Sunday, March 30, 2008

Diverse attractions at Phnom Pros

Some of the victims remains at the Phnom Pros genocide memorial
The newly-erected genocide memorial stupa at Phnom Pros
One of the larger burial pits at Phnom Pros, now full of water
Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei are extremely popular sites just a few kilometres west of Kompong Cham city. The two hills house a number of reasons to attract visitors, mostly Khmer of course, but of interest to foreigners too. Aside from the boisterous monkeys and the pagodas on each hill - coupled with the legend of how the hills were constructed and how the women outwitted the men blah, blah, blah - there is also a newly constructed genocide memorial one hundred metres from Phnom Pros, a series of colourful Buddhist statues and a library topped off by the giant faces often seen at pagodas across the country. Phnom Pros - the man pagoda - is the easier of the two pagodas to visit, whilst Phnom Srei has better views though has many more steps to climb. The genocide memorial at the site was constructed with donations from wealthy Khmers including the Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was born in the province, and contains skulls and bones of some of the 10,000 people believed to have been killed at the prison site and buried in fifty large and many more smaller burial pits nearby. Some remains were transferred to Wat Nokor, on the outskirts of the city, whilst the rest were kept in a kitchen used by the monks before the current stupa was erected. Witnesses tell of trees near the burial pits where babies were smashed against the tree trunk, whilst many others suffered lethal injections at the makeshift hospital there. At Wat Phnom Pros there are a couple of original sandstone lions with erect torso and stunted hindquarters, some seima stones and a large stupa, recently painted, that dates from the early part of the last century.
Wat Phnom Pros attracts a lot of visitors. The newly painted stupa on the left is the oldest part of the pagoda
2 original sandstone lions from Angkorean times in situ at Wat Phnom ProsThis serene Buddha face sits atop the library at Wat Phnom Pros

One of the Preah Theat's

The rubble and remains of Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay
Local farmers are usually the only visitors to Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay
Talking of uncovering ancient prasats, which I hope to do lots of next week, I forgot to show you a ruined temple or two that I came across during my recent visit to Kompong Cham. In fact I have realised that I have a few more pictures to show you from my Kompong Cham trip, so let's start with one of the many Preat Theat temples of Kompong Cham. I counted about ten separate sites where Preah Theat is included in the name of the archaeological sites located a few kilometres east of Kompong Cham city itself. This one is Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay and is in essence one of many such ruined temple sites to be found in the province. To everyone except the real temple boffins this is a pile of stones in a field. And they are right, though in its heyday the temple would've housed intricate sandstone carvings and a shrine to a Hindu or Buddhist deity. This site is located a few kilometres east of the small town of Suong and about a kilometre into the rice paddies and scrub behind the pagoda of Wat Pech Sa Ponnareay. Half a dozen youngsters on bicycles led me into the rice fields and to the ruined laterite prasat, with a large hole in the center where scavengers had dug deep in search of buried treasure, a common feature at many of the outlying temple sites across the country. Aside from the large blocks of laterite that formed two walls, and many more on the floor, there was little else to see, no carvings whatsoever and even the two large laterite-lined pools about 300 metres away were devoid of water. If you go to Kompong Cham on the hunt for temple sites, I can't recommend highly enough the new province maps produced by The Ministry of Culture & EFEO. They will keep you occupied for weeks.
One of two dry laterite-lined pools near to Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay
On the way to Suong, I called into the massive Chup rubber plantation compound for a look around as I headed for what I thought was a genocide memorial at Wat Preah Vihear Tontim. Unfortunately, I was thwarted as the laymen at the temple told me that the memorial and the victims remains were removed in the late '80s, whilst the laterite prasat that was formerly located next to the pagoda's vihara was completely destroyed decades ago. Just a few laterite blocks remained in the undergrowth. More disappointment followed when they told me that another genocide memorial at Chamkar Svay, the site of a Khmer Rouge prison and burial ground a few kilometres away, had also been destroyed. In addition, the area was known for a spate of moto robberies in recent months so I decided to skip it and carry onto visit Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay. You have to be prepared for some disappointments along the way in Cambodia and this day was certainly not one of my most successful.
The main vihara at Wat Preah Vihear Tontim

Into the unknown

My blog posts will lessen considerably next week as from tomorrow I'm heading off for another adventure, this time into the heavily-forested and gold-rich area of Phnom Chi in the far eastern corner of Kompong Thom province. Hot on the heels of my Mondulkiri bicycle nightmare, this trip is essentially 'back to my roots' and on the hunt for ancient Angkorean, or even earlier, prasats (temples) with my longtime adventure companion Sokhom and another pal from Kompong Thom, Cristiano. The latter has been working in the province for the last few years and has been documenting all of the archaeological sites he can find, which has already topped no less than 400. This man is a serious temple-hunter. As a result of his enquiries, he's established there's a real possibility of a series of temple sites in the Phnom Chi area that so far haven't been identified or visited by anyone. One site is already known and that's Prasat Trapeang Preus (or Pros), which is three brick edifices in the forest near to Phnom Chi. Jim from the California 2 bar in Phnom Penh has reported on his visit there in the Bayon Pearnik a while ago. We will certainly visit that site but we hope to uncover a few of our own on the way. I know of another large laterite and brick temple group called Banteay Siam a few kilometres from Phnom Chi and the word from villagers nearby is that other sites exist too.

Phnom Chi is better known for its gold deposits and the active goldmining concessions on Phnom Chi mountain itself and in Snang An a few kilometres away. Phnom Chi lies approximately 100 kms east-northeast of Kompong Thom city but we're expecting the road to the area to be no more than a track. We will be going on motos and camping overnight for a few nights, wherever we can find a suitable location. This is temple-hunting at its most basic. Phnom Chi gold has been known about for a long time though all mining activity - effectively it was done by local farmers using a straightforward panning technique - was stopped during the civil war of the '70s and resumed in the '80s despite the area being under Khmer Rouge control. Locals paid taxes to the KR to mine the deposits. After the government sent the army into supervise the area, the miners merely switched the payment of taxes to the military and mining activity has boomed ever since. Independent mining is now banned in the area, the concession has been granted to a locally-owned company, who in turn provide a basic wage of around $2 per day with three meals to the workers who mine the ore in shaft-mining to a depth of fifteen metres. Acid and cyanide is used to extract the gold from the mineral ore though this led to large-scale cyanide poisoning in the area and in nearby Stung Chinit River a few years ago. Malaria is also prevalent in the heavily-forested area, so I'm already asking myself, "why am I going?" The thrill of discovery and to see another remote part of the country are the main attractions, though nothing is guaranteed. My fingers are crossed. If I find a lost city in the jungle, I'll let you know.

Aw shucks....!

I've just got home from a double film-showing at the Meta House, of two Peter Degen films on the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap, produced in the early part of the decade and showing life and livelihoods on the two rivers and the Great Lake. With the prospect of those livelihoods being affected by hydro-dams and more in the countries higher up the Mekong chain, these films could present a picture of life that will dramatically change in the near future. Some great photography though the ineffectual Mekong River Commission seemed to be behind both films, so they were virtual propaganda documentaries.

I was disappointed to see a news report that the Latin pop singer Ricky Martin is in Cambodia, as I was hoping to break that story. I was asked to keep mum for a few days after Ricky arrived in the country a couple of days ago but it seems someone else couldn't wait to spill the beans. Oh well, no big deal, I'll get over it. Ricky, known for his Living La Vida Loca song, is in town to visit projects fighting child trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Nice to see some complimentary remarks by a few bloggers when I did a blog search on my own blog tonight. My thanks to them. Here's what they had to say:
Carl Parkes posted on 15 March, 2008: While this blog may seem obsessed with Thailand, it's only because Thailand seems to consistently produce the most interesting and varied stories within Southeast Asia. Surprisingly, Cambodia is now in the second place, the country that inspires the most offbeat, culturally attractive, and socially challenging stories I find on the net. Indonesia should be second on this list, but it's not really generating stories I feel would be of great interest to the readers of the blog, and that's a pity. Check the blogrolls on the right and you'll see that Thailand has an overwhelming number of blogs or websites that I think are worth visiting or putting in your RSS reader. Not much for Cambodia, but that deficit is made up for by the excellent and consistent posts from Andy Brouwer, who works in the travel industry in Phnom Penh, and so has good reason to wander around the country visiting the more remote locations. He's interested in architecture and old temples (same as me) and speaks enough Khmer to ask the old monks to unlock doors to photograph rarely seen interiors. And his photography is surprisingly good, especially with his flash shots that aren't terribly washed out...something that has always been a problem with my photography. And so, today, I salute Andy Brouwer and his great site about all things Cambodia.

Erik posted the following on 10 December 2007 at Buddhismadjunkt. Andy Brouwer Starts Roaming: It’s always been fun to read Andy's blog - for one thing, he seems incapable of having negative opinions or thoughts. Let me say first off that I don’t always like this: too often in my experience, people with nothing ‘negative’ to say are just in the business of getting along and trying to be liked. But that is clearly (to me, anyway) not the whole of the story with Andy, whose genuine-ness and overwhelmingly obvious love of Cambodia overcomes my suspicious nature. Or maybe it’s just the fact that he shares my love of conscious reggae greats, Steel Pulse, whose Earth Crisis album I found in a public library in Topeka, Kansas, and which changed my life. Since moving to Cambodia (lucky sunavagun), Andy’s been prowling around like only a single man on a mission can do. I’ll readily admit that I’m horribly jealous; and also that I’m enormously grateful for the commentary, the photos, and as always, Andy’s good nature. Not only has he been prowling, but he’s been spending an awful lot of time dealing with my specialty - Cambodian thoughts, ideas, and especially rituals, that might be classified as ‘religious.’ Here he is at the Famed Phnom Baset temple, with the magic monk himself, getting his cell phone blessed, and watching others get splashed with water (a common ceremony called srauch teuk), traipsing around an apparently completed Wat Trai Leak (on the Chruoy Changvar peninsula, I’ve visited many times, but it’s quite a lot further along than I’d imagined possible), adding new genocide memorials to his list of ones visited, and visiting the famed Tampuon cemeteries in Ratanakiri.

Bob Uva wrote on 26 January 2008: The other voice, written not spoken in this case, is that of Andy Brouwer, an expat Brit living in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I was unable to keep up my reading pace through the past week due to this cold, and Andy has a tendency to become extremely prolific in his blog postings over a short period of time. Fortunately, today I have felt well enough to flee the home for a coffee shop and get some uninterrupted reading in. I had over twenty unread entries in Andy's blog going back to December 30th, so I decided to start there. And am I happy I did. The mix of travelogue, history, humor and humanity that Andy weaves in his writings is truly remarkable. My heart was warmed by the pictures of Khmer children he met at temple visits or along the road, then it is wrenched from my chest as I observed the piles of skulls at the genocide memorial at Sala Trapeang Sva. Then the "three sreys" restored my hope and the painted pagoda at Wat Kork Ksang made me yearn to visit. I felt myself being very thankful that I had been introduced to Andy's blog (thanks Kilong) for his light-hearted as well as his serious jaunts around that beautiful country have been a joy to follow. And finally, he has recommended a book that I am looking forward to reading: The Judas Strain by James Rollins. Andy's recommendation mentions that he's a Robert Ludlum fan. I devoured the Bourne series and am looking forward to reading another author of a similar vein.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

How can this happen?

This 11th-century statue in the Baphuon style fetched $2.11 million at Christie's (Photo: Sotheby's)
News just through that the beautiful sculpture of a female deity above in the Baphuon style recently fetched the highest price at auction for any Khmer sculpture, reaching an amazing $2.11 million in a sale at Christie's in New York. Souren Melikian reports for the International Herald Tribune that the Indian & South-East Asian Art sales on March 19 at Sotheby's and March 21 at Christie's took prices to new heights. Just how artifacts of obvious Khmer identity can be sold without their provenance being accurately established is beyond me. I don't know the intricacies of the fine arts world, but these sculptures have almost certainly been misappropriated from Cambodia, yet Cambodia cannot demand their return unless they prove ownership. For goodness sake, these items came from Cambodia, everyone knows it, but the art world effectively turns a blind eye.
Some of the sales included the following:
A sandstone figure of a woman carved in the 11th century in the style known as Banteay Srei and described as having been acquired in 1986 was missing its head, very neatly chopped off, and both feet. It's commercial performance was not affected and it raised $361,000, nearly six times the estimate. Next, a 12th-century bronze bodhisattva from the Angkor period. No provenance at all here, no date of acquisition. The 34 centimeter four-armed statue did not sell so well, and only went under the hammer for $73,000. It was followed by a 13th-century bronze figure of Ganesha seated on a pedestal cast in the Bayon style, which exceeded its high estimate by half, climbing to $52,000. For this item the catalogue noted "Provenance. Hong Kong Collection, 1980s," implying little more than it had been in Hong Kong at some stage. This complete disregard for its Cambodian origin is blatant and grossly shameful. Two days later, at Christie's, things got a lot hotter. A Khmer statue of the 11th century in the Baphuon style had surfaced in the market in 1968, two years before the UNESCO cut-off line of 1970, after which goods of uncertain provenance are deemed less legitimate. At $2.11 million, it now holds the world record for Khmer sculpture.

Water everywhere

Sunset over the Mekong River at Kompong Cham
Alongside property and oil speculation, increasing costs of rice supplies and all the usual headlines that hit the newswires over here every day, the subject of water is never far behind. The biggest worry right now is the prospect of numerous dams on the Mekong River and the potentially devastating effect that might have on livelihoods and fish supplies in Cambodia.
To keep you in the picture regarding recent press reports, here's a few links that will highlight the current concerns:
Eric Coull in the Bangkok Post with his article, The Mekong: Charting a sustainable future here.
Rob Sharp's A Poisoned Paradise: Cambodia's Water Crisis, for the Independent in the UK here.
Asia Times' Andrew Nette's article called Cambodian dam plans suffer information drought here.
and finally Ek Madra's article Chinese dams threaten Cambodia's forests, farmers here.

