Sunday, August 31, 2008

Vientiane's finest

A typical seated Buddha at Wat Sisaket in Vientiane
The 16th-19th century Buddhas of Wat Sisaket in Vientiane number over 7,000, the majority are set wthin tiny wall niches whilst 300 larger statues, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze, fill up the cloisters surrounding the main ordination hall (sim). Wat Sisaket is the capital's oldest pagoda, dating from the early 19th century, and inside the sim, where photos are not allowed, are more niches, more Buddhas and a series of fading wall murals. Across the street is the museum of Haw Pha Keo, that used to house the Emerald Buddha before it was stolen by the Siamese and relocated to Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew. We also stopped by the Patuxai, the Lao-Arc de Triomphe, though built as late as the 1960s and apart from Pha That Luang and the Buddha Park, that's all we had time to see in Vientiane before we were on our way again during our 2-week tour of Laos.
A view of the cloisters and some of the 2,300 Buddhas that surround the main sim of Wat Sisaket
A Buddha that has seen better days at Wat Sisaket, with the niche Buddhas behind
The main sim of Wat Sisaket with murals and Buddhas inside
This is one of the wooden pediments on view at Wat Sisaket
The museum of Haw Pha Kaeo, rebuilt by the French in the early 1940s
An inscribed Lao stele in front of Haw Pha Keo
The Patuxai monument, Laos' very own 'Arch of Triumph'

Voyage of discovery

Antonio Graceffo is irrepressible. He will try his hand at everything and anything. In recent months he's trained to become an emergency medical technician in the Philippines, and that was after spending the preceding five months with the Shan State Army rebels in Burma for a film, In Shanland, documenting human rights abuses of the Burmese government against ethnic minority people. Better known for his martial arts activities, he's travelled throughout Cambodia and those travels have just been published by Gom Press as an e-book, available online for under $10, in Rediscovering the Khmer. It should also be out in paperback in October. His first Cambodian book, Letters from the Penh, a mix of journalism, diaries, and short stories, has never found a publisher. His second book began at Angkor Wat, and included hiking, bicycling, riding elephants, fighting, and scuba diving his way around the country. To find out more go to his website at

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A national symbol

The symbol of the Lao nation, Pha That Luang
Perhaps the most recognizable monument in Laos is Pha That Luang, the 45m tall elongated golden lotus bud that can be seen on the national seal, Lao money and countless other places. It resides in the capital Vientiane and was originally a stupa built in the 3rd century to house a piece of Buddha's breastbone. It's been rebuilt numerous times since then, at least twice by the French and was regilded in 1995 to celebrate the Lao PDR's 20th anniversary. It's official name is Pha Chedi Lokajulamani and was erected in its current form - the tall tapered central stupa has a brick core that has been stuccoed over - by King Setthathirat in the mid-16th century, on the site of a former Khmer monastery. Closeby are two wats, That Luang Neua and That Luang Tait, the former being the residence of the main Buddhist hierachy. It draws big crowds every day and the statue standing in front of the stupa is its founder, King Setthathirat, the Lao-Jayavarman VII of his day, who despite seeing off the Burmese, was murdered at the tender age of 38, whilst fighting an ill-fated war with Cambodia.
The Pha That Luang stupa looking down from the wide Th That Luang boulevard
A memorial to the stupa's founder, King Setthathirat
The Lao-Jayavarman VII of his day, King Setthathirat
The admission gate to Tha That Luang
An imposing sight against the beautiful blue and white sky
A praying figure on a gate leading to the inner enclosure of the stupa

Friday, August 29, 2008

Home-grown success

Mr T at his organic farm (pix Tom Fawthrop)
Although I didn't visit the farm whilst I was in Vang Vieng, I am told by people I trust that just 3 kms north of town, perched on the banks of the Nam Song River is the Vangviang Organic Farm, the brainchild of Thanongsi Soangkoun, affectionately known as Mr T, and it's well worth a visit. In an effort to curb the use of chemicals in farming, Mr T led by example and twelve years ago introduced his organic farming methods to the area, which are not only healthier but he also supports community projects that benefit the locals by way of a community youth centre, a school, a bus and a library. The farm produces silk, wine and mulberry tea, welcomes volunteers and visitors and has great veggie food in its restaurant. If you are in Vang Vieng, call in and pay Mr T a visit. Fine out more here.

Activities and scenery

Myself and Tim en route to Tham Chang cave on the west bank of the Nam Song River
Vang Vieng in Laos is rightfully regarded as a stunningly beautiful location, with its limestone karst terrain and a honeycomb of unexplored tunnels and caverns. It's also become a backpackers paradise with its easy availability of kayaking, rafting, trekking and tubing, as well as the constant re-runs of 'Friends' on the tv's in town. I stayed just one night so avoided the backpacker hordes but did sample a Khmer nighclub, which was loud, very dark and uninviting. However, the scenery more than made up for it and to see the towering limestone karsts across the Nam Song River shrouded in low cloud on a misty morning was particularly engaging. With my brother Tim tagging along, we visited the main cave within easy reach of town, known as Tham Chang, with its 151 steps and friendly novice monks. The cave itself is pretty expansive and the views across the valley from its lookout are very pretty. Lots of other caves await those visitors with longer to stay and soak up the atmosphere, but I was on a tight schedule and left next morning for Vientiane.
Early morning views across the Nam Song River from my digs at the comfortable Elephant Crossing
I love the low-flying cloud that hovers around and blankets the karst limestone scenery
The Nam Song River looking towards the Tham Chang cave area
Its all about scenery and activities in Vang Vieng, which is shrouded in trees on the right of this photo
Three young monks on an early morning stroll to Tham Chang cave

Monkey success

Hey, some good news on the monkey front at last. There's hordes of them in Mondulkiri.
Huge Endangered Monkey Population Discovered in Cambodia
Just when you think modern technology reveals all, Mother Nature throws out a few surprises. According to a Wildlife Conservation Society(WCS) report, two surprisingly large populations of globally threatened primates have been found in Cambodia. The report counted 42,000 black-shanked douc langurs along with 2,500 yellow-cheeked crested gibbons in Cambodia's Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, an estimate that represents the largest known populations for both species in the world.

The two primate species are found in much lower numbers at other sites in Cambodia and in Vietnam. Prior to the recent discovery in the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, the largest known populations were believed to be in adjacent Vietnam, where black-shanked douc langurs and yellow-cheeked crested gibbons hover at 600 and 200 respectively. The total population of the two species remains unknown. You may be wondering how something can be endangered if the population is unknown. Science has no answer for that. Regardless of the new finds, conservationists are rarely happy people. In Cambodia, WCS researchers are concerned that looming threats could jeopardize these recent successes.

WCS scientists conducted the surveys with the Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries across an area of 300 square miles (789 square kilometers) within a wider landscape of 1,150 square miles (3,000 square kilometers), which is about the size of Yosemite National Park. The scientists believe total populations within the wider landscape may be considerably greater. The recent census in Cambodia took place in a former logging area where the two monkeys were once extensively hunted. Then in 2002, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries declared the region a conservation area and began working with WCS on site management and landscape-level planning for conservation and local development.

According to WCS, a combination of factors account for such high numbers of primates: successful long-term management of the conservation area; cessation of logging activities; a nation-wide gun confiscation program implemented in the 1990s; and habitat where there is plenty of food. The report says that the two primate populations started to recover in 2002 when the joint program between WCS and the Royal Government began and have remained stable since 2005. "Despite this good news in Cambodia, the area still remains at risk from conversion to agro-industrial plantations for crops, including biofuels, and commercial mining," said Tom Clements, the lead author of the WCS report. "WCS is therefore committed to continuing to work with the Cambodian Government to ensure that these globally important primate populations will continue to remain secure." WCS has worked with the Royal Government of Cambodia since 1999, helping to establish the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area (in Mondulkiri), and developing landscape-level conservation programs in the Northern Plains and Tonle Sap Great Lake.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pick of the news

Enjoy it while you can - sunset at Boeung Kak Lake
All this week, adventure travel writer Tim Patterson is filing stories from Cambodia at the pop culture travel website, Jaunted. Read more here. As a rule, I don't regurgitate the vast majority of the news items that appear about Cambodia unless they prick my attention or are positive enough to warrant reporting here. So this week's stories, whilst plentiful, haven't really grabbed my shirt-collar enough, but may interest you. You can google-news any of them to find out more. They include the start of the filling-in of Boeung Kak Lake, the backpacker haunt and sunset-viewpoint in Phnom Penh; the rise in the price and demand for rat meat; the worthy performances of Cambodia's 4 atheletes at the Beijing Olympics, where three of them turned in all-time bests; tonight's two world championship kickboxing fights involving Khmer fighters at the Olympic Stadium; a warning that a lack of rain has damaged thousands of hectares of rice paddies in the Cambodian countryside; fears that 40 foreigners currently in jail could have their sentences reduced under new child abuse laws; CPP are raising the profile of women with female appointments at deputy governor level in 23 provinces; traffic deaths are up 15% and now stand at 4.5 fatalities in Cambodia each day, and more besides.
Cambodia now has 2 world champions! Both Vorn Viva and Meas Chantha defeated foreign opponents in their 5-round kickboxing ISKA world title fights at the Olympic Stadium tonight to firmly put Cambodia on the world kickboxing map. And don't even begin to think of any home bias amongst the judges, both fighers were deserved winners. I watched the bouts on television in the comfort of my own flat, and even I could see the reigning German and British world champions were beaten fair and square. Football and kickboxing are Cambodia's two favourite sports and the latter have raised the bar which the footballers will be hard pressed to equal anytime this century.
LtoR: New world kickboxing champions, Meas Chantha and Vorn Viva, being interviewed on CTN

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Candee's Angkor

Later this year, or early next, a modern and expanded edition of one of the most popular accounts of the exotic, and then largely unknown, temples of Cambodia in Helen Churchill Candee's Angkor The Magnificent, will be published by DatASIA Inc. It was due out a few months ago but a fire in the home of CEO Kent Davis destroyed some of the graphics and other material, causing a delay in printing. Originally published in 1924, it brought to life the vast jungle edifices of Angkor and their mysteries through the eyes of this intrepid woman explorer.
In addition, Candee was a survivor
of history’s most infamous maritime disaster, the sinking of the Titanic, one adventure among many for the Washington, D.C. society leader and interior decorator who turned more and more to the joys of writing and the thrill of travel to the foreign lands that intrigued her. On her journeys of discovery, Helen Candee walked with kings, presidents, the wealthy and powerful – entertaining, educating and influencing them along the way. Yet her outlook was democratic, her approach spiritual, her love for people of all races genuine. A champion of female equality, she was yet quintessentially feminine – as bold as she was beautiful, she charmed while she shocked. Candee’s vision and talent were never melded with greater impact than in the pioneering work she accomplished after traveling the Far East with her keen sense of detail, inquisitive mind, and respect for a culture that enchanted her. The result of her study, Angkor the Magnificent, is more than a tale of early 20th century Asian travel. Candee’s observations are enlightening, elegant and witty as she relates the history and context of Angkor’s ancient monuments. Thanks to her inspired hand, the world has one of the first significant works on Cambodia in the English language.
The book will include Candee’s complete original account of Southeast Asian travel, a biography of the explorer by Randy Bryan Bigham and more than 120 illustrations of Cambodia and the author. Candee’s personal account of the Titanic disaster is also included, as is a bibliography and index.

Here's an excerpt from Randy Bryan Bigham's biography of Candee called Life's Decor:
Travel for Helen Candee in the early 1920s increasingly meant Japan, China and the exotic Far Eastern lands of Indonesia and Cambodia. The latter was a chief draw, and in her sixth book, Angkor the Magnificent , now a classic travelogue, Helen's facility for words found inspiration in the mysterious, half-hidden temples and palaces, hanging gardens, sculpture and stonework of the ancient “Wonder City." In her book, the beauty and symbolism of the architecture of the temple of Angkor Wat came in for rapturous praise: One can never look upon the ensemble of the Wat without a thrill, a pause, a feeling of being caught up to the heavens. Perhaps it is the most impressive sight in the world of edifices.
The fascinating ruins of Angkor and their Eden-like environs had only been known to Westerners for fifty years, and weren't widely explored or photographed before Candee's ambitious study. Her book, published by Stokes in 1924, was the work Helen was most proud of. It also brought her the most acclaim. She was commanded to give a private reading of Angkor the Magnificent to King George and Queen Mary and was afterwards asked to Their Majesties' annual garden party at Holyroodhouse, being one of only a few Americans invited. Helen was even decorated by the King of Cambodia in a native ceremony. Captivated by the region, its riches and its people, Helen was pleased that the success of Angkor the Magnificent allowed her to focus on Asia in a series of articles and short stories for newspaper syndication the following year, as well as a special feature for Art and Archeology Magazine.

Bye to Luang Prabang

A young monk on his early morning alms-run, and yes that's an elephant in the background!
I'm still wading through the mass of photos I took on my recent 2-week visit to Laos with my brother Tim, as we traversed across that beautiful country from the northwest province of Luang Namtha down to the Four Thousand Islands in the very south and all points in between. In closing the Luang Prabang section, here's a few photos from our early morning start to see the monks receiving alms from the residents (and tourists) on LP's main thoroughfare, Th Sisavangvong, though we were late and only caught the back-end of the very last group of monks at 6am. We also climbed Phousi Hill and joined the backpacker hordes on top to watch the sunset across the river. There's a couple of wats on top but nothing to shout home about, though the views are pretty. And then we were on our way south to Vang Vieng for a night before heading for Vientiane. More later.
A common sight in Luang Prabang at 5.30am every day
Ok, that's it, the monks head for home with their pots full to brimming
Our lunchtime restaurant gave us a perfect view over the Mekong River
Tired of photos of me? Well here's my brother Tim on the banks of the Mekong. Hasn't he got big hands?
On top of Mount Phousi and looking east along the Nam Khan River
En route to Vang Vieng and the beautiful scenery to be savoured

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wats galore

The classic Luang Prabang sim style at Wat Xieng Thong
Luang Prabang is renowned for its plethora of wats that inundate the sleepy city and which attract its many visitors to marvel at their magnificence and to interact with their custodians, the monks. At the northern tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong River and the Nam Khan is Luang Prabang's jewel amongst its pagodas, Wat Xieng Thong. The wat's sim (ordination hall) represents what is considered classic Luang Prabang architecture, with high-peaked and layered roofs sweeping low to the ground. The rear wall of the sim features an impressive tree of life mosaic and the elaborate wooden columns and ceiling are stencilled in intricate gold designs. There's much to admire at this temple. During my temple-day in Luang Prabang I also called in at another half a dozen pagodas including Wat Wisunarat, built in 1513 and housing a collection of 'Calling for Rain' Buddhas and a large stupa, originally erected in 1503. Also on the list were Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Wat Pa Phai, Wat Manolom and Wat Xieng Mouane, where we encountered the very friendly monk, Olay, who I mentioned in an earlier posting.
Gorgeous elaborate gold-stencilling at Wat Xieng Thong
Mosaics adorn the rear wall of the sim and Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong
Scenes from daily life and the story of Siaw Sawat, a famous Lao novel, on the rear wall of the Red Chapel
The 34 metre That Pathum or Lotus Stupa at Wat Wisunarat - also known as watermelon stupa!
Up close and personal with a Buddha statue at Wat Wisunarat
A few of the hundreds of wooden Buddhas inside the sim of Wat Wisunarat
The elaborate frontage of Wat Pa Phai with Chinese guardians in the foreground

Pulse on the record

Steel Pulse's David Hinds in full flow
Over the past year, I've had little spare time to pursue many of my hobbies, one of which was watching live reggae (non-existent in Cambodia) as well as hosting the web's most extensive website on reggae legends, Steel Pulse. Not keeping my ear to the ground as closely as I did when I lived in England, I've only just caught up with this interview with Pulse's head-honcho David Hinds by Jan Salzman on the website. In it, Hinds confirms he's in the midst of writing material for a new album - their last, African Holocaust came out in 2004 - as well as releasing a couple more dvd's and revamping their website. Hallelujah. Here's the interview:

David Hinds: On Tour, On the New Album, on the United Front for Africa - by Jan Salzman 14 July 2008, Malibu, California

Steel Pulse has been one of my favorite bands for about 25 years. In 1985, the popular band from Birmingham won the coveted Grammy award for their album Babylon The Bandit. More Grammy nominations came for Victims, Rastafari Centennial, Rage and Fury, Living Legacy, and African Holocaust. Steel Pulse has recorded 16 albums throughout their illustrious career. David Hinds, central songwriter and lead singer, hails from Birmingham, England. His music has always been tinged with political opinions; he makes his stand in the name of justice. There are also spiritually uplifting songs and deep love songs. This year celebrates 30 years since the release of their first album, Handsworth Revolution, in 1978. David is eloquent, kind, and remains boyishly cute after all these years. Together with his associate, vocalist and keyboardist Selwyn Brown, they form the core of Steel Pulse. I caught up with David Hinds recently at the Malibu Inn. After a tightly packed show, he took time to answer a few questions. Here is my interview with David Hinds:

Jan: Tell us a little about your new DVD, Door of No Return. David: It’s a DVD that’s a collection of inserts of different scenery, but the body of it was filmed some seven or eight years ago, when we made our first exodus to Senegal. There’s an island off the coast of Senegal called Gory, [where the Africans were shipped out to face slavery] and that’s what the video has been based on. Hence the term, door of no return.

