Thursday, July 31, 2008

The many smiling faces of Maly

The cheerful and bubbly Maly
This permanently-smiling youngster called Maly was a resident of the car ferry between Ban Phaphin, north of Champasak and Ban Muang, on the eastern shore of the Mekong River, selling the contents of her basket of wooden jars and chewing gum to the ferry passengers. She was a livewire, cheerful and bubbly, enjoying a pretend gun-battle with my brother Tim before studiously writing down our names and ages when we gave her a couple of spare pens and notepads. She persuaded us to buy some chewing-gum even though neither of us eat the stuff before we disembarked and waved our goodbyes, with a massive beaming smile on her face of course.
Maly and her basket of wares that she sells to the ferry passengers
I think Tim has just been gunned-down in his prime
Maly getting ready to reload and fire her pretend gun again
Writing down our names and ages with her new pen and notepad
Maly gives Tim her friendly salute after their pretend gun-battle

In and around Champasak

The sun sparkles on the gently flowing Mekong River near Champasak
Two more colonial-style buildings in Champasak that have fared less well than those already renovated but you can bet these will be spruced up in the near future
If I revisit this building in a couple of years time I bet I won't recognise it
Part of that morning's catch from the Mekong River
The fisherman readies himself for another session on the Mekong River
The car ferry from Ban Muang on the eastern shore of the Mekong River to Ban Phaphin, a kilometre north of Champasak

A Thai view on ANM

An exhibit from the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas at the ANM
I reported back from a return visit to the Angkor National Museum a few days ago and it seems I wasn't the only visitor, as the Bangkok Post from Thailand also gives its tuppenceworth with this review in today's online newspaper.

Damn the begrudgers! - The Bangkok Post, Horizons
Less than a year old, the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap has already come in for a lot of flack; we paid a visit recently to see what all the hullabaloo was about.

With Angkor Wat in its backyard (or is it the other way around?), the town of Siem Reap is a revolving door for tourists eager to gaze on the remnants of the majestic architecture of a once-powerful civilisation. The sheer size of this temple complex is, in itself, overwhelming. And while a stroll through the site is always an eye-popping experience, the surviving structures are, quite literally, shells of their former glorious selves. All the statuary and other sacred objects that escaped the attention of looters have long since been removed for safe-keeping. Most of the artefacts were transferred to the National Museum in Phnom Penh where lack of display space means that a lot of them are kept locked away in warehouses. Enter the Angkor National Museum, a $15 million project which is divided into eight themed zones and covers an area of 20,000m2; it is, remarkably, Siem Reap's first full-scale museum.

It was officially opened late last year but finishing touches are still being put to the so-called Cultural Mall, a building adjacent to the museum proper which features a host of gift shops, restaurants and even a spa - a one-stop centre for those in search of sustenance, souvenirs and retail therapy. The modern facilities in the museum include numerous interactive presentations; visitors are free to manipulate the controls of audio-visual displays which come with commentary in a choice of seven languages (English, Cambodian, French, Thai, Japanese, Chinese and Korean). The first of these presentations is encountered at the very start of your tour, in an 80-seat briefing hall where you are shown a brief video, a primer for everything you'll encounter during your visit. The first gallery you enter isn't even counted among the eight aforementioned zones, but it certainly doesn't pale in comparison; in fact it's one of the highlights of the whole place. A special exhibition aptly entitled "1,000 Buddha Images", for it features (you guessed it!) 1,000 Buddha statues ranging from the pre-Angkor (1st to 8th century AD) and Angkor (8th to 14th century) periods to the present day. The oldest dates from the 6th century. The juxtaposing of the different eras allows one to see the marked variations in style. The pre-Angkor images show strong Indian influences and are carved mostly from sandstone while those from the Angkor period utilise both sandstone and bronze. The post-Angkor Buddhas on display here are made from wood and various metals and exhibit many similarities to statues one might come across in a Thai wat. A striking feature of this hall is that all four walls have rows of niches housing hundreds of Buddha statuettes.

As one penetrates farther into the museum one progresses through Cambodia's illustrious past, touching on aspects of its history, culture, society, traditional costumes and spiritual beliefs. There are in excess 1,400 authentic artefacts in all, some, unfortunately, in poor condition. A focal point of interest is the Angkor Wat zone where one can pore over a fascinating, miniature scale model of the temple complex and watch a video explaining the methods used in its construction. Although the museum's government-appointed curator, Chann Charouen, is a Cambodian national, there has been much mumbling and grumbling of late about the folks behind this project. The Thai folks, that is. Yes, it may raise some eyebrows, but this museum is in fact the brainchild of a Thai company, a fact which has, understandably, drawn the ire of some Cambodians. (One can only hope that the ongoing stand-off over Preah Vihear/Khao Phra Viharn does not add fuel to the fire). Critics of the museum have accused the Thai investors of exploiting Cambodia's heritage to pocket a profit. And all sorts of wild rumours have been flying around. According to one (patently untrue) canard, it is mandatory for all visitors to walk through the official gift shop at the end of their tour. But then what new museum, aquarium or zoo in this day and age - Thai-run or otherwise - doesn't sport a souvenir shop with overpriced key chains and stuffed toys?

The Thai investors insist that their intentions are pure; that they set up this museum to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the Khmer Empire. They point out that, according to the terms of the agreement they signed with Phnom Penh officials, once their 30-year lease on the site and the exhibits (on loan from other museums in the country) expires, the Cambodian government will become the legal owner of the museum. Many still suspect the investors' motives, however, and this is hardly surprising given that the fingerprints of Thai entrepreneurs are to be found all over Siem Reap. No one seems to be making a fuss about these Thai-run businesses but then none of them are claiming to be a national museum, are they? All that aside, some areas of the museum could do with a bit of tweaking. Many of the artefacts on display still lack proper descriptions and much of the compound is under-lit, making it a bit hard on the eyes sometimes. Despite what its detractors say, the museum does offer an educational and aesthetically pleasing experience and - let's face it - it's still the only place in Siem Reap where you can see what once embellished the interiors of all those mesmerising ruins.

Colonial elegance

A colonial house in Champasak undergoes renovation as a boutique hotel
Champasak in southern Laos was until thirty years ago, the seat of Lao royalty. The local wat, Wat Nyutthitham contains the ashes of deceased members of the royal family, two of whom owned gorgeous colonial style buildings that have been renovated today and stand out amongst the otherwise traditional wooden Lao homes to be found in this quiet sleepy backwater, the gateway to the Angkorean ruins of Wat Phu. A few French colonial-era buildings remain, one of which is being converted into a boutique hotel whilst the eerie shell of a former royal residence that looks out onto the surrounding mountains, reminded me of the hotel and casino at Bokor in southern Cambodia. The renovated colonial homes of Chao Ratsadanai, the last King of Champasak who died in 1956, and his son Chao Boun Om, who was Minister of Religion, are pictured below. The independent Kingdom of Champasak was abolished in 1946. The town, which hosts a 3-day festival every February, is located on the west bank of the Mekong River and the ruins of Wat Phu are just ten kilometres away.
The renovated former home of Chao Boun Om, former Minister of Religion
The grandeur and elegance of the home of the former Champasak King, Chao Ratsadanai
A beautifully restored traditional Lao wooden home
An abandoned royal residence seeking new owners, in Champasak

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Arnfield's one-woman show

As well as the troupe of dancers and musicians from Cambodian Living Arts, who will be performing at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, there is a one-woman show that focuses on the Khmer Rouge legacy of Cambodia's recent history. It's called The Gymnast and opens today, until 23 August.

The Gymnast brings Cambodian torment to life - by Chris Collett (MetroLife)

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took control of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. During the next four years, the regime reduced the country to a slave state and was responsible for the death of an estimated 1.7million people through executions, compulsory urban evacuation and forced labour. Watching news reports about Cambodian refugee camps at that time had a lasting effect on Jane Arnfield, whose new one-woman show, The Gymnast, directed by DV8 founder member Nigel Charnock and premiering at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is inspired by this dark episode in the country's history. 'When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, I was nine,' says Newcastle-based theatre artist Arnfield. 'I remember the Blue Peter Appeal for the refugees, and I remember collecting bottle tops. I was shocked by what I saw and it obviously made a deep impression.'

Though childhood memories were the spark for the show, The Gymnast is the result of extensive research. In January, Arnfield spent a month at the Documentation Center Of Cambodia, an organisation dedicated to bringing the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice. While there, she was able to work closely with its Victims Of Torture project. 'They allowed me to accompany them on field trips and offered me the opportunity to interview people,' says Arnfield. 'I interviewed a man called Bou Meng, who is one of the six survivors of S-21, which was an infamous Khmer Rouge prison.' Although Arnfield learnt much about the atrocities that took place under the Khmer Rouge from first-hand testimonies, she stresses that the show is not a verbatim catalogue of pain and suffering. 'The last thing I want to do is just take people's stories and put them onstage,' she says. 'It is about culpability, responsibility and ultimately about loss - and how we deal with loss.'

An assemblage of spoken word, physical theatre, music, recorded voice and sound, the show juxtaposes her personal experiences of growing up in the late 1970s - the title refers to the gymnastic certificates Arnfield was working towards at school at the time - with the events taking place in Cambodia. 'The starting point for me was that while the West was disco dancing, this country was almost being taken back to medieval times,' she continues. 'I find the contrast fascinating.' Described by Arnfield as a 'multilayered experience', disco songs from the period are interwoven with material such as President Nixon ordering the obliteration of Cambodia. Some of the content is self-explanatory; other aspects are less directly relevant, but everything, including Neil Murray's wardrobe set design, is there for a reason. 'I read an extract that John Pilger had written when he first landed in Phnom Penh,' Arnfield explains. 'When he was walking down the road, he saw a wardrobe, and as he looked at it a child emerged from inside and ran off down the road. He had obviously been living in there. I thought that was a really powerful image.' Committed to investigating the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and other despotic regimes, Arnfield sees The Gymnast as the beginning of a larger project. 'It is the first of many planned pieces using Cambodia as a starting point,' she says. 'Over the next ten years I want to investigate what it is like to come from a traumatic situation.'

Note: Jane Arnfield is Artist in Residence at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and recently completed her research for this piece in a one-month trip, which provided the opportunity to work closely with Sophearith Choung and the Victims of Torture Project as well as with Youk Chhang, Director of DC-Cam, artist and one of TIME magazine’s 100 Heroes and Pioneers.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bookshelf news

More new books on Cambodia are about to arrive on the bookshelf. These include two publications from the University of Hawai'i Press. Up for release this month is People of Virtue: Reconfiguring Religion, Power and Moral Order in Cambodia Today, a 320-page study into the role of religion in Cambodia and its impact on the society and how its been shaped by the past. The editors are Alexandra Kent and David Chandler. Last month saw Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-Conflict Society released, again 320 pages and edited by Joakim Ojendal and Mona Lilja. Written by a broad mix of Khmer and non-Khmer researchers, this study looks at how Cambodia has handled democracy and reconstruction since major conflict ended in the last decade. The Univerity of Hawai'i Press are certainly doing their bit to expand the bookshelves on Cambodian studies. Already this year they have released two books about the role of women in Cambodia, namely Khmer Women On the Move by Annuska Derks and Lost Goddesses by Trudy Jacobsen. One other book to mention, Cambodia - Culture Smart! will be out in October. Written by Graham Saunders, 168 pages and published by Kuperard, it will offer an insight into the culture and society of Cambodia, with do's and don'ts, taboos and so on. And coming very soon will be my exclusive review of the brand new, not yet available in the bookshops, Rough Guide to Cambodia 3, which has just landed on my desk. I'm looking at it now, as I type. Does it float my boat? How does it shape up to its big rival, the new Lonely Planet Cambodia? More later.


A recently defaced devata I encountered on a visit to Banteay Prei last week
The Guardian Unlimited yesterday posted this story, which we've heard before, but its important that we hear it again. I visited a few temples in the Angkor Park last week and the missing head of a female devata figure at Banteay Prei was so clean that it must've been taken a matter of days or weeks before. Its still a major problem for those temples that aren't closely guarded night and day and anything remaining in the provinces is virtually an open invitation to steal.

Cambodia's Forgotten Temples Fall Prey To Looters - by Guardian Unlimited
The three freshly dug holes under the two arching palm trees measured a metre by about half a meter, and about half a meter deep. A few fragments of what appeared to be centuries-old clay pots were scattered around the excavation site, seemingly discarded as worthless in the hunt for more valuable treasure. "We find new holes every week," said Ndson Hun, a farmer living in the nearby village of Phoum Snay. "The demand [for artefacts] is as great as ever, so people keep digging." No one knows the extent of the riches at Phoum Snay, an unremarkable Cambodian village about 40 miles north-west of Angkor Wat, the complex of 100 9th to 15th-century Buddhist temples seen as among the world's architectural wonders. But, unlike at Angkor Wat, there are no heritage police here, no Unesco staff, and no local authorities to guard the site. As the latest holes testify, anyone wishing to pillage the remaining hidden riches will encounter few obstacles. Experts fear the decades-long looting for artefacts across Cambodia is now so rampant there will soon be little left outside the splendors of the Unesco world heritage site at Angkor. "Almost all sites of antiquity and temples far from towns are being destroyed," said Michel Trenet, the undersecretary of state at Cambodia's culture and fine arts ministry. "Naturally, the priority for us is to protect the Angkor sites and then think about the others. But we don't have enough guards and people are not motivated to protect their heritage. Cambodia is becoming a cultural desert."

Phoum Snay is a classic example. On its discovery, almost three years ago, the site was thought to have been a mass grave for victims of the Khmer Rouge, the communists who ruled from 1975-79 and under whose regime some 1.7 million people were executed or died from disease and starvation. Then, when iron-age artifacts, including weapons, jewelery, pots and trinkets, started appearing, the site was reassessed as the burial ground of an ancient army. The researchers moved in, and digging started. Thousands of items were found. Yet little was done to secure the area and antiques traders - people mainly from neighboring Thailand, say villagers, and seeking to sell Khmer treasures abroad - now have virtual free rein. Their success is shown by the regularity with which Khmer artifacts appear at auction around the world. At any one time, dozens of Khmer "treasures" are on offer on the eBay auction website. Poverty and greed are considered the two main motivations behind the looting. Monks living in a temple half a mile from Phoum Snay believe the villagers are involved in the illicit digging, despite protestations by Ndson Hun and his friends. "The villagers are doing it because they are so poor," said Moy Sau, clad in his traditional saffron-coloured robes. "They don't respect their heritage because they can't afford to turn down an offer of a few dollars for a night's work." Chea Vannath, president of the Centre for Social Development, says that the average annual income in Cambodia is about £155 a year - much lower in rural areas. "Protecting our cultural heritage is a luxury," she said. "People are fighting to survive so they don't know better." Moy Sau does not dare warn the authorities about the looting: "As a monk I cannot do anything because I rely on the villagers for my food."

Even if he raised the alarm, that might not ensure the artifacts' preservation since government officials and members of the security forces are also involved in the trade, widespread reports suggest. A stone carver based a few miles away, in Phumi Rohal, who was too afraid to give his name, said some provincial government officials last month asked him to build a base for a "half Buddha" that one of their bosses had acquired. "I was suspicious even though they had lots of letters and said it would be kept in a temple," he said. "But I did it because I'm afraid of the authorities. Us little people can do nothing against them." With the country's legal system being so corrupt, the "dark forces", Mr Trenet says, are too powerful, even for him. A tour of Toul Ta Puon, known as the Russian market, in the capital, Phnom Penh, proves his point, with shops packed with tall cabinets full of artifacts. Bronze-age axe heads and rings sell for less than £15. One intricately carved 11th-century, long-necked water jar was £30. The shopkeepers appear motivated only by money and refuse to lower their prices, even for Mr Trenet, though most recognise him. "I would like to buy all [the artifacts] for the museum. But my salary is only [£155] a month so what can I do?" he says.

