Saturday, May 31, 2008

Out along the tracks

A well-preserved Pacific steam locomotive next to the railway station in Phnom Penh
Saturday afternoon = free time, so I paid a quick visit to the railway station in Phnom Penh, specifically on the hunt for the railway sheds that I was told contained some rusting, ancient steam locomotives. Not that I'm a railway buff, though as a kid I was a keen train-spotter back in England and used to travel all over the UK logging train numbers, before I discovered football and girls! Someone had asked me to seek out these old loco's, so I did a bit of ferreting around this afternoon. I didn't hang around the railway station itself as the guy at the gate was asking silly money, so instead I took the moto along the tracks for about half a kilometre, eliciting stares and smiles from the owners of the ramshackle corrugated shacks that pose as homes for the people who live next to the railway line and back onto Boeung Kak lake. The well-preserved steam locomotive in the top picture is located near the entrance to the railway yards. The two rusting and decrepit Pacific loco's pictured here can be found further down the line, alongwith a few shunting engines and two large railway sheds which I was told contain around eight steam loco's and various carriages and rolling stock, but the man with the keys was not about. So to get inside will require another visit, and no doubt a few dollars to grease the wheels, so to speak. It was my first time along the tracks and the people I met including the female security guards were all very pleasant. I rounded off the visit with a glass of sugar-cane juice and visited some friends in Tuol Kauk.
A Pacific steam loco left to rot and rust and now only good for scrap
Another Pacific steam loco left to the elements
The front of the steam locomotive, which will soon succumb to the bushes growing all around it
One of the regularly used shunting engines at the railway yards
These railway sheds are used for repairing both engines and carriages, though the ones in the foreground are not good examples of their handiwork!
The main railway sheds where eight steam loco's are housed
This is the main track that the trains used to take on the way to Kampot and Sihanoukville before they were stopped

Friday, May 30, 2008

Looking back to 1994

Kin was my Phnom Penh guide on my 1st-ever visit to the city
Anniversaries often include a look-back into the past and a comment to one of my blog posts recently jogged my memory that following my first-ever visit to Cambodia in November 1994, I wrote an article for my company's quarterly magazine. I've just managed to track it down and repeat it here for posterity. Reading it now, some 14 years later, I wish I had been more descriptive about the sights, sounds and smells I encountered, such as the hordes of limbless beggars in ragged military uniforms that invaded the Central Market area every morning, the constant blaring of car horns at all hours of the day, the absence of any street lighting in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap that left me reluctant to venture out of my hotel and the crazy, lawlessness of the city's traffic, amongst a plethora of experiences that overloaded my senses. I was shit-scared at times but for the majority of my six days in Cambodia, I was utterly exhilarated. Here's the article:

Cambodia : A Land of Charm & Cruelty
The name of Cambodia is synonymous with the cries of the tortured and starving and more recently, the murder of western tourists by the genocidal Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of over one million of their fellow countrymen in the late 1970s. However, that was my choice of destination for a week's break from the rigours of C&G life at Chief Office in late October [1994]. Cambodia, racked by civil war for the last twenty-five years, is one of the world's poorest countries with a population of nine million, the majority of whom live in abject poverty by western standards. Conversely, it is also a beautiful country with a fascinating culture and people and a history brought vividly to life by one of the world's greatest architectural achievements, the temple ruins of Angkor.

The country had captivated my attention since I was drawn to the suffering of its people in John Pilger's 1979 documentary, Year Zero. My interest was sustained as a member of parliamentary lobbying groups whose aim was to bring to an end the isolation they'd endured at the hands of the international community. A fragile peace had been achieved following the 1993 UN-supervised elections that had ushered in the country's first democratically-elected government and for the first time in recent history, the country had opened its borders to the more adventurous tourist.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of my trip was the three days I spent exploring the dramatic ruined cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Flying from Phnom Penh, the capital, to the northern provincial centre of Siem Reap, I was unprepared for the awesome array of massive stone temples, wide majestic causeways, imposing towers and gates and beautifully intricate stone carvings that I encountered. The monuments were originally constructed by a dozen Khmer god-Kings between the 9th and 13th centuries but had lain hidden by dense jungle for nearly 500 years until their re-discovery by the French in the latter part of the last century. Alongwith my guide Soy Bun and driver Somath, I leisurely wandered for hours amongst the almost-deserted ruins before completing a whistle-stop tour of the lesser-visited outer-lying temples.

For sheer size, the vast spectacle of Angkor Wat, the largest religious edifice in the world, is simply stunning. Its central tower, surrounded by four smaller towers, a myriad of galleries and covered passageways and an 800-metre long series of richly carved bas-reliefs will linger long in the memory, particularly a dawn visit to watch the sun rise and bathe the temple complex in swathes of red and orange light. Perhaps more startling, although smaller and less restored, is the Bayon, at the centre of Angkor Thom. Its most intriguing feature - although its bas-reliefs are extraordinarily detailed - are the giant faces of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, with its enigmatic half-smile peering down from all four sides of the fifty-four towers. Amongst the other temples to make a lasting impression were the well-preserved Preah Khan - a labyrinth of fascinating pavilions, halls and galleries, and the temple of Ta Prohm. The latter has been left much as it was when it was first re-discovered - a mass of silk-cotton and fig trees, tangled roots and vines and fallen masonry, framing an eerie and haunting scene.

Phnom Penh on the other hand, was an altogether different proposition. It is a city in transformation. The once-elegant French-colonial capital became a ghost town when the Khmer Rouge forcibly emptied it of all its inhabitants in 1975. Today, parts of Phnom Penh are undergoing frenzied reconstruction, although life remains unchanged in the city's back alleys, where the majority of the one million populace live in hovels without basic amenities.

Negotiating the traffic - a multitude of mopeds, cyclos and bicycles jockeying with private cars and trucks - was a nerve-wracking experience, the loss of my suitcase at the ramshackle airport for three days was a nightmare but nothing could prepare me for my sobering visit to see the graphic reminders of the cruelty inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - a former high school turned into a torture centre and prison - my guide Kin (right) gave me a tour of room after room of torture implements, photographs and other evidence testifying to the atrocities of the Pol Pot-inspired regime. Ten kilometres outside the city are the 'killing fields' of Choeung Ek, where at least 17,000 people were taken from Tuol Sleng, brutally murdered and buried in mass graves. A memorial glass tower at the site is filled with the cracked skulls of some 8,000 of those victims and is definitely not for the squeamish. I left Cambodia with many lasting memories, enriched by my experiences and eager to return to this fascinating country in the not too distant future.


Hey, it's my blog anniversary this month. I've been blogging for two whole years now and 1,120 posts later I'm still going strong - well that's debatable. It all went belly-up a couple of months ago when my original blog was hijacked and stolen - the thief still hasn't wiped off my old posts - but the guys from House 32 came to my rescue and all my posts can be found on this new blog, under the month of posting. I've covered a variety of topics, and always try, where possible, to give a positive slant to my view on Cambodia. That isn't going to change. If you want to hear all the bad news, I suggest you go somewhere else. Oh, and if you want me to feature something that I haven't blogged about so far, I'm open to (sensible) requests. Keep reading...

More news from the South Coast

The Kep sea-view from the trendy Knai Bang Chatt Hotel
Improbable Paradise - by Krista Mahr, Time/CNN
Whoever says money can't buy happiness hasn't shelled out for their own beach in Cambodia. Before the crew of the Sea Breeze can even drop her anchor, Alexis de Suremain is in the water, swimming straight for 90 yards of white sand: his 90 yards of white sand. A wall of tangled jungle rises to the east; to the west, the sun sinks into its own reflection over the Gulf of Thailand. "See that?" de Suremain asks, waving at the sun as it bisects the beach view. "Right down the middle."If all goes according to plan, these 35 acres (14 hectares) of sand, rock and jungle will in a few years host a plush eco-resort of palm trees and solar-powered bungalows. De Suremain, a French expat who runs guesthouses in Phnom Penh, says he combed Cambodia's shores for three years before he settled on building his resort on the remote island of Koh Rong. "I wanted something where you couldn't hear karaoke, where the neighbor's dogs don't bark and where the cocks aren't crowing in the morning," he says. "I wanted something completely isolated." He's got it — for now.

The postcard-perfect beaches of Cambodia's scores of islands and 270 miles (435 km) of southern shore have gone largely unnoticed by developers for the past 40 years. But in 2007, a record 2 million tourists visited Cambodia, signaling that the country was beginning to shake its killing fields image as an impoverished backwater where wandering off the beaten path could mean finding yourself astride an unexploded land mine. Cambodia is starting to register as a must-see destination, and it's not all about Angkor Wat. Brackish mangrove swamps and remote beaches are being envisaged as golf courses and plots for five-star bungalows with private pools. Indeed, there are signs of vitality in other sectors of the impoverished country's once moribund economy. Cambodia's GDP grew 10.4% in 2006 — the highest rate in Southeast Asia that year — and foreign investment shot up some 400% to nearly $4 billion. Thirteen foreign companies, including Chevron, have licenses to explore Cambodia's offshore blocks for oil and natural gas; the government says domestic oil production could begin within three years. The rush for Cambodia's gold coast is on, raising hopes that the economic torpor of this aid-supported nation will finally end. "This part of the country has been a revelation for me," says Steve Smith, a Londoner who finances his endless summer as a dive instructor in southeast Asia. "I didn't even know there were beaches in Cambodia."

The Undiscovered Country
To witness this awakening up close, I recently borrowed a wreck of a bicycle for a slow ride through the sleepy Cambodian seaside town of Kep, near the Vietnamese border. After limping along the potholed coastal road past unkempt plots of oceanfront land with crumbling colonial-era manses, I stopped to look at a billboard — the only one in sight. On it was a picture of a home that would not have looked out of place in a Denver subdivision. A young man pulled up on a motorbike next to me. "You want to buy?" he asked. I told him I wasn't in the market, and so he handed me a flyer for his business, Sunny Tours, that bore a stern warning: NOW IS THE TIME TO ENJOY KEP!! Five years ago, Sunny Tours' catch-it-while-you-can marketing wouldn't have been very effective. In the early 20th century, Kep-sur-Mer was established as a getaway for French civil servants running the colony, and it served as an enclave for rich Khmer after independence in 1953. (The former King, Norodom Sihanouk, built a royal residence there that, like most of the old estates in town, now stands empty.) The holidays ended in the 1970s after an American bombing campaign brought the first wave of more than two decades of war, including the Khmer Rouge-led genocide that killed nearly 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

Stability has been slow to return to Kep and to the country as a whole. But today nearly every Asian nation has a stake in Cambodian industries, from hydroelectric dams to oil exploration to real estate development. In Kep, three Modernist homes have been restored into Knai Bang Chatt, a striking boutique hotel owned by two Belgians. At the other end of town, the early 20th century La Villa de Monsieur Thomas is being revamped into a five-star resort by a Khmer developer. And in February, Sokimex, a powerful Cambodian company that imports most of the nation's petroleum, began converting a colonial casino on Bokor Mountain into a flashy new resort. "All of a sudden there's interest," says Joseph Mussomeli, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, who last year hosted the first American business conference in Phnom Penh. The country is "lucky to be stuck between 85 million Vietnamese and 65 million Thai," he says. "It's hard to ignore this place now."

More projects are in the works. About an hour's motorbike ride down a red dirt road that trails off the coastal highway, residents of the fishing village of Angkoal have started selling their small holdings to real estate developers. One family, residents of a palm-fringed knob of land that slopes into the water, says their property is regularly visited by speculators. "They come every day," says Sry Mau — even though the place where the young woman's family has lived for 23 years has already been purchased by a Cambodian hotelier for $8,000. With the money, they bought a new, considerably smaller piece of land across the road and a new fishing boat.

In a country where 4.7 million people live on less than 50 cents a day, the surge of investment is changing lives and could help create jobs. The country desperately needs more employment opportunities. About a third of Cambodians are 15 years old or younger, and they'll be entering the workforce in droves over the next two decades. Hundreds of NGOs are already busy trying to fix Cambodia, and about 20% of the government's total budget still comes from foreign aid. The prospect of a tourism boom coupled with the start of domestic oil production offers the tantalizing possibility of a more independent way forward. With foreign aid, "you'll always be living according to somebody else's rules," says Rithivit Tep, director of the private-equity firm that owns Kep's Thomas villa and development rights to two islands. "We have wasted a lot of time."

Paradise or Vassal State?
A few hours drive down the coastal road, I was sitting inside the dusty office of Sokun Travel and Tours when the lights cut out. "No good," said the woman behind the desk, looking into the dark street. "Every day, two or three times." We conducted the rest of our transaction by candlelight. Mourn Sokun, who owns the travel agency, says Sihanoukville, the current hub of south-coast tourism, can't keep up with the rush of tourists. The number of foreign visitors to the city shot up by 50% between 2006 and 2007, and infrastructure, including electricity generation, is overtaxed. In 2007, the local airport reopened to shuttle tourists between Angkor Wat and the coast, only to close months later when a domestic flight went down, killing 22 people on board. It's still closed today. Som Chenda, Sihanoukville's minister of tourism, says the city needs more of everything — more hotel rooms, more restaurants, more hospitality training, more language teachers. "We need it all," says Som. Right now, Sihanoukville doesn't even have enough fresh produce coming in: "There are too many tourists and not enough food."

In a line of work that relies on clean beaches and clear water, Mourn, the travel agent, worries the authorities aren't working hard enough to protect the environment. As more guesthouses and bars pay their license fees to operate at the popular beaches, Mourn says raw sewage is being piped into the water and trash is being dumped onto the sand. "People pay their money, and the government closes their eyes," Mourn says. Government officials say they are aware of the growing problem. "The coast is not so good now because of the fast development," says Prak Visal, who heads the Sihanoukville branch of a regional coastal-management project. Solid-waste dumping, mangrove destruction, unsustainable fishing practices and illegal logging are a few of the challenges he says the area faces. But slowing things down? Not an option. "We protect, but we develop, too," Prak says.

Though some are happy with the money they've made, others living in valuable areas fear they'll lose their land, or lose it without being fairly compensated. Few families hold formal land titles, leaving many to rely on local authorities to vouch for them as landowners if a developer comes calling. Though efforts to provide documentation for landowners have been ramped up — almost 1 million land titles have been granted since 2004, according to the World Bank — there are millions more to go. Cambodians' scramble to secure their rights speaks to a fundamental anxiety: faith in the law is dismally low. For the past two years, the country has ranked near the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, and in a 2007 World Bank study, only 18% of respondents said they thought judges were honest. "Corruption is so pervasive it's part of the culture," says Theary Seng, executive director of the Center for Social Development, a Phnom Penh-based NGO. She worries that the billions coming in from private investment — particularly in oil — will not trickle down to the countryside where 80% of the nation lives. "If they want to do it right, they have lots of good models in the world," says Mussomeli, the U.S. ambassador, warning against Cambodia going the way of oil-cursed nations like Nigeria and Chad. "Or they could do it wrong and they could suffer the political consequences in 20 years. This is their chance to be a real country. This is their chance to have a real economy. If they screw it up, they'll be a vassal state."

The Road Ahead
Alongside road 4, the 143-mile (230 km) ribbon of asphalt connecting Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, water buffalo graze in rice paddies that stretch from horizon to horizon. Kids in white school uniforms pedal their bikes in the dirt, moving alongside traffic like birds riding on air currents. It's places like these — in other words, most of Cambodia — where the five-star visions of the coast begin to get a bit blurry. Neither tourism nor oil alone can drive the national economy in a meaningful way. There must also be investment in agriculture and other sectors that employ most Cambodians, says Arjun Goswami, country director for the Asian Development Bank. "If one of these days I can go into Whole Foods and see a Cambodian export on the shelves, that's when I'll be a happy man," says Goswami.

In Phnom Penh, I stop by the offices of Rory and Melita Hunter, an Australian couple whose real estate company was recently granted a 99-year lease to build a luxury boutique hotel on Song Saa, a tiny pair of islands off the coast. They show me elaborate renderings of the future 40-room complex, replete with a wine cellar, air-conditioned library and 15 over-water bungalows designed to reflect the architecture of a nearby fishing village. The Hunters paid relocation costs for the 15 or so families living on the islands. They hauled away tons of trash that had been piling up for years, and started to revive the local coral reef that had been all but destroyed by overfishing. "Knowing that there had been all these other issues about how people had been relocated, we wanted to do it properly from the start," says Rory Hunter. "We're going to be doing business here for a long time." Maybe money will buy happiness for Cambodia; maybe it won't. But nobody said paradise was built in a day.

BBC on the Tonle Sap

This is a timely report by the BBC on the Tonle Sap Lake, after my recent spurge of pictures from Kompong Khleang.

Saving Cambodia's Great Lake
- by Philippa Fogarty, BBC News
Every May, when the rains come, water levels in the Mekong start to rise. When the river flows into Phnom Penh it meets another river that drains from a lake in central Cambodia. So full is the Mekong that it reverses that river's flow, forcing water back upstream and expanding the lake more than five-fold. This is the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. Cambodians call it the Great Lake. It is an area of extraordinarily rich biodiversity and a key breeding ground for fish, which migrate upstream from the Mekong to spawn in seasonally-flooded forest areas. The lake is vital to Cambodia. It provides two-thirds of the country's protein and more than one million people depend on it directly for their livelihoods. But the lake faces serious threats. Cambodia's population has risen rapidly and pressure on resources has increased. Fish stocks are threatened by over-exploitation and illegal fishing methods. Farmers and developers have taken advantage of weak governance to seize and drain land in the flooded forest, destroying key wildlife habitats and polluting the lake. More trees have been felled for domestic use by local people, some of whom have been hunting rare wildlife to compensate for smaller fish catches. Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned of a "serious environmental disaster" if the problems were not addressed.

