Monday, June 30, 2008

Border Crossing warning

The empty highway, except for a family of goats, leading to the Laos-Cambodia border crossing at Dong Kralor
The Laos immigration post - laid-back is an understatement
Don't do what I did! That's the first warning when crossing the land border at Dong Kralor between southern Laos and northern Cambodia. Sort your onward transport before you turn up at the border crossing or else you could be stuck there for a long while or have to pay silly money for taxi fees, like we did on Saturday. And expect both the Lao and Cambodian border/immigration police to ask for 'overtime (as it was a Saturday) or processing or stamp fees' of a dollar or two. It was the first-time I have ever made a land crossing into Cambodia and I naively thought there would be at least a few taxis, vans or motodops waiting to shuttle me from the border point to Stung Treng, along the nicely paved Highway 7 and over the brand new bridge that welcomes you into this almost-forgotten northern outpost. The land crossing is relatively new - travelers previously crossed by boat at Voen Kham in Laos - and as such, it's in a wilderness with no inhabitants apart from the shirtless police and officials playing cards and drinking beer. They refused to allow our Lao driver to whizz us onto Stung Treng, an hour and half away - especially as we refused to pay their overtime fees - so we had to wait until someone turned up and the taxi that did, refused to budge from the ridiculous price he wanted - he knew we had no other choice! Most travelers will use the tourist mini-vans that are available on the islands for their border crossing, especially with the easy availability of the Cambodian visas at the border post, or you can contact someone like Richie (Tel. 012 302 017) to arrange a taxi from Stung Treng to pick you up. Don't make the same mistake as me - you have been warned.
The Cambodian visa application post; $20 plus visa processing fee
Avoid these taxi drivers at all costs! The hut on the right is the Cambodian immigration post and the road behind the car is devoid of any life for many kilometres

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Back home

I'm back home, just arrived after 8.5 hours on the bus from Stung Treng. Internet access has been sporadic over the past week in Southern Laos, so my posts have been few & far between. I'll rectify that over the next few days with a stack of photos as well. Tim and myself had a great time in Laos, the people are genuine and welcoming and the country itself was a pleasant change from what I'm used to in Cambodia. I won't be swapping it anytime soon for my life in Cambodia but I'm very pleased I finally made it across the border. And I got to visit Wat Phu, a temple built at the height of the great Khmer Empire that I've been itching to visit for years. I wasn't disappointed. More later. Glad to be back.
The view from the summit of Wat Phu in Laos

Friday, June 27, 2008

Rice paddy interlude

Our rice paddy dozen, with Tim (wearing hat) and myself at the back
We found these giggling girls in a rice paddy between Paksan and Pak Kading in fields sandwiched between the Nam Kap and Mekong Rivers. They were great sports, enjoying the banter we exchanged with our very limited Lao and the help of our driver (who speaks very little English). I pushed a few rice seeds into the flooded field but wasn't keen to get my feet wet despite a splashing by one of the group. Another of the girls, Chan, was clearly the leader or mouthpiece of the group and her laughter and infectious smile was indicative of the interaction we've had whenever we've stopped on the roadside to mingle with the locals. It's planting season here right now, so there are lots of opportunities. After the girls finished planting their field, they lined up for a team photo (above).
Keeping my feet dry whilst planting rice seedlings with Noye
More rice stalks arrive for planting
This is the ever-smiling Chan, leader of the group
Chan exchanges her Vietnamese-style hat for a white cap
Chan and her team work hard in the hot sun of 10.30am
Chan looks less confident when she's on dry land and accosted by me

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Update from Pakse

It's 11.37pm, I'm in bed at the Pakse Hotel - where Jerome and his wife Noy have afforded me the best hospitality during the whole of my adventure - and it's been raining this evening for really the first time on the trip. We've had some brief showers but for the majority of my 12 days on the roads of Laos, the weather has been hot and sunny. I haven't seen anything of Pakse yet as we arrived at 7pm tonight. Last night we stayed in Savannakhet and visited 3 waterfalls on the Bolevan Plateau on our way south earlier today. We were due to stay the night at Sala Savan but when we arrived at 8pm last night, everything was locked up and the renovated French colonial house looked deserted. So we booked into another hotel. We stopped by this morning to find out that the guy in charge had popped out at 8pm for his dinner and returned half an hour later, waiting for us to arrive. We chose that half-hour window to turn up and turn away! Oh well, better luck next time.
I'm travelling through Laos with my brother Tim in tow. We've both had a great time, met lots of interesting and extremely friendly people and been very impressed with the country and its people in equal measure. Its beautifully green, heavily forested on its mountainous slopes and populated by gracious hosts throughout. It's also a haven for eco-tourism style adventures with a river around every corner and provinces teeming with national parks. We've been fortunate to stay at some gorgeous hotels en route such as the Apsara, La Residence Phou Vao and Maison Souvannaphoum in Luang Prabang, and Settha Palace and Beau Rivage Mekong in Vientiane. As I said earlier, Jerome at Hotel Pakse has gone out of his way to make our stay tonight a pleasant one and tomorrow its an early start for one of the highlights of my trip, an early-morning visit to Wat Phu, a relic of the once-great Khmer empire that stretched throughout the region. More soon.

Monday, June 23, 2008


The main roads throughout Laos have been variable, ranging from pretty good to pot-holed. Mr Now was the driver for our first leg to Luang Prabang and Son just completed the task in getting us to Vientiane this afternoon. Now was the most fashion-conscious driver I've ever met, he was coolness personified, despite the humid conditions whilst Son took some of those mountain bends a little too fast for my liking, but always with a smile and a refreshing bottle of cold water! There are more than enough rivers intersecting the mountainous countryside to keep boat enthusiasts busy, while various contraptions can be seen in the villages and rice-fields that have been cobbled together by the locals to get around.
Am I trying to fly or kayak, no-one was quite sure. This is at the end of our 3-hour kayak session in Luang Namtha
In one of the many ethnic villages near Muang Sing, I tried out this local motorized transporter of people and goods for size. There was a serious deficiency in leg room.
Making my way back across the Mekong River after visiting the Pak Ou caves near Luang Prabang
LtoR: Tim, Mr Now and Mr Tid, and the author on the final day of the first leg of our trip after a long drive from Muang Sing to Luang Prabang. Mr Now was the driver and Mr Tid was our guide, courtesy of Tiger Trails.