More tears on the way

Where will it all end? In tears methinks. Nevertheless, Roy Hill has been hard at work again in remastering and releasing yet another two CD's, this time its the songs of Cry No More that get the airing. Roy and his buddy Chas Cronk were the mainstays of Cry No More during their ten-year stint together, and the two CD's that have just been released are their 1986 Cry No More Live at the Mulberry Tree session, and their imaginatively-titled Cry No More album from 1987. Both are definitely worth getting hold of - believe me. If you've yet to enjoy the delights of Roy Hill and Cry No More, you are missing out on top-quality pop and razor-sharp song-writing at its very best.
The Mulberry Tree experience comes complete with the pub's Choir who knew every word of every song and play a big part in complementing the comedic singing of Mr Hill, the bass brilliance of Cronk and the keyboard wizardry of Nick Magnus. With fifteen tracks you certainly get your money's worth. The CD's tracks are: Radio; I Love Roxy; Dancing in the Danger Zone; Fashion; Man Overboard; Every Single Time; On Holiday; Don't Leave Me Here; Tears on the Ballroom Floor; Jenny Takes A First Look at Life; Marion Jones; Jimmy & Johnnie; Cry No More; Looking for Something Mr Templar; Wooden Heart.
The altogether more expensive affair, Cry No More, was released by EMI in August 1987 and produced by Richard Gotherrer, Jeffrey Lesser and David Richards. It didn't make them millionaires but its top drawer nonetheless. The CD's ten tracks are: Cry No More; You Don't Hurt; Tears on the Ballroom Floor; Recipe For Romance; Oh Bessie; Real Love; Every Single Time; Marion Jones; Hit The Big Drum; Don't Leave Me Here.
To get copies of both CD's at ten British pounds apiece plus postage & packing, email and keep your fingers crossed. Roy has recently released two solo CD's, Hello Sailor and Fun With Dave, which are excellent, and has a few solo shows lined up on 7 Sept (at Brentford Festival), 11 Sept (at the Milton Arms, Southsea) and 17 Oct (at the Turks Head in Twickenham). The Cry No More annual Christmas Show and Farewell Appearance has also been booked for the Turks Head on 27 Dec. It's not really their farewell appearance, well, I don't think so, its just Roy's attempt at humour.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Scenic shots at Wat Phu

The southern palace seen from the upper level of Wat Phu
I still have a ton of photos and descriptions to post from my recent visit to Laos including a final flurry from the Khmer temple at Wat Phu. Here are some scenic shots from the temple to keep you in the mood, showing the beautiful views to be found at the site.
The two barays seen from behind tree cover at the summit of Wat Phu
A glimpse of the southern palace and barays from the upper level
The lower levels of Wat Phu stretching out below us, with the Mekong River in the distance
The two palaces and causeways at the lower levels of Wat Phu
The mountains surrounding Wat Phu as seen from the water-filled baray

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cambodia votes

Above, two of Cambodia's 8.1 million voters check the electoral list for their names and registration numbers before voting at one of the five polling stations at Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh this afternoon. Cambodia's adult population went to the polls for the fourth time today since the UN-brokered peace of 1993, and everyone expects the CPP party and the current Prime Minister Hun Sen to extend and consolidate their 23-year stint in power. With many of the city's workers returning to their home provinces to vote, much of Phnom Penh was as quiet as a mouse, with the majority of shops staying closed.
Postscript: Early indications suggest a landslide victory for CPP with the opposition vote split between the majority Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, with the royalist parties losing voters in droves. Shenanigans in Phnom Penh meant many voters names were not on the electoral role. I spent Sunday afternoon watching my Bayon Wanderers team-mates play football at the Old Stadium. My leg is giving me some grief after last weekend's exertions so I was sidelined and if the swelling doesn't recede tomorrow I will visit the doctor for a check-up.
A list of the 11 political parties contesting today's election, in the order they appear on the ballot paper
A pictorial guide to voting at today's election, with copies of the different types of identity that will be accepted

Solitude at Banteay Prei

Parts of Banteay Prei are in danger of collapse, here is the northern gallery pavilion
Banteay Prei lies in a quiet and untouristed corner of the Angkor complex. As I wandered through the sandstone temple built in the latter part of the 12th century, I was reminded of my first visit to Angkor in 1994 when every temple experience was like this - alone and eerily silent except for the sounds from the nearby forest. Those days are long gone at the main temple sites but you can still experience some of the hidden secrets and solitude of Angkor at places like Banteay Prei.
A wall at the eastern gopura with 4 devatas in niches and a baluster window with a drawn blind
A section of the eastern gallery in imminent danger of collapse
A stylish devata in all her regalia holding a lotus flower
Geometric designs adorn the entranceway to the main central sanctuary
In this forgotten corner of Banteay Prei, these two devata have had their heads stolen by temple thieves
This broken naga head and body lie at the eastern gopura entrance to Banteay Prei

Citadel of the Forest

The understated sign showing the way to Banteay Prei and Prasat Prei
An entrance pavilion sits on top of the covered gallery that encircles the main sanctuary area that is littered in large sandstone blocks
Banteay Prei - Citadel of the Forest - is the larger of the two temples that sit side-by-side just a few metres from the main road. Built by Jayavarman VII, it contains all the usual hallmarks of this amazing temple builder though is a smaller miniature version of larger sites like Banteay Kdei, Ta Som and Ta Nei. A moat surrounds the main enclosure which boasts a narrow covered gallery and four entrance pavilions at the cardinal points. The main sanctuary is tall and cruciform shaped and hosts a series of pediments that were altered or defaced during the iconoclastic destruction that followed after the temple's construction, alongwith devatas in niches all over the site. I've toured the site a couple of times in the past and I've always been the only visitor, so you are practically guaranteed to soak up the atmosphere alone.
A laterite-paved moat surrounds the enclosure of Banteay Prei
This pediment with worshippers and lintel have seen better days
The main Buddhist figure in this pediment has been removed leaving acolytes in prayer and apsaras behindMore worshippers sit below the main section of the pediment that has been defaced
The Buddhist figure, Vishvakarma, sitting above this kala has escaped destruction on this broken lintel

Forest Sanctuary

The inner courtyard of Prasat Prei with the central sanctuary in the middle
Prasat Prei means Forest Sanctuary, though the temple today is exposed on a small rise and surrounded by trees, close to the temple of Preah Khan. The photo above shows the central cruciform sanctuary in the centre - topped by a tower of four receding tiers and a blooming lotus on top - with a laterite and sandstone library to the left - in the southeast corner and opening to the west - and the corner of the laterite gopura, which is in ruins on the right. Typical decoration includes devatas in niches, windows with balusters and blinds and an abundance of foliage and geometric patterns on the walls and doorjambs. The standard of the lintels and pediments in situ is poor by comparison with the other temples on the Secrets tour as many have been defaced. Nevertheless, here's a few examples.
The pediment has been defaced to show only a row of worshippers and the kala lintel has also been altered
I thought this devata might be a contestant for 'wicked witch of the west' - she looked a bit evil
Another low quality pediment with two rows of acolytes and a defaced kala lintel
A small representation of a dancing Shiva in a niche

There's more to Krol Ko

The sign announces Krol Ko, situated 100 metres from the main road
This pediment represents Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana with one hand to protect the grateful farmers and animals shown on the lower registers from the wrath of Indra
For what is regarded as an unimportant temple by most visitors hence one of its attractions being its solitude, the Jayavarman VII-built temple of Krol Ko has a surprising wealth of interesting iconography, including its half dozen Lokeshvaras, which I covered in an earlier post. In addition, it hosts two more interesting pediments in the form of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana and a dancing version of Shiva, together with a number of defaced lintels still in situ and numerous devata (female deities) in niches on the sanctuary walls. It's located close to the temple of Neak Pean and is well worth a look next time you are in that area.
The gorgeous dancing figure is Shiva as Nataraja, king of the dance and he is supported by none other than Brahma and Vishnu and a series of worshippers
This fragment of a tower pediment shows Buddha in meditation
This devata has suffered at the hands of temple thieves in recent times
A fragment of a pediment showing the face of Lokeshvara alongside a flying apsara
This is the best quality lintel on display at Krol Ko and features a defaced central character above a grinning kala flanked by two upright dancing lions

Lokeshvaras of Krol Ko

The face of the compassionate Lokeshvara at Krol Ko
The most famous Lokeshvaras in Cambodia appear as multi-armed wall panels at Banteay Chhmar. However, the small Jayavarman VII hidden gem of Krol Ko has its own collection of Lokeshvaras, to be found on a series of re-assembled pediments on the ground at the site. All of the six Lokeshvaras - usually identified in league with Shiva and known as the Lord of Compassion, protecting humans from a long list of dangers and illnesses - are in the standing position and convey different messages and actions. Lokeshvaras became a very important symbol of merit during the reign of J-VII and appear at many of the temples he constructed at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries.
A standing Lokeshvara without his head surrounded by worshipping figures
A Lokeshvara surrounded by flying apsaras, displaying his compassionate mood
A two-armed Lokeshvara that originally had four arms, surrounded by acolytes
This Lokeshvara is standing on a lotus flower supported by hamsas and is pouring water from a flask over a kneeling figure
This kneeling figure has just been anointed with holy water
Although in poor condition, Lokeshvara is here pouring water over a king who is putting a crown on his head
A badly-damaged Lokeshvara with Vishnu and Brahma kneeling in veneration at his side at Krol Ko

Saturday, July 26, 2008

How stupid am I?

Silly me, thinking I could turn up at the bus station early this morning and get a ride back to Phnom Penh. No such luck. It's election day tomorrow and the whole country seems to be on the move as everyone returns to their home village, town and province to vote. If I go back to the bus depot at 1pm they might have a seat for me, but they told me not to hold my breath! As if I can hold it for that long anyway... The loudspeakers and election convoys were out in force yesterday but its gone strangely quiet today as the various factions get prepared for tomorrow. The election has been overshadowed by the events at Preah Vihear in recent weeks but tomorrow all eyes will be on voting booths around the country as the spotlight returns to more mundane matters. I had a drink on pub street last night and you wouldn't have realised that we're in the low season. It was extremely busy and an indication that Siem Reap will be swamped cum the next high season beginning in November. Be warned. I returned to see my good friends at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse last night and took the opportunity to visit their new 20-room second guesthouse that they're building on Wat Bo road. It was dark and the building is in the middle of construction so its difficult to appreciate what is will look like, but the rooms will be bigger and more swanky and it will have a small swimming pool on the ground floor. They hope to open it in January and judging by the popularity of their current 15-room guesthouse, they need it sooner rather than later.
Postscript: I made it back to Phnom Penh by 6.30pm, exactly 5 hours on the road courtesy of the Rith Mony bus company. Beggars can't be choosers when all seats are sold elsewhere but at least they got me back home and the ticket cost just over six dollars. All seats were taken and small plastic chairs filled the gangway too as the bus maximized its passenger count. One of those seated by me was a soldier who regaled the passengers with his tales of daring do at Preah Vihear. Phnom Penh looked very quiet on arrival, 8.1m people are registered to vote at some 15,000 polling stations across the country tomorrow and that means lots of shops are 'shuttered up' and the owners and personnel have gone back to their village for a couple of days.

All alone at Banteay Thom

Two of the central towers at Banteay Thom. The northern tower is obscured by the tree
The final temple on my Hidden Secrets of Jayavarman VII tour was the remote Banteay Thom. This is a few kilometres off the normal tourist route and requires a 10-minute walk if going by car. We were on a moto so we bounced our way through the ricefields to the site, one which I first visited in 1999 and again in 2005. Another J-VII temple, it was built early in the 13th century and in its heyday would've been an absolute gem of a temple. Today many of its carvings have been altered, both in the late 13th century and more recently, by temple thieves. However, it still has much to see in its intricate designs on the walls and in niches on the surrounding galleries and three tall central towers. Only rediscovered in 1997, it is well worth the effort and again, like the other temples on the Hidden Secrets tour, you will be alone in this quiet and contemplative spot. The ever-present devatas are here in large numbers, together with male dvarapala guardian figures and a whole host of pediments and lintels, as well as two ruined libraries. On the way back to the road we stopped at a clump of trees and uncovered the site of a five tower temple, known as Prasat Kron Nup, but as Nat explained, the temple thieves levelled the towers, leaving behind large holes in the ground, in the early 90s whilst searching for gold and other treasures. A common story throughout Cambodia.
A devata and dvarapala stand close together at the eastern entrance of Banteay Thom
Inside the northern tower robbers have dug a hole in search for treasure
Some of the intricate wall designs to be found at Banteay Thom, including Vishnu on Garuda & below, Aniruddha imprisoned by ropes
A tall banyan tree sprouts high from the surrounding enclosure wall at Banteay Thom

Friday, July 25, 2008

More secrets

The central sandstone tower of Prasat Prei
Next up on my Hidden Secrets tour this morning were the sister temples of Prasat Prei and Banteay Prei. These are Jayavarman VII temples too, built in the late 12th century and are located just a few minutes west of Krol Ko. Both temples receive practically zero visitors as there are better sites waiting to be visited in the Angkor Park, but the beauty of these two temples is their absence of people and having the site completely to yourself, and in silence, for however long you want to spend there. Not even an Apsara guard will ask to check your ticket. And yet both temples are literally a hundred metres from the main Angkor road. Prasat Prei is the first one you reach, located on a slight rise and without a surrounding wall, though it has a ruined gopura (entrance gate), so the wall must be somewhere in the undergrowth. It boasts a ruined library and a tall central tower, of sandstone. As with Krol Ko, the bewitching devatas are to be found on the sanctuary walls, though some have been beheaded, whilst the carvings still in situ aren't of the same quality as its close relative. Literally next door is Banteay Prei. This is the big sister, much bigger sister, of Prasat Prei. It has two surrounding walls and a large moat, dry at the moment. There are gopuras at both the east and west sides and long galleries encircling the tall central sanctuary, all in sandstone. The devatas are much in evidence, with other pediments and lintels still in situ as you explore the temple in silence. No-one visits this little gem of Jayavarman VII, so its another temple you have to yourself. The last of the quartet of temples I visited was Banteay Thom, which I'll cover in another post.
These worshipping figures at Prasat Prei have taken on a new green uniform in recent times
This devata at Prasat Prei coyly holds onto her long hair
Banteay Prei shown from the west side
A bewitching devata holding a small mirror at Banteay Prei
Even the devatas at Banteay Prei are prone to theft - this one was beheaded in fairly recent times

Hidden secrets of J-VII

This pediment shows Lokeshvara surrounded by flying apsaras at Krol Ko
This morning I was up and out at 7.30am to visit a quartet of temples off the main circuit around Angkor, which I'll call the Hidden Secrets of King Jayavarman VII. Renowned for his big-hitter temples such as the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Banteay Chhmar, the Khmer King of Kings, Jayavarman 7th also built a vast array of smaller, almost boutique shrines and for this quick dip into the deep well of fabulous temples in the Angkor Park, I took a moto with Nat and off we went, through Angkor Thom and just north of Neak Pean and Preah Khan, calling in first at Krol Ko. Built in the late 12th century, this smallish temple has all the hallmarks of a J-VII temple with finely-detailed pediments, female devatas carved into niches on the walls and a central sanctuary made of sandstone. The best carvings lie on the ground next to the gopura and near the enclosure wall, with seven reassembled pediments, most of which show several versions of Lokeshvara, which became popular in J-VII temples. As with all four temples visited this morning, I was all alone except for the bird-song and buzzing insects in the surrounding trees. An outside laterite wall leads onto a solitary east-facing sandstone gopura that opens into the inner sanctum with the main sanctuary - though access was blocked by wooden beams and a keep out sign - and a small library building closeby. Here's a few photos from Krol Ko to whet your appetite and I'll post more very soon.
The eastern entrance to the gopura and main sanctuary of Krol Ko
There's no access inside the low-level sandstone-built central sanctuary of Krol KoTwo non-smiling devatas on the sanctuary wall with some intricate carving above
This represents a king being crowned by Lokeshvara from a pediment at Krol Ko

Thursday, July 24, 2008

ANM update

The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas at Angkor National Museum
I'm just back after a 3 and a half hour visit to the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap. It took so long as I'm one of those museum-buffs who love to drool over every exhibit and in this instance I was also giving my feedback to the sales team at the museum including the managing director Sunarez, who is very open to constructive criticism and is looking to do whatever she can to make the museum and its collection a success. The museum has certainly improved its collection of exhibits and signage since my visit in January. The number of items on display has topped 1,400 and is increasing almost daily as more items are brought in from the repository at Angkor Conservation. Most of the sculptures have never been seen before in public, having been locked away for safety for many years. The ANM is a great opportunity to expose more Khmer art to the world and the museum is gradually taking shape. Whilst its collection doesn't yet rival it's sister museum in Phnom Penh, the presentation is far superior with multi-media displays and copious information boards which chart the history of the mighty Khmer Empire. However, its still evolving and there are lots of ideas and plans to further enhance the collection and therefore the experience for the visitor. Additional exhibits such as a Martin Reeves infrared photography exhibition and an ancient fashion costume display are planned later this year to begin a series of themed-months to add a nice touch. Running costs prohibit a reduction in the entrance fee at the moment - the museum needs more than 600 visitors per day to break even - though if the museum can promise and deliver a world-class museum, then the fee will be much less of an issue. The adjoining shopping mall has yet to take off and an October launch is planned, though I concluded my visit with a lovely lunch at the Lim Fan Chinese restaurant on-site.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Eating pancakes

Kim Rieng and his adorable family
Anyone who knows me, will be aware that I love to spend time with my Khmer friends and Kim Rieng and his adorable family are exactly that. Tonight we headed out past Angkor Wat to the Red House restaurant opposite the Angkor Balloon for 'ban chaev' - Khmer for yellow pancake with minced pork, beansprouts and other fillings - and roast chicken with Rieng, Sovann his wife and his two perfectly-behaved children, Nara and Chantrea. It was great to see them all again and the pancakes tasted good too. Rieng, a part-time tour guide and full-time policeman, will be on duty this weekend with a 3-day stint for the general elections but was more worried about the potential for him to be sent to Preah Vihear, after his police boss told him this morning, that if the stalemate continues, the police from Siem Reap will be given the task of reinforcing the military presence at the mountaintop. I told him to prepare himself as I didn't see the stand-off diminishing anytime soon. As we left, the towers of Angkor Wat were alight in rapidly-changing colours with the Korean-sponsored Angkor Light Show taking place. After saying farewell to Rieng and family, I had drinks with another pal, British this time, Andy Booth, in the bar at the centre of the Siem Reap Night Market. Andy is the CEO at About Asia, a travel company that specializes in Cambodia, so we chatted about boring business stuff and other matters whilst listening to a selection of Bob Marley's greatest hits.