Fish sanctuary

The Asian Development Bank-financed Tonle Sap Environmental Management Project (TSEMP) is leading efforts to do that. Eight years ago, more than half the lots on the lake allocated to commercial fishing were released to local communities. Part of TSEMP's work is helping villages create legally-recognised community fisheries to protect and preserve their own resources. More than 170 of these groups have now been set up. Soer Tao is deputy head of the community fishery in Kampong Klaeng, on the lake's northeast shore. The village is home to about 10,000 people living in stilted houses to cope with the seasonal flooding. Some 85% of residents depend on fishing for their livelihoods. Ten years ago, Soer Tao says, illegal fishing and destruction of the forest were causing serious problems to villagers. But local management of resources is bringing benefits. The village boundaries have been formally set. Residents patrol the area and if people are fishing illegally or if developers are trying to encroach into the flooded forest, they should now be better positioned to tackle the problem. The village has also established a fish sanctuary, 300 metres by 30 metres, where fish can spawn during the dry season. It is marked by red flags and guarded at each end. When the flooding comes, the fish will swim out - hopefully in greater numbers every year. "The fish sanctuary will protect the fish as livelihoods for everyone," Soer Tao said.

New projects

But it is not just about protecting fisheries. Preak Toal is a floating village. Everything floats, even the school and the petrol station, and everyone depends on the lake to live. Now projects are being set up to help families diversify their livelihoods away from the lake in a bid to reduce pressure on resources. Former poachers patrol a biosphere reserve, guarding the rare water birds that they used to hunt. Tourists pay to enter and local families use pedalos to show the day-trippers around. Some residents have built floating gardens for fruit and vegetables, while others are growing mushrooms in their floating houses. One group is trying to turn water hyacinth into charcoal-like fuel. But the initiatives are, of course, not perfect. It is still much simpler for villagers to get firewood from the forests and to sell fish for quick profit.

'Turning point'

Dr Neou Bonheur, director of TSEMP, admits that trying to promote environmental awareness to those struggling to make a living can be difficult. "It is hard," he says, "but when we teach them not to cut the forest because it is a breeding ground for the fish, they see the benefits of that." The villagers, he says, are not the greatest challenge. "Now we are at a turning point - rice and fuel prices are up and there is a tendency to look for resources such as land, not from the communities but from outside groups who want to claim areas for development. "That's the most difficult thing for us, the people who damage the communities and fisheries in that way." Community resource management was put in place at the right time, he says, but it must be strengthened to ensure local people have a permanent voice. He describes efforts to date as "so far, so good", but says they must be sustained. "We cannot say it is now enough - we have to continue to work hard on many areas." But there is one key issue Cambodia cannot control. China, Thailand and Laos all want to dam the Mekong for hydropower, something experts say could have a serious effect on the seasonal influx of water and wildlife into the lake. "We are a downstream country and less powerful compared to upstream countries," says Dr Bonheur. "We can only hope that through dialogue, Cambodia can voice its concern. The Tonle Sap is a great asset for Cambodia. We must protect it at all cost."

Theft of artifacts

Here's an article that talks about the theft of Khmer artifacts, which was published in 2005 but is just as relevant today.

Villagers Guard Their Own Antiquities
- by Frances Suselo, Oct 2005
Reet, 14, grew up among the hilltop ruins of this district, about an hour's drive from the capital Phnom Penh and learned how to count by going up and down its 412 steps. It is also right here at the local school that he learned about the looting of antiquities from the 11th century temple, also called Phnom Chisor, at the top of the hill. But, he tells visitors, ''There is no looting here''. The community around the ruins runs a programme to educate villagers about the Phnom Chisor temple, made in Baphuon and Khleang architectural style and from laterite and sandstone. Jutting out to the sky from the 100-metre hill, Phnom Chisor was built by Suryavarman I, the king of the Khmer Empire, for the god Brahma in 1010. The Angkorian temple is more or less intact, unlike many other ruins, such as Koh Ker, capital of the Khmer kingdom in the 10th century, and even parts of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap province.

Looting is often done by poor villagers who sell the artefacts for small amounts, these then find their way to local or international markets, activists say. International auction houses do not make enough efforts to ensure items are not obtained illegally, argues Dougald O'Reilly, founder and director of Heritage Watch, a Phnom Penh-based non-government organisation. An ancient looted bead would probably bring a local a mere one US dollar, then could be sold for a hundred times the amount in a Bangkok market - and much more outside Asia, says Terressa Davis, project coordinator of Heritage Watch. Meantime, Reet says that Cambodian law forbids the looting of the country's antiquities. What would he do if someone offers him a lot of money for something from the ruins? His eyes blazed as he answered, ''I won't do it because it's illegal. Besides, I know it's a bad thing to do''. "Officers from the Ministry of Culture have made it very clear that looting is prohibited. People are more informed now, so they will not be tempted to loot,'' said a monk at a modern Buddhist temple beside the ruins. ''We all have the duty to protect our own cultural heritage''.

The total value of cultural assets, both counterfeit and original, smuggled each year is around 22 million dollars, O'Reilly quotes Masayuki Nagashima, the author of 'Lost Heritage: the Reality of Artefact Smuggling in Southeast Asia', as saying. Worldwide, trafficking in stolen works of art and national treasures is valued at up to eight billion dollars a year, according to the Art Theft Programme of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which calls the trade ''a major category of international crime''. Interpol says that the annual dollar value of art and cultural property theft is exceeded only by trafficking in illicit narcotics, money laundering and arms trafficking. The looting of artefacts also means the loss of crucial information about the past: social and political structures of society, pre-historic health, ancient technologies, records of border trade as well as art and architecture. Many other Asian countries experience differing degrees of looting. But the popularity of Khmer artefacts, porous borders and lack of resources add to the problems in Cambodia.

Activists admit it is hard to curb the demand in the trade in stolen antiquities. So, groups like Heritage Watch focus on education campaigns to prevent looting or encourage communities to protect their heritage by training villagers to develop new skills, such as managing small businesses and producing crafts to sell to tourists. But Davis says 80 percent of the catalogues of international auction houses have no provenance - information on items' origins - and this does not help efforts to protect Cambodia's heritage. ''They can simply say that a vase is done in Ming style, but they won't say where exactly they got it from,'' said Davis. ''The absence of provenance could mean either they really don't know where the item came from, or the information could be incriminating. People assume that because they are big companies, they follow the law, when in fact they are operating under a very thin veil of decency,'' she added.

But Wannida Saetieo, country manager of Sotheby, Thailand, said the company is a ''proper public company'' that has always followed the law. ''At Sotheby's, we always try our best to ensure that all items are genuine and not acquired through illegal means,'' she said in an interview. Before an item can be sold through Sotheby's, the owner must show documents certifying ownership, she added, but conceded the company ''cannot guarantee 100 percent that an item is not stolen. If we know that there is only one item and that the item is in a museum somewhere and if someone comes with an item that looks alike, then we know it's a fake,'' she stated. But ''it's the responsibility of the buyer to also do their own background check on any item,'' she added, flipping over a Sotheby magazine to its back pages to show the company's disclaimer. Wannida also stressed that Thailand forbids the bringing of Buddha statues out of the country. ''There is a big demand for them, but we don't sell them because it's illegal,'' she explained. Wannida said that provenance on Sotheby's catalogues can be absent because wealthy owners guard their privacy and prefer not to see their names printed for the whole world to see. ''These people are very, very private,'' she stated.

National and international laws and conventions exist to make theft and trafficking harder, but they are not always adequate. In 1996, Cambodia's National Assembly adopted the law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which covers ''movable and immovable objects and cultural property from vandalism, illicit transfer of ownership, excavations, illicit export and import''. In the same year, Cambodia claimed all cultural properties for the state, making the selling of Khmer antiquities illegal. But to recover a stolen artefact, the government has to prove theft by producing a picture of the item in its original site before it was stolen. Most pictures of Khmer antiquities in their original sites were taken in the 1930s by the French, so this loophole has added to the difficulty in prosecution.

Stolen Khmer artefacts are usually smuggled out either by sea to Singapore, or by land to Poipet, a Cambodian town on border with Thailand, said O'Reilly. Smugglers take advantage of the fact that Singapore and Thailand are not signatories to the 1970 UNESCO convention that prohibits the import of stolen cultural property and requires countries to monitor the antiquities trade within their own borders. Cambodia is also a signatory to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which declares that ''a possessor of a stolen cultural object must return it regardless of personal involvement or knowledge of the original theft''. This allowed the Cambodian government to negotiate with Thailand in 2001 and 2002 for the restitution of 43 Cambodian cultural artefacts, which had transited through Singapore. A 9th century stone head of Shiva and a 12th century stone head of a demon were also returned by the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 2002.

For now, small teams of local experts from Heritage Watch continue documenting Cambodia's ruins, so there is visual evidence in case some artefacts go missing and turn up somewhere halfway around the world. These teams also use illustrated comic books in Khmer to explain why villagers should protect their temples and ruins. Heng Chan Thol, a former student of the Archaeology Department of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Cambodia, agrees: ''Poverty alleviation and education should be the main efforts to get rid of this phenomenon''. For instance, ''the Apsara Authority, in charge of protection and preservation of Cambodian cultural heritage has tried bringing local people to work as guards for local historical sites. As a result, the looting in Siem Riep (Angkor Wat) has almost completely disappeared,'' he said. ''One day, they will be held accountable,'' Davis said of traffickers in stolen antiquities. ''Art collectors, looters and smugglers will face the same discrimination as those who profit from ivory and fur today''.

Serious monkey matters

A male macaque monkey was shot dead yesterday morning by police at Wat Phnom, following a series of attacks on visitors to one of Phnom Penh's key attractions. It's a problem I highlighted a while back after I experienced some unruly monkey behaviour and gnashing of teeth at Phnom Chisor, as I called it then, "an accident waiting to happen." At some of the key 'touristy' pagodas you can often find a troop of monkeys, attracted by the potential for food scraps raised by the increased level of visitors. An M-16 assault rifle was used to kill this particular 20kg monkey after a local man received bites to the head, both hands and legs whilst jogging in the immediate vicinity of the park surrounding the hilltop pagoda. The police are now deciding whether to catch some of the more vicious monkeys and transfer them to Phnom Tamao Zoo. However, when I visited the zoo, there were more monkeys outside the cages than inside, so I'm not convinced that's the long-term answer.

Unprecedented collaboration

Two of Banteay Chhmar's Avalokiteshvara stolen in 1998 were subsequently recovered and returned for safekeeping to the National Museum in Phnom Penh in 2000, where they are displayed today. Whilst they were held temporarily in Bangkok, a friend of mine, Lisa Cox, took these photos. These priceless artifacts were rescued from the clutches of the thieves, destined most likely for antique dealers in Bangkok and from there to anywhere in the world, in an unprecedented act of co-operation between the Thai authorities and their Cambodian counterparts. We only hear the negative furore over Preah Vihear these days, but this example of collaboration in returning these artifacts to their rightful owners, should not be forgotten.
This Avalokiteshvara has one head and six arms, and to the left is a smaller kneeling figure with eight arms. Lots of smaller worshipping figures are also present
Although hard to see, this Avalokiteshvara has ten arms and one head and is surrounded by kneeling worshippers in anjali

Iconic imagery at Banteay Chhmar

One of two remaining multi-armed Avalokiteshvara at Banteay Chhmar. This one has 32 arms and is surrounded by worshippers and flying apsaras
In the middle and lower register next to the 32-armed Avalokiteshvara are crowned worshippers in anjali meditation
Myself and Daroeurn either side of the 32-armed Avalokiteshvara to give you a good idea of its size
A 22-armed Avalokiteshvara, surrounded by ten medallions with dancing apsaras and worshippers
A heavenly apsara holding a ribbon of pearls aloft
A large medallion with an apsara holding a ribbon of pearls and more apsaras below her. Note the hand and crooked finger above her head
Banteay Chhmar, located in the northwest corner of Cambodia, is an enormous temple complex constructed during the reign of Jayarvarman VII in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and has a wealth of iconographic imagery to admire. Aside from its face towers with the elusive smiling face of its builder peering through the forest, its outer walls are covered in decorative reliefs, none more stunning than a series of multi-armed Avalokiteshvara - the Lord of Compassion who protects humans from fire, flood, bandits, wild animals and witchcraft, heals illnesses and towards the end of the 12th century became one of the main elements of Mahayana Buddhism. Originally there were eight, about two metres high, carved in a sequence along the western gallery outer wall. Two are still in situ, two were stolen between 1970 and 1992, four more were stolen in 1998, of which two have been recovered and are on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
The two Avalokiteshvara still on view at Banteay Chhmar are the 32-armed example with eleven visible heads, standing on a lotus in the middle of an assembly of kneeling worshippers in a state of anjali, and one with 22 arms and seven eroded heads. Apsaras or devata in ten large medallions surround the main figure. These images are a key attraction at Banteay Chhmar and the temple authorities must take care that they are treated with respect by visitors - on a previous visit, I observed graffiti carved on one of the figures. Banteay Chhmar is a remote site though funding and recognition is slowly being channelled towards the temple and the early fruits of minor restoration work can be seen at the temple's entrance. It's certainly one of my favourite temples in Cambodia.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Farewell to Kompong Khleang

One of the main streets in the permanent-quarter of Kompong Khleang village
A few more pictures from my recent visit to the largest community on the Tonle Sap lake at Kompong Khleang. With the water levels low, the houses stand well above the surface of the road or river in these first couple of photos. As a group of about twenty people, we took a boat from the main hub of the village along the river channel and out into the open expanse of the Tonle Sap lake, where we enjoyed our picnic lunch aboard our boat before heading back to our starting point a couple of hours later. The families along the riverbank were extremely friendly and welcoming, lots of waves and shouts of hello and it was clear that tourists, even Khmers, are still quite a novelty in the area.
The water level in the wet season will mean that the stilts of these houses will disappear
The open expanse of the Tonle Sap lake, though the low water level reveals some of the water plants underneath
Lunch aboard our boat, as we bob along the Tonle Sap lake next to the floating village
As we head back, this water-taxi ferries a family with children out to the floating houses

Inside the stilted village

A wooden bridge takes the children to their school next to the pagoda
Some more scenes from inside Kompong Khleang village, taken on a recent visit there with a bus-load of colleagues from my office. Most of the residents of this sprawling community live in permanent wooden houses, high above the ground on stilts, to accommodate the rise and fall of the Tonle Sap lake water levels. For our visit, the levels were very low. At the height of the wet season, the village will look very different. In fact I must make a big effort to get out here at that time. As you might imagine, fishing is the core activity around here though pig-rearing is also popular judging by the ever-present squeals in the background!
A ladder is the only way to access this house next to the river flowing through the village
This scene will look very different in the wet season
A view of the houses taken from the pontoon bridge near the market

River views

These monks take shelter from the blazing overhead sun
Here are some photos from a recent trip I made to the stilted and floating village of Kompong Khleang, on the banks of the massive Tonle Sap Lake and located some 50 kms south of Siem Reap. The trip was with a group of staff from the Hanuman office and on arrival at the village our main focus was to get a boat ride out along the river and onto the lake itself. We spent 4 hours all together, in the village and on the boat, a large chunk of which was trying to get the boat to start! The water levels were pretty low too, so we also had to find a boat that could accommodate about twenty people and not run aground. We managed it but wasted a lot of time in the process. Kompong Khleang is a massive village, more like a small town to be frank, and the largest single community on the lake with something like 30,000 people living in the permanent on-land part and within the floating element, a few kilometres out onto the lake. We didn't even manage to visit the main market, wat and school, though I did cross the pontoon bridge and pop my head into a second pagoda and high school, which I didn't visit on my previous trip there in January last year. As you can see from these photos and more to follow, the permanent houses are built high on stilts to accommodate the changing water levels, whilst the smaller houses on the riverbank leading out to the lake are more transitory and can be moved depending on the time of year. Its very different in style and feel to Chong Khneas, the floating village nearest to Siem Reap that attracts most tourists. Its said that many wealthy Khmers have a house here in Kompong Khleang as there is still lots of money to be made from the fishing industry though the dwindling fish stocks on the lake suggest a different story. I think its certainly worth a visit, as is its neighbour Kompong Phluk, as an alternative to the boat-loads that flock to Chong Khneas every day.
Most of the permanent houses are on wooden stilts high above the ground
These two girls take their boat out to the village on the lake a few kilometres away
Boys playing in the river and one of the houses that can be moved according to the water levels

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cambodia's soccer success

The official Cambodia pre-match team photo - taken by one of the substitutes!
In their second match in three days, Cambodia's soccer team registered a victory, defeating Macau 3-1 though it wasn't exactly a thriller. The positives were that they won and striker Nuth Sinuon got a couple of goals but aside from that, I was underwhelmed by the game, and so were the crowd. The highlight was in the dying seconds when the Macau goalkeeper ran the length of the pitch for a corner, Cambodia broke away and Sinuon planted the ball into the empty net, much to everyone's amusement. In fact the crowd only get excited when someone makes a mistake, its all a bit perverse. Nepal have already qualified for the next round of the AFC Challenge Cup after defeating Cambodia on Monday, so today's game was purely academic and for pride, hence the poor attendance, of which about half were wearing military, police or security uniforms. Even so, the admission price had gone up to $3, as I sat under the shade of the main stand. Oh, by the way, Cambodia are currently 186th in the FIFA Rankings, and I can see why. The new coach, Yoo Kee-Heung from the Korean Republic has a big job on his hands, though the side has youth in its favour, with most of the players under 23 years old.
A near-empty stadium listens to the Macau national anthem before the game gets underway
Cambodia, in red, defending in the first-half. I sat in the shade of the main stand for this gameThe Olympic Stadium scoreboard 3 minutes before the half-time break. The pagoda spire in the background gives it such a Cambodian feel

Anyone have a spare house?