Rachel in the news

Pictured at Romdeng on our recent getogether in Phnom Penh. LtoR: me, Rachel and Sak
It's pleasing to see my good friend Rachel getting some positive press back in the UK after her recent visit to Cambodia. Someone once said 'all press is good press' and the following article in the Bucks Herald reflects well on Rachel and her chosen charity, The Cambodia Trust. She hooked up with another pal of mine, Sak and his family in Battambang and the upshot is that Sak will be spending a couple of weeks in the UK at the start of next month, his first time outside of Cambodia. It will be an amazing experience for him I'm sure.

Woman fights against discrimination in Cambodia by Anna Dowdeswell The Bucks Herald, UK

An Aylesbury woman who joined a Thame charity to raise awareness of the discrimination faced by disabled people in Cambodia has returned to the UK. Rachel Madden, 35, spent a 'life-changing' six weeks working with three charities including The Cambodia Trust treating landmine survivors, fitting prosthetic limbs and braces and small business grant and school funding. She also spent time in the country's capital Phnom Penh, watching people having prosthetic and orthopaedic limbs fitted and adjusted. Another charity Rachel worked with was the Working for Children orphanage and centre for poor children in the Pouk district of Siem Pang in the north of Cambodia. Established in January 2007, it homes 43 orphans/poor children, including schooling, a family unit.
She said: "I spent my time teaching basic English, crafts, sports, music and was able to support the orphanage by providing bicycles, rice and school uniforms." She also worked in two schools, one in Battambang district in the west and Prey Chrouk in the south. She taught English, painted classrooms and with the help of the IAM Foundation installed two water pumps. "My time working with these NGO's has changed my life and settling back into corporate life in the UK has been difficult. I have made some wonderful, long-lasting friendships, with both Khmers, particularly my 'family' in Battambang, and many ex-pats working in Cambodia. Cambodia is no longer just a holiday destination for me. I would love to have the opportunity to work out there for longer. Cambodia is quite simply my second home."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Cambodia Dreams

Last night, all the Cambodian television channels were tuned into the fortunes of matriarch Yan Chheing and her extended family as Stanley Harper's film, Cambodia Dreams received an unprecedented simultaneous showing across the country. Twenty years in the making, this sentimental look at Yan's struggles in the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand and her daughter's hard life in a small village in Battambang before the two were reconciled, was a triumph for Harper's dogged determination to tell their story and a window into the strength of character of spirited Cambodian women like Yan and her daughter Tha. It delved into the nitty gritty of village life in Cambodia against the parallel of the hand-out culture prevalent in the border camps, with Yan voicing a series of insightful views on life and work. She was undoubtedly the star of the film and has since been honoured by the government for her love of Cambodia and her unwavering work ethic.

Changing themes, there's an Apsara classical dance show by students of the Royal University of Fine Arts at the Art Cafe this evening. It kicks off at 7pm, so count me in. The Art Cafe is on Street 108, not too far from Phsa Chas.
Tomorrow evening (Saturday), Meta House will screen a couple of films by Director Peter Degen focusing on Cambodia and its life-sources, the Mekong and Tonle Sap. Mekong - The Mother is a 45-minute feature looking at the Mekong River through its people, whilst the 52-minute docu When The Floods Recede, focuses on the fishermen and women who depend on the abundant supply of fish in the Tonle Sap.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Khmers

This large and imposing book arrived in the post today all the way from England and will keep me busy for a few days whilst I devour the text and beautiful photographs contained within. I'm already in the middle of about five different books, so one more won't make much difference! I never seem to get the chance to sit down and finish one of the books I'm reading in recent weeks. Very frustrating. This new glossy coffee-table sized edition is The Khmers (History and Treasures of An Ancient Civilization) by Stefano Vecchia and published by White Star in Italy and the UK a couple of months ago. In taking a peek its 200+ pages are full of colour photos from the temples themselves as well as a lot of the statuary to be found in museums like the National Museum in Phnom Penh and the Guimet Museum in Paris. I'll take a closer look and give you my opinion in due course.

Prasat Ta Muen annual festival - in Thailand

Prasat Ta Muen Thom - a tug of war between Cambodia & Thailand. Photo: courtesy Mike Newman
I found an interesting festival date taking place in Thailand next month, on 12th April, the eve of Khmer & Thai New Year, at the disputed Angkorean temple of Prasat Ta Muen - located on the border between Thailand and Cambodia in Surin province, if you believe the Thai claims to the site. Organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand's Northeastern Region, this annual festival is supposed to create and foster good relationships between the two countries and is expected to draw thousands of visitors from both countries. (Really?) There will be a cultural procession, folk music performances, sport competitions and so on. It sounds very much like the Thais are emphasizing to everyone that the temple is inside the Thai border area and that Thailand rather than Cambodia is giving the temple the credit and public recognition it deserves. I wonder if a rather apt tug-of-war competition will be one of the sporting events!

I highlighted the difference of opinion between Cambodia and Thailand over this series of temples in my blog in December. To refresh memories, here's what I said at the time:
If you're not aware, one of my biggest passions is visiting ancient Khmer temples, dotted around the Cambodian countryside. However, there are a series of Khmer temples in northeast Thailand that I have yet to visit so I was particularly interested in a report from Radio Free Asia's correspondent Kim Pov Sottan yesterday which highlighted the issue surrounding the 12th century Angkorean temple of Prasat Ta Muen Thom - which is in fact three ruined structures all with the same generic name - in a location that seems to be on the very border between Cambodia and Thailand. If you speak to the Khmers in the locality, they'll tell you that the temple is Cambodian and that the Thai's have stolen it in the last few years, whilst the Thai's have assumed responsibility for the temple and built a paved road for easy access for visitors. The report from RFA suggested that even the Thai military commander for the area claims that the temple is in a 'white zone' which is technically a disputed, no-man's land. Cambodia has experienced border disputes with Thailand and Vietnam over many years and the long drawn-out process to resolve them and agree on the exact position of the border markers is frustratingly slow. Cambodia has a history of disputing temple ownership with Thailand, with Preah Vihear being the most publicized but Prasat Ta Muen Thom is important in it's own right and if both countries are claiming ownership, somehow the deadlock needs to be broken. At the moment, Thailand is in possession and Cambodians are left to peer over the fence at this reminder of their glorious past.

Michael Freeman’s excellent Guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos throws a bit more light on the border temples of Prasat Ta Muen Thom, Ta Muen Toch and Ta Muen, after Radio Free Asia reported on the dispute over temple ownership between Cambodia and Thailand. Of the temples, Prasat Ta Muen Thom, constructed earlier than the other two, in the late 11th century, is the most notable and is situated by one of the principal passes over the Dangrek Mountains, and is unique amongst the sanitized Khmer temples in Thailand as it’s in the middle of a tall, dense forest. Its recent history, however, is one of the saddest. For several years during the 1980s it was held by the Khmer Rouge, who with the connivance of unscrupulous dealers, abused it badly. All carvings of substantial value were removed, or damaged in crude attempts at removal, including the use of dynamite. Of the three towers, the central and north-eastern ones were virtually leveled. In its forested setting, the sanctuary was built on the crest overlooking the small valley of a stream that runs in front of the temple, and unusually for Khmer temples, the main gopura faces south. The main shrine contains a natural rock linga and with the later addition of a hospital and resting house nearby (Ta Muen Toch and Ta Muen) add to the evidence that this was a major site on the Royal Road leading from Angkor to Phimai as it crosses the mountains. Ta Muen Toch is 1.5km and Ta Muen 2kms from the larger temple. Work on restoring the temples began in 1991 by the Thai Fine Arts Department and the trees at the foot of the approach to the larger temple, from the south, is where the existing border has been demarcated.

On the Tube

Stefan (left) films the map reading session at the start of the trip
For the duration of our Tour de Mereuch Bike Tour in Mondulkiri last week, much of the event was under the watchful eye of National Geographic journalist and film camerman, Stefan Lovgren. Swedish by birth, he now lives in the States and travels the globe on Nat Geo assignments. He was in Cambodia to cover the Srepok Wilderness exploratory bike tour and is also seeking out a story about sting-rays in the Mekong River as I type. Everywhere we turned throughout the tour, there was Stefan with his camera and his mike, and he expects a 3 to 6 minute segment to be the finished product on one of Nat Geo's weekly adventure travel programmes. He also took part in the cycling and probably regrets not taking his camera on Day 2 when the group got lost in the forest, just for the dramatic element that brought to the tour. Stefan also runs a new website that brings scientific stories into the public domain, its called ScienceCitizen and can be accessed here. Joining him on the tour was Phnom Penh Post's Brendan Brady, so watch out for a story in that bi-weekly newspaper sometime soon. Incidentally, the PPP has a new online edition and website here.
Stefan on location, along the Srepok River
Besides the superhuman effort required for the cycling element of the tour, seeing wildlife was also high on the agenda as WWF and the Srepok Wilderness Project is busting its balls to establish an environment where the wildlife can recover and grow again after years of hunting, poaching and neglect in the region. Hunter turned gamekeeper, one of the top Park Rangers admitted to have killed no less than 10 tigers during his days as a poacher, but now its his job to protect the wildlife such as tigers, leopards, other cats, large cattle and rare birdlife. Early in the morning and around dusk are the best times to view the animals and birds and that's when I saw quite a few muntjac bounding across the forest floor, as well as Eld's deer, three different types of eagle, some squirrels and colourful parrots. Some of the group also saw gaur and banteng, two species of large wild cattle. No-one claimed to have seen any tigers, leopards, wild elephants or bears - we'll search for those on the next trip.

This was definitely an exploratory trip, and the area is some way off being ready to receive visitors. There is a clear opportunity for a range of tourism options in and around the Srepok River, from kayaking to cycling to bird-watching to safari tours to fishing, and so on, though WWF are not in the tourism business and will need a partner(s) to make it happen, successfully. Their plans for an upmarket ecolodge are still on the drawing board at the moment, and without the backing of other partners, that's where they will stay. However, they are optimistic and have an area to promote that is untouched and pristine enough to attract tourists looking for a different alternative to temples and beaches. The Srepok Wilderness area is definitely that. Incidentally, immediately following our trip, the American Ambassador to Cambodia was due to spend two nights in Mereuch to assess the progress being made by WWF. I hope he left his bike at home! Link: WWF

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Final photos from Mondulkiri

Seriously, I couldn't believe it. Two of the famously elusive Koupreys were just standing/sitting there are the top the main drag in Sen Monorom. What an exclusive! This picture will almost certainly be on the main newswires in the next few minutes.
The beautiful solitude of the River Plai on the route between Sen Monorom and Bousra
Illegal logging is a serious problem in Mondulkiri. This collection of timber and chain-saws were confiscated by Park Rangers and is housed at the Nam Ram field outpost.
One of the few remaining older buildings in Sen Monorom that isn't yet under threat of demolition. Its the former HQ of the Government Bank, now in disrepair but still used as an office.

The Pnong

A traditional Pnong house at the entrance to the village of Sre Ampom
A traditional Pnong house sits alongside a more modern Khmer-style home in Putang village
I didn't really have enough time in Mondulkiri to get under the skin of the province, as I spent most of my time in the protected forest, which is devoid of the local population. However, I did visit a couple of Pnong villges which were located on the main roads and it was noticeable how - aside from a couple of traditional houses pictured above - little difference there is to the casual observer, between the Pnong and other rural Khmers. The following overview of the Pnong (or Phnong) is courtesy of the ELIE website.

The Phnong
are the indigenous peoples of Mondulkiri, although considered a 'minority' they in fact make up the majority of the population of Mondulkiri Province. The Phnong are believed to have been living in the Mondulkiri area for around 2,000 years, they traditionally have a strong link with their natural environment, hunting in the woods around their villages as well as collecting foodstuffs and other non-food products (such as timber or tree-sap) from the woods. Traditionally the Phnong do not take products from the forests that they do not need themselves, and therefore have a minimal impact on their environment. The Phnong's religious/spiritual beliefs are animistic, this is to say that they believe all things have spirits - animals, plants, hills, stones, jars, buildings - everything. Their ancestors are also represented by spirits. If these spirits are unhappy because of some human action they can intervene in the life of the Phnong, to harm or protect them. Sometimes it is necessary to appease the spirits with ceremonies/rituals, including animal sacrifice.

The Phnong are a traditionally autonomous and self-governing society in which village elders are looked to to solve internal disputes. If it is decided that a 'law' has been broken then it may be that the guilty party would have to pay a fine to the village, and also need to carry out some ceremony as noted above. Crimes which are relatively common in the West and in much of 'developed society' as a whole - such as thefts, physical violence, rape, and murder - are practically unheard of in Phnong society. There is little documentation of the Phnong up until the French colonized Cambodia in 1864. A road was built linking Sen Monorom to Kompong Cham, though Mondulkiri remained sparsely populated (as it does today with only 2 people per square kilometer). In the 19th century the Phnong had a reputation for being particularly warrior-like in their resistance to the French army. In 1969-1970 Mondulkiri fell under Khmer Rouge control and as a consequence much of the population was displaced to Koh Nhek, where the people were forced to work in rice paddy fields. It was not until the 1980's that the Phnong were allowed to return to their villages and traditional homeland. Then they were provided with weapons to protect themselves from possible Khmer Rouge attacks. Also at this time they were told to move their villages closer to roads in order for the government to supervise their activities.