Nearly finished...

These are more modern Buddhist statues from the central sanctuary of Wat Phu
I know some of you are thinking, when will the Wat Phu extravaganza ever come to an end? Well, it will be fairly soon, but it's such a great temple, located on the side of a mountain in Southern Laos, that it deserves its place in the spotlight for a few days more. These photos are taken from the upper level, in and around the central sanctuary. The view looking down to the foot of the mountain and the ancient structures below and on past the barays filled with water, is well worth the hot climb. More views from the top to follow very soon. In the meantime, please enjoy.
A five-headed naga head inside the central sanctuary, taken from one of the causeways
This is a false door from the ruined 'library' building next to the sanctuary
A map detailing the sanctuary and the spring that sits above, and feeds, the main cella
Can you spot it? - its a crocodile carved into a large boulder, behind the sanctuary, believed to date from Angkorean times
On another nearby boulder, this elephant carving, with tusks and trunk, is under attack from green moss
A view from the upper level of Wat Phu, looking down on the southern palace and causeways

It never rains...

Why is it that nothing ever runs smoothly for more than five minutes? Its absolutely sweltering up here in Siem Reap, much much hotter than down in Phnom Penh and this must be having an impact on, as I can't upload photos and stuff. I'm getting very frustrated so I'm off for a swim before I do something I'll regret. I'm staying at the HanumanAlaya Hotel near the Angkor Conservation depot and despite having just 13 rooms, it has a lovely refreshing swimming pool, so I'm off for a dip. Once I've cooled off, I'll see if is back to normal. I've just had a call from the Angkor National Museum, inviting me to lunch and to inspect their latest improvements, so more from the ANM tomorrow afternoon - that's if doesn't mind!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


A corbelled archway at one of the small laterite Angkorean bridges on Highway 6
Four and a half hours on the road today between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was pretty tough going even though I was in an air-conditioned 4WD. I don't know, some people will complain about anything... At least it gave me the opportunity to take a food-break at Kompong Thom and to meet up with one of my best pals, Sokhom. He's had his own car for about a month now, it's a camry - what else, and he'll take customers to Sambor Prei Kuk, Koh Ker and further afield. He said the English-speaking guides have now begun work at Sambor Prei Kuk but it's early days and a few visitors have complained about the strength of their English. He also mentioned that the troop movements through the city on their way to Preah Vihear has been very noticeable over the last few days and eating in the same restaurant were a tv crew from CTN on their way north to cover the face-off between the Khmer and Thai troops at the mountaintop temple. High-level talks between the two sides broke down on Monday without any resolution, so we may well be in for a long-running saga.
The 30 kilometre section of Highway 6 between Kompong Kdei and Damdek is populated with more than half a dozen of the laterite Angkorean-age bridges (or 'speans') that you can see in these photos. In a rare moment of sanity, the modern-day road builders actually took into account the historical significance of these bridges and deliberately paved the highway around them, and even rebuilt them in most cases, to preserve them for posterity. Most people just sail past them, unaware of their existence, so I thought I'd post a couple of photos just so that you can keep an eye open for them next time you take that section of highway. They pale into insignificance compared to the mighty Spean Praptos that you can see at Kompong Kdei, but in their own small way, they too represent the golden age of bridge-building in Khmer history.
Finally, I had dinner with friends at the Shadow of Angkor restaurant tonight and the place was heaving. Everyone has been telling me that visitor numbers are sparse at the moment, so most of them must've been in the Shadow! I was passing on the good news of the latest 'our pick' in the new edition of the Lonely Planet guide to the owner Seng Hour and it seems word has already got out amongst the travelling fraternity. Not a spare seat in the house, both in the restaurant and the guesthouse upstairs.
One of the small laterite Angkorean bridges to be found on Highway 6

Monday, July 21, 2008

Invitation to a premiere

Film Director Steve McClure has issued an open invitation to all to join him for the Cambodian premiere of the feature documentary, Rain Falls from Earth: Surviving Cambodia's Darkest Hour. It's a story of courage, a story of survival and a story of eventual triumph over the genocidal regime that was responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodian people. The voices of many survivors are heard as they convey their thoughts, ideas and emotions - the very things they were forced to abandon in the killing fields of Cambodia. Narrated by Academy Award nominated actor, Sam Waterston, this film gives a voice to those lives that were senselessly lost. Visit here for more information about the film. The premiere will take place on Saturday 9 August at 7.30pm at the Meta House on Street 264 in Phnom Penh. Admission is free and a Q&A with Steve McClure will follow the film's screening.

It looks like I will be making the trip north to Siem Reap tomorrow for a few days on business. It will give me the chance to reunite with some friends who I haven't seen for a few months and I hope to return to the Angkor National Museum for an updated visit and viewing of their collection. I also want to try and fit in a visit to a couple of quiet corners of Angkor that I haven't seen for a few years, but it will depend on work commitments. It will also mean that I can't go to football training this week, which is a good thing at the moment, as every part of my body is screaming at me to take a rest! I forgot to mention that I watched the 2-hour thunderstorm that flooded the capital's streets yesterday afternoon, from the comfort of the restaurant at the Dara Reang Sey Hotel. I hadn't seen the two sisters, Reangsey and Dara, who manage the hotel for a few months, so it was catch-up time and they fed me as they always do - they repeatedly tell me I look too thin and then proceed to ply me with as much food and drink as I can manage. They are lovely people and I'm proud to call them my friends.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday soccer

Seven years of football inactivity came to an end this afternoon, with my first competitive match since I hung up my boots in April 2001. And boy, did I feel it. My groin and my left knee were giving me some discomfort before the match - now every bone in my body is crying out for rest! I played for 40 minutes of the first half and the last 15 minutes of the second half in a 3-1 win over the Labour Ministry team, but failed to register on the scoresheet. To be honest I was just pleased to get my legs moving again after so long and my pre-match injuries actually held up well. The expat team I turned out for is called Bayon Wanderers and they've been in action for a few years now, regularly putting out two teams every weekend. The line-up was a real hotchpotch of nationalities with French, Italian, Dutch, British and Khmers amongst the eclectic starting eleven. The game was played at the Old Stadium in Phnom Penh and was watched by a crowd of one man and his dog. Actually, the dog belonged to one of our players. The sun spent most of the time behind cloud, which was a relief, and we managed to end the game before a 2-hour thunderstorm hit the city.
During my dinner at the Red Orchid, I watched a television programme which was devoted to reading out names of donors who had pledged amounts as little as $5 to a fund being organized to pay for food and supplies for the Cambodian soldiers currently on duty at the Preah Vihear stand-off. That's about the gist of it as I could make out...the public dipping into their pockets to send the troops parcels of supplies - an interesting take on keeping the nationalism aspect of this spat foremost in the minds of the audience. Thai troops have occupied the pagoda at the top of the mountain for a few days now and talks tomorrow are aimed at defusing the situation, which has even overshadowed the run-up to next weekend's general election in Cambodia. By the time I'd finished my plate of spaghetti, the total amount of pledges had risen to $50,000. Then it was time for a massage to relax my weary bones at the end of a tiring day.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The central sanctuary

The eastern entrance to the central sanctuary of Wat Phu
The central sanctuary of Wat Phu opens to the east and sits on the upper terrace, some thirty metres above the lower levels. It was built in the 11th century, has three doors and a back part in brick, called the cella which originally sheltered the temple's linga. The corners and walls of the central porch carry beautifully carved devatas and dvarapalas as well as some gorgeous lintels. The centre of the sanctuary is now occupied by a group of modern Buddha images. The cella was permanently dowsed with water from the sacred spring by a series of waterducts (now, long gone) that fed into the brick building, one of the unique traits of Wat Phu. It is flanked on the southern side by a ruined library.
Looking at the central sanctuary from the back with the brick cella overgrown with foliage
The northern wall of the central sanctuary
The 11th century balustered (barred) windows of Wat Phu
These windows were in fact false, backed by laterite blocks
A modern Buddha image on the northern side of the sanctuary
This half pediment above the northern door shows a scene of monkeys fighting, most likely Valin and Sugriva

The thirst for knowledge

If you don't know me by now, then my thirst for new books on Cambodia is insatiable. So I was overjoyed to learn of two brand new books and one revised edition, soon to be published by River Books in Bangkok. Top quality books are the staple diet of this publishing house and the two new arrivals look set to continue that trend. In Beyond Angkor, Helen Ibbitson Jessup and Ang Choulean get their heads together to explain the journey, geographically and chronologically, of the Khmer civilization, from Phnom Da through Sambor Prei Kuk and onto Roluos before the expansion into Laos and present-day Thailand and the grandeur of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and many more temples in the Angkor region and beyond. With photos by John Gollings (over 250 colour photos), Jessup and Choulean are the perfect pair to bring this 220-page journey to life. I await their collaboration with bated breath.
Hot on their heels will be Vittorio Roveda and Yem Sothorn's Buddhist Painting in Cambodia, a 200-page, 300-photographs tome that will document and discuss the rich Buddhist cultural heritage of Cambodia. This detailed study will explain and illustrate, analyze and review episodes of Buddha's life as well as the mural paintings to be found at 70 pagodas visited by the authors during four years of research. This book is a must-have record before some of these paintings are lost forever. Vittorio Roveda is a master of Khmer iconography and his Khmer Mythology - Secrets of Angkor will be revised with new stories and new sites later this year. 224-pages and with over 260 illustrations, Roveda's work details the legends and motifs to be found at 21 major temples in Angkor, explaining in intricate detail the stories and features behind the reliefs of Hindu gods and Buddhist themes. All three books will be in my shopping cart for sure.

Roveda on iconography

Vittorio Roveda is a well-known author who is steeped in Khmer mythology and iconography. His book, Images of the Gods, is a central resource for my own knowledge and understanding of the Khmer iconography I see as I visit the numerous temple sites in the country, and beyond. He has already published five books on and about the Angkorean period and will co-edit a new book on Buddhist Paintings in Cambodia with Yem Sothorn later this year, as well as a revised version of his Khmer Mythology book. In this article from last year's The Nation newspaper, he discusses some of his findings.

Defying dynasties - by Manote Tripathi, The Nation, Thailand, Nov 2007
An expert in Buddhist art questions the Hindu influence in four of Angkor's temples

There's always something to be discovered in Khmer art. Just ask renowned Angkor scholar Vittorio Roveda. In a recent Siam Society lecture, Roveda questioned the accepted Hindu attribution of the Angkor temples of Banteay Samre, Chau Say Tevoda, Thomannon and Beng Mealea and presented evidence of underlying Buddhist iconography. A former palaeontologist who obtained his first degree in the 1950s, Roveda switched interests in the 1980s and went on to obtain a second doctorate in art history and archaeology from London University's School of Oriental and Asian Studies. He has spent the past two decades studying Buddhist iconography and the mythology of Khmer art from the eighth to the 13th centuries and has published five books including Khmer Mythology, Sacred Angkor and Preah Vihear Guidebook. "I'm interested in Buddhist iconography because I love Buddhist paintings and the Buddha's teachings, especially the institution that 'you are what you think'. That's so true," he says.

Roveda is particularly interested in Khmer history covering the 12th and 13th centuries, a period characterised by dynastic rivalries. The era also marks the Khmer Empire's transition from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism in the 1300s, and then back to Hinduism before the eventual rise of Theravada Buddhism in the 1400s. A systematic defacing of Buddha images occurred in this period, especially after the reign of Jayavarman VII, who was in power from 1181 to sometime after 1206, he says, pointing to the various Buddhist elements in Angkor temples that were subsequently replaced by Hindu-inspired sculpture. According to Roveda, defacing religious images was motivated more by politics than religion, and as the throne changed hands from one dynasty to the next, iconoclasm became a major political tool, one that was used until the reign of Jayavarman VIII (1243-1295).

A devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism, Jayavarman VII is considered the last of the great kings of Angkor because of the building projects carried out under his reign. He built the new capital of Angkor Thom and at its centre constructed the Bayon as the state temple, with its towers bearing faces said to be those of the Boddhisattva Lokeshvara (Avalokiteshvara). Under his rule of less than 40 years, hundreds of monuments were built. Other edifices constructed during his reign include the temples of Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Preah Khan. However, art historians point out that his monuments are considered artistically inferior to those in earlier periods because most of the buildings were built in haste. The abrupt construction of Buddhist temples was probably for two reasons. First, the king was trying to introduce a new religion to a predominantly Hindu population. Second, the need to construct so many temples reflected his determination to legitimise his rule, as there may have been other contenders closer to the royal bloodline.

Three reigns later, the empire reverted to Hinduism, with Jayavarman VIII launching a campaign to destroy more than 10,000 Buddha images in the kingdom. Under his rule, many Buddhist temples built by Jayavarman VII were converted into Hindu temples. Jayavarman VIII was deposed and succeeded by his son-in-law Srindravarman (1295-1308) who was a follower of Theravada Buddhism. "The defacing occurred after a change of religion or ruling dynasty in the Khmer court. At the centre of religious iconoclasm is power distribution. When Jayavarman VIII took the throne, he wanted to destroy anything that referred to Jayavarman VII. He destroyed not just Buddha images, but also paintings. What we're talking about here concerns the affairs of the upper-crust of society, royalty itself. We don't know anything about the people of Cambodia, only the aristocracy," he says.

Roveda adds that the power struggle in the Khmer court appears Hindu-inspired. In the Angkor period, the Khmer imported the Hindu caste system, with the elite court clergy (or the purohito) considered more powerful than the king. "Conflict often arose because the purohito wanted to be made king, to be appointed the chakravarty, or the king of the kings. So what happened was that the king needed the purohito and the purohito needed the king to stay in power. The relationship between the king and the purohito was so strong that the king would give his daughter or sister to the purohito as wife so as to create another royal bloodline that consisted of priests and royals. Religion thus became an intimate part of the king's power," he says. Having visited most of the Khmer temples, Roveda offers some tips on how to distinguish the Buddhist from the Hindu temples. "If there are Buddha statues and reliefs at the centre of the temples, they are [originally] Buddhist. Temples that have inscriptions at the entrance are usually not Buddhist."

