Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not everything is rosy

If you get the picture that Cambodia is an idyllic peaceful country existing in the bright green paddy-fields of Indochina, then think again. Shit happens, everyday. Last week my good friend Georgie was robbed for the third time in six months. This was the second robbery within her own home. They took everything of value, while she slept. Georgie works her butt off doing two teaching jobs, raising funds for a local orphanage and is a lovely person to boot, she doesn't deserve such cruel misfortune. She's not alone, robberies are on the increase here as the thieves target foreigners, including me, who they know will have phones, cameras, laptops, credit cards, cash and so on, either at home or on their person.
The traffic chaos on the city's streets was brought home to me on Saturday. As we left Phnom Penh on our way to Battambang, the traffic slowed to a crawl as we passed by a tragic scene in the middle of the road. A young woman on her moto had moments before been struck by a petrol tanker and her limp body was being held by a distraught friend who was shrieking loudly, as everyone stood by and stared. No-one lent a hand including the policemen at the roadside who didn't flinch, even though the dead woman's brains were splayed all over the road. The traffic laws, such as they are, are ignored by everyone. It really is every man for himself.
It was only a month ago that a member of the Hanuman staff, our office runner Mao, went to sleep and never woke up again. His parents found him the next morning. No post-mortems in Cambodia so I still don't know what happened to him. To me he looked like any normal healthy 26 year old. He was a nice, friendly guy. We all miss him. Shit happens, everyday.

On the run

Banteay Chhmar is worth a few hours of anyone's time, so my sprint around the site for my 1-hour visit was far from satisfactory. I've been there before and I will return again for a much more leisurely visit in the future, but at least this whistle-stop tour gave my work colleagues at Hanuman a taster for what this dramatic temple can offer visitors. I'll talk in more detail about the iconography to be found at Banteay Chhmar in another post, for now, here's a few photos that show the range of reliefs, carvings and of course the incomparable face-towers to be seen at the 12th century temple site in northwest Cambodia.
This dramatic scene in the eastern pavilion at Banteay Chhmar shows the slaying of Shishupala by Krishna who was annoyed at the behaviour and insults of the king of the Chedis and cut off his head with a sword (on the right of the photo). On the left a rishi plays a harp, another holds a child in his lap and a third is in the usual cross-legged position. The whole carving is in imminent danger of collapse and is held in place with wooden supports. As a whole, the temple has suffered badly in terms of collapse and much of the site lies in ruins.
The outer gallery of Banteay Chhmar is covered in bas reliefs showing a mix of historic events with religious and mythological scenes. Much of the carving shows the victorious battle between Jayavarman VII and his enemies, the Chams. It also includes the renowned reliefs of the multi-armed Lokiteshvaras. In the picture above, from the southern gallery, the severed heads of two enemy leaders are being held aloft and presented as war trophies to the victors. Unfortunately much of the outer gallery has collapsed and a lot of work needs to be done to piece this jigsaw back together again.
Banteay Chhmar is also famous for its giant faces. There are quite a few face towers still in situ, with more at satellite temples nearby that are often overlooked by visitors. However, its precarious state was clearly highlighted when one of its face towers collapsed in 2004. Above is one of the remaining face towers within the main complex.

Weekend accommodation

The Golden Palace from the Yu Vann park in Battambang
A quick note on my weekend accommodation over two nights in Battambang and Siem Reap. Above is the Golden Palace Hotel in Battambang, a fifty room hotel built in 2006 and one of the most comfortable places I've stayed at in the provinces. Everything worked and the place was very clean. Internet rate is around $18 which includes breakfast and free internet in the room. I've usually stayed at the TEO Hotel in Battambang and that's cheaper but the Golden Palace is worth a look if you aren't on a tight budget. The Yu Vann park in front of the hotel contains a Hanuman statue with a mermaid, so it was a fitting place to stay for the Hanuman team!
In Siem Reap, I went for a slice of luxury and took up an offer from the folks at Le Meridien Angkor Hotel, the 5-star resort complex on the road to Angkor. Very nice indeed. In the $200+ price range, its furnished in a modern style and has everything you could ask for at that level of comfort and class. 200+ rooms, unusual pool layout and excellent quality breakfasts, I arrived late at 9pm and departed at 7am the next morning, so it was a short but very sweet stay.
The Romanesque-style pool area at Le Meridien Angkor, Siem Reap

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

All aboard the Norry

Preparing to depart at O Sralau
Train travel in Cambodia is slow and incredibly uncomfortable. I'm pretty sure that passenger services have been officially postponed though they still happen but they're 'not official'. Instead, in various spots around the country where you find a railway line, you can find a 'norry' or bamboo train, which as you can see from these photos are a wooden platform on metal wheels that are powered by a small electric motor. Our party of 28 climbed aboard five norries for our bamboo train experience just outside of Battambang. The locals use them for transporting themselves and their goods to market, the tourists use them for a slice of local life and for fun. We were the latter. We drove out to O Sralau to catch our norries and an hour later after six kilometres of bumpy track we got off again at O Dambong. Thankfully the cushions provided absorbed some of the bumps but we also had to dismount and disassemble the norries halfway through the ride to await the 7am train from Battambang to Phnom Penh to pass, agonisingly slowly, before we could continue. I'd been on a norry a few times before but for my Khmer work colleagues it was a new and exciting experience and they loved it.
Yours truly and a less than excited Thoeun in the red & white hoops
The norry is disassembled before the 7am from Battambang arrives
Here is the 7am Battambang to Phnom Penh 'special' consisting of 3 goods wagons
The Phnom Penh 'special' also contained two passenger carriages that were in pretty poor shape
Having fun on the norry Khmer-style
The 'norry station' at O Dambong is also a timber yard

Som Leng round-up

Here's a few titbits that can be found in the latest edition of Som Leng, the Hanuman Tourism newsletter published last week.

Inflation in Asia Hits New Highs:
As you know, the global economy faces an uncertain future and it is beginning to impact on the Southeast Asian economy. Food prices are rising particularly fast and already there have been 25% increases in the first quarter of 2008 alone. Rice has tripled in price in a short space of time and other basics are increasing at an alarming rate. Fuel is also rising fast and is now three times the price of five years ago. Hotel rates are also beginning to rise, reflecting higher costs in the region. As a business we have a responsibility to match these new realities with higher wages and our wage bill continues to rise rapidly, far outstripping the wage increases in the West. This is creating many hardships for local people in this region. As a leading travel company in the region, it is also creating a number of headaches for us, but we are trying our best to absorb these costs and not pass them on to our partners.

Srepok Wilderness Area in Mondulkiri:
Isolated and remote, the Srepok Wilderness Area retains much of its rich biodiversity, ranging from crocodiles and exotic fish in the Srepok River to large cats and wild cattle roaming the surrounding plains. Once described as the Serengeti of Asia, its pristine isolation is currently threatened by commercial logging, land grab and the illegal trade in wildlife. To counteract those threats, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is developing an ecotourism venture that’s geared towards conserving the environment and generating benefits from the river and its forest for the local villagers. WWF’s plans include an ecolodge nestled alongside the Srepok River, bird-watching, river-fishing, cycle tours and safaris into the forest with the Park Rangers. This is another project at an embryonic stage in its development and we will keep you appraised of on-going developments. The Srepok Wilderness Area is at the centre of the much greater expanse of the Lower Mekong Dry Forest Ecoregion, one of 200 large landscapes identified by WWF as being of global importance.

Access to Bokor Mountain:
The road to Bokor Mountain on the South Coast is open again. Expected to be closed for a long period, the Sokha Group who are renovating the road and the buildings at the summit of the mountain have re-opened it ahead of schedule to allow limited use of the road for tourist traffic. So we’re pleased to report, Bokor Mountain is back on our itineraries and open to the public.

PS. In addition, if you are visiting Tuol Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge interrogation center also known as S-21,
a new exhibition prepared by the DC-Cam museum team called 'Reflections: Democratic Kampuchea and Beyond' opened up in mid April. The exhibition, which will be housed in three buildings, aims to take museum visitors on an historical-visual journey starting on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and ending in the present day. The exhibition features photographs taken from the DC-Cam archives and showcases excerpts from its previous publications History of Democratic Kampuchea, Stilled Lives, Vanished, Victims and Perpetrators, and the Night of theKhmer Rouge. The visual documents placed upon the walls give insight into life during Democratic Kampuchea; the torture, execution, and killing in the prison systems; the finding and excavation of countless mass graves; the various ways Cambodians have sought to remember and memorialize the victims; and the ongoing process of and search for justice.

Birding - the winged variety

From the Hanuman Tourism newsletter Som Leng, a look at birding in Cambodia.

World-class birding destinations in Cambodia

Cambodia is world renowned for its temples and gaining recognition for its laid-back colonial-era cities, its blissful beaches and its remote areas of outstanding natural beauty. However, what is less well known is its incredible birdlife, including many of the world's largest water birds. Many people have heard of Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary near the Tonle Sap Lake, but this is not the only place to see endangered birdlife around Siem Reap. It is possible to witness some of Cambodia's rarest birdlife at close quarters on pioneering ecotours that are working with the community to protect the species.

Large groups of Sarus Crane are found in Ang Trapeng Thmor in Banteay Meanchey during the dry season. This tall bird has a vivid crimson head and is depicted on bas-reliefs at the Bayon. The site also provides a habitat for other birdlife, including 18 endangered species. Due to road improvements from Siem Reap, about 100km away, it is now a straightforward day trip and arguably easier to access than Prek Toal. This is a must for all bird enthusiasts. The Giant Ibis has attained near-mythical status for birdwatchers thanks to its rarity. It is found in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary near Tmatboey village in Preah Vihear Province. This location is also famous as the only nesting site in Asia for the White-shouldered Ibis. It is possible to undertake a challenging 4WD adventure into this area to see these rare birds and assist the local community in their struggle to protect these birds. This can also be combined with a Temple Safari tour to the remote temples of Preah Vihear.

Hanuman is also proud to work with Osmose promoting eco-tours to the Prek Toal Biosphere, one of the premier birdwatching sites in Southeast Asia. Prek Toal is home to breeding colonies of large water birds now extinct elsewhere in the region and is a pristine flooded forest environment. Some of the more accessible birds include lesser and greater adjutants, spot-billed pelicans and milky storks. These incredible birds have huge wing spans and construct large nests in the trees of the flooded forest. The Prek Toal Biosphere is about two hours from Siem Reap by a combination of road and boat. Osmose is a non-profit NGO working in conservation, environmental education and sustainable development. The Osmose eco-tourism project offers alternative livelihoods to the local communities through opportunities in guiding, paddling, providing food and accommodation and the sales of water hyacinth handicrafts. Link: Hanuman

Mekong Discovery

I highlighted the new Mekong River Discovery Trail a few weeks ago in this blog, but here's our take on it for the Hanuman Tourism newsletter Som Leng, which was published last week.

Mekong Discovery Trail

The mighty Mekong River cuts through the heart of Cambodia and the upper stretches around Kratie and Stung Treng are home to some of the world's rarest river dolphins. Many of our trips already include a visit to view these shy creatures at Kampi pool near Kratie, but now Hanuman has joined forces with the Mekong Tourism Development Project and the Ministry of Tourism to help promote the Mekong Discovery Trail.

Stretching from Kratie to the Lao border at Voen Kham, the trail is a community-based ecotourism project to introduce visitors to life and culture along one of the most wild and beautiful parts of the Mekong River. Highlights along the trail include: mountain biking around the peaceful island of Koh Trong opposite Kratie, home to friendly fruit farmers and a small Vietnamese floating village; the 100 pillar pagoda of Sambor, the largest temple in Cambodia, where it is possible to spend the night learning more about Buddhism or watch a traditional village show; kayaking through protected wetlands that are home to rare bird species; the chance to take a dip in secluded waterfalls or gentle stretches of the mother river; a homestay in the traditional village of O Svay; and boat trips through flooded forest with a picnic on a remote stretch of sand.

Some of the activities are already available, including cycling around Kratie and along the riverbank (using our own Trek mountain bikes for now), the pagoda stay at Wat Sor Sor Moi Roi, homestays at O Svay; and boat trips along scenic stretches of the river. We will introduce some of the most interesting elements into some new tour options such as Pakse to Phnom Penh or overland trips to Ratanakiri. Please be aware that this trail is still in its infancy, so facilities are basic, but for those that want a real Cambodian experience that brings them closer to life on the river and the wonderful Khmer people, then this is a unique opportunity. A homestay in O Svay may not be for everyone, but it is perhaps more interesting than staying in a bland hotel in Stung Treng. It is also possible to view river dolphins at O Svay, which gather in pools near the Lao border. Sitting on a sandbar, sipping a cold drink, watching rare dolphins glide past, is a memorable experience indeed.

Although not officially part of the trail, Hanuman is also able to offer trips that include stretches of the river to the south of Kratie towards Kompong Cham. Attractions here include: the port of Chhlong, one of the best preserved colonial-era towns in the Cambodia; Wat Roka Kandal, one of the oldest pagodas in the country, located on the edge of Kratie; the pre-Angkorian hilltop temple of Wat Hanchey, with impressive views of the Mekong; and Wat Mohaleap, one of the oldest surviving wooden temples in Cambodia. Some of our senior team recently travelled the trail and will be devising some new community-based tour options to promote sections of the Mekong Discovery Trail ready for Autumn 2008. Link: Hanuman

Som Leng & The Cardamoms

Hanuman Tourism's latest quarterly newsletter, Som Leng, was published on Friday. To keep you up to date with what's happening, I'll post a few of the stories from the newsletter, which was a special edition dedicated to ecotourism and community-based tourism in Cambodia, which is slowly but steadily taking off. Here's a look at the Cardamom Mountains for starters.

Opening Up the Cardamoms

The fabled Cardamom Mountains have been described as Asia's last great wilderness, a vast area of jungle-clad peaks rolling across Southwest Cambodia. Much of this area has been considered off-limits for a long time due to a combination of land mines, illegal logging and poaching, but as conservation organisations gain control of more areas, new ecotourism initiatives are under development. The remote peaks and isolated river valleys are home to almost 60 globally threatened animal species and more than 100 species of endemic plants. It is one of two places in the Mekong region where unbroken forest connects mountain summits to the sea and is currently under consideration as a World Heritage Site. Hanuman is working closely with these wildlife and environmental organisations to help them promote their new products to a wider audience.

Wildlife Alliance (formerly Wildaid) has a pilot community-based ecotourism project underway in the Chipat area of the southern Cardamoms. Plans include village homestays in Chipat, boat trips along pristine stretches of river, treks through the unique rainforest environment, cycling routes through the forest, and animal hides near freshwater ponds in the jungle. Wildlife Alliance is working with an educational NGO called Live and Learn to arrange specialised mountain biking tours that will help support education projects in the southern Cardamoms. Future initiatives include a canopy walk to view gibbons and monkeys in their natural environment and a wildlife rescue and release centre.

This is another project in its infancy, but we will be travelling to Chipat in May to take a look at what is available and help advise them on how to move things forward. Hanuman will be offering a new range of ecotourism adventures around Chipat, combining boating or kayaking, biking, trekking and wildlife viewing. Short day trips will be possible for visitors entering or exiting Cambodia via Koh Kong and longer multi-day trips for those who really want to see this great wilderness. In time there are plans to offer challenging treks across the Cardamoms to link up with the Conservation International project in the Areng Valley (see below). Hanuman will also be able to use its comfortable 'Temple Safari' tents at designated camp sites under development and near the animal hides, in return for contributing to the community fund.

Chipat lies about four to five hours from Phnom Penh or just three hours from Sihanoukville and Koh Kong and is accessible via National Road 48 which crosses the Cardamoms from Sre Ambel to Koh Kong. Access is via a dirt road (bumpy) or a scenic river trip from Andong Teuk. As part of next month's trip through the Cardamoms and along the remote South Coast, we will also be looking at remote beaches and islands to offer a combination wilderness and beach experience for those wanting something truly unique. See the Cardamoms, one of the most pristine environments in the region, before enjoying private tropical beaches on remote stretches of coastline.

Further west in the Cardamoms, Conservation International is encouraging ecotourism activities in the Areng Valley. A remote and beautiful valley, this river is home to the rare Dragonfish, one of the most sought after species in the region, and the only population of wild Siamese crocodiles left in the world. It is possible to stay at a new guesthouse in Thmar Bang and try treks and boat trips in the area. However, sadly this area is also under threat from development and during our exploratory visit last March, we saw Chinese dam workers measuring up the river. We will be revisiting the area as part of the May trip and will assess the potential for our guests.