The Tonle Bassac group at practice
The Tonle Bassac folk dance group that will be appearing at the prestigious WOMAD Festival in England at the end of July and will then have a three week residency at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe are looking for lodgings during their UK stay. Can you help? They need a big house to accommodate the 25 youths and adults that are making the trip. If you are in the Edinburgh area of Scotland and can help, contact Cambodian Living Arts, who will be eternally grateful. The residency at the Fringe will be at The World, Edinburgh's newest venue for international dance and music, situated at St George's West Church in Shandwick Place, Edinburgh, where dance groups from Tibet, Brazil, Cuba, Tanzania and more will perform. The Tonle Bassac group, proteges of Ieng Sithul, one of Cambodia's greatest master musicians, will take their Children of the Khmer show of folk and classical dance abroad for the first time on this exciting trip to the United Kingdom.
Link: CLA.

Nat Geo on Mondulkiri

The sun rises over the Srepok River and the surrounding Mondulkiri forest
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I visited the protected forest of Mondulkiri in March and am still regretting it. It put me off adventurous cycling for a lifetime. Anyway enough of my woes, here's the Nat Geo News report from Stefan, who accompanied me on the trip. There will be a television slot on the Wild Chronicles programme too in the near future.

Tigers, Elephants Returning to War-Torn Cambodia Forest - by Stefan Lovgren in Mereuch, Cambodia for National Geographic News

For years wildlife poacher Lean Kha had prowled the war-ravaged forests of Mondulkiri Province in eastern Cambodia looking for meat. A former teenage soldier for the Khmer Rouge political party, he estimates that he killed a thousand animals, including ten tigers, after the fall of the brutal Pol Pot regime in 1979. Once dubbed the "Serengeti of Asia," almost all of Mondulkiri's wildlife was wiped out by poachers during decades of conflict, which began with the war in neighboring Vietnam. Now, with Cambodia finally at peace, small but growing populations of animals—including Indochinese tigers, Asian elephants, and critically endangered species such as the giant ibis—are returning to one of Southeast Asia's last remaining dry forests. And Kha, now 45 years old, is helping to protect them as a head ranger supported by the international conservation group WWF. "At the time I was ignorant and did not think there was a problem when I shot those tigers," he said, sitting at the forest headquarters in Mereuch as the Srepok River rushed behind him. "Now I know we need to protect these animals for our children and grandchildren."

Coming Back Home

Humans cannot live inside the protected Mondulkiri Protected Forest reserve. A visitor can walk for miles without seeing any sign of humans, an unusual experience in otherwise densely populated Cambodia. And with the region's searing summer temperatures and open, shadeless terrain, it's also usually hard to spot wildlife during the day. But camera traps that take pictures at night show a different story. A few years ago park rangers caught their first Indochinese tiger on camera. In 2007 a camera trap produced a picture of a female leopard and her cub. Other wildlife returning to the area include banteng, a type of ox; Eld's deer; several species of wild cats; and one of the region's last remaining wild water buffalo populations. "There is a lot of wildlife out there, considering the beating that this area has taken," said Nick Cox, who coordinates WWF's regional dry forests program and is based in Vientiane, Laos.

While leopards are now relatively common, there may be only five to ten Indochinese tigers in the forest today. But conservationists say that as the density of prey species increases, the number of tigers could rise to at least 30 in as little as five years. That is, if the 70 rangers working the forest can keep poachers at bay. Like Kha, many of them are former hunters who have spent their whole lives under the forest canopy. Now they spend at least 16 days on patrol every month, keeping strict records of wildlife numbers. "All protected areas need to know the number of important prey species and carnivores, because if we don't know the credit in our bank account, we can't monitor our wealth," said Prach Pich Phirun, a research coordinator for WWF's Srepok Wilderness Project.

Cambodia Boomtown

Even without the threat of poachers, the battle for this vast forest of almost a million acres (close to 400,000 hectares) is far from over. Cambodia's popularity as a tourist destination is skyrocketing, with foreign tourist arrivals topping two million last year, according to the country's tourism minister. And the remote Mondulkiri Province is becoming the country's new hot spot. Draped over several rolling hills, Sen Monorom, the tiny provincial capital, has the feel of a Wild West boomtown. A plethora of hotels and backpacker lodges have opened up, and wealthy Cambodians are streaming to the area to snap up any available land. The main road being graded and paved by Chinese contractors will ease access to the region. "This increased activity could put a lot of pressure on the environment," said Craig Bruce, WWF's technical advisor on protected areas in Cambodia, who is based in Sen Monorom. A housing building boom, he warned, could also lead to a surge in illegal timber cutting. And there are signs that poaching and illegal wildlife trade are on the rise in Cambodia, where animals are being smuggled through Vietnam with the involvement of Chinese traders.

Ecotourism Plans

Conservationists are now investing in ecotourism projects in the hopes of keeping the Mondulkiri forest protected. WWF is planning an upscale eco-resort with eight cottages along stilts on the banks of the Srepok River. Yet money earned from such eco-projects must benefit local communities living around the forest, said James MacGregor, an environmental economist at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which backs the WWF project. "There are a lot of poor people in this area who have traditionally generated their livelihood through hunting and collecting wood," MacGregor said. "We're asking people to forgo doing something that has helped them for years." Planners envision that Mondulkiri could also become a destination for adventurous travelers, such as mountain bikers. Mark Ellison of Cambodia-based Asia Adventures said tour operators are looking to offer tourists additional activities in Cambodia besides visiting the popular Angkor Wat temples. "Here's an opportunity to go mountain biking in an area that is for all intents and purposes undiscovered," he said.

While a recent bicycle trip of conservationists and journalists showcased the unchartered nature of the terrain, it also turned into a harrowing ordeal at one point, with bikers getting lost without any means of communication. Luckily a passing elephant driver had noticed tire tracks from the bikes going the wrong way and tracked down the team just as its water supply was running out. Cox, the WWF dry forest program coordinator and one of the most experienced bikers on the trip, admitted that some work needed to be done before Mondulkiri would be ready to welcome visitors. "There are a few kinks that need ironing out, that's for sure," he said. Link: Read about my adventures in March

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Would you Adam & Eve it!

Cockney rhyming slang for 'would you believe it,' as Roy Hill pulls the proverbial cat out of the bag and walks away with the May Competition Award at the West London Song Contest. Fame at last! It was only the second monthly event to be held and it was such a success, all further shows have been cancelled. I reckon the organizers realized no-one could ever match the brilliance of a Roy Hill performance. An event for singer-songwriters, the Castle pub in Isleworth was the stage for Sunday's jamboree where five entrants performed two of their own songs. The audience and two judges voted for their favourite and Roy clinched the vote - of course, it was never in doubt - and he got to play a 30-minute set as a reward (as well as take home a cash prize of 40 British Pounds no less). I need to speak to the man himself to get the low-down on this extravaganza, but this success is surely a stepping-stone to fame and riches, I can see it all now. Pass me the sick-bag, I'm overcome with emotion. Link: Roy Hill.

Modernist structures still on view

The poised classrooms of the Foreign Languages Faculty, designed by Vann Molyvann
My visit to the Cambodian-Japanese Center also enabled me to have another look at the Institute of Foreign Languages Faculty and its Vann Molyvann designed classrooms and circular library, which is an intriguing little building surrounded by a moat. The architect said it was modeled after a traditional woven palm-leaf hat. The classrooms were designed to minimize direct sunlight, maximize airflow and control the risk of flooding and are cantilevered on angled legs that look like animals waiting to pounce (or something from War of the Worlds) and the raised walkway to the building has modern naga sculptures, like its predecessors at many Angkor temples. Constructed in the 1960s, they miraculously survived the Khmer Rouge period of occupation, when other structures like the National Bank and Catholic Church were demolished. I also visited the next-door Royal University of Phnom Penh and was intrigued by the outdoor swimming pool and diving board, that has been left to the elements. I certainly wouldn't want to swim in the lime-green water that resides in the bottom of the pool today.
The circular library at the Institute, modelled on woven palm-leaf hats
The modern concrete nagas at the doorway to the Institute
The disused open-air swimming pool at the Royal University of Phnom Penh
The three-level diving tower at the open-air swimming pool at RUPP

More holy faces

One of the distinctive faces at Ta Prohm, complete with smile and foliage
Four more exhibition photos taken by Japanese photographer Baku Saito and on show at the Holy Faces of Angkor exhibition at the CJCC headquaters on Russian Boulevard until the end of May. Baku has been documenting all the face temples in Cambodia over the last fifteen years and has produced books on both The Bayon and Banteay Chhmar. I hear that he will now turn his attention for the next six months to the mountain-top temple of Preah Vihear on the Cambodian-Thai border and bring his own style to recording the temple as it is today. Try and get along to the exhibition in Phnom Penh. There are some postcards of his photographs that are available to buy. The photos will be gifted to the Cambodian government once the exhibition closes.
A face tower from Banteay KdeiA very different face from many others, to be found at Ta Prohm
A face from Banteay Chhmar, which I focused on myself very recently

Baku exhibition

5 of the 60 exhibition photographs at the CJCC Building in Phnom Penh
I finally managed to get to see the Baku Saito Holy Faces of Angkor exhibition at the Cambodian-Japanese Center of Co-operation building on Russian Boulevard this lunchtime. Its open until the end of this month and contains enlarged photos taken of the face temples at Angkor and elsewhere over the last fifteen years by the Japanese photographer. The sixty photos, housed in a large exhibition hall, show the subtle changes in the faces between the different temples such as The Bayon and Ta Prohm as well as the Gates of Angkor Thom, Banteay Kdei, Ta Som and Banteay Chhmar. I have always been fascinated by the faces of Angkor, so I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits, determined to return to each of the temples myself in the future, to see the faces once again, for real. I took a few photos of my favourite faces in the exhibition, which I will post here.
This face from one of the Gates of Angkor Thom is missing its nose
Another Angkor Thom face up close
This is one of the many faces to be found at The Bayon, located at the heart of Angkor Thom

Monday, May 26, 2008

Apathy on and off the pitch

It's half-time and the storm clouds are gathering above the Olympic Stadium
I finally got to see a game of football in Cambodia. And what a disappointment it was. I chose to kick-off my football spectating by seeing the Cambodian national team no less, take on Nepal at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium this afternoon. And to be honest the quality of football, particularly in the final third of the pitch, was dire. Nepal, not exactly one of the world's mighty footballing nations, scored in the first-half and were content to sit on their 1-goal lead and Cambodia were simply too poor and too inept to break them down. The defeat meant that it was Nepal who progress into the next round of the AFC Challenge Cup for Emerging Nations, whilst Cambodia have to settle for a meaningless second game again Macau on Wednesday. In addition, the support in the open-to-the-elements stadium was apathetic to say the least. The largest cheer of the day came when a dog wandered onto the pitch. It was that sort of crowd. I must admit I was thoroughly deflated by the whole experience, and I should've sussed it wasn't going to be a great spectacle when I only had to hand over a dollar for entry into the game. Watching the Cambodian national team at the disabled Volleyball World Finals a few months ago was streets ahead of watching the football team in terms of quality, skill, passion and excitement. The Cambodian team manager, please take note.
Half-time refreshments include a bag of crickets
Cambodia in red, almost lost in the emptiness of the Olympic Stadium

Cheeky monkey

One of my favourite shrines at Phnom Oudong, and there are many, is this one showing a large and cheeky-looking monkey, just before you reach the main series of royal family stupas at the summit of the mountain. Its next to a large collection of laterite building stones that would suggest the former presence of an ancient prasat at the site (to coincide with other finds of pedestals and lintels in other locations), or that these blocks were used for construction of the stairways leading to the top. Without an expert archaeologist on hand I couldn't confirm either way and no-one knew the name of the monkey either. If you know the name of this popular shrine, please let me know. What I'd like to know is what the troop of monkeys that inhabit Phnom Oudong feel about this grey-coloured cousin of theirs. Do they worship him too?

Inside Angkor National Museum

The folks from Angkor National Museum paid me another visit today and gave me a disc with some of their publicity photos from inside the museum, which I post here, as cameras are not allowed in the various rooms and if you are caught taking pictures, you'll be escorted out. Be warned. I must return to visit the museum as they tell me its been vastly improved since my last visit at the start of the year. At that time it was clear the site had been hastily-opened two months before to coincide with the official opening by Hun Sen. Now they've had six months to bed-in and are working hard to get it up to a suitable standard, especially for the price of the entry ticket you pay to get in. There's nothing that would give me greater pleasure to see ANM become a world-class museum, showing off its treasures to the hordes of tourists before they visit Angkor. Fingers-crossed that they will eventually achieve their aim. Note: All photos courtesy of Angkor National Museum.
This is the stunning Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas
This is Gallery G which concentrates on Ancient Costumes, particularly the Apsara and Devatas
These gorgeous Nagas can be found in Gallery B, Religion & Beliefs
This collection of Lintels can be found in Gallery C, The Great Khmer Kings
An outside view of the Museum and particularly the new Cultural Mall

Sunday, May 25, 2008

18 Cubit Buddha

New columns and new Buddha at Vihear Preah Put Atharoes
Oudong served as the capital of Cambodia between 1618 and 1866 and the remains of many of its Kings are interred on top of Phnom Oudong. As famous as the stupas of the Kings was the Vihara of the 18 Cubit Buddha, also known as Vihear Preah Put Atharoes, which suffered bombing by the Americans and then was blown to smithereens by the Khmer Rouge in 1977, with just some of its right side remaining on view, alongwith the pillars of the vihara, that was first erected in 1911. That was all that could be seen on my first visit back in 1998, though today the sanctuary is a hive of building activity as the vihara is being renovated, a replacement thirty-metre high Buddha is in situ and its hard to spot the original pieces amongst the new concrete. However if you look close enough, two lintels and colonettes remain either side of the door to the vihara and fragments of ceramic decoration are in place at the base of the Buddha. I'm not convinced that the lintels are of Angkorean-age but there is evidence of laterite and sandstone temples of that era on the mountain, so they may be left-overs from that time. You reach the giant Buddha by taking the right-hand steps near the Neak Ta figure of Lok Ta Dambong Daek.
The right-hand doorway with lintel and colonettes and naga antefixes
A kala lintel with Vishvakarma seated above
Painting of the giant Buddha continues. Some of its original ceramic decoration can be seen on its plinth
One of two doorways into the vihara with a lintel in situ
A popular lintel carving is a kala with Vishvakarma seated above

This is an old photo of Vihear Preah Put Atharoes with its ceiling intact (from Khmer Renaissance)

A mix of faiths

The chedi of Preah Bat Chan Reachea on Phnom Oudong
At Phnom Oudong, as you climb the set of steps just past the Neak Ta called Lok Ta Dambong Daek, you encounter an unusual mixture of Muslim and Buddhist faiths, with both having shrines on top of this small hillock. The Cham population around Oudong is one of the largest in the country and unlike most Muslims, they pray only once a week. The view from both shrines is fantastic as you look out across the flat plains of Kandal province. The small Mosque is called Vihear Cham Ta San and is attended to by white-skullcapped laymen, while more steps take you to the Buddhist shrine of Neak Pean and the stupa of one of Cambodia's Kings from the 16th century, Preah Bat Chan Reachea. Next to the chedi are the remains of a large laterite and sandstone Buddha that was destroyed during the fighting that beset Phnom Oudong during the long civil war. Two lines of beheaded military-style seated worshippers, two studiously-carved giant feet and a head with tight curls is all that is left of the massive Buddha that once sat on a large plinth. This is just the beginning of what Phnom Oudong has to offer for those prepared to defy the heat and humidity and to continue the climb.
Two lines of military-looking worshippers lost their heads during the civil war
This giant head of Buddha can be recognised by its tight curls and nose
The gorgeous view from the balcony of the Neak Pean temple at Phnom Oudong

Bones of Buddha

One of the most religious shrines in Cambodia can be found at Phnom Oudong, about 40 kms from Phnom Penh. It's also one of the newest, consecrated in 2002 by former King Norodom Sihanouk. The reason why it's one of the most revered is that it houses three small pieces of bone said to belong to Buddha and that it's the centrepiece of Oudong mountain, a former capital and resting-place for many members of the country's royal family. The shrine and other stupas at this site attract hordes of Khmers every weekend and especially on national holidays, such as last week's Visak Bochea day, which fittingly celebrated the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha. Called Sanchak Mony Chedei, this 42-metre tall grey stupa is adorned with elephants, nagas, lions and guardian deities and is the resting place of the Buddha relics, which were donated to Cambodia by Sri Lanka in 1957 and were previously housed in the blue stupa in front of the railway station in the capital. Deemed as insufficiently serene, in 2002, the biggest religious ceremony for over fifty years saw 1 to 2 million people line the route as a procession, led by King Sihanouk, relocated the relics to their new home.
Sanchak Mony Chedi contains the bones of Buddha at Phnom Oudong
As well as the bones of Buddha, a room underneath the chedi contains the Tripitaka - the written canon of Theravada Buddhism - and 3770 different-sized Buddhas donated by visitors from numerous countries. This room is only opened on special occasions. It stayed closed for my visit. I visited the site on a Sunday and there were a large number of people paying their respects and having their photograph taken at the shrine. You also had to take your shoes off to walk near the chedi. The views from the balcony surrounding the stupa are memorable. Below is a photo of a centre of Buddhist meditation that is located at the foot of the mountain and clearly shows that Buddhism in Cambodia is not short of money, with more buildings being erected at the site.
A centre of Buddhist meditation in the lee of Phnom Oudong
This photo of the largest ridge at Phnom Oudong shows the Sanchak Mony Chedi on the left and three other large stupas containing the ashes of former Kings of Cambodia.
Relics claimed to be the remains of Buddha are revered at religious sites around Asia. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is said to contain eight hairs of Buddha. Phra That Luang, a giant stupa in Vientiane, Laos, holds a piece of Buddha's breastbone and Wat Phra Mahathat in the town of Nakhon Si Thammarat in Thailand is said to contain a tooth relic of Buddha.