My first meeting with author Vittorio Roveda in January 2006

Friday, July 18, 2008

Flight connections

Expanding the travel options in Cambodia and once again, reconnecting the south coast with the popular tourist destination of Siem Reap, Siem Reap Airways have announced plans to launch a new route from 13 October (two days before my birthday, please note), connecting Siem Reap and Sihanoukville with four flights a week, leaving on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. This will allow travelers to kick-off their tour at Angkor, take a beach-break wth side-trips to Kampot and Kep before a city tour of the capital to round off their visit to the kingdom. Obviously, there's lots of other places to visit in Cambodia but at least the resurrection of this route will increase the options and reduce travel times. However, there is still no news on re-starting regular flights to the northeast provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. At the same time, fuel surcharges have been added to the cost of flights from Siem Reap to Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

Back in Phnom Penh, my own resurrected football-playing career is starting very slowly. Severe blisters on the soles of my feet after my first training session under tennis court floodlights put me out of action for a week and after last night's session, I've picked up a groin strain that could keep me out of playing my first game for Bayon Wanderers on Sunday afternoon! I will make a decision on whether to risk it just before the 2pm kick off time. Bayon are a team of ex-pats here in the city - though Khmers are welcome to join - and they usually manage to field two teams every weekend for friendly matches against local teams. I've just realized that my last competitive game was in April 2001, so no wonder my body is telling me to take it easy - I didn't appreciate that its been 7 years since I last kicked a ball in anger.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


In my series of postings from Wat Phu, the unique Khmer temple built over many centuries though majoring in the 11th century, located in Southern Laos, I have reached the main sanctuary on the uppermost terrace. I hope you've enjoyed the journey so far. Here, an 11th century sandstone mandapa, fronts onto an earlier 10th century brick cella. The lintels and pediments above the mandapa's doorways and antechambers are in excellent condition and of fine quality. Here are a couple of close-up examples before I post more photos from the main sanctuary tomorrow.

Above: Vishnu rides his mount, Garuda. The bird-man grasps a multi-headed naga in either arm, while he steps upon one-headed nagas who, rearing up, obscure his legs. Vishnu has four arms and is standing on the shoulders of his mount. This lintel is above the northern door of the sanctuary. White patches on this lintel are lichens, not paint.Above: Our popular friend and minor god, though he seems to appear more often on lintels than all of the main gods added together, Vishvakarma - architect of the gods - makes an appearance on this lintel, above a kala in munching mode, as he makes a meal out of a foliage branch. This is one of the most popular lintel representations to be found at Wat Phu and many other temples of the same era.Above: This is a rishi at the foot of a colonette at the main sanctuary. The word rishi mens seer, singer of sacred verses, inspired poet or generally, a sage. They all wear a long pointed beard and this representation, in meditation, reminds me of the regiments of rishis at the foot of upright columns at Angkor Wat.Above: This character is of a particularly ancient vintage and should be housed in a museum somewhere, well out of the public eye. Here he is posing on the second causeway leading to the upper terraces of Wat Phu, having just enjoyed his long-awaited visit to this unique Khmer site in Southern Laos.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The sacred spring

The location of the sacred spring of Wat Phu, to the left of the overhanging rock formation
Wat Phu is unique in many aspects and in particular the presence of a natural and sacred spring, located above the main sanctuary and inside a natural rock formation. A small sandstone and brick temple, from the 11th century, was wedged under the rock though only ruins remain today, with its doorway lintel sat on the floor a few feet away. The spring water was funnelled into a series of basins and conveyed to the sanctuary by a series of waterducts, though only wooden copies remain in situ today. One of the original sandstone somasutras can be seen in the small museum next to the temple entrance with its carved makara head. Other small statues sit under the overhanging rock. Our driver made a bee-line for the spring water and collected it into two water bottles to take home with him, saying the holy water was a powerful and potent good luck charm and would guarantee him more children.
The doorway of the ruined chapel leads to the location of the natural holy spring
Never far from our view, Vishvakarma atop a kala is the focus of the chapel's lintel
A wooden copy of a somasutra conveys the spring water into a stone basin
A closer look at one of the wooden somasutras in situ at Wat Phu
Pedestals and small statues sit under the overhanging rock nearby

Fawthrop on Preah Vihear

As tensions over the Preah Vihear issue continue, here's an update on events from Tom Fawthrop in the UK's Guardian online newspaper.

Two nations, one god - by Tom Fawthrop (
The row over the Preah Vihear temple has been simmering for hundreds of years. World Heritage Status has brought it to the boil.

Preah Vihear, a stunning temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is perched on a Cambodian cliff-top straddling the Thai border. It was finally awarded World Heritage status this month, despite fierce protests from ardent Thai nationalists and the parliamentary opposition in Bangkok. Now, according to a Cambodian official, 40 Thai troops have crossed the border and entered the temple complex. The temple's ornate structures date back to the eleventh century, but the site was occupied two hundred years earlier. Preah Vihear has become an explosive issue in domestic Thai politics. It has also exposed how narrow-minded nationalism can obstruct efforts at world conservation. Indeed, according to the Thai opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the dispute over the temple's ownership is the "knockout punch" that could bring down the Thai government.

Unesco's World Heritage Committee should be congratulated for their refusal to bow down to frenzied claims that Thai sovereignty is being compromised. Much of the furore has focused on the 4.6 kms of disputed land surrounding the temple, which is claimed by Thailand. But the UN committee judged the Cambodian claim – pending since 2001 and repeatedly delayed by Thai objections - on its merits, and refused to cave in to the barrage of Thai petitions and political pressure. The foreign minister was forced to resign over his inept handling of the issue. Cambodia and Thailand share much in common - culture, Buddhism and many traditions - but rivalry has led to centuries of distrust and simmering border disputes. Cambodians remember with pride that the temples of Angkor were the foundations of southeast Asia's greatest empire, the Khmer, which took in parts of what are today Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and Burma. Preah Vihear is now added to the legendary Angkor Wat at the heart of this Khmer civilisation.

The death blow to 400 years of Khmer rule was dealt by an invasion from Siam in 1431. Since the decline and fall of the great empire of Angkor during the 14th and 15th centuries, Cambodia has suffered a series of invasions and loss of temples and territory. The only victory achieved by the Khmer people during this long period of humiliation and retreat was won not on the battlefield but in the courts. In 1962, the International Court of Justice in The Hague made a landmark ruling that Preah Vihear – then under Thai military occupation - was a Khmer temple and part of Cambodia's heritage. The Thai dictatorship reluctantly complied with the judgment, removing Thai soldiers from the temple, while the ownership of the surrounding 4.6 kilometres was left unresolved. During the last 46 years Thailand has shown little interest in helping to preserve the temple. Khmer Rouge forces seized it in 1993 under the noses of a Thai military base stationed nearby. Pol Pot's soldiers were not there to engage in archaeological pursuits, but to deny the Phnom Penh government control over a sacred and symbolic site as part of an insurgency backed by the Thai military. This policy of complicity with the Pol Pot forces led to further Khmer disgust with their more powerful neighbour.

The centuries of accumulated grievances felt by ordinary Cambodians erupted in 2001 when they burnt down the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh. Even today, most Thais still have little or no idea why their embassy burnt down, much less why Cambodians feel that Thailand has engaged in cultural chauvinism. According to several Thai historians, Thai schools teach a very partisan version of events in which Cambodia's vast contributions to Thai culture and society are scarcely mentioned, much less acknowledged. Historian and author Professor Thongchai Winichakul recently said he believed the Preah Vihear World Heritage issue "has gone beyond technicalities. It is abused to arouse delusion that the temple belongs to Thailand and a desire to revive the claim. The purpose is to generate hatred in Thai politics." Ultimately, World Heritage sites like Preah Vihear are supposed to transcend national squabbles and boost conservation efforts in both Thailand and Cambodia. But despite Thailand's rapid economic progress, this centuries-old vendetta drags on.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More awards for Kari and George

I was very pleased to read this news item today, focusing on two good friends of mine, Kari and George Grady Grossman, who've been acknowledged for their parenting skills but who have done so much for Cambodia in recent years. Kari is the author of the excellent book Bones That Float.

Parenting honor, for first time, goes to adoptive pair
- Rocky Mountain News, USA
George and Kari Grady Grossman went to Cambodia looking to adopt a son seven years ago and wound up adopting a country. On Sunday the Fort Collins couple was named the American Family Coalition's Colorado Parents of the Year, the first time the honor has gone to an adoptive couple in Colorado. The Grossmans are parents to Grady, now 8, whom they brought from Cambodia, and Shanti, 4, whom they adopted in India. The couple also started a nonprofit called Sustainable Schools International, which tries to help Cambodian villages build and maintain schools through economic development. On Monday, they talked about parenting and adoption.

Q: What’s the secret to being good parents?
Kari: I don’t know if we have any secrets other than for us in our situation with kids who were adopted from another country I think one of the few secrets to that is that we experience their walk through understanding their adoption and understanding the loss that goes with losing your country and your birth culture with them. Meaning that we share the story with them. We talk about the truth of the stories. And we don’t have any hidden information. I think in adoption that used to be the case. I don’t know if there was shame associated with it or whatever, but people didn’t share the whole truth. And with our kids we’ve been talking about the truth since day one. Of course, since being adopted means that there’s loss involved, both our kids have to face and learn about loss early in life. And I think that’s a good life skill to have because all of us face losses in our lives.

So as parents we walk through that with them. We celebrate adoption every day. We celebrate who they are and their uniqueness every day. I think that’s one of the things that I’ve always noticed with friends who have non-adopted children, biological children. Maybe because they look different to us, we really see whom they are coming out. That’s not so much a reflection of who we are, because they don’t look like us. Maybe it’s a little easier to separate yourself and say, watch this person emerging and what can I do to support that, whatever it is, instead of putting my own opinions on it.

George: There was a woman we met a long, long time ago, way before Kari and I were married. And she said the only thing you can really give your children is a happy childhood. We have always remembered that. It was like a runoff line that she gave us and we’ve always tried to do by that and to live by that with the kids. I think that would be my one advice for all sorts of things: try to give your children a happy childhood. It’s not about money. It’s really about spending time with them and doing things with them and finding out what they’re interested in and kind of playing with them at that level. Because really what they want is your attention and your time and your love.

Q: What would you say were the most challenging aspects of your two adoptions?
George: The first adoption was patience, because at that point we had no children and so you walk by the bedroom that he or she will go in and the fact that once you start the process, a lot of things are beyond your control. So it requires a lot of patience, a lot of faith and a lot of support for each other while this process is going on. I’d say that’s the biggest thing with the first adoption. The second one, you already have a child, so you don’t think that much.

Kari: On our second adoption it seemed that the information that we were being given was that Shanti was gross motor delayed. She was older. She was almost two. And so we basically had to sit down and say to ourselves, you know, are we accepting a special needs child, a child that will be physically handicapped? What could we really infer from this medical information that was coming from across the planet? So it really was kind of a leap of faith. Interestingly, by the time she came to us, she has totally overcome her gross motor delay. Apparently she had problems with her legs. They didn’t work properly for the first year. But by the time she came to us she was quite capable of walking and she bounced on the trampoline and now she’s our athletic one. So you know, you just go with it.

Q:What brought you to Cambodia in the first place?
Kari: Before we went on our adoption trip, we, like most folks, didn’t know much about Cambodia other than it was next to Vietnam. We’d heard of Pol Pot. We’d heard of the Khmer Rouge, but we really didn’t know. And so we were basically praying a lot about adopting. You get into that world and there’s a lot of information…it’s overwhelming. You just have to step back a bit. So anyway, we were actually starting the process of adopting from China. Primarily because we were with other people who were adopting from China and they were telling us where to go and what to do. But one of those people put us on an e-mail list that was four families who had adopted from China. And on that list one day, someone posted a message about these children in Cambodia, that there were all these children waiting to be adopted.

I called it the fatal click because with that click, up came these faces of beautiful children. And I said to George, I have to find out about this. So over the period of the next two weeks, I called everywhere I could find for information about Cambodia and the adoption process. Then one day, I called my mother. My mother was in Maine. I told her, ‘Mom, you’re not going to believe this but I’ve been learning about Cambodia.’ And she said, Cambodia! I just came from the hairdresser and this woman was there and she had adopted children from Cambodia and I got all the names for you of people to call. And she started reading them off and I had already called the same people. And as I was having this conversation, George walked in the door with National Geographic had a cover story about Cambodia and he plopped it down. And I just looked at him and said: OK. Got it. You don’t need to send any more signals. We got the message.

The story also ran in the newspaper yesterday.
Fort Collins couple 'Parents of the Year'
Grossmans have two adopted kids and built a school in Cambodia.

Kari and George Grossman didn't see it coming, but July 7 turned out to be a shocking and humbling day. The Fort Collins couple not only found out they were named the 2008 Colorado Parents of the Year, but they also found out Kari Grossman's book, "Bones that Float, A Story of Adopting Cambodia," won the Independent Publisher Book Award for Peacemaker of the Year. Her book is about the couple's experience of adopting their 8-year-old son Grady from Cambodia and then building a school in Cambodia.

The Grossmans were selected as Parents of the Year by the Colorado Parents' Day Council not only for parenting Grady and his 4-year-old sister, Shanti, whom the family adopted from India, but for their work building and running the Grady Grossman School in Cambodia. The Grossmans were also selected because their work in Cambodia models a life of service for their children. "I never thought about how it would have an effect on our own children's point of view," Kari Grossman said, adding that her son recently told her that when he was "old like Grandma, I'm going to work very hard for the GG School." "To see what he was getting out of it touched me," she said. Kari Grossman said the family didn't even know they had been nominated for the parenting award, which celebrates Parents' Day - a nationally recognized day of remembrance for parents celebrated on the last Sunday of July. "It's just the way our life and the way our family works," George Grossman said of the family's work in Cambodia. "Maybe (the award) is just an affirmation that we're doing something right as a family. We really don't think it's all that extraordinary, but I feel rather humbled by the whole thing."

The Grady Grossman School provides education for five rural villages in Cambodia and is its village's only permanent structure. It started with 50 children in 2001, and today there are 500 students, seven teachers, a solid cement structure with a water well and a solar-powered computer. The school is a part of the Grossmans' foundation, Sustainable Schools International. With a quarter of the proceeds going to the school, Kari's book has raised about $50,000 for the school. The couple also makes trips to Cambodia three or four times per year. "I've never seen a couple go to the extent that the Grossmans have," said Peggy Yujiri, spokeswoman for the Colorado Parents' Day Council. The Grossmans are among 50 nominees for National Parents of the Year, which will be announced on Parents' Day, July 27. They were honored at a dinner on Sunday in Denver along with 11 other Colorado couples.