Other areas just beginning to take off in this region include: Botum Sakor National Park, occupying a headland jutting into the South China Sea that is ringed by pristine beaches, and is home to forest elephants; Peam Krasoap Wildlife Sanctuary, a unique maze of mangrove swamps that shelter rare birdlife and some incredible stilted fishing villages that perch above the sea; Koh Kong Island, the largest in Cambodia and ringed by stunning sandy beaches with not a beach hut in sight; and Tatai Waterfall, a scenic spot in the Cardamoms with a new ecolodge, located 22km from Koh Kong.

All these and more will feature in our new 'Cardamoms and Coast' discovery tours that are currently under development for later this year. For those that thought of Cambodia as an add-on destination to Thailand or Vietnam, it may be time to think again.

Unguarded moments

Anyone got the instructions for this camera? Incompetent photographer on Phnom Banan
Some of my favourite photos are when you get snapped and you're not expecting it. Here's a couple of photos by one of my colleagues, Thoeun, from our weekend trip to the northwest of Cambodia. In the top picture, I'm struggling to work out how to use someone's digital camera - my excuse is that I'm still new to this digital game - surrounded by the small army of guides that accompanied our party on our visit to Phnom Banan, just outside Battambang. In the photo below, I'm stuffing my face at our picnic inside the temple walls of Banteay Chhmar, whilst Roth next to me favours sign language rather than the food.
I'm snapped in an unguarded moment of stuffing my face with food at Banteay Chhmar

Cambodia's children

My personal guides at Phnom Banan just outside Battambang were Srey Na and Tola
Wherever you are, the children of Cambodia will be close by. It's a country where the largest sector of the population is of school age. That's if they're lucky enough to go to school. Many don't. Some of the children in these photos don't attend school, some go for a couple of hours each day, if their parents can afford it. It's a fact of life here, unlike the easy access to schooling that we take for granted living in the West. Whether at school or not, the smiles and laughter are never far away either and that's the sound that will linger long in my memory from my weekend excursion to Battambang, Banteay Chhmar and Siem Reap. Here's a few of the children I met along the way.
These mini-guides at Phnom Sampeau get some hand-sign training from my colleague Kimhean
These youngsters accompanied our 'norry' bamboo train ride just outside Battambang
Srey Nich and Srey Noch at Banteay Chhmar that did a great job in collecting bottles and cans as well as leaping across the ruins with a small fan in hand to cool me down

Last breakfast in Cambodia

Cambodians and other Theravada Buddhists celebrate their New Year in mid-April. They were not always able to do so. Under Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese rule, those ancient traditions were forbidden, impossible. But now Cambodia is free again and the festivities are in the open. As I wander the country of my youth, I see people spending the long holiday praying at temples and visiting relatives.

And I remember. My family used to hold a reunion on April 13 to mark both the New Year and my mother’s birthday. In 1975, we had no idea that it would be our last. We were all apprehensive about the future, and my mother was distraught because I had missed the American evacuation. The day before, an officer of the United States Agency for International Development had told me that I had to be at the embassy within an hour if I wanted to be airlifted out of Cambodia. (I was a manager for the American relief agency CARE and had been selected for the evacuation.) Instead, I went to a meeting to find a way to help 3,000 families stranded in an isolated province.“Maybe I can make the meeting and get to the embassy in time,” I thought.

But as I returned to Phnom Penh, the traffic became heavily congested. Thousands of people on ox carts and overloaded bicycles were making their way to the capital to seek shelter and safety. When I finally reached the American Embassy and gave my name to the security officer, he looked puzzled. “They are not coming back — they are gone!” The guard shouted his answer to emphasize the hard truth. And he added: “The war is over. We will have peace!” Speechless, I went to the riverbank and looked at the horizon to see if I could spot the helicopters. The sky was blue and cloudless. I saw nothing. Years later, I learned that I had been looking in the wrong direction. The helicopters had flown westward toward the Gulf of Thailand. And I was looking east. I was 30 minutes late. My life was going to change forever.

Everyone in the city was in a very somber mood. We prayed that our beloved country would return to the peaceful and stable life of the 1960s. What would happen to us now that the United States had closed its embassy? Two days earlier, President Gerald Ford had announced: “The situation in South Vietnam and Cambodia has reached a critical phase requiring immediate and positive decisions by this government. The options before us are few, and the time is very short.” Five days later, on April 17, I stopped at a street-side restaurant to have a bowl of Phnom Penh noodles. A waiter took my order in Khmer and shouted in Cantonese loudly enough to be heard all the way to the kitchen: “One bowl of Kuytiev Phnom Penh, no MSG, no fat, blanched bean sprouts, hot tea for the skinny guy with glasses, white shirt, dark pants, table 13!” A different waiter brought my noodles in less than three minutes. Not once had they got the order wrong. It was going to be my last proper breakfast in Cambodia.

I had read gruesome descriptions of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge against enemies of their revolution: babies thrown into the air and caught with a bayonet, children smashed into trees, villagers having their throats cut with the thorns of palm branches, merchants clubbed to death with the back of a hoe. I did not believe them. The street was lined with city residents, a few still wearing the kramas and sarongs they had slept in. One was brushing his teeth. But all were looking north, waiting for something. They looked fearful. I spent all day in a temporary emergency room in the Hotel Le Royal doing what I could to help. I came out for fresh air and saw the Khmer Rouge being welcomed. People seemed genuinely happy that the war had ended.

Later that day, the first day of “peace,” I and 15 of my family members left our home after the Khmer Rouge had ordered all cities immediately emptied, and walked to Pochentong, the village where my siblings and I were born. Our house was occupied by strangers, so we went to the temple. The monks were already gone and there were bodies lying around. Mother was sobbing. The women and girls in our family were choking back tears. The boys and men were all silent. Shortly thereafter, I was separated from my family by the Khmer Rouge. After a year in slave labor camps, where I survived two death sentences, I escaped to Thailand. Following a few months in a Thai jail, in a Buddhist temple and in a refugee camp, I arrived in Wallingford, Conn., with $2 in my pocket. I later learned I was the only survivor in my close family. The Khmer Rouge had killed everyone else.

Cambodia today is not unlike the Cambodia of my youth — there is deep poverty and enormous wealth, side-by-side. There is unrest beneath the surface, the unrest that helped to make the horrors of the last century possible. And so, as I walk from one memory-filled place to another, I pray for a new year in which Cambodia’s leaders will find a way to bring about peace and stability. And, of course, I pray for my family. Article courtesy of The New York Times.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Group travel - not my thing

Hanuman group photo at Phnom Banan. Can you spot the only foreigner amongst this group of Khmers?
I'm back folks. Group touring isn't really what I enjoy and this trip did nothing to dispel that long-held view. I really prefer to 'do my own thing' when travelling in Cambodia and this trip to Battambang, Banteay Chhmar and Siem Reap added more weight to that preference. I'm a stickler for time-keeping and making the most of my daylight hours so touring with a group of 27 Khmers, and young ones at that, doesn't really suit that mind-set and that was again much in evidence on this trip. However, it was a great success from the point of view that practically none of the group had previously visited the places we saw on our travels and the whole idea behind this FAM trip was to introduce them to tourist attractions that they can feel comfortable in recommending to our clients, having seen and experienced the sight for themselves. And they loved it. And for me, revisiting Battambang and Banteay Chhmar at any time is a great idea. I've always enjoyed the vibe I get when I'm in the second city and Banteay Chhmar remains one of my favourite temples, even though our visit was a whistle-stop one in the truest sense of the word. More later.
Having just ran around Banteay Chhmar, I was hot and sweaty for this pose next to the 32-arm Lokiteshvara on the northern wall of the temple

Friday, April 25, 2008

Gone but not forgotten

Over the next three days, this blog will be pretty quiet. I'm on my travels again and will be in Battambang, Banteay Chhmar and Siem Reap until late Monday. It's a work's outing with about thirty colleagues, of which I'm the de facto team leader. God help me. Obviously I'll have a few things to report when I get back but in the meantime, enjoy the break and here's a group of friendly Battambang residents I met on one of my previous trips to the city, one of my favourite places in Cambodia, in December 2000.

Looking over the fence

Today's Bangkok Post takes a look at the Cambodia film industry.

Moving Images
- by Kong Rithdee
Cambodia's film industry may be modest, but it has real heritage and an important role documenting the travails of this most turbulent of countries

Cinema Lux sits at a busy street corner in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. A blocky, modernist structure built in the late 1930s French colonial era, it is now the last functioning movie house in the country. Its huge sign is filled with Cambodian script - so similar to Thai - touting films currently screening. Billboards show a barking, kicking transvestite in a garish Chinese costume and high heels promoting the Thai film Tat Soo Fut, or Kung Fu Tootsie, a gay action-comedy-parody and a mild hit when it opened in Thailand last year. On the wall, posters of other Siamese imports like the horror flick Fadd, or Alone, and the boxing film Chaiya work up the local appetite for upcoming features. Tickets cost the equivalent of 32 baht and the earliest screening is at 9am. The dialogue is Khmer-dubbed and, surprisingly, the projection is 35mm print, not DVD, as I had suspected. A few blocks further on, a cinema from the late 50s has been retooled into a kitschy entertainment complex. (It had opened with the Brigitte Bardot-starring And God Created Woman.) Nearby, another former picture palace sits empty, crumbling in a state of sad dysfunction. Nowadays, Cambodians watch their movies on VCD; Thai, Chinese and local films that are specifically made for the medium.

That stands in sharp contrast with activity on the arthouse front. The films of Paris-educated director Rithy Panh, one of the most respected Khmer filmmakers at work today, have played at the Cannes Film Festival, and his latest effort looks likely to premiere at another prestigious cinefest in Venice. The film is called Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, or The Sea Wall, and stars European arthouse veteran Isabelle Huppert as a struggling French mother in mid 20th century Vietnam. Rithy, who found his way to Paris after his family was persecuted by the Khmer Rouge, adapted the script from the novel by Marguerite Duras, the towering figure of French intellectualism in the 1970s.

Maybe it helps to appreciate a country by looking at its movies, or at what its people watch on screen. Or at least that's what I was trying to do on my recent trip to Phnom Penh. In the case of Cambodia, a glimpse of its complex transitions from the colonial period to the Pol Pot nightmare, and even from the current state of peace to the promise of future prosperity, is possible, to an extent, through the movies made by and about Cambodians. The awkward need to confront tragic chapters of history, to look back not in anger, can also be registered as there are now attempts to reconnect the present generation of Cambodians to the country's audio-visual heritage. Visitors to Phnom Penh will read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that one of the causes of the country's political instability in the 1960s was King-Father Norodom Sihanouk's passion for filmmaking, which distracted him from running the state. Though not entirely inaccurate, the claim smacks of sensationalism and adds an air of cinematic myth to a country that once boasted the greatest civilisation in Southeast Asia.

Before looking at King Sihanouk's movies, however, we swung by a few other film-related "attractions". The Killing Fields of Cheung Ek entered the mainstream consciousness through the 1984 British film (shot mostly in Bangkok), and it remains a vast, sun-searing plain where the mass graves of 17,000 Khmer Rouge victims were buried. Despite the heat, visitors are likely to describe the encounter as "chilling" - certainly much more chilling than watching the film. Chances are that The Killing Fields once opened at Cinema Lux. (Imagine if someone had made a film about our own October 14 massacre and screened it at Scala a few years after the incident.)

Staring back into ugly history is not a favourite pastime in Thailand, and we may learn something from Cambodia. Much more chilling than the Killing Fields is the Tuol Sleng prisoner camp, better known as S-21, a macabre, barbed-wire compound of terror in downtown Phnom Penh where nearly 17,000 captives were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. The place has been transformed into a museum, and it is the subject of Rithy Panh's most famous documentary, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which premiered at Cannes in 2003. Rithy's film brings back an S-21 survivor to meet their former tormentors - who were only boys of 13 to 20 then - and the confrontation is both a form of provocation and a radical attempt to find a cure for the abiding aftermath of such a shocking atrocity.

Walking into the actual S-21 is like snooping around the set of a horror film. The place was originally a school, so the classrooms doubled perfectly as crude prison cells. The disturbing feeling is curdled from the fact that every simple, harmless object we see - a metal bed, an exercise bar, a jar of water, a closed room - was once an instrument of terror that carries the real weight of history, a fairly recent history to boot. Someone was actually chained to that bed, or someone was actually hung from that seemingly ordinary bar and dunked head-first into a jar of filthy water. This before they were shipped off to the Killing Fields. At the entrance of S-21 there's a DVD stall. Among the selections are pirate copies of television documentaries about the Pol Pot regime, and of course the Rithy Panh film. What caught my eyes, though, was a Thai film called Kampuchea, directed by Toranong Srichua in the mid 1980s. It's a Thai film with Thai actors, and tells the rather sensational story of a Cambodian girl who endures persecution from the Khmer Rouge. Again, it's highly possible that the movie once played at Cinema Lux.

Not all cinematic material in Phnom Penh is related to the villainy of the Red Khmer though. Cambodia has no film archive (though it has a national archive where documents from the colonial period and on through the Pol Pot years are preserved), and many of the films made before 1975 were destroyed when the city fell to the communist army. Then there was the controversy, that became public in the mid-90s, about the "missing films" - purportedly rolls of films made before the Khmer Rouge as well as Pol Pot propaganda movies, all considered valuable national heritage and audio-visual artefacts that disappeared from Cambodia's Ministry of Culture. Some archivists believe that the missing films might have ended up in Paris, though their location has not been determined to this day.

Films from the Pol Pot period are significant because they are a proof of history and a depiction of the ideology that brought about such catastrophe. And yet the films made before those years are not simply nostalgic treasures but a record of a different political and social era. Fortunately, we can view some of them in Phnom Penh right now. In December 2006, Rithy Panh won support from an array of French cultural institutes to set up a resource centre called Bophana, where visitors can access digital archives of Cambodia-related movies, documentaries, TV clips, propaganda films and King Norodom Sihanouk's feature films made in the 1960s. Bophana is funded largely by the Thompson Foundation; the centre has a French director, is run by both Cambodian and French staff, and offers free services to the public. From its database, which has largely been licensed from French television and film archives, we're able to watch clips of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh from 1899; the visit of general Charles de Gaulle in 1966; the Khmer Rouge propaganda films showing young Cambodians working in factories and fields and singing revolutionary songs; the return of Phrae Viharn to Cambodia after winning a case against Thailand in 1963, and more.

At least 18 works by King Norodom Sihanouk (father of the present King Sihamoni) are kept in the digital database. King Sihanouk directed both documentaries and fiction films, as well as penning scripts for other directors in the heyday of his filmmaking activities in the 1960s. At Bophana, I looked at his film Rose of Bokor, in which the king himself plays a a Japanese general who arrives to help liberate Cambodia from French rule (the movie also thanks Kim Il-sung of North Korea for support). In Crepescule, King Norodom plays a prince of Siem Reap who's tangled up in a three-way romance with a visiting Indian princess, played by HM Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, and a common nurse who takes care of him. And in the period piece Prachea Komar, the king directed his then-teenage son, the present HM King Sihamoni, who plays a young prince who rules his ancient sandstone kingdom with valour and justice.

All this represents the surprising riches of Cambodia's history of moving images, from the time of royal movies to the red-carpet receptions at Cannes Film Festival. At the same time, sloppy Thai comedies and VCD flicks still dominate the screens from Phnom Penh to Battambang. If a country is what its movies are, then Cambodia, still drowsy from its turbulent past, has much more to offer than glamorous colonial buildings and the overcrowded Angkor Wat.

A Woman of the Mekong

I would like to bring to your attention an article that appeared in a recent edition of The Soroptimist - SWP. It's the monthly magazine of Soroptimist International's South West Pacific branch for business and professional women who want to make a difference for women in the world. The organization has more than 100,000 members in 3,000 clubs in over 120 countries and territories. The article is about Sophoin (pictured right), a very good friend of mine in Phnom Penh who is being supported by SI with a contribution to her studies. I think they made the absolute right choice when they chose this strong-willed and intelligent young woman.

A Woman of the Mekong - by Lynn Ciurlionis & Helen Hutchins
Sordy Sophoin at 25 years is the youngest of a family of five born in Kompong Cham, Cambodia. Through determination she completed high school and in 2001 worked as a receptionist at the English School. Part of her remuneration was free English classes. In 2002 she moved to Phnom Penh to live with her older sister who supported her in studying English and a short course in marketing. After a short time in an advertising agency, Sophoin secured a job as a medical representative with Glenmark Pharmaceuticals Ltd. She is proud that she secured this position without prior experience in the industry. On her own initiative she requested the company employ her but if she did not perform they did not have to retain her. In this position, she works for a minimum of seven hours for six days a week and attends the National Management University for six evenings to obtain her degree in management (marketing).

