revenge or if in forgiving her father’s executioner, she could bring healing to herself and her people. The film features a Khmer cast, all of whom have their own connection to the Khmer Rouge genocide. Talented actress, Sarina Luy, who plays the role of Kong Jan Melear, the young woman who discovers her father’s murderer living in her neighbourhood, says “My parents always talk to me about all the difficulties that they went through during that time.” She arrived in Australia in 1995 from New Zealand, after having left a refugee camp in Thailand, in 1991. Each member of the crew had a different reason for wanting to do the film, and for feeling the film was important. “I think the Khmer Rouge time is a powerful memory in the hearts of older people, and they will never forget and forgive.” She says. “I really think this film is very important for overseas Khmers, especially all the teenagers should know about the history and the difficulties that our poor people have gone through.” Sarina also co-wrote the theme song for the film, Svaeng Ruk Pup Tmei.
Following the film's premiere in Melbourne, the Director Tim Pek will bring the film to Cambodia - very timely of course with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal currently occupying everyone's attention in Phnom Penh - and is seeking sponsors, followed by a worldwide dvd release in the future. You can find out a lot more about the film at their website.

Actress Sarina Luy

Osborne's Phnom Penh

A veteran of no less than nine books on Southeast Asian history and politics, Canberra professor Milton Osborne has this month delivered his latest book, Phnom Penh - A Cultural and Literary History, published by Signal Books. The author first lived in the city in 1959 and knows his stuff. He puts into context the birth of the capital in the 1800's and the Sihanouk years when Phnom Penh deserved its reputation as the most attractive city in Southeast Asia but all that changed during the Pol Pot tyranny. Now the city is recapturing its vibrancy and Osborne has been here often enough to be the johnny on the spot to encapsulate that into the 256 pages of his new book. Osborne's previous titles on Cambodia include: Politics and Power in Cambodia: The Sihanouk Years (1973); Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy (1979); Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (1994).
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A book that I purchased recently at Monument Books but which I failed to mention at the time of its publication was Roland Neveu's The Fall of Phnom Penh : 17 April 1975, released by Asia Horizon Books in October 2007. It was the day that will remain a black day in Cambodian history as the Khmer Rouge regime took control of the city and of the country and began a terrifying era for all Cambodians. Photographer Roland Neveu was there, he stayed behind after most of the press corps had left and his 35-mm mainly black and white shots are some of the few that record that fateful day. As an historical record, it's a must buy book. His other acclaimed book, Cambodia - The Years of Turmoil is another that I must get hold of.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

O Reang Ov uncovered

On the left Piya, despite her painful leg was more than helpful, with Yeay Pen on the right
O Reang Ov, on the edge of the Kompong Cham provincial border with Prey Veng province, was a busy truck-stop, dusty, hot and humid when I arrived around midday - what else did I expect? After a pork and rice lunch at a foodstall near the scruffy market, I headed for the main wat in town, not unsurprisingly called Wat O Reang Ov. I was searching for a genocide memorial called Prey Thoudong and everyone kept telling me to go to the wat, so I followed their advice. Asking around, no-one knew anything and I was about to give up the hunt when I stopped near the pagoda's crematorium, just outside the front gate, and an old woman called to me from the balcony of her small wooden house nearby. She asked what was I doing and as soon as I mentioned Prey Thoudong, she invited me to join her and a fellow nun, for tea and a banana. Piya and her friend, Yeay Pen had lived in the area for many years and related to me the full story of the pagoda, which had been a detention area during the Khmer Rouge regime and two school buildings had been used for interrogation and execution. Five wells in the vicinity had been utilised as burial chambers as well as a number of pits, right next to her house. We climbed down the stairs of her home and she pointed to the ground where I could see shards of bone and a few teeth scattered haphazardly. After the Khmer Rouge era ended, the bones of some of the victims had been collected, some were burnt, others were retained in a stupa in the grounds of the pagoda and that was named Prey Thoudong. Despite finding it hard to walk, she was determined to take me to the only well that was still standing and we walked slowly for about 100 metres into the bush behind the crematorium to visit the well and a disused pagoda building. She then guided me to the stupa just inside the wat's main gate but had to return to her home as she was clearly in great discomfort. The stupa was in a sorry state and the painted sign on the front, requesting people to take care of this memorial, had clearly been ignored. Inside the stupa, a few dirty bones and a lot of debris was all that remained of the memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide and reflected the general apathy for these public memorials that I find on my travels. I returned to show my appreciation to Piya and Yeay Pen for their help and information with a small donation before making my way back to the city.

The disused well, that doubled as a burial chmaber
The sign on the front of the stupa asked people to take care of the memorial
Inside the stupa debris was mixed with the victim's remains
The neglected stupa known as Prey Thoudong, in the grounds of Wat O Reang Ov

Koh Paen views

The sun begins to set over the water channel between the mainland and Koh Paen island on the left
The wooden house on stilts of Ye Yian, pictured with her sister and two great grandchildren
The effervescent Ye Yian (left) and her younger sister, Ye Yeut
An encounter with the island of Koh Paen is a popular side-trip for those visiting the fairly sleepy Mekong riverside city of Kompong Cham. Koh Paen is easy enough to spend a couple of hours cycling around, meeting the locals and enjoying mingling with the fruit and tobacco growers and fishermen of this giant sandbank in the middle of the Mekong River. Access is via the amazing bamboo bridge during the dry season, or by ferry in the wet season. And you can meet people like 80 year old Ye Yian and her sister Ye Yeut. They live in two traditional wooden houses on stilts and sell fruit to get by. In fact, the first thing they did was offer me a bowl of fruit and a toothless smiling welcome when I stopped to say hello. Their parents were born on the island and their lives have been spent there except during the turmoil of the '70s. Ye Yian's husband died a long time ago and she doesn't see much of her four children but having her sister next door and her fruit-selling job helps her stay fit and active for her age, and as is typical throughout Cambodia, extremely welcoming to anyone that takes the time to stop and say hello.

A view of the Kizuna Bridge taken from the bamboo bridge to Koh Paen

The sun is setting on another day at the sleepy backwater of Koh Paen near Kompong Cham

Bridge of bamboo

The bamboo bridge to Koh Paen
It's not the only bamboo bridge in Cambodia, but it's the one that gets the most press and it resides in the middle of the Mekong River in Kompong Cham city. The Bamboo Bridge to Koh Paen is an impressive feat of engineering that takes place every dry season to help the villagers on the island of Koh Paen connect to the mainland. It can accommodate pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes and cars (preferably without passengers) and is constructed of bamboo of course, woven together in a form of matting with wire, supported by beams and altogether very sturdy. It's dismantled in the wet season when the only connection is via ferry boats and can stretch to 300 metres long depending on the water levels. It costs 3,000 riel each way to use the bridge on a moto as its a private construction and it's very close to Kompong Cham city, so next time you are in town, head for the bridge and take time to discover the island delights of Koh Paen. The villagers are very friendly and the island, effectively a giant sandbar in the middle of the Mekong River, is known for its fruit, tobacco and fishing.

Bicycles, motos and cars use the bamboo bridge to Koh Paen
The water level at the moment is quite low
The bridge takes you to the sandbars that constitute Koh Paen island
The bridge is high enough and the water level low enough to accommodate small fishing boats

More from Hen Sophal

Detail from the 'Evil Smile of Pol Pot' painting on show at Meta House
I will end my look at some of the exhibits from the Art of Survival show currently taking place at Meta House in Phnom Penh with a return to the artist Hen Sophal, who I have featured a couple of times on my blog already. It's worth repeating a previous post so you are familiar with his story: The unsettling picture of a grinning Pol Pot sat on a pile of his victims on the cover of the book Getting Away With Genocide by authors Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis, is from an original painting by Cambodian artist Hen Sophal and is called 'The Evil Smile of Pol Pot'. Its known as Sophal's signature piece and the artist is widely regarded as one of Cambodia's best contemporary artists, with his work featuring in numerous exhibitions. His flattering portraits of Phnom Penh's smart set were his stock-in-trade until he was encouraged to explore corruption and the darker side of the capital's nightlife. He was initially reluctant to delve into controversial areas, though his melancholic paintings of nighttime Phnom Penh depict a side of life not normally seen in the art for sale in the majority of the capital's shops.Exhibitions such as Visions of the Future in 2003, where Sophal depicted a well-dressed government official, drinking alcohol and smoking, with a calendar photo of a nude woman on the wall to signify the corruption endemic in his country, or the Visual Arts Open exhibition in 2005 have given his work a welcome injection of recognition and publicity, both inside and outside Cambodia. Born in Phnom Penh, Sophal, 48, studied at the School of Fine Arts in the early 1980s. He now combines his portraiture work with paintings of his country’s social and economic ills in his work.

The all powerful Angka, by Hen Sophal
Sophal's view of love under the Khmer Rouge

More from the Art of Survival

Here are a few more examples of the varied works on show at the Meta House's current Art of Survivial exhibition, giving voice to sixteen Cambodian and three foreign artists and their impression of the Khmer Rouge period in recent history. The two artists represented below are Prum Vichet with the top three paintings and Chan Nawath with his Child of Anka mixed media exhibits.