Wat Phu continued

The sloping causeway leading to the final staircase to the central sanctuary of Wat Phu
Continuing my trek to the top of Wat Phu, located in Southern Laos, the ruined naga stairway is flanked by a very large dvarapala guardian figure, swathed in orange, holding a mace and worshipped as King Kammatha, responsible for the temple's construction. The consecutive stairways lead onto six brick towers, three on each side of the steps, in a ruined state which originally contained lingas as well as an imposing seven-tiered sandstone pyramid-style terrace upon which sits the temple's central sanctuary. More from Wat Phu tomorrow.
An original and imposing dvarapala guardian statue holding a large mace
An attractively carved purification flame step that allowed worshippers entry into the temple
One of the ruined half a dozen brick towers that originally contained lingas
An impressive seven-tiered sandstone pyramid terrace, which reminded me of the central tower at Koh Ker

Celebrations at Olympic

Heart-throb Preap Sovath tells everyone who is number 1 - Preah Vihear and of course, Preap Sovath
It was hot, sweaty and the waving of flags meant that much of the view from the main floor was obscured but the youths of Cambodia turned out in force last night to enjoy a celebration by a myriad of Khmer singing stars at the Olympic Stadium. It was a government-organized rally to enable the Cambodians present to stick out their chests once again over the recent decision to add Preah Vihear to the World Heritage List. Cabinet Minister Sok An took the stage for an hour to do the formal stuff to party supporters and invited guests before the gates were opened, the youngsters rushed in and the real party began. First up were the crew from the Rock nightclub and they were followed by the great and the good of the Khmer singing fraternity including my new pal, Preap Sovath. The crowd loved it, especially when Sovath sang a song about Preah Vihear and the other artists followed in a similar vein. Over 8,000 packed into the indoor basketball arena and after an hour I left, only to see as many again outside the building watching the festivities on large screens in the stadium car park. Khmers love an opportunity to party!
Kat Sokim gives proceedings some reflection with this traditional Khmer song
The Rock Nightclub crew get the party swinging and the flags waving
Two of Cambodia's biggest singing sensations, Chorn Sovanreach and Sokun Nisa
Another mega-star from the Khmer music scene, Him Sivorn

Monday, July 14, 2008

Guidebook chat

Following hot on the heels of my review of Lonely Planet Cambodia 6, and the forthcoming new edition of Rough Guide To Cambodia, due out next month, another new arrival worth checking out for travelers keen on Southeast Asia, is the first in a comprehensive series of Asia-focused guidebooks, To Vietnam With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur. Following on from the acclaimed To Asia With Love: A Connoisseurs' Guide to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, the brand new series has kicked off with Vietnam and future publications will include Cambodia, Myanmar, Shanghai, Japan, Thailand, North India and Nepal. Published last month, To Vietnam With Love is edited by Kim Fay who guides readers through the country with more than fifty expatriates, travelers, and locals as they reveal their favorite haunts through personal stories. Stay overnight with a local hill tribe, climb Southeast Asia's highest mountain, tour historic French villas, dine on local specialties from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, and learn how to give back to the country while you're visiting. And that's just the beginning.
To take a peek into the forthcoming To Cambodia With Love edition of the series, click here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Causeway to heaven

The causeway lined with boundary posts, just after the palaces at Wat Phu
Immediately after the two palaces of Wat Phu is the first of a series of ceremonial causeways leading you to the central sanctuary of the temple on the side of the mountain. This causeway is lined by boundary posts and also the heads of two five-headed Naga are in situ, much as where they would've been placed in the temple's heyday. The view of the mountain above was still partially obscured by low cloud and the frangipani trees were not in bloom, whilst access to the Nandin Hall was barred with reconstruction work underway. Lying in the grass near the beginning of steps leading to a second causeway, were two very large, headless and armless dvarapala statues, with their feet next to a circular yoni pedestal. More on Wat Phu to follow.
A five headed Naga at the very beginning of the causeway
The Naga in profile with the southern palace in the background
Another view of the mountain, further along the causeway
A massive dvarapala statue lies in the grass, broken, headless and armless
Dvarapala feet and a circular yoni pedestal
A second dvarapala statues lies closeby
The ceremonial causeway looking from the top of the stairway

Birthday bash

4 best friends enjoy a moment of female bonding. LtoR: Ameas, Leakha (birthday girl), Amean, Neang
A birthday bash last night made a pleasant change from the wedding parties I normally get invited to. Since I've moved to Phnom Penh to live, I've been invited to about a dozen wedding celebrations, so a birthday party at a local city restaurant, Happy World, was a nice diversion. Much the same format, free food and drink flowed all night, but the dancing didn't materialize as everyone had drunk so much, they could hardly stand up after the usual party string, sparklers and balloons had heralded the decorated cake for the birthday girl Leakha, who was celebrating her 22nd anniversary. A good time was had by all.
The author and Ameas, displaying her stylish 'purple look'

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wat Phu's southern palace

Sitting atop the southern palace at Wat Phu is the site's architect, Seng
The southern palace at Wat Phu, located a dozen kilometres from the nearest town of Champasak in Southern Laos, is constructed of sandstone but like the northern palace is regarded as off-limits to visitors with at least two of its doorways propped up by wooden structural supports. Construction took place here in the 11th and 12th centuries and the lintels, pediments and gables are identical to its imposing neighbour. As we were leaving the site we met Seng, Wat Phu's chief architect, who was drawing one of the naga antefix's you can see in the above photo.
Wooden supports keep this lintel of Vishvakarma and kala in place
An identical scene is repeated in this decorative pediment
Almost an exact copy of a wall at Angkor Wat and other temples of that era with its balustered windows
Vishvakarma holds court in this pediment that needs wooden supports to keep it in place
A beautifully carved lintel with Vishvakarma is broken in half and in imminent danger of collapse
Another good example of a Vishvakarma lintel still in situ on the southern palace
This pediment and lintel are above the western doorway of the southern palace
At the foot of most of the doorway colonettes are carvings of rishi, or wise men

Preap Sovath

The Khmer heart-throb Preap Sovath is the one wearing the cap!
Just another normal Saturday lunchtime at Cafe Fesco in Boeng Keng Kang, rubbing shoulders with the most famous Cambodian pop singer of his generation, Preap Sovath. A genuinely nice guy, he's 36 now and has been a heart-throb of Cambodia's youth for many years. He's knocked out hit song after hit song here in Cambodia for the Hang Meas Productions company since 1997 and also created a stir with his top notch acting in the Crocodile movie, Neak Neasath Krapeur. He owns a string of businesses, is the subject of rumours on an almost daily basis but is happily married with three children and shows no sign of taking it easy.

Northern palace at Wat Phu

The northern palace at Wat Phu, showing the blind east doorway, gables and balustered windows
The 'palaces' at Wat Phu are the first serious structures you encounter as you visit this gorgeous temple, set on the lower slopes of a mountain in Southern Laos. There's no real reason to call them palaces but the word has stuck and they are long laterite and sandstone buildings, facing east and west with impressive gables, pediments and lintels, galleries and courtyards. Signs warn visitors to keep out but that didn't deter me on my recent visit as I sought to document the carvings in situ - afterall, it was my first visit to the site and who knows when I will return. The northern palace is documented here, its the most imposing and was built at the same time as Angkor Wat, in fact, there are many similarities with that temple. The northern structure has laterite in the body of the walls, whilst the southern palace is all sandstone, suggesting the builders ran out of the latter during construction. The lintels on show are all of a similar nature, on both palaces, with the minor god Vishvakarma sat on the head of a kala, who is eating the ends of a foliage branch. This, as I've explained before, is one of the most popular lintel renditions to be found in numerous temples. On a visit to Phnom Chisor a few months ago, I found no less than 23 lintels with this god at its core.
Vittorio Roveda describes him as the architect of the gods and of the universe. He's the master workman who sharpens the axe of Agni and forges the thunderbolts for Indra; he is a lord of the arts, executor of a thousand handicrafts, carpenter of the gods and fashioner of all ornaments. So, he's pretty important by the sounds of it. His attribute is a stick of command, the danda, or in some cases the measuring ruler. In the Ramayana epic, he's the supreme architect who builds the city of Lanka, as well as being the father of Nala who constructed the bridge between Lanka and the continent, allowing Rama to cross the sea and attack Ravana's city. Just in case you were interested!
Above the lintel on the blind eastern door is a triangular pediment featuring Umamahesvara - a very simple rendering of Shiva and Uma, his consort, riding the bull Nandin. The other pediments on show are less decorative and contain minor gods. I couldn't gain access to the western lintel and pediment because of the dense vegetation. Behind the southern palace is a building under reconstruction with the help of a team of experts from Italy and which is called the Nandin hall (the name of Shiva's sacred steed) or library.
The eastern lintel above a blind door showing Vishvakarma atop a kala
The decorative pediment above the east doorway showing Shiva and Uma riding Nandin
Another lintel with Vishvakarma holding his danda above a kala
The pediment above the lintel replicates the same scene
More of the same with Vishvakarma making his play as the leading lintel protagonist
This small worshipping figure is in prayer above a kala on a pediment of the northern palace
This is the Nandin Hall under reconstruction with the help of an Italian team

Friday, July 11, 2008

LP Cambodia 6

Exclusive! - Here's the front cover of Lonely Planet - Cambodia, the 6th edition, though it's not available in bookshops until next month. This copy is still warm having left the printers in Singapore and found its way to the coordinating author Nick Ray's desk. I've managed to wrestle it from his tight grasp for a few minutes to have a skim through and its bigger and better than ever. Trying to keep abreast of a country changing as fast as Cambodia must've been a nightmare for Nick and his fellow co-author Daniel Robinson, who has returned to the fold after being one of the authors of the first LP Cambodia in 1989, but they've managed it particularly well in my view. The book is forty pages longer than the last edition (August 2005) and there are more words, and lots more places featured, than ever before for the $21.99 price-tag. The photo count has dropped to just 23 - which is probably too few - though the maps remain at 46 and LP have jumped on the eco/green bandwagon with a new Green Dex to accompany the usual index. The numerous fact boxes highlight dining and shopping with a cause and also include interviews with half a dozen notable Khmers including food tycoon Luu Meng and the sweeper of Ta Prohm, Nhiem Chun. The 'our picks' will cause some discussion among travelers in the sleeping and eating sections but I was pleased to see my own fave guesthouse, Shadow of Angkor in Siem Reap, get flagged. Angkor is, as always, comprehensively covered and there's important details on one of the newest destinations to open up, the Cardamom Mountains. LP Cambodia 6 gets a definite thumbs-up from me, and not just because Nick is sat across the office! The big question is - when will the photocopied versions hit the streets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap?

Another new arrival within the next month, though we haven't seen a copy yet, will be one of the brand new pocket guides from the Lonely Planet Encounter series that will focus on Angkor & Siem Reap. Created for the savvy visitor on a two-to-five-day trip, the compact guide (6x4") fits easily into your trouser pocket and will cost $11.99. As you might've guessed, Nick Ray is the author.
If you were wondering about some of the other guidebooks on Cambodia, Rough Guide will bring out their 3rd edition for Cambodia next month (authors are Steven Martin and Beverley Palmer), whilst Footprint's 5th edition (author Andrew Spooner) came out a couple of month's ago.

New short movie - Residue

A new historical fiction short movie, inspired by true events surrounding the 1970 Lon Nol coup in Cambodia and the tragic knock-on of five years later when the country descended into a genocidal Khmer Rouge hell, has been accepted into the San Diego Film Festival in September and Residue looks set for a run at the myriad of film screenings that take place in the States and around the globe. Produced by the same team that completed the comedic short film The Perfect Date last year, Residue is directed by Nathaniel Nuon, who co-wrote the film with actor Jared Davis. It begins with the desire by the CIA to halt the spread of communism into Cambodia by triggering the Lon Nol coup with assistance from a group of 12 secret Cambodian army soldiers who believed they were doing what was best for their country. The film then jumps forward to 1976 and the resulting Khmer Rouge genocide where one man manages to escape and carry out his own revenge on the men he feels are responsible. Two of the film's actors, Poleng Te and Kit Seng actually survived the Khmer Rouge period and bring that wealth of experience to bear in the production. You can find out more about the movie here.

Author Sue Guiney is currently writing a novel set in Cambodia. A New Yorker now living in London, she visited Cambodia several years ago and like most, it left a big impression on the author of novels, plays and poetry. Her published works include her first novel, Tangled Roots and a collection of poems, Dreams of May : A Play in Poetry. Find out more about Sue Guiney here and keep an eye out for her novel.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Welcome to Wat Phu

The early-morning light casts a shadow over the baray at the foot of Wat Phu
One of the most outstanding locations for any Khmer-built temple, Wat Phu stretches for 1.4 kilometres from its entrance point at the end of a 6oo metre-long rectangular basin to the main sanctuary on a natural terrace on the side of the mountain. The view from the water-filled basin looking upwards, and the sight of the ancient temple in all its glory from above the sanctuary, are two of the most gorgeous views to be seen at any of the temples inside or outside Cambodia. The Wat Phu view in Laos is rivaled only in its natural beauty by Preah Vihear, on the Cambodian-Thai border.
Here are some photographs from my recent visit to Wat Phu as I entered the historic site, constructed mainly in the 11th century but built on an older site and also added to in later centuries. The man-made basin in the photos is one of three and marks the eastern end of the temple axis. It was dug later than most of the surviving temple and at its western end, a modern derelict pavilion was recently removed leaving behind a terrace of sandstone blocks. From the terrace, the lower causeway begins, stretching some 250 metres towards the 'palaces' - one of the longest approaches of any Khmer temple. Originally the causeway was lined with nagas and boundary stones, many of which have been erected during recent renovations. The view looking up towards the mountain revealed the summit shrouded in low cloud and the forested slopes a beautiful green as the sun peered through the early morning mist. Breathtaking.
A view of the causeway and mountainside from the sandstone terrace
The western end of the baray and the sandstone terrace
The 250 metre long lower causeway with its boundary posts
One of the boundary posts with the 'palaces' in the background
A map of the Wat Phu complex, found at the entrance - can you spot the small gecko?


I'm not convinced about the title of this self-published new memoir, but Cambodian author Dara O Sok's The First 22nd Years takes us on a roller-coaster story from his earliest memories in Battambang, through the curse of the Khmer Rouge years where his family was torn apart and onto his eventual relocation to America and service with the US Navy. Sok's autobiography has just been published and is available through Another memoir listed by Xlibris is the 2002 published, 348-page biography by Saoran Pol La Tour, with Vivian Kirkbride, titled Vantha's Whisper. It tells the extraordinary story of Saoran and Vantha through the ordeal of the Khmer Rouge regime that ripped their beloved Cambodia apart.

The celebrations have died down a bit after Cambodia reveled in the news that Preah Vihear has achieved World Heritage status. Street parties, open-air concerts, fireworks, bell-ringing at pagodas and much tub-thumping accompanied the news that Cambodia has prevailed over their Thai neighbours, who made themselves look extremely petty by creating such a fuss over the listing in the last few weeks. Seen as a victory over their Thai opponents, Cambodians are sticking out their chests with pride over their success.

I, on the other hand, am nursing two very sore feet after my first venture back into the sporting environment. It was a simple five-a-side game of football under floodlights last night at City Villa but the soles of my feet took a battering and blistered badly. So much so that I will have to forgo any more football for a couple of weeks until they recover. So to accompany my aching bones, I am walking with a pronounced limp and feel - and look - more like an old-age pensioner than the fit and virile individual I see when I look in the mirror [no disrespect intended to any pensioners reading this column].

Finally, I saw a glimpse, and that's all it was, of the brand-new, hot off the printing press, Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia (the traveler's bible in this part of the world) this morning. As I work alongside the guidebook's editor, Nick Ray, he's been sent a copy of the 6th edition before they hit the bookshops (or are photocopied and sold on the streets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) but he's now taken it home to check every word! Hopefully, I might get to actually handle it tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dolphin watch

The fight to secure the future of the Irrawaddy dolphins in the upper stretches of the Mekong River in Cambodia continues. Talk of hydro-dams in the various countries upstream are already giving conservationists nightmares about the dolphin's potential to survive but the latest news of dolphin numbers from the local BBC correspondent makes grim reading and questions whether there will be any of the creatures left to be affected by the developments in Laos, Thailand and China.

Battle to save Cambodia dolphin
- by Guy Delauney (BBC News)
Sun Mao leans forward in the boat, shades his eyes with his hand, and squints across the wide expanse of the Mekong River where it twists through the town of Kratie. He is looking for one of the world's rarest mammals - the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin. Older people in this part of northern Cambodia talk of how they used to take the dolphins for granted. Little effort was needed to see them in their dozens. Now, scientists say, there are less than 100 remaining.

National heritage
With a practised eye, Sun Mao spots a group of five dolphins, collectively known as a pod. They briefly break the surface as they come up for air - grey-brown, bullet-headed and exhaling with an old man's rasp. It is an awe-inspiring sight, but nothing new to Sun Mao. As part of a local organisation, the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT), he has put years of work into preserving the dwindling population. For him it is an issue of national heritage. "This is the last place for these dolphins in the world," he says over the clatter of the boat's outboard engine. "We have to conserve and keep them alive in this river for our next generation." CRDT has tried to educate the local human population about what they can do. A government-enforced ban on the use of gill nets - nets set vertically in the water so that fish swim into them and are entangled in the mesh - has cut down the number of dolphins accidentally caught by fishermen. Instead, CRDT has helped locals to reduce their reliance on fishing by offering alternatives such as poultry farming. Villagers on Pdao Island, just outside Kratie, greet Sun Mao as an old friend as he clambers up the muddy riverbank.

Tourist influx
They happily show off their CRDT-sponsored chickens, water-pumps and fish ponds, and declare themselves delighted to be part of the dolphin preservation efforts. It would be a heart-warming tale, if only the statistics were not so brutally depressing. A scientific survey taken three years ago estimated the dolphin population at 127. The latest study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) puts the figure at 71. It comes as a devastating blow after all the work that local and international organisations have put in. As well as banning the use of gill nets, the government has established a network of river guards to patrol the dolphin habitats. While CRDT has been working with the local human population, WWF scientists have been looking into ways of protecting the dolphins. Everyone was hoping that the dolphin population would at least stabilise, if not flourish. Payback would come in the form of an influx of tourists to see the pods at play and bring much-needed revenue to the local economy.