Her salary of US$150 per month is stretched to cover her rent, utilities, studies and support extended family including expensive medical care for her sick father. SI members met Sophoin last year when the Hands Across Borders team was working in Phnom Penh. She impressed us as a woman who had overcome the prejudices of Cambodian society and had set goals to attain an education for herself and her family. Parents there need to value the girl child for more than economic dependency. To us she embodied the ideals of Soroptimism. To help her achieve her educational goals the committee of SI Cambodia, which has been recognised as an NGO, has bestowed its first Performance Award to enable her to continue with her studies in 2008-2009.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A convenient blind eye

The last thing I want to see or hear about is parts of Cambodia's heritage leaving the country. It should be here and accessible to all. Cambodia has an amazing cultural heritage and should show it off proudly to its own citizens and to international visitors. If that means developing a series of large museums in the capital and Siem Reap with the best quality items and smaller museums in each of the provinces with a secondary category of items, then I implore the Cambodian government to make it happen. When I see Cambodian items reaching world record levels in sales at Sotheby's or wherever, as I recently reported, my blood boils. In surfing such matters, I came across this article by Jos Van Beurden from The Netherlands in 2006, which I repeat here to highlight the blind eye that some museum curators and dealers around the globe will develop when items of Khmer heritage come before them.

A tainted bell from Cambodia? - by Jos Van Beurden
Each museum has its own ethical guidelines for acquiring objects. Many museums try to set an example, and the slightest doubt about the provenance of an object will cause its acquisition to be rejected. But sometimes a museum prefers to look the other way. That becomes easier when the Ethical Commission of the Netherlands Museum Association does not deliver proper advice.

In 2004 the Carillon Museum in the village of Asten in the Dutch province of North Brabant bought a second-century bc bronze temple bell from antique dealer Marcel Nies in Antwerp, Belgium. According to Nies, the 12 inch high bell comes from Battambang in Cambodia and shows characteristics of the Vietnamese Dong-Song culture. In order to be able to pay for the bell, the Carillon Museum applied for and received subsidies from the Brabant Museum Foundation and the Rembrandt Association. According to Nies, the bell had been exported to Thailand in 1969, in 2000 it had arrived in Italy and since 2003 it had been in Belgium. According to the Carillon Museum such bells can be purchased in Thailand without any problem, and permission to export an object like this from Thailand is not required. These bells are sold and sent all over the world. They can indeed be found for sale on the Internet.

The Brabant Museum Foundation was not certain about the acquisition. It therefore approached the Ethical Commission of the Netherlands Museum Association (NMA) and asked for it to check whether the museum had studied the provenance in a credible and careful manner. The Commission finally came to a positive conclusion — ‘in this case illicit trade is out of the question’ — and advised the NMA to give a green light for the purchase. The Brabant Museum Foundation accepted the advice, and the Carillon Museum was able to go forward.

‘What more do you want?’ asks Dr André Lehr, former curator of the museum and responsible for the deal. ‘A prominent dealer and the positive advice of the Ethical Commission!’ Moreover, the bell is according to him ‘not part of the cultural heritage of Cambodia. It helps us to get to know other cultures.’ Lehr produces here his own definition of cultural heritage, as he explained to me: ‘Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, the Borobudur and Angkor Wat, yes those are cultural heritage, but not this bell.’

Yet someone who reads carefully the advice of the Ethical Commission could get an uneasy feeling. To start with, the year in which the object left Cambodia, 1969, raises some questions. It is according to the Commission ‘just before the date of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which arranges the protection of stolen or unlawfully exported cultural heritage’. The year 1970 is often used as a watershed year: for objects acquired before 1970 no very difficult questions about provenance are asked, but for all acquisitions after that date provenance should be investigated. ‘Although the Commission is aware of doubts that could arise from the accidental succession of the dates 1969 and 1970, it has not been able to find a reason to doubt the information that has been offered by the dealer.’ Yet talking with Nies, he now says that the year 1969 is only ‘most probable’. He is not completely sure, ‘but I am not worried about it’.

A second question concerns the certainty with which it is asserted that no permission was needed for the export of the bell from Cambodia to Thailand. Upon inquiry with deputy director Hab Touch of the National Museum of Cambodia, which is responsible for the issue of export permits, and Etienne Clement, head of the UNESCO mission in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, it appears that ancient objects cannot be exempt from licensing requirements. Based upon e-mail exchanges with both of them, it can be concluded that Cambodia has had, since the year 1925, a law which determines that art objects are only to leave the country with a permit. In 1925 Cambodia was a French colony and in the law a broad definition of ‘art objects’ is applied; thus André Lehr’s assertion that the bell does not belong to Cambodia’s cultural heritage is contestable.

Some experts doubt whether the 1925 law still is legally valid. In her 2004 study Pillaging Cambodia: the Illicit Traffic in Khmer Art, Masha Lafont states that the old laws have lost their validity, since they were abolished by the Khmer Rouge. Thanks to the cooperation of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, however, I have received a message from Tara Gutman, legal adviser of the Council of Ministers of Cambodia, who points to article 139 of the new Constitution of 1993 which determines that laws and standard documents ‘shall continue to be effective until altered or abrogated by new texts’. Lyndel Prott, former Director of UNESCO’s Department of Cultural Heritage and presently a law professor in Australia, confirms Gutman’s interpretation. She writes: ‘In my view the present government may well regard the 1925 legislation as having remained in force and its lack of enforcement during the Khmer Rouge regime as simply due to the factual situation, rather than an abrogation’. In short, the Dutch museum could have, according to its own ethical code, acquired the ancient bell only if the Cambodian authorities had permitted it to do so.

At least one member of the NMA’s Ethical Commission did not share the positive conclusion. This member argues that the museum never should have bought the bell. He would have been in favour of asking the opinion of the government of the country of origin in order to overcome the one-sidedness of the information available to the purchaser’. In the twenty-first century, it is a bit out of touch that neither the Carillon Museum nor the Ethical Commission have done so, particularly since Cambodia has had for years an active policy to curb the illicit trade in art and antiquities and to protect its own cultural heritage. Lafont mentions in her study 17 examples of smuggled objects that have been restored to Cambodia. That should have rung a bell.

Did you know the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh now has its own website? No, neither did I until recently. Click here

Love Music Hate Racism

This Sunday - 27 April - to mark the 30th anniversary of the watershed Rock Against Racism festival held in Victoria Park, London in 1978, another massive carnival and festival will be held at the same location. One of the successes from the 1978 carnival, Steel Pulse, are unable to appear due to prior commitments but have been involved in several activities in the lead up to the event including a collaboration with other artists on a song based around their own Jah Pickney track. They also took part in a press conference in Birmingham with UB40 and Yaz Alexander last week and another press session with UB40 and Don Letts. This year's festival is being held under the new banner of Love Music Hate Racism. To read more about the original carnival, click here.

Here's a report from the Birmingham Post of the press conference with Steel Pulse, UB40 and Yaz Alexander. In the photo, Yaz is centre front row with Selwyn and David from Steel Pulse on left of back row:
Multi-cultural UK is a success say UB40 - by Gemma Boland and Helen Turner
Birmingham's chart-toppers UB40 have spoken out against Enoch Powell’s controversial ’Rivers of Blood’ speech on its 40th anniversary. Powell's infamous speech was made on April 20, 1968, at the Midland International Hotel in the city centre. On Friday, UB40 were joined by Mydas and Steel Pulse to celebrate multi-cultural Britain, while stressing the importance of education and the role music can play. Powell had called for an end to anti-race discrimination legislation, predicting "rivers of blood" on the streets of the UK if immigration continued. But Birmingham-born UB40 saxophone player Brian Travers said: "I know we've exported some rivers of blood to Iran and Iraq but I've never seen any on my doorstep."

A few weeks ago, former UB40 frontman Ali Campbell complained that racial tensions had tranformed Birmingham. But Travers criticised a politically-disinterested youth, obsessed with shopping and celebrity. "We live in a violent alcohol-fuelled society unfortunately," he said. "Celebrity culture is killing the kids, it has taken over and you're a nobody if you're not famous." He added: "It's not a big claim to say that music changed things, but we were a politically aware youth and that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment."

Birmingham reggae singer Yaz Alexander believed song lyrics were a powerful way to inform young people. She said: "The reason why I'm here is partly because of the influence of the musical artists of the 70s. I was born in Birmingham and have been influenced by what they went through all those years ago. "Love music and use it as a medium, no matter what your background is," she added. UB40's Robin Campbell highlighted the potential problems the credit crunch might pose. "Whenever the economy goes down, ignorance rears its ugly head," he said.

Steel Pulse member Selwyn Brown, speaking 30 years after playing in the original Rock Against Racism concert, said he believed music could still make a difference in combating racism. Love Music Hate Racism, which sponsored the conference, also promoted its anti-racism festival which takes place in London next weekend. Lee Billingham, spokesman for Love Music Hate Racism said: "Most people remember The Clash, but also Steel Pulse as well. The concert represented the Rock Against Racism movement, which led to the demise of the National Front."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Weekend viewing

This is a face I'll be re-visiting this weekend. Its one of the beautifully sculpted faces at the temple of Banteay Chhmar, in the northwest of Cambodia, not too far from the Thai border. This is a temple I love so I am very happy to be returning there. A group of staff (33 to be precise) from Hanuman Tourism are undertaking a 3-day FAM (familiarization) trip to Battambang, Banteay Chhmar and the floating villages near Siem Reap to see some key areas of Cambodia that all, except me, have never seen before. As a company we are keen to ensure our staff have personal experience of the areas they are promoting to our clients and this is just one of the FAM trips we undertake each year. In fact, next month I'm off to experience the beauty of Laos for at least two weeks with half a dozen colleagues before making my way back to Cambodia on my own, travelling through southern Laos and across the Cambodian border and back to Phnom Penh. For the story of my 2005 visit to Banteay Chhmar with photos, click here.

In brief

Cambodian football is suffering a lull in fortunes, in fact, they've never yet experienced a high! Their team of labourers, security guards and policemen have conceded 21 goals in their last 4 matches. In a drive to improve their fortunes, the national team have recruited 30 new players, who'll each be paid a princely sum of $250 a month. The football federation president, Sao Sokha said yesterday that he was looking for "bigger and taller players, of at least 1.7 meters tall, who are young, strong and can run fast," in order to challenge their more physical opponents. He also said, "I urge all parents to let their children play football so that it will help us to find good players - players who can attract spectators like rock bands do." There's nothing like having a serious nationwide youth development policy to uncover promising players for the future is there!

There are changes afoot at the Phnom Penh Post newspaper. For a few years I subscribed to this paper when I lived in the UK to give me the best English-language news coverage and now the PPP are soon to move to much more regular editions from their current twice-monthly stance. They've recently upgraded their website and now they are archiving all their editions back to 1992. That is simply a mammoth task. I wish them well. Read the archive here.

DC-Cam's head Youk Chhang recently announced that the USA will fund, to the tune of $2million, the building of a new genocide museum, research and training facility that will be the new home of DC-Cam. For more than a decade DC-Cam have been documenting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and they've been looking for a new home for much of that time. Their plans have finally borne fruit and the new museum should be up and running in Phnom Penh in a couple of years. They were initially given land next to Tuol Sleng but squatters moved in and wouldn't move out so they've now identified a new site. DC-Cam

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mekong sunrise

Ah, the good old days, sunrise over the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, in front of the Royal Palace, ten years ago last month. March 1998 was my fourth visit to Cambodia and my first proper look at the country, my previous visits had been whistle-stop tours to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap but my 1998 trip was more in-depth and a great chance to get under the skin of this beautiful country. Little did I know, ten years later I would be living and working in Phnom Penh.

Unimaginable suffering

Book Review:
The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Last week Somaly Mam, the Cambodian activist who rescues girls from sexual slavery, was honoured as the winner of the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child. Somaly Mam is president of AFESIP, the French acronym for Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, which builds safe houses to provide refuge, food, health care and schooling for girls saved from slavery. She has rescued over 4,000 girls in Cambodia and neighboring countries. She has won many awards for her incredible work.

Last night I finished reading her autobiography. I am exhausted. It's a book that was difficult, very difficult, to read. Somaly Mam's life story begins when she was sold into sexual slavery as a child by her family. She was repeatedly beaten, raped, starved and mutilated by the men she serviced. Its a story of unimaginable suffering, degradation and lack of self-worth. Its her story and that of thousands of others in Cambodia. Written without flowery prose or sensationalism, its matter of fact style makes it all the more powerful and uncomfortable reading. Very uncomfortable reading. Everyone should make themselves read it - so they are aware of exactly what takes place in the brothels and alleyways of countries like Cambodia. There is no place in this world for sexual abuse and slavery.

Inspirational, courageous, miraculous - such words are barely adequate to describe Somaly Mam and how she has recovered from her own living hell. I am surprised she is still alive. She has made many powerful enemies in her fight to protect and save the innocent. Her own daughter was kidnapped and her life threatened time after time. Today she is feted across the globe but lives in danger in her own country. Some people make a real difference in their lifetime. Somaly Mam has survived her own personal hell to do exactly that.
Links: afesip, virago.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Trails along the Mekong

Sunset over the Mekong River - captured during my visit to Kratie in 2000
A project seeking to make a difference to the lives of the people who live along the Mekong River is taking shape called the Mekong River Discovery Trail. Developed in cooperation with villages and communes along the river as well as NGOs and provincial authorities, this brand new ecotourism initiative is set to transform the underutilised northern section of the Mekong between Kratie and the Cambodian-Laos border. The opportunity to experience rural life that few have seen before during homestays, wat stays, trekking, mountain-biking, dolphin watching, kayaking and more, will provide a much-needed boost to the communities along the river and open up this gorgeous stretch of the Mekong to more than just a fortunate few. Dolphin watching at Kampi, just north of Kratie is already popular, but the trail opens up new viewing spots at places like Koh Phdau, Damrei Phong, Koh Preah and Anlung Cheuteal next to the border, along the 190km stretch of the Mekong. An overnight stay in the pagoda at Wat Sarsar Mouy Rouy, the 100 Pillar Wat, will give an unusual slant to your trip, while homestays are available in Koh Trong, Koh Phdau, Koh Khnhear and Ou Savy. Lots of other options are available to travellers wishing to tread new paths in the region. The Mekong River Discovery Trail looks set to take off later this year and you can find out more here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A freak show?

I'm not sure this is serious but with Vietnam and Nha Trang destined to host the Miss Universe 2008 pageant in July - that info is kosher - Cambodia is being eyed up as the location for the 2009 Miss Landmine pageant. No, as I type it, I can't believe its a real competition. A contestant from Angola won this month's 2008 inaugural competition. As you might expect the pageant has drawn howls of protest from rights activists and feminists, who brand it colonialist, racist, sexist and exploitative. The organiser says that whilst some international aid agencies have also labelled it 'a freak show,' he denies the allegations, saying it raises landmine awareness and empowers female amputee participants. First, he will have to overcome the ban on beauty contests imposed by Hun Sen in September 2006. I for one hope the ban stays in place - there are far better ways to raise landmine awareness and empower female amputees such as stories like the female landmine clearing teams that show a sense of achievement, purpose and true courage. Others will retort all news is good news. I will leave you to decide.

Hold-up for The Red Sense

Tim Pek's new movie The Red Sense enjoyed a successful premiere in Australia on 8 March. Tim (right) hoped to bring it over to show to audiences in Cambodia but there have been delays. Here is a report from Antonio Graceffo on the latest news.

Australian Khmer Film Struggles to be Shown - by Antonio Graceffo
While Cambodian Cinema teeters on the brink of extinction, the Cambodian officials put stumbling blocks in the path of Tim Pek’s Khmer Rouge film, “The Red Sense.”

Tim Pek’s film, “The Red Sense,” depicts the struggle of a Cambodian woman who grew up as a refugee in Australia after her father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. The basic plot deals with the concepts of revenge and forgiveness, as she discovers that her father’s killer posed as a refugee and is now alive and well in Australia . Should she avenge her father’s death, or should she allow the killing to stop? Khmer Film fans and martial artists around the world will know Tim Pek from his work with the Khmer kickboxing film “Krabai Liak Goan,” and his work as director and producer of “Bokator, the Great Angkorian Martial Art.”

His latest film, “The Red Sense” is extremely unique in many ways. It is probably the first movie shot in Australia which was done almost completely in Khmer language. It is also one of the first Khmer movies ever shot outside of Cambodia . The topic of revenge vs. forgiveness is one that most Cambodians live with on a daily basis, in the after math of the Cambodian auto-genocide. In other genocides, certain identifiable groups suffered at the hands of specific perpetrators. In Cambodia , the entire population was collectivized and subjected to horrible torture, starvation, and execution. One hundred percent of Khmer who were alive bwtween1975-1979 were victims, perpetrators or both. The parts of Cambodia , such as Ratanakiri province, came under Khmer Rouge control before 1970. Other regions, such as Pilin, were not surrendered until 1997, which means that some of Cambodia ’s current teenagers suffered, directly under the Khmer Rouge.