Prum Vichet's The Last Lives painting, available to buy for $800
The Day Returned by Cambodian artist Prum Vichet
Prum Vichet's third exhibit, Politic Potentate
A mixed media exhibit from Chan Nawath entitled Child of Anka I

Chan Nawath's Child of Anka II

Art will survive

The Art of Survival exhibition at the Meta House on Street 264 in Phnom Penh has been open since the end of last month and I've already featured a few of the artists on my blog, namely Vann Nath, Svay Ken and Hen Sophal. In case you can't make the exhibition yourself - it's a catalogue of work where the artists were given a blank canvas to document their reflections on what the Khmer Rouge period meant to them - I will post a few more examples of the work currently on show. Meta House is open six nights each week from 6pm.

A gallery wall at Meta House, with three Hen Sophal paintings in the foreground

A dramatic painting by Piteak that hangs above the main door to the gallery

Another Piteak exhibit, that was added only last week to the exhibition

A painting by the female artist Sokuntevy Ouer, selling for $400

Go on....stay longer

A very noticeable bright orange splash of colour has descended upon bars, restaurants and shops throughout Phnom Penh in the last few days and the reason is the latest edition of the sustainable tourism booklet, Stay Another Day Cambodia, has arrived. Featuring 37 initiatives taking place across Cambodia, they provide both a richer travel experience and also the opportunity to contribute to improving the welfare of the locals. The list of initiatives includes community projects, non-profits and businesses with a strong social conscience that support poor communities, conserve traditional heritage or cultural assets, or preserve the natural environment for the future. Definitely worth picking up a copy and delving into its pages to see what tickles your fancy. There's enough to keep you in Cambodia for months, let alone another day! Link: SADI.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Apathy rules in PP

Nam Sothea and his Takhe at Meta House
I used to think that the Birmingham public in England was apathetic when it came to getting off their arses and watching live reggae, as I would often be at a gig and very few would bother to escape the comfort of their own living room to enjoy what invariably was a great night of entertainment and quality music. Unfortunately, apathy seems to have afflicted the Phnom Penh public too. The Meta House on Street 264 is now open six nights a week and is busting a gut to put on a variety of entertainment, be it in the form of films, documentaries, exhibitions, discussions and music. Tonight, it was the turn of the latter under the Khmix It! banner and the weekly introduction to students and their music from the Cambodian Living Arts program. Numbers in the recent past had been low but tonight it hit rock bottom with just two people in attendance, and I was one of them. For goodness sake Phnom Penhites, its free, its an opportunity to listen to extremely talented musicians who deserve the support of the public for maintaining traditional Cambodian music and culture, and its a chance to ask questions and find out more about the music and the individuals who play it. I implore you to get off your comfortable chair or bar-stool and get to the Meta House to support these events, or they will most likely disappear altogether.

Nam Sothea and his crocodile-shaped wooden zither called a Takhe
Tonight it was the turn of 23 year old Nam Sothea and his crocodile-shaped fretted floor zither called a Takhe, or Krapeu, which is an integral part of traditional Cambodian music and is played at new year, weddings and other ceremonies. Sothea has been playing it seriously for the last four years though his father and grandfather before him were both experts on this instrument. He's still a student at the Fine Arts school as well as a teacher himself and is in great demand at a variety of functions. Without an audience, I was given a one-on-one masterclass in the various styles of music that can be played on the Takhe, from classical and traditional through to pop. At times it sounded reminiscent of Irish folk music and at other times, something at the opposite end of the musical scale. Sothea played for over an hour and talked about his love of music and of the various instruments that make up the pinpeat orchestra, of which he is adept at most. I enjoyed my introduction to the Takhe, it's just a pity more people weren't present to enjoy it too.

Memorial at Wat Nokor

The victims remains at Wat Nokor are stored at the backside of a shrine
A section of the 1,000 victims stored in the open-air at Wat Nokor
The Genocide Memorial at Wat Nokor, the ancient temple merged into a modern wat located just outside Kompong Cham city, has been moved since my last visit in 2003. The large walk-in stupa that previously housed the skulls and bones of the Khmer Rouge victims, has been closed and the remains moved to the backside of a nearby shrine. I was told that the family who owned the stupa wanted it for their own family members and the remains of what originally was over 1,000 victims, had to be relocated. Their new home is in a forgotten corner of the pagoda's cemetery and like most of the genocide memorials across the country, in excess of eighty, they are now largely forgotten memories of a dim and distant past.
DC-Cam records show that the 1,000 plus victims' remains were originally brought to Wat Nokor from the massive killing fields site at Phnom Pros, about five kilometres away, where over 10,000 people were believed to have perished. Originally, the bones were stored in one memorial whilst a stupa was used for ceremonial purposes. However, these days the ceremonies have stopped and the bones are now at the mercy of the weather and animals. I visited some other memorial sites whilst in Kompong Cham province and apart from Phnom Pros, where a new stupa has been erected, the story of neglect and the absence of public memory is the same.

This Buddhist shrine marks the spot where KR victims are stored
The Khmer Rouge victims at Wat Nokor are now at the mercy of the weather and roaming animals
Leg and arm bones are stored with skulls of the KR victims at Wat Nokor

More monkey business

Bachey, the monkey from Wat Nokor looks docile enough
Bachey is feeding before he began roaming through the temple
Nearly as common as the gorgeous lintels at the temple sites I visit and the engaging Neak Ta shrines I encounter, are the monkeys that inhabit pagodas, particularly where large numbers of people gather. They certainly know which side their bread is buttered - what's the point of hanging around a pagoda that no-one ever goes to! These cheeky monkeys are from two pagodas that I visited at the weekend, when I spent 3 days in Kompong Cham. The top two photos are from Wat Nokor, just outside the city and a temple that is well worth visiting, but more about the temple itself in another posting. This monkey, who I nicknamed Bachey, was the only one I spotted and was in a tree above my head when I paid my $1 entrance fee to the tourist policeman lazing in his hammock. At a command from the policeman, he bared his teeth and feigned an attack, in an almost circus-like fashion. Quite distrubing really. He was the only monkey I saw at Wat Nokor. Meanwhile, it was a very different story at Phnom Pros, about 7kms from the city. This area has become quite a complex of buildings, a genocide memorial erected with support from Hun Sen and so on, and was awash with families and couples for my visit. The monkeys here are a veritable troop and I counted twenty at least of varying sizes and ages. They were much more aggressive and bold and all hell let loose when two of them began scrapping for the same piece of food. The decibel level rose dramatically, all the monkeys converged to see what the fuss was about and there seemed to be two camps in opposition to each other. It died down after a couple of minutes but simmered throughout my time there with sporadic outbreaks of gnashing of teeth and shaking of trees. Again, quite disturbing when so many young children were present, not to mention me! Keep an eye open for monkeys on your next pagoda visit and I recommend that you steer clear of them, just in case.
This young male was one of the main protagonists at Phnom Pros
One of the smaller, more docile monkeys at Phnom Pros

Around Choam Khsan

The heavily templed-area surrounding the village of Choam Khsan
I wanted to give you a flavour of the Carte Archeologique du Cambodge maps that I picked up from the Carnets d'Asie bookshop last night on Street 184. They are incredibly detailed and are a must have for any temple explorer bent on re-discovering some of the Angkorean gems that are to be found in the Cambodian countryside. For example, I have been to the northern village of Choam Khsan in Preah Vihear province, very close to the Thai border, on a couple of occasions looking for temples. My first trip was to unravel the mystery of Prasat Neak Buos and remains one of my most memorable forays to-date. I've visited eight temples so far but the map of the area, reproduced above, shows there are at least thirty temple sites in close proximity to the village, waiting to be seen. What the map doesn't tell me of course is how damn difficult it is to find some of these sites, especially in areas which are sparsely populated or where the inhabitants are newcomers to the locale. Often people have no idea what's literally in their own backyard. And without locating someone who knows where the temple site is, you can spend hours aimlessly searching the scrub and undergrowth, notwithstanding the real threat of landmines in a location like this. The maps are produced by the Ministry of Culture and EFEO, they provide details of all the major and minor temple sites and locations of archaeological interest, in both Khmer and French versions. There are 16 provincial maps and a few more besides, for example detailed maps of the Koh Ker complex and Sambor Prei Kuk, etc. They cost $3 each or $5 for the Siem Reap province map. I have been waiting years for a resource such as this. Get them today!

More from Chisor

A large linga held under cover of a large sheet within the main vihara at Phnom Chisor
Where will it all end you may well be asking, well at least you have a short break from the copious number of lintels to be found at the hilltop temple site of Phnom Chisor. Instead, here's a selection of photos from the main sanctuary. It's a very interesting temple, there's a lot to see including a large linga within the main prasat, which the fortune-tellers keep covered with a yellow sheet most of the time. The wooden doors to the main altar with guardians stood on pigs were found buried underground nearby and are said to be as old as the temple (which I took with a pinch of salt). A number of miscellaneous carvings and sculptures are dotted around the temple site, including decorative lintels, antefixes, nagas and this lion head which looks as though it was used as a water spout at the rear of the tower. The two large pedestals in the bottom photo can be found in the eastern corridor overlooking the dramatic stairway to the two sanctuaries below.