Today's photos from Laos

A young novice monk gives alms rather than receiving in one of Luang Prabang's early-morning sunrise processions
The view from my bedroom window at Elephant Crossing of Vang Vieng's beautiful limestone karst formations
A sunset view of the Nam Song river at Vang Vieng

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Making friends

Some new rice-planting friends in Nam Nyan village near Luang Namtha
Making new friends in Laos has been easy. The people are ultra-friendly and very accommodating, a smile goes a long way here and despite the well-trodden tourist track, its easy to step off the main route and wander into the timeless scenes that you find in villages, pagodas and rice paddies around the region.
This is one of 7 monks, his name is Olay, at Wat Xieng Mouane in Luang Prabang

Photos in Laos

Tim (left) and I pose for a picture outside a small wat in Luang Namtha
These novice monks are from a wat in Muang Sing and were happy to pose for a photo. At least ten other novices walked away from us when we mentioned taking their photo!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I'm in Luang Prabang

I've been having serious internet problems and haven't been able to get online for a few days, hence the absence of any posts. I've had two nights in Luang Prabang already, though at both overnight stops, the Apsara Hotel and La Residence Phou Vao, the internet failed to work! However, the welcome and hospitality at both more than compensated. During the day I've been busy seeing the sights - we visited a dozen wats, the Royal Palaace Museum and Henri Mouhot's gravesite this morning alone - the sun is out, the sky is blue and last night, Tim and I were invited for dinner with some new Lao friends and ended the night at the bowling center at 1am! Yesterday we visited the Pak Ou caves and the multi-level waterfalls at Tat Sae on our first day in LP, having arrived at 8pm the previous evening following a day-long drive from Muang Sing.
We spent 1 night in Muang Sing after a couple of night's in Luang Namtha. Less tourists and even less people on the main street, Muang Sing has a tribal museum and little else, so we spent our time in the nearby villages, the two wats in town and the morning market and another stint in the ricefields, planting rice with a group of thirty women - which was great fun. The drive to Luang Prabang was long but certainly not boring. The surrounding hills covered in lush greenery and ethnic villages around every corner made the trip an interesting one and was in almost complete contrast to my travels around much of flatland Cambodia. We have another night in Luang Prabang at the Maison Souvannaphoum hotel tonight before a stop-over in Vang Vieng on our way south to Vientiane. More soon.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Update from Luang Namtha

Just a quick update...I flew from Vientiane to Luang Namtha, in the north of Laos, yesterday morning without a hitch. Vientiane was as quiet as a mouse compared to the frenetic lifestyle of Phnom Penh. Collected by Tid, our guide and Now, our driver, we checked into the Zuela guesthouse and nosed around town before lunch at the breezy Panda restaurant. In the afternoon we saw some of the nearby sights like the broken That Phum Phuk stupa, which gave us some lovely views over the surrounding countryside, joined in with some Black Thai minority villagers who were rice-planting, sampled the lao lao whisky of the men tilling the water-filled fields and spent some time in an Akha minority village called Namyang, high in the surrounding mountains. In the drizzle, we stopped off at a couple of pagodas near the airport, Wat Luang Phone Rattanaram and Wat Ban Vieng Tai, before ending the day at the under-construction stupa of Tad Luang, sitting high above the town. This morning we climbed aboard a couple of mountain bikes and rode out a few kilometres to the Namdee waterfall (my first cycling experience since the infamous Mondulkiri forest trip) and crossed the Nam Tha river via a rickety bamboo bridge. After lunch I enjoyed my first-ever taste of kayaking, with a 3-hour trip along the same Nam Tha river, in a double inflatable kayak with my brother Tim. Great scenery, a few rapids (fast-running shallower water) to contend with, and a great guide in Yai. I've never enjoyed getting so wet before. Great fun. I'm off for a massage now and we leave for Muang Sing early tomorrow morning. Photos to follow once I get to Luang Prabang in a couple of day's time.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Off to Laos

From today, my posts might become distinctly underwhelming in frequency and content as I'm off to tour Laos for the next two weeks, later this afternoon. I haven't decided yet whether to take my lap-top with me - I'll be on the move nearly every day and want to travel as light as possible. I'm flying into Vientiane today and then onto Luang Namtha tomorrow morning. My brother Tim is tagging along for what is essentially a business trip, to get under the skin of Laos and meet with various contacts during my 14-night trip. We kick-off in the north and wind our way down to Luang Prabang, Vientiane and then head down to the southern tip before crossing the land border and back into Cambodia. I'm looking forward to it as everyone who's been tells me that Laos is a lovely country, I'll let you know if I agree. Bye for now.
Whoops, nearly forgot to say happy birthday to my very good friend Sophoin, who is 24 today. The picture below was taken at a celebratory meal on Friday night at one of my favourite restaurants, Bopha Phnom Penh. She's a great kid, works harder than anyone I know and joins me for some of my jaunts outside the city at weekends.
Postscript: I left a wet Phnom Penh and arrived in humid Vientiane at 5pm today. The refined old-world elegance of the Settha Palace Hotel is my home for tonight before an early flight to Luang Namtha in the morning. We took advantage of the hotel's gorgeously cool pool prior to a walk along the promenade facing the Mekong River and dinner, albeit disappointing fare at cheap prices, at the popular Khop Chai Deu restaurant.

Golden Voice film screening

Sophea Pel plays the part of Ros Sereysothea
This is a still taken from the DVD of the film The Golden Voice, which was screened at Meta House last night to a packed audience. Filmmaker Greg Cahill was in attendance to introduce his film and to answer a series of questions from the assembled throng. The film documents a small slice of life for Cambodia's brightest female singing sensation of the late 60s and 70s, Ros Sereysothea and is a prelude to a two-hour film biopic that Cahill hopes to develop over the next year or two. He's seeking $5million+ to finance the film and is currently in Cambodia for a holiday and to scout a few locations. His 25-minute short film has been widely-acknowledged, earning rave reviews at a series of film festivals in the States and has given Cahill the impetus to transform the life story of this fabulous singer, who met an untimely death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime, into a full-length motion picture. Cahill spoke about some of the behind-the-scenes work that went onto make The Golden Voice, with all filming completed in just five days in and around Los Angeles in 2006. All the actors were amateurs but Cahill was so impressed with Sophea Pel, that she will continue in the lead role of Ros Sereysothea in the forthcoming film. An interesting fact is that both the singer and the actress who played her, originate from Battambang province. After wowing the Cambodian audiences with her voice in the late 60s and early 70s, Sereysothea like many of the country's leading artists, eventually lost her life in the latter part of the 70s.
The author meets filmmaker Greg Cahill (right) at last night's screening

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Apsara Arts

I visited Apsara Arts Association in Tuol Kork early this morning to watch the youngsters practicing their traditional Khmer classical dance in the wooden headquarters of the Phnom Penh-based NGO that provides free dance training for poor children from the age of four to late teens. Students can attend morning or evening classes according to their school schedules, so we saw just a few of the over 150 students students enrolled with the NGO, plying their skills. Funding remains an ever-present obstacle for the association explained Vong Metry, the vice-director and former classical dancer and teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts. They host performances every Saturday night for the public but a lack of funds affects their ability to pay teachers and even to switch on the electricity, so beware that performances can be cancelled. The center also houses twenty children who are orphans and in vulnerable circumstances and ensures they receive a place to live, eat, go to school and of course, learn to dance or play music. Get along to the Apsara HQ if you have some spare time in Phnom Penh, they'll be pleased to see you.
Some of the teenage girls practice their art
The end of their first practice session this morning
Instruction never stops for some of the youngest dancers
Some of the Giant masks used in performances

Friday, June 13, 2008

Excavation on Kulen

Prasat O'Thma Dap on Phnom Kulen, from my visit in 2000
Another shameless steal from Alison In Cambodia's blog is her article on Phnom Kulen, a mountaintop that I haven't visited for a while and from her photos, it looks like the temple sites are vastly different from my last visits there in 2000 and 2002, with a lot of work being undertaken by the Phnom Kulen Archaeological Project on some of the brick temple sites there. Here's her article which will appear in a future issue of TouchStone, the bi-monthly magazine of Heritage Watch.