When the war was over, and twenty years later, when the surrender came, these Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadre didn’t necessarily move away. Many remained in the villages, where they live beside and among the very people they tortured and whose family’s they killed. With the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal already underway, and the world looking at Cambodia , “The Red Sense” becomes an even more powerful and more poignant film. Why then has it been so hard for Pek, a young Khmer refugee from Australia , to debute his film in Phnom Penh . One would think that in an age when even Khmers have stopped watching Khmer cinema, the powers that be would welcome an international film in Phnom Penh .

According to Tim, he finished work on the film in late 2007, and lodged the paperwork in Cambodia in early January 2008. In an Orwelian twist of nomenclature, The Ministry of Information is the government bureau in charge of censorship and film permission. Tim explains why he wanted to show the film in Cambodia ? “Firstly it’s a Cambodian film, and it’s made by Cambodian living abroad. Second, it’s the message in the movie. I always wanted to examine what reconciliation and forgiveness means for those Cambodians who left the genocidal nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime, but never escaped it. And how do the survivors of a civil war such as that suffered by Cambodia reconcile the fact that there were no foreign invaders? The only criminals were their own people. And most importantly how do individuals find justice, or forgiveness? What would you do if you ran into the murderer of your parents in the street?”

When asked if Cambodia has a law preventing foreign movies from being shown in cinema? Tim answered, “Yes, I believe there are, plenty of them.” There are also strict laws in Cambodia forbidding radio broadcasts in foreign language. The English language station must operate under strict guidelines. But, the first time the Cham ethnic minority wanted to have a Cham language broadcast, they were denied permission. Cambodia even has strict laws about the size of billboards which are written in foreign languages. Everything must be written in Khmer also, and the Khmer letters must be larger than the foreign language script. Tim outlined the many steps he had to go through in the hopes of obtaining permission to show his film. “I was asked for a business registration number, a transferring letter and I sent them all. I paid film fess. Then they needed to have a few meetings amongst other organizers, that’s including the Australian Embassy and so on…I didn’t expect it to go on like this.” What reasons might the government have for preventing Tim from showing the movie? “They think it’s a political issue, which I and other people don’t think it is, it’s the individual related issue.” Tim believes the Khmer film industry is dying. “From my own perspective, and I have seen heaps of Khmer movies, which now have drawn my attention to why our film industry is severely declining. It still can not reach the international standard. If we go back to the 60s and 70s our Cambodian Films were the most prominent ones in SEA. These days most local film makers have very little choice, and they’re stuck within one boundary and can not pursue or expand their creativity. These are the main obstacles from penetrating to the international market or SEA market, and the audience doesn’t understand that. It’s not healthy if we stay like this. Most films that are allowed to screen in public are PG rated. The most popular film genres are: Super Natural, Ghosts, Romantic, Drama, and Period Piece. These are their best and safest genres. They only distribute domestically and to Khmers living abroad.”

In Cambodia , only one company has a monopoly for dubbing movies. All movies, whether shot in Khmer language or shot abroad, are dubbed. You never hear the actual actors speaking their lines. Worst of all, ALL voices in a movie are done by the same two men and one woman? “Yes, that’s so true. When I heard people talk about Khmer film, the only word I hear first is DUBBING. That’s one of the biggest issue we’re facing right now. We shouldn’t have any dubbing companies at all, unless for foreign films. To me using someone’s voice is like your hard earned 50% of the movie quality is gone.” The dubbing studio is extremely archaic and when they dub, they shut off the original soundtrack and just lay Khmer voice tracks over it. So, you lose all the sound effects, music, and foley. If you are watching a “Die Hard” movie and Bruce Willis says something clever during a gunfight, the gun sounds are suddenly gone, as is the explosion happening in the background, and the same Khmer man who does the voice of Leonardo DiCaprio or Toby McGuire, gives some terrible Khmer version of the original text, and it isn’t funny, and makes no sense. Worst of all, each time Bruce Willis speaks, the dialogue is preceded by several seconds of the audio being cutout. The audio doesn’t return till several seconds after he finishes speaking. If two characters are having a conversation, the background sounds come in and out like a kid dragging a stick along a picket fence.

This dubbing only happens on films shown in the cinema or on TV. For one to two dollars, the original of any movie can be purchased any number of markets in Cambodia . Khmers who can’t even speak English would generally prefer to watch the original “Star Wars,” with all the laser sounds, rather than the Khmer version, which is like a silent movie with dialogue. “No matter how great your movie is, and not to mention a major impact on character’s emotions and body gestures” the quality is lost when they re-dub it. And this dubbing is not just for foreign language films, but also for films shot in Cambodia in Khmer language. They are all re-dubbed by the same two men and a single woman. “That’s the key point I would like to address for all Khmer film makers. If the actors can act, they also can speak. All you need is a little training. Let’s move forward and make a change. Once your Khmer movie is approved, and re-dubbed, there are a number of options of how to get it into the cinema. “There’s always a negotiation. First they like to see your film. Then you can either rent the theater out or share 50/50. The best way is to know someone there and find a distributor.”

Cambodia is one of the most centralized countries in the world, with the possible exception of Lao, where all of the development and services are in exclusively located in the capitol. The first high schools were opened outside of Phnom Penh in the late 1990s and the first university around 2003. “I know that’s there is one cinema in Battambang, one in Siem Reap, one in Svay Reang and a few in Phnom Penh. That was in 2006. Piracy and DVDs are the biggest problem, not only in Cambodia but around the world just a matter of more or less.” Minutes after a film is shown in the cinema, it is available at the markets. Local movies sell for $1. A single ticket at the cinema can cost $1 or more, so a whole family can watch the movie at home for the same price of a single ticket. Tim hopes that if he obtains the rights to show his movie, that it might generate worldwide interest in the Khmer cinema. “I know a few young talented Khmer film makers living abroad. Their works were sensational, and I can see the big potential for the Khmer film industry.” As for the powers that rule the cinema industry in Cambodia, Tim had this to say. “We need their supports if they need us to bring the Khmer film back on track, and I am sure we will.”

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia . He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people. He is the author of four books. See his website here

More wedding snaps

Okay that's enough free advertising for the hotels of Phnom Penh, but at least it gave you a peek inside The Quay, the latest boutique hotel in the city, and another look at the elegance and old-world charm of Hotel Le Royal.
One of the duties at a wedding in the provinces when you are the only foreigner present, is that they want you to be in every photo, literally. I think they said it brings them luck. Though having me in any photo is pretty unlucky in my view! Anyway, the official photographer must be sick of the sight of me after Thursday's wedding party. I was in as many as the happy couple themselves. Unfortunately, I only managed to grab a few such photos of the party-goers with yours truly, so here's a selection. As you might expect, I was more than happy to pose with the female element in the party. During the dancing, I am not exaggerating when I say that every male in the party asked me to dance at least once. I was knackered at the end, I'm just not as fit as I used to be. Here's four of my dance partners to kick off the photos.
Four of my drunken dance partners
A cousin of the bride, Thary from Kandal - her English was very good
My good friend Sophoin - older sister of the brideThis is Molyda, she's a karaoke singer and lives in Phnom Penh

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Living history

The swimming pool and part of the original main building at Hotel Le Royal
The second hotel on today's visiting list was Raffles Hotel Le Royal. I won't wax lyrical about Le Royal, but I love old-world charm and elegance and this place oozes all of that and more. It was built in 1929 and fully refurbished in 1997. It offers 170 guest rooms, suites and executive apartments, all beautifully furnished that give you that sense of colonial style. The rooms are spread over three separate low-rise wings, set around the garden courtyard and swimming pools. The main building has been beautifully restored to its original architectural style. Like its sister hotel, Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap, its more than just a hotel, its living history.
Unrefined elegance at Le Royal
The welcoming lobby from the first floor
One of the Personality Suites at Le Royal
Even the corridors reek of old-world charm
A painting of Princess Bopha Devi in the main restaurant at Le Royal

A look at The Quay

A panoramic bedroom and sitting area at brand-new The Quay
The view from inside the panoramic room and overlooking the balcony at The Quay
Saturday mornings have become hotel inspection time for the sales team at Hanuman Tourism. Its a good opportunity for our young team to visit the hotels in Phnom Penh and to get first-hand experience of the hotels they recommend to our clients. On this morning's visiting list was the brand-new The Quay and Raffles Hotel Le Royal. I've posted a few photos here of The Quay as it really is very new, opening for business on 10 April with panoramic rooms facing the riverfront costing $185. The hotel has eight such rooms and another 8 smaller standard suites at $130. The sixteen rooms are spread over five floors. The design is modern, intimate and environmentally-friendly. You enter through the Chow restaurant and there's a rooftop terrace with bar, pool and jacuzzi, and of course views over the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. The Quay is part of the ever-expanding FCC chain and a welcome addition to the capital's accommodation listings.
The rooftop terrace, pool, jacuzzi and relaxation area
The Chow restaurant on the ground floor of The Quay

Roof-top views

Roof-top view of Kandal market, taken from the Castle Hotel
Looking out over Kandal market and the rooftops of Phnom Penh
Here's a few roof-top views I took recently, two of the pictures showing a birds-eye view of Kandal market from above, just a block from the riverside at Sisowath Quay. The bottom picture looks towards Wat Ounalom - headquarters of the Cambodian Buddhist top rank and file - whilst the building blocking out the riverview on the left is the Amanjaya hotel.
Amanjaya and Sisowath Quay on the left, Wat Ounalom on the right

Behind the green fence

Building work on the flooding relief system continues behind the green fence
A look behind the green fence on Sisowath Quay
Did you want to know what's behind that corrugated green fence that blocks off most of the riverside view along Sisowath Quay these days in Phnom Penh? It isn't particularly interesting but worth a quick posting, just so you can see the progress they are making in their attempts to alleviate the capital's flooding problems during the rainy season. I don't get down to the riverside area much so I was pleased that they have covered large sections of the green fence with billboards and posters, some of which are proclaiming the delights to be found in Cambodia's other provinces. I'm not sure of the timelines regarding the construction work as it stands, it was a ridiculously long period at the beginning but they seem to be making progress.
The riverside view is changing forever with landscaping on both sides of the Tonle Sap River

Friday, April 18, 2008

PPP's Srepok coverage

The centre pages of today's Phnom Penh Post (Vol 17, No 8) covers the Srepok Wilderness Area and the conservation and ecotourism project being managed there by WWF. The article even includes some quotes from yours truly, who took part in a cycling expedition to the area last month, as WWF asked tourism operators and the media to test the water for ecological and adventure tourism. I quote:
Andy Brouwer, an agent for the Hanuman tour company and a participant in last month's cycling trip, says the WWF "have an area to promote that is untouched and pristine enough to attract tourists looking for an alternative to temples and beaches." He adds that the cycling program is still "definitely exploratory" and "someway off being ready to receive visitors."
I'm pleased to say that I wasn't mis-quoted at all and though WWF are looking for a luxury tourist lodge for sixty people to be up and running a year from now, they have some way to go to make that a reality. I certainly wish them well as the Srepok River is a fantastic asset and the remote and isolated forest that surrounds it can certainly offer a different alternative that is not readily available in Cambodia at this time. Links: PPP

Priceless collection lost in fire

Writer and publisher Kent Davis lost a collection of 2,000 antique books, many of which are rare Southeast Asian histories dating back to the 1830s, in a house fire in Florida, USA yesterday. Kent, who recently published the most comprehensive history of Cambodian dance in Earth In Flower and is a contributor to my own guidebook, To Cambodia With Love, says he was lucky that both he and his wife survived. "I feel blessed. What if my wife had been killed? The rest of this stuff can be replaced. We are so lucky because we are alive. This is just stuff. Even spending 10 years, I'll go back and spend another 10 years on research and other things. But I have my wife and she has me. You never know how long something can take until you are watching your house burn to the ground in front of you. It is not the firefighters' fault. There just aren't any hydrants on these streets." Kent and his wife woke up to a house full of thick smoke. The couple got out with only their cell phone and the clothes on their back.

Kent believes the fire started by spontaneous combustion. His wife was using oil to stain a bench hours before the fire. "She took a face cloth about that size, rubbed it with linseed oil outside the house, brought the rag inside the house and threw it in a trash can. And that's what started the fire."
From the trash can flames engulfed the Davis' garage, destroyed a Mercedes and caused a propane tank to explode. High winds at their waterfront property sent the flames quickly into the attic, then through the entire house. As for his collection of antique books, "The books were one of the largest collection of Southeast Asian history. There are some that are 170 years old. It was a rare collection that I had hoped to will to a library in Asia," he said. Link: datasia

Party time

Veasna (left) and his bride, Sopheap
Sophoin (right) and yours truly giving money, best wishes and tying string around the wrists of the newly-weds
The wedding party was a great success. However, it took nearly 4 hours to get to Kompong Cham by bus and guess what, the air-conditioning failed. I needed a lie down after that but there was no time. Wedding parties in the provinces start earlier than in Phnom Penh, so it was straight to the event - held in the village of Rokar Krom - to be welcomed at the door by Veasna and his new bride, Sopheap, both resplendent in yellow. 200 guests arrived over the next hour and the usual round of drinking, eating, more drinking, dancing, fruit-cutting and covering the bride and groom in foam, more drinking and more dancing followed. Great fun and as the only foreigner there, I was in big demand on the dance-floor. I didn't let them down. The bride is the younger sister of my good friend Sophoin. I returned to the capital by share-taxi early this morning, leaving at the ungodly hour of 5.30am. It took just 2 hours and only one near-death experience!
Ah, the foam moment for the happy couple
Two of the younger party-goers in their best party frocks
Three more of the younger crowd, who seemed to take a shine to me
I'm a sucker for a pretty girl, so 4 in one photo will do nicely

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wedding bells

There're wedding bells in the air today, but just so that you know, they're not mine. I'm off to Kompong Cham by bus at lunchtime to celebrate a friend's wedding at their party this evening, an all-Khmer affair. It should be great fun, lots of eating and dancing and general merriment. The bus journey takes about two hours and I guarantee it'll be hot as hell inside the coach. The weather here at the moment is virtually unbearable for someone like me who has never experienced April in Cambodia before. I'll report back on the wedding tomorrow, unless I'm suffering from heat exhaustion and dance fatigue!

Guidebooks aren't a Bible

There's been a loss of fuss in the press recently after one of the Lonely Planet guidebook editors claimed he plagiarized and made up large sections of his books. Thomas Kohnstamm's claims have hurt LP's reputation for sure but this Blog posting by Ben Groundwater in the Sydney Morning Herald puts it all into a certain perspective.

Why guidebooks have to lie

"The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight. We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner. I pen a note in my Moleskine that I will later recount in the guidebook review, saying that the restaurant is, 'a pleasant surprise ... and the table service is friendly.'" So quotes the back of Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?, the tell-all book by Seppo travel scribe Thomas Kohnstamm that currently has the Lonely Planet editors of this world all a-flutter.

What has them tearing through their back catalogues are claims by Kohnstamm, who contributed to a few of Lonely Planet's South American guides, that he embellished, plagiarised, and in some cases plain old made up the information he committed to the "backpackers' bible".
It's become a pretty big deal - he claims he sold drugs to supplement his income, and didn't even visit Colombia, despite contributing to the guidebook (a claim he's since retracted). But for me, the biggest surprise wasn't that some of the information in the old LP might be made up - but that it's taken this long for someone to blow the whistle on it.

And even still, I don't think there's much cause for concern, with either Kohnstamm's claims, or the quality of guidebooks. For starters, let's not forget that Kohnstamm readily admits to embellishing his work for Lonely Planet, so it's pretty easy to believe he's lent that same imagination to his recent work. And even if what he says is true - is it so bad? The problem is that travellers treat the word of their guidebooks as gospel. How many times have you heard a traveller get told by a local that such-and-such a restaurant doesn't exist, only for them to reply: "But my guidebook says it does." Guidebooks are supposed to be just that: a guide. (Although "Rough" Guides further downplay their significance.) It's the travellers themselves who decide to cling to them like some sort of papery life preserver. If you do everything your guidebook tells you to do - like, say, only eat pho in the one restaurant it recommends to you in Hanoi - then you deserve what you get.