That dream recedes as each dead dolphin washes up on the banks of the Mekong. Most worryingly, most of the recent casualties have been calves. Without the babies, there is no future for the species. "There are theories that the immune systems of the dolphins have been compromised by stress," says Richard Zanre, dolphin programme manager for WWF. "The river environment has been encroached upon by new developments. There is also the problem of contaminants in the river." The answers need to be found quickly. As it stands, WWF still classifies the remaining population as "sustainable". If the numbers fall much further, however, there will no longer be enough diversity for the dolphins to breed successfully. That would spell the end for this unique species.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More on Harpswell

I've highlighted the good works of Alan Lightman and his Harpswell Foundation in the past. It's such a good cause, especially for raising the profile of young women in Cambodia, that I have no hesitation in plugging it again.

Alan Lightman of Harpswell - gives to others
: by Caitlin M Elsaesser (, Maine, USA)

Alan Lightman has a long list of accolades attached to his name. He was the first professor at MIT to teach in both the humanities and science departments. He is the author of an international best-selling book, "Einstein's Dreams." But what has satisfied him the most is his charitable work in Cambodia. Having grown up in an upper-middle class community in Memphis, Tenn., Lightman said his time has come to give back. "I feel it is my responsibility to help people who have not had these privileges," he said, with a light drawl that reveals Southern roots. To that end, Lightman and his family established the nonprofit Harpswell Foundation in 1999, named after the location of their island retreat. Since then, the foundation has built a school in a remote Cambodian village and a women's dormitory and leadership center in Phnom Penh. The foundation manages the progress of the 30 girls in the dormitory.

Now Lightman is embarking on his most ambitious project yet: he wants to build another women's dorm and create an endowment to maintain the dormitories indefinitely. He estimates the cost for that to be $1.8 million. He admits it will be no easy feat. "I've struck out a few times," he said, referring to fundraisers on which he lost money. But this writer who loves solitude is not giving up. "I believe in the mission and the cause," he said. For nearly 20 years, Lightman and his family has summered on a small island off the rocky coast of Harpswell. Twenty minutes driving on narrow roads leading to the sea and 10 minutes riding on "Lightwave," the family's small boat, bring the Lightmans to their island retreat. "Many days I am the only person on the island," Lightman said. "That is a great feeling." The house has no Internet or phone connection, a reflection of Lightman's values. Lightman did not use e-mail until recently. Though he is sometimes critiqued by colleagues at MIT who must hand-deliver memos, Lightman relishes peace. But Cambodia pushed Lightman into electronic communication. Now, not only is Lightman on e-mail nearly every day for his work in Cambodia, but he often makes trips into nearby Brunswick from his island retreat specifically to write e-mails to the dormitory girls.

Falling for Cambodia
Lightman visited Cambodia with his daughter, Elyse, three years ago at the prompting of a friend. When he and his daughter visited a remote village of 600 people, women with babies on hips begged the Lightmans to build them a school. Lightman was amazed by their positive attitudes, especially in light of their past. The village consists of a small sect of Muslims, the whole of which constitutes less than 5 percent of the Cambodian population. These Muslims were targeted in mass killings in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's ruling party from 1975-79. Led by Pol Pot, historians say the regime was responsbile for slaying up to 2 million of the country's people. "In spite of their miserable history, they still had hope in education," Lightman said. "There was no way we could not help them." In the following two years, Lightman raised $30,000 presenting slide shows and writing e-mails to friends. He built the village's first school. Lightman, who is Jewish, also funded the construction of a mosque for the village using his own money.

Help from a native
Lightman's school contractor was Chea Veasna, the fourth woman in Cambodia to receive a law degree. Because she was not allowed to stay in the mosques, as boys were, she lived for four years in a small muddy space with no bathroom underneath the law school. Veasna and Lightman hatched the idea together of building a women's dormitory to help women who experienced similar obstacles. After building a dorm in Phnom Penh, he did a country-wide search for the top high school girls, combing application essays for leadership potential. "Most said they would help family and maybe their village," said Lightman. "While we admired that, we put those in the trash."

Thirty girls who wrote they wanted to help their country were asked to join the first class at the Harpswell Foundation dormitory and leadership center in Fall 2006. Lightman worked with dorm manager Peou Vanna to leave no detail unturned: they obtained a 50-percent university discount for the girls, launched enrichment classes, and armed students with information on how to be ladies in a city, which was necessary for girls moving from small villages to the biggest city in the country. Two years into the project, the results are showing, said Lightman. All the girls are first or second in their class, and university presidents have called Lightman to ask him for the secret to the girls' success.

Katheryn Lucatelli has worked extensively in Cambodia and visits the dormitory frequently. The executive director of Build Cambodia, a nonprofit organization which works to create awareness among Americans about the country, Lucatelli thinks the dormitory is doing important work. "These women are up against a lot," Lucatelli said. "(They need) to develop a new kind of leadership, and this is an incubator where the women have become family to one another." These days, when Lightman is at his island retreat in Harpswell, he is often thinking of the girls in Cambodia. When showing an informational video about the dorm to a reporter recently, he smiled at their English. "It is getting better every day," he said. He makes two visits to Cambodia a year. The girls call him dad, and Lightman wants to do more for them.

The challenge ahead
Lightman aims to build another dorm on the north side of Phnom Penh and endow both buildings, which cost $40,000 a year to maintain. This time, friends and family won't be enough to raise the $1.8 million needed for the project. So in the next few months, Lightman will meet with investors in New York City and his old friend, actor Kathy Bates in Los Angeles, to begin the long process of gathering funds. Here in Maine, the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick will host a multiple-day event for the Harpswell Foundation in the last week of August, with specifics yet to be determined. To some, international development work seems far away from Lightman's writings on imagination and time. Einstein's Dreams is a series of musings which look at time in unconventional ways. In one chapter, time is circular; in another, time flows backwards. Lightman said that some of the same themes in his writing drive his philanthropy. "Both are related to thinking in unconventional ways. People have more power than they think," he said. "It's about expanding the imagination." Read more here.

Priceless memorabilia

Posting details of Steel Pulse's latest documentary reminded me once again of the first occasion that I had the pleasure of seeing the band play, in my home town of Cheltenham, on 2 June 1978. The band were in the midst of making a name for themselves at that time by partnering high energy punk bands and bringing their unique brand of British reggae to audiences across the country. Staid Cheltenham was an unusual stop over for them but I am thankful they made the effort. I watched their amazingly powerful performance and was literally blown away. I've been hooked on their music ever since and have got to know the band members personally and delved into their history like no-one else. Here are two pieces of memorabilia from that magic moment in time, 2 June 1978, that are priceless to me; above, a poster from the concert and below, two tickets. To find out the full story on Steel Pulse, as documented by this author, click here.

Door of No Return

Door of No Return is the latest documentary on reggae legends Steel Pulse - for the uninitiated they are my all-time favourite band - whom I first saw play live in 1978 and who are still going strong today. Originally from Handsworth in Birmingham, UK, they now spend most of their time touring the United States and beyond and rarely return to their homeland to play. For this documentary, directed by Michel Moreau, the film follows the band from a concert for Amnesty International in Senegal in 1999 to a tour of the US, side trips to Africa and a return to the streets of Handsworth. Footage from their concerts, backstage and rehearsal shots and interviews with each band member reveal life on the road and the band's views on an emotional trip to the infamous slave island of Goree, which gave the film its title. Copies of the DVD, released in March, can be obtained here. It follows on from their 2006 DVD release, Introspective, which contained interviews and previously unseen archive footage chronicling the band's history. To find out the full story on Steel Pulse, as documented by this author, click here.

Made last!

The author at Preah Vihear with my best pal, Sokhom
It's official, the cliff-top temple of Preah Vihear is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed monument, despite the shameful shenanigans of the Thai authorities in recent weeks. A redrawing of the area to be included in the application did the trick and Cambodia got the vote despite the Thai Foreign Minister flying to Canada, where the vote was taken, to try and disrupt the bid. During its deliberations so far this week, the United Nations cultural agency has added 11 new heritage sites covering a swath of civilization from 10,000 year old agriculture in Papua New Guinea to 20th century social housing in Berlin - Germany by the way has 33 sites on the List. If you thought the Preah Vihear temple was the only site up for the vote, think again. More sites are expected to be added this week. In total, 862 sites in more than 140 countries have been designated world heritage sites. Cambodia's only other listed site is Angkor, which received its inscribed status in 1992.

Survivor's Story

I'm a big fan of Loung Ung (pictured), so I'm a bit miffed that I missed this news article from the Ohio Magazine back in February this year. I repeat it here cuz it's still relevant and because she's a real trooper.

Survivor's Story - by Elizabeth Weinstein (copyright Ohio Magazine February 2008)
In books and lectures, Cambodian-born Loung Ung promotes peace by recalling a childhood that was marked by war, loss and privation. "This is my baby,"Loung Ung says, her voice swelling with pride as she walks up and down the length of Bar Centro, a trendy new bar and restaurant that she helped bring to life on Cleveland's W.25th Street, in October. It's a weekday afternoon and the restaurant is empty, save for Ung and a few employees, who are busily preparing for the usual after-work crowd to arrive. Stylishly clad in a leather jacket and suede boots, Ung, 37, certainly looks the part of hipster restaurateur. She gestures around the room. "See those beautiful drapes over there?" she asks. "They are from Cambodia. And the lamp in the corner is made out of elephant dung, from Laos!"

She is a silent partner in the venture; Bar Centro is the latest project of her entrepreneur husband, Mark Priemer, and Sam McNulty, who also own adjoining McNulty's Bier Markt, which opened in 2005. Ung had a large role in the design and decor of both restaurants, and considers herself Bar Centro's "official taste tester," a job she does not take lightly. "I'm a complete foodie. I love to eat," she says, with a grin. But Bar Centro is more than just a restaurant or a project for Ung, who lives with her husband in Shaker Heights. "This has been a sanctuary," she explains. "Nobody needs me to save anybody here... When I come here, people tell me about art openings and galleries. People tell me about their babies. People tell me about how they met each other here and then fell in love and got married. People tell me how they love the food." In other words, it's a far cry from the life Ung once knew. Behind the photogenic smile, contagious laugh and positive energy is the story of a life of struggle, extreme suffering and, ultimately, survival.

Ung was born in 1970 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the sixth of seven children in an upper-middle-class Chinese-Cambodian family. She was an inquisitive and energetic child, and until age 5, she lived a fairly comfortable, typical childhood. On April 17, 1975, her world changed. A civil war that had raged for five years in Cambodia came to an end that day, and the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by Pol Pot, invaded Phnom Penh. As Ung writes in the preface to her 2000 memoir, First They Killed My father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, "From 1975-1979 - through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor - the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country's population.

As the name of the book suggests, Ung's family suffered profound losses at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. They were forced to flee their home and abandon their possessions and identities - Ung's father had been a high-ranking government official before the Khmer Rouge came to power, and was suddenly in danger. Disguised as peasants, the family traveled by foot from one labor-camp-like village to another, foraging for meals, working in the fields for rations of rice, battling hunger every day and fighting to stay alive. This went on for three years, eight months and 21 days. Ung's 14-year-old sister, Keav, was the first to perish, in 1976, from food poisoning. That same year, soldiers came for her father, and he never returned. Her mother and younger sister Geak were taken away by soldiers while Ung was at a work camp and she never saw them again. An orphan at age 8, Ung was placed in a child-soldier's training camp, where she was taught to use weapons, and to hate. She watched friends die, suffered from sickness and hunger, and narrowly escaped an attempted rape by a Vietnamese soldier.

In 1979, Vietnamese troops defeated the Khmer Rouge army and Ung was able to reunite with her surviving siblings. Her older brother Meng, and his wife, Eang, decided to seek out a better life in Thailand, and then America. They could take only one sibling with them, and chose Loung, because she was so young and full of promise. Leaving her older sister Chou behind was a heartbreaking experience - one that she details in her second book, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, published in 2005. In 1980, the three settled in Essex Junction, Vermont, where they began a new life, thanks to the humanitarian efforts of the town's Holy Family Church. Ung was finally safe from physical harm, but she continued to have nightmares, and quickly faced new challenges in a community where her peers could not imagine the horrors she had witnessed.

On the surface, Ung's story has a storybook ending. She survived the vicissitudes of adolescence, attended Saint Michael's College in Vermont on a scholarship, studied political science, and while there, met the person she would later marry - a tall, golden-haired man named Mark, from Cleveland, Ohio. She also reunited with her surviving family - including her sister, Chou - in Cambodia as a young adult, and has been back to the country more than 30 times. But even now, the memories haunt her. After college, Ung took a job at a domestic violence shelter in Maine, working with women who had suffered abuse. In 1997, she moved to Washington, DC to work as an activist, and later a spokeswoman, for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World (CLFW). As a teenager, she filled her journals with her memories of growing up in a war zone; in her CLFW work, she used her own story to move listeners to action, and to initiate discussions of land mines, war, genocide and the immigrant experience in America.

She credits a specific 1998 event, the death of Pol Pot, with inspiring her to write First They Killed My Father. "I remember very specifically that day and how I was listening to NPR. My office [door] was shut, and I had a big window that faced outside, and there was a beautiful tree, and birds were coming out," she says. 'out in the hallway, my colleague...walked by. I heard his booming laugh, and it just seemed like the world kept moving on, and I was frozen in time, that moment, listening to NPR announcing Pol Pot's death." She recalls that the radio program described the dictator as troubled, charismatic and "grandfatherly," words that made Ung's blood boil. "I just heard that and I got really sick, and curled up in the fetal position and had a good cry in the office," she says. "I thought ...I am going to reconstruct his myth. I'm going to tell it the way it really happened, and hopefully my words will counter those grandfatherly images."

It took her a while to find the right voice in which to tell the story. She wrote several drafts, but ultimately settled on telling her story in first person, with her 5-year-old self as narrator. It was "the one that felt most authentic and that one that appeased me - the fire in me - the most... It was a very angry voice." Throughout the writing process, Ung immersed herself in her turbulent past. At times it was "really brutal," she says. She plastered her office walls with images of people who had been tortured, listened to Cambodian music, and, when writing the scenes depicting her harrowing hunger, she refrained from eating. "I actually would skip breakfast, lunch and dinner just so I would feel it," she says. "Looking back, I'm not sure I'm glad I did that... I had horrible nightmares during those times."

Perhaps due to its alternately heart-wrenching and heartwarming effect, First They Killed My Father struck a major chord with readers. It became a national best-seller, college students studied it in their courses, and fans from around the world wrote Ung letters of appreciation. Celebrities also took notice. In a 2001 Rolling Stone interview, actress and activist Angelina Jolie cited the book as her favorite read of the year. "It used to be that working with campaigns and working as an activist, specifically and wholeheartedly as an activist, was my way of trying to contribute and effect change and get the word out on various issues," Ung says. "Then, on the publication of my first book, I realized 'Wow, words - printed, written words - have a way of doing that, too.'" People can relate to war stories, she adds, "whether it's war in your country or war in your home or war in your community or war in your relationship... But more important, they can relate to the love. They can relate to the desire to want to sit on your father's lap, to the joy of holding hands with your sister and then having that pulled away."

Ung has a hard time standing still. She travels and spends a lot of time in airports, but even so, she avoids escalators and walkways. "What do you do with yourself when you're just standing there?" she asks. "It takes my breath away when I realized how much is out there that needs our attention," she adds. Until recently, she worked full-time on giving lectures around the world on land mines. Now, she's cut down on travel so she can focus more on writing (a fiction project is in the works), and on Bar Centro. It was not an easy decision. "I have been in human rights for so long," she explains. "About a year-and-a-half ago, I just started feeling really burned out. I traveled a ton, but it's the kind of traveling where you go the night before...and then the next morning you fly out, and you're exhausted." Ung often feels torn between wanting to save the world and wanting to do what is best for herself. "There's something so decadent in saying no [to traveling] just because you would be exhausted," she says. "People who went through [war], people who lived through it, don't get a break because they're exhausted." Also exhausting is the knowledge that an activist's work is never done. When she speaks to students, Ung often tells them, "Peace isn't free and it isn't automatic. Its requires commitment. It requires strategy. It requires work. What we do totally matters and I'm very grateful for that," she says, emphatically. "My story is an illustration of that - it's a testimony. I actually was living on the street, eating out of garbage cans, and somebody, somewhere, realized that peace is not an automatic and that changing the world takes work and action... They got out of their comfort zones, they picked up a phone, they traveled to Asia, they sent blankets, they sent medicine, they sent letters and goodwill and hope, and here I am."