The Phnom Kulen Archaeological Project

Lying 30 km outside of Angkor Archaeological Park is the cool, leafy retreat of Phnom Kulen. Best known as a popular picnic spot and location of the exquisite riverbed carvings known as the River of 1000 Lingas, archaeology buffs might also be familiar with the mountain as the location of the Angkorian period Kulen ware pottery kilns. But farther up the mountain and deeper into the misty jungle lay dozens of archaeological sites ranging from towering brick prasats, to cave sites, to water features. Until recently there had been little research done on these sites, but the Phnom Kulen Archaeological Program, in collaboration with the Apsara National Authority and funded by the Archaeology & Development Foundation, has begun a three-year project aimed at excavating, mapping, conserving and maintaining these sites.

Project Director Jean-Baptiste Chevance first visited the sites on Phnom Kulen Mountain in 2000 but did not have the funding to being research until January 2008. In its first field season the project has focused on conservation and excavation around three brick temple sites: Prasat Thma Dap, Prasat Neak Ta and Prasat, Anlong Thom. “Excavation is one part of the conservation process. It allow us to know the nature of foundations, the exact size of each site and to propose a perimeter for protection,” says Chevance. “Excavating Neak Ta and specially Thma Dap gave [us] a lot of information about peripheral structures.” Prasat Thma Dap had been previously excavated in the early 20th century by French archaeologists, however Chevance wanted to revisit and expand the initial test pits. Appearing as a lone brick temple nestled in the thick jungle the recent excavation has revealed a large area of occupation immediately around the temple. There is a second laterite tower, a surrounding wall, a causeway going to the East, a gopura, and evidence for wooden architecture. There is also the impressive brick and stuccowork on the temple itself.

In addition to excavation at these sites the team is also working on creating a more detailed map of all archaeological sites on the mountain in order to identify other sites in more urgent need of conservation. Sites slated for research in upcoming field seasons such as Rong Chen pyramid and Poeng Tbal cave, have also been mapped in detail. Chevance explains that this comprehensive research is necessary “in order to have a better vision on the occupation of the mountain.” The mountain is believed to have been inhabited from the 8th century AD to the end of the Angkorian period. It was initially rumored to have been a capital during the Jayavarman II period and later became a popular location for hermits from the 11th to 13th centuries. Archaeological research will help clarify how the Angkorian people used the mountain.

Despite the close proximity to Angkor there are no immediate plans for tourism. The sites are difficult to access, requiring a bumpy ride through narrow muddy paths. Additionally there is omnipresent danger of landmines and UXOs. Chevance notes that at the 5 sites that were de-mined prior to fieldwork 4 had unexploded UXOs. Even with the danger and difficulty of doing archaeological research on Phnom Kulen, PKAP team is looking forward to continuing field seasons. The project’s work in mapping, excavating, and conserving the sites on Phnom Kulen promises to provide useful data for expanding the archaeological record of this period, as well as helping villagers and preserving a unique part of Cambodian history. Article posted courtesy of Alison In Cambodia.

Temple-hunter supreme

Kudos to Alison in Cambodia who managed to tie down (not literally) Sovichetra, a temple and archaeological site-hunter supreme. I've spoken to Chetra a few times by phone but we never met face to face, so I was pleased to see that Alison had tracked him down. He's been the main man on the ground in the development and identification of the archaeological sites on the CISARK province maps that I've been shouting about these last few months and its nice to see the hunter in turn being hunted. Here's her recent blog post on the subject.

There are over 4,000 archaeological sites in Cambodia...and this man visited almost all of them. Here’s the latest article I wrote and submitted to TouchStone for publication in an upcoming issue: an interview with Chetra Chan. I met Chetra through a mutual archaeologist friend and am very impressed with all his archaeological experience so far. I’m glad to say he’ll be getting some more advanced GIS training in the US which I think will lead to some very exciting research in the future.

Most tourists and visitors to Cambodia are only familiar with Cambodia’s major archaeological sites at the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap. However Cambodia is home to over 4000 archaeological sites all across the country, and one man, Chan Sovichetra, has visited almost all of them. Sovichetra, or Chetra to his friends, was a member of a joint project run by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the goal of which was to map the location every archaeological site in Cambodia. Chetra joined the project in 2002 after finishing his degree in archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. We asked Chetra about his experiences working on this project.

1. How did you go about finding out about all of these sites?
The first part of the project was to collect all the information that the French had already recorded. [Several French scholars including Etienne Aymonier and Lunet de Lajonquière surveyed and recorded archaeological sites in Cambodia the 19th century]. We would go out and visit these sites [to collect information for the maps]. For the second step, we collected information from the list documented by Department of Culture and Fine Arts for all the provinces. After that we would go to different villages and ask villagers about other sites nearby [that hadn’t yet been recorded]. We would take GPS points, photographs, and ask the villagers the name of the site.

2. How did you travel around the country to visit these sites? Were there any difficulties?
By motorbike. Sometimes the motorbike broke down which was difficult. Also I don’t know how to swim so I don’t like crossing rivers. But it was exciting. I am Cambodian so I enjoyed getting to see my country.

3. Did the villagers have any stories or legends about the sites you visited?
Temples always have legends, like they are the palace of the gods or stories about people who lived around them. For example at the Koh Ker group there is a temple and behind the temple there are mounds. The people there say it is the tomb of the White Elephant from the legend of Neang Tournsatra.

4. Were there any interesting artifacts at any of these sites? Could you tell how old they were?
Sometimes the sites were interesting and sometimes they weren’t. Most of them had already been destroyed. If there were temple remains I could sometimes look at that and determine the time period it was from. Almost all of the Angkorian period sites had evidence for pre-Angkorian occupation as well.

5. Were there any sites you were unable to go to visit?
Yes, there were many sites in areas with many landmines that we could not visit because it was too dangerous. There were many sites in Banteay Meanchey near the Thai border. These are not listed on the map.

6. What was your favorite place to visit? Is there any place you would like to go back and study more?
I really liked Preah Vihear. Not just the Preah Vihear temple, but there are many big temples in the province located in the dense jungle. I am also interested in the ancient roads. There is part of Angkorian road that goes near Bakan [also known as Preah Khan in Preah Vihear Province]. On the map it just stops but I think it goes further east, I would like to study that more.

7. What are your plans for the future?
I would like to continue studying archaeology. In July I will go to University of Hawaii to continue studying archaeology there for a special program to learn GIS and archaeology.

After six years of hard work and with additional help from UNESCO, a set of paper maps has been produced noting the names and locations of all of the recorded archaeological sites in Cambodia province by province. Maps have been published in both French and Khmer and are for sale at the National Museum and the French Cultural Center. A corresponding interactive website the Carte Interactive des Sites Archéologiques Khmers (CISARK) with photos and additional information can be found at: CISARK. Article printed courtesy of Alison In Cambodia.