I usually have a guidebook on hand when I travel, if for nothing else than to read up on the history of a place, and look at the occasional map. I've found plenty of the information really helpful, and plenty of it completely wrong. In a lot of those cases it's not the fault of the publisher, as most books are only reprinted every two years. So if you pick one up towards the end of its cycle, the information is nearly two years old, meaning most of the hotels, restaurants and bars have either closed or changed hands (or rested on their laurels having attained the all-powerful LP inclusion), and everything has gone up in price. Occasionally I've found genuine errors, like a town appearing on the wrong side of an island on one of their maps, but nothing that asking someone on the street wouldn't fix. I reckon guidebooks are a lot like Contiki tour leaders - and trust me, having basically been one of those myself, that's not much of a compliment.

Like a tour leader, a successful guidebook has to create the illusion of being all-knowing, the highest authority on its chosen topic. That makes nervous rookie travellers feel a bit safer about diving into the big wide world. Most of the time, however, it's all bluff and bluster. Tour leaders and travel writers alike are not paid enough to see every destination properly, and sometimes have to call on their creative skills on particularly obscure points. But that's the way guided travel - whether it's with a person or a book - works. You've gotta fake it a little bit, and as long as everyone has fun and gets home safely, there's no problem. The joke here is really on the travellers who treat their guidebook like the bible. After all (to hopelessly misquote Monty Python): travel writers aren't the Messiah - in some cases at least, they're very naughty boys.

Note: On the subject of Lonely Planet Guidebooks, the latest Cambodia version has been written and is with the LP team in Melbourne for final editing before a release later this year. It'll be the sixth edition of the Cambodia book, the last being published in August 2005, and the first in September 1992. One of the original authors, Daniel Robinson has returned to team up with regular in-country author Nick Ray to pen an expanded edition this time around. Also look out soon for a brand new book on Siem Reap and Angkor, also from the LP stable.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In memory of ...

On the eve of the day 33 years ago that the Khmer Rouge swept into Phnom Penh, emptied the city and took Cambodia back to Year Zero, I saw this article from a couple of days ago and felt it was worth repeating here in memory of all those Cambodians who disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime that took charge on 17 April 1975.

Ith Chhun of Phnom Penh before the revolution: Gone but not forgotten - by Donald Kirk (World Tribune)

The young man approached me with a simple enough offer as I strolled through the grounds of the Royal Palace near the banks of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh all those years ago. Did I need a guide; maybe an interpreter? The response was easy. Sure, why not? The price was right too – less than the equivalent of US$1for a one-hour look around as music tinkled from a pavilion and dancers rehearsed a ballet for Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s entourage.Those were “the old days” when Cambodia was, as Prince Sihanouk liked to say, “an oasis of peace”, at least as seen by correspondents visiting from the far more dangerous war in Vietnam. My guide, Ith Chhun, had learned English from Christian missionaries, and made just enough to support himself by showing people around the palace grounds. He was happy to interpret for me for interviews in Phnom Penh and around the country. Cambodia then was on the verge of the war that Prince Sihanouk had hoped to avoid by staying “neutral” while the North Vietnamese set up bases near the Vietnam border. He was travelling from Europe to Moscow and Beijing when he was overthrown in March 1970 by his U.S.-backed prime minister, Lon Nol.

As the war spread, Ith Chhun interpreted for an article I wrote for The New York Times Magazine on the terrible Cambodian army and for stories for the old Washington Star on battles down deceptively tranquil roads. One morning, as we drove towards the South Vietnam border, we discovered the bodies of 90 Vietnamese, men, women and children, mowed down by Cambodian soldiers as anti-Vietnam hatred ran wild. Later, after I got back from writing a book on the widening war, I went down roads that seemed serene and secure, turning back when old men and women warned Ith Chhun the Khmer Rouge were nearby. While journalists were getting killed on forays from Phom Penh, I reported for the Chicago Tribune on villages terrorised by Khmer Rouge executions and on high-level corruption in the capital.

These memories flashed by as I read recently of the passing in New Jersey of Dith Pran, the Cambodian interpreter who became famous from the film The Killing Fields. Dith Pran worked mainly for The New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg. When Schanberg was away and Ith Chhun was with his family in some outlying town, Dith Pran worked for me and others. He and Ith Chhun were among a small group of interpreters taking the same risks, setting forth with journalists in old Mercedes-Benz cars from the Hotel Royale in Phnom Penh. I was in New York when Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, in April 1975, two years after America had stopped bombing Cambodia and left U.S.-equipped government soldiers to fend for themselves. I read about the evacuation of Schanberg and others from the French embassy, feared for Dith Pran’s life and was immensely relieved when he showed up in Thailand after four years surviving in a jungle ruled by the Khmer Rouge.

I wondered, though, what had happened to Ith Chhun. Stories of slaughter in the countryside, during the three years, eight months and 10 days of Khmer Rouge rule, reminded me of the kidnappings and executions that peasants had told Ith Chhun and me were going on in the early 1970s while scholars were writing that nothing bad would happen when the Khmer Rouge took over in an “agrarian revolt”. I thought of Ith Chhun concealing any knowledge of English, throwing away his glasses, books and notes, and joining the peasantry as their new masters drove them from the cities into the fields. As a Christian in a Buddhist society, Ith Chhun would have been more vulnerable than even the Buddhist monks whom the Khmer Rouge killed off as they destroyed pagodas and shrines.

When I returned, in May 1985, after covering the 10th anniversary of “the fall” of Vietnam, I ran into people in markets, repair shops and drink stands who remembered me. Some pointed to scars on their bodies where they had been bound and beaten. They all told of the loss of relatives and friends. I asked about Ith Chhun, revisited the palace, heard from drivers who thought maybe they had heard about him but weren’t sure. The last time I was there, six years ago, no one remembered him. I wondered if his bones were among those piled up in “the killing field” that visitors see outside the capital – a sampling of all the places where people were bludgeoned or strangled by guards to whom shooting was a waste of bullets. It was as if he had never existed, had vanished in a time of killing when 2 million people like him had died, their images faded in flickering memory, nameless and forgotten.

  • Donald Kirk wrote two books on the war, Wider War: The Struggle for Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, and Tell it to the Dead: Memories of a War.
* * * * *
I also came across the Hansard version of events taking place at the time in the British House of Commons in London. It records that on 17 April 1975, the then Foreign Secretary James Callaghan had this to say:
'The House will recall that our chargé d'Affaires in Phnom Penh arranged for an RAF flight on 11th March to evacuate all those British subjects who wished to leave. The Embassy was closed and the chargé and his staff left Phnom Penh on 21st March. As far as I am aware, there are six British subjects still in Cambodia, four of whom are members of a Scottish medical unit working for the International Red Cross. I am glad to say that they were reported safe early this morning, and as far as I am aware the two others have not been harmed.'

When asked that Britain be among the first to recognise Prince Sihanouk's new régime (the Khmer Rouge), the Foreign Minister replied thus:
'There is a long-standing policy based on our view of international law that a Government are entitled to recognition when they enjoy with a reasonable prospect of permanence the obedience of the mass of the population and the effective control of the greater part of the territory concerned. As far as I know, Prince Sihanouk and the Prime Minister of the Royal Government of National Union in Cambodia are still in Peking. But I am urgently studying the question of recognition as soon as it is clear what is the effective Government.... As regards the general situation in Cambodia, I think that all of us want to see a legal and orderly Government established in that country. I trust that that will be so.'

In hindsight, how naive and clueless he, and the British government, appear to be.

Note: The British Embassy was closed in March 1975 a month before the Khmer Rouge take-over. In May 1975 the UK recognised the government of Democratic Kampuchea and diplomatic relations were established in 1976. However, the Embassy was not reopened and no British diplomats visited Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period. Britain was the first country to publicly condemn the violation of human rights in Cambodia by raising the issue at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March 1978. After clearer evidence of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge emerged, the British Government formally withdrew recognition of Democratic Kampuchea in December 1979.

For Brits in Cambodia

I'm registered at the British Embassy here in Phnom Penh as a long-term resident. That means they let me know if their advice to British citizens travelling to Cambodia, or living here, changes. A quick visit to the FCO Cambodia webpage confirms the following, which I thought contained some interesting titbits:
  • It is envisaged that there will be a number of political demonstrations in the run-up to the General Election on 27 July 2008. You are advised to keep away from large gatherings, demonstrations and political meetings. You should also avoid expressing forcible opinions on Cambodian politics or culture.
  • Around 85,000 British nationals visited Cambodia in 2007 (Source: Cambodia Ministry of Tourism). Most visits to Cambodia are trouble-free. The main type of incidents for which British nationals required consular assistance in Cambodia in 2007 were replaceing lost and stolen passports (over 45 cases); and dealing with deaths and hospitalizations, mostly from road traffic accidents (25 cases), bag snatches and drug related issues. You should also be aware of landmines and unexploded ordnance in rural areas.
  • Marriages between Cambodians and foreigners have been suspended until further notice. The Cambodian Government has instructed all registrar officers in Cambodia to temporarily stop issuing certificates of marriage between Cambodians and foreigners until further notice.
  • The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) conducted a review of the temporary suspension of adoptions of Cambodian children by UK residents in 2007/08, the findings of which were published on 2 April 2008. The review has resulted in the continuing of the suspension of adoptions of Cambodian children by UK residents.
So where does that leave me?
I can't marry, I can't adopt, I can't discuss politics or culture, its dangerous to be on the roads, I can't go into the countryside for fear of landmines - I may as well stay in my flat with the fan turned on - which is what I did for much of the New Year holiday! It was simply too hot to do anything else.

Alone in Angkor's solitude

A correspondent in today's The Nation newspaper in Thailand reflects on his visit to Angkor in 1996. Anyone who visited the Angkor complex in the early to mid '90s will have an identical story to tell. I too have a host of such experiences, alone in the temples, the soldiers outnumbering the tourists, the small children selling temple rubbings and t-shirts outnumbering the soldiers, the now famous leaf-sweeper at Ta Prohm trying to sell me a trinket, etc, etc. I first came to Cambodia and Angkor in 1994 - it was a trip that changed my life. And I'm sure it has done the same for many people since. Anyway, here's the article:

Alone once, and lost in Angkor's eerie spell:
Just a dozen years ago the temple complex still offered visitors all the solitude they needed to dream Khmer dreams - by Carleton Cole

If I had to pick my favourite photo of my 1996 trip to Cambodia, it would be a shot of the sunlight playing with shade on a stone carving of an apsara. But if I were asked what was my most remarkable photo, I would have to choose a picture of a long bas-relief cloister where there's nary a soul in sight. Perhaps the pictures in themselves aren't worth a thousand words each, but they dramatically illustrate this fact: In 1996 Cambodia had 260,000 visitors, and last year there were more than two million. In 1996, what has become a virtually risk-free trek from Bangkok to Siem Reap by land or river was still a few years away. The US government discouraged overland travel between Phnom Penh and the gateway to Angkor too, since there was still a chance of being ambushed by Khmer Rouge holdouts.

A dozen years ago there was no need to get up before dawn to make sure you could walk among the Angkor temples in splendid loneliness. There was no jostling for the best shots of the ruins at dusk. The ancient complex was all but empty throughout the day, save for a few intrepid adventurers - and clusters of local people, mostly children, who tried to reel in riel from the visitors, or better, US dollars, in exchange for batik fabrics, T-shirts and all-purpose krama scarves. Nowadays, thanks to the peace that came to Cambodia in 1998, visitors complain that the temples are despairingly overrun.

The Indochina War came to an end in early 1975, but 33 years ago tomorrow the even greater horrors that would paralyse Cambodia were just beginning as the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh. In late 1978, after the worst of the so-called auto-genocide in which some 1.7 million Cambodians perished, Vietnamese forces liberated the country's east and south from the cruel Khmer Rouge overseers. The invaders backed the Maoist extremists into a squirreling crescent of land along the Thai border. But even as late as 1996, the rulers-turned-rebels still controlled vast areas just several kilometres from the Angkor complex.

At the Tha Phrom temple that year I was the only visitor. Or so I thought - until I heard someone shout, "You!" I looked back to see a lone soldier headed my way, and for a minute stood paralysed, thinking he was Khmer Rouge. As he came near, though, I saw with relief that he wore a government-flag patch on his shoulder, with its silhouette of Angkor Wat. "I show you temple," he said, in what sounded part question but mostly statement. Wherever I wandered among the elegant old grounds, where centuries-old trees climbed over the even more ancient stones of the temple, he was close behind. "This temple was built under King Jayavarman VII," he said, adding nothing to what I'd already read in Lonely Planet. As we parted ways after the "tour", a few of his colleagues showed up. I half-smiled and nodded at my "guide" and, keeping my head down, walked back to my car and told the driver to go on to the next temple. Instead of starting the engine, he asked, "Do you have a dollar? That's the usual fee they ask for." Unsure of who had lost or gained face, I diplomatically went back to pay the soldier a dollar. He smiled and let me take his photo.

These days, with the broad stream of visitors pouring into Angkor, such extracurricular activity is barred by the government. While I felt relatively safe throughout my trip, only about 13 kilometres away were the pinkish stones of the Bantery Srei temple - the Citadel of the Women. Two years earlier an American woman had been killed near there by Khmer Rouge soldiers. It was still too close to the frontline to consider a visit in 1996, but my future wife went in '98 and proudly announced that I'd missed the most elegant temple in the area. I imagine I'll make it there some day, and if there are too many people scrumming for photos, well, they can be Photoshopped out once I'm back home.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Photos from my final day in Kompong Thom, part 2

Great views at the top of Phnom Sruoch after you climb the stairs - we took the back route!
Two sandstone pedestals provide the platform for these modern statues
A rock shrine of a collection of old stones and pedestals on the summit of Phnom Sruoch
One of the 3 damaged Sambor Prei Kuk lions that sit outside the Kompong Thom museum
A kala with Vishvakarma lintel inside the Kompong Thom museum - though the light for photography was appaling

Photos from my final day in Kompong Thom, part 1

In addition to the text from my final day in Kompong Thom recently, here's the first of two batches of photos from the trip.
The defaced floral with makara lintel above the doorway to Kuk Veang prasat at Wat Po Vang
A collection of two lintels, a stele, a small statue of Shiva and an old seima stone at Wat Kakoh
I'm amazed that this original Shiva sandstone statue has not been stolen from Wat Kakoh. I asked the monks to keep it in the vihara.
The inscription stone or stele at Wat Kakoh, with another lintel behind it
Wat Tbong Krapeu is built on the laterite foundations of an old prasat

A Man's World?

Staying on the subject of women in Cambodia...every day on my way to work I see a woman motodop whose patch is just around the corner from my house. Motodopping is an unusual job for a female and I've not seen another in the city, though I'm told another used to work near the Central Market. I'd been meaning to interview the lady in question for months now but never got around to it, so I was gutted when AsiaLIFE Phnom Penh scooped me in their March 2008 edition. John Weeks got the interview. Here's the story:

Streetlife: A Man's World?

Finding a dependable, safe motorbike driver (motodup) is a difficult feat, even in Phnom Penh where an excess of drivers roam the streets, ranging from the unemployed college graduate to new migrants from the provinces. Oum Chanton, a familiar face in Boeng Keng Kang, has been getting her passengers safely to their destination for seven years. It is an unusual choice of vocation for a woman, but motodup-ing suits Oum Chanton just fine. Occasionally driving a moto as a side job in the year 2000, Chanton discovered that it offered steady wages and flexibility. As a single mother who is also supporting a younger sister and mother, it gradually became the main source of income for her family. She soon found herself driving even up to the day that she gave birth to her youngest son, Chandy, now 5.

Safety issues;
This line of work is not without hardship. Chanton’s 14-hour days start at around 6am, seven days a week. Besides full-time exposure to the elements, reckless drivers share the streets. She has to be on constant alert of bag snatchers targeting her passengers. When hired for the night she sometimes waits on dark secluded streets until late. She often overhears unkind comments from the hordes of territorial male drivers on her routes. They feel she is stealing potential customers from them. There is little regard for her from both her peers and the general population because people are unaccustomed to women having such a job.
At first the difficulties intimidated her, particularly safety issues on the farther routes or late in the night. Now she concentrates on doing her work well, taking care of her passengers by driving carefully. In this way she is able to support her family. The helmeted Chanton also takes her own safety seriously. “Everyone should use one for safety while riding on a moto,” she says.