These two temple guardians are stood on the backs of pigs on the inner doors of the central prasat
A lion head used as a water spout at Phnom Chisor
Two large pedestals in the eastern corridor of the main sanctuary at Phnom Chisor

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lovely lovely maps

The map for Preah Vihear province
I always carry a map on my travels throughout Cambodia. Tonight my map collection increased by a further 16 maps, bought from Carnets d'Asie bookshop at the French Cultural Centre. Why you may ask? Well, I spotted these on the new CISARK website and they are incredible. The 16 Carte Archeologique du Cambodge maps cover all the provinces of Cambodia where archaeological sites can be found, and there are plenty. Produced by the Ministry of Culture and EFEO, the maps give the positions of all the major temple sites and much more besides, in Khmer and French versions. They were produced between Oct 2006 and June 2007, so have been out for a while but today was the first time I'd seen them, in the flesh. They each cost $3 except the Siem Reap map at $5, and served by the adorable Dary at Carnets, I simply had to buy the whole collection. The detail is amazing and represents a major step forward in identifying the locations of Cambodia's temple heritage, though the maps aren't the complete picture. They could be improved with the addition of town and village names alongwith roads to provide more context, while I'm aware of temple sites that aren't shown on at least one of the maps and which I hope to visit to back up my suspicions in late March. Nevertheless, if you are a temple-nut like me, these maps must be in your collection.

Along the Mekong

The front cover of Arnaud d'Aunay's Au Fil du Mekong book
You may recall a blog posting of mine back in September of last year when I praised some beautiful watercolour paintings by the artist Arnaud d'Aunay, from a book published in France by Gallimard in 2004. I now have a copy of the book, Au Fil du Mekong, purchased from Carnets d'Asie in Phnom Penh, and some of the paintings are excellent, though the text is in French. It's the story of the artists' boat trip from Saigon to Angkor and what he saw and experienced along the way. I've reproduced below a couple of other examples of d'Aunay's paintings from the book.
Fishermen on the Mekong River
A look at a library at Beng Mealea

Vishvakarma tops the league table

Vishvakarma above kala at Sen Thmol, at the foot of Phnom Chisor
I mentioned a few days ago that the plethora of beautifully-carved lintels on the Angkorean temples of Phnom Chisor had an overwhelming favourite decoration and counting them up, it's even more stark than I initially thought. I used to think that Indra was a big favourite but if Phnom Chisor is anything to go by, then Vishvakarma is the new leader of the lintel league table. I found the small figure who often appears seated above a grinning kala or other animal at the centre of a lintel, holding a danda, or something similar, on no less than 23 lintels...yes, 23! My first encounter with Vishvakarma on my visit to Phnom Chisor was at the two gopura structures at the foot of the hill, leading to the pond of Tonle Om. At Sen Ravang, the furthest from the hill, I located four lintels, all pretty much identical, whilst at the more-ruined Sen Thmol, there were another two in situ. After climbing the hill and a suitable rest, I was guided around the main temple site by Anoy and we counted a further seventeen (17) lintels with a similar small figure, most likely Vishvakarma, in place, though at least three of the lintels had the figure obliterated through time and weather.
So who is this mystery personage, you ask? Well, Vittorio Roveda in his book, Images of the Gods, describes him as the architect of the gods and of the universe. He's the master workman who sharpens the axe of Agni and forges the thunderbolts for Indra; he is a lord of the arts, executor of a thousand handicrafts, carpenter of the gods and fashioner of all ornaments. So, he's pretty important by the sounds of it. His attribute is a stick of command, the danda, or in some cases the measuring ruler. In the Ramayana epic, he's the supreme architect who builds the city of Lanka, as well as being the father of Nala who constructed the bridge between Lanka and the continent, allowing Rama to cross the sea and attack Ravana's city. Okay, that's the low-down on this league table usurper and the photos here are just some of the examples of Vishvakarma that can be found at Phnom Chisor, an 11th century hilltop temple, some 50kms south of Phnom Penh.

Another lintel with Vishvakarma on the floor of the main sanctuary of Phnom Chisor

A perfect example of Vishvakarma and his danda, above a grinning kala eating garlands of foliage

Facing east, this lintel with the league table leader Vishvakarma, catches the sun at Phnom Chisor

CISARK to the French!

Bingo! A new website has opened up called CISARK which will make searching for information on those long-lost Khmer temple/prasat sites a little easier - if you can read French, which I can't - bugger! It's been set up by the Inventory Office of the Cambodian Culture Ministry and the French acronym is Carte Interactive des Sites ARchéologiques Khmers, or in English: Interactive Maps of Khmer Archeological Sites. It's been developed to incorporate archive documents, photos, maps and publications gathered together by researchers, including some of those hard-to-find tomes, while it's still developing further with English, Japanese and Khmer language versions to follow. More than 2,000 archeological sites have been visited on the ground, around 3,000 catalogued, and they are quickly accessible through several search levels - by name, location, inventory number, etc. To visit the CISARK website click here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Cambodia in the '80s

The Panel members: LtoR: Pen Samitthy, Chanthou Boua, Youk Chhang, Tom Fawthrop
Cambodia in the 1980s is a largely forgotten or ignored period in recent Cambodian history. There's very little written about that era when Cambodia was effectively shunned by the western world and embargoes left the country in dire need of just about everything, from food to medicines to trade and recognition. Cold-war politics left Cambodia well and truly out in the cold. The specific period was the subject of a series of presentations and Q&A's at tonight's Meta House & Konrad Adenauer Foundation's The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge Forum at one of the Pannasastra annexes. Under the stewardship of journalist and writer Tom Fawthrop, the panel kicked off with Pen Samitthy, editor of the Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper, recounting his experiences that included the retribution taken against former Khmer Rouge cadre whilst the ideology remained largely unchanged as Cambodia struggled to get back to a semblance of normalcy. Youk Chhang, director of DC-Cam, talked about the work of his independent body and focused on how the Renakse petition from the '80s could be a voice in the existing KR Tribunal, whilst Chanthou Boua related her own experiences on visits to Cambodia in that period and talked of the effects on the embargoes. The event was well-attended and organised, big-name attendees included Helen Jarvis, Sara Colm and the German Ambassador as well as a sprinkling of Khmers. Don't forget, these forums are on every Monday til 10 March.

Youk Chhang in an animated moment during his presentation

New guidebook

Whilst sat at breakfast on Saturday morning in the Mekong Crossing restaurant on the riverside in Kompong Cham, I spotted the brand-new 2008 guidebook, Ultimate Cambodia Travel Guide, written by Matt Jacobson, and geared towards the more adventurous traveller to the country. It's the most up to date guide on Cambodia as we speak - although the new Lonely Planet is in the final throes of editing - and Jacobson has now gone solo, after co-authoring the guidebook's forerunner, Adventure Cambodia. It's on the same theme, getting under the skin of the country, identifying the key places to visit, usually by motorbike and includes GPS co-ordinates for the 'real adventurers' as well as containing maps, mileage, photos and suggested routes in its 500 pages. Published by Coastal Books, it will cost you $24 from Monument Books in Phnom Penh, and should be available in photocopy format around about now at a street stall near you (this is tongue in cheek, as I am vehemently against this form of copyright theft)! I used some of its information for my visit to Phnom Theat Pros & Srei and whilst the mileage was spot on, I was told a very different story by the locals on my visit, to the one quoted in the guidebook. I also find the phonetic spelling of the various sites very frustrating, but that's just a personal foible.

More on the Neak Ta theme

An understated Neak Ta at Wat Potiret
A much more expressive Neak Ta pairing at Wat Chy He
Here are the latest in my occasional series of interesting Neak Ta spirit houses. I came across these on my travels around Kompong Cham province at the weekend, and these are the best of the many I looked at. I'm still going to do some detailed research on these very interesting figures, when I can find a space in my calendar! The top two photos are from the Koh Sotin district, just outside Kompong Cham city itself. The first was at Wat Potiret, which has a disused wooden pagoda near to this less than extravagant Neak Ta, while the more expressive double Neak Ta was located at Wat Chy He, where I had hoped to find a genocide memorial but was out of luck. However the trip across two islands in the Mekong River and onto adventures on the east shoreline of the Mekong more than compensated.
The bottom three photos are from shrines located on mountains to the west of Kompong Cham city. The first is from Phnom Pros, just a few kilometres outside the city. The middle upright figure, in army-style clothing, can be found at the summit of Phnom Theat Pros, some 30 kms northwest of the city, whilst the final Neak Ta example was at the foot of the same mountain.
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, as seen in these photos. 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 please, never ever disturb the contents or you might face the wrath of the all-powerful Neak Ta spirits.