In honor of David Chandler

A new publication from Cornell University's Southeast Asian Program called At the Edge of the Forest: Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler is, as the title suggests, a book inspired by the work of the doyen of Cambodian scholars David Chandler and in particular his classic 1982 article, 'Songs at the Edge of the Forest,' and offers a series of essays on a wide range of subjects such as violence, wildness, and order, the "forest" and cultured space, and the fraught "edge" where they meet. I think I need to read the book to understand that description! The book's editors are Anne Ruth Hansen (left) and Judy Ledgerwood (right), both professors in the United States and well-known for their work on Cambodian studies. In fact, they are working together on another book as I type, to be called Buddh Damnay: Buddhist Prophetic Histories of Violence in Cambodia. No date for that publication as yet. At the Edge of the Forest was published last month, and includes essays by Chandler himself, Penny Edwards, John Marston and others, is 251 pages in length and costs $23.95 in paperback.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Disaster strikes

On the eve of my departure to Laos, my world has come crashing down around my ears! Well, slight exaggeration, but my cleaner has just been to see me to say she can't come to clean my flat any more as she's got a better-paid, more-hours job with another foreigner. Talk about no loyalty in this world any longer! For the last six months, Sophal has been a god-send, so I am going to miss her presence, even though from one month to the next I rarely saw her. I would go to work and arrive home later to a flat in pristine condition. She kept the flat spotlessly clean, the only clothes that weren't washed and superbly ironed with creases that were so razor-sharp they would cut your finger, were the ones I was wearing at the time and I can't believe I will find another diamond like her [he says, hoping that he will]! I've got a few days to find a replacement before I leave for Laos, but I'm not sure there's much chance of domestic bliss after Sophal! Wish me luck.

Educating the masses

Filmmaker Tim Sorel films Vann Nath at Tuol Sleng in March
This press report appeared today and caught my eye as I acted as assistant producer - fancy title for basically helping out with permissions, holding the camera, that sort of stuff - for the filmmaker's recent visit in March when he interviewed Vann Nath and Em Theay as part of his documentary.

Genocide film seeks to help healing
- by Nuch Sarita (VOA Khmer)

An American professor is making a documentary titled 'The Genocide Forgotten,' and hopes to finish the film next year. He is focusing on ongoing efforts to educate and inform Cambodians, especially young Cambodians, about what happened in the country in the 1970s, and how awareness of history can lead to a national healing. "I hope that the film will educate worldwide audiences about genocide and about the prevention of genocide," said University of Florida Journalism School professor Tim Sorel, the filmmaker. Sorel started working on the documentary three years ago and hopes to complete a 50-minute film by next year. He says he expects to make one more trip to Cambodia for it. Sorel became interested in Cambodia when he traveled there for the first time in 2004, working for an NGO called Sustainable Cambodia, which brings clean water, a literacy project, health care and a food bank to the people of Pursat province.

"When I got there and when I came back to the United States I realized that a lot of US citizens really don 't know all that much about the Pol Pot regime and a whole period of the history," said Sorel. "Then on my second and third trips to Cambodia I also found that there were a lot of young people in Cambodia who didn't understand Cambodia's history as well, and that's how the documentary was born." Not many Americans understand what took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, following the US withdrawal from Vietnam. "This documentary was not only to educate the US audiences about Cambodia and the plight of the people, now 30 years after the Khmer Rouge, but also to talk a little bit of what is being done to educate people in Cambodia, young people especially about that time period of the history," Sorel said. While Sorel was making the documentary, the Cambodian people have gone through such extraordinary changes. More so than he thinks any US audience could ever understand. Sorel also interviewed Khamboly Dy, who recently wrote "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," which will be taught, in some form, in Cambodian high schools as early as 2009. "It has been a wonderful experience to come here to interview Khamboly in a way of a tremendous young man," Sorel said. "I think he is taking all the correct steps that he needs to take to make sure that young people and all people educate themselves about this time period to help the country heal, and to help the country move forward."

Brothers in arms

The Brouwer brothers, on the left Tim, and on the right, Andy
The Brouwer brothers as seen out-on-the-town last night in Phnom Penh, enjoying a brotherly bonding session whilst watching another Portugal win in the European Championship Finals. I can't recall which bar the picture was taken in, it was just one bar out of many and after visiting Cambodia for the last fourteen years, I finally made my first appearance at the Sharky Bar, one of the longest-running bars in the whole of Indochina. We stayed for a few games of pool and a bite to eat before moving onto find the bar with the biggest widescreen television screen, just in time for the kick-off, 11pm Cambodia-time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Thieves on the rampage

Sambor Prei Kuk style 7th century lintel from Wat Preah Theat, now with the National Museum for safekeeping
The news this week that following the theft of three 7th century Buddha statues, a pagoda in Kandal province just outside Phnom Penh has been forced to hand over nine artifacts to the National Museum for safekeeping, highlights the fragility of these historical items remaining in situ across the country. The demand for Khmer iconography and artifacts has never been higher, prices at the auction houses are hitting all-time highs and the hunt is well and truly on by art thieves for whatever they can lay their hands on. And across the Cambodian countryside, whether in the grounds and viharas of pagodas or simply out in the fields, there are still many hundreds of sites that will spark the interest of these thieves. This also applies to early-history burial sites where villagers will dig up ancient graves looking for jewellery and other artifacts. The destruction and rape of Cambodia's cultural history has reached epidemic proportions and quite simply, nothing and no-one is sacred any longer.

Back to the pagoda at Wat Preah Theat in the Roluos commune of Kandal. In 2002, twelve 7th century artifacts were discovered at the site, though two statues were stolen last week and another in 2005. The monks have realized they are not equipped to protect the artifacts and have handed them to the National Museum in Phnom Penh to keep them safe. However that will probably mean that the items will now languish in the vaults of the National Museum like thousands of other artifacts and will most likely never be seen again by the public. At least, in their original location at the pagoda, I was able to see the items when I visited it in January, but the problem was clear that day too, as no-one was around as I inspected the lintels and stone lions on show, and a locked door was the only protection for the Buddha statues. A thief with bolt cutters and a truck with a winch would have been able to cart everything away in the blink of an eye.

What did I see on my visit in January to the site also known as Prasat Preah Theat? Under some sheets and tarpaulins were two sandstone lintels, both similar in style, though one was quite literally worn away. The other, pictured above, appears to be in the Sambor Prei Kuk lintel style, so that would date it to early to mid 7th century, definitely pre-Angkorean. There are four arches with three medallions, with the central one carved with the figure of Indra on an elephant, and inward-facing makaras or sea monsters, with figures on each makara. Below are jeweled garlands and pendants with beading and vegetal motifs. If these two lintels are from an original temple, it would suggest that the prasat was primarily constructed of brick though I could only find a few laterite blocks on the mound where the temple was located. The lintels and doorways were always constructed of sandstone. Now, a bell-shaped stupa is at the summit of the mound, around which a new wall is being built. Next to the lintels were a pedestal and four half-standing lions in varying degrees of repair. Again, experts can tell the date of a temple by its style of lion guardians, showing their fangs, their bulbous eyes and their jeweled pendants. I can't. In a locked room nearby, I could make out through the dirty glass, a couple of statues of Buddha seated under a naga but no-one was around to unlock the door, so their age and exact relief remains a mystery. Click here to see my photos from the pagoda.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Golden Voice

Don't forget this Saturday night's 7.30pm screening of The Golden Voice, a 25-minute short film by Greg Cahill, who will present his film and take part in a Q&A session after the screening, at the Meta House on Street 264 near Wat Botum in Phnom Penh. The film was a big hit when shown at the CamboFest last year and has been an ever-present at many of the film festivals in the United States ever since. Cahill's plans are to extend the film into a full-length movie bio of one of Cambodia's best-loved female singers Ros Sereysothea. As part of the vibrant rock n' roll scene that flourished in Cambodia during the 1960s, Ros Sereysothea was dubbed 'the golden voice of the royal capital' by Prince Sihanouk. As her career soared to an unprecedented level of success, Phnom Penh and Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge regime and artists and intellectuals were targeted for execution - could Cambodia's most famous star avoid detection? - find out on Saturday.