Jan: You have been known for your socially conscious lyrics and your stand on socially conscious issues. At what age did this start for you, and is there any particular incident that triggered it? David: I would say that my socially conscious or politically conscious age began when I was about fourteen years old. It was all to do with the “Free Angela Davis” campaign that was happening in England and throughout the United States’ black community… and, the actual incarceration of George Jackson and the killing of his brother, Jonathan Jackson, who was trying to free him at the time, from the court house. I think that is when I got introduced into the whole realm of being politically active.

Jan: You are also known for such beautiful spiritual songs as “Chant a Psalm a Day.” At what point did you reach this kind of enlightenment? David: “Chant a Psalm” was written about 1980. It was at a time when the band was at rock bottom…in regards to its career. We had teamed up with Island (Records) two to three years before that. Then, all of a sudden, we lost the contract with Island. It was our first time venturing into the United States; also, certain band members within our infrastructure were going through a lot of domestic problems at the time. So, with that, and not having the second half of your corner to help you sort through your problems when you’re out on the streets…it brought about the whole aspect of putting a song together that’s all about praising God, and having something that can [act] as a ritual to help you go through a positive day.

Jan: What kind of music do you listen to when you are on your own? David: I listen to all kinds of music. You would be surprised what I listen to.

Jan: What was the last CD you bought? David: The last CD I got…what I literally bought in my hand was a reggae CD. I think it was Stephen Marley’s Mind Control album. I think it is a very vibrant album. It didn’t hit me at first. That was the strange thing about the album, it never grabbed me at all initially. But, after the third, fourth listening…I think it is one of the best albums that’s out there on the market right now. It’s very underestimated because of the nature of the music…which, well you know, when it comes to the acts that are out there…the ones that are making it in the mainstream…your Sean Paul’s and your Shaggy’s…I think Mind Control is a very technical album. I think it is something that is a spin off and [in the] progressive direction, as what Bob Marley would be doing, in so many different ways. I think all the sons, as a matter of fact, are contributing in a very big way towards how the music should be going, as far as I’m concerned.

Jan: What’s in your CD player right now? David: There’s an artist called Umojah that was passed on to me by one of my associates here within the camp, Rootsman Kelly, which is a new act out there trying to penetrate his reggae vibe. I don’t know much about him. This is what I’m trying to say to you. I listen to unknown acts and I listen to people who are up there. Then I go diverse and I start listening to guys like Papoose and 50 Cent. Trust me. You nah mean. I just jump from different artists to different artists.

Jan: What makes you happy? David: I think what really makes me happy, when I look at the nitty-gritty, is meeting people with positive spirits, people who are intelligent, and have good ideas to share. When I look back on it…that’s what really makes me happy.

Jan: What would be a perfect day for you? David: I find is a perfect day is when I manage to get through all the chores that I’ve written down the night before, which includes if I can get a nice song written or half written. I think that becomes a perfect day for me, because that gives me my greatest high of all… when I have a song that I know is really in the pocket. It just gives me a buzz that nothing else does…to be honest with you.

Jan: Is there a new album in the works that we can look forward to? David: There is a new album in the works. as far as being written. The other band members haven’t heard any of the tracks as yet. We’re putting ideas down, we’re putting subject matters together. I don’t like throwing any old song out there. I don’t like throwing any old groove out there. That’s one of the reasons why the band takes such a long time to put music out. ‘Cause once we put it out, then it’s the whole idea of touring for quite a long while. ‘Cause that’s what usually happens. I don’t like putting dumb lyrics together. I like something that is constructive and has meaning to it. It makes me feel good about what I do, and I think it pays off when I see people come back and compliment the bands’ legacy.

Jan: Yes, I think your work is brilliant. David: Thank you very much. We’re absolutely jet-lagged right now. I’m talking to you on auto-pilot.

Jan: Thank you very much for the interview. I bought the DVD and look forward to watching it. David: There’s another DVD that’s coming out shortly. It’s gonna be in two parts basically. It’s a show that we did in Anguilla, which commemorates the 30th anniversary since Handsworth Revolution. We’re also putting together a DVD that is a documentary of the video of the Door Of No Return video that we did in Senegal. We actually did a video for the song itself. What’s going to encompass that video is a history of the band, which has never been out there before. Told in our version, as opposed to anybody else’s point of view of what happened. Also, all the little things that we participated in…such as the punk rock era. We are just gonna be digging up old footage, and amalgamate it with new footage and put it out there. So, you should be looking forward to that one as well. There’s not a title for it as yet…but it’s gonna be out there shortly.

Jan: Oh, that’s great! Do you have any particular message that you’d like to give your fans or your readers? David: Yeah, we are going to be vamping up our website. We’re not happy with the way it is at the moment. Never been actually, but we’ve never had the time to address it, now we’re finding the time. We want to also launch an organization that we are putting together, via the sales of our merchandise…and that’s called UFFA…United Front For Africa. It has to do with raising and distributing the funds in various parts of Africa, which need that kind of money. It might sound like an old story but it does ring true. It’s all about offering as little as you can or as much as you can. Either which way of what you can afford. You would be surprised that little can do so much. Like the purchasing of mosquito nets, for example. And any other kind of medicine. Mosquito nets work out to about eight dollars each, which saves a life, and it minimizes the whole spread of malaria. It doesn’t cure it but its gonna minimize it until there’s actually a cure and a treatment. Haffi clean up the polluted and stagnant water that’s out there. So, these are the things we want you to know about when it comes to launching the new website. We want people, and especially our fans, to be supportive of that particular organization. It’s UFFA…that’s U-F-F-A…United Front For Africa.

Jan: Are there any songs from your vast repertoire that are favorites of yours? David: Wow, there are so many favorite songs of mine. Sometimes I listen back to tracks like “ Nyabinghi Voyage,” “Door of No Return” …there are certain songs I can’t believe I wrote. Something possessed me at the time. I look back on it and I sort of wake up and realize …Hey, where did these lyrics come from? Those are the songs I feel pleased about. “Soldiers” is probably my all time favorite. Obviously there’s “Rally Round”…there’s so many of them. “Drug Squad,” I like that. When it comes to songs, it’s not only the song itself…it’s how it comes into being in the first place. It had to be an excuse of some kind that brought that song into motion. I’m enjoying putting together the new sets of songs right now. Taking my time with it. See what happens. Let’s hope that the grooves are strong enough to stand up to what the songs are gonna contain.

Jan: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview and for taking time on your jet-lagged body to talk to us. David: Thank you, as well, for all of the support you’ve given us over the years and all those wonderful photographs. I hope to be sifting through some of those for the new website. I’m telling you…I’m serious as a heart attack…Boo Boom! Interview copyright of and Jan Salzman.

The right places

The white sands of Koh Rung island
There's lots of talk at the moment about the islands off the Cambodian coast and that Cambodia is destined to become Asia’s newest island hotspot, in succession to Thailand. It's certainly the case that contracts have been signed for many of the sixty-plus virgin islands that lie off the coast and projects have already begun including building a bridge between the mainland and the island of Koh Pos for example. A post on the Private Islands Blog here has the run-down of who's doing what and where, if you are interested. I've never been much of an island lover myself but a visit to Koh Rung late last year gave me a glimpse into what all the fuss is about, and where sand, sea and holiday-hideaways are in demand, Cambodia has untapped potential in abundance.

Last night I had a call from Rachel, in town for a couple of days before starting her new job in Siem Reap, to meet on the top of one of Phnom Penh's tallest buildings for cocktails. It's just around the corner from me, it's called The Place and is a smart, newly-opened mish-mash of restaurants, bars, a gym and more besides. Not somewhere I'd usually visit but worth it for a view over the rooftops of Phnom Penh at night, looking down towards and past the Independence Monument. My photo doesn't really do the view justice but with a pepsi at $3.50 it won't be the place for me.
Phnom Penh at night, from The Place

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pocket guide review

Siem Reap is changing rapidly and to keep abreast of the best the town and the surrounds have to offer, Lonely Planet are publishing a 150-page Encounter pocket guide to Angkor Wat & Siem Reap. Written by resident Nick Ray, co-author of LP's Cambodia, it's essentially a handy-sized book of top tips rather than the in-depth look its parent guidebook takes. It's aimed at the short vacationer, written in a witty style, focusing on shopping, eating, drinking and sightseeing, moreso than accommodation. It still has 33 pages on the temples of Angkor, which is afterall why most people visit Siem Reap - the book title should really read Angkor & Siem Reap - and it also branches out with a few excursions beyond the town. Some will say it's cheap and cheerful, in fact I do, but it fills a niche for visitors who will see only Angkor and Siem Reap on their visit to Cambodia and who don't have time to wade through a mass of detail.
It kicks off with a top-six highlights, includes two walking tours as well as interviews with locals such as Nhiem Chun, the famed sweeper of Ta Prohm, Angkor guide Srei Omnoth and scholar Dr Ang Choulean. Here's a sample of Snapshots - Spas & Massages to give you a flavour:
Foot-massage shops are spread out around Psar Chaa and offer a range of remedies for dispirited soles.... Siem Reap is littered with massage shops, but some offer more 'services' than others. Gentlemen should not be surprised to be offered a 'happy ending' in certain establishments, but the amount of make-up caking the face of the masseuse is usually a good indication that traditional massage may not be high on the agenda.
As I said, cheap and cheerful. It costs $12.99, is in full colour and will be published in September.
An interview with scholar Dr Ang Choulean in the new Encounter pocket guide


Make a note in your calendars. The Smile exhibition of photographs taken by 5 children who have found their way to the Centre for Children's Happiness from Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey rubbish dump and been given street-documentary photography instruction, will be on display at Gasolina, Street 57, for a month from 25 October. If you want to see their 'work in progress,' click here, it's pretty darn good.

Reggae Rockz 2008

Gabbidon in tune
Despite a complete absence from their programme and event advertising by the Birmingham ArtsFest organizers, Reggae Rockz 2008 will take place in Centenary Square on Friday 12 September from 5pm, with Gabbidon as the late-night main headline act together with Yaz Alexander, Memphis, Dennis Seaton from Musical Youth and a host of other muso's - and its free! I really can't fathom the apathy of the ArtsFest team and their press relations unit as the Reggae Rockz festival has been so popular in the past with Steel Pulse headlining in 2005 in front of a massive audience. Read about it here. ArtsFest itself will take place in Birmingham between 12 and 14 September with hundreds of artists, performances, workshops and exhibitions. A series of outdoor and indoor venues will be used for this unique festival, and it's all free. They just need to get their press unit up to speed.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Reflections is an exhibition that began life in April 2008 at Tuol Sleng and will present different aspects of the Khmer Rouge regime in an historical-visual journey from their take over of the country in 1975 through to the present day. The exhibition is a collection of photographs and information provided by DC-Cam that range from the work carried out to locate and document the mass graves left behind by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime through to daily life in Democratic Kampuchea and onto the ongoing search for justice.
Lists of the 19,733 mass graves uncovered during a ten-year project by DC-Cam to map the grave-sites, KR prisons and genocide memorials
An unidentified grave-site of Khmer Rouge victims
The early '80s saw the unearthing of mass grave-sites around Cambodia
This is the national emblem and flag of the Khmer Rouge regime
The Renakse Petitions from the early '80s were signed by hundreds of thousands of survivors seeking justice against the Khmer Rouge
The front cover of Democratic Kampuchea Magazine, published monthly, extolling the virtues of the Khmer Rouge regime
Democratic Kampuchea's National Anthem, in English


Faces from Tuol Sleng. I took some Khmer friends to the S-21 Genocide Museum early this morning and captured some of the solo images on display. All of these faces were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge at the prison during their genocidal regime in Cambodia in the 70s.
Concrete images of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot

Survival art

Hen Sophal's The Khmer Rouge Leader painting
The global magazine Newsweek have caught up with the Art of Survival exhibition at Meta House in Phnom Penh to give it some welcome international coverage.
Painting Pol Pot - Cambodian artists of all ages depict the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in vastly different ways - by Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
Cambodian artist Oeur Sokuntevy, 25, was born after the atrocities of Pol Pot's regime. So when she was asked to produce an artwork for an exhibition looking back at that period, she struggled; Pol Pot and the legacy of his rule are not discussed much by her generation. "It's sad, but it's in the past," she says. "Everybody has a sad story. It's time to move on." In the end, Oeur painted "I Am Too Young to Understand These Words," a watercolor of a young girl in a bathing suit talking on her mobile phone beside a phrase reproduced from Pol Pot's "Little Red Book," extolling the regime's aims. Her painting stands in sharp contrast to "The Khmer Rouge Leader," a painting by Hen Sophal, 50, who depicts a grinning Pol Pot seated like an emperor atop a mountain of bones and skulls. Amid the macabre pile, a monk's torn saffron robe represents the regime's destruction of religion, and an Angkorean-carved stone its disregard for the country's ancient culture.

These two works represent the divergent perspectives of different generations of Cambodians on Pol Pot and his killing fields, and lie at the heart of "Art of Survival," a group exhibition at the contemporary art space Meta House in Phnom Penh. The exhibit is a "long-overdue dialogue through art" that seeks to address modern memories of Cambodia's painful past, says Meta House director Nico Mesterharm. The two-part exhibition began in January with 21 artists and expanded this month to include a total of 40 artists, who were each given a blank canvas to document their reflections on the Khmer Rouge period. The show was scheduled to coincide with current efforts to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice through a U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal, which is preparing for its first trial—of Kaing Guek Eac, the former commander of the notorious S-21 prison and torture center—next month. The exhibit includes international artists such as Vietnamese-Khmer painter Le Huy Hoang, who painted a portrait of his father, a Cambodian military doctor who died in one of Pol Pot's detention camps, and the American Bradford Edwards, who has regularly traveled to Cambodia over the past 12 years. "We're trying to show the impact of the genocide not just on Cambodia but on the region as well," says Lydia Parusol, art manager of Meta House.