A double Neak Ta at Phnom Pros, near Kompong Cham city
An army-style Neak Ta at the summit of Phnom Theat Pros
A popular Neak Ta at the foot of Phnom Theat Pros

Back in the groove

I'm back in the office, after my brief jaunt to Kompong Cham on Friday thru til Sunday evening. I didn't see as much as I'd hoped and a few of my targets turned out to be damp squibs but nevertheless, it was a nice change of scenery and KC is certainly picking up as a tourist destination. There were barangs everywhere! More about my Kompong Cham adventures over the next few days, though I mustn't get too far ahead of myself as I still have some Phnom Chisor pictures and stories to blog!
I had a quick coffee with an old friend of mine this morning, Kim, the daughter of Seng Hour and Davy, the owners of my favourite Siem Reap guesthouse, the Shadow of Angkor. She was on her way back to Siem Reap from a few days in Sihanoukville - during her month-long return to her homeland. You may recall that she moved to Australia in January of last year to study and she still has another 2 and a half years to go, but for this month only, she's back home, catching up with friends and working at the guesthouse. It was great to see her, if only for a quick catch-up, she's looking healthy and she's enjoying the experience 'down-under' after overcoming her initial culture-shock and homesickness. I know she will be a great success, she's that type of girl.
A couple of reminders whilst I'm on-line. Tonight there is the 2nd public Forum on the Khmer Rouge Legacy. It's entitled Cambodia 1979: After the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge Regime, and will be held at Pannasastra School on St 370 & St 380 from 7pm this evening. Taking part will be Youk Chhang from DC-Cam, Chantou Boua, Pen Samitthy and Tom Fawthrop. Definitely worth getting along to hear more about what it was like in Cambodia during the 1980s, and don't forget these forums are being held every Monday til 10 March. The force behind the forums are the Meta House, who will host another Khmix It! Cambodian Traditional Music session this Wednesday (13th Feb) at their Street 264 location, whilst this Saturday will see some rarely-screened films from the Khmer Rouge era presented by the DC-Cam film team.
Finally, on the Khmer Rouge theme, Comrade Duch has given an enlightening interview to the UK's Telegraph, which is well worth reading here.

Lift anyone?

Do I look nervous in this chair-lift at the top of Phnom Theat Srei?
Yesterday morning I visited an area about 30 kms northwest of Kompong Cham city called Phnom Theat Pros and Phnom Theat Srei, not to be confused with the two hills of similar names but minus the Theat, that can be found much closer to the city. More of my confused findings in another post but what I did locate was an unusual way to reach the top of the larger hill, Phnom Theat Srei, as you can see in these pictures. A one-seat chair-lift using wire pulleys and a small engine was a great alternative to the 334 steps that is the only other route to the top of the hill. The lift was added in 1998 but on the day of my visit, the lift operator was still on his Chinese New Year holidays and no-one else was prepared to take the chance of getting a barang to the summit of the hill safely. I was up for it, but they weren't, so I had to content myself with a seat in the chair-lift just for the photo. It's certainly a novel way of getting supplies to the hilltop and much quicker than the exhausting climb via the steps. I haven't encountered one of these before on my travels, but if others do exist elsewhere in Cambodia, please let me know.

The chair-lift from the foot of the mountain, Phnom Theat Srei

Sunset over Kompong Cham

Sunset over Kompong Cham city from the Kizuna Bridge
Two sunset views over Kompong Cham, taken on successive nights this past weekend. The top photo was taken from the Kizuna Bridge with Kompong Cham city at the edge of the Mekong River in the foreground. The bridge was certainly a popular spot for courting couples to come and watch the sunset together and the east bank of the river gives you a good view as the sun sets behind the city. The second photo was taken from the old disused airfield west of the city and looking towards Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei. The airfield is now used as a shortcut by cars and motos alike and off to the north of the massive runway is an army post on top of a small rise, giving you a great view over the surrounding countryside. It was also the site for a impromptu picnic by four French tourists, whose clinking of wine glasses was the only sound I heard besides the occasional bird-call.

Another sunset, this time over Kompong Cham province from the disused airfield

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Shopfitters or shoplifters?

These shopfitters have just come onto the road from the archway on the right
This is actually quite a common sight in Cambodia, where teams of men carry/wheel/shift wooden houses and shops from one side of the street to the other or from one village to another! It always makes me smile to see this taking place and the shopfitters (or should that be shoplifters) always see the funny side of a barang taking pictures of them going about their daily lives. For them its not unusual, for me, I've never seen it happen in England! This shop-move took place this morning in Kompong Cham province on Route 71 in a village called Donthy.

" Easy does it," shouts the foreman, in Khmer obviously
And off they go, taking the shop to its new location

Faux pas

Ti Kimsun and the author at the site of burial pits at Wat Chumnik
Did I break an unwritten rule when I had this photo taken alongside a very friendly and helpful monk by the name of Ti Kimsun at Wat Chumnik in Koh Sotin district near Kompong Cham? I was always told that wearing a hat in the grounds of a pagoda or in a vihara was a faux pas and it wasn't until I saw this photo later in the day that I realised I did just that! I honestly forgot I had my krama on my head and he didn't seem to mind, but maybe he realised I was just a stupid barang (cuz I sure looked like one) with a memory like a sieve. I visited the wat as it was well-known in the area as a prison and mass burial site during the Khmer Rouge regime and met Ti Kimsun, one of just seven monks at the wat, when I asked for information. He told me that three buildings in the pagoda's grounds had been used as the jailing house by the Khmer Rouge, the main one being the bright-yellow stupa near the wat's entrance (pictured below). He then walked me over to a quiet spot in the corner of the complex and pointed to where small burial pits were later found and exhumed, and where mango trees in that spot were used for hanging prisoners, and a well, now covered over, was also used as a burial chamber. The pagoda grounds were very still and quiet, with just a few bird calls ringing out but little else, even Ti Kimsun spoke in hushed tones. He also showed me the foundations of what used to be the primary school at the wat but that too had been destroyed during the KR period, and said that it was quite a few years after the KR regime had ended, before people came back to live in the area. Born locally, he was always told that the spirits of those killed remained in the area surrounding the pagoda and that's why people were initially reluctant to return.
This stupa at Wat Chumnik in Koh Sotin was used as a prison in the Khmer Rouge regime

Friday, February 8, 2008

Phnom Chisor's iconography explained

I've picked out some of the more interesting lintel and pediment carvings to be found at Phnom Chisor to post before I disappear for 3 days on a jaunt to Kompong Cham province. So no more postings for the next 72 hours - sorry folks, but internet access is pretty much non-existent where I'm going. Now back to the Chisor treasure-trove of 11th century iconography.

Above: This lintel shows Vishnu atop the winged Garuda, above a kala head with foliage filling the rest of this decorative sandstone lintel. Garuda has the torso and limbs of a man, but the talons, wings and beak of an eagle and is often seen carrying Vishnu and is termed Vishnu Garudavahana.
Above: The west facade of the western gopura has a badly-worn lintel over the northern door showing Krishna subduing the poisonous snake Kaliya. Krishna killing various opponents is a very popular scene on lintels and this one shows him dancing on the head of Kaliya to the point of death, before he tells the wounded snake to leave the river, which he had infested.
Above: The northern library has an eastern lintel displaying an image of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana flanked by two worshippers, above a grinning kala. The reason for holding up the mountain was to protect others from the wrath of Indra. Over time the representation of the mountain became a thin triangular strip such as seen above.
Above: The west face of the eastern enclosure, facing inwards, has Shiva and his consort Umamaheshvara over the central door with an unusual small crouching figure between the bull Nandin's legs.
Above: Below the pediment of Umamaheshvara, is a lintel of an unconfirmed god, possibly Vishvakarma, the architect of the universe, carrying his stick of command, the danda, flanked by two worshippers, above the grinning head of kala.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Bird's Eye view

A bird's eye view of the main central courtyard of Phnom Chisor
Here is a bird's eye view of the 11th century Suryavarman I-constructed temple on the summit of Phnom Chisor, courtesy of the three-storey monk's quarters nearby. When I visited on Sunday, the monks were relaxing and various members of a pinpeat orchestra were practising on their instruments - including the roneat ek xylophone, the sralai thom flute and the sampho drums - as music whafted throughout the hilltop complex. One of the monks pointed me to the roof of their quarters to take these shots. The top photo shows the northwest half of the temple with its laterite and sandstone walls and brick towers within the central courtyard. The corrugated roof covers the main vihara called Preah Ang Prasat Vihear Khnom. The middle photo looks past one of the brick towers and onto the Takeo province plains below. In the foreground is one of the structures on the processional royal road called Sen Ravang which leads onto the sacred pond of Tonle Om. In the bottom picture, you can see the roof of the modern vihara in the background, whilst the prasat in the foreground looks neat and tidy and contains a host of treasures for visitors with a keen eye, including an assortment of decorative lintels and pediments, nagas, antefixes and other items.
A look at the plains below Phnom Chisor and the royal road and sacred pond
The central sanctuaries of Phnom Chisor

Budding pool player

As I never cook anything in my flat, I eat out every night at various food emporiums in Phnom Penh. I have a few regular haunts like the Rising Sun near the riverside for my English pub-grub fix, or my fave Thai restaurant Bai Thong on Sothearos, or at another riverfront location at Bopha Phnom Penh, where the best Khmer chicken curry can be found. Nearer home I frequent the Red Orchid on Street 278 at least once a week because 1. the family who run it are ultra nice and, 2. the food is good and cheap. They also have a pool table and on my last two visits I've been far too close to defeat than I care to admit by the oldest daughter of the folks who run the bar. She promises me she doesn't practice as school takes up most of her time but Srey Keo has a keen eye for a long pot and whilst I'm no Hurricane Higgins, she could easily be a pool-playing star of the future. However, that won't happen as she really wants to be a doctor, even though she knows it'll take years of study to make the grade. Srey Keo is the oldest daughter of the owners, Sarak and his wife, Srey Thom. They also have a younger daughter and son. If you want to meet a nice Khmer family, put them at the top of your list.