Traditionally the Phnong are essentially subsistence farmers who practice some trade with surplus products. Today this is more or less still the case, with the Phnong relying heavily on their hillside rice and bananas. For a number of reasons they have begun to diversify the crops which they cultivate and now Cashew trees, Sweet Potatoes, and other crops are becoming more popular. It has long been an ideal for the Khmer government to teach the Phnong how to "live and behave like Khmer" and this has had some success. The desire for the Phnong to be more like Khmer people - more modern - has led to a greater number of Phnong men getting jobs - ie a career - some of the Phnong men are employed in the police or army services. The small wages that these men receive - and the greater exposure to Khmer and Western culture has led to a demand for Khmer style housing, motorbikes, and electrical products such as radios and televisions. Strangely, even though it is recognised that the Phnong have occupied the lands in the region for thousands of years, they are not entitled to a legal right to their lands. This makes them extremely vulnerable to logging and land-grabbing which are becoming increasingly problematic in Mondulkiri Province.
These Pnong boys are warming next to the fire after swimming at Bousra Waterfall

Mondulkiri faces

This young lady was in charge of the sugar cane juice machine in the village of Puchiri. She did some brisk business after our arrival.
One of the ethnic Pnong villagers selling fruit at Bousra Waterfall
Two Pnong children wash their clothes in the fresh waters at Bousra. The one on the left is using washing powder!
The chief cook and her daughter at the Mereuch HQ of the Srepok Wilderness Project
This is the cute face behind the mask!

Inside the protected forest

The sun rises over the Srepok River and the surrounding forest
A trail through the dry forests of the Srepok Wilderness Area, ideal for mountainbiking
I'm posting a few more photos from last week's expedition to the protected forest of Mondulkiri and particularly the segment known as the Srepok Wilderness Area. The WWF website has this to say of its involvement in the area: Years of isolation, the consequence of decades of war and civil strife, have left the Srepok River area and its rich biodiversity relatively intact. The river itself teems with exotic fish, while wild cattle and large cats still roam the surrounding plains. However, this natural wealth is highly threatened by destructive fishing practices, land conversion, illegal logging and the ferocious trade in wildlife. WWF are committed to working with local communities and authorities in developing an ecotourism venture similar to the successful game reserves of South Africa that will attract tourists from all over the world to bird watch, angle in the river and take safaris into the forest to view the spectacular wildlife. As well as saving this amazing landscape, once described as the the Serengeti of Asia, the aim is to create livelihoods for local people and alleviate the poverty that pervades this area.

Our visit was very much at the exploratory stage of the venture, to see what can be achieved and to identify a variety of ecotourism options for the future. It's not yet ready to receive visitors but the groundwork is being laid and I'm sure the Srepok Wilderness will be on the tourist agenda in the next couple of years. It won't happen overnight, as there's still lots of work to be done, but the Srepok River and the forest that surrounds it, are waiting to be discovered by those seeking an alternative to temples and beaches. Find out a lot more about the area here.
Part of our group on a walking tour along the Srepok River
Park Rangers in charge of our boat trip on a section of the untamed Srepok River

More from the 'Kiri expedition

I look a mite concerned as I had just managed to stay on the bike at the bottom of a steep drop
James MacGregor, now safely back in his snow-bound London office, sent me some snaps from the Tour de Mereuch WWF Mondulkiri Bike Tour, in which we both took part last week. Thanks James. I am slowly recovering my strength and should be back up to speed in time for my next trek, which is into the remote eastern hinterland of Kompong Thom province, aiming for the gold-rich mountain of Phnom Chi, on the trail of some long-lost ancient temples. There's far too much adventure to be had in this country! Back to the photos from James - there's another one of me in deep concentration as I negotiate a small wooden bridge; there's a back view as we are just about to get a faceful of red Mondulkiri dust from the passing 4WD; and a fuzzy farewell meal which we held at the Bananas restaurant in Sen Monorom. Incidentally, the food at Bananas was exceptional, especially after three days of forest-camp rations. More photos from Mondulkiri to follow.
A faceful of dust coming our way at the start of our tour
A celebratory meal at the end of our tour. I'm the one with the orange juice.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Temple talk

One of the enigmatic faces of Banteay Chhmar
Quite a bit of temple talk whilst I've been away in Mondulkiri, so here's some catch-up. The main highlight - or lowlight in this case - was some idiotic decision to build a mobile telephone antenna on the foundations of the pre-Angkorean temple at Kompong Preah, in Kompong Chhnang province. The four guys on site, who'd dug holes and erected a series of metal struts just inches from the remaining two 7th century towers, have been arrested but the sheer stupidity is unbelievable. This complete disregard for Cambodia's culture heritage is mind-blowing and shows that there's still a lot of work to be done to persuade and educate some Cambodians that their heritage is worth protecting. Kompong Preah is one of the few key sites that I still haven't visited and during the rainy season, the temple site is on an island surrounded by water. The Kompong Preah architectural style is notable for its distinctive floral lintels and the temple at the center of controversy was built in the reign of King Jayavarman I.
Banteay Chhmar, one of my favourite temple sites, located in the northwest of the country and pretty close to the Thai-Cambodian border made the news recently. A four-year plan to preserve and rebuild the temple has been hatched between the Ministry of Culture and Global Heritage Fund, a US-based NGO, who've contributed $280,000 this year and will continue to provide funding for the next three years. However, officials say it could take up to twenty years to fully restore the vast 12th century temple. The report also said that CMAC are de-mining in and around the temple site, which is a tad worrying, as I've been scrambling around that area on quite a few occasions in the past. Last but not least, Preah Vihear continues to hit the headlines, with various reports linked to the UNESCO World Heritage application which will be decided in the middle of this year. Lots of paper talk that the temple site will be a rival to Angkor Wat and whilst I agree its a fantastic temple in a stunning location, AW will always be number 1 in my book. I will never erase my first sighting of AW back in 1994 - its remains one of the most dramatic moments of my life.

On The Road

A study in concentration
Here's a few photos from my cycling experience in Mondulkiri, courtesy of Mark Ellison, MD of adventure tour company Asia Adventures. He kindly sent me through a couple of pictures and its amusing to see how serious I look when I'm on the bike, compared to when I'm on terra firma! To be honest on some of the downhill sections I had my heart in my mouth hoping that I wouldn't come a cropper. The one pictured here was a doddle compared to some of them.
I'm chatting to some passing locals and Ken was translating, as usual
This was one of the easier sections, just outside Sen Monorom and one of the few times when I wasn't at the back of the group!
I'm receiving instructions on how to make a gorgeous sugar-cane juice drink in the village of Puchiri

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bousra - Mondulkiri's finest

The beautiful scene at the top level falls at Bousra Waterfall
Not so beautiful - the author does his Khmer impression and has his photo taken with the falls as a backdrop
Everyone loves waterfalls in Cambodia and I'm no exception. I can't get enough of them. So having a free day in Sen Monorom at the back-end of my visit to Mondulkiri meant I simply had to get out to Bousra to see the waterfall. Regarded by many Cambodians as their country's finest waterfall, I hooked up with one of my best pals from Phnom Penh, Sokheng, who just happened to be in town on business - she works for the Wildlife Conservation Society and they have a project in nearby Khaosima - to make the 40km trip east of the provincial capital. Our moto drivers were Chen, her colleague at WCS and Samnang and an 8am departure meant we were there in an hour. The road, which has a top level of stones in places, hard-packed dirt in others, is a toll road and costs 3,000 riel per moto. It passes Pnong villages, rubber plantations and the Plai river before delivering you to the Bousra entrance, where foreigners pay a dollar to enter.
A close-up of the ten metre top-level falls at Bousra
Too close to the edge of the 25 metre drop for my liking: me and my good friend Sokheng
The ten metre waterfall that greets you was indeed impressive and is even more memorable during the wet season, from the photos I have seen. Now in the height of the dry season, the water volume wasn't too great but was still enough to catch three Khmer women unawares the week before our visit and swept them to their deaths. So be warned. The rocky riverbed now provides a nice place to picnic before it tumbles over a much larger 25 metre drop to the floor of the valley below. There are steps leading down to the valley but they looked far too steep for me to attempt, so I contented myself with a few photos, a paddle in the refreshingly cold water and a chat with a few Khmers on holiday for the weekend from Phnom Penh.
A side angle view of the 25 metre drop of the second-tier waterfall at Bousra
The 5 metre Monorom Waterfall, 3kms outside of Sen Monorom
After a drink with some of the stall-holders, who were cousins of Chen, we returned to Sen Monorom and a much smaller waterfall just a few kilometres outside of town. Its called Monorom Falls or Domnak Sdach (King's Resting Place) in Khmer. It's a five metre drop into a pool that is often frequented by young children who use the falls as their diving platform. Today there was no-one around except for workers from the hydro-electric power plant being built next door. Back in Sen Monorom, we had lunch at the So Paul restaurant, next to the Kouprey monument before Sokheng and Chen had to leave town to return to Khaosima, and I headed for another hot shower and rest.

More from the Mondulkiri tour

The elephant support vehicle and AK47-armed Park Ranger
If Day 1 had been tough on my creaking old bones then Day 2 was scheduled to be even tougher. Another 50+kms, this time through the heart of the forest, in order to reach our main target, the Srepok Wilderness headquarters at Mereuch, on the banks of the Srepok River. I had already decided, as I dragged myself through the pain barrier of the first day, that Day 2 for me would be a rest day, so I waved the other seven intrepid, and considerably more experienced, mountainbikers off at Trapeang Thmeir, at 7.30am, expecting to see them arrive at their destination by late afternoon. Because of the forest terrain, their support vehicle on Day 2 was in fact an elephant, that was loaded up with food and water.
A dried riverbed called O Rovei River on the way to Mereuch
The Srepok River just in front of the Mereuch Ranger HQ. We used the boat to travel upstream.
I took a spot, with my bike and the group's bags, in the rear of the back-up pick-up truck for the 40kms to Mereuch and arrived at 10am, spending the rest of the morning and afternoon, idling by the river. By late afternoon it was clear something had gone awry with the group and frantic communications between the Park Rangers at the HQ and the Ranger mahout on the elephant, indicated that the group had got lost in the forest and were in dire need of provisions. I forgot to mention that Mondulkiri's reputation for cooler weather was not applicable in the forest, where it was as hot as the city, so that merely added to the situation. The news got better when the group arrived at an outpost called Trapeang Chhouk but they were still four hours away from their intended destination and were mightily relieved to jump on board the pick-up truck that had been sent from Mereuch. They finally arrived, minus their bikes, an hour from midnight, exhausted, battered and bruised from their experience. My decision to take a raincheck on Day 2 had proved a good one.
The Srepok River, made famous in the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now
Day 4 and the support vehicle is starting to fill up with bikes, bags and people
Day 3 was a virtual rest-day for all, with a morning boat trip along the Srepok River to look over the intended site of an eco-tourism lodge and a late afternoon walk along the riverbank. Both nights at Mereuch were spent in beds rather than hammocks, and we had a shower and sit-down loo so conditions were okay. The plan for Day 4 changed a few times before it was agreed on another route through the forest back to Trapeang Thmeir for lunch and onto Sen Monorom. I decided to test my weary bones with an hour's worth of forest cycling before returning to the flat bed of the truck with my bike, to be joined by a few others before we reached the outpost at 1.30pm. The ride in the pick-up was nearly as uncomfortable as the bike riding on Day 1! I was back in my hotel room in Sen Monorom in the middle of the afternoon and headed straight for a hot shower to wash off the dust and grime of the last few days and to take a nap on a comfortable mattress. Heaven. More on my Mondulkiri experience soon.

Tour de Mereuch - part 2

No its not Lawrence of's me on Day 4 in the back of the truck, again, this time with tour organiser, Olga van den Pol. I was too tired to take a picture at the end of Day 1!
I was so tired and drained of energy that I just wanted to give up, sit down and wait for help. Unfortunately for me, I was on a rarely-used dirt-road in the middle of the remote northeastern province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia and the support vehicle hadn't been seen for five hours. I simply had to carry on. It was murder. Every bone in my body and every nerve in my brain was telling me to stop, but I was at the back of our group of half a dozen cyclists and there was no-one to come to my rescue. I simply couldn't afford to give up. I vowed there and then to never accept another invitation to join a biking tour.

The Tour de Mereuch bike tour had begun earlier in the day from the WWF office in Sen Monorom, the provincial capital. The plan was to cycle 76kms to the WWF/Srepok Wilderness Field Outpost at Trapeang Thmeir, inside the protected forest of Mondulkiri province. We started with eight cyclists and a support vehicle. Within ten minutes two cyclists had disappeared without trace and so had our back-up. We didn't see them again for another six hours. This was my first biking experience since I broke my arm in a cycling accident some 35 years ago - I should've seen the writing on the wall. For much of the route, the terrain wasn't too bad, bumpy and rutted yes but we were in Mondulkiri afterall, though it was the rolling hills for which the province is famous, that really broke my spirit. For experienced mountainbikers, hills aren't a problem, for me they were agony. I simply wasn't prepared for them, having cycled around Phnom Penh for a couple of weeks, where there isn't a hill in sight. I didn't have the power in my thighs and calves for the inclines and the steep declines were at times, pretty scary. The roads aren't paved, they are hard-packed red dirt roads that are rutted by trucks and motorbikes in the wet season and if you choose the wrong line to follow, it can be very costly.