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge presided over the deaths of almost 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. But their presence was felt long after they were overthrown 10 years ago. The Southeast Asian nation's culture was nearly wiped out during that time, and though the new government sought to rebuild the arts, it placed more emphasis on traditional dance and theater than on contemporary art. Indeed, most artists have been extremely reluctant to confront the past, notes Hen, admitting that he painted "The Khmer Rouge Leader" in 2000 but was afraid to show the work in public for fear of "retribution." "Everybody knows this happened to Cambodia, so actually, some artists feel they don't need to paint [it]," he says. "But I think about the Khmer Rouge all the time. It's in my head; it's an obsession." The works on display are clearly skewed by age. Older artists who survived the regime, like Hen, Chhim Sothy and Vann Nath, tend to show more graphic depictions of the Khmer Rouge, with skulls and death crowding canvases. Vann's untitled oil painting, which depicts a group of blindfolded prisoners with ropes around their necks being led inside the S-21 prison, is made more poignant by the knowledge that the artist is only one of a handful of remaining survivors from the torture center, where nearly 20,000 people are believed to have been tortured and killed. Since the end of the Khmer regime, Vann is probably the only painter to have continuously depicted in great detail the atrocities of the regime. Some of his works are on permanent display at the Phnom Penh prison, which has been turned into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The younger generation favors more abstract works. Tith Veasna's "Blind Pins" is a mixed-media installation using pins and black fabric—a Cambodian symbol of mourning for a relative who dies. Vandy Rattana's "Going Fanatic" is a photograph of squares of light around a hammer and sickle. "It's not that the younger generation is forgetting," Vandy says. "It's just that we don't know much about it. After 12 years of school, I'd never heard about the Khmer Rouge." Perhaps the most powerful painting is by the rising contemporary-art star Leang Seckon, whose "My Shadow" depicts a half-naked man whose mirrored reflection shows a skeleton. The man, which the artist imagines as part of Pol Pot's regime, is throwing a punch at his shadow as if wrestling with his own demons. "This man knows his guilt," says Leang. "He can hide it outside, but the mirror shows his true self." In the same way, "Art of Survival" is an unflinching reflection of Cambodia's attempts to reconcile the past.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Football fever

The Cambodian national football team line up before a recent match against Macau
It seems only yesterday that the Cambodian national football team were sacking their South Korean coach - he didn't have the necessary coaching qualifications and results weren't good either - and looking forward to a new era under former youth team coach Prak Sovannara, though his era may be short-lived after another two crushing defeats this week. Ranked 183rd in the FIFA rankings - wedged between Andorra and Nicaragua - Cambodia are likely to drop further down the league table after suffering a 7-1 defeat to Myanmar last night, just days after a 7-0 mauling to hosts Indonesia in the Pertamina Independence Cup tournament in Jakarta. Fortunately only 100 people (in a stadium holding 88,000) witnessed the Myanmar defeat so not too many can say 'I was there.' The reason for the defeat according to Sovannara was lack of preparation. Maybe the lack of talented players and a cohesive team unit might also have something to do with it.
Cambodia, who were using the games to tune-up for the AFF Suzuki Cup 2008 qualifiers to be held in Phnom Penh, are now out of the tournament that also included Libya, Brunei and an Indonesia B team. The Asean Championship qualifying rounds will be held in Cambodia from 17-25 October and five nations will go head-to-head for the two available slots in the final rounds later in the year. Joining Cambodia in the event are Philippines, Laos, Timor Leste and Brunei.

At a slightly lower standard, but not much, there's an inter-squad game between two Bayon Wanderers sides at the Old Stadium tomorrow at 2pm. With well over 40 players itching for a game, the team that went to Saigon last weekend will take on the team that stayed behind and beat the Ministry of Labour 5-3. It's certainly a thriving club and the competition for places is getting hotter each week. I need games to get my own match fitness back after my years in the football wilderness, but I'm likely to miss tomorrow after picking up a niggling groin injury at training on Thursday. I'm getting increasingly frustrated at picking up a series of knocks and strains but I must be realistic that after so long without playing, my body just isn't the athletic machine it used to be...yeah right!

The playboy King

The imposing and colourful King of Laos, Sisavang Vong
One of the more colourful characters in the history of Laos is King Sisavang Vong, often termed the playboy King because of his penchant for the opposite sex. He fathered over fifty children by as many as fifteen wives, two of whom were his half sisters. This man had staying power in abundance. He reigned as King of Luang Prabang from 1904 until 1945 then became King of a unified Laos under the French from 1946 until his death in October 1959. One of Asia's longest-serving monarchs, he lost fourteen of his children during a boating accident on the Mekong River. The Royal Palace in Luang Prabang is now a museum, built in 1904 and housing lots of the usual relics you'd find in such a place, and is a popular stop on the tourist route. I found it pretty bland which is unusual as I am normally very fond of museums. Nevertheless its worth a 1-hour visit if you have the time, and the inclination.
The entranceway to the Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang

This imposing statue of King Sisavang Vong was donated by the USSR in the early 1970s and stands in the grounds of the former Royal Palace
The Wat Ho Pha Bang, in the grounds of the Palace, is a recent addition, with construction started in 1993

The search is on

Vann Nath reflects on his year of confinement at Tuol Sleng
I find it hard to believe that this hasn't already been part of DC-Cam's investigations in the past - finding the survivors of Tuol Sleng. Youk Chhang, in response to the recent indictment order of Comrade Duch at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, is sending teams into the countryside to search for survivors, primarily to get their testimonies about life at the S-21 headquarters. Initially it was believed that only seven men survived the interrogation and slaughterhouse, but at least fourteen people were subsequently identified and many more have yet to be found. Those still alive include the painter Vann Nath, whose paintings of the daily scenes of torture still hang on the walls of Tuol Sleng today.

Teams to Search for Tuol Sleng survivors - by Mean Veasna (VOA)
At least 177 prisoners were released from Duch's Tuol Sleng prison, where more than 12,000 people were tortured and later executed and dumped in mass graves. As a trial for jailed prison chief Duch draws nearer, teams for the Documentation Center of Cambodia will begin searching for some 170 survivors of Tuol Sleng prison. The center's director, Youk Chhang, said Friday about 177 prisoners were released from Tuol Sleng, which was headed by Duch, between 1975 and 1977. In finding survivors of the prison, the center hopes to bolster the cases against Duch, whose real name is Kaing Kek Iev, for civil parties in the case. The idea for the search stemmed from an indictment of Duch that was issued earlier this month that did not mention the survivors. "What is the reason that the co-prosecutors did not include this case in the closing order of Duch?" Youk Chhang said. "Then we thought, we will do historical research, and we want to know further why 177 prisoners were released.

According the center, the prisoners were arrested from Kampong Thom, Kandal, Kampong Cham, Kampong Speu, and other provinces, and then released, between 1975 to 1977. Some of them were accused of links to the CIA, while others stood accused of loving a forbidden partner. Other charges included attempts to steal the motorcycles of Khmer Rouge cadre and other infractions against the secretive regime. "In the closing order, co-investigating judges did not mention this, and it seems that in the closing order all people who were detained have been killed," Youk Chhang said. "Indeed, some of them were released." The center will begin sending teams into the provinces next week in search of the survivors, in hopes of interviewing them and learning why they were released.

Co-investigating judge You Bunleng said Friday the center had a right to investigate. "This is their affair. I cannot give further comment before the plenary trial," he said, adding that investigating judges do not give full details of the case in their closing orders. Some documents of the center have already been used by civil party and defense lawyers. "We think that all the work of NGOs that provides interest in the [tribunal] will provide interest to our citizens," tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said. Only 10 Tuol Sleng survivors have so far been discovered, and most of those have already died.

A slice of luxury

The pool and terrace at La Residence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang
Sun loungers and the restaurant at La Residence Phou Vao
Part of the enjoyment of my recent visit to Laos was trying out the various accommodations on offer throughout my two week trip as we toured the country, and in Luang Prabang we were rather spoilt. Elsewhere we experienced a hotch-potch of standards but in Luang Prabang we stayed in the best. La Residence Phou Vao is absolutely top-drawer 5-star comfort in every respect and the view from the swimming pool in front of their restaurant is superb. Next up was Maison Souvannaphoum and I couldn't fault that either, though the shower took some getting used to. To round off our stay, we tried out the chic Apsara Hotel with its excellent restaurant. All in all a slice of luxury not to be missed in Luang Prabang, if you can afford it.
The nifty little pool and restaurant area at Maison Souvannaphoum
The chic Apsara Hotel on the Nam Khan side of Luang Prabang

Friday, August 22, 2008

Doing his thing

Yours truly (left) and Doug on one of his previous visits to Phnom Penh in November last year
My old pal Doug Mendel is in the newspaper again. And rightly so.
With help, Montrose man dousing Cambodian fires - by Reilly Capps (Telluride Daily Planet, Colorado, USA)
Cambodia doesn’t have much, and what little they do have keeps burning down, because that beautiful and battered country doesn’t have enough fire fighting equipment or fire stations to keep up. The whole country, in fact, has far fewer fire stations than the Western Slope. In the capital, Phnom Penh, for example, there is only one fire station and just nine trucks to protect two million people. It’s not uncommon for dozens, even hundreds of rickety buildings to burn down before a truck can get to the blaze. That dire situation struck Montrose resident and former volunteer fireman Doug Mendel as nearly criminal, and he’s working to change it. He’s coordinated the donation of tons of gear and two fire trucks to departments throughout the country. He long ago fell in love with this southeast Asian nation famous for producing Angkor Wat and children of Angelina Jolie. While on vacation in Cambodia in 2001, Mendel noticed that the fire station in Sihanoukville was unbelievably run-down and decrepit. “It was very basic and almost barren,” he said. When he came back, he convinced the Breckenridge fire department to donate an old fire truck, and he raised the $18,000 necessary to ship it over to Sihanoukville. In 2005, three members of the Breck fire department traveled to Cambodia to teach the locals how to use it. “It was actually really awesome,” said Kim Scott, a captain in the Breck department. She couldn’t make the trip, but heard that the Cambodians “were so appreciative it makes you want to cry.”
A lot of things about Cambodia make you want to cry, since the story of Cambodia since 1970 is pure tragedy: illegal American bombing and intense civil war, and then the horror of Pol Pot, who promoted communism by snuffing out 1.7 million of his own countrymen and left huge parts of the country booby-trapped with land mines. Today, the president is bringing real reform and the economy is improving, but one-armed kids still beg on street corners and sit below your table, big eyes desperate for a scrap of leftover noodles. To travel there is to have your heart expanded, lifted...and broken into a million little pieces. And Mendel’s big heart isn’t reserved just for underfunded fire stations. He’s also donated cameras to national park rangers so that they can document poaching and illegal logging activities, and brought over medical and dental supplies for street children. And, he gives them stuffed animals. “It makes their day,” Mendel said. "They're such genuinely happy people. Especially the children. They have so little. It just light 'em up." Last year, Mendel had a fire truck built for a remote province, Ratanakiri, and his project this year is to build a whole new fire station in that province’s capital, Ban Lung. Building a whole fire station, from foundation to roof, costs just $35,000 — less than a new Toyota FourRunner. To fund his travel, Mendel saves what he makes at the Montrose Home Depot. And when he returns from Cambodia, he brings back silk purses, silk scarves, jewelry boxes and table cloths, and sells them around the Western Slope. Yesterday, he was peddling the Cambodian stuff at the Grand Junction Flea Market.
Mendel’s next term goal is to raise a couple hundred g’s to build two fire stations in Phnom Penh, since it breaks his heart to read about the fires that ravage the capital. There was a fire not long ago, he said, that took out 500 slum houses and just about every single possession a lot of families had. "It would bring tears to my eyes to see one or two more fire stations in Phnom Penh," Mendel said. Scott, the Breck fire captain, said her department’s relationship with Cambodia has expanded their world, and said Mendel made it possible. “He’s just an amazing man,” she said. “It’s a really nice feeling when you know you’re helping people.” Mendel returns to Cambodia in October, his 12th trip in six years, brining over 800 pounds of gear for the Phnom Penh station. His nonprofit, the Douglas Mendel Cambodian Relief Fund, is looking for donations. If you’d like to help, surf to, where you can watch videos, see pictures and donate via PayPal. Or call him at 970-240-6120.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Don't miss Kuang Si

The upper waterfall at Tat Kuang Si
It's just about to rain again so I thought I'd show you some more water, this time the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls that are a must-see about 30kms south of Luang Prabang in Laos. The many-tiered falls cascade over limestone formations and into a series of gorgeous turquoise pools in which you can swim. Bring your trunks but be warned, the water can be chilly as the pools are often shaded by the forest. Its a lovely spot with the larger falls at the top, which can be reached by a path through the forest or along the tarmac road. As you descend, there's a series of swimming pools to enjoy, smaller waterfalls as well as two enclosures, one for a well-hidden tiger, the other for frolicking sun bears, two of whom put on a great show for us but who moved so quickly that most of my photos were a blur of fur! There was a lot of water for my visit but I can imagine parts of Kuang Si are a raging torrent during the rainy season. After visiting the waterfall park we made our way to Vang Vieng across some stunningly visual mountain passes with jagged mist-shrouded limestone mountain peaks in the distance. Well worth stopping your transport if possible to get a few shots of the beautiful scenery along Route 13.
The map of Tat Kuang Si and surrounds
One of the smaller waterfalls at the lower end of Kuang Si
Some of the gorgeous turquoise pools awaiting your arrival
I waited for a woman washing herself in this waterfall to finish before taking this photo
One of the two large sun bears rescued from poachers at Kuang Si
An old abandoned wooden Lao house next to one of the lower waterfalls
A view of the gorgeous scenery from Route 13 as you wind your way to Vang Vieng

Tempers cool off

The Cambodian flags flies proudly over Preah Vihear
The Preah Vihear situation has calmed down considerably in recent days and most of the Cambodian and Thai soldiers that were occupying the pagoda complex near the temple have moved out and away from the immediate area, lessening tensions and allowing everyone to take a deep breath. They've even filled in the trenches they'd dug. With this cooling-off period has come more talks between the two sides, no major decisions yet, but at least there's sensible dialogue. There's no guarantee that it'll be resolved quickly but at least the nationalism drums have stopped banging and the two sides can hopefully resolve it without soldiers on both sides looking down the barrels of each other's guns. The temple belongs to Cambodia. Full stop. The surrounding area is what's in dispute and that needs to be managed jointly. Full stop. How they do that remains to be seen, but it may need the help of outside nations to facilitate this no-man's land. As for temples like Ta Muen Thom that straddle the 800km border elsewhere, well, there's lots more talking to be done about those. The definitive border between the two countries has been fluid to say the least for far too long and its something that needs to be resolved, but that will take goodwill and compromise on both sides and so far there's not been too much of that in the air. It's not an easy one to solve, I wish them good luck. As for access to Preah Vihear, the easy way in via Thailand will remain closed until the border issue there is resolved. Access from the Cambodian side has remained open throughout although with heavily-armed soldiers from both sides swarming around it wasn't such a good idea to visit, though hundreds have done so each day throughout the dispute without any problem. Hun Sen has ordered improved roads to the temple to the Cambodian side in a clear push to raise the profile of this new World Heritage site, though work on the 4km road up the side of the mountain has been halted this week due to heavy rains.
In other news, the 5-times-a-week Mekong Times has halted production after about six months of struggling to get itself a foothold in the media dog-fight in Cambodia, whilst the brand new daily Phnom Penh Post failed to arrive at the newstands yesterday after alleged problems at the printers. Not something a new paper can afford to happen too often! Oh, and as I type this, it's raining again outside...
A common sight in Phnom Penh - afternoon downpours and the construction of yet another tall building

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Iconic sweeper

I wrote the following blog post back in September 2006. I repeat it now as the spotlight has again been turned onto the sweeper of Ta Prohm in the latest edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Cambodia. First of all, here's my posting from a couple of years ago:
Do you recognise this living icon of Angkor? His name is Choun Nhiem, he's eighty-four years old and features in the photos of thousands of tourists that have visited the Angkorean temple of Ta Prohm. Many will recognise his face, his hunched stature, and like the white-robed nuns who tend the statues at Bayon and the sweet little girls who sell trinkets and souvenirs amongst the temples, he's become one of Angkor's living icons. A widow and nearly blind, Choun Nhiem spends his days sweeping leaves from the courtyards and corridors of Ta Prohm and is recognised by many from his appearance on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook. For the past fifteen years he's been as much a part of Ta Prohm as the roots and trees that clasp the temple walls in their vice-like grip. Choun Nhiem was a labourer at the Angkor site before the Khmer Rouge years, during which he lost two sons. He lives in a small village near the temple, has three surviving children and returns to Ta Prohm every day to carry out his duties, and to sell the occasional trinket to tourists - he offered me a small cowbell when I first met him in 1997. I've seen Choun Nhiem every time I've returned to the temple on my visits to Angkor, and I hope to see him for many years to come, Ta Prohm wouldn't be the same without him.