Quiz answers

Okay, so my 'where is this' quiz didn't generate the flood of answers I was hoping for....however it maybe be something I do from time to time, just to see if anyone out there is awake! Congrats to Droonstar for guessing Phnom Oudong as the correct location. These gorgeously carved feet belong to Buddha, well actually, a statue of him. They can be found, alongwith the broken remains of his sandstone and laterite body at a shrine called Neak Pean, which is on a small hillock shared with a Muslim mosque called Vihear Cham Ta San. As you climb towards the top of the largest ridge on Oudong mountain, its the small rise on the left-hand side. Alongside the broken remains of Buddha and some headless worshippers is a large stupa containing the ashes of Preah Bat Chan Reachea. The term Preah Bat refers to the way you address a King, ie. you look at his feet!
This painting at Neak Pean represents the Cambodian Royal Family, as you may've guessed. Beginning on the top row, left to right, are: King Norodom, Ang Duong and Sisowath. On the bottom row, left to right, are: Queen Sisowath Kosamak, Sisowath Monivong, Norodom Sihanouk and Norodom Suramarit. This painting is part of a shrine dedicated, as much of Oudong is of course, to the royal family.
This male monkey was in charge of a large troop of monkeys to be found on the 509 steps leading to the new Preah Sanchak Mony Chedi built to house Buddha's relics, on Oudong mountain. He was a particularly bold monkey who chased away a large dog who got too close to his harem. I kept my distance.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Fringe awaits Khmer dance

A trip of a lifetime for these members of Ieng Sithul's dance group
These youngsters from Ieng Sithul's Tonle Bassac Folk Dance Group will be making the trip of a lifetime to perform their Children of the Khmer show at the WOMAD Festival in late July and a residency at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland in August, putting on a series of folk and classical dances. The world-renowned fringe festival kicks off on 3 August and will last for most of the month. I saw the group at practice when I visited their rehearsal room located in the Bassac slum area of Phnom Penh in February, and they were very good. The ages of this troupe, mentored by one of Cambodia's best-known artists Ieng Sithul, range between eight and nineteen and total no less than 52 youngsters, out of approximately 300 that receive support from the umbrella organization, Cambodian Living Arts. It was CLA that sent Kong Nai, the blind chapei master, to the UK last year for a countrywide tour with his protege, Ouch Savy that included a gloriously successful appearance at the WOMAD festival in England. I'm sure the Tonle Bassac group will do just as well. Link: CLA.

Stamp of approval

Sunset in the Mondulkiri protected forest
You may recall my visit to the protected forests of Mondulkiri in March, where I quickly developed a serious aversion to cycling tours having completed a 70+ kilometre ride up and down mountains on day 1 and vowed never to do it again. Coming on the back of our visit to the forest camps of the WWF, the American Ambassador and his entourage were due in the next day and everyone was running around preparing for this momentous visit, and stamp of approval. Here's is the official version of his visit from the WWF website.

US Ambassador visits Eastern Plains of Cambodia
For the first time since the US government began its support of conservation work in the Cambodian Eastern Plains Dry Forest, a senior US government delegation saw for themselves how their investments have been used to support a wide range of conservation activities. US Ambassador Joseph A. Mussomeli, US Embassy staff, together with a group of Cambodian journalists, spent three days in March with WWF’s project staff and field rangers in the heart of the Dry Forests in Mondulkiri province. “I was very impressed with WWF’s efforts to protect Cambodia’s forests and wildlife while working to improve the livelihoods of the local people through the sustainable use of natural resources,” said Joseph A. Mussomeli in a letter of appreciation to WWF.

Significant investments through WWF in wildlife monitoring, law enforcement, community-based natural resource management and infrastructure development have built a foundation for effective protected area management in the Eastern Plains’ Mondulkiri Protected Forest (MPF) and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary. These have resulted in reduced pressure on wild animals and their natural habitats, improved understanding by the local community about sustainable use of natural resources, and strengthened land tenure and rights. Some of the approaches and lessons learned are now being replicated elsewhere in Cambodia and the region.

Ambassador Mussomeli was also interested by the ecotourism planning inside MPF as a critical element for sustainable financing for protected area management, and as a way to reduce local community dependence on natural resources. On this exciting component of the project’s work, Craig Bruce, Eastern Plains Landscape Project Manager, explained that “WWF involves community members living in the areas around MPF in ecotourism planning and in the hope that this will create future income opportunities through the provision of guide services, food, home stays, and sales of souvenirs to tourists.” This recent visit indicates a healthy relationship between the Cambodian and US governments, showing that there is support being given to conservation activities in the area. The Ambassador’s visit not only encourages our project staff and government counterparts, but also helps spread wider awareness of the important conservation work that WWF and the Cambodian government are working hard to achieve,” he said, “including a greater realization that there are significant challenges to overcome, such as poorly planned infrastructure development and resource extraction, illegal hunting, uncontrolled logging, and potentially harmful hydropower dam development plans.”

WWF is working together with the Cambodian government and other NGO partners to find sustainable solutions for development plans with the aim of minimizing environmental impacts. Other initiatives, such as ecotourism development, are aimed at improving local livelihoods and generating much needed revenue for overall development of the local economy. One of the next steps will be to generate political support for transboundary collaboration between Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities in order to safeguard the biodiversity of this globally important Dry Forests landscape.

More on Preah Vihear

Sokhom and myself at the Preah Vihear entrance in January 2005
BBC News have added their tuppenceworth to the news being generated by the spat between Cambodia and Thailand over Preah Vihear. Whilst the wrangling continues, it's at least giving extended column inches to a temple that has for so long remained on the sidelines in comparison to the Angkor Wat's, Wat Phu's and Phimai's of this area. Preah Vihear is an incredible temple in a stunning location - it merits its place in the limelight.

Tranquil temple at center of a storm - by Philippa Fogarty (BBC News)

The view from the top of Preah Vihear temple is well worth the steamy, uphill trek to get there. Stone steps and paths lead visitors through a series of ancient entranceways to the carved sanctuary high in the Dangrek mountain range. Look one way and a Thai flag flies on a distant rocky outcrop. Turn the other way and the cliffs fall sharply down to the blue-green Cambodian jungle below. At the top, the only sound is of cicadas and dragonflies. Lower down, in a market with a frontier feel to it, vendors sell gems and rare animal parts. Things were good these days, one vendor said. The temple was open and visitors were coming. "The war is over," he smiled. But the temple has not always been so accessible, or so peaceful. Bullet holes scar one stone wall, while to the side of another stands a rusting artillery gun. Further down, both Cambodian and Thai guards maintain a low-key presence. These are reminders that bitter battles have dominated Preah Vihear's recent history - and that one of them is still being fought today.

Court ruling

Preah Vihear was built mainly in the 11th and 12th centuries when the Khmer empire was at its height, its construction ordered by the kings that commissioned the temples of Angkor. According to Sanskrit inscriptions, it was called Sri Sikharisvara, meaning Glorious Lord of the Mountain - a dedication to the Hindu god Shiva. It sits on a mountain-top promontory, facing north towards Thailand. The main access comes from the Thai side, because of the sheer cliffs behind it. Cambodian ownership of the temple was first formally established in boundary settlements between its colonial ruler, France, and Siam, as Thailand was then known, a century ago. A joint commission in 1904 set the border between the two countries atop the Dangrek mountain range - but its subsequent map, in 1907, put Preah Vihear in Cambodia. In 1954, shortly after Cambodia achieved independence, Thai forces occupied the temple. In response, Cambodia took its case to the international courts. Thai authorities argued that as the border was supposed to follow the watershed line of the mountains, the temple was theirs. They had not challenged the map, they said, because their access to the site gave them de facto control over it. But the court ruled against Thailand and in 1962, the Thai troops withdrew.

More trouble was in store for Preah Vihear as conflict engulfed Cambodia. With its hill-top location, it was the last place to fall to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Four years later, when a Vietnamese invasion swept the Maoist regime from power, it was one of the strongholds to which the Khmer Rouge retreated. Years of fighting followed. Government forces managed to reopen the temple briefly in 1992, but Khmer Rouge guerrillas soon seized it back. Scores of fighters holed up in reinforced bunkers and held the complex for six more years. But the Khmer Rouge was on its last legs, its leaders dead or defected. In December 1998 the commander of the last group of fighters met negotiators at the temple to agree a historic surrender - one that ended three long decades of civil war.

Unesco row

Preah Vihear could finally be reopened. Landmines were cleared and paths made safe. Visitors began to return, market traders set up stalls and there was talk of much-needed restoration work. But the sovereignty row lingered on. In late 2001, Thai troops blocked access for a more than a year in a row over polluted water at the site. Since then, it has stayed open, but the issue remains extremely sensitive - as Cambodia's application to have Preah Vihear listed as the country's second Unesco World Heritage site has shown. "Becoming a Unesco World Heritage Site would bring international recognition to the Preah Vihear temple, especially the recognition of its universal value," says Ty Yao, president of Cambodia's National Authority for Preah Vihear. The added prestige would bring technical assistance from Unesco and other donors, he says, while the listing would formalise Cambodia's obligations in terms of managing and maintaining the site. It could also be a boon to the tourism industry, Cambodia's second biggest foreign currency earner, particularly given work to improve access from inside Cambodia.

But there is a problem. Although the international courts settled the row over the temple itself, the surrounding land remains the subject of overlapping territorial claims. Thailand says it would not object if Cambodia applied to list the temple area only. But it says Cambodia has, in its submission to Unesco, included disputed territory within the listed zone. It wants both countries to jointly manage the disputed areas until the border is agreed - and last month, sent a formal protest to Cambodia accusing it of deploying troops and mine clearers in a mutually-claimed area. Senior officials from the two countries are due to meet at Unesco headquarters in Paris today in a bid to iron out the dispute. "We would like to reach a win-win agreement," The Bangkok Post quoted Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama as saying ahead of the meeting. "We will try to be more flexible." Preah Vihear is not about to fall down - it has already survived a great deal. It is a staggeringly beautiful reminder of the area's turbulent past. Perhaps soon it will be known only for this beauty, rather than for the battles fought over it for so many decades.


This is Prasat Thom, the pyramid temple at the complex of Koh Ker, a couple of hour's drive from Siem Reap. It doesn't look like this anymore as it's been cleaned up - this photo was taken in November 2001 when only serious adventure tourists were visiting the site. However, as I reported a while back, the pyramid is now off-limits to tourists after one of the larger blocks at the top of the 36-metre high structure fell onto the ladder, making it unsafe for visitors. The site is known for its giant lingas and Prasat Thom is believed to have housed the largest of them all at its summit, though the search is on to find fragments of it. As visitors to Angkor Wat will already be aware, the top of that monument is also off-limits at the moment too. It's not clear when the upper level of Angkor Wat will be re-opened.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Prediction time

In a tradition stretching back to ancient times, Cambodia's royal cows predicted the country will have a 'quite good' rice harvest this year. Choosing from plates of rice, corn, beans, sesame, grass, water and alcohol, the pair of royal cows chose rice and corn in front of thousands of onlookers in the capital early this morning at the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. I wasn't there. My alarm clock failed to work. If you get out into the countryside around now, you should see thousands of farmers planting seed. But don't hang about in an open field when it starts to thunder - my tip for today.

Vandals in Thailand have caused damage to ancient statues at Prasat Phnom Rung and moved the Shiva Linga stone at the centre of the temple site off its plinth. Heads of eleven nagas at the stairs to the temple had been broken off. A sacred cow (right), two statues of singha and a statue of the guardian deity at the entrance were also damaged, though only two of the sculptures were originals, the rest were replicas. Theories about who did the damage to the 10th century temple abound but no-one has claimed responsibility and the authorities are no further forward in solving the puzzle. Suggestions that Khmer sorcerers are to blame will do little good to Cambodian-Thai relationships, already fraught over the long-running Preah Vihear saga. Phnom Rung is renowned for its quality of architectural decoration and was restored to its current state between 1972 and 1988.

Quiz Time

As I've had some problems over the last few days in posting photos on my blog, I'll quickly load three pictures that I've been waiting to post (along with a stack of others). Rather than spill the beans immediately on the location, I will pose a quiz question: Where did I snap these pictures? A clue - it's in Cambodia and in one location. The winner will get a free subscription to this blog.
These oversize feet may be a giveaway
Anyone good at family trees?
If you've read my previous posts, you'll know where you are likely to find this animal. In this case there was a troop of them and they were pretty aggressive, chasing away an inquisitive dog at one point

Tuol Sleng recalled

I nabbed a few pictures from the documentary film Die Angkar last night (shown at Meta House) as it was taking a close look at the newly-opened Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in 1980. It panned through the rooms at the prison, displayed hundreds of individual mug-shots as well as interviews with some of the seven surviving prisoners that had come forward at that time. The Tuol Sleng 7 have now been added to as more research has revealed a handful of other survivors, but the film footage showing a raw and unsanitized version of Tuol Sleng - which visitors don't see today - was a remarkable record of its time. The survivors were kept alive only because they possessed a skill that was useful to the prison authorities and for a very youthful Vann Nath, it was his talent as a painter that kept him alive.
Above: An animated Vann Nath talks about his experiences at Tuol Sleng on Die Angkar
Ung Pech, an engineer, was the first Director of Tuol Sleng when it opened as a museum. Pech died in 1996
Im Chan's skill as a sculptor kept him alive at Tuol Sleng. He passed away in March 2000
A translator, Phan Than Chan was 65 when he died in January 2002, after serving twenty years in the military following his release from Tuol Sleng
Bou Meng remains alive today, alongwith Vann Nath and Chum Mey. His skill as a painter saved him, though his wife died at the prison

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Die Angkar

My inability to post photos on my blog is getting very annoying. I can't fix the problem and I have literally hundreds to catch up with from Oudong, Battambang, Kompong Khleang, and lots more. Grrrrrr!
Tonight I went to the Meta House for their German film night, attended by no less a mortal than the German Ambassador and his wife, in their civvies. The film was the second of the ground-breaking documentaries by 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. Die Angkar focused on the Khmer Rouge and their communist roots and included never-before-seen early footage from Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, including interviews with survivors like Vann Nath and Ung Pech. Fascinating stuff, though it was in German so I didn't understand a word! They showed literally hundreds of mug-shots from the Tuol Sleng archives to press home their point during the 90-minute film. They also included an interview with Ieng Sary - who alongwith Pol Pot was tried in absentia as the two main architects of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime - to complement the interview with his wife Ieng Thirith in their other unique film, Kampuchea : Death and Rebirth, which screened at Meta House a few weeks ago. Both films are a unique look into Cambodia in those early months after the KR were kicked out of Phnom Penh. Whilst their focus is skewed, the footage alone makes them compelling watching.
A very well-fed Ieng Sary, interviewed by the documentary team
A bit later I finally encountered the only expat football team in Phnom Penh of any note. Members of the Bayon Wanderers team were having a beer and talking football in my local, the Red Orchid when I walked in. I've been trying to get in touch with them since I arrived in Phnom Penh but without success, until now. I'm seriously thinking of getting fit again and a kickabout with these guys would do the trick. They tell me they're in a local league and play games against Khmer opposition every weekend. Having not kicked a ball in anger for about five years, I am embarrassingly out of shape, but maybe this is exactly what I need to rekindle my fitness and my thirst for live football.

Pass It On

This interview with one of my all-time favourite illustrators and cartoonists, Bun Heang Ung, was posted at the Pass It On: Knowledge Is Power website alongwith an illustration from a new children's book, Wally's Bedroom Aviary. Unfortunately, is still playing up and won't load the drawing, so you'll have to go here to see it. A pain I know. He fails to mention in the interview his extraordinary memoir, with illustrations, titled 'The Murderous Revolution' - this is a must-get book.