Visitors come a-calling

LtoR: Kunthea, Sroy, Sokhom and myself
This is my pal Sokhom, his wife Sroy and his adorable daughter Kunthea. I've known them for many years now and regard Sokhom as one of my closest friends on the planet. He couldn't make it to the capital this week but his wife and daughter were here for a couple of days and last night, paid me a visit, to say hello and to see my flat. Just as they arrived, accompanied by Sroy's mother and two cousins, the electricity cut out and plunged my flat and the surrounding neighbourhood into complete darkness - a regular occurrence in recent weeks. It was great to see them and Kunthea gabbled away in her finely-tuned English, eager for the practice and to show me how much she has improved since our last meeting a few months ago. This girl has a great capacity for learning, is a very talented top-of-the-class student and I sincerely hope that she will be able to go onto further education, as if anyone deserves it, she does. Armed with candles and torches, we had a quick look around my flat, with Kunthea heading straight for my shelves of books, before they said their goodbyes and were gone, back into the darkness.
Hot on their tail, my brother Tim arrived at 9am this morning. Flying business class from Heathrow to Bangkok and then onto Phnom Penh, he looked relaxed and refreshed as I met him at Pochentong airport. Nonetheless, as soon as we got to my flat he headed for the bedroom and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. He's still fast asleep now. It's his second visit to Cambodia in eight months and after a few days in the capital, we will be flying to Laos on Sunday for a 14-night whirlwind tour of our close neighbours. It's my first-ever visit, it will be his second.

The many faces of Panmai

You've seen her before, in a previous posting on my visit to Oudong. Her name is Panmai. As I ate lunch at the base of Oudong mountain, there was simply too much for me to eat so I shared my roast chicken with three youngsters and an elderly lady. Panmai's appetite was voracious, and she tucked into the food without reservation, whilst her two friends, Phirum and Sophea weren't far behind. Both of the boys later acted as my guides for my stupa-visiting on the mountaintop, whilst Panmai was far more sensible and carried on selling her colourful bracelets amongst the shade of the eating huts. I saw her again before I left the mountain and bought her a sugar cane drink as a parting gift. Lovely kid.
"Hurry up and take the photo, I've got food to eat and bracelets to sell"
Ummm, she's not sure about the taste of the chicken
Now she's trying to hide from the camera
Okay, time to clean up and get on with selling her bracelets

Monday, June 9, 2008

Grub's up

Here's the Banteay Chhmar Homestay team, looking a bit nervous for the camera
Homestays are an attractive proposition for some travellers who want to stay longer than just a quick in-then-out visit and who want to get to know the villagers a little better and to understand lifestyles, etc. They are just beginning to find their feet in Cambodia with one or two options but they are still in their infancy compared to other countries, where they are a staple diet for backpackers et al. One such enterprise is the community-based Banteay Chhmar Homestay, who were set up with help from the French NGO, Agir Pour Le Cambodge but who now are going it alone. In addition to homestay options that they offer ($7 pp per night), they will also put on a glorious lunch ($3 pp) inside Banteay Chhmar temple itself, as they did recently for a 30-strong tour of staff from Hanuman. The villagers did us proud with a lovely spread and as you can see from the photo below, our group eagerly tucked in until there was no more grub to be seen. I thoroughly recommend this option for small groups travelling to the remote northwestern temple of Banteay Chhmar, just get in touch with the village committee before you go. Contact number is 012 237 605.
A hungry group from Hanuman devour the tasty fare

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Smile of Angkor

The 'Smile of Angkor' has captured the imagination of visitors for centuries. Each face is distinquished by; a broad forehead, downcast eyes, wide nostrils, thick lips curling upwards at the corners and a hint of a moustache. This is Pierre Loti's reaction when he saw the faces of the Bayon, taken from his 1902 book, Siam:
I raise my eyes to look at the towers which overhand me, drowned in verdure, and I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile again, beyond, on another stretch of wall,...and then three, and then five and then ten. They appear everywhere, and I realize that I have been overlooked from all sides by the faces of the quadrupled-visaged towers....They are of a size, these masks carved in the air, so far exceeding human proportions that it requires a moment or two fully to comprehend them.
This extract and many more in a similar vein can be found in a book by the author Dawn Rooney, called Angkor Observed, which was published by Orchid Press in 2001. It consists of a selection of early travellers' impressions of Angkor, most of which are out-of-print and found only in the archives of institutions or specialized libraries, so few people today know about the experiences and thoughts of these early visitors to Angkor. It's a fascinating guidebook companion to Angkor.

For those who have not visited the Bayon temple at the heart of the great city of Angkor Thom, I repeat a passage from Somerset Maugham's 1930 book, the Gentleman in the Parlour:
It surprised me because it had not the uniformity of the other temples I had seen. It consists of a multitude of towers one above the other, symmetrically arranged, and each tower is a four-faced, gigantic head of Siva the Destroyer. They stand in circles one within the other and the four faces of the god are surmounted by a decorated crown. In the middle is a great tower with face rising above face till the apex is reached. It is all battered by time and weather, creepers and parasitic shrubs grow all about, so that at a first glance you only see a shapeless mass and it is only when you look a little more closely that these silent, heavy, impassive faces loom out at you from the rugged stone. Then they are all around you. They face you, they are at your side, they are behind you, and you are watched by a thousand unseeing eyes. They seem to look at you from the remote distance of primeval time and all about you the jungle grows fiercely. You cannot wonder that the peasants when they pass should break into loud song in order to frighten away the spirits; for towards evening the silence is unearthly and the effect of all those serene and yet malevolent faces is eerie. When the night falls, the faces sink away into the stones and you have nothing but a strange, shrouded collection of oddly shaped turrets.

And finally, this is one face that you won't find at the Bayon. However, if you do, you must let me know! Stereo photographer and musician Robert Bloomberg gave his own tongue-in-cheek take on the origin of the Smile of Angkor when he sent me the above photograph in 2002. "A small tribute to your Buddha nature..." was how he phrased it at the time.

An Englishman abroad

English comedian Stephen Merchant on location at Angkor Wat (Photo: Nic Dunlop)
A face well-known to British tv audiences but anonymous to anyone in Vietnam and Cambodia, Stephen Merchant paid a visit to the two countries recently. Travelling first-class, his view on his first venture into Asia can be read in today's Observer newspaper online here. Here's an extract that relates to his time in Cambodia.

As we sip beers under the whirring fans of the Foreign Correspondents Club and look out over Phnom Penh, it is hard to imagine that in 1975 this entire city was evacuated and the population moved into enforced labour camps in the countryside. While Vietnam remains poor, it has had several decades to clear away the debris of war and build up a thriving tourist industry. In neighbouring Cambodia, violence and bloodshed stopped only in the past 10 years or so. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge were still operating as a guerrilla movement well into the 1990s.