The latest LP Cambodia, published this month, focuses on him in their Angkor section.
Nhiem Chun by Nick Ray
Nhiem Chun is as much an icon of Angkor as the tangled roots that slowly choke the ancient stones of Ta Prohm. He will be forever known as the ‘sweeper of Ta Prohm,’ as Nhiem Chun has dedicated his life to stemming the tide of nature, bent double, stooping low over the stones to sweep away the falling leaves each day. I first met Nhiem back in 1995 when exploring Ta Prohm. He was more sprightly then, nimbly gliding over fallen pillars, tumbled stones and moss-clad lintels in search of his quarry, those ever-falling leaves. Nhiem’s face was every bit as chiselled and characterful as the beautiful devadas that still lined the galleries. Years later he was immortalised by Lonely Planet when his iconic image was selected as the cover shot for the fourth edition of this Cambodia guidebook. It is a definitive shot, Nhiem standing in front of the ‘Tomb Raider tree’. Nhiem soon became an A-list Angkor celebrity and crowds thronged around him wanting a photograph. At 86, Nhiem Chun is about the same age as King Sihanouk, although their lives could hardly be more different. He grew up tending buffalo and helping with the harvest, but thanks to a chance meeting with Angkor curator Henri Marchal in 1941 he began work as a labourer, helping with temple restoration at Angkor. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the temples and Nhiem was destined to spend the next 65 years of his life working amid the sacred stones. Nhiem’s world crumbled around him when the Khmer Rouge came to power. ‘In the 1970s, our lives were turned upside down. I could not do my job, I had to work the land,’ says Nhiem. ‘You had no choice. You would be killed.’ More precious than his beloved temples, his two sons disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime. ‘When the fighting was over, my two sons were still missing,’ he recalls. ‘I was told they had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, their throats slit with sharpened sugar palm fronds.’

In 2006 the BBC came to Cambodia to film for the documentary series Imagine….Who Cares About Art? And Nhiem Chun, the ever-loyal guardian of Ta Prohm, was our subject. We spent several days with him, learning about his life, his loves, and his loss. ‘The older I get the more I love this place. These temples are the spirit of the Cambodian nation,’ muses Nhiem, wandering about Ta Prohm. ‘I could have built this temple in a past life. If I did not have any connection, I would not be here to take care of it today.’ Nhiem is not getting any younger and frets about the future. ‘I am old now. I can’t take care of these temples any more,’ he opines wistfully. ‘But when I am gone, these stones will still be here. These temples are symbols of our soul. We will not survive if we don’t look after our temples.’ Like the ancient stones of Ta Prohm, like his beloved monarch Sihanouk, Nhiem Chun has experienced light and dark. A life lived among beauty and brilliance, he has also experienced the ugly side of mankind. But life goes on and the leaves continue to fall. ‘If I don’t sweep, the leaves will cover the temple. I must sweep,’ he mutters. Nhiem Chun is a man for all seasons. Nhiem Chun has finally hung up his brush to enjoy a well-earned retirement and lives with his grandchildren in a village near Ta Prohm. Some quotes taken from BBC film Imagine…Who cares About Art?

Oh My Buddha!

A giant reclining Buddha figure at Buddha Park, outside Vientiane
Buddha Park, or known by its official name, Xieng Khuan, lies 25kms from the Laos capital Vientiane, on the banks of the Mekong River, hence why I saw a photo the other day of the park under water and a guide taking people around by boat! When I visited it recently, it was bone dry and a great place to take kids. A school party arrived as we were leaving and you could see the delight in the children's faces when they saw some of the weird and wonderful concrete statues on display. Its a mix of Buddhist and Hindu gods with lots of other stuff thrown in for good measure. A tv crew were also there as I toured the park and its so eccentric that it gets a lot of attention from all quarters. The brainchild of Bunleua Sulilat, it was built in 1958 and some statues are wearing better than others. There's a great view over the park from the upper level of the giant pumpkin-shaped monument at one end. I'm told there's another similar park, built by the same priest just over the river in Thailand's Nong Khai.
A panoramic view of Buddha park
The pumpkin-shaped monument offers great views over the park
I thought this face was very life-like, expecting it to move for a Candid Camera moment!
He ain't going to miss his shot from that range
I assume this is Indra on his 3-headed elephant Airavata
This reminded me of the fierce kala's you see on numerous lintels throughout Khmer iconography
The park was a haven for children playing amongst the monuments

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A spot of peace and quiet

The relaxing Peace Pagoda just outside Luang Prabang
The colourful Phra That Khong Santi Chedi or Peace Pagoda as its known, is a great little spot for some quiet relaxation above Luang Prabang and has become something of a popular tourist magnet since it was built in 1988. The monastery is famous for the teachings of its late abbot, Ajahn Saisamut - no relation to the famous Khmer singer I'm told! The large yellow and gold stupa contains three floors inside and an outside terrace near the top provides some great views over the surrounding tree-topped countryside. The inside walls are painted with all manner of Buddhist stories and more than enough wall panels to keep you on the straight and narrow, if the depictions of hell and damnation are any sort of deterrent. The stupa was spotlessly clean and well worth the 3km trip from town. More photos from my recent trip to Laos will follow.
These novice monks take advantage of the peace and quiet at Santi Chedi
No peace and quiet for these poor souls, who are suffering in a variety of ways
Adulterers beware of the spiky tree forest - its no place to hide
If I see anyone with a blue or red scarf on their head, I'm off!
These ladies have a nasty habit of self-mutilation - I'm not sure its a good idea myself
This old lady kept the pagoda clean and was quick to ask for a picture fee
One of the lovely views from the upper level of Santi Chedi outside Luang Prabang

History and happenstance

Before and after, at the Guimet Museum in Paris
I took a deep breath when I read this story from the Independent newspaper in the UK a couple of years ago but its worth repeating here. How many heads and other priceless Khmer works of art are in the hands of privileged private collectors like John Gunther Dean? It reminded me of the time when I saw a Jayavarman VII head on the windowsill of an elderly gentleman in Cheltenham who used to work for the Michelin rubber company in Kompong Cham and was given the head by the curator of the National Museum in Phnom Penh as a leaving gift. He assured me it was an original and at the time, probably twenty years ago, who was I to argue. How much more of Cambodia's priceless heritage has been given away so recklessly? Here's the story by John Lichfield in Paris from May 2006.

By sheer chance
A wife of the Hindu god Shiva, decapitated in Cambodia in the 15th century, finally has her head back, after it was discovered 500 years later on the other side of the world. A Paris museum dedicated to Asia, the Musée Guimet, is celebrating the implausible chain of events that reunited a divided masterpiece of ninth-century Cambodian art. The headless body of a wife of the Hindu god of destruction and renewal was found by French archaeologists near the shattered temple of Bakong, amid the celebrated Angkor ruins, in 1935. The statue has been exhibited since 1938 at the Musée Guimet in the Place d'Iéna in Paris, which has the finest collection of ancient Khmer artefacts outside Cambodia. Last autumn, the museum held an exhibition on Vietnamese art which paid tribute in its catalogue to a retired American diplomat, John Gunther Dean. The catalogue recounted Mr Dean's efforts, as ambassador to Cambodia in the early 1970s, to rescue ancient Khmer art from the ravages of the Khmer Rouge, which was determined to expunge all record of Cambodia's past.

To thank the museum, Mr Dean, now 80, offered a gift from his own collection of ancient Khmer artefacts. Last month, the gift arrived, the sculpted head of a woman found at the Bakong temple site in 1939. "I asked him for a Khmer head because we only had headless statues but I didn't think for a moment about a possible match," said Pierre Baptiste, the museum's curator for south-east Asian art. "I brought the head into our [Cambodian] hall looking for a place that it could be exhibited," said Baptiste. "I had a sudden notion the two pieces resembled each other but then thought, 'no, things never happen that way'. I put the head on the statue's shoulders. It shifted a few millimetres. I heard the little click that you get when two stones fit together and the head fell perfectly into place. It was as if it had put itself together. I still get goose-bumps thinking about it." The reformed statue, which is 4ft 10in high, was beheaded in the temple when it was destroyed in the 15th century.
Note: The wife of Shiva is Parvati, also known as Uma. However, the Guimet Museum has always shied away from confirming the statue as a wife of Shiva, instead terming the work of art as a female divinity from the Preah Ko period, c 881.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cambodia books aplenty

A new book from Ashgate Publishing that is just about to go public is James A Tyner's attempt to convince us that the Khmer Rouge genocide was also terracide - the erasure of space. His 228 page book argues that their erasing and reshaping of space gives a uniquely geographic perspective on the complex topic of genocide. If I could understand it, I might agree! His book is called The Killing of Cambodia: Geography, Genocide and the Unmaking of Space. Tyner is a professor of geography at the Kent State University in the US.
Staying on an educational theme, a book for 14-18 year olds is Pol Pot's Cambodia by Matthew Scott Weltig, in the Dictatorships series by Twenty-First Century Books. Out in October, its 160 pages brings to the classroom the real story behind Pol Pot and his genocidal regime. On the same subject Sean Bergin's The Khmer Rouge & The Cambodian Genocide is aimed at the same age grouping. On a lighter note, Thomas Cook Publishing will join the guidebook party with their Travellers Cambodia edition, by David Henley and Andrew Forbes, in October. 176 pages with 140 photos from the same team that brought us the Insight Compact Guide to Cambodia in 2000.
I missed this book on its publication earlier this year, so its high time I highlighted Escaping the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Memoir by Chileng Pa with Carol A Mortland. A former policeman Chileng recalls his life as he hid his identity from the Khmer Rouge until his wife and child were murdered and he escaped to Vietnam. He returned as part of the Vietnamese invasion force before resettling in America with his new family in 1981. His memoir is posthumous as Chileng died in 2005. I don't hear about every new book that gets published with Cambodia as its main focus, so if you do know of any that I haven't mentioned, please let me know.

Art of Survival

An Art of Survival painting by Leang Seckon
I managed to grab a quick peek at the Art of Survival Part 2 exhibition at Meta House last night before sitting down to enjoy the Rithy Panh film, One Evening After The War, on the rooftop terrace. Due to go global, this exhibition includes works by contemporary Cambodian artists as well as foreign guests, giving their personal interpretation of Cambodia's recent traumatic past. It runs until 13 September and in partnership with the Bophana Center, has spawned a book, Cambodian Artists Speak Out: The Art of Survival.
Using kramas to express herself, this artwork is by Chan Pisey

Perhaps the most well-known artist in Cambodia at this time is Vann Nath. His paintings and sketches of his experiences during a year of captivity at Tuol Sleng have for many years informed visitors of the cruel activities that took place at the S-21 headquarters in Phnom Penh. He recently exhibited a series of newly-created paintings and sketches at the Bophana Center in the city before taking his exhibits to Bangkok, under the title Endurance. Now that collection is being issued as a limited edition of 79 numbered and signed copies, 79 being symbolic of the year Vann Nath escaped imprisonment and the year that Phnom Penh was liberated from the Khmer Rouge. The full collection includes fine art prints of 12 paintings and 14 sketches. They are available for purchase at his Phnom Penh gallery on Street 169, Art World on Street 240 and the Thavibu gallery in Bangkok.
Vann Nath is seen here painting Pol Pot for the S-21 chief Duch, from the Endurance collection

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Henri Mouhot

The tomb of Henri Mouhot
Ignoring the misconception that French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot discovered Angkor in 1860, he was still instrumental in bringing it to the attention of the West and it was his posthumously published 'Travels in Siam, Cambodia and Laos' that evoked lost civilizations in the jungle. From his base in Bangkok he made four journeys into the three countries covered in his journals and overcame extreme hardship before succumbing to malaria in the jungle near Luang Prabang in Laos. Two of his servants buried him by the banks of the Nam Khan river and his favourite servant, Phrai, transported all of Mouhot's journals and specimens to Bangkok, from where they were shipped to Europe. He died in November 1861 and his journals were published two years later. His tomb was lost for many years and only rediscovered in 1990. Today its a popular stop on the tourist route and lies just a few kilometres from Luang Prabang.
A sign explaining the different routes to the tomb
From behind the tomb, looking through the forest shade to the Nam Khan river nearby
The free-flowing Nam Khan river just twenty yards from Mouhot's final resting place
A drawing of Henri Mouhot

Rough Guide to Cambodia - review

The folks at Rough Guide have sent me their brand new 3rd edition of The Rough Guide to Cambodia to review and as a standalone guidebook it's certainly adequate if unspectacular. Like all new guidebooks it inevitably suffers from the gap between research and publication with amendments in its eating and sleeping sections even before it hits the bookshelves and this edition is no exception. Address changes for Cafe 151 and Garden Centre Cafe in Phnom Penh are obvious ones but the inclusion of the Sambor Prey Kuh hotel in Kompong Thom is shoddy - it closed its doors at least two years ago. They limit their accommodation listings - I let out a big groan of disappointment when I realised they'd completely overlooked my favourite guesthouse in Siem Reap, Shadow of Angkor - and they haven't exactly gone out on a limb with their author picks of hotels such as Raffles Le Royal, Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Independence, Knai Bang Chatt and La Villa. I did like their in-depth look at the National Museum and their books section, and thirty pages on the temples of Angkor is welcome, but some of their page layout is messy, their 21 things not to miss is confusing and their choice of black & white photos left a lot to be desired. I cringed at some of the spelling - Skone (Skun), Koh Dait (Koh Dach) and Wat Jum Pos Ka-aik (Wat Champuh Ka'Ek) - come to mind, and felt they missed lots of opportunities to expand their coverage of key sights. For example, Koh Ker was paltry, the Cardamom Mountains virtually ignored, the floating villages of Kompong Phluk and Kompong Khleang do not appear to exist, no mention too for the temple ruins near Kompong Chhnang and Prey Veng, a province no less, merited all of one line.
Inevitably, guidebooks draw comparisons with their rivals in the marketplace and Rough Guides' main rival is the Lonely Planet. Both have published their latest editions this month so the comparison is timely and in my opinion, Lonely Planet wins hands down. Rough Guide is ahead on photos, 73 against a poor 23, LP leads on maps, and map quality, with 46 versus 33, while both books are 368 pages in length. At $29.99, Rough Guide is $8 more expensive and in a head-to-head battle, Rough Guide comes off second best and with a bloody nose.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Waterfall fun

The first level of waterfalls at Tad Sae
The Tad Sae waterfalls and lunchtime elephant bathing was next on our around Luang Prabang itinerary, after we'd visited the Pak Ou caves, during my recent visit to Laos. The multi-level limestone waterfalls and pools are very pretty and you can swim and bathe in all of them before catching the lunchtime arrival of a trio of elephants for a bath and some splashing around with their handlers. The forest setting and the beautiful turquoise water pools are very popular at weekends as you might imagine, as its just 15kms south of the city. We arrived by boat along the Nam Khan river, cooled off in the refreshing water and sampled the local cuisine at the restaurant on stilts overlooking the second level of waterfalls. All very pleasant before we headed for the village of Ban Phanom and the tomb of the French explorer Henri Mouhot.
Its a very pretty spot amongst the trees for bathing in the turquoise water
The second level of waterfalls at Tad Sae
A mahout takes a ride on one of the trio of elephants
Two of the elephants at the second level of waterfalls, overlooked by the restaurant

Love story

Love story at Meta House: Chea Lyda Chan and Narith Roeun
Lots going on at the Meta House on Street 264 in Phnom Penh this month. Tonight will see two of John Pilger's best documentaries about Cambodia, namely his groundbreaking hour-long Year Zero - The Silent Death of Cambodia, that he filmed in 1979 and the 1991 docu, Cambodia - The Betrayal and the continued support, at that time, for the Khmer Rouge factions by the West. In addition, young Aussie filmmaker Cameron Frost will be present to show his short documentary, A Cambodian Story, of a day in the life of a family and the trials and tribulations they endure, which was shot in 2006. Sunday (17th) will see the sensitive tale of love and lost souls in Rithy Panh's One Evening After The War. Panh is a master story-teller and Cambodia's only internationally-feted film director. The stars are Narith Roeun who plays a kickboxer, and bar-girl Chea Lyda Chan (pictured above), and who are joined by regular Panh collaborator, Peng Phan. Next week there's a host of Vietnam War-linked documentaries, the on-going Art of Survival Part 2 exhibition that opened up this week and much more.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Wet stuff

It's the rainy season don't you know. Amidst flood warnings in the upper Mekong River region of Cambodia, flooded streets in Phnom Penh whenever there's more than five minute's worth of rain (more of a drainage problem though it rains heavily every afternoon) and a few flooded streets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos, the water levels are rising. The overland road from Vientiane to Pakse is flooded at Paksan making the trip impassable, whilst in northern Vietnam, they're still cleaning up after floods and landslides rocked the province of Lao Cai this week with the worst flooding for forty years.

There's been major progress at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and fresh details have emerged with the indictment of Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, with Crimes Against Humanity and Grave Breaches of the Geneva Convention. Effectively it opens the door to the start of the trial proper for Duch, who was the head of the Khmer Rouge's S-21 interrogation center at Tuol Sleng. The indictment order is 45 pages long and contains details that I haven't previously been aware of. Read it for yourself here.