1. What's this illustration for?
My new book with Sara Bednark who is the writer. Wally's Bedroom aviary.
2. Do you have to wait for a flash of inspiration - how do you start?
The text gives me a vivid imagination & inspiration and then I feel I can to start.
3. How did you get your start as an illustrator?
I was a political editorial cartoonist from Cambodia (1970-1975). I arrived here in May 1980 and have been living in Brisbane. I worked at the Migrant Education Centre as an Illustrator after I finished my 3 months English course. Then I moved to Sydney to live and have worked since then as a film animator, Layout Artist and storyboard artist with several animation studios such as Burbank, Hanna Barbera, Walt Disney, Yoram Gross and Energy Intertainment.
I was a freelance editorial cartoonist for the magazine Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong, 1997-1999). Recently (2007) I worked for Compass, a South Korean publishing company that produces educational books for migrants in the US. I worked on my first children’s book with Sara Bednark who is the author. My second is about Cambodian folktales: "The Sightless & The Hobble". And the third book is on the road: "The Cat & The Cricket." It is about geography & history of some famous countries around the world.
4. Who or what has influenced your work?
Asterex of Uderzo, French comic book artist, and Tintin. I learned to draw cartoons from those books while I was a Fine Arts student (1965-1975). And also I was influenced by one of my teachers, Dimitri, a great Russian painter & cartoonist.
5. What's your favourite media for creating pictures?
I draw in Black and White and scan and paint with the Photoshop digital. I think it's the best tool.
6. What's the worst thing about being a freelancer?
The worst thing is that I have to wait to get work.
7. And the best?
The best is my freedom. From my experiences as a Freelance Artist who has worked from home for 20 yrs, I enjoy my own space & time and it's the best thing in my life as father of 4 kids. I have been able to drop & pick them up from school, cook for them after school and spend a lot of time to see them grow up in a happy & harmonious environment.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on my third book with Sara Bednark, who is living another world away from Australia in Oregon USA.
9. Where can we see more of your work?
Our first book: "Wally's bedroom aviary" is available for purchasing at
I have 3 sites where you can see my children’s book illustrations & my political toons. Because the sites are so different I call myself: "Dr Jacklyn and Mr Hyde".

Bugs in the system

Not sure what the problem has been but I've been having a nightmare trying to load text and photos onto over the past couple of days. Its meant I haven't been able to bring you the earth-shattering stories of uncollected rubbish piling up on the streets of Phnom Penh and the news that the Stung Meanchey dump-site will close next year, in favour of a new dump-site near Choeung Ek. There was also an American tourist who shot himself in his jaw and out through the back of his head at a shooting range near the city - some people really shouldn't be allowed to travel outside their own country, the usual round of land-grab protests, political party defections ahead of the election, acid attacks, a ban on scantily-clad women in Cambodian commercials and a batch of cucumbers suspected in two food-poisoning deaths!
I watched the film Bombhunters at Meta House last Saturday, all about the people who make a living collecting UXO that can be found throughout Cambodia as a legacy of the conflict and strife suffered here over the last 30+ years. It was interesting and well-filmed and whilst we're all aware of landmines, the story of UXO is rather less-sexy and under-reported. However, it was in the news yesterday when two brothers were killed and two others seriously wounded when a 60-mm mortar-shell exploded inside a pagoda in Battambang province. The mortar-shell had been brought to the pagoda for safety until it could be collected by the de-mining authorities but the boys, all in their early teens, had found it first. In the same district in January, two people died and three were maimed by an anti-tank blast. Last year, nine people died in three explosions in the district. Though the instances of landmine and UXO casualties is much less in recent years, these silent killers are still out there, waiting to strike.
And a big well done to Kari Grady-Grossman and her book Bones That Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia, that has won two prestigious Nautilus Book Awards; a gold award in the memoir category and a silver award in multicultural. It's also been chosen for the forthcoming Independent Publisher Book Awards as a peacemaker of the year category finalist. I rate the book very highly myself and would recommend you pick up a copy at Monument Books here in Phnom Penh or direct from

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Classical dance dates

Sam Savin, one of the classical dancers who will perform on 7 June
I suggest you put Saturday 7 June or the following day in your calendar. A newly revived work of Khmer Classical Dance - called Preah Anurudh Preah Neang Ossa - will be performed at the Chenla Theater in Phnom Penh by artists from the School of Fine Arts. Tickets are a snip at 3,000 and 6,000 riel with the show being staged by the Amrita Performing Arts group. I was lucky enough to see the premiere of this new work at a special staging of the dance in February and its worth going to see. Kudos to ANZ Royal Bank for sponsoring this event.

Today I spent the day at the quarterly meeting of CCBEN - the Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network - in their new offices on Street 468, a few blocks from the Russian Market. I've mentioned CCBEN before - they provide information and support in various ways to ecotourism projects around Cambodia - and its well worth visiting their website for more details. They also laid on some food afterwards for an official office-warming party. One new project that is just in its infancy and who came along to the meeting to explain their concept was In The Stream of the Palm Tree, a community-based project by the Prek Tnout Commune, about 14 kms outside of Kampot, on the road to Sihanoukville. Supported by the NGO Save Cambodia's Wildlife, the project will provide opportunities for visitors to enjoy waterfalls, mangrove forests, guided walks, boat trips and more, and operates in the lee of Bokor National Park. And before I forget, there's an exhibition of Stay Another Day at Meta House this coming Friday. It kicks-off at 6pm and will interest anyone wishing to find out more about initiatives that will enhance your visit to Cambodia and also give you an opportunity to contribute in some way to improving the welfare of its people. If you see the orange-coloured SAD booklet, grab it because its a mine of information. Link: CCBEN

Monday, May 19, 2008

Howes murder case update

More than twelve years after the murder of MAG de-mining specialist Christopher Howes (left) and his translator Houn Hourth, six men are now in custody in Phnom Penh's Prey Sar Prison awaiting trial. Investigations are still taking place so no date for the trial has been announced and even more arrests may be made. The arrests were something I never really expected to happen, so that in itself has been a massively positive step in the right direction in resolving this murder case. The prosecution have had twelve years to put their case together - let's hope its water-tight and that the truth will be told and the perpetrators found guilty. This is one instance where the Cambodian authorities can achieve an outcome that will send a positive message to all that justice can be achieved in Cambodia. I live in hope.

You can read my detailed notes on Christopher Howes and the full story

The sixth suspect, Puth Lim was arrested on Friday, in the southern town of Kampot. He has allegedly been in hiding for a number of years in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, though the press have also claimed he was Pol Pot's graveyard keeper, which if true, doesn't ring true with the 'in hiding' claim as the gravesite has been a tourist attraction for quite some time. It's also claimed he was the driver of the car that transported the two de-miners to their death. Puth Lim is the latest to be arrested, following the high profile arrest of three other former KR cadre last November, including the man suspected of supervising the killing, Khem Nguon (pictured), and two others more recently. The names of those in custody today are Khem Nguon, Loch Mao, Chep Cheat, Sin Dorn, Horm Hai and Puth Lim. Horm Hai was arrested recently, though his arrest was not announced by the the deputy director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Ke Sakhorn, until sometime later. Sakhorn also explained that the cases have been transferred from the Siem Reap court, where the original application was made, because there were believed to be former Khmer Rouge leaders in Siem Reap who would have made investigations difficult!

For me this murder case is personal. I never met Christopher, who was killed in March 1996 after his abduction, but I was affected by his disappearance, both because he was a fellow Brit in Cambodia - I first visited Cambodia at the end of 1994 and was deeply in love with the country - and also because he came from Bristol, just twenty minutes drive from my own home. I was in contact with his parents at the time and two years later I received an invitation to attend a memorial service in his honour but regrettably I wasn't able to attend. The two de-miners died whilst trying to rid Cambodia of the scourge of landmines - something that upset the KR hierarchy and signed their death warrants - and they deserve justice, even after so long.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Chrouy Changva Take 2

A ceiling painting of Rahu causing an eclipse of the moon by eating it
Wat Botiyaram was the first pagoda I called into on my visit to Chrouy Changva this morning. It boasts a new large concrete Buddha near the main gate but aside from that, its in a run-down state and the main vihara was doubling-up as sleeping quarters for about ten monks. Three of the monks raised themselves from their slumber to chat to me about the temple and its fifty-two monks in residence as they were keen to practice their English. Visitors are a rarity at Wat Botiyaram. The vihara itself and the Buddha statues on the shrine are unremarkable but the wooden ceiling and the dirty wall paintings contain some real gems in my view. Wooden ceilings are quickly becoming a thing of the past so should be preserved wherever possible, especially those with paintings, whilst the wall galleries contained lots of the usual stories as well as some rare renditions including one where Buddha asks a woodcutter to stop chopping wood as he was killing ants! I checked my understanding about seima stones with one of the monks, who told me the largest of the nine sacred stones had been buried under the altar when the temple was consecrated. He was also interested in some copies of the book I had with me, Buddhist ethics in daily life and promised to share them with his fellow monks. Chrouy Changva has always been a quiet refuge from the city and the friendliness of the people, in this instance the monks at Wat Botiyaram, one of its best features.
One of the most common scenes to be found on ceiling paintings, Buddha in his chariot
This is a representation of crimes and punishments in hell, witnessed by Nemiriech riding on his chariot
An adult female monkey with offspring at Wat Prachum Sakor

Chrouy Changva Take 1

The view from the Chrouy Changva park across to the Royal Palace
At a loose end this morning, I realised that I hadn't popped over the Japanese Bridge to Chrouy Changva for a few years, always a nice and quiet refuge from the hot and humid city center. Over the last few years Chrouy Changva has changed almost out of recognition so I stuck to the western side along the Tonle Sap river and visited the three pagodas there. At Wat Prachum Sakor, the number of stupas has multiplied significantly, as has the size of the troop of monkeys in the sacred banyan tree. I counted at least twenty monkeys including many babies. The monks had just been called to lunch so one of the achar opened the main vihara though the paintings weren't of anything other than of moderate interest and with no Neak Ta to see, I moved onto the golden boat temple (Wat Sampeau Trileak). No-one was around at this rather unique if gaudy and uninspiring modern temple which depicts the boat which Buddhists who are without sin sail to heaven. I will cover the peninsula's third pagoda, Wat Botiyaram in my second post. The park that fronts Chrouy Changva directly opposite Sisowath Quay was a haven for young courting couples before I returned to the other side of the river for lunch at The Rising Sun.
Mother monkey and child avoid a nosey photographer and the midday heat
A painting of Buddha receiving food from a monkey and elephant at Wat Prachum Sakor
The gaudy golden boat temple at Wat Sampeau Trileak

Frustration reigns

This is the brochure cover for the exhibition The Holy Faces of Angkor, which is as close as I got to see the exhibit of sixty photographs by Japanese freelance snapper Baku Saito! The exhibition kicked off early on Saturday morning with speeches by Sok An and Veng Sereyvuth, two of the government's top guns as well as Baku himself. Unfortunately I wasn't aware of the morning ceremony at the HQ of CJCC on Russian Boulevard and got there a little after 2pm, to find that the exhibition had already closed for the day and wouldn't reopen until Tuesday. Its on until 31 may, so I will see it in due course, but Saturday's frustration was just the start. It then rained for an hour but before I left I liked the look of the fancy little circular building next to CJCC and was told it was one of renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann's creations. In fact it turns out to be the Institute of Foreign Languages library and is modeled after traditional woven palm-leaf hats and is set in its own small, circular moat. I headed for the Olympic Stadium intending to see a game of football from the Cambodian Premier League, only to be told all games were off this weekend, though I could try the Old Stadium. Now taken over by the Army, the pitch was being watered and looked lush, but there were no games here either. Damn. Even the Cambodia versus Palestine match next Saturday has been cancelled. Down in the dumps, I headed home only to find my internet connection was down too, the first time in the half a dozen months I've been online at home. It was just one of those afternoons I guess.
This circular Vann Molyvann creation sits next to the Cambodian-Japanese Co-Operation HQ on Russian Boulevard and is the library of the Foreign Languages Institute

Illustrator extraordinaire

A Cambodian-born illustrator, painter and sculptor, Andrew Hem, is earning rave reviews and plaudits for his expanding body of work and already includes Adidas, Sony Pictures and The Los Angeles Times amongst his clients, with successful exhibitions in London, Italy and across the United States also in the bag. He left Cambodia with his parents as a toddler to make a new life in the US and now lives in Los Angeles. His formative years in graffiti art prepared him well though it was as an illustrator that he felt he'd found his true course. His artworks have a unique, edgy, slightly disturbing style that have won him many friends and supporters in the art world since his graduation just two years ago. This man is going places. Link: website

Another arrest in Howes case

A plaque honouring Christopher Howes, across the street from Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh
Developments in the Christopher Howes murder case continued this weekend with the arrest of a fifth former Khmer Rouge cadre on charges of premeditated murder and illegal confinement. Fifty-two year old Puth Lim was detained in Kampot, near the south coast on Friday and joins four of his former KR colleagues under lock and key in Phnom Penh, pending a trial date. Puth is alleged to be the driver of the man, Khem Nguon, who is widely believed to be responsible for the death of Howes and his translator Houn Hourth a few days after their abduction in March 1996. Nguon served as number 2 to the notorious one-legged KR commander Ta Mok before his defection from the KR to join the Cambodian armed forces where he was awarded the rank of brigadier-general in the defence ministry. However, in a surprise move in November last year, Nguon and two other former communist rebels, Loch Mao (believed to be the man who shot Howes in the back), and Chep Cheat, were arrested and charged over the kidnapping and murder of the Bristol-based de-miner and his colleague. A fourth suspect, Sin Dorn, was arrested and jailed pending the trial only last week. All five men face 20 years in prison for premeditated murder and 10 years for illegal confinement if convicted.
For more on Christopher Howes, please visit my websi

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mini-treasure trove

One of the 8 ancient seima stones at Wat Vihear Samna
Following a recent visit to Oudong mountain, as we reached Route 5 in the village of Ampil Dam Toek, I called into Wat Vihear Samna to find a mini-treasure trove of items. Surrounding the main vihara of the pagoda was a series of eight very old seima stones, with intricate carvings on both sides. The seima (or sema or sima) stones appear at most modern Cambodian wats to mark the location of a ninth magic stone buried at the center of the main vihara, and it is these stones that give the wat its special power. They also form boundary markers that identify the sacred part of the pagoda, where the monks are ordained (the prayer hall). Some seima stones are of great antiquity and can often be found stored behind the main altar for safety, or set in a concrete base to avoid theft, as these were. The main vihara was fairly modern and contained the normal interior wall paintings, whilst outside sat a solitary sandstone lion, in reasonable condition and in another part of the temple grounds, a large brick-built chedi (or stupa) was jockeying for space with a large tree that had grown out of its roof. I asked the young monks nearby if they knew how old the chedi was but they didn't know, just replying "borann, borann," which means very old. The Oudong area is a rich vein of interesting pagodas and well worth a few hours of your time if you have a spare Sunday. The main Oudong mountain itself is of course festooned with chedis and stupas containing the remains of Cambodian Kings and I'll post some photos of these very soon.
A weather-worn Bayon-style lion at Wat Vihear Samna
The "borann" chedi with a large tree sprouting from its roof

Friday, May 16, 2008

A legacy of lions

One of the lions standing guard at the building site of Wat Sokun Meanbon
It is rare enough to find a sandstone lion still in situ on my temple hunting adventures but to find no less than four lions still in place at the site of a pagoda undergoing renovation was pretty unusual, whilst nearby another wat housed two substantial lingas in the courtyard. These pagodas were on my list from my recent visit to Oudong, some forty kilometres north of Phnom Penh and a rich treasure trove of pagodas, having been a former capital in the 17th century. The lions are located at the smaller pagoda of Wat Sokun Meanbon, which is being rebuilt from scratch though the four lions and a pedestal remain from its former life as the site of a small prasat. Three of the lions - they look like lions from the Bayon period (late 12th century) to me - are in pretty good condition, the fourth hasn't fared so well. The pagoda is a building site at the moment and I hope the lions don't disappear during the rebuilding process. At Wat Sala Kou, a few hundred metres away, two excellent examples of sandstone lingas are stood upright in the courtyard of the pagoda alongwith some ancient seima stones. Again, these should really be housed inside the pagoda for safety in my opinion or else these could soon be spirited away as well - literally an accident (theft) waiting to happen. Both pagodas are a mere stone's throw from Route 5 in the village of Oudong.
Two lions flank the west entrance to Wat Sokun Meanbon
Standing upright and proud, this sandstone lion is most likely from the late 12th century
Missing part of his hind quarters, one of the 4 lions at Wat Sokun Meanbon
Looking out eastwards, this lion can see Oudong mountain in the distance between the two trees
A three-part linga in reasonable condition in the courtyard of Wat Sala Kou

Oudong's killing fields

The remains of Khmer Rouge victims at the Ethreus memorial at Oudong
This is the memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror at the foot of Oudong mountain, which is also known as Ethreus mountain, in the village of Phnom. I remembered it as a small wooden structure on my previous visit ten years earlier. Today it's surrounded by food sellers lining the road to the mountain and in recent years a concrete memorial has been erected to protect the remains that were found in a series of fifty small pits at Chamkar Svay, an execution site in a mango tree orchard nearby, in 1981. It's one of the few memorials that have been erected in recent years - the majority of sites have been abandoned to the elements. In addition two small prisons were located in the adjacent pagodas of Wat Kasap Preah Vihear and Wat Kampong Luong. In all, around 500 victims were found buried in the pits and witnesses report that many were killed with bamboo pipes and hoes, whilst some victims were hung from the mango trees as a deterrent to others.
A new memorial has been erected at the foot of Ethreus mountain
The collection of bones and skulls lie within a concrete memorial, close to the food and trinket stalls
One of the nameless victims of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror at Oudong
A bullet-marked building adjacent to the mango tree orchard where the KR victims were buried