Food has played an important role in Ung's life. "I really enjoy food, and I don't know if it's because of the war - maybe a little bit of that. I just enjoy food - the flavor, the sauce, the smell." Often, she prefers to do her writing at Bar Centro's tables, and when she hits a milestone, she rewards herself with food. "I don't have a sweet tooth," she says. "I reward myself with red meat. I like red meat a lot. I could eat steak and lamb every day," she says with a laugh. When in Cambodia, she craves tarantulas, fried crickets and fresh mangosteen and durian fruit. Love has also had a profound impact on Ung, and she grows giddy whenever her husband's name comes up (the couple were married in 2002). Priemer has been to Cambodia five times with Ung, but "he's never seen the genocide museum or the killing fields, and I've actually asked him not to," she says, "because I kind of need him to be untouched by that." Right now, finally, life is good. "I'm not hungry, I'm not desperate," she says, adding with a small gasp, "I'm...happy."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Random snaps

I exchanged my bicycle for this rusting rice field cycle just outside Luang Namtha
There are still lots more pictures and stories to come from my recent trip to Laos, but in the meantime here are some random photos to keep you occupied. Don't let anyone say I don't care about my readership!
A cute Lenten girl at the Namdee waterfall, just outside Luang Namtha
After 3 hours of kayaking I still had strength to smile - just!
These two Khamu girls were in Sopsim village at the end of our river trip
This bamboo bridge just outside Luang Namtha was more difficult to negotiate than it looks
Intrepid explorer goes where no man has gone before - yeah right!
Its thumbs up from this young Yao girl in the village of Jonka
There's no entry into Nammdaet Mai village according to these gun-totting youngsters
This ageing Akha woman carries her wares in a basket strapped to her head

Wat Phu's Trimurti

The Trimurti of Wat Phu
Amongst the most photographed carvings at Wat Phu, the Hindu trinity or Trimurti of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu will be up there with the best. It is located at the upper level and behind the main sanctuary and cella, carved into a rock face. Nearby are other rock carvings of a crocodile and elephant but the Trimurti is without equal and located close to the sacred spring which gives Wat Phu its uniqueness amongst all Khmer temples. The carving is believed to have been completed in the 11th century and features Shiva - the god of birth and destruction - in the centre, the principal god of the Wat Phu sanctuary, flanked by a three-headed Brahma - the creator - on the left and Vishnu - the protector and preserver - on the right.
The eight arms and four heads of the majestic Shiva
The four heads of Shiva from The Trimurti of Wat Phu
The three-headed Brahma in prayer modeA four-armed Vishnu flanks Shiva at Wat Phu
The Trimurti is carved on a large boulder on the upper level of Wat Phu

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Pineapple kids

Would you like a pineapple sir?
These are the pineapple kids of the rolling hills of northwest Laos. As we drove high into the hills between Luang Namtha and Muang Sing, we stopped for a spot of scenery photos and were immediately pounced upon by this small group of children, all trying to sell us their pineapples. They were very pushy but at the same time very funny and playful and a pleasant interlude on the 2 hour drive north. They were from the Khamu ethnic group, the largest of the upland Lao peoples. The mountains are a gorgeous sight, rising high into the low cloud cover, heavily forested and housing ethnically diverse villages along the route. And don't forget to buy some fruit from the pineapple kids.
Each of the children held a pineapple and a large beaming smile
The kids chase us as we wave goodbye, still trying to sell 1 last pineapple

Swain's archives

This report from today's Times Online archives recounts reporter Jon Swain's final diary before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Swain (pictured) was one of the captives in the French Embassy - as seen in the film The Killing Fields - before being allowed safe passage to Thailand and later wrote his excellent memoir of those times, titled River of Time.

From the archive: Pol Pot victory Fall of Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975
Jon Swain was on the last civilian flight into the city before it was captured by communist Khmer Rouge forces under Pol Pot. An estimated 1.7m people would die in Cambodia’s “killing fields” over the next three years. Swain sent The Sunday Times a diary recounting the last hours before the city fell.

Monivong Bridge

Already Takhmau, the industrial suburb three miles south of the Monivong Bridge, has been lost and now the fighting centres on the bridge itself. Once it has fallen, the city will be open to attack by insurgents from the east as well as from the south. Nearby is the scene of last night’s terrible fire. The conglomeration of wooden houses standing on stilts just upstream from the bridge was caught in Khmer Rouge shelling. Hundreds of inhabitants were trapped and burnt to death. Many more tried to escape by leaping into the river. Naval gunboats, searchlights blazing, manoeuvred among the bobbing bodies, attempting to fish out survivors.

University Building

From the roof of the university I have a grandstand view of the war. The rattle of machineguns is now very close and a string of ambulances suddenly scream past, carrying wounded from the front. In the university grounds, half-tracks churn up the grass, positioning themselves for clearer fields of fire. Students have barricaded the stairs with desks and watch the battle from classroom balconies. In the sunshine outside, two young lovers sit on the grass holding hands, wrapped up in their own private world.

Preah Ket Mealea hospital

This is one of the city’s 11 hospitals. The inflow of casualties has grown too great for the doctors to be able to cope with them all. A Scottish medical team has been operating from dawn to dusk with total unconcern for their own safety. The anaesthetist, Murray Carmichael, 33, has been going out to buy blood in return for a bowl of rice and a bit of fish. He says the monks are the most reliable donors.

Hotel Phnom grounds

A bungalow attached to the Phnom hotel has been taken over by the Scottish medical team and converted into an operating theatre. Surgeon Mike Daly, 33, throws open a cupboard and says he has enough instruments to operate on 12 patients without having to pause to wash up. He and his nurses, Helen Fraser and Pat Ash, say their day at the Preah Ket Mealea hospital has been the blackest of the war. In two hours Daly did 10 operations: “I didn’t have time to put on gloves or a gown. I simply splashed alcohol over my hands and didn’t even have time to change the instruments between operations.”

Early evening, city centre

Suddenly the war declares itself in the centre of the city. The attempts to keep the refugees to the outskirts have ceased and refugees converge from all sides, pushing, shoving, jostling, desperate to escape the fighting breathing down their necks. The trim walkways and flower-scented parks are submerged under the heaving mass of homeless families, weeping lost children, pigs, ducks, chickens, all hungry and increasingly afraid.

Casualty Receiving Centre

Over the years in Indochina I have become a reluctant expert on human misery, but the carnage here shakes me to the core. A converted volleyball court serves as the main receiving centre for the wounded and with today’s fighting it has become overwhelmed. A dozen doctors and nurses have today had to deal with more than 700 soldiers and civilians. The chief medic is in despair. Wounded people lie two or three to a bed. The floor is streaked with blood. The bins overflow with gory bandages and field dressings. A recently amputated leg pokes out of a cardboard box where the surgeon has tossed it in a hurry. Its owner lies staring blankly on a stretcher.

Evening, Hotel Phnom

The prospect of the hotel – this exclusive hangout of foreigners and rich Cambodians – being converted into a high class refugee camp has brought out the worst in some of the journalists and French businessmen. They are rudely assailing the Red Cross officials for letting some of the refugees into our sanctuary. Refugees are being admitted, family by family, after the officials have thoroughly searched their bodies and belongings to confiscate weapons. The disarmed refugees tramp through the lobby, into the garden, spread down little rush mats and fall into exhausted sleep. A green plastic cord separates them from the handful of westerners dining in elegance on the other side of the pool. “That’s what we call apartheid,” says a French journalist formerly in Johannesburg.

Hours later the city centre was in Khmer Rouge hands.

A life in the world’s war zones

Jon Swain was captured by the Khmer Rouge and was about to be executed when his life was saved by the New York Times interpreter Dith Pran, a story told in the film The Killing Fields. His 10,000-word report on a country in the grip of terror earned him his job on The Sunday Times. He has reported on nearly every major conflict since, winning numerous awards. In 1976 Swain was kidnapped in Ethiopia and held prisoner for three months. In 1999 he trekked across the mountains into Kosovo to witness its ethnic cleansing. Now 60, he undertakes arduous assignments with undiminished passion. He once wrote that “powerful writing and powerful pictures will not curtail wars, but they are valuable because they make it more difficult for the world to close its eyes to human suffering”.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Dvarapalas of Wat Phu

The best-preserved of the Dvarapala carvings at Wat Phu
Yesterday I brought you the Devatas of Wat Phu in southern Laos, today its the two Dvarapalas - door-keepers or guardians - that are carved on the front exterior eastern-facing wall of the main sanctuary on the upper level of the temple. They emphasize strength and power and protect the treasures within the sanctuary. In both carvings, the guardian is clasping a heavy mace as his weapon of choice and his hair is in the top-knot fashion with large earrings. There are other Dvarapala statues at Wat Phu but they are free-standing (or lying in the grass) compared to these fine examples.
Face and headdress detail of this Dvarapala at Wat Phu
Both hands clasp the heavy mace of the doorway guardians
A slightly damaged Dvarapala at Wat Phu's uppper level
Face and headdress in detailed close-up

Friday, July 4, 2008


Sam Savin (in green) and the King (Sam Limsothea) receive a garland from Preahm Keth (Chen Chansoda)
Tonight saw the first-ever fully staged production of Sovannahong, a classical love story told in royal Cambodian court dance and music, at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall next to the river. The original dance was initiated in 1955 but never completed and was resurrected by HRH Princess Buppha Devi, herself a former leading dancer, with help from sponsors, Amrita Performing Arts and the dancers and musicians of the Secondary School of Fine Arts. Included amongst the dancers was my friend Sam Savin, one of the company's principal dancers and who played the part of Sovannahong's mother in tonight's performance. With a story that includes giants, magic spells, murder, betrayal and unrequited love, it had all the usual ingredients of a classical Cambodian dance, played out by the leading exponents of the art currently performing in Cambodia. The audience contained the great and the good of the performing arts including the Princess and everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy this rare revived slice of traditional Cambodia.
The cast take their bow for this team photo at the end of the performance
Sam Savin (in green) enjoys the comraderie of her fellow performers

Devatas of Wat Phu

Devata of Wat Phu
The devatas of Wat Phu number just two, that I could find. They are on the outer wall of the gopura entrance to the upper level sanctuary of this wonderful Khmer temple, built in the 10th and 11th centuries and which was a particular highlight of my recent trip to Laos. They vary greatly from each other, one wearing a fanciful headdress, the other holding her long-stranded hair. Both are very shapely in their body form and wear skirts of simple but effective design. They represent female beauty whilst male strength is highlighted by two dvarapala guardian figures close by. Wat Phu has much to surprise and delight the visitor and I will post more pictures from this gorgeous temple over the next few days.
Devata in profile revealing her shapely body
The skirt and feet of a devata at Wat Phu
A decorative devata at Wat Phu's upper level sanctuary
A devata in profile
The decorative headdress worn by this devata at Wat Phu

Pak Ou standard

Looking out onto the Mekong River from inside Pak Ou cave
As much as pictures of monks are an iconic vision from Laos, so is the standard shot of the thousands of Buddhas housed in the Pak Ou caves, a boat ride north of Luang Prabang. I will post more photos from the caves soon, but for now here's a couple of shots.
There are two caves to explore and thousands of Buddha images but its incredibly hot inside!

Footballers beware

Now that I'm back from Laos, I'm keen to resurrect my football career by getting in some practice with the local expat team Bayon Wanderers. I'm totally unfit and its going to be a strain to get my creaky bones working again after a few years on the sidelines. However, with the death of 3 players last weekend in a local match, I will need to be careful if any games take place during a thunderstorm, as that game did. A thunder bolt struck the players, and hospitalized three others, during a typical rainy season monsoon. The players were in their 20s and were part of a tournament organised to strengthen the national team squad. Nationwide, no less than 40 people have been killed by lightning strikes this year in Cambodia. It's a very real threat over here.
The end of the $25 departure tax for foreigners when you leave Cambodia is in sight. News media report that from 1 September, the tax - levied since 2003 and meant to improve airport infrastructure construction, as well as service and security - will be included in the ticket price. As usual, Cambodians pay a lower tax level at a still hefty $18.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Musical interlude

Ossie Gad (right), part of the songwriting team that made the Natural-Ites such a strong force in British and international reggae in the '80s and then forged a solo career that took him across the globe, will be performing in his home town of Nottingham on 9 August at the Hillside Club alongwith special guest crooner Peter Spence. Gad wrote Picture On The Wall, a classic reggae anthem known worldwide and released two solo albums, whilst working with the likes of Nucleus Roots and Misty In Roots in recent years.
One of my favourite bands on the planet, Gabbidon are gigging furiously at the moment and played 3 gigs in 18 hours last weekend; at Josephs Well, Leeds; The Brighouse Charity Gala and the Piece Hall Festival. This coming Saturday they will perform at The Riverside Festival, Stamford Meadows in Peterborough. Their new album, Reggae Rockz, is available on bootleg but I don't yet have a copy....hint, hint!
Finally, Roy Hill has posted a collection of his videos on youtube and will soon release three more CDs from his back catalogue, Cry No More Live At The Mulberry Tree, Cry No More (previously only available on vinyl and cassette) and the infamous Roy Hill album from 1978. You have been warned!

Brouwer on the booze

Drinking lao-lao rice whisky in Luang Namtha
This is a rare picture of yours truly drinking alcohol. And it was deadly stuff too, the local lao-lao rice whisky which burned through my throat and chest as it sank lower! I've never been much of a drinker and effectively quit alcohol (except for very occasional lapses) more than a decade ago. It was never something I particularly enjoyed, so wasn't a difficult choice to make. In these pictures Tim and I were on one of regular forays into the rice fields of Laos when a group of men sitting under umbrellas invited us over for a snifter. It would've been rude not to have joined in but boy, that stuff is strong. Tim, an experienced drinker, had no problem and downed a whole mug full of the fire-water under the watchful eye of our guide, Tid and our new friends. The paddy fields were in the shadow of a small hillock housing a large broken stupa by the name of That Phum Phuk, just a few kilometres west of Luang Namtha in northern Laos.
Tim found the ordeal much easier than me
Women in their conical hats planting rice stalks in the next door field
Getting the field ready to plant the rice stalks

Keeping music alive

The revival of traditional Cambodian music is taking place across the water in Long Beach, USA as well as here in Cambodia itself. Greg Mellen's article for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach keeps us up to date on one such musical family.

Musician keeps Cambodia tradition alive - by Greg Mellen (Press-Telegram, Los Angeles, USA)

For years, the silence was immense, the work torturous and the hunger unremitting. The experience of Ho Chhing Chan wasn't so different from that of millions of his countrymen. Chan was one of the lucky ones who survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia. His grandfather wasn't. Chan Chug was one of the 1.7 million or more who died in the four years Pol Pot was in power.

Ho Chan survived and so did his music, that last great gift of his grandfather. Today, Chan is a master of traditional Cambodian pin peat music and keeps the ancient form alive in his new country. "I wanted to keep the tradition alive and play like my grandfather," Chan says. Toward that end, Chan has taught his son, Dyna Chan, 26, to play, as well as other members of the family including his nephew and brother-in-law. On occasion he even presses his wife, Narith, into playing finger cymbals. Music seems to course throughout the family. Chan's son-in-law is Prach Ly, a Cambodian rapper who is well-known in Long Beach. The elder Chan also teaches weekly classes at the Cambodian Association of America in Long Beach. When not playing, Chan is a janitor on the graveyard shift at Long Beach City College. Master Chan and his pin peat ensemble will perform their music Saturday at Koos Art Center in Long Beach as part of the concert "Threads of a Tonal Dream Tapestry." The concert also will feature guitarist, KPFK (90.7 FM) Pacifica Radio host and microtonal composer John Schneider, who will perform microtonal compositions of Lou Harrison from a recently released album. The show will conclude with intercontinental music by local musician Sander Wolff's group, Ain Soph Aur and Friends.