The tragic story of Sean Flynn, the son of Hollywood icon Errol Flynn, who rode off on his motorbike with photojournalist colleague Dana Stone into a battlezone during the 1970 Cambodian civil war, never to be seen again, will be told in the new big-screen biopic, Flynn. Himself an actor, Flynn's disappearance has been the subject of much conjecture suggesting that either the Khmer Rouge or the Viet Cong were his captors and eventual killers, though never proved, giving the story an air of mystery and intrigue. Prolific tv writer Ralph Hemecker will direct and is writing the screenplay with Perry Deane Young, who wrote the 1975 book, Two of the Missing, on which the movie will be based. Flynn was declared dead in 1984 as one of 22 international journalists missing in SEAsia. A few years later a photojournalist colleague, Tim Page's investigations revealed eye witness reports about Flynn's whereabouts and eventual death but no definitive proof has been established. Perhaps the film will reveal all.

Roy Hill - My Life In Showbiz - final part

The final instalment of 'My Life In Showbiz' by Roy Hill brings us right up to date. Roy is currently rehearsing like a madman for some solo dates in the next couple of months and the usual Cry No More reunion gig around Christmas. He's also been busy putting out a series of CD's of his own work and that of Cry No More. You can find out all the details at his Myspace website.

In 1999 I sold steam irons, handed out leaflets and got a job as a courier driver.

And so my life is over now, I have nothing to look forward to except death and hell. In 'The Waltons' and 'Little House On The Prairie', people die nice deaths, surrounded by their freinds but I will probably fall down a manhole and break my neck before drowning in sewage. However, I wonder if hell can really be that bad? It can't be any worse than standing outside this bloody warehouse waiting for Terry Watkins to arrive.

In 2000 I drove a van, wrote stories, script ideas, sketches, poems, anything but songs.

In 2001 I drove another van, sold massage machines and wrote a comedy script, Car 13 Where Are you?

RUBY: Still no news from Car 13?
VINCENT: Nothing.
RUBY: He’ll show up.
VINCENT: I hope so. How are things with you?
RUBY: Well, I swear my clients are getting weirder.
VINCENT: Is that possible?
RUBY: You have no idea. This morning I had a gentleman who dressed up as Rupert Bear and tried to balance a beach ball on his head. Every time the ball dropped I had to whack him between the legs with a golf club. A nine iron.
VINCENT: Good grief.
RUBY: And tomorrow I have a gentleman who likes to cower behind the refrigerator while I skin a rabbit. I have to shout at him.
VINCENT: What do you shout?
RUBY: You naughty boy, you scamp, that sort of thing.

In 2002 I co-wrote and recorded an album with my son Jamie. He hears different notes to me and I learned a lot. Most of all I learned to loosen up my approach to songwriting and don’t work with your son. Only joking Jamie.

In 2003 I sold more massage machines and wrote a comedy script, Welcome To Kent.

In 2004 I sold more massage machines and wrote another comedy script, Hubert.

SOUND FX: Seagulls, distant waves.
GEORGE: Oh I love the seaside. I love the sea. It's so wet and salty. Hubert loved the sea you know. I remember once in Eastbourne, when he thought he saw a kangaroo, but when we got up close it was just a tennis ball ... what kind of bird is that?
WHITWORTH: It's a seagull your reverence.
GEORGE: Is it really? He's a cheeky fellow, look, he's blowing me a kiss. Too whit too whoo, too whit too whoo, I think he knows what I'm saying.
WHITWORTH: Shall we walk a little further?
GEORGE: Hubert loved birds ...
GEORGE: ... eagles, wrens, peewits, even the humble sparrow, he shot them all. - HUBERT

In 2005 I wrote and recorded an album of new songs which stepped outside my normal style, a brave decision considering how successful I’d been wth the old one. My lawyer and good friend David Gentle felt I might have found my oeuvre (he’s very cosmopolitan), my brother Deryk said they sounded like a suicide note.

In 2006 my doctor told me I was clinically depressed. I asked her how she'd reached this apparently random diagnosis. She said, 'You've been crying for the last fifteen minutes', a regular Sherlock Holmes. She said I needed anti-depressants and counselling. I said I didn’t believe in counselling. She said I couldn’t have the anti-depressants then. I had the counselling. Things got much worse then much better. I got a job putting up exhibition stands. There's nothing quite like being constantly called a useless wanker by a gang of tattooed ruffians for lifting the spirits. END OF PART SIX.

In 2007, impressed with my ability to carry four bacon rolls with brown sauce, two hot dogs and six teas, in one go, without dropping anything, the ruffians decided I wasn't entirely useless and I became just 'wanker'. Bliss. Their plug ugly faces and endless moaning will live in my heart forever. Feeling more like my old self than my old self ever did I started compiling CDs from the stuff I’d been writing and recording since the long gone yesteryear of 1974. One crisp October morning I started singing in the bath. I was back.

So here we are in 2008 and whaddayaknow ... CD's On Sale: Four ready so far, ten to come, more if I include the real rubbish. I'm working on a website to make purchasing as simple as pie, in the meantime you can order direct from me. More info? Coming right up.


12 songs recorded 1976-77, a mixture of acoustic demos and tracks recorded with The Strolling Players.

'Although sometimes primitive in execution these recordings are charged with the writer-performer’s manifest eccentricities, by turns playful, waspish and melancholy.' Pat from next door.


12 tracks recorded 1983-84 with producer David Richards. Most are demos, some had loftier ambitions. David Richards went on to work with lesser acts such as Queen, Bowie and Michael Jackson. I went on to sell massage machines.

'I am completely satisfied with my massager, it has helped my shoulders no end’ Mrs Pike, Watford.


Cry No More's debut outing originally released on cassette in 1986, otherwise exactly what the title suggests, with knobs on.

'My all-time favourite album.' Brian Rizla, The Brian Rizla Experience.


From the pubs of Twickenham to ... American producers, American Musicians, released in 1988 on vinyl and cassette. Chapter 15 of a study in career pinball.

'What were they thinking?' Keith from Homebase.

Link: Myspace

Roy Hill - My Life In Showbiz - part two

Here's the second instalment of Roy Hill's 'My Life In Showbiz' memoir that appears on his Myspace website. It is simply too good not to bring to the attention of as many people as possible. The man is a genius.

In 1982 I recorded an album of songs with airline pilot and sound engineer Nigel Stokes, in his basement studio, with a host of guest musicians. It was a happy and heartening experience. I hawked the tapes around and acquired a manager, Jim Beach, renowned for his success with Queen. Fame and indecent fortune beckoned. This time there would be no mistakes.

In 1983 I signed to Warner Bros Music who would ensure my songs were recorded by the worlds’ major artists. Jim Beach would get me a new record deal in no time. Happy days were here again. I began working with producer David Richards at Queen’s Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, another happy experience.

In 1984 I recorded songs in Switzerland, I recorded songs in London, I wrote with French disco star Patrick Juvet, I wrote with ex-Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips. Chrysalis Records showed interest until I recorded some tracks for them. I made a 'showcase' appearance in a 'fashionable' London nightclub with a hastily assembled band, nobody came, nobody missed anything. Jim and I parted company. I was dropped by Warner Bros. David Richards began working with Queen. END OF PART TWO.

In 1985 I played some shows with Chas Cronk at The Mulberry Tree, a pub in Twickenham. The shows turned into a weekly residency, and we turned into Cry No More. Sunday night took on a life of its own, part music, part bearpit, a drop-in centre for moral delinquents, a cabaret for the disposessed. Moi? We were joined occasionally by moustachioed keyboard wizard Nick Magnus, against his better judgement. Everyone talked a lot and had nosebleed. It was fun. We released a self-financed single Cry No More and the keenly titled Live At The Mulberry Tree on cassette. Paul Farrah, the owner of a successful sound equipment hire company, provided us with a PA, sound engineers and recording gear free of charge.

In 1986 we played Richmond Theatre thanks to Paul Farrah and an expanding Mulberry Tree Choir. Chas and I began a regular writing partnership and acquired a manager, Jim Beach, renowned for his success with Queen. We signed to EMI Records and EMI Music. Bingo! EMI Records would make us stars, EMI Music would ensure our songs were recorded by the worlds’ major artists. Fame and an unspeakable fortune beckoned. This time there would be no mistakes. We released Dancing In The Danger Zone, a self-produced single which disappeared without trace, followed by Real Love which was even less successful in spite of having five different producers. I won’t trouble you with their names. Smile, an edited version of Live At The Mulberry Tree, was released by Coldharbour Records.

In 1987 we supported Suzanne Vega on a UK tour before recording the provocatively titled Cry No More, produced by Richard Gottehrer, Jeffrey Lesser and David Richards. Planned in New York, recorded in Switzerland with American session men and Nick Magnus, against his better judgement, mixed at a studio belonging to Tears for Fears, it was an expensive, overblown affair. Richard and I were not a match made in heaven. Not to worry, it was singles time. Recipe For Romance bombed in spite of a Nick Davies remix, Tears On The Ballroom Floor, co-written with Anthony Phillips and released with a promotional video, went the same way. We provided songs for a low budget horror film, Bloody New Year and our cameo appearance as The Flying Cadillacs won us both Oscars. It didn't really, I made that bit up. I'm not making this up though, Bucks Fizz recorded Tears On The Ballroom Floor and we ended the year touring with Aswad. Yes, Aswad.

In 1988 we wrote more songs, played at The Mulberry Tree, played in lots of other pubs, toured with John Martyn and produced a 17 minute documentary video, Crying Out Loud, without EMI noticing.

In 1989 we recorded Love And Power with curly haired ex-Strawbs keyboard wizard Andy Richards. It still didn't sound like us and we co-produced it. EMI released Peace In Our Time, another flop, before dropping us, but the album was released in Germany by EMI-Electrola.
A single, Oh Sharon! was an airplay hit, well almost, and we played a club tour of Germany, a colourful experience. Following the closure of the Mulberry Tree we started the Cry No More Social Club at the nearby Turks Head.

In 1990 we did a second tour of Germany, released two more singles, Big Car and Landslide, which were not almost airplay hits and played larger venues supporting Marillion. We wrote more songs, EMI-Electrola didn’t like them, you can guess what happened next. Correct. In a fit of pique I started writing a comedy script, Radio Nowhere.

MICK: Come on ref, watch him.
JOHN: Now use it.
MICK: Go on, shoot!
JOHN: Useless Evans, you're useless.
MICK: How's your missus?
JOHN: She's only crashed the car hasn't she? Swerved to avoid some
kid running in the road and bosh, straight into a skip, both legs broken, four broken ribs, broken shoulder, sixty stitches, no claims right up the chute, muggins 'ere on the bus. Come on Evans pass it.
MICK: When was this?
JOHN: About quarter to one, I nearly didn't make it.

In 1991 we were asked to perform Georges Bar on an ITV consumer show, Beat The Cheat. I ended up becoming a presenter, something I wouldn’t care to repeat. It never got past the pilot edition, a blessing. Noel Gay Television expressed an interest in Radio Nowhere, I wrote a second instalment, it came to nothing.

Beat The Cheat ... 'When Lloyd Grossman is the only person making any sense you know you have encountered crap of the highest order.' Time Out.

In 1992 we played a week long residency in the Hyatt Hotel, Montreux, which is as much fun as you can have without actually enjoying yourself. The Social Club audience began to drift away. Jim Beach quit. END OF PART THREE.

The Defence Department has confirmed that scientist, Andre Delon, was working on a top secret project at the time of his death, fuelling rumours that he may have been killed by a Russian spy.

In 1993 I was commissioned by Paul Farrah, now a theatre producer, to write a stage musical version of The Fly, a gift from heaven. I wrote day and night for a spectacularly tiny fee. My profits would come when the play was a hit.

SHERAZ: Did you kill your husband Mrs Delon? JENNIFER: Yes. SHERAZ: How did you kill him? JENNIFER: In a hydraulic press. SHERAZ : You squashed him to death? JENNIFER: I pushed a button. SHERAZ: Why did you push it twice? JENNIFER: I missed the first time. - THE FLY

In 1994 a director, Steven Dexter, was appointed and a dizzying round of re-writes, rehearsals and backstabbing began. The music business might be a filthy swamp of deceit, avarice and corruption but it’s a tea party compared with musical theatre. Paul announced that, as producer, he now owned the entire rights to my script and songs. Someone called Steven Clark changed a few words here and there and was credited as co-writer. The Fly played two preview shows at the Garrick Theatre in London and that was that. Game over.

Cry No More bid adieu to The Turks Head, the first of many farewell appearances. END OF PART FOUR.

In 1995 I got a driving job.

In 1996 I started writing again and decided to try and record some songs myself. I contacted Jim Beach, renowned for his success with Queen. Jim was starting his own record label and willing to invest a modest sum in the project. Bingo! This time absolutely nothing could go wrong.

In 1997 I acquired an 8-track recorder and set about becoming my own producer, engineer and three-fingered keyboard player with all the technical acumen of a dead otter. Not a pretty sight. Helpfully, my keyboard could play She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain on its own.

In 1998 I finished the tracks. Jim suggested we replace my toytown instrument noises with the real thing using classical musicians from the Lausanne Conservatoire at Mountain Studios. My primitive playing with a bleak orchestral veneer. I agreed. David Richards was called in. Our relationship was less harmonious than of old. I returned to England. David did rough mixes in my absence, I didn’t like them. I got a call from David saying he was sorry to hear Jim had dropped me. I called Jim and received an 'I’m not sure where we’re going with this' fax and a promise that we would speak soon. I’ve never heard from him since. END OF PART FIVE.

Link: Myspace

Roy Hill - My Life In Showbiz - part one

Roy Hill is quite simply one of the most talented people I've ever met. I thought he was brilliant when I first saw him in 1978 and he's even better today. He's a genius. His comedic bent is as good as his musical ability. And he's a genuinely nice guy. Here's a glimpse into the mind of the man in this serialized 'My Life In Showbiz' memoir he's penned on his Myspace website:

In 1974 I wrote three songs.

In 1975 I won a heat of the Melody Maker Rock Contest and figured I must be the new Dylan. Yaaaaahooo! Fame and an indecent fortune beckoned. I wrote more songs, played floor spots in a Cheltenham folk club, formed an ad hoc band, the Strolling Players, made my first demos and hawked the tapes around record companies and music publishers. A chance encounter with Freddie Mercury was most helpful.

'The soloists’ section was won convincingly by Roy Hill whose original compositions, 'Join Me' a bitterly ironic song about a potential suicide, 'Living On Memory Lane’ a savage and hilarious look at a family living in a nostalgic wonderland and the poignant ‘Still Waiting’ revealed him to be a writer of substantial talent.' Allan Jones: Melody Maker.

In 1976 I signed with Arista Records and Island Music. Bingo! Arista would make me a star, Island would ensure my songs were recorded by the worlds’ major artists. Hurrah! I wrote excitedly, made more demos, played bigger stages with the Strolling Players and prepared for life as a pop icon.

'There were demo tapes by Roy Hill that sounded good enough to release; tough, spare, inexorable urban laments full of sexual and social grief.' Donald Clarke: The Rise and Fall of Popular Music.

In 1977 I recorded my first album with former Elton John producer, Gus Dudgeon and a host of top session men. It was as an expensive and overblown affair but it would have been churlish to complain when I was the only one there I hadn’t heard of. Any hope of working with some Strolling Players was dashed by Gus's ability to locate and destroy unknown musicians from a distance of several miles. Saxophonist, Bimbo Acock, survived by disguising himself as Lulu. An appearance on So It Goes provided brief respite from anecdote hell. It's impossible to do justice to the very colourful time I spent with 70's superstar producer and all-round megalomaniac, Gus Dudgeon, in this brief guide. Shame.

In 1978 the daringly named and much hyped Roy Hill was released to a critical mauling. A newly assembled Roy Hill Band supported Strawbs and Styx on UK tours, recorded a session for the John Peel Show and appeared on Revolver. Club and college dates attracted further withering disdain. Two singles, Marionettes and Georges Bar, sank without trace. Nothing was going to plan but it was fun. What plan? The year ended with a trip to Canada where Roy Hill was more politely received.

Georges Bar ...'diluted calypso drivel.' NME.

'Hill scores nil.' Des Moines: Sounds.

'Roy Hill has all the excitement of Julie Andrews singing with her head buried in a bucket of sand.' Donna McAllister: Sounds.