LtoR: Dad Sarak, Srey Keo and mum, Srey Thom

Vishnu giving birth

Vishnu on Ananta, still in situ at Phnom Chisor
Vishnu's wife Lakshmi caresses his legs as he gives birth to Brahma
Inside the central courtyard of Phnom Chisor, an 11th century hilltop temple about 50 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, is a series of carved lintels and pediments that benefit from a closer inspection. One of these is the half-pediment over the central east-facing door that is still in place, carved with Vishnu on Ananta and the birth of Brahma, the half in which his consort supports the god's legs, lies on the ground a few metres away - both are shown above. A giant two-piece jigsaw puzzle if you like. What does it all mean you might ask. Well, Vishnu, the supreme god and saviour is reclining on the snake Ananta, who by floating on the Ocean of Milk, gives birth to Brahma, while his legs are held and caressed by his wife Lakshmi. Now you know. This is a common representation of the Vishnu story and can be found at Preah Vihear, Angkor Wat, Bayon and at Kbal Spean. The ends of the pediment are in the form of the three-headed naga. The central east-facing doorway is shown below, also containing a kala lintel.
The central east facing doorway with the Vishnu pediment
The south-east gopura, looking out onto the Takeo province plains below, contains an unfinished and roughly-eroded lintel on a theme I described a few days ago, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and the elixir of immortality. Great idea but this particular lintel is not well-defined and broken in half. My efforts to locate the other half of the lintel proved fruitless.

The broken Churning of the Milky Ocean lintel

Indra at Phnom Chisor

The lintel of Indra on 3 elephants at Phnom Chisor
Images of the god Indra on the great white elephant Airavata, either seated or standing, at the centre of decorative lintels over the grinning head of kala are perhaps the most popular in Khmer iconography and adorn lintels facing east, the direction of which he is the guardian. However, Indra isn't the most popular figure featured on the Phnom Chisor lintels as I found out on Sunday. More on the most popular imagery in another post. For now, let's investigate Indra a bit more. Originally one of the first ranked gods, his shining light declined in status later on. From the king of the gods he dropped down to lord of the atmosphere who governs the weather, with his weapon, the thunderbolt, carried in his right hand. The elephant he rides, usually with three heads, was born from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk story. Amongst the Indra myths that exist, he's said to have had many love affairs and adulterous relationships.
At Phnom Chisor, I located two Indra on Airavata lintels, both facing east, the first (above) is located on the eastern gopura that looks down onto the royal processional stairway, on the edge of the summit of the hill. Above the kala head - the kala is a monster with the frontal features of a lion, huge bulging eyes and a grin that exposes fangs, with two hands holding decorative garlands in its mouth, but with no lower jaw - is Indra seated on three separate elephants rather than a single elephant with three heads, which is the norm. On the incomplete pediment above the Indra lintel is a dancing form of the god Shiva - the dance is the tandava, which symbolises the destruction of the world - and in this example, he appears to be playing a flute. The other figures by his feet are Karikkalammaiyar on his left and Devi to the right close to a small figure with four heads.
The incomplete pediment of the dancing Shiva and flute
The second Indra lintel is also on the eastern gopura but faces inwards towards the central vihara. This is a more traditional example with Indra astride a three-headed Airavata, again above a grinning kala head holding onto garlands that end in makaras disgourging a three-headed naga. All the lintels at Phnom Chisor are in sandstone while the walls of the gopura are in laterite and the inner sanctuaries in brick.
I appreciate that this level of detail is only of interest to a handful of people but it certainly adds another dimension for me when I am in the middle of the Cambodian countryside and am trying to date a temple when all I have to go on is a carved lintel, often very badly worn through time. Phnom Chisor was mainly built during the reign of Suryavarman I and from the Baphuon architectural style in the first half of the 11th century, when the king extended the empire quite considerably.
Indra seated on a three-headed elephant above kala

Give ELIE a chance

Mondulkiri's ELIE project
The domestic elephant population of Mondulkiri province is facing an array of threats ranging from habitat destruction, physical abuses, and a widespread lack of facilities providing proper medical supervision and treatment, so an Englishman by the name of Jack Highworth has stepped in to fill the void. He has formed an environmental NGO called ELIE (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment), with the primary aim of improving the medical and welfare condition of domesticated elephants, most of which belong to the Phnong ethnic minority who constitute about 80% of Mondulkiri's 25,000 inhabitants. Phnong villages owning elephants derive their income primarily from logging, crop cultivation, and small-scale tourism based on elephant trekking. ELIE will be funded by donations and partly through the establishment of an eco-tourist-oriented domestic elephant camp, with a secondary goal of making a village-based elephant camp as a working example for local mahouts. For this original elephant experience, pay a visit to the Elephant Valley Project where you can learn the art of the mahout for a day. Your visit will start with a tour of the project before learning about the body language of elephants, a series of short rides and an elephant-washing session. It'll cost you $50 per person per day including transport, with all proceeds ploughed back into caring for the elephants. Link: ELIE; Email.

Disaster strikes

On such an auspicious day as the first of the 3-day Chinese New Year celebrations, I have to report the sad demise of Lucky, the two-month old blind shiatsu puppy belonging to Ara and Lee. I visited the couple at their new home on the outskirt's of Phnom Penh last night to enjoy a meal with their extended family, to watch the video of their wedding from November - and to see how badly I attempt to dance the Khmer Madizone - and to catch up on the gossip. Throughout the evening, I kept hearing a thud as Lucky, blind since birth, bumped into the wall, the door, the legs of the furniture, the tv cabinet and so on. It was both comical and sad. I'm not an animal lover by any stretch of the imagination and when he positioned himself for an unscheduled toilet break, Lee grabbed him and put him outside the front door. That was the last we saw of him until early this morning, when we found his lifeless body floating in a nearby sewage canal. His brilliant white coat had turned black from the chemicals in the smelly sludge. The family had spent a couple of hours late last night frantically searching wasteground in front of their house but feared the worst. This morning their fears were realised.
Yesterday, I mentioned that the Chinese New Year was celebrated at the Hanuman office with a spread of goodies at the reception area of the building. Below is the proof with a glazed baby pig taking pride of place between two chickens and a selection of food, fruit and drink. The papers today have been full of how much prices have risen over the last few days. Inflation is hovering at around 10% here in Cambodia but with Chinese New Year celebrated by a large slice of the population, prices for food, especially pork and chicken and bananas have risen dramatically.

The Hanuman New Year offering

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mekong Discovery

The Mekong Discovery Trail Project is gearing up for its first real test when a party of tourism officials and agents, alongwith the media, will take a 5-day, 4-night trip to see what's on offer in late March. The project, funded by the Dutch group SNV and the World Tourism Organization, is designed to widen considerably the attractions for eco-tourism and community-based projects along the stretch of the Mekong River between Kratie and the Cambodia-Laos border. At the moment, its the Kratie dolphins and that's about it. If the MDTP gets going then the options will be increased to include other dolphin pools along the river, boat trips to unspoilt islands and beaches, cycling, homestays, walking, kyaking and canoeing, and generally, getting to see first-hand an area of Cambodia that has seen practically zero tourists - even I haven't been there! It's virgin territory for much of the proposed trail and islands such as Koh Pdao will be on the list for visiting by the test group in March. With the objectives of improving livelihoods for the locals, wildlife conservation (rare birds and turtles, as well as the dolphins inhabit the area) and getting tourists to stay longer, it's a project that is long overdue. The Mekong River should be a massive selling-point for Cambodia but aside from the dolphins just north of Kratie, at the moment, that's all there is.