No job for a woman?; Asked to describe herself, Chanton replies that she is a strong woman. While the more “appropriate” jobs for women of her skill level, such as waiting or cleaning, have their own hardships, she found them dull. Her earning potential was also greater as a motodup. Experience as a single mother and the difficulties she overcame in her career as a motodup have made her critical of the typical views of women. Strength and independence are assets she feels are not yet appreciated by the more traditional mindsets. This is the reason for her preference to work in the popular expat district of Boeng Keng Kang. Chanton began driving passengers around when she lived there. Soon it became difficult to keep pace with the escalating cost of living in Phnom Penh, and she was forced to move her family across the Japanese bridge to a small space in Chruy Chungvar. When she attempted to work in the nearby areas she found that fellow Khmers – even the women – were more comfortable taking the traditional male motodup than going with her. Because foreigners are open to the idea of a female driving a mototaxi she is able to get more business there.
Determined that her two sons, Kunthy and Chandy, have better opportunities, this motivates her through her days. One day when she retires from motodup-ing, she wants to run a breakfast shop or sell items from her house. But this is far in the future as her family often lives from day to day. Ultimately her goal is very simple. “I want to earn enough to feed my family every day, and to make sure that my sons never have to work as a motodup.”
Article courtesy of AsiaLIFE Phnom Penh March 2008

Khmer Women take note

A new book looking at the lives of women in Cambodia has been published by University of Hawaii Press this month and is called Khmer Women on the Move: Exploring Work and Life in Urban Cambodia by Annuska Derks. She gets out there to talk to Cambodian women who've moved from the countryside to work in Phnom Penh in the garment industry, prostitution and street trading and gives a fresh insight into what shapes their lives and how they balance their own aspirations with family obligations and long-held cultural ideals. In my lopsided view, women are the heartbeat of Cambodia, they make this country tick and deserve a better deal than they generally get. The greater focus given to women and their successes will I hope give confidence to others to take up the cudgels and start to make inroads into the male-dominated Khmer society. A few have done it already but their numbers are small.

Final day in Kompong Thom

Youngster and sandstone pedestal at Wat Taing Krasaing
The 8th century brick prasat at Kuk Veang
Returning from my three-day Phnom Chi adventure, I stayed overnight in a $6 fan room at the Monorom guesthouse and decided on a quick temple-hunt for my last day in Kompong Thom, to make up for the paucity of sites in Phnom Chi! Sokhom and I left after breakfast and headed south along Route 6, stopping to photograph a couple of Ting Mong (scarecrows) propped up outside houses to ward off bad spirits. At the town of Taing Krasaing, 25 kms from the city, we called into the town’s main wat to seek out the Khmer Rouge genocide memorial there, which has fallen into disrepair, as have many such monuments across the country. There were still some victim’s remains there and our presence encouraged others to visit the memorial. I also spotted a couple of sandstone pedestals at the pagoda to suggest this was the site of a prasat in the distant past. Leaving Wat Taing Krasaing, we headed a kilometre east to another prasat, Kuk Veang, located at Wat Po Vang. I’d visited this solitary 8th century brick temple eight years earlier and on this occasion was immediately besieged by a large crowd of children. Nice kids and nice temple though devoid of much carving. We called into a couple of wats looking for interesting Neak Ta shrines and found a good one at Wat Raksmei Chei Mongkol on the edge of town.
A nice collection of carvings at Wat Kakoh including two lintels and an inscribed stele
This isn't Ta Prohm at Angkor but a similar view at Phnom Sruoch
We returned to the village of Kakoh, in the shadow of Phnom Santuk, to inspect the stonemason’s workshops that line the main highway. Very impressive workmanship and well worth a look. At Wat Kakoh, next to the main vihara, is a shrine containing two very well preserved lintels, a Shiva statue and an impressive inscription stele stone, as well as large red ants waiting for an unsuspecting foreigner with a camera! Painful. Nearby, Pai and Pat beamed with pride that I wanted to visit Wat Chas, ‘their’ temple, which housed a collection of old stones and predestals. A lovely old couple who told me their life story. A kilometre away, Wat Tbong Krapeu is an open-sided wooden vihara sat on the laterite foundations of a long-gone prasat. A few sandstone pieces remain but nothing noteworthy. In sight is Phnom Sruoch, sat next to its larger sister Phnom Santuk. We took the moto on a circuitous route to the top where a maze of shrines are located amongst the natural sandstone boulders. Scrambling around, I found an inscription stone, predestals and other stones from the temple that had once occupied the site, which is now a Buddhist pagoda. Just off Route 6, a few laterite blocks and broken brick debris denote a small mound where O Prasat once stood, surrounded by a moat, and is now an orchard. Interestingly, the owners told me that the Culture Ministry have recently claimed the land, even though it’s been in the owner’s family for generations, though the Ministry allow them to continue to farm the land. The Ministry claimed the site is of ‘national and cultural heritage importance’. The residents said I was only the second foreigner to visit their temple, my pal Cristiano being the first.
The small mound that was once O Prasat and is now a small orchard
A nicely carved pedestal in the Kompong Thom museum
Back in Kompong Thom with seven temple sites visited in just three hours – Kompong Thom province, according to Cristiano, has over 400 such sites, varying is size and quantity – I treated Sokhom and his daughter Kunthea to lunch at Arunras before a whistle-stop visit to the museum directly opposite. With the poor light inside the museum room, it was rather a worthless visit and I hope that the new museum currently being built will display the artifacts - which include more than 15 lintels and lots more besides – to a far better standard. I also chatted to Chhunly, one of the culture department’s teenage dance troupe who were gathering for a practice session, and she introduced me to her fellow dancers preparing for their New Year schedule. Nice kids. I caught my Phnom Penh-bound GST bus at 3pm but with a two-hour traffic jam at Preak Leap, I didn’t get home until 9pm. I was knackered though it’s always pleasure to hook up with Sokhom. I’m now planning our next foray into the countryside of northern Cambodia. Watch this space.

A piece of history

A segment of the self-portrait by David Hinds
The early history of reggae legends Steel Pulse has always intrigued me. They've been my band of choice since I saw them at Cheltenham Town Hall in 1978, some four years after their formation in the backstreets of Handsworth in Birmingham. The founding fathers of the band were David Hinds and Basil Gabbidon. They were best friends, both attending sixth form at Handsworth Wood and they both had Saturday jobs at the Co-op supermarket in Winson Green. They loved music and they loved art. So much so that they left Handsworth Wood and went to the Bournville College of Art to continue their studies. Basil took a one year vocational course in graphics and David, who joined Basil in the supermarket on Saturday's only, took a foundation course in art studies and later moved onto the School of Art at Margaret Street, the Art Department of Birmingham Polytechnic. It was during his first year at Margaret Street in 1974 that David painted a self-portrait, that has just been offered to me for sale. It's oil paint on cotton duck canvas, 21"x20" and shows David at home - it's a unique piece of artwork by one of the world's leading reggae artists.

Monday, April 14, 2008

New year jottings

The incense stick collection point at Wat Than
Yesterday was the first day of the Khmer New Year and I accompanied a group of friends to Wat Than on Norodom Boulevard to pay my respects to the monks and my friends' ancestors. Most people tend to go to their preferred wat on the second day of the festival but even so, the pagoda at Wat Than was extremely busy and as the sole foreigner present, I was afforded much smiling and welcoming nods. We gave food to the monks, and received their blessing with some splashing of water, we also placed rice in a line of rice-pots alongwith some small denomination riel notes and then paid our respects with incense sticks and flowers to ancestors and loved ones, as well as wishing for health and prosperity in the coming year. All of the women visiting the wat were neatly dressed, as Savet is in the photo below, and appeared to take the whole thing very seriously. I was pleased that so many people are still keen to observe the Khmer traditions and enjoyed the experience of my first New Year's wat visit. I also found it amusing to watch the young street kids emptying the pots of the 100 riel notes as soon as the worshippers had put the money in the pot. It was certainly their big pay day, before they were chased away by one of the wat's laymen.
Savet, in her best temple-visiting clothes, thought she looked like a Muslim woman!
Today, I stayed indoors for much of the day as it was far too hot to do anything other than sit in front of the fan, but I did venture out for some food and found the streets around BKK1 remarkably quiet and devoid of traffic, or in fact, any life at all. The absence of motodops and tuk-tuk drivers soliciting my business was particularly noticeable. Many of them come to the capital for a few months each year to earn money outside of the farming season, so they've returned to their families in the provinces for the new year period. This evening I popped into the Red Orchid bar and restaurant, just around the corner from my house to wish the owners a happy new year and they responded with a free meal and drinks. They get my vote for bar of the year any day!

And finally...from Phnom Chi

Cristiano atop the giant stone monolith, Thma Liew Yum, near Snang An
The debris and mound that used to be a brick temple called Prasat Kamnap Neang Poav
Our prasat hunting party of (LtoR) Ka, Sokhom, Tet, Cristiano and Yot
Its early morning and still raining in the gold-mining village of Snang An
The plank of wood in the foreground is my bathing platform at the River Chinit near Snang An
The final plank bridge we had to cross just outside the district of Tumring

A prasat in sight of Phnom Chi

The brick temple of Prasat Trapeang Preus is likely to date from the late 9th or early 10th century and reminded me of some of the large brick temples that can be found on the summit of Phnom Kulen. It's secluded forest setting, a long way from any village, had not deterred the temple thieves that had robbed the site of nearly all of its carvings.
The forest track leading into Prasat Trapeang Preus
The west face of the central tower at Prasat Trapeang Preus - this tower had what looked to be flying palaces above the doorways but they were hard to distinquish
Just two sides of the central tower remain standing
This floral design was part of a lintel and is located in the northern tower
The northern tower held some carvings and an inscription stone with two lines of script
This decorated piece of colonette doubles up as a shrine, inside the northern tower

More from Phnom Chi

As well as the story behind my trip, I will post some additional photos from my Phnom Chi adventures, starting with the scenes below.
The road approaching Tumring district in northeastern Kompong Thom province
A short-cut ended at this shack where the illegal logging of trees had taken place
Its raining outside and everyone is getting ready for bed in Pouroung. LtoR; Ka, Cristiano, Sokhom
A good example of the state of the track after we left Pouroung
The beautifully peaceful River Chinit outside Pouroung
Beware overhanging branches - Sokhom takes evasive action

Phnom Chi adventures, part 2

Day 2 of our Phnom Chi adventure began at six in the morning with a cold shower in the village of Pouroung, in the remote northeast of Kompong Thom province. Our first day had been a tough eight hours on the moto, on a variety of road surfaces, the last two hours on a particularly difficult track that was a good introduction to the second day. Kayin proved to be an exceptional host and cooked us a second chicken for breakfast before we bade our farewells and with Chhoun and Srey Nee acting as our guides, we headed for our first temple of the day. It had rained throughout the night so the track through fields and the forest was mostly underwater – a common theme on this trip – it was the beginning of April and rain was almost unheard of at this time of year!

Two hours and fifteen kilometres later we arrived at the brick towers of Prasat Trapeang Preus. The temple is six kilometres north of Phnom Chi - the title of our adventure but never the actual destination – and for the first time ever I took GPS co-ordinates at the site, courtesy of GTZ who’d provided the hand-held instrument. With an elevation of 108 metres, it showed N12 degrees 51’32.1 and E105 degrees 38’32.4. I’m sure that will mean something to someone – its gobbledegook to me! The three large brick towers were in poor condition in their forested location, next to a large baray. Deep holes in the centre of each tower suggested temple thieves had already taken anything of value and amidst the rubble a token few carvings had survived and were collected together inside the northern tower – though no lintels or colonettes remained in situ and the east entrances of all three towers had been destroyed. According to the CISARK website, a second temple, Prasat Banteay Siam, was closeby but Ta, a logger and Pouroung resident who’d joined us, said that it was at least 25kms away, very remote and nothing more than a pile of rubble. We agreed against an attempt to see it, deciding instead to head for the village of Snang An, where another temple site was located.

Much of the forest route we took was flooded
Some of the carving housed in the northern tower of Prasat Trapeang Preus
Now guided by Ta, the track we followed was the toughest yet, though Sokhom and Ka showed their mettle and did a great job in keeping upright, no mean feat on a trail through rice fields, forest and river beds, major sections of which were underwater. With a short break for lunch, chicken leftovers of course, and a look at the massive stone monolith called Thma Liew Yum (’stone where people cry’), we arrived at the gold-mining village of Snang An in mid-afternoon, some four hours and 28kms since setting out from the temple. I was shattered but can only imagine how Sokhom felt, having to drive the moto with me as his passenger and carrying our heavy bags over terrain that would’ve defeated most people. I have always marvelled at this wiry man’s resilience and toughness over many trips together over the last eight years. And his spirit never flags, his smile never strays from his lips and his infectious laugh is always a welcome constant.

I didn’t get a good vibe from Snang An, a village of newly-constructed houses doubling up as shops, smiles were absent, the faces weren’t welcoming and the residents, drawn to the area to dig for gold, emitted an undercurrent of hostility I’ve not encountered before. As it was late in the day, Cristiano located a couple of guides in Yot and Tet to take us to the temple nearby, Prasat Kamnap Neang Poav. The forest track took us past a second stone monolith, Kamnap Sre Ar, to the temple site (at N13degrees 02’30.7 and E105degrees 37’23.2) which was basically a hump of ground, covered in debris from the brick temple that once stood there with a large hole in the ground at its centre. It’s located six kilometres from the village, where our accommodation for the night was the open shop-front of Tet’s house.

The forest setting of Prasat Trapeang Preus, with our party and spirit house on the right
Crossing a small bridge above a dried-out riverbed
At dusk we bathed in the nearby River Chinit and ate wild boar and tinned sardines as the palm rice wine was handed around. This time I slept, intermittently, on the floor under a mozzie net but was woken at 4am by a thunderstorm that continued for another four hours, leaving a small stream running through the centre of the village. After omelette and more sardines for breakfast, a policeman showed us the boarded-up room where six sections of colonette had been rescued from robbers at the nearby prasat and would soon find their way to the museum at Kompong Thom. A long discussion with our hosts ensued as they attempted to charge prices that were way above realistic valuations for the food, accommodation and guiding services, which I felt was merely indicative of the vibe I got from that village. We finally got away at 9.30am and with the recent rains, encountered water almost continuously along the track, as we headed back to Tumring.

In three tough hours (and forty kilometres), we were sat eating lunch at Tumring market. We said our goodbyes to Chhoun and Srey Nee who’d been great company, fixed a flat tyre and decided against taking an alternate route back to Kompong Thom via Sandan when the locals advised that it was flooded and impassable. So for the next five hours we retraced our steps back to Kompong Thom, stopping along the way for sugar cane juice and petrol, arriving at Cristiano’s home on the outskirts of the city at 5.30pm. Our Phnom Chi trip was at an end, two temples had been visited, lots of new friends made and some very tough terrain conquered, and whilst it wasn’t as successful, temple-wise, as I’d hoped, it was an enjoyable adventure nonetheless.

Time for a break and some chicken leftovers en route to Snang An
Our overnight accommodation in Snang An, the expensive shop-home of Tet

Phnom Chi adventures, part 1

The prospect of unseen temples and an adventure into an unexplored part of Kompong Thom province was the attraction – though it didn’t quite turn out as planned on our trip to the region of Phnom Chi. Just a week away from Khmer New Year and rooms were already at a premium in Kompong Thom city. I managed to grab the last $5 fan room at Ponloeu Thmey guesthouse on the main road after arriving in a rainstorm. This adventure would be an unusual one for me. It would be the first time I’d undertaken a trip with a travelling companion, namely Cristiano, a long-time Kompong Thom NGO resident who has spent his spare time identifying archaeological sites in the province. Next morning our party of Sokhom – my motodop and best friend – and myself, Cristiano and Ka, left on two motos heading south along Route 6 to Kompong Thmor.
The barely recognizable track through the forest on the way to the Phnom Chi region
An impromptu lunch-break whilst lost in the forest. LtoR; Sokhom, Cristiano, Ka
Stocking up on provisions, we left the highway to follow the River Chinit for a while. Through villages such as Laak, Taminh, Krayea and Dangkdar that see no foreigners at all, we were novelty visitors attracting lots of attention, waves and shouted welcomes. Aiming for the district of Tumring, the remote road through the heavily wooded landscape was water-logged from overnight rain but easily navigable. We disturbed a beautifully coloured woodpecker in full pecking mode whilst our only companions were thousands of butterflies feeding in the puddles and the constant shrill of cicadas in the trees surrounding us. We took a break at Trapeang Rosei for a glass of saray – a coconut and sugar dessert – and just after the army post of Sai Buon, we heeded the advice of some loggers and took a short-cut turn-off. Within fifteen minutes we were lost! The track had ended at a shack in the forest and after eating our lunch on a carpet of leaves, we retraced our steps to the turn-off and carried on.

Six hours and just over a hundred kilometres into our trip we reached Tumring market, its surrounding rubber plantation concession and a distant hazy view of Phnom Chi mountain. This was a large village by comparison to anything else we’d passed through and we took a welcome break. The track to Pouroung, our next destination, wasn’t straightforward, so we joined forces with Chhoun and his wife Srey Nee, who lived in the village, for the next leg of our trip. In fact the track was hardly worthy of the word and for much of the next two hours Chhoun followed his instinct through the forest. At times we tracked an old laterite path but rain had made it wet and a little dangerous, and after a breather at Cheik village we arrived at Pouroung at 4pm, only 18kms from Tumring, and 125kms from our starting point in Kompong Thom.