With the Khmer Rouge now disbanded and a relatively stable government in place, the country has done an impressive job of plastering over the tragedy and unrest of its recent past. Phnom Penh is full of bustling street-cafes and tourists in rickshaws visiting the glittering royal palace. The people are charming and friendly but behind the facade the country's scars are still there. The Killing Fields are now gruesome tourist destinations and Toul Sleng prison, a former school that became a place of torture and death under the Khmer Rouge, is now a museum. It's a chilling and deeply moving place with hundreds of haunting photographs of the victims hanging on the walls. Everyone you meet has their own story. Our tour guide cheerily tells us his extraordinary tale of life under the Khmer Rouge and it's as gripping as any Hollywood thriller. We're so enthralled we send the taxi round the block a few times until he's finished.

We had hoped to take a boat up the Mekong river to Siem Reap but the water level is too low so it has to be a short aeroplane flight. At Siem Reap we are picked up from the airport in a vintage stretch Mercedes that used to belong to King Sihanouk. Left to rust during the Khmer Rouge period, it was rescued by the owners of our hotel, Amansara, which was formerly the king's residence: he entertained the likes of Jackie O here in the 1960s. Under Pol Pot it became a weapons dump and was left to ruin. Now it's been restored to its former glory and is the very model of elegant 1960s designer chic. Private butler, private plunge-pool, free cakes and mini-bar - outrageous luxury and our home while we visit nearby Angkor Wat. No words can do justice to the beauty of the vast 12th-century temples so I won't even try. Just look at the pictures. And try not to be too distracted by my amazing hat.

Tourists flock to these temple complexes, so we get up at 6am and spend an hour or so exploring them with only a blissful soundtrack of local wildlife. I am terrified of getting bitten by a mosquito because my mum says I will get malaria and die. I cover myself in a thick sheen of insect repellent. I want to bring a mosquito net with me from the hotel but Claire says it will look silly with my hat. As other tourists start to arrive, we venture down a jungle pathway and 20 minutes later find Ta Nei, a smaller temple rarely bothered by visitors. It's private and beautiful. I need a wee. I am about to go behind a tree when my guide reminds me that there are still between 4 million and 6 million unexploded land mines in Cambodia and I should be careful where I tread. I hold it in.

Next day we take a boat ride on Tonle Sap lake and stare at the families of fishermen who live on the water in floating villages. This makes me feel guilty again. I am peering at poor people like they're animals in a zoo. I am disgusted with myself so I make sure I've got enough photos and then ask the boatman to take us back. This is the agony of holidaying in developing countries. Some say you are bringing welcome cash into the economy, others that you are exploiting the impoverished locals. Have I seen the real Vietnam and Cambodia? I haven't ventured off the tourist trail, so not really, but if you're like me and you want to see far-flung places without getting your hands dirty, it can be done, and in great style and safety. And even if I wasn't very adventurous, one evening after dinner I did utter the words: 'Hmm, I think that gekko is repeating on me.' Now you can't say that after two weeks in Devon.

More at Oudong...finally

One of the children of a vendor at Oudong
It has taken me a while to post my photos from my visit to Oudong, which was a few weeks ago now, but here's the final batch of pictures. It's well worth the trip, some 40kms north of Phnom Penh, to spend some time at a site where you will be surrounded by Cambodians out to have an enjoyable and relaxing time at a sacred place that has some interesting history, both ancient and modern.
The path leading from the giant Buddha and onto the royal stupas
A revered statue of the sacred bull, Preah Ko, which is a popular spot for locals to pray
Some more Buddhist shrines to be found on top of the mountain
This large Buddha seated under the naga head is Preah Ang Neak Reach
A view from the middle ridge to the ridge with the 4 main royal stupas
The gloriously decorated stupa of King Ang Duong, who died in 1859
The elephants at the base of King Soriyopor's stupa have all been repaired since my first visit in 1998

The royal stupas of Oudong

This is the only broken brick stupa remaining, called Chedi Eiso
The royal stupas and other attractions at Oudong are popular with visitors, especially at weekends. The area, 40kms north of Phnom Penh, served as the capital of Cambodia under several monarchs between 1618 and 1866 and a number of kings were crowned there. There are a few ridges to climb and explore and each one has something to see, either in the form of structures containing Buddhas or suchlike or the royal stupas, which are pictured here. Since my first visit there in 1998, the stupas have been repaired and look in good condition now. The building of the new stupa containing the bones of Buddha, which I highlighted recently, has certainly helped to attract restoration funds to the site.
This stupa is the resting place of Samdech Pannara
The yellow stupa with its spire topped by four faces belongs to King Monivong (died 1941) and is called Chet Dey Mak Proum
Decorated with coloured tiles, this stupa is Chedi Trai Treng and houses the ashes of King Ang Duong, who died in 1859
Named Damrei Sam Poan, this chedi was built for the ashes of King Soriyopor

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Today's pictures

Sam Savin in full Kenor (angel) regalia at tonight's performance
Tonight's Khmer classical dance performance at the Chenla Theater in Phnom Penh was very well-attended and well-received. The story of two young lovers who sleep together without a hint of marriage was a bit racey but they overcome hurdles to be together in the tale of Preah Anrudh Preah Neang Ossa. The pinpeat orchestra added the background sound, the vocalists sang the story (in Khmer) and a side-screen gave snippets of what was happening in English to inform the foreigners in the audience. Applause rang out throughout the hour-long performance and at less than two dollars for a seat, it was a bargain to see classical court dance performed by some of the country's very best dancers. Amongst them was my friend Sam Savin, who was one of the Kenor, or angels, and flitted on and off stage at regular intervals.
Earlier in the day, the council decided to repair the road that runs outside my flat and large diggers were busy tearing the road surface apart. As soon as they'd finished, in came small groups of 'stone-breakers.' These groups, usually women, wield the hammer and break the tarmac and stone into smaller stones and carry them off to sell or use elsewhere. It's a tough job in the heat of the day, but that's Cambodia for you, the women do all the hard work around here.
All the dancers take a bow at the end of their Chenla performance
Two of the show's leading performers. Left is Praseth Vichheka who plays the Princess Neang Ossa, and Roth Chanmony, who is Prince Anrudh
Back-breaking work for these women as they move in to break the broken road into smaller stones

Friday, June 6, 2008

Also in Oudong

The massive pyramid stupa at Wat Prang in Oudong town
Sitting inside the boundaries of Oudong town is the pagoda of Wat Prang, which boasts this unusual pyramid shrine pictured here. Part of the former capital city of Oudong in the 17th century, the monks referred to the pyramid as simply 'borann' and much renovation work is taking place to shore up the decaying stonework of the original monument, which effectively is a giant stupa. The monks weren't aware of the history of the site but it was clear that the broken lions, pedestals and ancient seima stones sat under a tree next to the pagoda's main vihara were evidence that parts of the site pre-date the arrival of the monarch at Oudong. The view from the small shrine at the top of the pyramid was fantastic and the stupas of Oudong mountain itself were visible through the trees. The vihara of the pagoda was extravagantly-painted inside and the main shrine was very ornate, with what appeared to be a small jade Buddha at its core. The extensive grounds of the pagoda contained some of its original buildings and a 1939 French colonial house was now the monk's quarters. The town of Oudong boasts a series of interesting pagodas, including the iron canons at Veang Chas and is well worth a quick diversion if you are visiting the Kings' stupas at Oudong. In the grounds of another pagoda nearby, Wat Sopha Nuvong Rottanaram, I spotted a makara (sea monster) carving on a piece of stone and brushing aside the shrubs, found a larger section of lintel and other stones with vestiges of carving on them. It's often amazing what you can find under a bush.
Oudong mountain through the trees from the top of the pyramid stupa at Wat Prang
A view of the crumbling original stonework at Wat Prang
A broken sandstone lion suggests earlier beginnings for Wat Prang
These ancient seima stones have been left by a tree and partly covered in whitewash paint!
The ornate main shrine within the vihara at Wat Prang
One of the colourful wall paintings within Wat Prang
A 1939 French colonial house is now the monk's quarters at Wat Prang
A lintel with makara carving hidden under a bush at Wat Sopha Nuvong Rottanaram

Note your diary

Hot off the press.... there will be a premiere screening of Rain Falls From Earth at the Meta House in Phnom Penh on Saturday 9 August, so the film's director, Steve McClure told me by email today. Mark it in your calendar. The film is appearing at a bunch of film festivals in the States right now and when McClure returns to Cambodia in a couple of months, he'll bring a copy of his documentary with him - even though he hasn't yet completed shooting.