After stopping at the village of Puchiri for sugar-cane juice and lunch, we finally caught up with the support vehicle and our two colleagues at another field outpost at Nam Ram. They'd actually got ahead of us when we took a cross-country diversion and had sped-on. Indeed, most of the group were experienced cyclists and I often found myself bringing up the rear, which is demoralizing enough for anyone. After six hours in the saddle, and some 72 of the 76 kilometres completed, I admitted defeat and dragged myself into the back of the support vehicle. I simply couldn't manage another inch. We reached Trapeang Thmeir just as the sun was setting, showered at the water-pump, had a bite to eat and fell into our hammocks hooked up under the Ranger Station. I had already decided that the cycling on Day 2 would begin without me.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tour de Mereuch - part 1

Little did I know!
Tour de Mereuch - The Mondulkiri WWF Bike Tour
To be honest I am so knackered that I can hardly type! Here's a couple of photos from the first two days of the mountainbike tour. The story will follow when I've had some more rest.
Above is a picture of me outside our hotel in Sen Monorom before setting out on Day 1. If I knew then what I knew at the end of Day 1, I wouldn't be smiling - it was probably the most exhausting day of my life. I cycled in excess of 70kms on that first day, my first proper cycling experience in more than 30+ years. I'm pleased I made the trip but the cycling was much tougher than I, or anyone, expected. It was a unique introduction to my first view of Mondulkiri province, the protected forest we visited covers a huge part of the northeast section of the province and at its heart is the Srepok Wilderness area that is home to tigers, leopards, bears, gaur, banteng and rare birdlife. We stayed for three nights at two ranger stations in the forest (at Trapeang Thmeir and Mereuch) and got a taste of the potential for ecotourism activities that WWF are hoping to promote there. Below is the bike team at the start of Day 2. The photo was taken outside the Srepok Wilderness/WWF Field Outpost at Trapeang Thmeir and I'm taking the photo as I simply couldn't find the strength to start the second day - as it turned out, I am so glad I didn't make it. More of the details later.
LtoR: Nick, Stefan, Ken, James, Mark, Olga, Brendan

A furry bear story

I'm back from a week in Mondulkiri and I am shattered, absolutely cream-crackered! Read my lips...I will never go on a bicycle tour again, especially in a forest wilderness, hours from civilization. More on my week in a moment. In the meantime, I wanted to post this news item on the bears that inhabit Phnom Tamao Zoo, just 30kms south of Phnom Penh. I visited the zoo a couple of months ago and if it wasn't for the thief who stole my camera, I would've posted my photos from my trip. I was pleasantly surprised by the facilities at the zoo. It's not world-class by any stretch of the imagination, but it was considerably better than I expected. Most of the animals had good living space and the zoo itself is big, so don't think you can walk around it. I didn't like the elephant circus tricks at 11am - though the Khmers did - and the fact that there are more monkeys outside the cages than inside, but all in all, I enjoyed my visit. Anyway, back to the news story from a few days ago. Free The Bears are doing a great job in rescuing Sun bears in Cambodia that otherwise would have ended up in restaurants across Asia. Please support their work here.

Cambodia opens Asia's first bear preservation centre - by AFP
Wildlife conservationists in Cambodia on Wednesday opened Asia's first centre to preserve local bear populations, under severe threat from poachers and exotic pet traders. The Bear Discovery Centre hopes to promote awareness of the plight of Asia's bears, said Mary Hutton, chairwoman and founder of the Australia-based Free the Bears Fund Inc (FTB). "It is so important because not so many bears are left in the wild," Hutton told AFP, saying their population was declining, although it is impossible to know how many bears remain.
The Asiatic black bear and Sun bear, both found throughout the region, are considered vulnerable according to the World Conservation Union's Red List of threatened species. "There are not as many as there should be, and the Sun bears are on their way to becoming an endangered species," Hutton said, adding that there are currently 88 bears at Cambodia's Phnom Tamao Zoo, where the centre is based. According to the FTB, which says it has rescued more than 100 bears from the wildlife trade in Cambodia, the animals are hunted in large numbers throughout Southeast Asia to feed growing demand for their parts to be used in restaurants.
More than 14,000 bears are also thought to be kept on farms in China and Vietnam where their bile is extracted and used for traditional medicine. "This is a cruel and unnecessary practice, which should be replaced by modern medicine," FTB said. In other cases, adult bears are killed so that poachers can capture their cubs to sell to the exotic pet market, Hutton said. A similar centre is expected to open in Vietnam later this year in a bid to expand conservation efforts, she added. Bears are only one among many species of animals that have been decimated by Asia's wildlife trafficking, which is fueled in large part by China's massive appetite for exotic meats and other animal parts.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The rolling hills of Ratanakiri

The young head monk and author (I'm wearing trousers) at Wat Eisey Patamak
The green rolling hills and wooded forests of Ratanakiri, from Phnom Svay
A visit to the pagoda of Wat Eisey Patamak and Phnom Svay just a kilometre or two from the town center of Ban Lung, will give you some gorgeous views across the green and verdant hills of Ratanakiri, in northeast Cambodia. It was the final stop on our trip out to Lumphat and a nice way to end the day. The five metre in length reclining Buddha, a replacement for one destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, at the top of the hill was the playground of some youngsters and the paintings above the Buddha looked old and worn but were actually dated from 1993. The head monk at the pagoda - also known as Wat Aran - which was undergoing some repairs, spoke excellent English and was remarkably young at 28 years old to be a head monk.
The reclining Buddha at the very top of Phnom Svay and children playing games
These Buddhist wall paintings look old but are from the early 1990s

Time stands still in Lumphat

The Srepok River in Lumphat
This is the Srepok River running alongside the virtual ghost-town of Lumphat, the one-time provincial center of Ratanakiri province until it was virtually bombed-out of existence by B-52 bombing raids courtesy of the United States and the Khmer Rouge decision to move their HQ to Voensai. Today, Lumphat is the town that time forgot, large sections of the old town and former government buildings are left empty and overgrown and we found it impossible to find any meat at all for our lunch or any hint of ice-cold drinks after our trip on motos from Ban Lung. The ground near the massive bullet-holed water tower is dotted with water-filled craters as a result of the bombing and the nearby Prince Sihanouk school lies in ruins with stories of ghosts and ghouls keeping the locals away. On the way to Lumphat, we'd stopped at two waterfalls at Cha Ong and Katieng as well as the elephant village of Kateung, where its possible to hire an elephant for the walk to Katieng waterfall.
The bullet-holed water tower, one of the larger landmarks is Lumphat
The disused Prince Sihanouk school was bombed in the early 70s and now lies in ruins
Villagers at the elephant staging-post of Kateung

A week without blogging

Next week will be either a wonderful experience or a nightmare, or a combination of both! An adventure trip to Mondulkiri sounds great, on paper, but doing it on a bicycle will stretch my endurance to the limit, especially as I have a groin strain from doing too much cycling in prep for the trip! I'm expecting countless hours of challenging off-road cycling, negotiating strength-sapping sandy trails, rocky hilltops and river crossings, and being hours from civilization in the dry forests of Mondulkiri will mean that I will not be online to blog, or read my emails, for most of next week. Tigers, leopards, elephants, and many other species of large animals like wild buffalo, gaur, banteng, Eld's deer, other cats and rare birds are on my long tick-list though with sweat pouring into my eyes I'll doubt that I'll see anything at all! Fingers-crossed.

Whilst I'm away I will miss a feast of films being shown at Meta House on Street 264 (near Wat Botum) as part of the CineMekong film festival. However last night I caught Nice Hat by David Brisbin and Ian White's Straight Refugeez. Two very different films - the former a fun look at Cambodia through the headwear of its people, the latter an insight into the convicted returnees from America. Tonight I will fit in 4 more films on the revival on Khmer arts. The session kicks-off at 7pm and will include John Bishop's Seasons of Migration. I did invite one of my friends, Sam Savin, who was one of the lead dancers in this contemporary dance piece but she's ill at the moment. Also showing tonight will be The Battle to Rebuild Sbaek Thom, A Reflection on Cambodian Contemporary Art and The Phnom Penh Video Art Project.
Out of the whole festival, which is also playing at the French Cultural Center and other locations, I really wanted to see Monday night's films, Kampuchea: Death and Rebirth and The Flute Player. The 80-minute Kampuchea film was made in the spring of 1979 as an East German film team filmed the first scenes after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. I expect it to be very moving. The Flute Player is the story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who has done a fantastic job in founding Cambodian Living Arts. I've met the inspirational Arn but I still haven't seen the documentary about him by Jocelyn Glatzer. A variety of films about Cambodia will be shown every night next week, so get along to Meta House and take a look for yourself.

Just back home from Meta House and particularly the Seasons of Migration film. It was great to see my friend Savin performing the traditional-cum-contemporary dance piece; she's closest to the camera on the left-hand side of the picture below, just a real shame she couldn't see the film tonight as she's not well. It was filmed in 2005 when Savin and the dance troupe were touring the United States.
Sam Savin, classical dancer, front on left-hand side

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Wat Nokor's Preah Noreay

The impressive Preah Noreay statue at Wat Nokor's eastern entrance
In concluding my look at the Wat Nokor complex near Kompong Cham, the 13th century temple has a wealth of carvings as well as statues for the visitor to admire. This eight-arm statue represents Preah Noreay, a Hindu goddess who is said to bestow fertility on childless women, and can be found at the eastern entrance to the temple. The statue is a mix of original sandstone and concrete additions, with the eight hands each holding an item of special significance. Its a cross between Shiva and Lokeshvara and is similar to a statue that used to reside at Tonle Bati before it was moved to the National Museum. Below is a closer look at the chest of the statue containing numerous smaller versions of Buddha.
Details from the torso of the eight-arm Preah Noreay statue at Wat Nokor
A four-arm statue of Preah Noreay at Wat Nokor
Above is a 4-armed version of Preah Noreay to be found opposite the 8-armed version just inside the inner entrance at the eastern gateway to Wat Nokor. A large club is the only weapon held by this statue, which again is a mix of original sandstone and concrete repairs. At the foot of the statue are small naga antefixes which usually sit on the upper levels of the temple's towers. Below is a modern Buddhist altar in one of the small side buildings on the northern section of the complex. In front of the Buddha is a small inscription stone from Angkorean time.
A small inscription stone sits in front of this modern Buddha altar

Carvings galore

Two-armed Lokeshvara of the western gopura, at the rear of the complex
These two photos of Lokeshvara are from the northern and southern faces of the western gopura, the outer enclosure of Wat Nokor in Kompong Cham. One of the best preserved Jayavarman VII temples in the provinces, Wat Nokor retains a wealth of carvings throughout the extensive complex. These Lokeshvara carvings - Lokeshvara is the Cambodian version of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or Lord of Compassion, protecting humans from dangers like flooding, fire, thieves and so on, healing all illnesses as well as granting children of the required sex to those that request them - were a popular feature of Jayavarman VII temples across the country and took on greater importance than the historical Buddha himself. In both pediments, worshippers accompany the main figure, the top (northern) also has flying apsara whilst the bottom (southern) has two of his original four arms missing.
This Lokeshvara with worshippers originally had 4 arms
Another view of The Great Departure, this time on the eastern entry gopura
The above representation of The Great Departure by Prince Siddhartha on his mighty horse, attended to by members of his court carrying parasols and worshippers can be found on the northern face of the eastern gopura as you enter the complex. The southern pediment of the same gopura is in danger of imminent collapse. The gopura below is at the western end of the complex and contains the two Lokeshvara pediments shown above. Although the farthest from the entry point, its well worth viewing for its excellent carvings and devatas in niches.
The western gopura, at the rear of the Wat Nokor complex

More from Wat Nokor

The central sanctuary and modern vihara at Wat Nokor
These are two views of the central sanctuary of Wat Nokor, located on the outskirts of Kompong Cham and built in the 13th century by King Jayarvarman VII, for many the zenith of the Angkor period in Cambodia's history. The suggestion by experts is that the central sanctuary was changed to resemble a stupa in the 16th century and many of its carvings were altered at the same time. One of the interesting aspects of Wat Nokor, and there are many, is that the modern vihara was added onto the ancient structure as seen above and the eastern doorway is now the main altar of the pagoda at the site.

The central sanctuary at Wat Nokor
The eastern gopura of the third and outer enclosure
Above is the eastern gopura of the third enclosure, the outer entrance to Wat Nokor. Most of the gopuras and gateways contain carvings of devatas and other iconography and it's worth scrabbling around the fallen stones to look for some hidden gems. Below, this royal pool is located on the southeast corner of the complex and its original sandstone structure is mainly still in place.
The royal pool at Wat Nokor

Friday, March 14, 2008

Loch Mao in the frame

In my post on Tuesday, I highlighted the future trial in Phnom Penh of the 3 suspects in custody, charged with the abduction and murder of British de-mining expert Christopher Howes in March 1996. All three were arrested in November of last year and can be held for six months pending their trial, so we should see some movement in the case fairly soon. Khem Nguon is the main name in the frame, having been a high-ranking member of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and suspected of ordering and supervised Howes's execution. Arrested with him were Loch Mao, a CPP-affiliated district official in Anlong Veng, who is alleged to be the man who pulled the trigger, and Chep Cheat, believed to be their driver. Their names have been in the frame for the murder for the last ten years but its only now that the Cambodian authorities have put the wheels of justice into motion. Khem Nguon was number two to the commander of the Anlong Veng guerrilla forces, the brutal one-legged Ta Mok. However, witnesses have already pointed the finger at Loch Mao as the man who fired the shots that killed Howes. I have tracked down this Sunday Times article from veteran journalist Tom Fawthrop, printed in June 1998, that reveals the story of what took place on that fateful day in March 1996.

Khmer Rouge defector named as Briton's killer - by Tom Fawthrop, Sunday Times, 14/06/1998
Scotland Yard detectives investigating the murder of Christopher Howes, the British mine clearance expert, by the Khmer Rouge, have been told that the killer was a former guerrilla commander who has since defected to the Cambodian army. A witness who took the detectives to the murder scene has claimed that Howes, 37, from Bristol, was shot by Loch Mao, an officer in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng.
Last week The Sunday Times tracked down Mao, 48, in Anlong Veng and questioned him about Howes’s fate. Mao, who lost a leg in a landmine explosion, confirmed that he had been under the command of a general who interrogated Howes. Asked about Howes’s death, however, he claimed that he knew only what he had been told by the general’s driver. “I never set eyes on the British hostage,” Mao said. Mao is named as a suspect in a report presented by Yard detectives to the Cambodian authorities, who have been urged by the Foreign Office to take action against Howes’s killer. Howes, a former soldier who worked for the Mines Advisory Group, a British charity, was engaged in an operation to clear some of Cambodia’s estimated 10m mines when he was kidnapped with his interpreter two years ago near the temples of Angkor Wat. They were marched through the jungle for three days before his interpreter, Houn Hourth, was killed.