Weekend viewings

Here' s two viewings worth visiting this weekend if you are in Phnom Penh. On Saturday night the film Bombhunters will get an airing (7pm) at the Meta House on Street 264. Its a film by Skye Fitzgerald that documents the effects of UXO (unexploded ordnance) on the Cambodian people, both within their homeland and in the US, particularly villagers' efforts throughout rural Cambodia as they seek out UXO and attempt to render it safe for sale to the scrap metal industry in order to survive. Read more about the film here. Also on Saturday, an exhibition titled The Holy Faces of Angkor will open at the Cambodian-Japanese Co-operation Center at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, along the airport road. Photos by Japanese freelance snapper Baku Saito, who has been taking pictures of the face towers of Angkor since 1994, will be on show until 31 May. He's produced photographic books on the Bayon and Banteay Chhmar, specializing on recording the enigmatic faces that adorn these temples.
A Bayon face and nun from my own 1998 photo-album

Visiting friends

Vy and yours truly
The King's Birthday public holiday brought some friends into Phnom Penh. Whilst hordes of city dwellers headed down to Sihanoukville for a bit of R&R, Vy swam against the tide to spend a couple of days in Phnom Penh. She works in the hotel industry at the plushest hotel on the south coast though her first port of call in the city was the new Kentucky Fried Chicken shop on Monivong Boulevard! Also calling into see me were Rachel Madden, on a whistle-stop visit from England, accompanied by her guide Sak, my very good friend from Battambang. It was Rachel who hosted Sak's recent visit to England and he was still smiling broadly with memories from his trip. Right on cue, it snowed on his first morning in England, just one of many new experiences he enjoyed on his two-week visit.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A smile goes a long way

Humour helps a rare bird survive: Conservationists" gentle engagement with locals boosts the prospects for the Bengal Florican - by David Montero (The Christian Science Monitor)

For Sum Song Zoning, a community officer with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of Cambodia, the secret to conservation is a good sense of humor. His audience: monks and farmers, housewives with screaming babies – each with a skeptical look that deepened as the morning heat rose. His subject: the Bengal Florican, an endangered bird few have ever heard of, let alone seen. His task: to convince the lean-looking villagers that, should they ever come across the bird, a hefty five-pounder, it is better to save it than to eat it. By all accounts, he succeeded wonderfully. There were cheers as he took playful jabs at a monk and teased two bemused old ladies, using humor to impart the value of the bird. Diagrams and posters were marshaled to explain that, as much as they look alike, Bengal Florican eggs are not duck eggs and should be left alone. During the quiz at the end, the 30 or so participants raised their hands with gleeful eagerness, suggesting that, whether or not they ever saw the bird, they were ready to protect it. “Ten years ago, people didn’t understand the importance of the bird,” says Zoning. “Now they understand that it’s something special for Cambodia.”

Village by village, and province by province, this simple interaction is helping to save the Bengal Florican, one of the world’s rarest birds, by directly engaging the communities that dwell in the bird’s habitat. And in so doing, this approach is presenting a unique model of community-based conservation, observers and participants say. “This is a model of conservation between communities and conservationists,” says Robert van Zalinge, a field technical adviser for the WCS. “In remote regions, protected areas are set up just based on government decisions, and that is enforced. But here, in an area of high human population, you have a much larger community interface than any other protected area in Cambodia.” For bird enthusiasts, the Bengal Florican is prized for its rarity, being native to only three countries in the world: Cambodia, India, and Nepal. Today there are believed to be roughly 1,300 left in the world, with about 800 to 900 in the flood plains of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia, according to research conducted by WCS. To scientists, the bird is unique for its elaborate mating ritual, or display: the otherwise secretive males make hopping loops in the sky, hoping to attract female attention with their striking presence – black bodies set against glaring white wings. “They’re very difficult to see. But when they display, the male sort of advertises its territory, trying to attract females,” says Lotty Packman, a doctoral student from England who is assisting the WCS to track and tag the birds. For the people in these stark grasslands, though, where scarcity is a way of life, the bird is a potential source of income or food. By the 1990s, hunting had significantly diminished its numbers. Today the bird faces an even greater threat: the grasslands of the Tonle Sap, which used to stretch for hundreds of miles, are quickly diminishing as private companies convert land into large-scale rice-farming operations. Almost 30 percent of the grasslands were lost in 30 months from 2005 to 2007, warns a recent report by the WCS. “At that rate, in five to 10 years, the grasslands could be gone and the Florican extinct,” says Mr. Van Zalinge.

To prevent that, conservationists worked with the provincial governments in the flood-plain area to devise a solution: an Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Area – a protected area that outlaws large-scale dry rice farming, which damages the Florican’s habitat, but allows farmers to continue traditional methods of deep-water rice farming. The latter’s use of grazing and burning supports the Florican by preventing the growth of scrub that destroy the grass patches favored by the birds. In 2006, a provincial government decree designated 135 square miles of the flood plain a protected area, preserving roughly half of the Bengal Florican population here. So far, the provincial governments have stopped at least two large-scale dry rice projects, according the WCS, suggesting the firm commitment of local authorities. What makes the project novel is also the level of community involvement. As many as 20 times a month, community officer Zoning and others gather several dozen people in towns throughout the Tonle Sap flood plain. Men and women, young and old: Their participation has helped the Bengal Florican return, like the rest of Cambodia, from a devastating past. It is too early to say how successful the protected areas have been in increasing the overall population of Cambodia’s Bengal Florican. For now, project administrators say, success means reaching people like Meach Komhan, a farmer in the district of Baray, part of the flood-plain area. “I had never heard of the bird before,” he says, after listening to Zoning’s presentation. “I really support the conservation, because the bird is useful for Cambodian people as a natural resource. We don’t want to lose it in the future.”

The pulse of UK reggae

Grizzly Nisbett
I'm always keen to read articles on my favourite reggae band Steel Pulse in the press and this one from Bobby Tanzilo in Milwaukee, USA even used one of my own pictures of Grizzly Nisbett, the band's former drummer, who I interviewed a few years ago. Read my interview here. For the article itself, see below.

The pulse of UK reggae by Bobby Tanzilo (
If you saw me driving to work today, you likely heard me singing along to Steel Pulse's 1982 'True Democracy,' which I extracted from the shelf this morning for the first time in many, many years. The news that the band comes to Summerfest this year - on the The Potawatomi Bingo Casino Stage & Pavilion with Miller High Life and - led me back to this record that was among my favorites when I was 15 and 16. I was amazed that I could remember not only every word, every drum fill, every guitar line, but also the vocal ad libs. I guess I listened to it more than a few times. Along with the band's 1978 debut, 'Handsworth Revolution,' it is an absolute classic U.K. reggae disc (ask me and I'll bore you with the others, too) and pretty high up on the list of all reggae records (we snobs make a distinction between music from Jamaica and from everywhere else).

'True Democracy' was exciting and alive when it was released. It was a bridge between rock and reggae with chicken scratch guitars, incendiary drumming and on-the-money harmonies combined with great songwriting. It also arrived at a definitive time for me. I was teaching myself to play the bass and 'True Democracy,' along with the other great records of the moment - Black Uhuru's 'Red,' Bob Marley & The Wailers' 'Uprising' and Aswad's 'New Chapter in Dub,' among them - were the best teachers a kid could ask for. They were all fueled by bass runs that were snaky and full of finesse, but were also repeated many times, allowing me to pick out the notes (and I say "pick," but I certainly did NOT use a pick, thank you very much!). The disc also helped me join my school's Jamaican community - this was Brooklyn remember - at least as an honorary member. Standing in line in the cafeteria listening to 'True Democracy' in my Walkman (remember those?!), the Jamaican kid in line behind me somehow realized or suspected that we were listening to the same record. We were and I was in.

Then there was that improbable column of dreads sported by singer and guitarist David Hinds on the cover of the U.S. release. It seemed amazingly tall and revolutionary - like a big middle finger to the people that still fought against dreadlocks (yes, there was a time when dreads were not a hip trend and kids got kicked out of their houses for sporting them) - and we had no idea just how it would continued to taunt gravity before it fell over and Hinds started tying it up 'round itself. I've seen Steel Pulse a number of times since then and the band is always killer live. Although, I don't hesitate to say that once drummer Steve 'Grizzly' Nisbett left the band, the thumping heart of Steel Pulse was gone even if the brain and the body was still alive. But go buy 'True Democracy' and feel the fire. Then go see Steel Pulse and I guarantee you that - Grizzly or no Grizzly (certainly no Grizzly, sadly, because he's retired) - Hinds and company will put on a stellar show.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


In need of some love and affection, the colonial mansion bought by the FCC group
There are some very attractive French colonial-style buildings dotted around Phnom Penh. A few books have been published that demonstrate the best examples and there's even a walking/cyclo tour of the capital that is organized by architecture fans to show off these beautiful edifices to interested visitors. One such building, although suffering from neglect and a lack of paint is the building featured here. It sits opposite the National Museum and made the news headlines here the other day when it was alleged that it was part of a political bribe a few years ago and has now been sold off to the FCC group who will turn it into a luxury hotel. It was built in 1930 and its last occupants were the police who protect the Royal Place nearby. Expect it to look shiny and bright fairly soon, like the UNESCO building, another colonial-style building that has been given the love and attention it deserves. The UNESCO headquarters is from the same era and lies fifty metres along the same block of buildings. Link: Architecture Tours. The photos managed to load two days after I blogged this post. Sorry to keep you waiting!

A close-up view of the 1930's colonial-style mansion near the Royal Palace
The brightly-painted renovated UNESCO mansion a few doors away from the FCC building

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Last of the face towers

The west face of tower 18 at Banteay Chhmar
The trademark face towers of Banteay Chhmar are a big attraction for visitors and face tower 18, located in the first enclosure, is the only tower with all four faces still in situ. On all of the other towers inside the main complex, at least one face has collapsed. So face tower 18 is unique and to highlight that, I have posted all the faces here together with longer distance shots to put them into context. The tower is topped off with a lotus motif but does not have any praying figures between the faces as other towers have. Though built mainly in the early 13th century under the kingship of Jayavarman VII, its believed the temple was constructed over a long period of time, hence there are subtle differences in the building techniques used. The only face tower I haven't posted photos of are the two faces on tower 73. But don't think that the face towers in the main complex are the only ones to be found at Banteay Chhmar. There are another 4 satellite temples in the surrounding fields and forest that also boast large face towers and are well worth seeking out if you have time. Believe me when I say that you will be rewarded by their location and setting, having visited the satellite temples three years ago. On my latest visit, we simply didn't have enough time.
Tower 18 at Banteay Chhmar with the west and south faces
The south face of tower 18
Tower 18 showing the south face
The east face of tower 18 at Banteay Chhmar
The foliage and trees are encroaching on the east face of tower 18
The north face of tower 18 is in danger of collapse
Tower 18's north face is in a perilous state
A book that is dedicated to the face towers at this temple was published in 2005 by Noto Publishers in Japan and is called The Face Towers of Banteay Chmar. It's a collection of colour and black & white photos by Baku Saito, with text by Olivier Cunin. It includes all the face towers at the main complex, those at the satellite temples as well as the faces to be found at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay. If you love the enigmatic faces at Banteay Chhmar, you'll love this book.

Titbits from PP

Like everyone, I have read with distress about the devastating natural disasters that have exploded onto the peoples of Burma and China over the last few days. Information about both disasters has been sketchy so far but what we've seen and heard clearly indicate catastrophes of major-scale proportions. The failure of the Burmese authorities to allow aid and logistic teams into the country is simply bonkers, but of no surprise at all, as they instead concentrate on a referendum for a new constitution aimed at strengthening the military control over the Burmese people. I am ever thankful that Cambodia lies in between its neighbours and as such is shielded from such natural disasters (famous last words?). In a small-scale show of solidarity, I visited one of only two Burmese restaurants in Phnom Penh on Saturday, the Irrawaddi on street 344, for my lunch - nice people.
The Cambodian Premier League football season has recently kicked off and I am still scrabbling around trying to get the fixture list so I can get along to the Olympic Stadium to watch a few games. I'm currently suffering severe starvation for live football since my relocation to Cambodia. The end of the English Premiership season last weekend - which I watched on multi-screens at The Gym bar - doesn't exactly help either. I'm told the Cambodian League games are played on Saturday & Sunday and Wednesday but trying to locate a fixture list has so far proved impossible. However there is light on the horizon. The Cambodian National team has three games at home later this month as part of the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup, a tournament for emerging football nations. Cambodia will play Palestine on 24 May, Nepal on 26 May and Macau on 28 May, with all three games at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh. The winner of this mini-group will go forward to compete in the 8-team Challenge Cup finals in India in July and August. Even I should be able to attend at least one of the games to satisfy my craving for live football.
I was very pleased to get a note from the author Milton Osborne a couple of days ago, who thanked me for my coverage of his recent book launch in Phnom Penh. He also mentioned a further delay of the arrival at Monument Books of his new book, Phnom Penh - A Cultural and Literary History. I'm still reading the book and will review it very soon.
My trip to Laos - did I mention it? - has been postponed for the time being. I was due to spend more than two weeks travelling from north to south in Laos from the end of this week, getting my first glimpse of the country and its people, but a lack of experienced staff in the office has meant I will now re-schedule my trip until June or July. A pity as I was looking forward to it, but it will happen, just later rather than sooner.
Last and certainly least, the closing date for registering political parties and their candidates for the 27 July general election here in Cambodia has passed. In all, 12 parties have registered, half of the number from the 2003 general election, where CPP won control with 73 seats out of 123. Its already dominating the headlines over here with dirty tricks much in evidence from all quarters. I expect it to get a lot worse as election day draws closer.
Whoops, I forgot to mention its the Cambodian King's birthday tomorrow - King Sihamoni will be 55 - and today is the first of a 3-day public holiday. However, I work in tourism so public holidays here mean diddly-squat. To celebrate his birthday, the face of the King will now appear on a new 20,000 riel note (worth $5.5) , printed by the National Bank.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Rahu bas-reliefs

A fight to the death with Bharata Rahu on this relief at the western gallery at Banteay Chhmar
Banteay Chhmar is also famous for its Bayon-style bas-reliefs along its outer gallery, though existing in two registers, rather than the four as at the Bayon. The reliefs present a mix of historic events with religious and mythological themes though large chunks of the gallery has fallen foul to time and thieves. The most striking example of this was the theft of five portions of the wall in 1997 which included the large, multi-armed Avalokiteshvaras. Only two remain in place today. Along the gallery wall are a series of rich iconographic scenes and the two featured here involve the mythical monster Bharata Rahu. Located in the southern part of the western gallery near the western gopura 153, the picture above depicts a large man trying to kill the rebellious Bharata Rahu, in a forest setting with rhinoceros and monkeys present. The man is believed to be Prince Shrindrakumara and in the process he saves the royal palace of Yashovarman. Believe it if you will. In the bottom photo, a monstrously large figure with the head of a lion (though it looks like Rahu to me) and crawling on the ground, is just about to devour a Cham, an ox and his chariot of boxes arranged in a pyramid. This relief is the only known Rahu relief in Cambodia. Normally Rahu, who stole a drop of amrita at the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and achieved immortality, is seen swallowing the sun and the moon and creating eclipses. Also in Khmer folklore, the term Rahu often refers to the grimacing face of a kala and can be seen on many lintels.
A monster, Rahu(?) swallows a beast and is soon to devour a Cham pulling a chariot

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Making faces

The north face of tower 64 at Banteay Chhmar
Tower 64 at Banteay Chhmar is located in the western complex at the site and experts suggest its function was as a library, crowned by a lotus and containing praying figures in each corner and above the faces, though only three faces now survive. Banteay Chhmar itself is only slightly smaller than the city of Angkor Thom and the main complex is surrounded by a moat, though the original enclosure also contains a baray and nine other temples, as well as a dharmasala rest-house. The main complex covers an area of five hectares bounded by a rectangular gallery, which is richly decorated in carving. It was built in the early 13th century as a funerary temple for Jayavarman VII's son. Today the temple is a veritable jumble of ruins and the easiest way of moving around is usually on gallery roofs and over the larger piles of collapsed stone. This provides a good opportunity to photograph the face towers and pediments at close range.
Above: Tower 64 was originally a library located in the western complex of Banteay Chhmar
Above: This picture of the west face of tower 64 shows the praying figures above the face and to the left
The enigmatic smile of the west face of tower 64
A full frontal view of tower 64's north face
The east face at tower 64 is hard to distinguish and looks a candidate for collapse in the future

Faces and Tower 15 revealed

The west face of tower 15 at Banteay Chhmar and the profile of the south face (right of the photo)
In the first central enclosure at Banteay Chhmar there are three face towers still in place, and tower 15 is one of these. It has three faces still in situ, with their trademark enigmatic smile and closed eyelids in place. There is no definitive conclusion on who these faces represent. They have been attributed to Brahma, Siva, Avalokitesvara and Buddha as well as the great builder Jayavarman VII himself, or to the mixed traits of all or some of the former. The question remains open still today. The faces themselves appeared during the Bayon period of temple construction, between 1177-1230, and more precisely the latter half of that period. They can be found at Angkor of course, at the Bayon, Angkor Thom entrance gates, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Ta Som. They also appear in the provincial setting of Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, and here at Banteay Chhmar. For me they have always been one of the most fascinating aspects of Khmer sculpture.
Half profile of the south face of tower 15 at Banteay Chhmar
The smiling south face of tower 15
The east face of tower 15 and profile of the south face (to left of photo)
A crooked smile for the east face of tower 15