In 1979 as I continued touring to a chorus of howling disapproval my next offering I like I like I like, produced by Davy Rohl, became ... an NME single of the week! A second John Peel session was followed by a live set on Radio One's In Concert with Dire Straits and three sell-out shows at Riverside Studios in London. The reviews got favourable, the tide was turning. Happy days were here again.

'I like the way Roy Hill takes the piss out of rock and roll's sexual mores, social manners, tribal customs, etc ... and what I would really like is for the rest of the world to quit this Roy Who? bullshit and recognise the geezer as one of our greatest songwriters with no eyebrows raised.'
Tony Parsons: NME.

'A band able to handle any number of mood shifts as their employer goes cavorting off round the stage.' David Hepworth: Sounds.

'I haven't enjoyed a rock show so much for ages. How can such a man fail to become a star?' Dave Gelly: The Observer.

In 1980 I was dropped by Arista and Island, a chastening experience, and just when everything was going so well. Ex-Arista General Manager and staunch ally John Cooper helped me look for another deal, nothing doing. A reputation as a sharp tongued prima donna with a propensity for biting the hand that fed me didn't help. Dazed and probably drunk I joined a version of Strawbs which included four members of my own band. Don't ask. Mercifully for everyone involved it only lasted three weeks.

I wouldn't wish to give the impression it was all work and no play. I was very open to distractions, really very open. I drank beer once and ran around with my trousers off for several weeks, a frightful business.

'I never thought Roy was much good.' Pat from next door.

In 1981 The Roy Hill Band started playing in pubs. It was fun, but not as much fun as it had been. A single, Vancouver Nights, was released by Attic Records in Canada, From The Bottom Of My Heart, co-written with Chas Cronk, came out on Scratch Records in the UK. They didn't get into any charts, I don't think they actually got into any shops.

It faded, it was gone.

Cue funereal music.

Every Strolling Player, every member of The Roy Hill Band brought something good to the table. Country boys, city slickers, space cadets, funkateers, shy types, awkward types, all types. Some I knew from my teens, some came and went. John Acock was an endless fund of help and goodwill; Bimbo Acock, top man, dynamite player; Bob Critchley, grand companion, great drummer; Chas Cronk and I have been friends and cohorts since 1978; Gary, Richie, Mike, Kevin, Ross, Colin, Jamie, Steve, David, Tony, John, I learned something from all of you and look where it got me. END OF PART ONE.

Link: Myspace

Ah, I forgot these

A fog-bound Preah Vihear, it was a real pea-souper!
Yes, I did say I'd finished my Preah Vihear chapter didn't I. Well here's just a few more that will definitely bring it to a close for the time being, perhaps until my next visit. I met Alison Carter today, who blogs on her archaeological adventures here in Cambodia whilst she's over here for ten months completing her PhD, and she opened my eyes to the subject of ancient beads and how they can tell a heck of a lot about ancient civilizations. She also thought it was cool to see a fog-bound Preah Vihear. It is unless you are trying to take photos of the temple and your camera can't really recognize what its seeing, as in the photo above. The figure in front of the gopura is my pal Sokhom but the fog was so thick at that point, that my camera almost gave up. Nevertheless, a good example of how a lot of my photos were ruined by the weather that day. Also here are a lintel with Indra sitting astride the full-bodied elephant Airavata, slightly unusual as you normally only see the elephant's head, above the usual fierce kala; a badly-weathered lion also just about to be enveloped in mist; and the southern-face of Gopura IV which shows the Churning of the Sea of Milk pediment before the causeway leads onto Gopura III. In the photo a few ice-boxes remain, abandoned by the drinks sellers who were customer-less due to the border closure at that time.
Indra sits atop a full-bodied Airavata, who stands on the head of kala on this lintel
The mist approaches this lichen-covered Preah Vihear lion
The southern-face of Gopura IV that contains the Churning pediment
On a different topic completely, last night was the going-away party for Dougald O'Reilly, the founder and director of Heritage Watch and a staunch supporter of protecting Cambodia's heritage in all its many guises. He's off to the States to teach archaeology at Yale University for a year and will be greatly missed. He's been at the forefront of a lot of ground-breaking work to raise awareness of looting and its consequences as well as launching innovative projects at Koh Ker, TouchStone - HW's quarterly magazine, a Heritage Friendly Tourism campaign and much more since HW formed in 2003. Enjoy your new assignment Dougald but don't forget to return!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Journey to Pak Ou

Looking across the Mekong River to the Pak Ou limestone outcrop from Ban Pak Ou village
One of the sights on my must-see list for Luang Prabang on my recent visit to Laos was the Pak Ou caves, which are crammed full of Buddha images in all shapes and sizes, approximately 4,000 in all. The majority are standing Buddhas in the Luang Prabang style but in the upper and lower caves there's such a variety, any Buddha statue enthusiast will be well catered for. We made the 25kms trip from the city by car rather than by boat as we were pressed for time and crossed the Mekong River to the caves by ferry from Ban Pak Ou village. I think its rare if you get to see the caves on your own as a procession of boats arrive at all times of the day ferrying tourists to this prestige spot on the river. We climbed the stairs to the upper cave, Tham Phum, which was deeper and housed less statues, and which requires a torch to see its contents as very little natural light filters in. In the lower cave, Tham Ting, its literally wall-to-wall Buddhas, both wooden and metal, and tourists jockeying for position to take their own favourite picture of the cave and its contents. Not my idea of fun but still worth a visit. Opposite the Pak Ou caves is the mouth of the Nam Ou River and an impressive limestone cliff called Pha Hen, which attracts expert rock climbers.
On my way to Pak Ou caves with the impressive Pha Hen in the background
Tourist boats waiting for their passengers at the foot of the Pak Ou caves
The elaborate entranceway to Tham Phum, the upper cave
One of the Buddha statues in Tham Phum under a shaft of artifical light
The standard Buddhas in shadow profile picture that everyone gets
The same picture but with the flash switched on
Part of the collection of Buddhas in Tham Ting, the lower cave at Pak Ou
Instructions not to touch the statues are everywhere. With most of the statues covered in dust and grime, I think the cave cleaners take the sign too literally

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Closing the Preah Vihear chapter

The entranceway to Gopura IV in the Baphuon style rather than the sweeping gables of Koh Ker
These final photos from my first-ever visit to Preah Vihear temple in March 2002 on the Cambodian-Thai border, bring to a close my feature on a temple that has made the headlines every day for the past few weeks. Currently troops from both countries face each other on top of the mountain and there's seemingly little chance of a quick resolution, but I live in hope that sense will prevail soon. When I made that memorable trip in 2002 the border was also closed and I was so lucky to have the temple to myself, with just Sokhom, my moto-driver and best pal from Kompong Thom, for company. We had to battle against the elements including a thunderous downpour and thick fog, but my visit was one that will stay with me forever and I hope my pictures have given you a sense of Preah Vihear at that time and why this temple is so important to Cambodia as a new World Heritage site, because of its amazing location, its wealth of decorative elements and its unique composition.
A ground-hugging naga-lined platform leading to steps up to Gopura II
The path around the outside of the temple leading towards the cliff-edge
The western face of the outer building that runs alongside the central sanctuary
A ruined building inside one of the inner courtyards
This causeway is 150m in length and stretches between Gopura IV in the distance and Gopura III
Preah Vihear has impressive fortress-like walls to deter invaders
The sheer drop from the south-east corner of the central sanctuary
Sokhom cuts a solitary figure as he peers into a hazy Cambodia below
And this was the view he had from the edge of the most southernly cliff with northern Cambodia spread before him

Ever-present danger

Familiar warning signs all over Preah Vihear temple, and northern Cambodia, in March 2002
The recent death of a Thai soldier after he stepped on a landmine on top of Preah Vihear is an example of how much of the Cambodian-Thai border is still regarded as one of the most heavily-mined areas in the world. Decades of civil war has left innumerable of these sentinels of death waiting to kill or maim unsuspecting villagers along the 800 kms of border area, some of which is still hotly disputed between the two countries. When I visited Preah Vihear in March 2002, a team of deminers from HALO Trust were camped next to the small pagoda on the summit of the mountain and were actively engaged in clearing the scrub-land just to the right of the processional causeway, next to Gopura V. They had marked a safe area from the pagoda to the temple though it was clear they had much work to do to make even the temple itself, a safe area. The closure of the border at that time had given them much-needed breathing space to get on with their hazardous job. Understandably, they weren't in the mood for snap-shots from me and in some of the pictures shown here, the only truly safe areas are between the white markers. The downed helicopter was in fact left-over from a press corps trip to the mountain in 1998 that went badly wrong when one of the choppers made an unscheduled landing. The artillery gun is also a reminder of the civil war and the battles that took place for control of Preah Vihear for many years, between the Cambodian government army and the Khmer Rouge.
A female HALO deminer sifting through the mud and rock for landmines
The last stretch of cleared walkway before the open ground surrounding Gopura V
Part of the 200m track that guides you from the deminers camp to Gopura V
A path takes you up to the Cambodian flag flying above Gopura V
This mangled military helicopter lies in an unsafe area near to the walkway to Gopura V
This is one of two rusting artillery guns that were a left-over reminder of the civil war that raged around Preah Vihear temple for so many years

Iconic images

An iconic image for many Cambodians, as their flag flies proudly above Preah Vihear
In the surge of patriotism that has engulfed Cambodia in recent weeks, the picture of the country's flag flying proudly above Gopura V of Preah Vihear has never been far from the headlines. And it was never far from my photos of Gopura V, the first entranceway you encounter after climbing the monumental steps and sweep past the naga balustrades, on my visit in March 2002, even though my entry was via a different route. The sweeping gables of the ruined gopura signal the start of your visit to Preah Vihear as they look down on the 162 steps of the monumental stairway and look up along the 100m processional avenue lined with a few remaining stone pillars. To the right a demining team were hard at work making the area safe and had indicated a few safe walkways with white markers. Nevertheless it was the Cambodian flag with the towers of Angkor Wat on its face that made the only noise as it fluttered in the strong wind and soon became engulfed in fog alongwith the rest of the temple. Today, the flag and the temple are wrapped up in that surge of patriotism I mentioned earlier, and Preah Vihear has been elevated into the consciousness of all Cambodians, alongside their beloved Angkor Wat.
The 162 steps of the monumental stairway as they descend to the small Khmer village below and the border with Thailand
As you approach Gopura V from the naga platform at the top of the stairway, the Cambodian flag flies high
The sweeping gables and carvings on view at Gopura V are reminiscent of Banteay Srei
The distinctively powerful naga heads of Preah Vihear, just below Gopura V
Seven-headed naga protects the steps leading to Gopura V
One of the ruined doorways at Gopura V, where traces of red paint can be found that used to decorate the temple walls
Deminers clear a path to Gopura V, where the national flag stands proud
Halfway along the processional avenue, Gopura V is being engulfed in fog
One of the stone pillars (there were 65 of these) in the shape of a lotus bud, with Gopura V in the background

Sanctuary in the sky

This shallow lintel and part pediment both show Vishvakarma above kala and vegetal scrolls
If you are expecting a memorable central sanctuary at Preah Vihear that will knock your socks off, think again. The temple's beauty and uniqueness is in its location and diversity rather than with most temples, its outstanding sanctuary. Nevertheless, the main sanctuary is still standing with its Buddhist images inside, albeit next to a large pile of rubble that used to be the tower. They are surrounded by high vaulted corbelled galleries that face inward with no exterior windows, supposedly so that worshippers could concentrate on religious matters rather than admire the fantastic views that spread out across the Cambodian flatlands at the foot of the mountain. Along the south-east outside wall the cliff-edge falls away sharply and its this location that captures the imagination of so many. The temple walls are multi-coloured from both time, weather and the lichens that thrive here and despite the ravages of time and the numerous battles fought over the temple, there is still much iconography to be seen on the lintels and pediments throughout the site. I had a brief window of opportunity to photograph the temple on my visit in March 2002, when the fog lifted for a couple of hours before returning again and blanketing everything in a thick, wet mist.
The main central sanctuary of Preah Vihear
The rubble from the collapsed central tower and surrounding galleries with their baluster windows
Looking through the doorways surrounding the central sanctuary at Preah Vihear
Another lintel and pediment showing a fierce kala and the minor god Vishvakarma
A good example of the high vaulted corbelled galleries that look inwards to the central sanctuary
The weather-worn southern false door that looks out over the cliff-edge of Preah Vihear
The fog-bound southern wall of the central sanctuary enclosure, taken from the cliff-edge

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Gnome sweet gnome

I spotted this article yesterday that was published in my own local British newspaper, The Gloucestershire Echo, and which raised a smile both for me and the grandmother who got the biggest shock of her life. Nice to see Murphy the gnome found its way to Angkor Wat.

Gnome sweet gnome

It's a case of gnome sweet gnome for one lucky leprechaun who has been returned to its owner after being taken all over the world by gnome-nappers. When Eve Stuart-Kelso opened the front door she got the shock of her life to see her garden gnome, which had been snatched from her Longlevens home, standing on the step. Next to him was a suspicious-looking parcel and the package turned out to be a photograph album with pictures of the gnome on his travels. The photos show him abseiling down a mountain, swimming in the sea, standing in a shark's mouth and riding a motorbike. They also show a group, which could be the gnome-nappers, but their identity remains a mystery.

The grandmother-of-three said: "My leprechaun went missing months and months ago but I had totally forgotten about it. I opened the door and there it was – it was such a shock. He looked quite badly damaged and there was a tightly wrapped parcel next to him. I was very alarmed about the parcel but then curiosity overcame my alarm and I opened it. I wondered if it might explode but then I saw it was a photo album and opened it up." Inside were pictures of the gnome in South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia (where Murphy visited Angkor Wat), Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and Laos. The album also included immigration stamps from the countries and a note from the gnome explaining his abscence. New Zealand was his favourite destination, he said. But, despite his grand travels, there was no mention of the little adventurer finding a pot of gold.

Eve said: "It was the strangest gift I have ever received. "It was a wonderful cheery surprise – it is nice to get some good news. I just keep thinking how funny it is. It puts a smile on my face to see all the people who met on his travels – it's just unbelievable." Eve said she has no idea who is responsible for the gnome's travels. "It is beautifully made and beautifully written", she said. "It is intriguing because someone has gone to so much trouble to give it to a complete stranger." She said she will be telling her grandchildren Sophie, 14, Ellie, 13, and Piers, 13, all about it. "Although they may be disbelieving at first," she said. A Gloucestershire police spokesman said it had no record of the gnome going missing, but added: "Any theft of another person's property, even if this is carried out for a joke, will be treated as a crime by the police. What may seem like a laugh to one person can cause another person distress."

First of all I feel I should explain my prolonged absence... A gnome's life is full of time for reflection, and whilst surveying your front garden one summer morning , I began to get somewhat itchy feet. I came to the conclusion that the world is such a big place and that there is surely more to life than watching the daily commuter traffic and allowing passing cats to urinate on you. I thus decided to free myself from the doldrums of the Shire and seek adventure in foreign lands! My seven months of travel have taken me across three continents, twelve countries and more time zones than I can possibly remember. There have been high points, there have been low points and there have been positively terrifying points, but I have survived and thrived, no small thanks to my travel companion with whom I have shared all these moments."

Preah Vihear 2002 - part two

A lone de-miner walks towards the fog-bound Gopura V at Preah Vihear
This is the concluding part of my first-ever visit to Preah Vihear in March 2002. I've just located the photos from the trip and with Preah Vihear hogging the headlines each day, I thought it was timely to resurrect my travel tales from six years ago. More photos to follow.
Shop-owner Kouch in the village of Kor Mouy at the foot of the mountain
Preah Vihear 2002 - part two
The temple of Preah Vihear (or Khao Phra Viharn in Thai), mainly built in the 11th century by King Suryavarman I, commands the most spectacular location of any Khmer monument. To reach it, the climb up the mountainside would take us two hours at least, so Sokhom and I rested in hammocks at a shop-house belonging to Kouch and her two children for half an hour. As we walked to the foot of the mountain, part of the Dongrek Mountain chain that determines the border with Thailand, we met an Italian NGO worker and his four helpers who'd spent the night at the temple, which was our intention too, and I didn't need reminding that the spent shell casings and mine-signs we encountered recalled the days when the temple stronghold was a prize possession of the Khmer Rouge. The climb quickly became a real burden. I longed for an escalator (one of the off-the-wall suggestions by the Khmer press) as the canopy of trees made it extremely humid, the trail weaved around giant sandstone boulders and tree stumps but was pretty steep and frequent pauses to catch my breath were necessary. An hour into the ascent, we reached the midway point on arrival at the Bram Makara (15 January) village, much to my relief. The village as such consisted of just three houses and we rested at the first, where the family who lived there sold us some sugary drinks to boost our energy levels. We were joined for the second half of the climb by Chhoun Ny, an immigration policeman, who was due to begin his two day shift that evening. He'd been a policeman for fifteen years, mostly in Kompong Spue before transferring to Preah Vihear two years ago. According to Ny, I was the tenth tourist to visit the temple that week. The latter half of the trek was less arduous and in the open, though frequent rest and drink-stops were still a necessity. As we arrived at the small settlement at the summit, a large pig and her piglets squealed their welcome and a few families belonging to the HALO Trust deminers stationed at the site waved their hello.