Sokhom negotiates a plank bridge over the River Chinit near PouroungAn early morning photo-call for (LtoR) Sokhom, yours truly and Ka

Pouroung was the closest village to our first target temple, Prasat Trapeang Preus and with most of the villagers attending a ceremony at the pagoda, we accepted an offer from Chhoun to stay overnight at the home of his aunt Kayin. We hooked up our hammocks on the stilts of an unfinished house and took a shower at the family well. With the chicken cooking in the pot, a distant electrical storm quickly moved directly above us and ear-shattering thunder and lightning flashes with sheeting rain prompted us to scramble into Kayin’s small one-roomed home – a dozen people in all, including Kayin’s five young children. I was ravenous so the chicken, rice and vegetables were soon devoured and with rain coming in through holes in the hut, we all settled down for the night, some in hammocks including me, most on the floor. [Part 2 to follow.]

Its early morning at our overnight homestay in Pouroung villageOur friendly guides, Srey Nee and Chhoun

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Buddhism in stone

This face of Buddha is not quite the finished article at the village of Kakoh
Chisels and stone polishers were much in evidence on this pair of seated Buddhas at Kakoh
The village of Kakoh is primarily known as the access point to visit Phnom Santuk - a mountain about fifteen kilometres outside Kompong Thom city and famed for its gorgeous views, its collection of Buddha statues and its exhausting 980 steps to the top. However, the village is also home to a series of stonemason houses where at any time of the day, you can pause and see how the experts carve those beautiful statues from a rough block of stone, chip away with their chisels and then polish the stone to give it a lovely smooth finish. Some of the carvings are enormous and a couple dwarfed the nearby houses when I stopped to take a look last week. Sokhom told me that the best quality stone comes from Preah Vihear province these days. Its certainly worth a look next time you are on Route 6.
This enormous, unfinished Buddha dwarfed the nearby house
Be careful not to make a mistake - it could be costly!
The mason's wear face masks because of the dust and chips from the stone-working

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Keeping out the bad spirits

A Ting Mong found on Route 6 just outside Kompong Thom
Close-up of this Ting Mong that didn't scare away the cattle!
Scarecrows are usually found in a field of corn or other crops to scare away birds but in Cambodia they can also be seen outside homes and are called Ting Mong. As part of village life and the belief systems of Cambodians in the countryside, animism plays a central role in those beliefs which can be seen in the relevance of spirit forces like Neak Ta and the Ting Mong. People believe that an unknown force is embodied in the scarecrow, puppet-like figure, which they call Ting Mong, that will protect them from disease or death. Often you will find these Ting Mong constructed using spare clothes and placed in front of the house doorway in the belief that it has the power to drive away the spirit of disease, danger or death including epidemics of dengue fever for example. Ting Mong is also the name given to the larger-than-life puppets with giant heads that you see at certain festivals in the Khmer calendar.
Keep your eyes open for Ting Mong like this next time you're in the countryside
This Ting Mong has a body of straw and a face drawn on paper


What is Neak Ta?

A distinctive ancestral Neak Ta shrine at Wat Raksmei Chei Mongkol at Taing Krasaing

In an effort to find an answer to the question, what is Neak Ta, by far the best source is Khmer scholar Ang Choulean who summed it up with this view; 'The Neak Ta is the most omnipresent figure of the divinities which populate the supernatural world of the Cambodian countryside...the Neak Ta is not just a kind of simple spirit but rather a phenomenon or energy force relating to a specific group such as a village community.'
Neak Ta shrines or huts contain small collections of natural or man-made objects - which can include old stones, termite hills, linga, wooden carvings, human-like figures - and these objects represent land (soil, nature) and spirit (mythic ancestor, being) elements. The size and type of objects found in these shrines varies greatly according to the village or pagoda, where these huts are often found, as in the example above.
The concept of Neak Ta is uniquely Cambodian as far as I'm aware and has its roots in the animist beliefs of the scared soil and sacred spirits that surround us. The energy force that Ang Choulean speaks of, unites the community with its earth and water and symbolizes the link between the people and the fertility of their land and their ancestors before them. Neak Ta is believed to belong to an 'outside realm' as it does not fall within the Buddhist precepts, though the two live side by side and the wat Neak Ta receives offerings from the pagoda faithful and is said to not tolerate unsuitable conduct within the grounds, such as urinating or speaking offensive words. You can often find a wat Neak Ta in the northeast corner of the grounds of a pagoda. Take time to look out for a Neak Ta shrine next time you are in a village or a pagoda and see what is represented inside as there's a wonderful variety that can spring a surprise or two.

Khmer New Year

The 16-strong troupe from the Cambodian Light Children's Association
One of the performers who collected money in a pouch on a long stick
The arrival of Khmer New Year has brought bad karma for some residents of Phnom Penh when a fire swept through the Russei Keo district of the capital and destroyed around 450 shanty homes in Boeng Chhouk village yesterday. The fire engines were again in action early this morning when another large fire took hold of a building at the Naga Casino complex near the riverside. I didn't go and see but I could hear the constant drone of the fire engine claxons and I could see the smoke billowing into the sky from a couple of kilometres away. Khmer friends told me, "its that time of year."
On a more positive note, Khmer New Year is enshrouded in ceremony and celebration. Over the last few nights the music and laughter has been ringing out til late at night in the streets surrounding my house with traditional games such as Angkunh, Leak Kanseng, Chhoung and Dandoeum Sloek Chhoeu being played by groups of boys and girls, who've also formed dance circles until midnight. At the Hanuman office today we enjoyed another special New Year's ceremony called Robam Trot, which originates from Stung Treng and involved youngsters from the Cambodian Light Children's Association orphanage. Dressed up in traditional costumes, they symbolized chasing away any bad spirits and bringing prosperity by re-creating the hunting of a deer.
The performers entering the Hanuman premises
One of the demons dressed in mask and blue costume
Some of the Hanuman staff with MD Tan Sotho in the foreground

Friday, April 11, 2008

Not forgotten

Wooden pediment to be found at Kompong Speu's Culture department
I have so many photos to post and articles to write - there's still a host of details to blog from my recent Phnom Chi trip - that I can often forget to post photos that I think are worth showing. The above is a good example. As I was leaving Kompong Speu town on a recent trip, I stopped at the Culture & Fine Arts office, which was closed but this excellent wooden pediment of Rahu, taken from above the doorway to a wooden pagoda somewhere in the province, was residing in the open air. I've touched on the sad loss of the country's wooden pagodas before and pediments like these are now in short supply. I've seen a few at the Angkor Conservation Depot in Siem Reap and they are well worth displaying for their intricate design and historical value. I don't know how many of these carvings are left but this one, and the handful of others I've seen, should be on show somewhere, as part of Cambodia's dwindling heritage.

Thank you to House 32

A few weeks ago readers of this blog will know that my original blog was hijacked, stolen, call it what you will, with the thief then using it for google advertising and so on, whilst keeping all of my original postings, for the past 21 months, online. It's still there but the google ads have disappeared. All incredibly frustrating as you might imagine - I will admit to using a long list of expletives at the time - but a lesson learnt about online security nonetheless. In the meantime, this blog was started and with the incredibly diligent work of House 32, led by John Weeks and his amazing team of people, all of my original blog postings with photos and comments, have been copied into this new blog. It would've taken me forever to have done it myself, but House 32 offered their services - they're a web design company based in Phnom Penh - and though they were already busy enough, they did a grand job and I want to publicly thank John and his team for their help and perseverance. Find out more about House 32 here.

Party time at Kuk Veang

The older boys at Wat Po Vang had just finished lighting fire-crackers
The small brick temple of Kuk Veang lies in the grounds of Wat Po Vang, a kilometre from the town of Taing Krasaing along a dusty side road. The waves and shouted welcomes suggest few foreign visitors to the site, which I had first visited eight years earlier. The new pagoda under construction at that time is now finished and all else looks exactly the same. The small brick prasat is still lovingly cared for by the laymen at the temple. On this occasion, my visit attracted a big audience of mostly young children. As you can see from the photos above and below, they love having their picture taken, though there were just as many who ran around the other side of the pagoda to avoid the camera!
The younger element at Wat Po Vang

Forgotten Taing Krasaing

The forgotten Khmer Rouge victim's at Wat Taing Krasaing
Above and below this shelf was once stacked with the remains of Khmer Rouge victims
Like most genocide memorials around Cambodia, the one at Wat Taing Krasaing is largely forgotten. The town itself lies on the main Route 6 highway just 25 kms south of Kompong Thom and for most people, they pass through it in the blink of an eye. The entry gate to the town's main pagoda is on the highway. When I visited it last week, a large ceremony was taking place in the grounds of the wat, with lots of people milling around and eating food. One of the young monks pointed to a stupa in the corner of the grounds when I enquired where the Khmer Rouge memorial was located and I found the building in a dilapidated state, with graffiti-strewn walls and a collection of rubbish on its floor. On a shelf were the remnants of the memorial, with two boxes of victim's bones and skulls and more detritus. Our presence elicited some interest from the party-goers who wandered over to see what we were doing. They had no idea about the memorial even though they had lived in the area for many years. Then an older man recalled that a ceremony was held here each year on 20 May for a few years when the shelf was stacked high with skulls and the space beneath the shelf was packed full of arm and leg bones. He thought that over the intervening years, people had forgotten about the memorial and some bones had been taken away and animals had devoured much of the remainder. DC-Cam's notes on the memorial aren't overly helpful, indicating only that the victim's remains had been collected from security prisons in the district of Santuk and stored at the site. It had not itself been a prison or burial ground during the Khmer Rouge regime. The graffiti on the walls included some killing scenes but they were rather crudely drawn. As the new Cambodia focuses on the present and looks to the future, these reminders of the past will sadly remain ignored and abandoned.
This memorial stupa at Wat Taing Krasaing lies forgotten in a corner of the pagoda
A crude drawing on the wall of the stupa depicting a Khmer Rouge killer
These children followed me around the pagoda from the moment I arrived until I left. They tried to get into every photo! Nice kids.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cambodia Calling

Published last month, Cambodia Calling: A Memoir From the Frontlines of Humanitarian Aid, chronicles the adventures in rural Cambodia of Canadian founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, Richard Heinzl. As the author states; "I was so blown away by my experiences overseas, I just had to write about it. I needed to make sense of the experience. I wanted to write it right away, but I was too close to the experience and required some time to allow it to percolate through me." Heinzl's memoir, published by Wiley, includes his time in Uganda before working in Sisophon in northwest Cambodia in the early '90s. A medical doctor from Hamilton, Ontario, he's the founder of Doctors Without Borders / Médicins Sans Frontières in Canada. He studied at the University of Toronto, McMaster University, Harvard University, and the University of Oxford. His travels and work have taken him to over 70 countries, and he is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a citation from the Government of Cambodia and an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, McMaster University. He travels widely, speaking about his adventures in the field to enthusiastic audience at universities and organizations and lives with his family in Ontario.

Powerful propaganda

Ieng Thirith, a Khmer Rouge mouthpiece, now on trial for crimes against humanity; wife of Ieng Sary
Pen Sovann, who became the Prime Minister but was later arrested and held in a Vietnamese prison for a decade
Meta House was full as a tin of sardines last night, as people came out of the woodwork to watch an extraordinary historical documentary film - Kampuchea : Death and Rebirth - by the East German filmmakers Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann, who were one of the first reporting crews to get access to Cambodia after the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge from power in the spring of 1979. It certainly lived up to its billing of unique and raw footage from a devastated Cambodia, though its stilted and forced dialogue, constant reference to the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique and overtly political leanings made it grating to watch at times. The mesmeric journey through the completely empty streets of Phnom Penh and the interviews with the handful of shell-shocked inhabitants who'd managed to survive the genocide, often by hiding their true identities, was powerful stuff for the time. British audiences had already seen some of the shocking scenes from Cambodia in John Pilger's Year Zero documentary in October 1979 but the Heynowski/Scheumann film featured more interviews and street scenes. It also contained interviews with leading characters such as Pen Sovann, the leader of the new Kampuchean authorities, a youthful student named Khieu Kanharith, who is now the Minister of Information and Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Thirith, who is currently awaiting trial in Phnom Penh for crimes against humanity, and who blamed the country's ills on Vietnam, admitting only that the KR had evacuated the capital. Powerful stuff.
A youthful Khieu Kanharith, the current Minister of Information

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

To Speak makes waves

A film shot entirely on location in Cambodia, with first-time Khmer actors, led by a central performance from 12-year-old Ratana Peuw, is making waves in the film world. To Speak is the brainchild of writer and director Craig Ower and focuses on Ratana's brave attempts to improve her and her village's economic conditions by accepting a controversial development savings program. The film, 104 minutes long, got its first showing at the Montreal World Film Festival at the back-end of 2007, though like many films about Cambodia, post production took a long time to finalize after the film was shot two years before. The Tabitha Foundation is the NGO organization that co-funded the film in terms of resources – manpower, meals, transport etc and they even had houses built for the villages that were involved in the film. Find out more at the movie's website here.

All the dumb things

I don't normally highlight other blogs in this dog-eat-dog blog world - only kiddin' - but I recommend you take a quick peek here and read about Phnom Penh in January 1975 and one particular teenager's fascination with things he really shouldn't be doing! Part three of his story should be online very soon. I love the photos.

Wildlife update

National Geographic reporter Stefan Lovgren, who accompanied me on the recent WWF Mondulkiri Bike Tour, stayed on in Cambodia to seek out the latest from the Mekong River in his on-going reports on the world's largest freshwater fish. The Mekong Giant Catfish just happens to be the world's biggest freshwater fish ever caught and its future is in doubt if plans go ahead for dams on the Mekong River. Read Stefan's article here.
Continuing on the theme of wildlife, Wildlife Conservation Society report that endangered bird species are recovering their numbers in the Tonle Sap Lake area of Cambodia. The WCS report, released earlier this week, said the Prek Toal bird colonies hold the largest — and in some cases the only — breeding populations in Southeast Asia of the seven globally threatened large water bird species. The species are the spot-billed pelican, milky stork, painted stork, lesser adjutant, greater adjutant, black-headed ibis and the Oriental darter. There were over 20,000 birds in 2007, compared to 5,000 in 2001, the report said. Great news. Read more here.

A film not to be missed

Get along to Meta House on Street 264 near Wat Botum in Phnom Penh later tonight (7pm) to watch what promises to be an extraordinary film - Kampuchea : Death and Rebirth - compiled by the East German filmmakers Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann immediately after the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge from power in the spring of 1979. It's unique and raw footage from a devastated Cambodia, showing scenes that have become infamous around the globe of an empty city left to rampant nature, the shocking evidence of mass killings and a harrowing look at the faces of the survivors. The film is 89 minutes in length and features an interview with one of the KR leaders Ieng Thirith, who is currently awaiting trial in Phnom Penh. A year later, the filmmakers made a 90-minute feature documentary called The Angkar, again focusing on the Khmer Rouge. Heynowski and Scheumann were amongst the most productive and best known GDR documentarists and perceived documentary films as an instrument of political intervention. Between 1965 and 1991, they produced more than 70 films together – temporarily with their own production company Studio H&S (1969-1982). They initially set out to discredit West Germany but soon fixed their focus on conflicts of decolonization and postcolonial struggles within the context of the Cold War. Their numerous films on Congo, Chile, Vietnam, Libya and Cambodia contain in part unique footage of momentous world events in the 20th century.

Later in the month, the Meta House will show Dogora (on 19 April), a street level documentary without a plot, actors or script, by Patrice Leconte (2004, 80 mins); and James Gerrand's Cambodia, Kampuchea, which draws on unique archival and propaganda material to detail the tragedy of Cambodia. The film was made in 1986 and will be shown on 26 April.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Water brings benefits

A storm cloud just outside Kompong Thom city
Kompong Thom was surprisingly wet on my recent visit to the province. It rained for long periods on my three days in the countryside and our temple-hunting adventure near Phnom Chi and whilst it made our travels much tougher on motos through flooded forest tracks, others found the benefits of a lot of water at the hottest and driest time of the year, a welcome relief.
These two water buffalo are having a fabulous time splashing around in this water-hole created by the recent rains
Children enjoying this water pool in the district of Tumring
These children were having a great time using this tree stump as a diving board to take advantage of the pool of water left by the recent rains in the district of Tumring, in eastern Kompong Thom province. This pool was next to a large rubber plantation - which was at the center of a logging scandal last year - and the children are from the families of the plantation workers. Once they saw my camera they re-doubled their efforts to show off their diving and jumping skills. Its a great way to keep cool in the middle of the hottest days of April.
Let's see who can make the biggest splash!