Howes was taken to a school at Anlong Veng, where he is said to have been interrogated by General Khem Nguon, the Khmer Rouge’s deputy chief of staff. According to Nget Rim, 48, the general’s chief bodyguard, Howes was killed shortly afterwards. He said Mao, sitting behind Howes, pulled out a Chinese-made .54 calibre pistol, firing once in to the back of his neck without warning, and once into his back. It is understood that Mao has been identified as the killer by at least two other witnesses, including the general’s driver. The witnesses accompanied detectives and George Eggar, the British ambassador in Cambodia, to the school and showed them the spot where Howes’s body was later burnt.

The Great Departure

The Great Departure pediment on the north face of the central sanctuary at Wat Nokor
The northern doorway of the central sanctuary
Continuing my reflections on Wat Nokor, the outstanding Angkorean temple complex on the outskirts of Kompong Cham city, this post brings you The Great Departure pediment on the north face of the central sanctuary. Prince Siddhartha leaves the palace on his horse Kanthaka with a groom holding the horse's tail and four of his household each clasping one of the horse's legs to prevent any noise of his departure. Another seven worshippers on the lower register hold garlands of lotus flowers. Whilst much of the iconography of the temple was changed in the 16th century, the style of this carving dates it from the 13th century, the time of the original temple's construction under King Jayavarman VII.
The rather worn lintel below the pediment shows a grinning kala topped by more figures but it's difficult to identify the features. The bottom photo in this sequence is from the northern gopura of the first enclosure which has a well-defined pediment with a two-armed Lokeshvara standing between two kneeling figures, over a register carved with seven worhsippers holding two lotuses each. The destroyed lintel below has five niches with defaced Buddhas.
The worn kala lintel on the doorway of the northern face of the central sanctuary
A well-preserved Lokeshvara pediment on the northern face of the 1st gopura

Flashback in time

Who is this suave, debonair, camp-looking chap you ask? Well, it's none other than the legendary Roy Hill - well, maybe legendary is a bit too strong! In 1978 Roy produced his one and only solo album, (un)imaginatively entitled Roy Hill and this is the cover photo of Roy looking very seductive (according to Roy). Honestly, he should've been a big star, believe me I know my music! But like so many, his solo career was but a brief flash of brilliance and then he disappeared, quite literally, from my radar. Well, I can now be transported back to those heady days with the release of two CD's by the man himself, that should be available anytime soon. So he tells me. But I'm sure he's told me this before. Anyway, when I get the details of how to purchase them, I'll let you know.

So what do these CD's contain? First up will be Hello Sailor, a collection of songs recorded way back in the late 1970s. Some tracks are acoustic demos, others were recorded with The Strolling Players, a bunch of musicians from Cheltenham where he lived at the time. The tracks on Hello Sailor, guaranteed to take me on a nostalgic journey, are:
Join Me; Get To the Lieutenant; George's Bar; Down In The Cellar; The Boys Would Like You To Know; Keep Way From Me; I Try Not To Hear; More; Window; Piccadilly Lights; Watching The Diamond Disappear; Singing At The Wheel.

Next will be Fun With Dave from 1984-85. These tracks were recorded in Montreaux, Switzerland with David Richards, who in Roy's words, "went onto work with lesser acts such as Queen, Duran Duran and David Bowie." The tracks are:
Man Overboard; Jenny Takes A First Look At Life; Don't Leave Me Here; Every Single Time; The Man To Blame; Sleeping With Ghosts; Superheroes; Falling; Without Eddie; Small Adventurer; Marion Jones; It Just Might Happen.

To get a clearer picture of the man himself, I suggest you frequent his new MySpace website here. You won't regret it.

Did you think I'd forgotten?

Colourful Neak Ta at Wat Snguon Pech, near Route No 4
A female Neak Ta spirit figure at Wat Snguon Pech
No doubt all of you have been wondering where are the Neak Ta from last Sunday's wat-hunting trip west of Phnom Penh - well, wonder no more! If you have been thirsting for more of the Neak Ta spirit houses that can be found dotted around the Cambodian countryside and inside the grounds of pagodas then this is the place to be. I am hunting down the best of the Neak Ta on my travels and trust me, there are many that are not worthy of a posting here. These Neak Ta were the best of Sunday's trip, about 30-35kms west of Phnom Penh and south of the town of Ang Snuol. The top two can be found next to the pagoda of Wat Snguon Pech, where I also located a genocide memorial. The pagoda is about 500 metres from Route 4 and these colourful Neak Ta spirit figures are regularly given offerings by the locals.
The bottom two Neak Ta are slightly different. The top one is a Neak Ta containing ancient and revered stones and the heads from broken statues at Wat Prei Puoch. The powerful Neak Ta spirits are located 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 representing the land, water and spirit elements. The bottom Neak Ta is of a wise gentleman and the shrine also houses some ancient stones and a seima stone from the pagoda itself. The pagoda of Wat Khpop is an old brick-built and wooden construction next to a river, which is being replaced by a modern vihara about half a kilometre away.
Whilst I'm posting, I just wanted to say a big thank you for the messages of support I've received since I broke the news that my original blog had been stolen. I'm quite overwhelmed by the show of support for my blog, and its nice to know that it's being read on a regular basis by a wide range of people.
The revered stones at Wat Prei Puoch
The wise old man and seima stone at the soon-to-be-replaced Wat Khpop

Seeking solitude

If you are looking for peace and solitude on a trip to Ratanakiri, then head 70kms east of Ban Lung, the provincial capital and aim for Lumkut Lake. At the weekend, you might a few locals joining you for the beauty and peacefulness of this lake but most likely, you'll be there to enjoy it all by yourself. Its actually larger in size than the more popular Yeak Loam Lake, just outside of Ban Lung, but the road to Bokheo can be treacherous and impassable, particularly during the wet season, and until they upgrade the road (which they are doing now), a dry season trip is your best bet. There is a trail around the lake but its no more than that, and certainly cannot be called a path, so be prepared, its an attraction that is still in its pristine and virgin state. It's more than sixty metres deep in places, is oval in shape and believed to be a volcanic crater in origin.

Fun with learning

The play area in front of the main Aziza's Place building, with the open-air classroom on the balcony
I visited Aziza's Place this morning and came away with a smile on my face at how 20 children from desperately poor backgrounds are being given a fantastic opportunity to develop and learn at such a progressive learning center. Though most of the children have families, only five are orphans, without the full-time schooling and a myriad of other learning aides provided by Aziza's Place, they simply would not have a hope in hell of getting out of the cycle of poverty into which they were born. The center provides accommodation for all of the children, who also return to their families at weekends and holidays, as well as medical care, nutritious meals and a wealth of classes from computing, clay sculpting, photography, karate and football to Apsara dancing and music. The emphasis is on learning with fun, the center employs salaried teachers and the children also attend the public school a block away, which is near the Russian Market. My thanks to Allie for showing me around the center and you can read a lot more about the history behind Aziza's Place at or email
One of the classes at Aziza's Place with their full-time Khmer teacher
A volunteer provides the older boys with an advanced English lesson

A quick update

I'm off to visit a home and learning center for impoverished children in a minute, so I'll report back later on my visit to Aziza's Place, here in Phnom Penh. The children who live in the home near the Russian Market come from the desperately poor areas of Tonle Bassac and Stung Meanchey. At the center they receive meals, medical care, supervision, full-time schooling and lots of other interaction to give them variety and hope.
I received the schedule for my Mondulkiri WWF Bike Tour yesterday and for an unfit person like myself, I am seriously going to regret saying that I would join in! I just know it. We are literally cycling through and around the Mondulkiri Protected Forest, stopping overnight at 'field outposts' which in anyone's language sound less than comfortable and we'll be hours from civilization. I can't find the names of Trapeang Thmier, Trapeang Chhouk, Mereuch, O'Rovei and Dei Ey on any map, and the suggestion that I bring along oral rehydration packs such as Camelbak don't augur well. On day three we take a boat ride and a walking trip to give my legs a rest from cycling but aside from that it'll be on the bike in the heat and humidity of a forest - I'm looking forward to seeing Mondulkiri for the first time, with a free day in Sen Monorom tagged onto the end, but the battering my body is going to take is the bit I'm not so keen on.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ratanakiri re-visited

The gorgeous waterfall at Ka Chanh, some 9kms from the provincial capital of Ratanakiri called Ban Lung. Alongwith Cha Ong and Katieng, its one of three waterfalls that attract a lot of tourists, both international and Khmer, to the area
Life is busy for all of us but I must apologise for my abject failure to follow up with more pictures and stories from my visit to Ratanakiri province a while back. It was my first-ever visit to the northeast corner of Cambodia - I'd never been before because it didn't possess any ancient temples (or so I thought!) - and though I caught the end of the rainy season which made some of the journeys quite a challenge, I enjoyed myself and will be able to compare it with its northeastern neighbour, Mondulkiri province, which I will visit next week, also for the first time. Next week will be a bicycle adventure trip organised by WWF to the Mondulkiri Protected Forest, so I just know it's going to be hard work for an unfit individual like me, but I'm looking forward to the scenery, the people, the fresh air and new experiences, even if I won't be able to sit down comfortably for weeks afterwards. So, as you might expect, blogging will be nigh impossible for most of next week, so be warned. In the meantime, here's a couple of waterfall photos from my Ratanakiri trip, with more to follow - I promise!
This waterfall is called Cha Ong, a few kilometres outside of Ban Lung and it's one of the most popular waterfalls visited by tourists to the area. It's in a lovely setting, with the water cascading down into a beautifully-forested gorge at the bottom. You can clamber behind the waterfall - where this picture was taken - but the rocks can be very slippery and losing your footing isn't recommended. There's a 2,000 Riel entrance fee for foreigners at all waterfalls.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kong Vong Thom

Kong Vong Thom student Sour Vanna plays at Meta House tonight
Sour Vanna is a multi-talented student at the University of Fine Arts, currently in his third year and able to play at least half a dozen instruments proficiently. Tonight he demonstrated the Kong Vong Thom at Meta House as part of their regular Wednesday night Khmix It! sessions, though he admitted that the Roneat Ek is the instrument in which he would like to go onto achieve master status. Vanna is 25 years old and hails from Kandal province. He's been playing the Kong Vong Thom for ten years and is following in the footsteps of his father who is also a performer and teacher of classical musical instruments. The large circle of gongs are usually heard at weddings or funerals and as part of a much-larger pinpeat orchestra. He used soft mallets to play the tuned instrument which had sixteen cymbal-like metal gongs arranged in a circle and is suspended on a rattan frame. The gongs were in order of size with the smallest, highest-pitched on his 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. Vanna teaches young students at CCF and works with CLA in Phnom Penh and has high hopes of playing abroad once he completes his degree studies in 2009.

Dr Benny tells it like it was

Dr Benny Widyono and his book, Dancing In Shadows
This afternoon, the University of Cambodia campus on Norodom Boulevard hosted a lecture from Benny Widyono that focused on his recently-published book, Dancing In Shadows. Dr Widyono was a key United Nations figure in Cambodia during the 1990s, both as shadow Governor of Siem Reap under the UNTAC authority and later as the special representative of the UN Secretary-General. He was involved in all the machinations of that era and his lecture clarified his views on both the Paris Peace Agreements and the United Nations stance on Cambodia, both of which he felt were seriously flawed. The conference center was full of students whom Dr Widyono was eager to address and invited questions from the floor, mediated by Dr Kao Kim Hourn, Secretary of State at the Foreign Ministry, and President of the University. Also in the audience was Dr Helen Jarvis, the Public Affairs chief of the ECCC, who joined the top table to answer a question regarding the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
Dr Helen Jarvis at today's lecture

Gecko success

This is Sunny, the rather large Tokay Gecko that has a home on the wall next to the entrance to the Rising Sun pub just a few steps away from the riverside and FCC. He's to be found on the wall most nights, lying in wait for unsuspecting visitors. Usually he's partial to roaches, crickets, mozzies and the like but there's a story that if he jumps on your neck, it's a bad sign! That was the story a Khmer friend related to me and I cracked up. Yes indeed, if Sunny was to land on your neck you would be in trouble! It's difficult to see from the photo, but this gecko is a big one, believe me. Make sure you say hi to Sunny and the staff including Samnang and Thida next time you are passing the Rising Sun, which I always visit at least once a week to sample the excellent food they put on. The music leaves a bit to be desired but the fare far outweighs the sounds.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Re-post: Behind the headlines - Khem Nguon

Sometime in the next couple of months, I expect the court case of Khem Nguon to come up in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as he was arrested and held for six months pending his trial back in November 2007. I have been following the plight of Christopher Howes, for which Nguon is charged with his murder with two others also held in detention, since he disappeared in March 1996 and now that the appetite to try those responsible is evident, it is time that justice for Christopher and his interpreter is found. Below I have re-posted a blog posting from 21 November 2007 to give you the background on the man alleged to have been responsible for Christopher's death.

21 November 2007: Khem Nguon was charged last week by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with the kidnapping and murder in 1996 of Christopher Howes, a British de-mining expert from Bristol in Southwest England, working in Cambodia with the Mines Advisory Group. Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth were captured by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in a remote village in Siem Reap province in March 1996, transferred to the KR stronghold of Anlong Veng and murdered. Though Nguon denies his involvement, it’s alleged that he supervised the killing on the instructions of his commanding officer, the brutal one-legged Ta Mok. Arrested alongwith Nguon were Loch Mao, a CPP-affiliated district official in Anlong Veng, who is alleged to be the man who pulled the trigger, and Chep Cheat, believed to be their driver. Further suspects are also being sought.