Far from annoying

I introduced you to the two lovely drinks-sellers Tut Vy and Sou Ey a couple of days ago, who were great company, so I should also introduce my unofficial guide around the temple of Phnom Chisor, namely Anoy. As I arrived at the summit, Anoy (pictured) appeared by my side and asked if she could show me around. I asked her some questions and she replied in faltering English but enough for me to understand, so I agreed. I then spent the next two hours with this young lady who took me to every nook and cranny of the temple complex and did so with a smile, revealing her crooked and stained teeth, and a sunny disposition, especially when I asked questions about her. It was as if no-one had ever asked her questions that were non temple-related before. Her face lit up as she told me she had lived on the mountain since she was thirteen years old, some ten years ago. Every day, she offers to guide tourists if they don't have an official guide accompanying them from Phnom Penh and she has picked up a great deal of knowledge during that time, as he pointed out Indra-this, Vishnu-that, Kala-this and so on. She also directed me to a couple of carvings that I would've definitely missed if I was on my own. My Khmer pal who accompanied me from the city also enhanced my chat with Anoy, who obviously found it easier to converse at length in Khmer, as we took time to get fortunes told inside two of the sanctuaries and to ask more questions about the history of the site. I was impressed by her desire to make sure I saw everything that her temple had to offer, she oozed pride about her place of work, living off the tips she gets for her guiding and scampering away with delight and her crooked tooth smile when I thanked her for her help with a few dollars. Below is another photo of the two drink-sellers Tut Vy and Sou Ey, whose cackles and laughter is still ringing in my ears days after my visit. I might just go back there in a couple of months to see these two ladies again and get an update from Anoy about her temple.

Tut Vy and Sou Ey at their place of work on Phnom Chisor

Royal stairway

The royal road and stairway leading to Phnom Chisor, taken from Sen Ravang
I need to post some photos and text from my Sunday jaunt to Phnom Chisor before I get away on Friday for a couple of days, so be prepared for the onslaught. I'll kick-off with 3 pictures of the royal processional stairway and road leading to the summit of Phnom Chisor, the temple mountain, facing to the east. The main temple was built, according to inscriptions, on the edge of the mountain in the 11th century when the complex was known as Suryagiri. At the foot of the laterite stone walkway, which my guide Anoy told me contains 405 steps - on this visit I didn't count them personally but I have walked the stairway on a previous trip - are the ruined sanctuaries called Sen Thmol, then a little further east is Sen Ravang and past that, the sacred pond of Tonle Om. I visited all three of these before making my own way up the mountain via the modern northern stairway. More to follow but for now, here's three views of the royal stairway that the King and his entourage would've climbed, actually the King would've most likely been seated on a palanquin - and I don't blame him.

At the foot of the 405 stepped laterite stairway leading to the summit of Phnom Chisor
At the top of the stairway looking down on an intrepid traveller on his way to Sen Thmol, Sen Ravang and Tonle Om in the distance

Ban on explosions

It's the start of the Chinese/Vietnamese New Year (it's the Year of the Rat by the way) here in Phnom Penh today and its nice for the older generation like me who need to sleep at night and whose hearing is already impaired, to learn that city hall have banned the use of "firecrackers, fireworks, the making of all kinds of explosion noises" for the said period. Bloody good decision I say. Wearing of colourful, particularly red, fancy dragon costumes is very welcome, loud explosions is not. Anyone caught breaking the ban will be charged with "crimes causing unrest, public disorder and social insecurity." Too right. We had the New Year food and liquid offerings at work today, including a small pig laid out on newspaper, taking up all of the reception area for an hour whilst the staff came to pay their respects, light incense sticks and a little later, burn fake money, passports, travel tickets and credit cards! All good fun as they keep their fingers crossed (or do only westerners do that?) for luck and good fortune during the Year of the Rat.
Continuing the need to protect my ageing eardrums, I won't be attending the Meta House Khmix It! session this evening with Cambodia's hip hop King, DJ Sdey. But it could be enlightening as Sdey will play his music and talk about his time in a Khmer Rouge detention camp where he was trained as a propaganda singer. He lost his parents when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, when he was twelve years old.
In my desire to get out and about a bit more, I'm off on Friday for a couple of days in and around Kompong Cham city. I haven't stayed there for a few years now, so it'll be good to catch up with how the city is shaping up as well as getting out into the countryside on the hunt for temples and stuff. It's funny cuz when you ask any Khmer which province they are from, 99% of them seem to reply Kompong Cham. I wonder if I will find a series of empty, ghost-villages on my travels, as they've all moved to live in Phnom Penh! I'm also told the most attractive girls (srey sa'at) hail from Kompong Cham province, so that's on my itinerary as well. More when I get back.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Team line-ups

Here's a few few team line-ups from Sunday's trip to Phnom Chisor and beyond. The top photo was taken inside the main vihara at Wat Srah Keo, next to the scattered remains of an ancient prasat and where the head monk, Touch Seam Lean (stood next to me wearing glasses) spoke pretty good English and offered to join me on one of my trips in the future. He was particularly interested in my visits to genocide memorials around his province of Takeo and neighbouring Kandal. Wat Srah Keo is about fifty kilometres from Phnom Penh and I'll post a few more photos of this pagoda soon. The middle photo was taken in a rice field en route between Route 2 and Route 3 when I stopped to play football with this crowd of youngsters and immediately regretted it as sweat poured off me in bucketloads within a minute of joining in. A word of advice - trying to play football in a ricefield is not conducive to skilful football as I found out after ending up looking like the village idiot when missing my shot completely, which greatly amused my new team-mates. The bottom picture is of a group of teenage boys who were visiting Phnom Chisor, were immaculately behaved and who'd just had their fortunes read by the guy in the background of the photo. They came from a village about 20 kilometres away and had never visited the hilltop temple before. I think it's great that these boys made the effort as group to visit this historical site and treated it with the respect and deference it deserves. It brought back some very happy memories of when I was a teenager as I too spent my Sunday's visiting local landmarks, alongwith a group of my pals on a fleet of bicycles.

The art of Svay Ken

Svay Ken's Khmer Rouge Hospital at the Meta House exhibition
Another of Cambodia's leading painters currently on exhibition at the Meta House's Art of Survival show is Svay Ken, now 75 years old and regarded as the country's foremost contemporary folk artist. Combining oil on canvas with a highly personal style, he documents scenes from everyday life as well as past, often traumatizing, experiences. Although painting was a tradition in his family, he is completely self-taught, having spontaneously begun to paint in 1993, the year Cambodia emerged from more than two decades of dark social turmoil – and the year he returned to his job as a waiter at the Hotel Le Royal, where he first began to work in 1955. His subject matter, always filled with people, includes individual and group portraits as well as scenes from the 1970s recalling the dislocations of the civil war and life during the murderous Khmer Rouge period. One such painting is this offering to the exhibition of a Khmer Rouge Hospital scene. You can find out more about Svay Ken in his book, Painted Stories, which tells the story of his family from 1941 to the present time in paintings and narrative.

Neak Ta at Phnom Chisor

Neak Ta spirit house at the foot of Phnom Chisor
Continuing my occasional series of interesting Neak Ta spirit houses that I encounter on my travels, here are two from Phnom Chisor. The top one is next to the steps leading to the summit on the northern side of the hill, adjacent to the major stone and slate quarrying taking place at the site. It was quite a large shrine with the two figures inside shrouded in cloth, another one painted on the back wall and some recent offerings. In the lower photo, this spirit house was at the top of the mountain, overlooking the ancient temple that sits on the summit. This time two figures sat under a painted tree on a natural piece of sandstone. I really must get some detailed information on what the figures represent with many of them possessing heavily painted eyebrows, moustaches and small goatee beards. If you know already, let me in on it.
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, as seen in these photos. 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 please, never disturb the contents or you might face the wrath of the all-powerful Neak Ta spirits.

Neak Ta spirit house at the summit of Phnom Chisor overlooking the 11th century temple

Monday, February 4, 2008

Fun and laughter

Tut Vy and Sou Ey with the author at the summit of Phnom Chisor
These two ladies were selling cold drinks and snacks at the summit of Phnom Chisor mountain yesterday and provided me, and vice versa, with half an hour of entertainment with their cackling and shrieks of laughter as I practised my Khmer. They are Tut Vy and Sou Ey and initially serviced me with cold drinks and hand towels as I reached the top after a long climb, and then before I left the mountain, I stopped for a longer chat. They were interested in all aspects of my life, from my job and of particular interest was my marital status. They found it hard to believe my age (as in their words, I looked so young - these ladies know how to curry favour) and after a few minutes of prodding and pinching my skin, and checking my teeth and hair, they declared themselves smitten - accompanied by more cackles and shrieks of laughter. They themselves live in a village at the foot of Phnom Chisor and make the same climb to the top every day. Interactions like these are priceless for my part and will only get better as my Khmer vocabulary improves beyond its current pathetic level. Nevertheless, I was able to keep Tut Vy and Sou Ey entertained and that rounded off a fun visit to Phnom Chisor in great style.