In the wake of the Vietnam War and not far from it, one of the greatest tragedies the world has ever seen took place. To this day, it seems that relatively few Americans know about it. "I basically knew nothing about it. I barely knew where Cambodia was," said filmmaker Steve McClure, recalling when he first began to read about the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime that killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s. "I started doing some research about how this massive event in history happened, and really no one knew that it happened. "I just started finding (survivors) through the Internet and was just intrigued by their stories. I thought this would really be a good subject to tackle." McClure's curiosity spawned the film "Rain Falls From Earth," which chronicles the personal accounts of eight Khmer Rouge survivors and their tale of struggle and perseverance in one of history's darkest hours.

In one of the highlights of this weekend's International San Joaquin Film Festival, McClure will be on hand Sunday to discuss the film after a screening at University of the Pacific's Faye Spanos Concert Hall. One of the survivors also will be in attendance. "If they told you that rain falls from Earth, you agreed or would be killed for being an intellectual," goes the tagline for the movie that took McClure on two personally enlightening journeys to Cambodia, where he talked not only with Khmer Rouge survivors, but also members of the regime itself. "We visited an entire village of former Khmer Rouge," he said. "We interviewed three former members that are in the film. It was very eerie. It was a throwback to the '70s. They live like nothing ever happened; they all seem to be in denial. "I liked having that perspective on it," McClure added. "I let them tell their own story just like I let the survivors tell their story. I didn't judge them. I just asked them questions about what they did and what they saw."

McClure hopes to return to Cambodia in the near future to gather more footage for "Rain Falls From Earth," which is narrated by Sam Waterston, the star of the only Hollywood exploration of the tragedy, 1984's "The Killing Fields." "It seems like the first question out of everyone's mouth is, 'Why are you doing this?' " McClure said. "I think if I can talk about my interests and how these people and this film touched me, that's an insight that people want to know. People can say, 'You're a white guy living in America. Why do you care?' But it's just built over time; it's this passion that takes you over."

Get along to Chenla...tomorrow

It's vitally important, in my view, that shows such as those being staged at the Chenla Theater tomorrow and Sunday get the audience numbers they deserve. In this case, Amrita Performing Arts and the dancers from the School of Fine Arts are putting on a newly revived performance of Khmer Classical Dance - called Preah Anurudh Preah Neang Ossa - and new pieces like these are pretty rare, so the time and effort taken in staging these shows should be rewarded. Tickets are a snip at 3,000 and 6,000 riel, performances on both days begin at 6pm and will be accompanied by a traditional pinpeat orchestra, singers and narration. I was lucky enough to see the premiere of this new work at a special staging of the dance in February and its well worth going to see. Kudos to ANZ Royal Bank for sponsoring this event.

Any UK visitors?

Is anyone visiting Phnom Penh from the UK within the next month? I need some brand new football goggles brought over - so I can resurrect my football-playing career - and as I don't trust the postal system between the UK and Cambodia, a personal delivery would be really helpful. If anyone can oblige, drop me an e-mail and we can work out the logistics.

I am heading over the border to Laos in just over a week for my first experience of Laotian hospitality, which everyone tells me is worth waiting for. I'll be travelling from the northern parts of Luang Namtha and Muang Singh and onto Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, before heading down to the south with Pakse and the 4,000 islands on my itinerary before my first-ever encounter with land-border formalities at Dom Kralor. My brother Tim is joining me for the trip so I expect some adventures en route. Depending on internet access and how much I'll be trying to cram into each day, my blog posts will almost certainly suffer as a result. Be warned.

Last night was the well-attended launch party at Chow on the riverside of The Advisor - a new weekly what's on guide to Phnom Penh. It's the brainchild of Anthony Galloway and his team at Expat-Advisory and promises to be a worthwhile addition to the increasing newspaper media available in the capital. It's got some way to go to match the quality of the monthly food and drink magazine Asia Life but issue number one hit the streets yesterday and will no doubt mature and improve with age, like all of us!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Buddha rebuilt

I don't have any photos of the event as I wasn't invited - organizers of these events please take note - but yesterday the King of Cambodia blessed the completion of the rebuilding of the giant reclining Buddha, part of the world's largest jigsaw puzzle at the Baphuon temple at Angkor. Much of the 11th century temple has been strewn around the grounds of the site for many years whilst the folks from EFEO scratched their heads to try and piece together a restoration that first began in the 1960s. After the notebooks with the jigsaw puzzle answers were lost during the Khmer Rouge period, its been a case of 'painting by numbers' but they are getting there. Yesterday's ceremony was to celebrate the reconstruction of one of the world's largest stone Buddhas, 75 metres in length and 12 metres wide, located on the west facade of the second tier of the three-tier temple. Initially the Buddha was constructed 500 years ago when builders were trying to halt the pyramid temple's collapse by re-using some of the stones.
The giant reclining Buddha as photographed by Michael Freeman in his Ancient Angkor book

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The death caves of Battambang

This graphic representation of the Phnom Sampeou caves marks the entrance. $1 for foreigners
The death caves of Phnom Sampeou, some 18kms west of Battambang, have been on the tourist circuit for many years. It was only in the last year that the local authorities built a new genocidal memorial and located it in Teng Klun cave, also known as La-Ang Kirirum. More than 15,000 people are believed to have been killed at the site, which was both a prison and execution center during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 -79. Eye witnesses from the time recount that in late afternoons, victims were tied together and led to the top of the mountain, where they were interrogated before having their throats cut with saws or were bludgeoned and thrown into the caves below. Children were usually killed without interrogation and thrown down a smaller cave shaft. A small temple building at the top of the mountain was used as the prison. Today the victims' remains have been collected into one shrine as over the years many of the bones have been removed from the site.
This is the cave shaft allegedly used for killing young children
The newly built genocide memorial shrine at La-Ang Kirirum
Some of the 15,000 victims believed to have died at the site
The final resting place for the victims of Phnom Sampeou