Faces from Kompong Thom

Pending a series of posts from my recent trip to Phnom Chi, here are some faces from my visit to Kompong Thom, starting with my best friend and his lovely daughter, Sokhom and Kunthea. I've known Sokhom since December 1999 and his friendship and consummate skills as a moto-driver have been invaluable on my travels around northern Cambodia ever since. This photo was taken the night before our trip to Phnom Chi as we enjoyed a meal and fruit-shakes near his home. Kunthea is still top of her class in most subjects and has another two years at high school. Her spoken English is at a very high standard for one so young, encouraged and cajoled constantly by her dad.
This group of youngsters were getting ready for dance practice at the Kompong Thom Culture & Fine Arts headquarters when I met them. Chhunly - wearing a pink top with white lettering in the centre of the photo - introduced me to everyone and told me that they were practicing every day in the lead up to the forthcoming Khmer New Year, where they were scheduled to perform a series of classical folk dances at various events. They are all still at school or college and all have a love of dancing and it was great to see their enthusiasm for their art, and their determination to work hard to make sure they were as polished and professional as they could be. Just a pity I won't be able to see them perform.
This young boy is sheltering from the rainstorm that hit Kompong Thom soon after my arrival. He's standing outside the Arunras Hotel in the center of the city and is a street kid, spending his time scouring the streets of the city for cans, bottles and anything that he can either re-sell or utilise in some way. He was in a gang of three boys but the other two were too shy to have their photo taken.
This smiling face belongs to Theary, a twenty-three year old pineapple seller at one of the regular bus stops outside Skun. I was on the Sorya bus heading for Kompong Thom and they always stop at the same place for a toilet break and a bite to eat. Theary came up to me and said she remembered me from a previous visit a few weeks earlier and was keen to practice her English, so we spent the next twenty minutes in conversation. Her English was pretty good and she helped me with a few Khmer words too. She didn't even try to sell me any pineapple, but I bought some anyway! Nice girl, say hello next time you are on a Phnom Sorya bus that stops near Skun.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Pia and Pat's temple

A gracious couple who have made it their life duty to look after Wat Chas, Pat and Pia
The unremarkable shrine of Wat Chas
Very often during my travels throughout Cambodia I meet people who make a lasting impression on me and these two lovely members of the older generation did just that. Pai was so proud to tell me he was 81 years old and had lived a stone's throw away from this ancient brick temple site in all that time. His wife, Pat, was just a couple of years behind him and was equally proud of 'their' temple, which they called Wat Chas. To most people this is merely a Buddhist shrine in a remote field with a few broken stones littering the ground, but to Pai and Pat it represents so much more. They are both deeply religious people and have made it their duty in life to look after the site, keep it free from vegetation and make it presentable for the few worshippers who bother to come to Wat Chas ('old temple'). Pai recalls a walled building in his youth but never saw the ancient temple in its prime, recalling that there were considerably more stones and carvings in years gone by, but many were taken to nearby Wat Kakoh a decade or so ago, whilst others have disappeared during the night. What remains is a small fraction of what was once in situ. You wouldn't know Wat Chas was there in reality, as there's no road to the site, just a small path between wooden houses. Its close to the foot of Phnom Sruoch, itself a smaller sister hill to Phnom Santuk, a well-known tourist spot a few kilometres south of Kompong Thom city. What makes the visit worthwhile is the bright spark behind the eyes of Pai and Pat when they talk with unmistakable pride about their temple. They recalled the time when their son had a dream and went to dig near the site, to uncover the largest stone now propped up against the shrine. They have lots of other stories to tell about the site and their own lives, so if you want to meet two people who would welcome your visit, seek them out a kilometre from the village of Kakoh. You won't be disappointed.
The selection of stones still on view at Wat Chas include some pedestals and the large stone uncovered by their son, propped up against the shrine
This Neak Ta shrine nearby contains an ancient stone together with a small Buddhist statue and a solitary head


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Concluding my Sunday moto-ride

Bringing to a close my handful of snapshots from this morning's moto-ride along the western bank of the Mekong River through Prek Leap and Bakkheng communes, are another Neak Ta figure, almost Romanesque in looks, that I found at Wat Potipreak, where I stopped to eat my chicken and rice lunch on a wooden bench designed for the task. It was a foot away from the river itself and it was very pleasant to watch the larger boats chug along the river and fishing boats stop in mid-stream to haul in their catch. I had missed the annual Mekong Swim that had taken place a bit earlier that same morning, approximately 500 metres from my perch on the riverbank, at the Agricultural College.
This wooden pagoda at Wat Chambork Meas was the end of my journey, around twenty kilometres from the city. It no longer functions as a pagoda although it still has its Buddhist shrine and figures in place, as you can see below. Now the vihara is used as a classroom and a school in Prime Minister Hun Sen's name sits alongside it. Across the main highway is a brand new pagoda, which obviously replaced this wooden version, that is now slowly falling into disrepair. A sad end for one of the country's few remaining wooden pagodas.

A leap over the Japanese Bridge

An attractive building built in 1933 in Prek Leap
The backroad that lies parallel to Route 6 as you enter Prek Leap commune just after the Japanese Bridge is quiet and shut off from the suicidal taxi-drivers and horn-blaring mini-van madmen of the national highway. It's thankfully free of much traffic at all and earlier this morning was a pleasant and relaxing way to see more of the Mekong River that runs alongside it for much of the way. Prek Leap is famous for its brightly-lit restaurants at night along Route 6, but there are also a large number of restaurants along this quieter road too, overlooking the river though many of them have fallen into disrepair since their heyday in the '90s. The pace of life is slower, the people very friendly and the sugar cane tastes lovely. I stopped at a few wats in Preak Leap and Bakkheng communes and also spotted this French colonial-style building, dating from 1933, though the inhabitants were out so I couldn't find out any more details or take a look inside.
I liked this ceiling painting in Wat Bakkheng as it included a representation of Angkor in the top right-hand corner and was just about to be re-painted, as were all the wall paintings in this pagoda. The main vihara was undergoing a complete re-fit. There was another well-attended ceremony taking place at this pagoda, as there are in many wats up and down the country at this time of year, as Khmer New Year approaches. This Neak Ta shrine at the same pagoda features two brightly coloured gentlemen, as they overlook the Mekong River.

In Kien Khleang

This colourful and rather ornate pagoda is Wat Serei Mongkol Kien Khleang and is just a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh, and over the Japanese Bridge. Kien Khleang is better known for it's rehabilitation center for mine and polio victims, but close by is this large wat that overlooks the Mekong River. The pagoda compound is a large one with numerous buildings and burial stupas and was heavily populated on my visit with 150 monks invited to attend a family ceremony, with relatives also coming from far and wide including the USA. I didn't hang around for too long but one of the older women did introduce me to the two Neak Ta shrines placed on either side of the wat's vihara and also told me that the wat itself was quite old and is unusual in that the head monk had a dream about how to construct the vihara and that's why it is so beautiful and ornately decorated.
This Neak Ta figure is Botum Pov and I was told she originates from Laos where she was a soldier and is particularly highly respected by women, who come to the pagoda to pay their respects at this shrine.
This bearded male Neak Ta figure is Lokta Chas Srok, the male version at the pagoda and he sits on the lip of the riverbank. Any land slippage and he'll be in the river.

Resting by the Mekong River

A chance to unwind at Wat Potipreak on the Mekong River
My recent travels to Mondulkiri and Phnom Chi have been pretty tiring. So this morning I went for a gentle moto-ride along the west bank of the Mekong River, through the backroads of Prek Leap and Bakkheng. Lunch was taken along the river at Wat Potipreak and I'll post a few photos from the trip later. For now, here's yours truly feeling relaxed and restful after the last few weeks of tough travel in the Cambodian countryside.

Dith Pran - RIP

Dith Pran (left) with Sydney Schanberg
I've been away so didn't get a chance to acknowledge the sad passing of a brave man, Dith Pran. Someone who knew him very well is reporter Jon Swain, who wrote the following article in today's Sunday Times in the UK. The world will miss a man of Dith Pran's calibre.

Jon Swain
was about to be shot by the Khmer Rouge when Dith Pran intervened. The Sunday Times war reporter pays tribute to the courage of his friend, who died last week

Four years after his enslavement by the Khmer Rouge, an intrepid Cambodian stumbled out of the thickly wooded jungle to freedom. His legs were wobbly. He was weak with malaria. His front teeth were broken. His face was gaunt. He was incredibly thin – but he still retained his lopsided grin. That grin was still in place – although fading – in the weeks before Dith Pran died last Sunday in a hospital in America, his adopted home, from pancreatic cancer. He was 65. Although wan and thin, he moved on gracefully, loved and mourned by all whose lives he had touched. “This is my path and I must go where it takes me,” he said shortly before the end.

Pran’s harrowing personal tale of enslavement and escape from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 had eventually become the subject of the Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields, directed by Roland Joffé, which focused global attention on one of history’s worst genocides. Pran was justly famous. Were it not for this former tourist guide to the fabled Angkor temples, who later became interpreter and assistant to Sydney Schanberg, a reporter for The New York Times, in Cambodia, the world’s eyes would probably not have been opened to the monstrous atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in his native land. In its rush to forge a new society, 2m people died in executions or from starvation, disease and overwork – nearly a third of the population. However, Pran did more. After his escape he moved to America, where he worked as a photographer for The New York Times and spent the rest of his life speaking out about what his countrymen had been through. He also pushed for war crimes trials for the Khmer Rouge leaders – trials that are finally due to begin this year in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Pran, alas, will never see them. “I am a one-person crusade,” he once said. “I must speak for those who did not survive and those who still suffer.”

I owe this honourable Cambodian a debt of gratitude that I can never erase. He saved my life when I was captured by the Khmer Rouge. At the time the Cambodian war was a sideshow to the war raging next door in Vietnam and some aspects of it seemed comic. Before sallying forth every morning into the countryside to witness the fighting, we reporters would meet at the Groaning Table – an open-air cafe – for a military briefing from a charming colonel called Am Rong, whose unfortunate name was a butt of endless jokes. His military communiqués, I remember, were invariably nonsense. The seductive wartime capital, with its brothels and opium parlours, encouraged all kinds of indiscretions and we conducted our lives as though we were characters in a Graham Greene novel; or we liked to imagine that we did.

However, the war was deadly serious. So we also took insane risks and witnessed and reported on some of the most appalling human suffering that I have seen. In the process more than 20 of the tiny foreign press corps of about 60 were killed in a matter of months by the Khmer Rouge, who never took prisoners. And many more Cambodian journalists also died. We loved the Cambodians, who had a disarming insouciance in the face of danger. The difference between us and the band of local journalists we hired to interpret the language, politics and culture was that they were seeing and reporting on their own country being destroyed. We, on the other hand, were reporting from the privileged position of visitors who could always bail out. For them, there could be nowhere else to go: they and their loved ones were trapped by the war and their survival was dependent on the outcome.

It was Pran who was the unacknowledged dean of this Cambodian press corps, not because of the status that his job with the venerable New York Times gave him, but because he was so unusually acute and resourceful and had unassailable integrity. The horrors of the war had made morality a luxury that many of his fellow countrymen had long since discarded. Yet, unlike so many of the politicians and generals for whom survival and money were the ultimate objectives, Pran remained faithful to his principles. He believed passionately that the story of the destruction of his beautiful homeland needed to be told. And to that end he risked his life time after time.

I first met Pran in 1972. Although his loyalty was always to Schanberg, he was ready to give help and advice to me and all the other journalists. Never more so than on April 17, 1975 – the day of the fall of Phnom Penh. On that same day Schanberg, Al Rockoff, an American photographer, and I were captured by the Khmer Rouge. A squad of teenage soldiers with hate-filled eyes forced us into a captured armoured personnel carrier (APC). Pran, realising we were going to be executed, selflessly argued to be allowed to join us inside, knowing full well that without his communication skills we were doomed. It is this story that is told in The Killing Fields. And it was Dith Pran himself, by the way, who coined the phrase “killing fields” after seeing the grim piles of corpses and skeletal remains on his desperate trek to freedom. That was in the future. Back when Pran volunteered himself as a prisoner, there seemed little hope of escape for any of us. First we were taken to the banks of the Mekong river; then the rear door of the APC opened and a pair of Khmer Rouge soldiers, pointing rifles, beckoned us out. We knew they were going to shoot us. Pran got out first and began to talk softly and firmly, as he always did. He told the Khmer Rouge that we were neutral journalists who had come to report on their historic “liberation”; and, after a while, our would-be killers began to calm down. The tension suddenly evaporated and we were freed.

A few days later we tried to doctor one of my two British passports for Pran so that he could be evacuated with us to Thailand as a foreigner – but we failed. The Khmer Rouge forced him to go into the countryside – by now becoming a giant labour camp – where he somehow survived torture, starvation and a life of unremitting hard toil. When he emerged four years later, 50 members of his family had perished. Mercifully, Schanberg had evacuated Pran’s wife, Ser Moeun, and his four beloved children before Phnom Penh fell and they were safely in America. The first I knew of his freedom was when I received a telegram from Schanberg, who had been tortured by guilt about Pran’s disappearance and had led his own one-man crusade to trace his helper and friend. The telegram included a personal message from Pran, patterned on a Cambodian proverb: “Hi Jon. The world is round. Now I meet you again. Pran was in bad shape, but the life is remained. Love Pran.” I still have it. In subsequent years I saw him several times back in Cambodia.

It is a place that takes over the soul, and those who have known it at its worst are irresistibly drawn back. We revisited old spots – including, once, the place on the riverbank where, blinking in the sunlight, we had stood facing the rifles of the Khmer Rouge peasant boys, waiting for the volley of shots that would kill us. The slight man I had known had put on weight; he had adopted American food and habits and had a New Jersey twang. Beneath all that he was still the same Pran: warm and attentive, with that peculiarly Cambodian joie de vivre and a mischievous sense of humour. His business card announced simply: “Dith Pran – photographer”. On the other side, however, it listed information about how the Khmer Rouge had ruined his beloved homeland. Using his survival as a tool against injustice and genocide, he became a good-will ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, founded a holocaust awareness project and compiled a book of children’s accounts of growing up under the Khmer Rouge.

It is given to few journalists to make a real difference to people’s lives. Once safe in America, Pran could have retreated into the background. Countless Cambodians did. But he saw it as his duty to stop the memory of what had happened to his country fading away. That and his courage and loyalty are what made Pran magnificent. Latterly, friends said, he had become disappointed with the way Cambodia was becoming rotten again with corruption and cruelty. His marriage to Ser Moeun had broken up and another marriage had failed. Despite personal setbacks, he bore his public role gracefully. Right to the end he always thought there was more that he could do, according to Schanberg, who spent many days attending to his dying friend. “Pran was a true reporter – a fighter for the truth and for his people,” Schanberg said. “When the cancer struck, he fought for his life again. And he did it with the same Buddhist calm and courage and positive spirit that made [him] so special.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer too late for much hope of survival, Pran urged others to undergo early testing. “I want to save lives, including my own,” he said. He had triumphed over the Khmer Rouge and outlived their leader, Pol Pot, who had turned Cambodia into a madhouse. But Pran knew deep down that the battle against cancer was one he could not win. “Cambodians believe we just rent this body,” he said not long before he died. “It is just a house for the spirit; and if the house is full of termites, it is time to leave.”

Saturday, April 5, 2008

I'm back from my wet adventures

A thunder and lightning storm hits Kompong Thom as I arrive - the sign of things to come
Sometimes things don't quite go to plan. My Phnom Chi adventure was one of those times. Don't get me wrong, it was far from a disaster and at times it was good fun but temple-wise it wasn't as successful as I'd hoped and we had to overcome quite a few hurdles to get back to our starting point within three days. It was also the first temple-hunting trip I've done with a 'travelling partner' and that in itself made it unusual. In the past I've made it my policy to travel solo with my pal Sokhom as my moto-driver, guide and translator. And it was wet, very wet! I should've seen it coming when I arrived in Kompong Thom to be confronted with a rainstorm that flooded the streets and sent everyone scurrying for cover. We then encountered rain for the next three days of our adventure into the unexplored wilds of eastern Kompong Thom province. My final half-day was much more successful by comparison. I managed half a dozen temple sites only one of which I'd seen before as well as a genocide memorial in just a few hours of bright sunshine - but Kompong Thom province is like that - it's awash with interesting sites and lovely people, which I always seem to encounter on my trips there. If you haven't discovered the delights of Kompong Thom yet, take my word for it, it's well worth a visit. More on my Phnom Chi trip very soon.
The flooded forest trail we encountered for much of our time in the Phnom Chi area