The access path to Preah Vihear had just been de-mined by HALO
I was exhausted as I rested in the immigration hut next to a tiny pagoda. The two-hour climb had been a real challenge and when one of the monks suggested I wash in their natural bathing pool nearby, I gratefully accepted his offer. I stripped, retaining a krama around my waist for modesty, and ladled cold water from the large rock pool over my head and body, alongside three other monks and Sokhom. A westerner using their washing facilities was very uncommon they told us but they were pleased to share and I was happy to accept. Refreshed, we walked through the village and on through a narrow 200 metre channel marked by small white stones and red markers. Danger!! Mines!! signs were everywhere, though the deminers had retired to their homes for the evening. As we reached the crest of the mountain plateau, the wreckage of a military helicopter lay off to the left and directly in front of us the Cambodian flag fluttered above the first gopura of Preah Vihear temple. The gopura or entrance pavilion stands at the top of a steep stairway of 162 steps flanked by giant nagas that leads down to a small Khmer community who live just inside the border with Thailand. The recent feud between the two countries had cut off their livelihoods as they were servicing the needs of the 1,000 Thai visitors that came to visit the temple each day, only a few weeks before.
Sokhom and tourism officer Pomy Chheangly pose at Gopura V
Part of the Preah Vihear complex, built between the 9th-11th centuries
As I looked out towards a smooth tarmaced Thai motorway in the distance, Chhoun Ny appeared and asked me to fill in an immigration form and to hand over 5,000 riel. A raindrop fell and smudged my signature as I handed Ny the form but he didn't seem to mind. The gopura, actually known as Gopura V, with sweeping gables reminiscent of Banteay Srei, leads onto a long causeway lined with stone boundary posts. Rather than continue our exploration in the drizzle, we temporarily hung our hammocks in an open-sided pavilion next to a large man-made pool full of water and ate our rice and chicken provisions we'd brought with us from TBM. We were joined by brother and sister, Sam 11 and Leap 8, who sold me a pack of postcards and looked after our bags as Sokhom and I quickly made our way through a series of gopuras, stairways and causeways to the very top level and sat on the cliff edge as darkness fell obscuring the hazy Cambodian plains some 550 metres below. It was still raining although not heavily and the draught rising from the plains below was a chilly one. The walk back was possible as the full moon allowed us a degree of light when it wasn't shielded by cloud and returning to the pavilion, we thanked our young friends who lived next to the HALO building closeby. Sokhom discussed accommodation with the temple's resident tourism official, Pomy Chheangly, who offered us his office verandah rather than the HALO office with its noisy generator. In fact, he laid out a mat and cushion on the floor of his storeroom but I elected to use the hammock, though with the cool air on the mountain top, the mozzie net I'd brought was redundant. As Sokhom and I chatted in the darkness, a scratching noise from the storeroom attracted my torchlight and a large rat scampered across the floor, confirming my choice of hammock was a good one!
Postcard-selling brother and sister team, Sam 11 and Leap 8 (in red)
Sokhom looks out over the fantastic, albeit hazy view of northern Cambodia
Yours truly at the edge of darkness, with just a full moon for company
At 4am I was woken from my slumber by a cockerel that positioned itself a couple of metres away from my hammock and tested my eardrums to their full capacity with five loud crows. A carefully aimed training shoe temporarily halted the early morning alarm call, although a little over an hour later, he began again and on this occasion didn't stop. By that time, the heavens had opened and a thunderous downpour for forty minutes gave us a cool start to the day and filled up the water tanks and cooking pots with fresh water. It also brought with it a blanket of mist as we retraced our steps to the cliff top just after 6am. The low cloud completely concealed the view over northern Cambodia and shrouded the temple in a misty haze. I sat on a large boulder, with my head in my hands, praying that the sun would appear and burn off the cloud but fearing the worst. An hour later, the mist disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, although the sun was nowhere to be seen, at least I could now take pictures of the temple's outstanding lintels, pediments (especially the Churning Sea of Milk and Shiva and Uma on Nandi) and breathtaking location. Nearly two hours later, Sokhom and I re-emerged at Gopura V to rest our weary bones. The temple is a haven of rich carvings, libraries, hallways, courtyards littered with fallen sandstone blocks, sweeping gabled roofs, false doorways and cloistered galleries with the southern side of the main sanctuary literally centimetres from the cliff edge. The stone is old and worn with traces of red paint and white lichen blotches. And the location is as dramatic and spectacular as you could ever wish for, especially if you have the temple to yourself as I did. One note of disappointment is that the complex is so large, over 800 metres from end to end and on four separate levels, that no one single picture can ever do it justice. At the gopura, we said our goodbyes to Chheangly, who'd been for his breakfast at the village on the Thai border. Nearby, a small team of HALO deminers were carefully prodding the ground and removing grass and twigs as they painstakingly searched for landmines. The red markers and lines of small white stones across the plateau signalled the safe areas but it was clear there was a lot more to be done. Understandably, they weren't prepared to pose for photos and as the mist began to roll back across the plateau, Sokhom and I began our descent at the demining village. As you can imagine, going down was a lot quicker and considerably easier than the day before and despite a ten minute break at the half-way point, it took us little more than an hour before we were back at Kouch's shop-house enjoying noodles and dried fish for breakfast, accompanied by around twenty curious villagers and children. After a game of foot shuttlecock and a lie down, we said our goodbyes to Kouch and her friends as we left the village of Kor Mouy at 11am, with the tree-covered Preah Vihear topped mountain as a dramatic backdrop. A few minutes later we both ended up in the mud when the moto lost its grip as we traversed a dry riverbed but my supply of plasters covered the cuts and bruises we sustained. The deminers were out in force at Sro Am (Sa Em) and the road-building project through the village had turned into a sandy quagmire. After two and a half hours, we turned off the Choam Khsant road and returned to the isolated and quiet single track through the forest, accompanied only by the scorching sun overhead, the wreckage of several vehicles and the occasional sign reminding us of the dangers of landmines if we stepped off the trail. At 4pm we reached Takeng bridge and the friendly villagers who shouted 'hello, goodbye' from every house as we sped by, eventually reaching the outskirts of Tbeng Meanchey (TBM) just before six o'clock.

Sunset at Stung Sen River just outside Tbeng Meanchey
Before returning to our guesthouse, we headed for the Stung Sen river crossing, a kilometre north of the town centre, where children were splashing around in the shallow waters on large rubber tyres as the sun set in the background. I waded in to cool off, take a few pictures and watch the vehicles ford the river as they made their way north. After a refreshing shower with warmish water, we returned to Malop Dong where a minor disaster was averted - they had no chicken! - with a free pork dish as compensation. Kove's English was getting better with practice as we stopped by her stall for some delicious tikaloks and then back at the guesthouse, I met a couple of teachers from Phnom Penh, Srey Mom and Minit, who were instructing local schools in environmental studies, before retiring to bed a little after 9pm, at the end of a long and tiring day. I awoke at 6am after the best night's sleep of my whole trip and after noodles for breakfast with the teachers at Malop Dong - where the film Apocalypse Now was captivating the other diners - Sokhom and I were on our way. The slash and burn forestry technique was much in evidence for the first half of our return trip to Kompong Thom, with smouldering fields aplenty, despite the overnight rain, which had left puddles of dirty water everywhere. The Nissan pick-ups plying the route and the continuous stream of lorries carrying logs had done great damage to the road surface. We took a break at Prasat Kraham Chhouk, where the ceremonial bunting was the only reminder of the religious gathering two days earlier. The old laterite temple had been cleared of all vegetation and had lost some of its charm as a result, but it did make access to the structure a lot easier than on my previous visit in November. We stopped at Phnom Dek for a cold drink and I counted no less than five logging lorries parked up and three more sailed through whilst we took a breather and then at Chey, the turn-off for Sambor Prei Kuk, the cloud kicked up from the passing lorries as we sat sipping our coconuts covered everyone in a fine layer of red dust.
The author and Kove, the TBM queen of tikaloks
On the outskirts of Kompong Thom, children were clambering all over a couple of parked logging lorries, stripping the bark from the massive logs to use as firewood. It was 1.30pm as we entered the city centre - some six hours after leaving TBM - but our discoveries were not quite over. The infamous Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was born just four kilometres outside of the city centre, along the western bank of the Stung Sen river at a village called Prey Svai. As we arrived, a bunch of friendly children made a fuss of us, as Pol Pot's sister-in-law told us that his brother, who still lives in the house which overlooks the river, was having a siesta but she'd wake him if we wished to meet him. I declined, took a few photos of the house and the children and we returned to collect my bag from Sokhom's house and to book into my $10 air-con room at the Mittapheap Hotel, next to the river. I had two showers to remove the red dust from every nook and cranny and then slept soundly until Sokhom collected me at 6am. We visited his daughter's school, where she receives extra English lessons every evening and I was asked to take a class of 14-19 year olds by the female teacher. As it was an English class I invited them to ask me any questions they could think of, and although they were initially shy and reserved, a couple of the bolder students stood up and fired off a volley of questions ranging from 'what is your name?', to 'are you married?' and 'was I handsome?' I had to agree with the last question which sent the students into raptures of laughter. It was a bit of fun and maybe their endless repetition of my answers will in some small way improve their English pronounciation. Immediately after, I took Sokhom, Sroy and Kunthea, as well as Sroy's brother, Rit Noa to the Somrostbongcham restaurant for a slap-up meal that cost $10 in total, including four courses and endless drinks. It was back to Sokhom's home for tikaloks at a nearby stall and then back to my hotel for another 9pm turn-in. The following morning, I was up at 5.30am, showered, had breakfast at the Arunras and spent my last hour with Sokhom and his family before my share-taxi arrived at 8am to whisk me off to Phnom Penh. My trip to Preah Vihear had been another incredibly successful adventure with Sokhom, one of my dearest friends and his adorable family who make my visits to Kompong Thom one of the highlights of my trips to Cambodia.

A new house on the route between Tbeng Meanchey and Kompong Thom

Monday, August 11, 2008

Preah Vihear 2002 - part one

Sokhom and his trusty Daelim moto next to a deforested area of Preah Vihear province
March 2002 marked my eighth trip to Cambodia since my adventures began in 1994. One of the highlights was my first visit to the mountaintop temple of Preah Vihear. I'll share with you my scribbles from that time together with some of the photos that I've just put onto disc some six years later.
Prasat Kraham Chhouk temple en route to Tbeng Meanchey
These girls rather shyly posed for a photo near Prasat Kraham Chhouk
Preah Vihear 2002 - part one
As the road from Siem Reap to Kompong Thom had improved according to reports, I chose the more comfortable Camry share-taxi option rather than the usual pick-up truck and after successfully concluding negotiations for the two front seats, left a little before 7am. An hour later, I jumped out at Spean Praptos for a few photos of the ancient Angkorean bridge as we waited for a passenger before the rain began to fall, which when added to a few overnight showers, turned the road into a quagmire in places. At one spot the traffic was reduced to a crawl as trucks and taxis slid and careened their way through axle-deep mud. With the main bridge at Stoung under repair, a diversion took us through someone's garden and we finally arrived in Kompong Thom city centre after a four-hour trip.

As arranged by e-mail, my trusted friend, fellow adventurer and moto-driver, Sokhom, was waiting to greet me. After a plate of noodles at the Arunras restaurant, we stopped at his home to pack my daysack, collect our hammocks and mozzie nets and a brief reunion with his wife Sroy and daughter Kunthea, before our mid-day departure. Sokhom's moto is an old one with suspect suspension and an uncomfortable seat but its never let us down on all our previous trips, though this one, a round-trip of some 500 kms north to the ancient temple of Preah Vihear and back, would be its greatest test. The rain had left large puddles in the red-clay road and a succession of massive logging lorries either splashed the water over us or forced us to cover our faces to avoid the dust clouds, once the sun re-emerged from behind the clouds. After a couple of hours we reached the rubber tree plantation where we'd stopped on the same route four months before. Pausing for a cold drink at Phnom Dek, forty minutes later, the minefields nearby had been cleared and obvious signs of demining activity removed, though the large tyre tracks, dried out by the sun, made the final thirty kilometres into Tbeng Meanchey town (TBM), a painful one on Sokhom's elderly Daelim moto. En route, we passed the Prasat Kraham Chhouk temple where a religious ceremony was taking place with what looked like hundreds of monks and nuns in attendance but pressed for time we didn't stop for long.

The old road to Tbeng Meanchey from Kompong Thom left a lot to be desiredA rusting military vehicle provided reminders of the not-too-distant past
Five hours after saying our goodbyes to Sokhom's family and friends, we booked into a double room with fan at the Mlop Trosek guesthouse and wolfed down a chicken supper at the Malop Dong restaurant, both favoured haunts of ours. At a petrol stop in TBM's main street, we played 'tot sey' (foot shuttlecock) with a handful of bemused locals before settling down for fruit and tikaloks at a popular roadside stall run by Kove, a pretty 19 year old and her three sisters. An early start the following day meant an ice-cold shower, a 'good morning' to the frog perched on the bathroom mirror, noodles and coffee breakfast at the Malop Dong and a few running repairs to the moto before our 7.30am departure. We took the same road we'd taken a few months earlier to Koh Ker though we veered right instead of left at the village of Thbal Bek and soon afterwards came across a large group of army engineers constructing a gigantic steel bridge across the Stung Sen river at Takeng. Surprisingly, considering the bridge-building project, the road north to Preah Vihear was little more than a dusty one-lane track and as we drove through an uninhabited forested area for the next two and a half hours, we saw no sign of life except lizards scampering across our path, heard the constant shrill of cicadas and were reminded that the area was heavily mined by the HALO Trust warning signs posted every half kilometre.

An alternative route from TBM, used by trucks and taxis, would've meant a detour to the town of Choam Khsan which we'd avoided. However, we did join the road that carried traffic from Choam Khsan to Preah Vihear, which meant we were about forty kilometres from our intended destination. The sun was overhead, the road was the consistency of a sandpit and I spent as much time trudging through the sand on foot as I did sat on the moto. We saw our first humans in three hours when we came across a group of soldiers stripping a clapped-out army tank for spare parts and other roadside wreckage reminded us that this part of Cambodia was a battle-zone until a couple of years ago. At the village of Sro Am (Sa Em) we stopped for petrol and a drink near the junction of the new road being built to bring supplies and future tourists from the direction of Anlong Veng and Siem Reap. This was Sokhom's second visit to Preah Vihear and because of that we took a short-cut, wide enough only for a moto, through a heavily wooded area. We saw only one Danger!! Mines!! sign but he made sure we kept to the track which was a bit painful as the route was rarely used and the vegetation whipped against our legs and arms. In a clearing, we caught our first glimpse of the mountain on which Preah Vihear sits, but it was still some way off and we had to negotiate four steep but dry riverbeds before we arrived at the village of Kor Mouy on the stroke of 2pm, more than six hours after leaving TBM. Many of the houses were very new and belonged to the soldiers who guard the temple and the nearby border with Thailand. A recent squabble between the two countries had seen the border remain firmly closed in the preceding months with only access from the Cambodian side a possibility and talk of a road being constructed to take tourists to the very top of the mountain was rife in the Khmer press. Preah Vihear 2002 - part two will follow tomorrow.

Our first glimpse of Preah Vihear mountain as it towers above the surrounding countryside

Muang Sing here we come!