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

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

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

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

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

Warning - My Blog was Stolen!

if you are reading this message, then you have most likely already located the home of my new Blog. You are very welcome.
About 3 weeks ago my passwords were stolen by a computer hacker who hijacked my identity and took control of the Blog that I have been updating daily for the last 21 months. As you can imagine I was distraught.
I have now set up this new Blog under the umbrella of my website and will cut & paste the last 21 months worth of postings over the next few weeks.
Please remove your bookmark to my old Blog site at andybrouwer (dot) blogspost (dot) com.
And a word of warning, don't fall into the same trap as me and click on innocent-looking links - because you don't know what's behind it! Be Smart, Be Net-Wise!

Meagre remains at Ang Reaksmei

The meagre remains at Neak Ta Ang Tros, near the village of Ang Reaksmei
To give you an idea of what I found with the help of the villagers of Ang Reaksmei, here's a couple of photos. In the top picture, this shrine at Neak Ta Ang Tros sits on top of a small mound of broken bricks that once made up a brick-built prasat, probably pre-Angkorean in age, ie. 6th or 7th century. Neak Ta shrines can contain almost anything which the villagers believe possess special powers and often they are old stones as in this particular shrine, which hosts a few pieces of sandstone that would've most likely been part of the doorframe or the shrine itself within the small prasat. This mound lies about 300 metres from the village.
The bottom photo is of the broken bricks and sandstone pedestals that constitute the remains to be found at Neak Ta Ang Kambot Ka, a ten minute walk from the village across a series of dried-out rice fields. The mound and large holes in the ground suggest to me there were three brick structures in its original form but the site has been completed devastated, like so many others, that's its almost impossible to tell without a detailed investigation by experts. And I am no expert. Whenever I encounter a site like this I see what I can find at the center of the site and then work outwards to see if anything else of interest or value is lying in the surrounding bushes or undergrowth. No doubt the villagers who took me to the site likely thought I was just another crazy barang - though I was the first that had visited the site as far as they knew - but the combination of old sites like this and meeting real Cambodians far off the beaten track is my ideal Sunday excursion. Oh I nearly forgot, they also told me that Ministry of Culture officials had visited the site a few years before and taken away an inscription stone with "old writing" on it, and they only took me to the site because I promised I wasn't going to steal anything!
Three sandstone pedestals like the one in this picture are at Neak Ta Ang Kambot Ka

Forgotten sites

The forgotten genocide memorial at Wat Snguon Pech
I've been having problems posting some photos from my moto trip on Sunday to a series of villages and sites west of the city, but these two have managed to post, so let me tell you a little about them. The top picture is of a genocide memorial that has fallen into disrepair and is housed at Wat Snguon Pech, just 500 metres off Route 4 between Phnom Penh and Ang Snuol at the point where the road toll begins. I actually stumbled upon it by accident as I was searching for some sculpture fragments and instead found a genocide memorial that had a sign saying the structure was dangerous and was in an imminent state of collapse. The pagoda and nearby school had been used as a prison and killing site during the Khmer Rouge period of control in the 1970s and around 700 victims had been found in the burial pits and canal. Today, the memorial is in a bad state and lies forgotten, like many of the memorials to the victims of the Khmer Rouge around the country.
The picture below was taken at the site of three pre-Angkorean brick temples called Neak Ta Ang Kambot Ka that have long since been reduced to rubble and are almost unrecognisible amongst the thorn bushes and paddy fields. I called into the village of Ang Reaksmei to find the location of the site amongst the rice fields and was immediately surrounded by a large group of villagers, mostly women and children, eager to find out why I was there. Two of the older women in the photo, Omron and Ommak, were happy to lead me across a series of dykes to a small rise in the middle of the fields that housed the former temple site. Amongst scattered bricks and three large excavated holes, there was little to see except three large sandstone pedestals, so dating the site was impossible and my guides told me that the temples had been in this state for as long as they could remember. They also said that two more Ang - a small hill containing something of archaeological interest - were closeby, though this was the 'best' of the three. I returned to the village and walked to Neak Ta Ang Tros to confirm their evaluation. This former prasat was another brick construction and a small shrine housed some slate and sandstone fragments but nothing else. Nearby, Tuol Ang Theat contained even less. After thanking my temporary hosts, I left the village of Ang Reaksmei on my search for more rubble-strewn sites!
My guiding party to visit Neak Ta Ang Kambot Ka includes Omron and Ommak and a few of the village children

Monday, March 10, 2008

Jenta assumes top spot

This is Ping Jenta, who on the 29th of this month will be appointed head monk at the pagoda of Wat Ang Popeay Meanchey, approximately 10kms south of Ang Snuol, a dusty town on the main highway between Phnom Penh and Kompong Speu. Jenta is 33 years old and speaks very good English, having travelled widely, including Paris, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and has the healing powers of a doctor, according to one of the wat's committee members. I met him on Sunday when I stopped by his wat to look for some sculpture fragments, which he proudly showed me and which include a sandstone pedestal. He was planning his big day with members of the committee but was more than welcoming with hot tea and ice-cold water offered before I even sat down. Born in the village next to the pagoda, Jenta is extremely proud to become the head monk and was quick to invite me to the ceremony, that will be presided over by an array of big-wigs from Phnom Penh. He has thirty monks at his pagoda, which was originally built in 1820 but was burnt down in the civil war and strife of the 1970s. It was the first stop on my Sunday jaunt west of Phnom Penh, to be followed by two more wats and five other sites that previously housed pre-Angkorean brick-built prasats. No earth-shattering discoveries but some nice moments to remember, like my meeting with Jenta, the new head monk.

The final KR Legacy forum

The panelists from tonight's forum; LtoR: Dr Muny Sothara, Long Khet and Dr Kek Galabru
The final forum on the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge was hosted tonight at Pannasastra School by Meta House and Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, and looked at the involvement of the Cambodian people since 2003 in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, now taking place. Moderated by Ray Leos, the panel was led by the formidable human rights activist Dr Kek Galabru from LICADHO, who was joined by Long Khet, director of Youth For Peace and Dr Muny Sothara from the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization. All three panelists gave an insight into their organization's work and discussed some of the concerns they had with the Tribunal now taking place. It was rather a low-key ending to a series of six forums that have brought a welcome focus on the background and given some context to the Tribunal, which is gathering steam and getting lots of press coverage across the globe. Some forums were better than others as were some panelists though for me the stand-out figure out of all of them was Tom Fawthrop, who provided a real detailed knowledge and substance to the forums in which he was involved, both as moderator and panelist. If you hear of any forum or debate where Tom Fawthrop is involved, make sure you attend.

Dr Kek Galabru and moderator Ray Leos share a lighter moment at tonight's forum

I am knackered...

More monkey business, this time at the new pagoda being built at Wat Khpop
Sunday was hectic, hence no blog posts. I was both still knackered from my cycle outing the day before and of course I was back on the road again, visiting a series of pagodas and villages 30kms west of Phnom Penh and south of Ang Snoul. Usual sort of thing, scrabbling around the grounds of pagodas looking for evidence of ancient temples, seeking out interesting Neak Ta shrines, taking tea with the head monk, chatting to the local villagers, and walking across parched rice fields, seeking out ancient prasats that have been reduced to mere rubble amongst the thorn bushes. Doesn't everyone do that on a Sunday? By the time I got home, I had just enough time to have a bite to eat before falling into my bed exhausted. I'll fill you in on the details later. I'm having problems again in posting some photos so will post a few from yesterday's trip as soon as I can.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Cycling hell

The old pagoda at Wat Prek Prakrom
Mum Ing Srung and 18 year old daughter Siv Heng at their sugar-cane stand
This rather camp looking Neak Ta resides at the entrance to Wat Champuh Ke'Ek
In prep for a 5-day cycling trip to Mondulkiri province on the 17th of this month, I've been commuting to and from work by mountainbike in the past week but I needed a longer practice run, so this afternoon I got 'on my bike'. Along Norodom Boulevard, I took a left over Monivong Bridge and an immediate right along the road that runs parallel to the Bassac River and into the Kien Svay district. I started out under overcast skies but as if to put the boot in, the sun quickly appeared and shone strongly throughout my three hours of cycling hell. Why hell? Well I haven't ridden a bicycle since I was a teenager, many moons ago, and now that I'm back home, I'm really feeling it. My calf muscles are very distressed. The route itself was quite good, the smiles and hello's were very welcome throughout the trip, the road was being resurfaced so was adequate but a little bumpy and I made a few stops, mainly for sugar-cane and cold water refreshments and visited a couple of pagodas. The first pagoda was at Wat Prek Prakrom, which boasted an older vihara with wall paintings on the outside and locked doors, so I couldn't get a look inside. Nearby was the sugar-cane stall with mother and daughter duo, Ing Srung and Siv Heng providing refreshing drinks on the way out and on the way back too. Further along the river I had a good look around Wat Champuh Ka'Ek, a favourite pagoda of the Prime Minister Hun Sen and his cronies. It was a burial ground and prison during the Khmer Rouge time but has recovered dramatically since and is now one of the wealthiest pagodas in the vicinity, with more than 80 monks and a room full of Buddhist statues donated by its wealthy patrons. There's also a genocide memorial at the rear of the pagoda, with the remains of 1,500 victims found in 85 burial pits in the grounds of the pagoda. The wat's school was used as the detention center and 18,000 people are believed to have died there. I turned back for home after visiting the wat, as I needed to get back before dark and to visit Meta House for my Saturday evening film fix.

The stupa at Wat Champuh Ka'Ek
Some of the victims are housed in the genocide memorial at Wat Campuh Ka'Ek
The audience numbers were a little better this week for tonight's screening of Inside Pol Pot's Secret Prison, a 2002 American History Channel production that provided a look behind the barbed wire of Tuol Sleng. Interviews with survivors Vann Nath and Chum Mey, alongwith former S-21 guards, interrogators and photographer Nhem En formed the crux of the story of Pol Pot's infamous prison where more than 14,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Adding weight to the programme was David Chandler, David Hawk, Youk Chhang and Nate Thayer together with a series of fuzzy reconstructions and rare film footage. Afterwards at the Rising Sun, I met Mariam Arthur for the first time after a series of emails over the last few years. Mariam is doing her bit for the Cambodian film industry and founded the NGO Film Cambodia Organization in January. She has been producing the film trade magazine Mise en Scene since June 2007.

What's CCBEN?

CCBEN - Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network - is a network of thirty or so institutions involved in or supporting community-based ecotourism in Cambodia that meets quarterly with the aim of protecting the natural and cultural resources of the country and raising the living standard of the local communities that are involved in ecotourism projects. It's been going since 2002 and is involved in information exchange and networking, local capacity building, tourism research, and the marketing and promotion of various destinations. As ecotourism becomes increasingly sexy to a more-demanding tourist population, more projects will be added to the existing menu of CCBEN supported sites that currently exist.
These are: the bird sites at Ang Trapeang Thmor, Prek Toal and Tmatboey; the two Ratanakiri sites at Yeak Laom and Virachey National Park; Banteay Chhmar; Chambok in Kompong Speu; Koh Pdao on the Mekong River and Kompong Phluk. These initiatives are now well-established and will soon be joined by new projects being undertaken at Prek Tnout near Kampot by Save Cambodia's Wildlife, in the Cardamon mountains at Chipat by Wildlife Alliance and the WWF-supported Mondulkiri Protected Forest. The latter project is one that I'm visiting on the 17th of this month to partake in a four-day bicycle adventure tour in a remote region of this northwest province. At the same time, the Mekong River Discovery Trail project will be hosting a tour of its range of proposed products - cycling, homestay, kayaking, bird-watching, and more - along the Mekong River between Kratie and the Laos border.
These projects are designed to increase the range of options for tourists wishing to do more than visit the original options of temples, beaches and city tours. They will bring tourism to parts of Cambodia that have been starved of participation in this booming industry and they will add a variety of experiences that will keep tourists in Cambodia for longer. CCBEN and its members are playing a vital role in promoting this new and exciting chapter of tourism in Cambodia. Link: CCBEN.