Welcome to Ship Mountain

The entrance to Phnom Sampeou, 1,225 steps and the archway showing the ship from the story of Rumsay Sok
Ship Mountain, or known to all as Phnom Sampeou, is famous in Cambodian folklore because of the story of Rumsay Sok, but is better known to western visitors for its caves of death where the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned their victims to death before throwing them down the cave shafts into the darkness below. Today it's a must-see stop on the Battambang tourist circuit for its caves, gorgeous hilltop views and meditation center. It has more reclining Buddha statues than I've seen elsewhere and has had some money pumped into its Buddhist shrines, which proliferate compared to my first visit to the mountain in 1999. The two small killing fields memorials have been combined into a brand new shrine, built last year, though we arrived late in the day so the cave was in complete darkness, hence my photographs aren't of very good quality. Phnom Sampeou is 18 kms from Battambang, there are 1, 225 steps waiting for you to climb - according to one of the young boys who acted as our guide - and at the top, Wat Kereoum is a peaceful retreat where many come to meditate. Oh, and the story of Rumsay Sok, well maybe I'll leave that for another day.
The view from halfway up the mountain, looking back towards Battambang
The first of many reclining Buddhas, with the names of all the donors on the walls
In the first series of caves is this large reclining Buddha
In the second series of caves, this Buddha has the new killing fields memorial for company
Looking up towards Phnom Sampeou from the gently-sloping path that we took instead of retracing the 1,225 steps

Lintels from Phnom Banan

A pediment of twelve worshippers above a lintel with kala and a worn Vishvakarma
To wrap up my photos from Phnom Banan, the hilltop 11th century temple near Battambang, here are some of the lintel carvings that remain in situ at the site. As befits their age, they are quite worn and some have had the central Buddhist image defaced, while the varied colours of the surrounding blocks of stone add an interesting dimension to the scene.
A very worn lintel with Vishvakarma sitting atop a very menacing kala
Another lintel with the central character obliterated above the kala
This lintel is lying on the ground and shows the common scene of Indra on the three-headed Airavata elephant (damaged), atop a fearsome kala

Images from Phnom Banan

The five towers of Phnom Banan
Here are some more photos from Phnom Banan, a hilltop temple lying 22kms southwest of Battambang, which I visited with a group of work colleagues recently. My first visit to the temple was in 1999 and the authorities have done much to make the access to the site easier for the many tourists that now visit. The views from the top of the hill are gorgeous and almost worth the steep climb itself, however, the real attraction is the Angkorean five-tower temple that sits proudly at the summit.
The eastern doorway to the main sanctuary where visitors come to pray
An inscription stone explaining about donations made to the temple
This small boy plays hide and seek behind this large naga antefix
This small broken laterite temple lies at the foot of the hill and is dedicated to Yeay Peau

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

This month at Meta House

The Meta House, on Street 264 near Wat Botum, has some interesting events lined up for this month. Unfortunately, I've booked a two-week trip to Laos in mid-month so I will miss a few of them but nonetheless, that shouldn't stop you from attending. Director Greg Cahill will present his 25-minute film The Golden Voice on Saturday 14th at 7pm. Its a peek into the life of Cambodia's best loved singer Ros Sereysothea. The following week, Saturday 21st, Rithy Panh's movie One Evening After the War will be shown and on Friday 27th, its an evening of 4 John Pilger documentaries including Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, alongwith films on Vietnam and East Timor. From 24 June an exhibition of his paintings by Cambodian artist Svay Ken will open - the 75 year old is still going strong today. There's lots of other stuff taking place as well, but the above, and a documentary on the punk band The Clash on the 1oth, were the ones that caught my eye.

Saffron Revolution on 13 June

Monday, June 2, 2008

Looting on the hill

A devata on the wall of Phnom Banan, minus her head
Throughout the centuries since it was constructed, Phnom Banan has suffered greatly at the hands of thieves and looters. In addition, most images of Buddha have been defaced on lintels and the devatas in niches on the wall of the central sanctuary have all been beheaded. There are still carvings in place but time and human intervention means they're aren't of the best quality. Nowadays the temple has a permanent guard but the best statues and carvings have long since been spirited away. This has been the case of course at many of the remote temples such as Preah Khan of Kompong Svay and Beanteay Chhmar, where priceless artifacts have been lost forever. There are some carvings from Phnom Banan in the Battambang Museum, which is well worth a visit when you are in town.
This devata in a niche on the central sanctuary lost her head many years ago
The Buddha image above the kala on this lintel has been removed
This lintel too has been defaced with the main components of the carving now destroyed forever
This lintel showing Vishnu on the back of Garuda lies on the ground and is in a sorry state

Wham! in Cambodia

Okay, so it was a few months ago, but Andrew Ridgeley, half of the 1980s pop duo Wham! was in Cambodia for a culinary and sightseeing tour and the story of the trip is revealed in today's Telegraph in the UK. I've no idea why the article took so long to surface. Read all about the tour in this piece by Richard Strange here. The tour party also included Rick Stein's head chef Stéphane Delourme and a gala party at Pacharan was the climax of their tour. Stein himself followed a few weeks later, filming for one of his food shows.

Those folks at WWF and their Mondulkiri protected forest are certainly getting their fair share of press coverage. The Independent in the UK ran a story yesterday about the increasing numbers of wildlife to be found in the northeast, though when I was there, they were bloody difficult to spot. Read more about WWF's efforts here.

Phymean Noun has been tagged a CNN Hero for her selfless work in rescuing children from Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey rubbish dump. Read more about her and her organization, PIO

Stairway to Banan

A dog awaits my beginning of the steep climb to Phnom Banan
Phnom Banan has seen some changes since my first visit there in 1999. As well as the renovated welcome platform festooned with nagas, the steep 150 metre laterite stairway to the top of the hill - 358 steps in all - has also been completely overhauled and the route to the top is dotted here and there with seated lions recovered from the surrounding forest. It's still a long and hot climb - though youngsters will busy themselves by fanning you - and the steps these days are in excellent condition underfoot. Awaiting you at the top are five laterite and sandstone built towers, dating from the 11th and 13th centuries according to inscriptions found at the site. I recall a large artillery gun inside the temple back in 1999, a reminder that the area had been on the frontline of the civil war for many years. It's long since disappeared. The admission fee for foreigners at Phnom Banan is $2, for locals it's free.
A seated lion oversees the arrival of visitors at Phnom Banan
The summit of Phnom Banan is in sight - soon time for a rest!
This is Tola, my personal guide at Phnom Banan
One the recovered lions at Phnom Banan, the stairway is dotted with some good lion examples

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The nagas of Phnom Banan

Garuda surrounded by serpent heads on this naga balustrade at the foot of Phnom Banan
At the base of the steps leading to Phnom Banan, located some 22kms southwest of Battambang, are a series of nagas that have been rescued from the undergrowth and re-assembled on a renovated platform that leads onto a long and steep stairway to the temple itself. Quite a few of the nagas are still in excellent condition, considering their age - the temple was constructed in two eras, the 11th and again, in the 13th century - and the trouble and strife that the Battambang area in particular has endured. The four pictured here are all identical and feature Garuda in the centre, surrounded by seven naga heads. The naga is a serpent-god of the waters, guardian of the earth's treasures, the keeper of the energy stored in water and through its water resources, safeguards the prosperity of the region. Its greatest enemy historically is Garuda (beak, talons and wings of an eagle, limbs of a man), but later in Khmer art, the two become inseparable and this is shown on these examples. This is a mini-treasure trove of nagas with their balustrade bodies and the renovated platform and stairway lays a great welcome mat for this oft-visited hilltop temple.
Garuda and nagas on the platform at Phnom Banan
I counted a dozen nagas like this on the platform. The 4 photographed here were the best examples
Another well-preserved naga at Phnom Banan