Vann Nath on display

Vann Nath's Meta House contribution
The Art of Survival exhibition currently on at the Meta House includes some of Cambodia's best artists and that includes Vann Nath. His painting of prisoners being led, blind-folded into Tuol Sleng at night, is an autobiographical scene recalling his own incarceration at the S-21 center. At the same time, an exhibition of his work under the title of Endurance, is being shown in Bangkok at the Foreign Correspondents Club until February 27, at the FCCT in the penthouse of the Maneeya Centre on Phloenchit Road. On display are a series of paintings and sketches depicting his own story of capture, interrogation, imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge, and his ultimate survival. Vann Nath's art is not angry, but it shouts the truth about human suffering and death under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. It is also a testament to Vann Nath's and the Cambodian people's endurance that enabled them to prevail over tragedy and pain and continue to embrace life.

Detail from Vann Nath's autobiographical painting of S-21 prisoners

Sophal at Meta House

Hen Sophal's grinning Pol Pot
One of the artists featured at the current Meta House Art of Survival exhibition by Cambodian and foreign artists is Hen Sophal. I ran a story on Sophal back in May 2007 and one of his three paintings on display at the moment is his dramatic Pol Pot artwork (above). Here's what I wrote back in May;
The unsettling picture of a grinning Pol Pot sat on a pile of his victims on the cover of the book Getting Away With Genocide by authors Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis, is from an original painting by Cambodian artist Hen Sophal and is called 'The Evil Smile of Pol Pot'. Its known as Sophal's signature piece and the artist is widely regarded as one of Cambodia's best contemporary artists, with his work featuring in numerous exhibitions. His flattering portraits of Phnom Penh's smart set were his stock-in-trade until he was encouraged to explore corruption and the darker side of the capital's nightlife. He was initially reluctant to delve into controversial areas, though his melancholic paintings of nighttime Phnom Penh depict a side of life not normally seen in the art for sale in the majority of the capital's shops.
Exhibitions such as Visions of the Future in 2003, where Sophal depicted a well-dressed government official, drinking alcohol and smoking, with a calendar photo of a nude woman on the wall to signify the corruption endemic in his country, or the Visual Arts Open exhibition in 2005 have given his work a welcome injection of recognition and publicity, both inside and outside Cambodia. Born in Phnom Penh, Sophal, 48, studied at the School of Fine Arts in the early 1980s. He now combines his portraiture work with paintings of his country’s social and economic ills in his work.

Garments R Us

The garment factory girls and guys and a beaming author
This happy group of mainly girls were enjoying their visit to Phnom Chisor, some fifty kms south of Phnom Penh, when they spotted me and all hell broke loose. As the decibel level rose considerably, I'm not sure how often they encounter a barang but they made the most of this occasion and made sure we had group photos taken and questions asked about my age, name, marital status, job and so on. They were on a visit to Chisor as a precursor to attending a wedding party that afternoon, which of course they invited me to, and pouted when I declined. They all work for the same garment factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and were a very happy bunch. I had just arrived at the summit of the hill after an exhausting walk up the stairway and it made for a great welcoming party.

All smiles from my new temporary friends

Monkey business

Monkey business - cute or an accident waiting to happen at Phnom Chisor?
What is it about monkeys, pagodas and 1,000 year old trees? Dotted around the Cambodian countryside you will find monkeys making their homes in the grounds of pagodas and claiming the nearest 1,000 year old venerated tree as their 'home patch.' There they were at Phnom Chisor, doing exactly that, and baring their teeth to anyone that got too close to their Buddha. Obviously a ready supply of bananas, left as offerings, keeps them well-fed and this particular monkey looked very pregnant to me, though I was assured it was water retention - I will see if on my next visit, the monkey population has increased or not. As they can move very quickly, I didn't get too close to them but one little boy did and was chased away back to his mother screaming at the top of his voice. A word of warning, these are wild monkeys who merely co-exist with humans for their own benefit, do not treat them as pets, or you might lose your hat, your camera or worse, need some injections for a scratch.

The monkey Buddha in front of their 1,000 year old tree
This large-bellied monkey took a liking to flowers

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Boys will be boys

Four of the next Cambodia Olympic dive-team line up for the camera at Thnal Dak
You can find a scene like this almost anywhere in Cambodia where there's a group of boys and a lake, pond, river or moat. It's a scene as common at Angkor Wat as anywhere else. This group of boys, half a dozen in total, were having fun at Thnal Dak Baray, a large expanse of water near to Wat Srah Keo - itself about a kilometre from Route 3 and some fifty kms from Phnom Penh -which they told me is used by local boatmen for practice before the water festival each year and which the locals use for bathing, washing, fishing, diving and more besides. The squeals and shouts of laughter told me they were having lots of fun and each boy took turns to out-dive the last one. For modesty purposes I asked the boys to cover up for the team photo. This diversion was part of my Sunday visit to Phnom Chisor which had been a great success, with stories and photos to follow over the next few days.

The boys had great fun jumping off one of the racing boats
This was what I used to know as a belly-flop
The most dramatic jump of the session

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Burnt Theatre redux

Lead actor Than Nan Doeun and the author after the screening of The Burnt Theatre
The Meta House opened up their February program of Cambodia-related films, music and exhibitions with Rithy Panh's 90-minute docu-drama The Burnt Theatre earlier tonight. On hand for the after-film Q&A was the film's leading player, Khmer actor Than Nan Doeun, who gave the audience a flavour of the behind the scenes work that went into the film whilst diplomatically sidestepping the choppy waters of a few questions about the Cambodia's government's current views on the arts. Doeun is a well-known face to Khmer audiences for his on-screen movie roles and also stepped behind the camera to act as assistant director on Rithy Panh's well-acclaimed S-21 film, though first and foremost he's an actor. And if his performance in Burnt Theatre is anything to go by, a damned good one at that. Alongwith fellow actor Hoeun Ieng, they injected lots of humour into an otherwise sorry tale of how a group of actors live, rehearse and attempt to maintain their dignity and identity in the burnt-out shell of the country's national theatre. There's no happy ending in the film and according to Doeun, there's not one in sight in real life as yet, but he lives in hope. Below are some scenes from the film, courtesy of Les Acacias.
There's a heap of Cambodia-related events at the Meta House this month, including the on-going Art of Survival exhibition taking place on the ground floor, whilst linked to that are a series of panel discussions entitled Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge, that will be held on successive Monday's at Pannasastra School from the 4th February til early March. Link: MetaHouse.

A rare visit home for Hoeun Ieng (left) and Than Nan Doeun

The two actors get to grips with their lines in the burnt-out shell of the theatre

Than Nan Doeun hams it up as Cyrano de Bergerac at the beginning of the film

Artist focus - Chamroeun Yin

The focus today is on classical Cambodian dance master Chamroeun Yin (pictured) who was born in the province of Battambang, Cambodia, in 1957. He received his initial training in Khmer folk arts from his father, a carpenter and cabinetmaker who crafted the ritual furniture and objects needed for weddings and in Buddhist temples, as well as everyday artifacts. His father was a musician, and Yin developed a knowledge and appreciation of music and dance in these early years. Through an apprenticeship with a cousin, he became a tailor and dressmaker crafting Khmer traditional clothes. His talents were further developed in the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand, to which he escaped in 1979. There, he encountered classically trained court musicians and dancers who recruited young people for classes in Cambodian art and culture. Soon he became, in his words, "crazy for dancing." While other people in the camps worked to earn extra money for food, Yin spent his days practicing the disciplined art of court dance. What money he earned as a tailor in the camp he spent not on food, but on fabric and materials to make the elaborately beaded dance costumes for the group's performances. Yin came to America as an artistic refugee as part of the Khmer Classical Dance Troupe, which toured the nation to great acclaim in 1981-1982. The troupe settled in the Washington, D.C., area but eventually disbanded as artists had to find ways of making a living. Mr. Yin moved to Philadelphia in 1989. Here he works in several mediums. He is a teang ka, or "ritual beautician," someone who creates wedding costumes and makes the bride and groom "beautiful like the king and queen." He teaches Khmer court dance and mask-making to Khmer youth, and performs regularly. He continues to develop his artistry, devising new ways to make items such as dance crowns out of laminated cardboard and papier mâché, and adding to the community's growing collection of dance costumes.
Through dance, sculpture, choreography, teaching, performances, and weddings, Yin tries to explore and communicate Cambodian values, creating "movements that show you what is polite or rude, beautiful or ugly." He dances with passion and delicacy, and with a sense of the importance of keeping alive the fragile threads of Khmer dance tradition: "I dance because I want to keep my culture. I want this dance to stay alive forever in the future." Since coming to Philadelphia, Yin has been recognized by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Dance Advance program as a master dancer. He has received grants to teach classical Khmer dance to apprentices in the local community and to pursue his own work in both dance and crafts. He has also organized, choreographed, and presented the annual dance performances for the Khmer New Year before audiences of about 500 people. He has performed at LaSalle University, Penn State, Community College of Philadelphia, the Samuel Fleisher Art Memorial, International House, and at various community sites. His craftsmanship has been exhibited in exhibitions curated by the Philadelphia Folklore Project. In the Folklore Project's folk arts residency program, he teaches crafts and dance, linked arts of central importance to the Khmer community today. He has also published a children's book, In My Heart I Am A Dancer. [photo credit: Jane Levine] Link: Classical Dance.