Looking ahead

Time to look ahead ahead to some of the events that I will be attending, starting with the showing of a documentary tonight at the Meta House called Inside Pol Pot's Secret Prison, which was filmed in 2002 and interviews survivors, guards and people like reporter Nate Thayer, in a look behind the walls of the Tuol Sleng interrogation center or S-21 as its also called. Start time is 7pm and Meta House is on Street 264 near Wat Botum Vadei. There's also an exhibition of photos currently on at Meta House by Japanese artist Yoko Toda, which were taken in the mid-60s. As part of the Cinemekong festival that begins on 15 March, a batch of films will be shown at Meta House, and other venues. Amongst the Meta House showings will be Nice Hat by David Brisbin, Straight Refugeez by Ian White, Seasons of Migration by John Bishop and one that I'd love to see - but won't be in town that night (17 March) - Kampuchea: Death & Rebirth, produced by the famous GDR filmmakers Heynowski/Scheumann of scenes in Cambodia in spring of 1979 just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The sixth and final Khmer Rouge Legacy public forum will be held this coming Monday (10 March) at Pannasastra School on St 370. It's title is People's Involvement since 2003 and will discuss participation by the public and grassroots NGO/outreach involvement in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The speakers will include Dr Kek Galabru, one of the leading human rights advocates in Cambodia. Ray Leos will moderate. These forums have been instigated by Meta House and supported by the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation to shine a light on the history of the Tribunal now underway and to bring it into a context which can be easily understood.
Later in the month, on 27 March, a film that has been 20 years in the making will be shown at Chaktomuk Theatre in a ceremony to be presided over by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An. Stanley Harper’s movie Cambodian Dreams documents the parallel stories of rural farm grandmother Yan Chheing's struggle in a refugee camp in Thailand, and her daughter’s hard life in the rice fields of Cambodia. It will air on all national TV stations simultaneously.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Em Theay - a national icon

The proud face of a national Cambodian icon: Em Theay, the Tenth Dancer
Tim Sorel gives some guidance to his translator Priya, in a break from filming
I had the pleasure of meeting the legendary Em Theay this morning. And what a pleasure it was. She is such a gentle and graceful lady, she lives for her art and takes every opportunity to demonstrate the wealth of postures and movements that she learnt through her life and which she has passed onto countless students including her own daughters and their children. She is at the peak of a dynasty of classical performers and musicians and she shows no sign of taking it easy. She came to the new National Theatre, accompanied by her daughter Thong Kim Leng, herself a leading dancer, for an interview as part of Tim Sorel's documentary on Cambodia, thirty years after the fall of the Pol Pot regime. Tim interviewed Vann Nath at Tuol Sleng a couple of days ago and this morning, it was the turn of Em Theay, in my eyes a living national icon. Her interview was excellent, she simply couldn't stop herself from breaking into a toothless grin and displaying various stylised movements that she has practised throughout her life. I was there just to give a helping hand to director Tim Sorel and his translator Priya when required, but primarily to meet the lady known as the Tenth Dancer.
Em Theay was marvellously animated throughout her hour long interview
Here's a post from September 2006: After posting the Beyond the Killing Fields blog entry yesterday, I recalled that Em Theay was the main subject of a documentary I watched many years ago called The Tenth Dancer, which focused on the strength and resilience of the women of Cambodia in rebuilding their traditions from the fragments of a shattered society. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the death or disappearance of over 90% of Cambodian artists, including most of the dancers of the Royal Ballet. Theay was one of the 10% to survive. The Tenth Dancer was made as long ago as 1993. Em Theay is still dancing and teaching today and performing abroad at the age of 75 years old - by anyone's reckoning that is a remarkable story.
Em Theay was chosen to dance at the age of seven by Queen Kossomak, for whom her parents worked as domestic servants. She grew up in the Royal Palace and was a dancer and singer in King Sihanouk's Royal Ballet until the Khmer Rouge took over her country. At that time she was forty-three and was sent to live in Battambang, where her talents didn't go unnoticed and her captors encouraged her to sing and dance as well as work in the fields. In 1975, twelve of her 18 children were alive. By the end of the KR period, seven had died and only five were left. Em Theay returned to Phnom Penh where her knowledge and skills of the traditional arts were put to use as a teacher at the National Dance Theatre and the Royal University of Fine Arts until quite recently. She is a vital link to Cambodia's past, quite literally a living national treasure and one that Cambodia should be tremendously proud of.
The lady herself poses for a photograph after the interview
LtoR: The author, Em Theay, Priya and Thong Kim Leng
To read more about Em Theay's story and all about the documentary film, The Tenth Dancer, click here.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Film cameraman - yeah right!

Who am I trying to kid? I just get to hold this very expensive and state of the art filming equipment - I have absolutely no idea how it works. I'm pictured at Tuol Sleng having just completed a couple of hours of filming Vann Nath's return to his former jail as part of a documentary on Cambodia, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge, by director Tim Sorel. Tomorrow morning we change the location to the new National Theatre to record an interview with the legendary Tenth Dancer, Em Theay. In preparation for the interview, I recently met Theay's daugher Thong Kim Ann, who also happens to be 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. I'm looking forward to meeting her tomorrow. It's pouring with rain outside at the moment - very unusual for this time of year - so let's hope that it's nice and dry in the morning.

Feedback for Angkor National Museum

A window into the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas
I paid my first and only visit to the new Angkor National Museum at the end of January and I have re-posted my trip report below. Yesterday, I met with Sunarez, the managing director of ANM and she was very keen to hear my views and constructive criticisms, and at the same time gave me a progress update on how her museum is shaping up. The number of items on display has now topped 1,400, many of the new arrivals are from the Angkor Conservation collection, and she talked about her good working relationship with the National Museum here in Phnom Penh and the desire to share and exchange pieces between the two museums. She has been working with a group of experts from the Culture Ministry to improve the signage problems, the excellent Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas is being further improved to show the pieces in date order and if she can get a cheaper electricity supply, which the museum eats up as you can imagine, she is keen to reduce the admission prices. In addition, the shopping mall is taking shape with Monument Books and other well-known retail names soon to take residence. It's clear that the museum is improving month on month and I'm already keen to revisit the ANM on my next trip to Siem Reap.

My trip report from January 2008 (re-post):
Saturday afternoon was my first opportunity to visit the new Angkor National Museum, which opened its doors to visitors in November. I must concur with previous reports that the museum is well presented using state-of-the-art technology with collections themed by temples, kings, beliefs and religions. The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas is particularly striking and all the main collections include interactive multimedia presentations. However, the stylish presentations can't hide the fact that that the overall collection is way short of the quality to be found in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. It's also pretty small by comparison though that's deftly disguised through the technology and presentation. Entry is $12 per foreigner, $3 for Khmers, which is very expensive when compared with the museum in the capital or the Temples of Angkor. My view - an interesting addition to the range of visitor attractions in Siem Reap and an informative introduction to the Angkor story, but its over-priced and crying out for a bigger collection. I didn't have time to visit the attached shopping gallery, so can't comment on that. The museum covers 20,000 sq metres and has attractive water features including a pond at its center. A $2 camera fee will allow you to take photos in the public areas, so you can snap away at a few lions, heads from Angkor Thom and Preah Khan and a few other pieces of sculpture but cameras are not allowed in the main collections. I was disappointed that 40% of the items on display do not have any signage or explanation of their provenance, whilst the lighting on some exhibits could be improved. The galleries of inscription stele and lintels were quite poor and I have seen much better examples myself in the storage areas of Angkor Conservation. I loved the 1,000 Buddhas gallery though, with the walls inlaid with small back-lit Buddhas and larger items including the highly-unusual Sumethabos, a 9th century prostrate Bodhisattva from Phnom Vak, presented in the middle of the room. I'm glad I went but there's work still to do to bring it up to an acceptable standard for the price they are charging.
A lion-headed kneeling Asura demon guardian from the 10th century Banteay Srei temple

Roy Hill on MySpace

Guess who's been in touch....Roy Hill no less. Yes, I can hardly believe it myself, he's a virtual recluse! The man himself is Roy Hill, the ultra-talented singer-songwriter who made a massive impression on me, musically, back in 1978. Then, for me, he completely disappeared off the radar, until 26 years later. In the intervening years, whilst I was busy listening to Steel Pulse, Ennio Morricone, Billy Bragg and so on, Roy had licked his wounds after a bloody nose from his unfulfilled solo career to rise again in the guise of Cry No More, who for a decade wowed audiences in stockbroker-belt SE England, and beyond. My re-introduction to seeing Roy in the flesh again, accompanied by his straightfaced sidekick Chas Cronk, in the form of Cry No More was a revelation. Roy has matured his boyish charm and comic monologues into the funniest music set I’ve ever seen. He is simply brilliant.
Anyway, back to his latest email. Roy has all but completed his first two cd releases of a smorgasbord of delights that he's gearing up to release on the unsuspecting public. In addition, you can find out much more about Roy and his own unique style of music and wit at his new MySpace website. Click here.
Now, if I tell you what Roy’s plans are, then hopefully that will be an additional prod to make him complete the mammoth task he’s set himself. He’s currently putting all six Cry No More albums onto cd’s with his own inspired artwork, as well as compiling a dvd to be called The Cry No More Story, which will include clips from old vcr tapes, videos from three recent compositions and narration from Roy himself. If that’s not enough to whet your tastebuds, he’s also clicking into gear with his own stuff too. He’s nearly completed those first two releases I mentioned: Hello Sailor – very early tracks recorded before he signed to Arista in 1976 – and Fun With Dave – 12 songs recorded with Dave Richards in Switzerland during the early ‘80s. The target he’s set himself is ten releases in all, fifteen if he includes “the real rubbish!” If all that comes to fruition, I beseech everyone to buy the whole set. You will love it, I promise. My decision to relocate to Cambodia has some drawbacks to it, one of them is missing the annual live Cry No More Christmas extravaganza. Link: Roy Hill.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Sleeping women at Wat Nokor

The western doorway and pediment at Wat Nokor, Kompong Cham
The sleeping women and courtesans of the western pediment of the central sanctuary
Continuing my Wat Nokor of Kompong Cham in-depth review: The western pediment of the central sanctuary at Wat Nokor is, according to the experts, all about women, and sleeping women no less. In its two registers, the upper one shows three figures in a pavilion, the central one, Prince Siddhartha, is topped by a head crowned with a thin point or flame; the figures are seated in a relaxed, sleepy fashion. Either side of the pavilion are two kneeling women, also sleeping. In the lower register, thirteen women or courtesans have closed eyes, are half-sitting, half-kneeling, hold their head in one arm and look exhausted after completing their courtly duties. The carvings date from the 16th century. The lintel below is badly eroded but hosts a grinning kala and six medallions that have figures inside but its impossible to see what they are.
The gopuras of the first enclosure at the temple also boast some neat carving. The western gopura depicts an incomplete pediment showing the bodhisattva being tortured in the top register. In the middle, a little man appears holding a stick amongst worshippers. In the worn lintel below, worshippers pay homage to Buddha.

The badly-eroded lintel with six medallions and a grinning kala
The torture of Buddha with a series of worshippers in attendance
Another badly-eroded lintel with a scene of Buddha and worshippers

Tuol Sleng snaps

Students from Tuol Tompong High School view part of the Stilled Lives exhibition at Tuol Sleng Vann Nath, painter and survivor of Tuol Sleng, revisits his former jail
A quiet moment for reflection for Vann Nath in the courtyard of Tuol Sleng
Graffiti on the walls of Building B at Tuol Sleng demonstrate a penchant for 1960s hairstyles
Males with rockabilly hairstyles on the wall of Building B at Tuol Sleng

Vann Nath revisits Tuol Sleng

Director and cameraman Tim Sorel setting up the interview shoot with Vann Nath Vann Nath peering through the barred windows of the 2nd floor of Building B
This morning Vann Nath returned to Tuol Sleng to take part in a documentary interview shoot with director Tim Sorel, translator Priya and myself (as assistant producer). We spent a couple of hours interviewing Vann Nath about his life and then he gave us a guided tour of the former Khmer Rouge interrogation center, stopping at various points to recall his own experiences and identify photographs that triggered more memories for him. He has spoken on camera on countless occasions and it showed, he was a superb interviewee and most generous with his time and recollections. The documentary is being directed and produced by Tim Sorel, a professor from the University of Florida and is looking at Cambodia thirty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. More interviews will take place over the next few days during Tim's visit to Cambodia before post production will take place back in Florida.

Vann Nath points out his own face amongst the survivors of Tuol Sleng to Priya
The painter Vann Nath pauses at the self-portrait of his time at Tuol Sleng
LtoR: Vann Nath, translator Priya and assistant producer for the shoot, yours truly

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Wat Nokor in detail

The southern doorway and pediment at Wat Nokor's inner sanctuary
The hair-cutting and horse release pediment of the southern doorway
To begin my look at the iconography at Wat Nokor, on the outskirts of Kompong Cham city, I'll start with the southern doorway and pediment of the central sanctuary. You'll recall that the eastern pediment is part of the modern vihara's main altar and much of the 13th century temple's carving was remodelled during the early part of the 16th century. The southern pediment is one such example of the remodelling that took place. I'm indebted to Vittorio Roveda and his marvellous Images of the Gods book for the analysis of the temple's iconography. The key illustration for the southern pediment is Buddha, wearing the simple clothes of a monk, cutting his long hair, as can be seen in the upper register of the pediment. He is protected from the flames above him by two attendants with parasols and two additional worshippers kneel either side of the future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha. The middle register displays a saddled horse with squire holding the bridle before freeing the animal; with more attendants in close proximity. The bottom register has seven kneeling devotees in a gesture of adoration with crowns, and above them, lotus buds hanging from the roof. The worn lintel below has a figure supporting the eroded Buddha, flanked by two prancing lions above a grinning kala. The colourful Buddha inside the doorway is of a modern variety.

The worn lintel with an eroded Buddha and two flanking lions
I was taking a picture and this tourist appeared from nowhere!!
The southern doorway of the outer gopura, with a badly-damaged lintel

Hope for Friends

Workaholic American actress Leslie Hope and her cinematographer husband Adam Kane have put their weight behind the Friends International organisation that does such great work on behalf of the street kids of Cambodia, with their short 30-minute film What I See When I Close My Eyes. The film follows the street living and working kids of Phnom Penh as they paint life sized self-portraits and tell their stories in their own words of what they saw when they closed their eyes. It consists almost entirely of children talking about themselves, their lives, their hopes and their dreams. Their visions range from the heart-breakingly simple dream of a young girl to have soap, to the bold dream of a teenage boy to help drug addicts kick their habit and find work. Hope, who has appeared in countless film and tv roles, is the movie's writer-director, with husband Kane in charge of filming. The couple visited Cambodia in 2005 to shoot the movie, which was shown at the Los Angeles Show Off Your Short Film Festival last month. Link: Friends.