The music traces its history back to the Angkor dynasty of the ninth century, and was performed in the royal palaces when Cambodia was the dominant force in Southeast Asia. Pin peat music, which generally consists of ensembles of six to nine pieces, uses Cambodian xylophones (roneat ek and roneat dek), drums (sampho and skor thomm), gongs (kong tauch, kong thomm and chhing) and oboes (sralai) to produce its unique sounds and rhythms. Representations of pin peat players and instruments can be found in the bas-reliefs of temples at the famed Angkor temple complex in Cambodia. The music remains an important part of life in the country, where it is played at festivals, funerals, weddings and in Buddhist temples. It is often used to accompany Apsara dances and other traditional entertainment. An integral part of the musical history of the country, pin peat exists primarily in the memories of masters who pass it to students. Only in recent years has the music begun to be written down for posterity. It is partially for this reason that Wolff said he was so excited to be able to get Chan to play. Wolff said pin peat is a remarkable and fragile form of music that he fears is slowly dying away and being relegated to the world of academia.

Chan first learned the music as a 16-year-old in his village outside of Battambang city. He later studied under Master Nith Chaou, whose picture hangs in a place of honor in Chan's house, and Tan Im. In the U.S., Chan met Ngek Chum, with whom he has continued collaboration and friendship. When the Khmer Rouge rose to power, it sought to create an agrarian utopia unburdened by tradition. As a result, many of the cultural arts were forbidden and artists and performers were regularly targeted for death and persecution. Although Chan was spared, the music that had become a part of him began to disappear. "In four years I didn't touch an instrument," Chan says. And during that time, he says, he forgot some of the traditional music. Chan remembers vividly, though, the first time he was able to play music after the Khmer Rouge were driven out by the Vietnamese army in 1979. Chan's old master gathered musicians from across the countryside to play in a temple. "We were so happy," Chan recalls. "For four years there was nothing. It was like you were born again."

Under the spotlight

A guardian figure from Banteay Srei at the Angkor National Museum
Robert Turnbull turns his attentions to the Angkor National Museum in yesterday's International Herald Tribune. Definitely worth a read as a background to your visit to the museum when you are in Siem Reap. The museum is still finding its feet but it remains an important depository for more of the free-standing Khmer sculpture that has been hidden from view for too long.

A new museum puts a Thai imprint on Angkor - by Robert Turnbull (IHT)

A common disappointment for visitors to Angkor today is the paucity of sculptural artifacts offered by the site. Without the "furniture" that once graced its magnificent temples, it can be hard to imagine the customs and rituals that animated Cambodia's formidable empire in its heyday. Of the religious icons that survived looting or appropriation to French museums, many were relocated over decades to Cambodia's National Museum, created in the 1920s by the architect and curator George Groslier. The snag for Angkor-bound tourists in Siem Reap is that the museum is in the capital, more than 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, away.

Now Vilailuck International Holdings, based in Bangkok, has opened what it has opted to call the 'Angkor National Museum' only a few kilometers from the Angkor park. Constructed over three years from a Thai design, it is currently displaying objects borrowed from the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The other source of artifacts is the Conservation d'Angkor, a storage facility of some 6,000 pieces created by the Ecole Française d'Extrème Orient (French School of Asian Studies) in 1908 and currently in the hands of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture. Previously inaccessible, the collection has functioned as a hospital for broken pieces but also contains important Buddhas from several periods, as well as stone steles with invaluable inscriptions.

Thai interest dates to 2001. For 16 years Vilailuck's parent company, the Samart Corporation, has been a major investor in Cambodia in the telecommunications and air traffic control sectors. Charoenrath Vilailuck, the company's CEO, has an acquisitive interest in Cambodia's patrimony as evidenced by his own large collection. But the new museum has picked up powerful detractors, especially among the tight-knit international restoration community that casts a hypercritical eye over what happens at Angkor. The name has drawn the most controversy. The vast majority of offerings come either from pre-Angkorian times or from centuries after. Then, as the Siem Reap-based historian Darryl Collins pointed out, an enterprise that is foreign-owned and "primarily interested in turning a profit" can hardly be called national, especially when Cambodia already has a National Museum. Collins is among those concerned that the new venture will deter tourists from visiting the National Museum in Phnom Penh, with its profusion of Khmer treasures spanning several centuries. For the Cambodian cognoscenti, too, the Angkor National Museum's appearance on the scene seems ominous, especially given centuries-old sensitivities concerning Thai designs on Cambodian patrimony.

Until 1908 Thailand had control not only of Angkor but of large swathes of northern Cambodia. In spite of a 1962 International Court of Justice ruling in Cambodia's favor, its neighbor still disputes the "ownership" of land surrounding the 10th century Preah Vihear temple at Cambodia's northern border and once threatened to veto Unesco's plans to honor the mountain temple with World Heritage Site status, which is still pending. Anti-Thai riots, which claimed the Thai Embassy and several Thai businesses, broke out in Phnom Penh in 2003 after a Thai actress allegedly said Angkor Wat still belonged to Thailand. The most serious incident occurred in 1999. Large sections of walls with superb bas-relief images of the multi-armed Lokeshvara were looted from the 12th-century Banteay Chhma temple near the Thai border on what was generally assumed to be on the orders of a Thai collector. the stolen art was intercepted by the Thai police and returned to Cambodia, but suspicions linger.

The museum's design has also provoked some derision. The hint of Angkor Wat's honeycomb towers and its surrounding moats tends to be overshadowed by pink sandstone walls, which clash with its glazed orange corbel-vaulted roofing. It doesn't help that the lion's share of the 20,000-square-meter, or 215,000-square-foot, interior takes the form of retail space or a Cultural Mall. "This seems to have been foremost in the mind of the designers, while the collection came second," said Azedine Beschaouch, a special adviser to Unesco's assistant director general for culture and an expert on Angkor. Anxious to promote the museum as a "learning cultural institute," the Thais are easily stung by such criticism. "We want to educate Cambodian people about their own history," said the museum's managing director, Sunaree Wongpiyabovorn. There are those "who know little about its monuments, and even less of the progress of Buddhism and what led up to it," she added. Wongpiyabovorn insists there is no fortune to be made from the Angkor National Museum. Given that Vilailuck had to triple its original investment of $5 million due to the cost overruns, the company said it didn't expect to see a profit until at least a third of the 30-year lease has expired; under its "build, cooperate and transfer" contract, the management and financial control of the collection will then revert to the Cambodian authorities and the Ministry of Culture.

Moreover, several complications seem to have left the Thais frustrated, especially with regard to the terms and conditions of the loans. Under the original plan, the Phnom Penh museum's former director, Khun Samen, agreed to hand over as many as 1,000 artifacts - more than 950 of them small 20th century Buddhas - for the 30-year term, as well as 31 major pieces for a six-month loan. His successor Hab Touch immediately reduced the 31 pieces to 23. "I am not going to surrender important pieces that should be permanently displayed here for the integrity of the collection" he said.

Another deal signed with the government in 2003 that gave Vilailuck extensive rights to a Conservation d'Angkor collection was threatened when, to the dismay of the Thais, the Cambodian government granted control to a South Korean company calling itself Angkor Treasure. Vilailuck requested that Deputy Prime Minister Sok An "release" the Koreans from the contract. He did, but only on the condition that the Thais agree to compensate the Koreans for an undisclosed sum. According to Wongpiyabovorn, Unesco "maintains a strong sense of ownership of Cambodia's patrimony." Beschaouch supports the Thai initiative but is impatient about what he called "presentation that cannot claim to reflect international standards in museology." The majority of the wood, stone and silver Buddhas in the gallery of "1,000 Buddha Images," he said, "allude in design to later Ayutthaya-era temples in Thailand and have no aesthetic link with Angkor." Unesco is engaged with the Angkor museum in improving the situation. But it didn't help that by the time of the grand opening last fall, months behind schedule, not only had most of the Angkor National Museum's artifacts still not been captioned but some copyrighted images had been lifted without permission for display. In the museum's defense, Wongpiyabovorn said that the Conservation d'Angkor's outdated card system of documentation was lost during Pol Pot's reign, leaving many artifacts with few historical records.

Will the museum have been worth the trouble? As it stands today, it will have negligible interest for the connoisseur or serious student of Angkorian art. At $12 compared to $3 for the National Museum in the capital, the price of admission for foreigners is high - the result of high fuel costs for air-conditioning, said the management. But the museum has its uses. It should be commended for facilitating the display of objects long out of view. And, for a first time, the equinox sunrise simulations over Angkor Wat, the documentary-style videos in seven languages and the like go some way in explaining to visitors the temples' significance. As for content, the "apsaras" and architectural features like decorated lintels replicate a lot of what is already copiously displayed on site. Yet sculptures from the pre-Angkorian capitals of Sambor Pre Kuk and Phnom Kulen merit attention. The 7th-century Phnom Da Standing Vishnu and the blue-tinted 9th-century Standing Shiva from Prasat Trapeang Phong reveal Cambodia's Hindu and Brahmanist legacy, and there are further galleries devoted entirely to Buddhist Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and to the devaraja, or god-kings, who built these temples.

The museum insists it needs more time to develop its identity. Although its strength may not yet lie in a permanent collection, it aims to create exhibitions that inform and illuminate. The museum's curator, Chann Charouen, who is Cambodian and a former employee of the World Monument Fund, plans to rotate artifacts in a series of exhibitions from the aforementioned collections and from other Cambodian provincial museums such as those at Battambong and Kompong Cham. It remains to be seen if the museum will embrace the growing scholarship and broad debates that currently characterize Angkorian studies, or be content to target tourists making an obligatory stop and bound inevitably for the inflated knick-knacks of the Cultural Mall.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The peaceful Mekong

The peaceful Mekong River at sunrise from the eastern bank of Khong Island
I have a few pictures to share with you from my Mekong River adventures in the southern tip of Laos over the next few days from tranquil sunrise scenes to the wild aggression of the Khone Phapheng and Li Phi waterfalls. First off, its the Mekong River in its more peaceful moments, both at sunrise and sunset taken from the shore of Don Khong, or Khong Island.
A solitary fishing boat at sunrise on the Mekong River
The same stretch of the Mekong River after sunset

The monks of Laos

A monk at Wat Sisaket in Vientiane listening to music on his mobile phone
Orange-robed monks are a common feature of any visitors' selection of photographs from a trip to Laos and Tim's and my own photo album is no different. Here are a selection of photos that we both took during our recent 2-week trip. About 60% of the people of Laos are Theravada Buddhists - compared to 90%+ in Cambodia - and all men are expected to become a khu-ba (monk) for a period of their life, usually for a three-month stint, according to Olay, a monk we chatted to at Wat Xieng Mouane in Luang Prabang. One of the features of daily Lao life is the early-morning processions you see in most towns and villages, where a group of monks will walk the streets and collect alms (food) offered by the residents. It's called tak-bat. In Luang Prabang this has become a tourist attraction but its important that travelers treat the tradition with respect. We found the monks of Laos a very friendly bunch throughout the country and we often stopped at wats en route to chat in English.
The tradition of tak-bat being observed in Pakse
The friendly monks of Wat Nam Kaew Luang in Muang Sing
We met these young monks on the steps leading to Tham Jang cave in Vang Vieng
These monks were repairing their living quarters at Wat Pha Baht Phonsan near Vientiane
The head monk at That Ing Hang, the second holiest religious site in Southern Laos, near Savannakhet
Two novice monks at Wat Pa Phon Phao, the site of the popular Santy Chedi (stupa) just outside Luang Prabang
Most of my knowledge of the monkhood in Laos came from Olay, a monk at Wat Xieng Mouane in Luang Prabang

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Fun in the rice fields

Laughter abounds in the rice fields of Muang Sing
Having fun in the rice fields was our motto during our trip throughout Laos. Everywhere we went, people were out in the fields planting rice stalks in small teams or larger groups such as this thirty-strong all-female team we located on the edge of the town of Muang Sing in northern Laos. Whenever we could, we stopped the van and joined them for some banter and our inept attempts at flirting in Lao, which went down particularly well with this group. Numerous proposals of marriage and more bounced back between Tim and myself and the girls, up to their knees in mud, but never without a smile on their lips as they worked themselves into a sweat under the hot sun. After they completed their day's work, chasing them across the rice paddies accompanied by shrieks loud enough to pierce your eardrum will be a memory that will remain for a long while.
The girls put their backs into planting the rice stalks
Its all about attention to detail and spacing between the stalks
More smiles in the rice fields
The final field is just about to be completed in time for dusk
We gave the girls a chance to negotiate the ponds before we gave chase

Golden Bones revealed

Today marks the publication date for Ambassador Sichan Siv's memoir Golden Bones - An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America. It promises to be an uplifting triumph over adversity account of a man who escaped the genocide in Cambodia to become a United States citizen and go onto serve in two White House administrations, latterly as a US Ambassador to the United Nations. Published by HarperCollins, I haven't got a copy of the book yet but in the interim, here's a review from Publishers Weekly [Copyright © Reed Business Information]:

Slave labor. Death marches. Refugee camps. Not the path most diplomats follow to the corridors of power. But that's just the road Siv traveled in this mostly gripping firsthand account of pain, perseverance and survival. In 1975, Siv, scion of a middle-class Cambodian family, got caught up in the murderous campaign of social re-engineering unleashed on that Southeast Asian country in the wake of the Vietnam War. "We saw decomposing bodies with arms tied behind their backs. One had the throat slit open. One had a big black mark on the back of the neck. A woman had a baby still at her breast," Siv writes of the scene following the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh. Later, forced to leave his beloved family behind in a labor camp, he sets out to find freedom. "I was the loneliest person on earth," Siv writes. "Not knowing what had happened to Mae [his mother], my sister, and my brother was torturing me. But I had to move onward." Siv survives countless brushes with death, but makes it to Thailand and eventually the U.S. At times, incidents, people and places pile on top of each other without much space for the reader to reflect on or make sense of them. Still, the story is always compelling, and Siv moves the narrative forward by raw force of will.

Catching up with Cambodia

I just saw a truck festooned with banners, placards and a booming loudspeaker that reminded me that electioneering has just begun ahead of this month's general election here in Cambodia. If anyone manages to beat CPP into second place, I'll eat my hat, if I had one. For those wishing to visit the mountaintop temple of Preah Vihear from the Thai side, don't bother. The border is closed and access is only possible from the Cambodian side until further notice. The border closed on 23 June as the Thais continue to throw their teddy out of the cot over Cambodia's request for World Heritage status. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal rolls on with former KR Foreign Minister Ieng Sary making a brief debut appearance in the dock yesterday. It didn't last long, he asked to be excused due to dizziness. Funding for the tribunal remains an on-going conundrum.
On the arts front, Sovannahong, a newly revived work of classical Cambodian dance, will be premiered at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall this coming Friday at 6pm. Its choreographed by HRH Princess Buppha Devi no less. Vann Nath, the painter made famous by his stark torture portraits at Tuol Sleng, is opening his own Gallery and exhibition room today on Street 169 in Phnom Penh. It's intended to be an artist's work place and where individuals and groups can meet with the artist himself to learn about his unique experiences as a survivor of S-21. This coming Saturday (5 July), Meta House will re-run Kampuchea - Death & Rebirth, the famous East German documentary shot just after the liberation of the country from the Pol Pot regime.
On a personal friends-front, Heang and his wife are expecting their first baby, a girl, sometime in July. To make things easier all round, they've moved from Siem Reap to Sisophon to be close to family. However, Heang and his car are still available for hire in both towns. Another of my best friends, Sokhom, has also become the proud owner of his own car. He's not giving up his trusty motos just yet, but a car will be more comfortable for those long trips into northern Cambodia. Find out more about Sokhom and Heang here.

Faces of Laos

Here's a few faces from our trip to Laos snapped by my brother Tim, who I think has a really good eye for capturing the moment, but for goodness sake don't tell him, his head can't get any bigger!
Market seller in Muang Sing
Pipe smoker at Namdee waterfall, Luang Namtha
Householder in Yao village of Jongka, Muang Sing
Hungry baby in village of Nammdaet Mai, Muang SingChatty monk by the name of Olay at Wat Xieng Mouane in Luang Prabang
Pee-bah, a crazy Lao girl we met in Wat Sisaket in Vientiane - she was completely bonkers!