Movie goers at Meta House

Tonight's offering at Meta House on Street 264, here in Phnom Penh, is Rithy Panh's docu-drama called The Burnt Theatre, or Les Artistes du Théâtre Brûlé. Panh (pictured) directed and co-wrote the film which is a blend of fact and fiction, based on the actual lives of the actors, depicting a troupe of actors and dancers struggling to practice their art in the burned-out shell of Cambodia's former national theatre. The Burnt Theatre premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival as an official selection in the out-of-competition main programme, and has been screened at several other film festivals. It's posted as a 7pm start tonight but they usually kick-off half an hour later.
I must get off my arse and do some shopping this afternoon at the Russian Market and then tomorrow, I'm planning an early start to visit Phnom Chisor, a hilltop temple that I haven't been to for a few years, located about 50 kms south of Phnom Penh. It's got great views over the surrounding Takeo countryside and will make a nice break from the traffic and heat of the city.

Sambor Prei Kuk style

A 7th century Sambor Prei Kuk lintel in situ
In wanting to emphasis the style of lintel acknowledged as the Sambor Prei Kuk style from the 7th century, and therefore pre-Angkorean, here is a lintel (above) and detail (below) taken from a couple of decorative lintels in situ within the actual Sambor Prei Kuk complex of temples. The lintels lie in an abandoned storage area near the northern grouping of brick temples. This is another text-book lintel of the earliest of the architectural styles. Inward-facing makaras, a monster with a scaly body, the claws of a bird of prey, a large head with a trunk, mouth open, spewing out a lion. Seated on the back of the makara is a swordsman with a cylindrical bonnet and above him, a flying figure. The four arches have jeweled garlands and pendants suspended below with three oval medallions above, with a worn figure of Indra on the central medallion. In the next two styles that followed, Prei Kmeng and Kompong Preah, the makaras were replaced by bouquets of flowers, the medallions disappear and the arches are replaced by garlands of vegetation.
Detail of the makara, or sea monster

Early lintels at Cheung Prey

A 7th century lintel, painted blue, at Prasat Premea Cheung Prey
My visit to the hilltop temple of Prasat Premea Cheung Prey at Phnom Thom on Monday brought me back to an interesting temple site that has an intriguing story to tell, not necessarily with a guaranteed ending. There are a few ways to tell the age of an ancient prasat. Look for an inscription from the builder - that's the easiest way but not always available - or assess the overall structure and see where it fits into the varying architectural styles of the Khmer Empre. You can also tell by the lintels and colonettes in situ or even the sculpture on display, such as lions and pedestals. In that respect, Prasat Premea Cheung Prey throws up a conundrum.

Another 7th century lintel in the Sambor Prei Kuk style at the prasat

In all I located six lintels, two of which were undoubtedly, in my opinion, pre-Angkorean in their style, the others were approximately 10th or 11th century, but I will review these tomorrow. The two earlier decorative lintels - for anyone unfamiliar with the term lintel, it's a rectangular stone slab carrying a carved design with important iconographical features and is not used as a structural support - were both typical examples of the Sambor Prei Kuk style from the 610-650 (7th century) period. In both cases, they showed inward-facing makaras (sea monsters) and four arches joined by three oval medallions, the central one carved with the figure of Indra. There were also figures on the other two medallions and above the makaras. Below the arches are jeweled garlands and pendants with beading and vegetal motifs. In fact both lintels are text-book examples. One of the lintels had been painted blue, was placed in front of the western entrance to the main prasat and was quite worn, whilst the other was in better condition and was housed inside the vihara. Their presence may suggest evidence of an earlier temple on the site or they could've been brought there from another location. Therein lies the mystery.

The main vihara at Prasat Premea Cheung Prey showing the location of 3 of the lintels

Friday, February 1, 2008

For Melanie read Juris

Melanie Lynch/Juris Prosper and the author in 2004
Since June 2004, the gorgeous Melanie Lynch has been a permanent fixture for all Steel Pulse live shows, until now. Steel Pulse have a policy of not commenting on changes to band members so I contacted Melanie for clarification when I noticed she'd been replaced as backing vocalist by Juris Prosper. Here's what she said; "Juris Prosper is my new stage name. While I do love my given name, quite a few female singers record and perform under it as is. I actually had a song released several years ago and I was being confused for another reggae singer from Jamaica. That incident made me realize that choosing a stage name would make me more distinguishable. I started my search and came up with a few good candidates throughout the years, but nothing 'felt right' to me. Finally, I was led to this new name because it speaks prosperity into every area of my life: career, spirit, finances, etc. I can always use that kind of blessing on my life."
My thanks to Juris for taking time out to explain the change. An extremely talented vocalist, she joined the band when Donna Sterling left in 2004 pending the birth of her second child, at which time David Hinds chose two replacement female backing vocalists, both hailing from New York, to join the group in Europe on the African Holocaust tour in June of that year. They were Melanie (Juris) and Traciana Graves. Melanie's background was mostly in reggae, and after their European dates, the band moved across to the United States for 33 concerts in 40 days, ensuring the two vocalists received a tough introduction to touring. Whilst Traciana later departed, to be replaced temporarily by Marea Wilson, Melanie remained and was joined by Jamaica-based Keysha McTaggart, who made her first appearance in June 2005. The two remain as the band's backing vocalists.
As I'm now far removed from the band geographically, it's difficult to keep as close to the news as I once did. My goal for many years was to compile a detailed biography of the band for publication as a book sometime in the future, but that never materialized though I amassed a great deal of interviews, photos and background information that I'm still holding onto. I approached the band's management on numerous occasions to ensure it was a biography with official backing but that was as far as it went. Nevertheless, I had great fun compiling my historical research and I may publish it on the web sometime in the future. First and foremost, I'm a Steel Pulse fan and my own website on the band and any writings I've penned have always been with a positive slant. However, this never seemed to curry much favour with the management. Even so, my relationship with the band members has always been a very good one. Selwyn in particular, has always been a great friend, alongwith Moonie, Syd, Amlak and former band members like Conrad and Donna. I will always remain a Steel Pulse devotee but it hasn't always been a smooth ride.

Newsy bits & pieces

Nick Faldo was effervescent in his praise for his own Faldo-designed course at the Angkor Golf Resort (above) in Siem Reap. But then again, he would wouldn't he. Read more here.
Another of the big-guns, in this case, Kith Meng, the ultra-smart Cambodian business-tycoon, makes the front cover of Forbes magazine and the read is an interesting one, following closely behind a rare interview with Sokimex and Sokha supremo Sok Kong in yesterday's Cambodia Daily, though any talk of his company's contract to run the Angkor concession was conspicuous by its absence. Here is the Kith Meng article.
Anlong Veng, the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is never far from the newsmedia these days. Here is the latest look at the past and the future in Cambodia's former KR stronghold, in Japan's leading Asahi Shimbun paper.
There's obviously a stack more news, but I'm very selective in the stories I share with you and prefer to let other sites and blogs handle the rest.

Early surprise gifts

Christmas came early yesterday with the arrival of some packages containing books and cd's. I was a bit worried as I'd expected one of the books weeks ago but they took well in excess of six weeks from despatch to arrival from both England and the States. Publishers Rowman & Littlefield sent me the Benny Widyono book Dancing In The Shadows, about the UN official's two spells in Cambodia at the heart of the UNTAC operation and later as a representative of the UN secretary-general. Benny is coming to Cambodia soon so I'd better get on and read his insightful 322 page book! Another package contained 2 children's books from Lee & Low Books in New York. The 2006 publication from Michelle Lord called Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin was accompanied by the as yet unpublished A Song For Cambodia, the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond. Michelle first heard about Arn, the founder of Cambodian Living Arts, when she watched the Flute Player documentary and travelled to Cambodia to adopt her youngest daughter, and has produced her second book for children with illustrations by Shino Arihara.
Also arriving at my office address, which is more secure post-wise than my home address, was the debut solo CD from Yaz Alexander called Life Begins. It's been playing ever since. And I even get a namecheck on the CD sleeve. Thanks Yaz. She's already planning her second album for later in 2008, alongwith a world tour to promote her Life Begins disc. Also sent with the package was her Cry For Freedom single which was specially commissioned by the UK's Heritage Lottery Fund to commemorate the Bi-Centennial of the Abolishment of Slavery in Great Britain.
Last night I popped into the Dara Reang Sey Hotel to catch up with Dara, who I'd not seen for a couple of months. The welcome as always was very warm and it was great to hear that her staff numbers are up to 45 and that she is sending them to English or computer classes every day to improve their knowledge and day-to-day effectiveness. Their new sister hotel, with the same name, should be completed in Siem Reap in the next few months - its located by Psah Leu on Route 6. It was also good to bump into Don Gilliland, who was in town for a few days before returning to his home in Bangkok. Don had also been roped into editing one of the To Asia With Love series of guidebooks - his is the Burma edition - which he has now completed and so we discussed the ups and downs of life as a guidebook editor. My own To Cambodia With Love is still in the 'hard-graft of editing' stage.