Facing danger

The sole remaining face on tower 70 at Banteay Chhmar faces south
The magnificent face towers at Banteay Chhmar are in a precarious state. This was amply demonstrated in 2004 when tower 73 and its two remaining faces fell to the floor of the temple. Other towers are in severe danger too. One such tower is the one shown here, tower 70, the southwest corner tower of the western complex at the site. There is only one face remaining on tower 70 and as you can see it is already ill-defined and lacks the clarity of most of the other faces on show at Banteay Chhmar. The tower itself has already suffered much collapse and looks unsteady on its remaining feet. In total there are 13 faces still to be seen at the temple on five towers. There is argument amongst the experts on the original number of face towers at the site, though some hypothesise that as many as 45 may have existed if you include the satellite temples that surround the main complex. I will reveal more of the faces in additional posts but I wanted to highlight that Banteay Chhmar is a temple in great danger. It has been plundered without restraint over many years, and this has left the remaining structure in imminent danger. Without a serious attempt to halt and reverse this, a magnificent temple and its enigmatic faces may be in danger of being lost forever.
A look at the precarious corner tower that is tower 70 at Banteay Chhmar

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The eastern gopura at Banteay Chhmar

There's a lot to see at Banteay Chhmar so be prepared for a few more postings from this massive temple site in northwest Cambodia. I spent a little over an hour there two weeks ago and tried to capture as many of the notable features as possible. I've been there before and will certainly return again - there's more than enough to keep me occupied for a few days at least. As much of the temple's rich vein of carvings lie in pieces on the floor as are still in situ, so there's lots of opportunities to uncover a gem or two in a quiet corner if you have time on your hands. My future posts will focus on the temple's magnificent bas-reliefs and face towers. These pictures were taken in and around the eastern entrance gopura to the temple.
Above: One of a series of lions and garudas with arms aloft to support the celestial realm in the area of the broken eastern gopura
Above: A good example of the precarious nature of much of Banteay Chhmar as wooden supports keep this interesting pediment - the slaying of Shishupala with Krishna and rishis also present - in the eastern pavilion
The Hall of Dancers is another section in a precarious state. This frieze of female dancers with arms raised also resides in the eastern pavilion and has looked like this since my first visit to Banteay Chhmar seven years ago
Two more heavenly maidens or devatas in traditional pose holding lotus flowers on the walls of Banteay Chhmar

On the run at Chhmar

More from my recent visit to Banteay Chhmar. I had very little time at the temple due to a late arrival and same day departure for Siem Reap. In effect, I had an hour to scramble across the ruins and seek out as much iconography and carving as I could find, as well as the temple's trademark face towers which I will post in the next day or two.
Above: These roof finials are located inside the second enclosure of Banteay Chhmar and show small Buddha figures in meditation
The pediment above shows a bodhisattva seated on a low plinth with two worshippers at his side, over a row of five remaining figures seated in anjali pose
A standing headless Lokeshvara above worshippers and attendants is badly eroded
Above: This is a very good example of Buddha seated on a naga and protected by its expanded hood. He is sat on a high plinth and below him is a prostrated king, flanked by female attendants with fans and parasols. This pediment is located inside tower 18
Above: This reconstructed pediment lies immediately inside the eastern entrance and depicts two rows of worshippers, twenty-three in total, below what appears to be a lively depiction of Krishna though much of the upper register is missing

Friday, May 9, 2008

Valmiki and Brahma

The pediment described below with Valmiki and Brahma underneath the body of a naga
One of the most famous and frequently photographed scenes at Banteay Chhmar is from a low pediment in the eastern pavilion and one of the first carvings you encounter on your visit to this marvellous temple. It's one of the opening visual narratives from the Ramayana story, a sacred Hindu text of the story of Rama and Sita, that in Cambodia is called the Reamker. The story depicted on this pediment is of the sage Valmiki, who composed the epic poem, and who was in the forest looking for somewhere to bathe. Whilst he was admiring a pair of mating cranes, a tribal hunter killed the male bird with an arrow - which you can see in the neck of the bird - and which caused the sage to pour his emotions into his poem. He was then visited by Brahma, who asked Valmiki to write the full story of Rama for all to read. Essentially, that's the story of this carving. The tribal hunter is on the right holding bow and arrows. At the centre is Brahma with four heads and next to him, but with his face disfigured, is Valmiki holding a page of his manuscript. To the far left is a harp player who also appears in other pediments at the temple, adding music to the narration. The pediment is famous for the comparison made to older photos of the same scene when the carving was in pristine condition. A perfect example of the damage done by temple thieves at Banteay Chhmar and so many other outlying temples. My eternal thanks to Vittorio Roveda and his Images of the Gods book for bringing the iconography of this and other temples to my attention, and likewise, yours.
The disfiguring of Valmiki is often used as an example of what has happened to the carvings at many temples, as there is a photograph by Henri Marchal in 1955 that shows the figure in all its glory

Pediments in close up

The gigantic temple of Banteay Chhmar, lying in a little-visited corner of northwest Cambodia, has much to reward the visitor who makes the effort to get there. I could literally spend days there scrambling amongst the ruins, identifying the carvings and iconography that are still in situ as well as the pediments and lintels that lie in broken pieces on the ground. And of course, it's been widely reported how the temple suffered at the hands of thieves in the late 90s, who stole large portions of its walls containing glorious reliefs. Here are two examples of pediment reliefs that are still in situ though one clearly shows the results of temple theft that has plagued the outer-lying temples of the former Angkor empire.
Location of pediment with 8-armed Lokeshvara
Above is a pediment on the eastern face of tower 8 that depicts the Lokeshvara with eight arms standing on a plinth supported by three lions. Worshippers surround the feet of the Lokeshvara in an attitude of anjali, with their hands clasped together in front of their chests, palms joined in prayer. The block of sandstone containing the face has been crudely removed, as has the lintel that should be sat underneath the pediment. The scene is in more detail below.
Lokeshvara with 8 arms and worshippers
Well-preserved Buddha in meditation with worshippers and lintel
Above & below. This busy well-preserved pediment, with a multitude of figures, can be found on the western side of the corner pavilion 28. The crowned Buddha is in meditation and is seated on a plinth, with two monks at his side over a row of seven worshippers. Two apsaras are floating hear his head. The worn lintel underneath shows Buddha being held aloft over a kala.
Detail of the Buddha in meditation

Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's so easy by eBay

Shrinkwrapped copies of the two new CD releases from Roy Hill arrived yesterday, direct from Roy who is feeling a bit sorry for himself after an accident left him with a painful shoulder injury in leafy Sevenoaks in Kent. Hello Sailor is an album of 12 original songs recorded in the mid-70s before the release of his first and only solo album, Roy Hill, in 1978. They are a mixture of acoustic demos and tracks recorded with his Cheltenham friends, The Strolling Players. As the blurb deftly puts it - although sometimes primitive in execution these recordings are charged with the writer-performer's manifest eccentricities, by turns playful, waspish and melancholy. I couldn't agree more. CD number two is Fun With Dave, another twelve tracks, this time from 1983-84 and produced with the aid of David Richards, who later worked with Queen, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, whilst Roy went onto sell massage machines for a living! Such is life. Nevertheless the tracks are at last seeing the light of day and are a must have in my book.
You can purchase the CD's via eBay at Hello Sailor and Fun With Dave. Roy is currently remastering his solo album, produced by Gus Dudgeon in 1978, for a second release very soon, alongwith two Cry No More CDs, Cry No More and Live at the Mulberry Tree. Find out all you ever wanted to know about Roy here.

A dream comes true

The work of author Alan Lightman and his Harpswell Foundation in Cambodia is well worth shouting about. Hence I'm happy to post this article by Donna Coveny of MIT News in Massachusetts, USA.

A dream comes true

The inauguration this week of a
new mosque in the Cambodian village of Tramung Chrum will represent a dream come true for residents of the Muslim enclave in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country. That dream was brought to life by Alan Lightman, MIT physicist and writer who a decade or so ago, with his wife, Jeanne, made a pact to turn their energies toward humanitarian pursuits. Without a firm direction or funding, they formed the nonprofit Harpswell Foundation in 1999. Within a few years, Lightman, Jeanne and their daughter, Elyse, would attend the opening of a school built in an impoverished village 50 miles from Phnom Penh, build and manage a women's dorm and leadership center in Phnom Penh and, finally, build the new mosque in Tramung Chrum. Lightman has been entranced by science and the arts from an early age. Appointed professor of science and writing and senior lecturer in physics at MIT in 1989, he went on to head the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies from 1991 to 1997 and helped found the Catalyst Collaborative, a collaboration between MIT and the Underground Railway Theatre of Boston in 2004. His novel, "Einstein's Dreams," published in 1993, was an international bestseller and has been translated into 30 languages.

Professor Lightman first heard of Tramung Chrum, a tiny Muslim village in Cambodia, in 2003 from the Rev. Fred Lipp. Lipp, who had been working to keep young girls in school in Cambodia with his own foundation, told Alan of a village whose only school had a roof of palm fronds. Lightman's imagination was kindled and in December of that year he and daughter Elyse accompanied Lipp to Cambodia. What they found was a village of about 500 people - mostly Muslim Chams, one of Cambodia's ethnic minorities. With neither running water nor electricity, the local economy was based on subsistence farming and menial labor. "We were overwhelmed with emotion," Lightman says softly, his eyes lighting at the memory. "These people had gone through tremendous suffering since the mid-1970s and the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, and in spite of that they had hope and resilience. "The best expression of that hope for the future," he says, "was when we arrived, mothers holding babies came up and asked for our help to build a school. They had nothing, lived in abject poverty, but wanted a school, a future. We were so moved." Funded by donations from family and friends, the school was finished in the summer of 2005. Where a roof of palm fronds had been now stands a concrete-and-steel-girder school.

The impetus for his next project came from Veasna Chea, a native of Tramung Chrum who had made it through law school in Phnom Penh by living with three female classmates in the space on the mud floor beneath the school for four years. Male students could live in the Buddhist temples, but in the gritty capital, there were few, if any, safe places for women to stay, so few women attended college. Once again, he took on the challenge, found contractors and built the dormitory and leadership center. But that was only the beginning. Lightman reckons, "One-third of my waking hours I spend on Cambodia daily." From sleeping security guards to the students' need for medical procedures, funds for upkeep, teachers, food and all life's issues, Lightman is the go-to guy. His daily electronic communications with the dorm represent the sole exception to Lightman's personal ban on using e-mail. He is presently trying to raise a $500,000 endowment to keep the dorm and all it offers up and running in the future.

As he busied himself managing the dorm and leadership center, the villagers of Tramung Chrum, thrilled with their school, asked him to build a mosque. To Lightman, health care seemed a more compelling need, but he understood that it had to be what the entire village wanted. So he asked the men and women of the village to choose five representatives each, and he met with the two groups separately. The men wanted a mosque, the women wanted health care. A meeting was convened to give the 10 representatives the opportunity to address the whole village and then vote on which project to take forward. After a civil discussion, all the men and three women voted for the mosque. The reason? The mosque represented their spiritual health, which they considered more important than their physical health. Lightman recognized that the cultural value and tradition was different than his own and that the social fabric of the community depended on the mosque. "They are so proud," he says, "so deeply happy with this mosque." Link: harpswellfoundation

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fourth arrest in Howes murder case

There's been another development in the Christopher Howes murder case today with the news that a 4th former Khmer Rouge soldier, Sin Dorn, was arrested Friday in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia and is being held in Phnom Penh pending a trial date, which has still to be fixed. The charges against Sin Dorn, 52, are premeditated murder of Howes (pictured above) and his Cambodian translator Houn Hourth as well as illegal confinement of both men and with being a member of rebel forces. The British de-miner from Bristol and his colleague were abducted and killed a few days later in March 1996. In a surprise development in November last year, three other former communist rebels, mastermind Khem Nguon, Loch Mao, and Chep Cheat, were arrested and charged over the kidnapping and murder of Howes and Hourth. Khem Nguon, who served as number 2 to the notorious one-legged KR commander Ta Mok, had defected from the KR to join the Cambodian armed forces where he was awarded the rank of brigadier-general in the defence ministry. The others became civil servants. All four men face 20 years in prison for premeditated murder and 10 years for illegal confinement if convicted. Families of the victims filed the original complaints in the Siem Reap provincial court, but long delays forced the transfer of the cases to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and we now await the start of the trial.
For more on Christopher Howes, please visit my websi

Welcome to Banteay Chhmar

The welcome sign at Banteay Chhma(r) - causing confusion as the varied spelling of the last word can give the temple name two different meanings
Banteay Chhmar is a massive temple site, lying in northwest Cambodia, about two hours north of Sisophon, the main town you encounter upon arriving in the country from Thailand. Alternatively you can take the nightmare that is Route 6 from Siem Reap - though depending on the weather and the state of the road - it's crap at the moment - it will take anything between 2-3 hours on what should be Cambodia's premier highway, but isn't. Anyway, back to the temple of Banteay Chhmar. These photos give you a glimpse on what to see upon arrival at the site, later posts will include more of the iconography, carvings and face towers. Its one of my favourite temples with its multitude of carvings, many of which are underfoot as you scamper across the fallen blocks of sandstone. More on Banteay Chhmar to come.
An original demon guardian at the eastern entrance to the temple
Part of the moat outside the outer boundary wall, used by the locals for buffalo-washing!
A false window and devata at the eastern entranceway, next to the main gate and police post
A partially-broken 4-armed Lokeshvara on the ground at the eastern entrance to the temple
Another reconstructed Lokeshvara with 4 arms on the ground at the east gopura
A series of roof finials showing Buddha-like figures in meditation pose


A scene from Dogora
This coming Saturday at Meta House (7pm) on Street 264 in Phnom Penh, the exquisite film Dogora will get another showing. They played it a few weeks ago and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it immensely. It's classed as a street level documentary without voice-over or plot, just the sights, sounds and daily routines of the Cambodian people, accompanied by a classical orchestral music track by Etienne Perruchon. French director Patrice Leconte filmed it in 2004 and its an eighty-minute film well worth watching in my opinion. Link: Dogora
The postman yesterday delivered a review copy of Milton Osborne's brand new book, Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History, which I will read and review soon. I attended the book launch at ACE on Friday when the author read from the only copy of his book in the city, as a shipment of the books destined for Monument Books had been held up on the dock in Sihanoukville. They are due to arrive at Monument's Norodom Boulevard shop tomorrow. As a book freak, I'm looking forward to reading his take on the various books that have mentioned the capital over the years.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

For the Neak Ta enthusiasts...

This popular Neak Ta - Lok Ta Dambong Daek - can be found on the way to the top of Oudong mountain
Just in case you haven't seen enough Neak Ta, here's a few more to sustain your appetite for this Cambodian phenomenon that has me hooked - though sometimes I sense I'm the only one who is really that interested! These are from my Oudong trip on Sunday and I have lots more photos and stories to bring you over the next few days, as well as finishing off my articles on last week's Battambang and Banteay Chhmar visit. Not enough hours in the day. By the way, it's pouring with rain at the moment, the sky is very black, the roads are beginning to flood and the regular daily showers we've been getting in the last week or so would suggest the rainy season has arrived early. Oh, and when its not raining, its incredibly hot and humid. Such is life here in Phnom Penh.
It's a strictly formal military style for this Neak Ta - Lok Ta Dambong Chi - at Vihear Cham Ta San on Oudong mountain
This scary looking Neak Ta can be found at Wat Sopha Nvong Rotanaram
A rotund Neak Ta guarding two small boats in this shrine at Wat Vihear Samna

At last, some more Neak Ta!