Ancient and modern Neak Ta

Nice combination: small Neak Ta figure and ancient sandstone pedestal at Wat Chum
This fragment of lintel at Wat Chum is inside a small shrine next to the vihara
Whilst the painted Neak Ta figures are extremely interesting and often quite amusing, you can also find ancient carvings and statues included inside or near to the Neak Ta spirit houses that are found in the grounds of a pagoda or in a village. Essentially, the shrines or huts of Neak Ta literally contain anything, natural or man-made. The objects represent the land, water and spirit elements and mostly house a variety of figures or as we can see here, ancient artifacts. These photos were taken on my visit to eight pagodas west of Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon. I was drawn to them by dots on the Kandal province Ministry of Culture/EFEO maps that I bought recently at Carnets d'Asie. These are a fantastic addition to my temple-hunting excursions and I recommend you buy the whole series and get on your bike and discover these sites for yourself. As I've said before, take a moment to look in these shrines on your own travels and see what treasures you can find - but never ever disturb the contents or you may face the wrath of the all-powerful Neak Ta spirits.
This sandstone pedestal is incorporated into this Neak Ta shrine at Wat Chhouk Va
A more modern Neak Ta at Wat Arun Vatei
A busy Neak Ta spirit house at Wat Kok Banhchan, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh

It's Neak Ta time

These Neak Ta images at Wat Toek Thla in Pochentong overlook a garment factory
Two club wielding Neak Ta at Wat Tang Krasang Cheung
My Sunday afternoon jaunt out to a few pagodas west of Phnom Penh means another series of Neak Ta photos - spirit images - that I found on my travels. I'm finding them irresistable and get excited when I see the shrine located next to the vihara or covered in weeds in a far-flung corner of the pagoda complex, anticipating what I will find inside. 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 figures, as seen in these photos. If you see a shrine on your travels, take a moment to look in and see what treasures you can find - but never ever disturb the contents or you might face the wrath of the all-powerful Neak Ta spirits.
A well-kept Neak Ta shrine at Wat Tang Krasang Cheung
Nice to see a lady Neak Ta at Wat Chum, next to the white-washed lintel
Last but not least, another Neak Ta at Wat Chum

Monday, March 3, 2008

Inside the ECCC

The Panel. LtoR: Helen Jarvis, Robert Petit, Caroline Schmidt-Gross, Hisham Mousar, David Boyle
The penultimate forum on the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge took place at Pannasastra University tonight and gave the audience an insight into the current Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the ECCC, from those who know its inner workings.Three key members of the ECCC took to the stage alongwith human rights advocate Hisham Mousar under the stewardship of moderator Caroline Schmidt-Gross. Leading the panel in reminding the audience of the background leading up to the formation of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Helen Jarvis is the ECCC's Public Affairs Chief and effectively the public voice of the Tribunal. Alongside her, Canadian Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit explained the advantages of the hybrid court and how it will be his job to prove who is guilty and to explain why Khmer killed Khmer, the latter being a task about which he has his own reservations. The third member of the ECCC was Australian lawyer David Boyle, an investigator in the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges who must test the submissions of the prosecutors for truth, balance and impartiality. It was my first opportunity to hear it 'from the horse's mouth' so to speak and I found it of great interest. They fielded a couple of questions on the possibility of acquittal and the participation of victims in the Tribunal's proceedings before the forum closed. Amongst the audience was an interested spectator, Raoul Jennar, now an advisor to the Prime Minister and the Tribunal and a longtime analyst of Cambodian political affairs.
Helen Jarvis - Chief of Public Affairs, ECCC

Robert Petit - Co-Prosecutor, ECCCDavid Boyle - Investigator, Office of the Co-Investigating Judges, ECCC and Hisham Moussa, ADHOCRaoul Jennar - veteran Cambodian analyst

Everyday stuff

The author and Pisey, one of the staff from Cafe Fresco on Street 51 & 306
The website and Blog saga continues to trundle along. I haven't been able to post any photos for a couple of days, so my stories are stacking up! At the same time, its all been a bit frantic and looks set to remain so for the rest of the month with at least two trips into the Cambodian wilderness on the cards. In the meantime, last night I went to enjoy yet another wedding, between two employees, Seyhar and Chenda, of another expanding franchise, the FCC group. Nice to see all my friends from Cafe Fresco there, the sandwich & coffee shop I use for my lunch most days. During the day yesterday, I went on my moto tour of a few pagodas west of Phnom Penh as my story below explains - photos to follow.
The happy couple - Chenda & Seyhar
On Saturday evening, I watched the John Pilger documentary, Cambodia - the Betrayal at Meta House after turning on the tv for the first time in months to watch the Khmer kick-boxing championships. Both the Phouthang brothers were fighting foreign opponents though it was sad to see the eldest brother, Ei Phouthang, looking a bit out of shape and losing his bout. He's 36 now, has been a national hero for a long time but perhaps its time for him to retire to coaching after completing over 200 bouts. His younger brother, Outh Phouthang won his bout and collected $1,000 prize money donated by the Prime Minister.
I'm interviewing most days this week at work as we try and get some good quality staff into our ever-expanding tour company. I'm also assisting a documentary film-shoot this week, which I'll tell you more about as it happens. Tonight, don't forget it's the fifth of the public forums on the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge, beginning at 7pm at Pannasastra University on Street 370 in BKK1. Oh, and last Friday I spent all day at an eco-tourism workshop, under the CCBEN umbrella, which I'll also tell you more about in a post this week. It's a hectic schedule, but fun.
News-wise, for the view of the well-respected researcher Sara Colm, on the current Khmer Rouge Tribunal, click here. Colm is from the United States and currently works in Cambodia for Human Rights Watch. She graduated in psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1979. Her post-graduate work at Cornell University included Southeast Asian studies and the Khmer language. She also speaks Mandarin and French. In 1992, she moved to Cambodia and helped launch The Phnom Penh Post, the first English-language newspaper published in Cambodia in 20 years. She served as managing editor, wrote stories and oversaw all aspects of newspaper production. Subsequently she worked for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cambodia as an information officer and human rights monitor during the 1993 electoral campaign.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Wats west of Phnom Penh

Kumtoung, the head monk of Wat Tang Krasang Cheung inspects a chedi inscription
Yes that's right, I went visiting a series of Wats west of Phnom Penh earlier today, making use of my Ministry of Culture/EFEO map of Kandal province to see what I could unearth fairly close to home. On the way towards Pochentong, I called into Wat Toek Thla, the first of eight pagodas on my brief jaunt. I couldn't find much except a disused Lao-style pagoda in the shadow of the large ornate modern vihara, so moved on quickly, leaving the main road and heading out into the dusty countryside for my next stop, at Wat Tang Krasang Cheung, situated next to another wat, Tang Krasang Thbong. The head monk, Kumtoung, led me around the back of a series of private stupas to show me at least half a dozen brick stupas, festooned with weeds and undergrowth, and some with a concrete covering and outlined an inscription that said the chedi were built in 1280, though some of them looked like they'd been rebuilt since then. We sat and had a drink of tea as I gave him a few copies of the book I am handing out to monks and teachers that I meet on my travels, Buddhist Ethics in Daily Life. He pointed me in the direction of an old tree and small Neak Ta spirit house at Tuol Prei Sala and after that I headed along the railway line towards Wat Krang Thnong.
The pedestal that I expected to find was too well hidden for my beady eyes, so I moved onto Wat Chum, which was much more generous in its offerings. Sat under one of the pagoda's old trees was half of a lintel, most likely carved in the Sambor Prei Kuk era, that had been white-washed. Inside a Neak Ta spirit house, most of the other half of the lintel resided. Nearby were two sandstone pedestals but nothing else, despite an exhaustive search of the grounds of the pagoda. In the next village, Wat Chhouk Va hosted a light picnic after I stopped to buy some cooked-on-the-spot sausage, beef and vegetables, as well as a pedestal inside a stupa and some old-looking chedis. Passing the Royal Phnom Penh golf course, Wat Tekkhabanhor beckoned, but apart from some seima stones from the year of the pagoda's construction, 1953, and a very friendly head monk, Ham Sovann, there was nothing else of note. At Wat Arun Vatei I found a small fragment from a lintel lying in the grass near the vihara and at Wat Kok Banhchan, some laterite blocks looked promising but aside from watching some monks putting their backs into some manual labour, my search for further treasures proved fruitless and I headed for home. I was never further than about 25 kms from the city and whilst i didn't unearth any major discoveries, its was a pleasant Sunday afternoon diversion along rural roads that see virtually no foreigners whatsoever.
A Lao-style pagoda at Wat Toek Thla

One of the brick-built stupas at Wat Tang Krasang Cheung, dating from 1280

The white-washed Sambor Prei Kuk era lintel at Wat Chum

Two young monks putting their backs into moving a statue at Wat Kok Banhchan

Saturday, March 1, 2008

More old and more new at Nokor

The eastern doorway at Wat Nokor
The fusion of ancient and modern at Wat Nokor, a large temple complex just outside Kompong Cham city, brings colour to Jayavarman VII's construction in the form of brightly painted designs and narrative scenes throughout the open-sided vihara of the modern pagoda. The main altar is also the eastern doorway of the 13th century temple's central sanctuary.The lintel and pediment above the doorway have been plastered, painted and covered with gold leaf over time. Its represents Buddha's enlightenment with various monsters and soldiers also shown but I've always found it incredibly difficult to photograph well, due to the lack of clarity of the carving itself and also because the temple is in constant use and I feel uncomfortable taking pictures during worship. Much of the carving dates from the early 16th century when the temple's iconography was remodelled.

(Top) The colourful scene inside the vihara at Wat Nokor; (bottom) a spirit house located inside the vihara

On the bookshelves

I paid another visit to Monument Books this afternoon which is often a risky thing to do, as I always end up spending far too much money on books. This time it was John D Ciorciari's The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the Night of the Khmer Rouge exhibition book, Khamboly Dy's History of Democratic Kampuchea and Milton Osborne's Before Kampuchea. I was looking for the Reyum book on Wat Painting but didn't see it, so I couldn't leave empty-handed could I? In the spirit of keeping you updated on recent or forthcoming book releases involving Cambodia, I spotted one hardcover book, The Armies of Angkor - Military Structure & Weaponry of the Khmers on the shelves. Released only last month, its 200 pages will be of great interest to war and weapons fans. It's published by Orchid Press and written by Michel Jacq-Herqoualc'h. Another new book, from January, is Stefano Vecchia's The Khmer: History & Treasures of an Ancient Civilization. The editor of the magazine Popoli, Vecchia traces the history and artistic efforts of the Khmers from the 8th to the 15th century, in 208 pages and published by White Star in English and Italian.
Three books I missed at the back-end of last year include Where the Stone Flowers - The People of Angkor by Thanakvaro De Lopez. A Khmer scholar studies the social, economic and environmental aspects of present-day Angkorians. 218 pages, by Blue Reamker Productions and published last September. Tim Winter's Post Conflict Heritage, Post Colonial Tourism: Tourism, Politics and Development at Angkor is from the Routledge stable and has been around since December. The award for the book with the longest title, ever, goes to the Story of a Khmer Rouge Holocaust Survivor & the Creation of the Kosol Ouch/David Lowrance Rain Maker Device. I kid you not! 204 pages from e-booktime publishers, in paperback and in e-book form, its the survival story of Rattana Keo Phuong, co-authored with Kosol Ouch, David Lowrance and David Dawson.

Old and new at Wat Nokor

The colourful modern wat is built around the sandstone porch facing east of the prasat's vihara
An inscription stone inside the pagoda providing important details about its construction
The integration of the ancient 13th century prasat and the modern pagoda is one of the things that visitors find so appealing at Wat Nokor, located on the outskirts of Kompong Cham city. In fact the temple compound has undergone a series of changes through the centuries since it was built by King Jayavarman VII in his reign which was notable for its construction projects and often regarded as the zenith of the Angkor empire. Wat Nokor was also known as Phnom Bachey, though I'm not sure why as its not on a hill. Following its construction in the early 13th century, the temple was altered in the 16th century with the main sanctuary remodelled into a stupa before further additions were made in more modern times. Lay-persons sit in the main vihara to provide fortune-telling or spiritual support if required. More photos to follow.

South coast developments

Two more of the islands off the Cambodian coast at Sihanoukville have been turned over to developers, bringing the total number of leased islands to eleven. Kith Meng's Royal Group - he happens to be the president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce - have got the biggest of the islands, Koh Rung, which has a 8km white sandy beach that I had the pleasure of enjoying in November, whilst a large part of Koh Russei has been leased to a group bearing the same name. Both developers have 99-year leases and are talking eco-tourism in their press statements, though I personally hope they don't follow the lead of the swanky Russian-owned hotel that dominates the tiny island of Koh Dek Koul, or Tracy Island as I nicknamed it.
Forced evictions are the regular headlines in the local media here almost every day and Sihanoukville is having its fair share with evictions at Ochheuteal, Independence and Otres beaches in recent months. Mysterious fires have destroyed some of the property and by coincidence of course, remains an effective way of getting people out of their homes or businesses.
I don't have the full facts about the re-opening of the road to the top of Bokor Mountain yet but my spies tell me that the National Park rangers have been co-opted into the scheme and will take passengers up the new road to the summit about three times each day, for a price in excess of $70 per car. The road is still some way from being finished so visitors are being limited and no private car or motorbike is being allowed on the road. Businesses in Kampot have already experienced a decline in their through the door traffic with the closure of Bokor and just as the town was becoming a regular on the itinerary of many travellers, it could find itself amongst the 'also-rans' again. I hope not, as I have a soft spot for the town. Find out more about Kampot here.

Blast from the past

Okay guys, let's pose for the camera. Actor Ben Nealon is in the dark blue overall.
In clearing out a cupboard in the office today, I came across a cd of photos taken from a television dramatised documentary that Hanuman Films completed in July 2005. In 1993 ex-soldier and landmine specialist Chris Moon was working with HALO Trust in Cambodia and was kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge whilst de-mining in a remote area. The story of his kidnap, survival and eventual release was told in Channel 4 documentary, Kidnapped in the Killing Fields, shown on British television in September 2006 as part of the Alive series. Actors re-enacted the scenes (pictured above), which bear a remarkable similarity to the abduction of de-miner Christopher Howes just three years later. Unfortunately for Howes, the result was not the same. For this reconstruction, Chris Moon himself providing most of the commentary. Hanuman's role was to act as location management and as fixers, with Kulikar and Nick Ray enabling the filming to take place in July 2005 and lasting about two weeks. The location for the filming was the village of Tahan on Phnom Kulen, which was used to replicate the Khmer Rouge stronghold that Moon and his interpreter and driver were taken to and held captive for three days. Playing the part of Moon was actor Ben Nealon with Khmer actors Nght Kak, Pich Kov, Vanm Pheng and Duch Sarry playing key supporting roles. The film director was Paul Wilmshurst. Link: hanumanfilms.