This Neak Ta shrine is also home for a tiny kitten who was enjoying a spot in the sunshine at Wat Dambouk Leak
I have a lot of photos and stories to catch up on. I will get there but in the meantime, how about some Neak Ta statues that I found on my travels on Sunday to Oudong. I feel it's my duty to bring you a varied selection of these Neak Ta, that are commonly worshipped as important spirits by the local populace, and can be found in the grounds of a pagoda or in a spot within a village that is regarded as sacred. Often offerings are made to the spirit figures which can be natural pieces of sandstone, wood or even termite mounds. However, some of the more interesting are the colourfully-painted figures that are represented here.
Quite a menacing looking Neak Ta - maybe a teacher in the military? At Wat Dambouk Leak
This is Neak Ta Prakel on the road to Oudong. It was erected on top of the site of a small brick prasat, now very ruined
This wise old man, Ta Ey Say is dispensing wisdom to his pupil and can be found at Wat O'Mony Sotaram where a few blocks of laterite would suggest the site of an old prasat

Mountain bowls

A chance for the faithful to give at Neak Pean on Oudong
Any opportunity to collect a few riel from the Buddhist faithful is a noticeable feature on Oudong mountain. Here's a couple of opportunities I noticed, alongwith scores of others, at the numerous stupas and attractions on the mountain. The top photo of five Buddhas prompts the locals into lighting incense, praying and placing some money into the bowl in front of each Buddha image at a shrine called Neak Pean, which is on a small hillock shared with a Muslim mosque called Vihear Cham Ta San. Below is an opportunity for the devout to pray for good luck and fortune depending on what year, and under which animal sign, they were born. So if you were born under the pig, rabbit, cow, tiger, horse and so on, then plonk some riel in the bowl and make a wish. It's that easy.
Birth sign wish bowls on Oudong

Monday, May 5, 2008

The canons of Oudong

One of the cast-iron canons of the former capital city at Oudong
I read somewhere that the cast-iron canons to be found in one of the numerous pagodas that populate the area around Oudong are of Japanese origin and were brought to Cambodia by the Tokogawa shogunate who were based in Oudong and acted as bodyguards to one of the Kings. I first saw them a decade ago when I visited Wat Veang Chas, on the outskirts of Oudong town. At that time they protruded from the earth base of one of the wooden pagodas and looked quite dramatic in appearance. However, yesterday, with a lot of construction work taking place in the grounds of the pagoda, financed in no small part by the PM Hun Sen, the canons have been seemingly tossed aside randomly and without any consideration for this slice of Cambodian history, when Oudong was, for a while, the capital city and home of the royal court. As you might expect there's little to show that this area was once home to the royal household of quite a few kings, founded in the early 17th century by King Soryopor and finally abandoned in favour of Phnom Penh in 1866. I intend to delve a little deeper to see if I can throw any more light on the former capital. No-one that I asked at the site could tell me any more information about the canons or the former royal household, so I don't know whether these artillery pieces were purely ceremonial or had been used to fend off Thai and Vietnamese attackers in bygone years.
Half a dozen iron canons dating from the 17th century lie in a heap as construction work takes place in the grounds of the pagoda
Three of the Japanese canons lie underneath a tree in the pagoda grounds
This ceremonial pond may've been a former bathing pool for the royal household and the wooden beams may've supported a gazebo style building - or not!
This Neak Ta statue with a marvellous moustache was seated in a corner of Wat Veang Chas

Overdue Oudong

I manged to get this photo of Panmai without a spoonful of rice at her lips. Her appetite was voracious
I didn't have time to post anything of note yesterday, as I was on the road for most of the day, taking a long-overdue return trip to Oudong, one of Cambodia's former capitals, which I last visited a decade ago, and haven't been back since. And boy, did I notice a difference. More of my trip over the next few days, in the meantime, suffice to say that it was hot work climbing the hills of Oudong and stopping at various locations en route to see what I could find in various pagodas along the way. At the base of Oudong mountain, the plethora of eating huts beckoned a late lunch of roast chicken, which I shared with three youngsters and an elderly lady. There was simply too much for me to eat so sharing seemed the best option. Panmai, pictured above, tucked in without reservation and her two friends, Phirum and Sophea weren't far behind. Both of the boys acted as my guides for my stupa-visiting on the mountaintop, whilst Panmai sensibly stayed in the shade, selling her colourful bracelets. Smart girl.
LtoR: My teenage Oudong mountain guides, Phirum and Sophea - nice kids
On Saturday morning, I accompanied a group of my Hanuman work colleagues to a couple of hotel inspections. The Imperial Gardens Hotel and Villas, next to the Goldiana Hotel, was our first port of call. Next was the Khmeroyal, formerly Star Royal, on Sisowath Quay. Suffice to say they didn't come anywhere near the salubrious accommodation provided by Le Meridien , where I stayed last weekend in Siem Reap. However, I did spot something of note in the Khmeroyal and it was probably the worst painting I've ever seen of a group of Apsara dancers with Angkor Wat as the backdrop. Admittedly some of the art on offer in Cambodia can be a bit dicey but this picture was quite simply, crap.
The Apsara painting that caught my eye for all the wrong reasons at Khmeroyal Hotel

Sunday, May 4, 2008

More from Ek Phnom

One of the colourful paintings showing scenes from the life of Buddha that decorate the ceiling of Wat Ek Phnom, the pagoda next to the ancient prasat
A giant Buddha sits outside Ek Phnom but is unfinished because there's a dispute as it's higher than the original prasatAn inscription on the east doorway indicates the date of construction as 1027
The inside gallery/mandapa that leads to the central sanctuary
An excellent example of a balustered window at Ek PhnomClose up detail of the lintel showing Krishna fighting with two rearing horses above a fearsome looking kala

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Lintels from Ek Phnom

This lintel, inside the central sanctuaryat Ek Phnom, depicts the Churning of the Sea of Milk with Vishnu holding onto the pole. Some of the devas and asuras have been badly defaced
Last weekend we arrived at Ek Phnom just as a thunderstorm broke overhead, drenching us and the temple in a cloudburst accompanied by ear-splitting thunder and bolts of lightning that sent my Khmer colleagues cowering into the corners of the temple's inner sanctum. In fact we spent the majority of our 45-minute stop at the site sheltering from the downpour. Its 13kms from Battambang and is usually a nice peaceful place to visit, unless like us, you get caught in a spot of bad weather which sent the vendors running for cover, but strangely didn't stop the tourist policeman collecting my $2 foreigner entrance fee. The photos here show some of the main lintels to be found at the 11th century site alongwith suitable descriptions.
This pediment directly above the Sea of Milk lintel shows Sita (left) receiving the visit of Hanuman who is bearing Rama's ring and an offer of passage to safety
This lintel from the central tower shows Krishna with one arm raised lifting Mount Govardhana and fighting a snake, whilst standing on a kala eating a small elephant
This lintel shows Shiva and his consort Uma riding the bull Nandin on top of the ever-present kala - another of the popular depictions on lintels to be found in Cambodia
Above: This lintel depicts Krishna fighting two rearing horses above the north door, whilst standing on kala
The lintel above the east access to the central tower shows a common scene of Indra on the three-headed Airavata elephant, atop a fearsome kala

Off the cuff

One of the most unflattering photos of me, ever. Taken on a norry bamboo train in Battambang
It's time for a few more photos from last weekend's trip from the cameras of others on the trip to the northwest of Cambodia. I cringe when I see some of these shots but its always good to make yourself cringe from time to time. Keeps your feet on the ground. Often in a third-world country like Cambodia, as a foreigner you can be treated with a little too much reverence, so it's good to remind yourself that you are just like everyone else, and that you can look bloody awful in photos too.
The decrepit old man in the center of the photo wearing the hat is yours truly. We were on a boat for 30 minutes waiting for the driver to get it started, in Kompong Khleang
Do I really look like that when I take a photo? Incompetent photographer at Banteay Chhmar
A snapshot of some of our party at Phnom Banan near Battambang
Ah, a normal photo at last, myself and Chhrep, waiting to use the toilet in O'Dambong!

O B's adventures

Staying on the literary theme, two books have crossed my path that will interest readers of adventure and romance stories set in the jungles of Cambodia. Author O B Wright, who lived in Thailand just a few miles from the Cambodian border for many years, has penned two books which you can track down on They are both set in the days surrounding the UNTAC invasion of Cambodia and the desperate last throws of the Khmer Rouge to regain power. Tale of the Outlander - Cambodia 1993 and Whiskey Oscar Seven Bravo...W07B/A Tale of Cambodia 1993 are a mix of the author's personal recollections and experiences amidst the intrigue and danger posed by the die-hard Khmer Rouge.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Osborne on Phnom Penh

Milton Osborne on stage at ACE as he introduces his new book on Phnom Penh
Milton Osborne, one of the most respected historians on Cambodia and the Mekong region, was in town tonight to preside over what he tagged as "a post-modern book launch" of his latest offering, as frustratingly for all concerned, the books themselves were not available since they were stuck on the dock at Sihanoukville. Undaunted, Dr Osborne delivered a series of anecdotes and quotes from his new book - Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History - as well as his own experiences in Cambodia, at the well-attended gathering at ACE. A veteran of no less than nine books on Southeast Asian history and politics, the Canberra professor first lived in the city in 1959 and certainly knows his stuff. He puts into context the birth of the capital in the 15th century and on through to the Sihanouk years when Phnom Penh deserved its reputation as the most attractive city in Southeast Asia, though all that was to change during the Pol Pot years. Now the city is recapturing its vibrancy and Osborne has been here often enough to be the johnny on the spot to encapsulate that into the 256 pages of his new book, published by Signal. A fitting introduction came from the Australian Ambassador, Margaret Adamson as Osborne himself was previously on the embassy staff here in Phnom Penh. The author's previous titles on Cambodia include: Politics and Power in Cambodia: The Sihanouk Years (1973); Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy (1979); Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (1994).
[RtoL] Milton Osborne alongside Margaret Adamson, the Australian Ambassador and Margaret Bywater from RUPP (holding the sole copy of the book at the launch)
The evening was also a notable one for me as I met the incomparable Geraldine Cox for the very first time in person. We've been email friends for quite a few years and despite my visits to the Sunrise Children's Village on a few occasions, we'd always managed to miss each other. So it was a long-overdue hug and catch up prior to the launch and it was also nice to see the SCV Chairman Gerald Trevor and authors Helen Jarvis and Tom Fawthrop in the audience.

Banteay Top full stop

This farmer watches his water buffalo herd take a dip in the massive baray near Banteay Top
Located a few kilometres north of the village of Thma Puok and fifteen kms from Banteay Chhmar, its much larger sister temple, Banteay Top has its own massive baray and a large moat with two surrounding walls. In its day it was a large temple complex. Its remaining decorative carving on view these days is minimal though it does have its own unique wooden ceiling remnants to admire. If you have time, take a diversion off the road to Banteay Chhmar to take a peek, though I recommend you leave it until you have seen the main temple and try and catch the failing light around sunset time to get the true feel of this remote site.
A look at the temple from the dried moat, with trees doing a good job of obscuring most of the site
Some of the remaining carving to be seen, on the supporting columns for the wooden ceiling in the central tower
A sparsely decorated colonette at the doorway of the central tower
A closer view of three of the remaining towers at Banteay Top

Towers of Banteay Top

One of the surviving towers at Banteay Top in northwest Cambodia
Banteay Top, with its unique wooden beams and ceiling remnants, is a ruin, though its five large towers still remain upright in varying degrees, arranged around its central tower and connecting galleries. It's constructed of sandstone and is likely dated from the 13th century in the Bayon architectural style. Whilst little decorative carving remains to be seen today, it's the size and location of the temple, surrounded by a moat, rice fields and near to a massive baray, that makes it worth the effort to visit. I first saw it in November 2001 and its solitude and stillness stayed with me at that time. The arrival of a coachload of Hanuman employees on this occasion, shattered those memories, albeit temporarily. Its a great place to scramble over the fallen blocks of sandstone and some of the more adventurous in our party climbed the rather precarious looking tower in the last photo. Not something I would encourage. Whilst we were there, two other smaller parties of Khmer tourists arrived and reminded me that even the more remote temples are now accessible and on the beaten path these days.

The central tower of Banteay Top contains the remnants of the wooden ceiling
This tower had variations of colour in its sandstone blocks and a bee's nest above the doorway
Another view of one of the surviving towers at Banteay Top
A precarious looking tower, like a finger pointing skywards, at Banteay Top

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Good causes

One of the easiest ways to get travellers to assist in Cambodia's development is by using restaurants and cafes who do exactly that. Here's a Top 10 from Hanuman Tourism's Som Leng newsletter, which you might consider sampling on your next visit to the country.

Epic Arts Cafe A friendly little café in Kampot with delicious cakes, assisting the deaf community and promoting arts for the disabled.
Friends A Phnom Penh landmark, serving tasty tapas, fusion food, delicious shakes and cool cocktails, all to help street children.
Jardins des Delice Part of the Paul Dubrule Hotel School in Siem Reap, offering Sofitel standard cuisine at affordable prices.
Joe to Go Coffees before sunrise are the order of the day here in Siem Reap, all to help in the fight against child trafficking and sex tourism.
Le Lotus Blanc This professional French restaurant provides hospitality training for children from the Stung Meanchey dump area in Phnom Penh.
Le Rit's A small garden restaurant next to our head office in Phnom Penh, this place assists
vulnerable women and the HIV-positive community.
Mekong Blue This quiet café near Stung Treng is part of a silk-weaving cooperative seeking to assist disadvantaged women.
Romdeng Beautifully housed in a colonial building in the capital, this is the place for traditional Khmer country cooking, including deep-fried tarantula.
Sala Bai A Siem Reap restaurant training school to help disadvantaged Cambodians, there is a choice of Asian or Western food here.
Starfish Bakery A leafy garden café in the middle of Sihanoukville, they serve great cakes and shakes, all proceeds supporting community projects.

Unique wooden beams at Banteay Top

Wooden beams across one of the doorways at Banteay Top
It may well be the only ancient Khmer temple to still have remnants of its original wooden ceiling and supports, which gives Banteay Top - also known as Teap, Tiep, Torp or Toap - a major claim to fame on the Cambodian temple circuit. Aside from that, the tall central tower and four gopuras stand out on a high terrace overlooking a dry moat and a much larger baray nearby. All the towers are in varying degrees of ruin and there's very little carving at the site though it does make for an interesting detour on the way to or from its big sister, Banteay Chhmar, fifteen kilometres away. We were pushed for time on our visit so the hour we took to get to and to scramble over its ruins meant an hour less spent at Banteay Chhmar, which in my view was an hour wasted. In fact there's so much to see at Banteay Chhmar and at some of its satellite temples, that a visit to Banteay Top is only worth considering if you have plenty of time to play with. We didn't. I wasn't happy but that's another story. Without any inscription to tell its story, its believed Banteay Top was built in the 13th century.
These carved wooden beams are the few remains of the original wooden ceilings at Banteay Top
A view of one of the gopura doorways and the location of the wooden beams in relation to the doorframes
Closer detail of the wooden beam supports above a doorway at Banteay Top

Following in dad's footsteps

This story follows the fortunes of Kara Lightman, the daughter of Alan Lightman, author and founder of The Harpswell Foundation, an NGO doing wonderful work here in Cambodia. Great to see that Kara is following in her father's footsteps.

Kara Lightman: Peace Scholar aims to help women in Cambodia (Union College, New York : The Chronicle April 2008: Volume 73, Number 4)

Kara Lightman took her first trip to Cambodia in 2005 after graduating from high school. The Concord, Mass., native traveled there with her family, who had started a foundation to help the villagers of Tramung Chrum. “The first time I went, I didn’t quite grasp it. Everything was so different and frightening,” Lightman said. “The second time, I had an overwhelming sense I needed to do something. The country has been so heavily destroyed. You walk down the street and see people whose faces have been burned off.” This summer, Lightman, who was particularly taken by the plight of the women of Cambodia, will travel alone to the Southeast Asian village. Her mission: to help Cambodian girls escape lives of poverty, ignorance and domestic violence by introducing them to the importance of education.

Lightman’s efforts are being supported by the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Projects for Peace. She is one of 100 students from more than 85 American colleges and universities who will receive $10,000 to help promote world peace. An interdepartmental major in Anthropology and Political Science, Lightman is the daughter of Jean, an artist, and Alan Lightman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the 1999 international bestseller, “Einstein’s Dreams.” In 2006, Alan Lightman created the Harpswell Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO), after helping a friend build schools in Tramung Chum, about 50 miles from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. “We became very close with this village,” said Kara. “They have no plumbing, no running water, no electricity; they tell time by when the sun rises.”

Upon learning that many women can’t go to college because there is nowhere safe for them to live (men can stay in monasteries, but Buddhist rules bar women from taking shelter there), Alan Lightman raised money and bought land, and in 2006, Harpswell built the first women’s dormitory in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh. The more than 30 young women who live there also receive room and board and leadership training. “I have been greatly inspired by this project, and now I want to do my own work to help the women of Cambodia,” Kara Lightman said. She noted that thousands of women suffer from domestic violence and marital rape, and that by 13, many girls are often sent away to work in the rice fields or as prostitutes to support their families. “I would like to encourage girls to stay in school and become educated, which will allow them to get reputable jobs and eventually give money back to their families and villages. I want to use education as a tool to given women a voice.”

One of the poorest countries in the world, Cambodia saw almost its entire educated class destroyed when the notoriously brutal government, the Khmer Rouge, took power in the 1970s. Lightman will spend about six weeks traveling around the country with three women from the Harpswell dormitory who will share their struggles and their stories. Ultimately, she wants her efforts to embody what is inscribed in both Khmer and English on the brass plaque in the Harpswell dormitory: “Our mission is to empower a new generation of Cambodian women.” Lightman will leave for Cambodia in July. After spending her fall term in Fiji, she will return to campus with a photojournalistic account of her work in Cambodia. “I’ve been there four times, and I have far more cultural shock now coming back to the States than I do when I go there,” she said. “It’s hard to go and not do anything. The people are so generous, and the thing that is so amazing is that even though they have so little, they have hope.” Lightman is the second Union student to be named a “peace scholar.” Last year, when the awards were created, Karyn Amira received funding for her efforts to curb landmines in Cambodia.

On her way up

A Cambodian-American woman making her way in film-making in the United States is Sophia Leang. Already this year she has directed music videos for up and coming artists Kendal and Mayaeni as well as a short comedy called Peeled Grapes. Raised in Bronx, New York, Sophia abandoned her first-choice career of journalism to study filmmaking at Hunter College where she produced and directed two short films Second Chance and Morning. The round-the-clock, manic viewing of MTV had inspired Sophia to move to Los Angeles for a semester where she got the opportunity to work at Partizan Entertainments, a highly recognized music video and commercial production house. There, she worked on productions of talented directors such as Chris Robinson and Honey on big-budget music videos such as Korn, Busta Rhymes, and Stacey Orrico and commercials including Pepsi. Returning from Los Angeles, Sophia helped set up Carmona Pictures, a production company with Julissa Carmona, and they specialize in short film, trailers, music videos and most recently, feature films. She is pursuing plans to co-produce and direct her first feature, she resides in the Bronx and enjoys classic and foreign films, art and music. Keep an eye open for the work of this talented young woman. Link: sophialeang