A Yao villager from Jongka who invited us into her house for tea
More scenes from my recent visit to Laos. We're still in the northwest of the country and travelling from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing, encountering ethnic groups, pagodas and monks and lots of adorable kids and friendly locals. Laos was full of all these things and so much more. I really enjoyed my two weeks there and would recommend a visit by anyone with time to spare whilst in SEAsia.
The gilded spires of That Xieng Tung, a Thai Lu stupa about five kilometres south of Muang Sing that hosts an annual festival, the biggest of the year, that everyone attends
One of the Buddhist images at the That Xieng Tung stupa, note the distinctive spiky hairstyle
These children thought our presence was hilarious in the village of Nammai, the girl on the left couldn't stop dancing!
Two novice monks at the pagoda of Wat Xieng Yum in Muang Sing
Some standard depictions of hell for sinners on the walls of Wat Xieng Yum
A typical house in the Akha village of Nammdaet Mai
And here's one of the family's children who came out to meet us

Preah Vihear's iconography

The main scene on the pediment above is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. The depiction is an unusual one as it shows Indra on his elephant mount to the right and Garuda with open wings on the left amongst a myriad of gods and deities. The reclining Vishnu is on the lintel below.
The temple of Preah Vihear houses a wealth of iconography and any regular readers of this blog will know that's one of my favourite topics. Sitting on top of the Dangrek mountains that dominate the border area between Cambodia and Thailand, Preah Vihear was constructed from the early 9th century onwards with notable additions by the two Suryavarman kings, I and II. Its dramatic location, the best of any temple built by the Khmers, is 550 metres above the Cambodian plains below, and remarkably, considering its bloody history, the temple remains in reasonable condition with many exquisite carved lintels and pediments still in situ. Thanks to Vittorio Roveda and his in-depth studies of Khmer mythology, we have a firm idea of the stories depicted on these beautiful pieces of art and many of the scenes at Preah Vihear can be found at the temples of Angkor too. These photos were taken during my visit in March 2002 when I had limited time to run around the complex, after the fog had disappeared, and snap as many of the carvings as I could. I know that I missed many others and that's why I returned to the temple in 2005. In my view, these are the most interesting lintels and pediments from that first visit.
Connected to the Churning scene on the pediment above, this lintel depicts Vishnu Anantashayin with the god reclining on the mythic snake, his legs supported by Lakshmi and a lotus emerging from his navel on which sits Brahma. These can be found on the southern door of Gopura IV.
This gorgeous lintel's central scene shows Krishna almost joyfully subduing the naga Kaliya and keeping two of the snake's heads away with his hands. This scene is depicted at Gopura IV, I and the main sanctuary
The pediment shows Yama riding his buffalo above a kala, while the lintel is Rama's return to Ayodhya accompanied by Lakshmana and Sita, held aloft by three flying hamsas, above a kala. Its located on the southern door of Gopura III
If you thought this lintel showed two lovers, think again! It actually depicts Shiva and Arjuna in hand to hand combat above a kala on the eastern door of Gopura III
This pediment carving of Shiva and Uma on the back of Nandi is on the southern door of Gopura III. They sit under a large tree accompanied by six acolytes, four of whom hold parasols
Under the Shiva and Uma pediments lies this small Vishvakarma lintel above three large rampant lions or simhas. The difference between lions and kala's are that the latter have no bodies
Regular readers will know this is the minor god Vishvakarma with his mace above a munching kala. This scene is depicted on many lintels and pediments at Preah Vihear

Close to the edge

The spectacular views from the south-east corner of the Preah Vihear complex
The south-east corner of Preah Vihear's central sanctuary is just inches away from the edge of the cliff, as it falls away into the Cambodian flatlands below. It's a pretty dangerous corner of the temple complex at any time but particularly when the mist is enveloping the whole site, as it was on my visit there in March 2002. A fog-bound Preah Vihear is quite an eerie sight, especially when you have the temple to yourself. A few of my photos were off-focus as my camera failed to deal with the foggy conditions, as you will see in future posts. However, when the fog lifts it reveals both the spectacular location in which it sits and a temple which has survived despite being at the centre of tug-of-war battles for many years between warring factions. Preah Vihear temple is a survivor and the current spat between Cambodia and Thailand is just another chapter in its long history. I've also posted a couple of photos of the road from Tbeng Meanchey to Preah Vihear before it was upgraded. It took us many hours to negotiate the treacherous muddy conditions after a shower of rain turned it into a quagmire. Getting to Preah Vihear in 2002 was a mammoth effort.
This is the south-east corner of the central sanctuary as it drops off the edge of the cliff
The false door of the south-east corner of the central sanctuary as it peers over the cliff-edge
A misty view of Preah Vihear
Pick-ups are the main choice of getting from between Tbeng Meanchey and Preah Vihear in 2002
That's my pal Sokhom in front, followed by a very large pig, as they navigate the treacherous route to Preah Vihear

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Preah Vihear recalled

A deserted Preah Vihear temple looking towards Gopura V with the mist closing in
In March 2002 I visited Preah Vihear temple for the first time. Hardly a day goes by at the moment without Preah Vihear grabbing the headlines, so I thought it might be an appropriate time to unveil for the first time some of my pictures from that 2002 trip, when in a deja vu moment the border with Thailand was also closed, leaving the temple completely empty. Over the next couple of days I will post pictures and my notes from that memorable trip that I took with my best pal Sokhom on his trusty Daelim moto from Kompong Thom. It was a 500km round-trip and one that I will never forget. Having Preah Vihear all to myself was one of my best-ever Cambodia moments.
Sokhom and his Daelim negotiate a fallen tree on the road to Preah Vihear

Injury update

I managed to complete my second game of football (soccer) yesterday afternoon in temperature's that were simply too hot to play sport. I turned out for the Bayon Wanderers FC team, mostly expats with a wide range of nationalities, though we also have a strong Khmer contingent too. I'm still not sure who our opponents were, someone said 555, but it was a tough ask for both teams in that heat and a fair(ish) result of 4-4 at the final whistle. The pitch left a lot to be desired - we played at the Prek Leap Agricultural University - and with sensible substitutions I managed to get through the match without worsening my dodgy knee. In all my years of playing football back in England, I never experienced knee problems until my first game here in Cambodia a couple of weeks ago. I suppose getting dodgy knees is a sign that I'm too close to fifty for comfort, and that I haven't played sport for 7 years! Bayon puts out two teams each weekend with three mid-week training sessions thrown in as well, so its an almost full-time job for our team manager/coach/supremo Billy and next weekend about thirty members are off for a two-game tour to Saigon. Read more about the club here.

Film success

Rain Falls from Earth Director Steve McClure and the author
The 90-minute documentary film Rains Falls from Earth premiered at Meta House last night and provided the packed audience with a sober and heart-rending tale. Telling the story of the Khmer Rouge-Pol Pot time in Cambodia's history through personal testimonies and archive footage, its strength lay in the powerful and emotional recollections of survivors like Thida Mam, Em Theay, Vann Nath and others, interspersed with observations by former Khmer Rouge cadre including Nuon Chea and Ta Mok's daughter Preak Lin. Director Steve McClure told the audience that the film is about 90% complete and he's currently in Cambodia getting some last-minute footage before finalizing the film's production.
The film's opening titles
Author Thida Mam gave an emotional re-telling of her story
Ta Mok's daughter Preak Lin said she had never heard of the killing fields
Royal court dancer Em Theay lost children in the KR time but never gave up hope
Three Khmer members of the packed audience; LtoR: Ameas, Amean and Samphos

Saturday, August 9, 2008

On the river

A traditional Lanten village home in Ban Soptud
The afternoon of our second day in Luang Namtha, in northwest Laos, was spent on the river enjoying a couple of hours of kayaking and meeting some of the ethnic villagers en route. Tim had some experience but it was my first time, so we decided on a two-man inflatable kayak, whilst our guide, Yai, kept a close eye on us in his canoe. Yai is a qualified guide with the adventure tour company Green Discovery and a local. He's 27 years old and a Tai Dam, so is well suited to look after us on the water as well as guiding us around the nearby villages. We had a great time. The rapids were mostly straightforward though a couple of them made my heart beat a bit faster but Tim did well as our navigator, whilst I got wet at the front! Yai was full of advice and half-way through we had got the hang of it and it was plain-sailing for the rest of the journey along the Namtha River, flanked on both sides by wall-to-wall forest. Gorgeous views, it was an energetic but enjoyable afternoon. We began at the Lanten village of Ban Soptud and finished a few kilometres down the river at Ban Sopsim, a Khmu village. We didn't have time to do any trekking on our visit to Luang Namtha, but the cycling and kayaking we did manage was very enjoyable. Thoroughly recommended.
Weaving is one of the ways in which the Lanten villagers can make a living
Yours truly looking a bit dishevelled
Tim's getting ready for his kayaking adventure, wearing the necessary safety equipment
Back on dry land: LtoR: Me, Yai and Tim outside the Green Discovery office
Two youngsters from the Khmu village of Ban Sopsim
A view of the beautiful Namtha River near Luang Namtha

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bit of a damp squib

The first edition cover of the new daily Phnom Penh Post
The new eagerly-awaited daily Phnom Penh Post hit the streets today, but it was a bit of a damp squib. I asked the newspaper vendors on Street 51 next to Wat Lanka for the new PPP at 8am this morning and all of them said 'ot mien' (no have), only to hear late in the day that the PPP had been printed and distributed, but to whom? If the news girls on Street 51 didn't have it by 8am, did it arrive at all? These girls do a roaring trade amongst the foreign contingent in BKK1 and the Post's distribution machine had better get its act together and quick; I didn't see a copy until I had dinner at the Red Orchid at 7pm tonight, too late to get myself a first edition souvenir!
I know the Post have been having printing problems and the copy I saw wasn't anywhere near their old standard, choosing instead a far less superior quality paper to print their new edition on. I read through it and it looked 'okay' rather than knocking my socks off, which I was quietly hoping for. There was a lot of international news, though not as much as you see in The Cambodia Daily thank goodness, a business section, 3 pages on the Olympics and very little in the way of breaking stories that I wasn't already aware of. Maybe it was a slow news day yesterday. And of course, it has massive competition with so many foreigners in Cambodia having ready access to the internet, where stories can break every hour, rather than having to wait until breakfast-time the following day. I've no idea about how many copies they need to sell each day to break even, etc but for sure, if they can get the Post to my Street 51 vendor each morning before 8am, they'll have at least 1 regular customer for the next couple of weeks, whilst it beds in. Nearly forgot to mention, it'll be published five times a week, costs 2,500 Riel, is 24 pages in length (the 1st edition also had an 8-page supplement) and its in colour (though the photographs were of poor quality). Link: PPP.

Surviving Cambodia's darkest hour

This is my final reminder that film director Steve McClure will be hosting a Q&A after the Cambodian premiere of the feature documentary, Rain Falls from Earth: Surviving Cambodia's Darkest Hour tomorrow (Saturday) night at Phnom Penh's Meta House on Street 264. 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 more than 1.7 million Cambodians. The voices of many survivors - including Vann Nath, Em Theay and Thida Butt Mam - are heard as they convey their thoughts, ideas and emotions - the very things they were forced to abandon in the killing fields. Narrated by Academy Award nominated actor, Sam Waterston, this film gives a voice to those lives that were senselessly lost. The screening begins at 7.30pm, admission is free and everyone is welcome. Visit here for more information about the film.

Interlude at Nam Dee

Nam Dee resident wonders whether to smoke it or blow it
Half a dozen kilometres outside of Luang Namtha in northwest Laos is the Nam Dee waterfall. It isn't one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Laos by any stretch of anyone's imagination as the picture below shows, but it is a nice diversion on a bike ride around the town and the people we met there were ultra-friendly. Fifty cents got us past the gate-keeper and a nice walk through the woods brought us to the quietly cascading waterfall, which probably becomes a raging torrent at the height of the wet season. The villagers there are from the Lanten ethnic group and the village itself is known for its bamboo papermaking. We carried on cycling through more Lanten, Khmu and Tai Dam villages and crossed the Namtha River via a wobbly bamboo bridge that was more difficult than it looked, before getting closer to the river with a mini kayak expedition.
The Nam Dee waterfall cascades gently into the forest setting below
Welcome to Nam Dee waterfall and the usual dual-pricing structure for 'foreigners' found all over Asia
Our guide Mr Tid and myself, with the Nam Dee waterfall and forest setting as our backdrop
Still some indecision on the face of our former train conductor as to what to do with his bamboo pipe
This shy Nam Dee resident gave me a beaming smile every time I put my camera down!
Tim poses on the wobbly bamboo bridge across the Namtha River, watched by some frolicking boys

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Temple high-spots in demise

Flashback... This is yours truly on Phnom Bakheng a decade ago with the towers of Angkor Wat bathed in the late afternoon glow of the setting sun over my right shoulder. On a recent visit to Angkor, I noticed a sign at the foot of the steep steps to Phnom Bakheng and friends tell me that the very summit of the temple - which is overcrowded every day with hordes of tourists enjoying the setting sun over the western baray - is now off-limits to everyone after 4pm. I'm getting it checked out but if the news is correct, that's a major blow to those sunset worshippers, though conversely, good news for the future wear and tear of the temple. Pre Rup and even Phnom Krom could become the new hotspots for those gorgeous Angkor sunsets if Phnom Bakheng is now off the itinerary. This follows on from the closure of the upper level of Angkor Wat - another major punch in the kidneys for tourists visiting the jewel in the Angkor crown - and access to the pyramid tower of Prasat Thom at Koh Ker has also been restricted in recent months, after part of the temple collapsed. Unrestricted access to the Angkor temples, for so long a real bonus for visitors, is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Nosing around Namtha

Two of the younger residents at Namyang village show us their spirit houses
More from Luang Namtha in northwest Laos. I spent a couple of days in this ecotourism hub at the end of June and enjoyed some kayaking and cycling whilst I was there but didn't have enough time to do any trekking - thank god. And of course we visited some of the many ethnic villages to be found dotted around the rolling hillsides of the north. Officially there are 48 ethnic groups in Laos, the majority of which can be found in Luang Namtha province. One of the villages we stopped at was Namyang, high in the hills surrounding the town, where we found the locals unusually reserved. Alongwith my brother Tim, we poked our large falang (westerner) noses onto a couple of older wats near the airport and finished that day on a nearby hill at Tad Luang, where a new stupa is being constructed and which gives beautiful views over the provincial capital.
This is the quiet Akha village of Namyang, high in the Luang Namtha hills
We found the deforestation in the hills around Luang Namtha to be a worrying trend as more people move into the area
This wat is located near the airport, is called Ban Vieng Tai and was padlocked shut, with no-one in sight
I loved this sitting Buddha under a naga and surrounded by the undergrowth at the wat
As often depicted on wall paintings at wats, a scene from hell where sinners get their comeuppance
Not sure who these two falang are...
The large stupa under construction on the hill at Tad Luang, overlooking the town. This style of stupa can be seen all over Laos

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A few minutes from Luang Namtha

Overlooking Nam Ngaen village and its water-filled rice fields from That Phoum Phouk
Today I'm kicking off a series of photos from around Laos, following my recent two-week visit to this beautiful country. I'm starting in the mountainous northwest region of Laos where I visited Luang Namtha, the centre for ecotourism activities in the Nam Ha protected area, as my first port of call. A few minutes outside of town and you are transported into a world of watery rice paddies, rich-green tree-covered mountains, fast-flowing rivers and a host of friendly ethnic villages. On our first afternoon we visited the That Phoum Phouk stupa, which gave us some lovely views over the surrounding countryside. On a small hill, the original stupa was constructed in 1628 but was destroyed in 1966 when it was bombed by the Americans. The new stupa was constructed in 2003. The village next door, Nam Ngaen, is a Tai Dam minority village and we joined its inhabitants for some rice-planting, as well as sampling the lao lao whisky of the men tilling the fields.
The original 1628 stupa at That Phoum Phouk lies in broken pieces on the floor
The 2003 version of the stupa with its original inscription stone in front
Some of the village women plant the rice seedlings under umbrella cover
Sheltering from the sun under their umbrellas, these women seemed to enjoy our brief visit
This rotavating machine was much harder to handle than it looks
One of the youngsters planting rice, rather than attending school
Young and old are engaged in rice planting at the village of Nam Ngaen
Time to leave, which is why I look a bit unhappy!

Coming up

I'm tentatively dipping my toe into football training again tonight after a couple of weeks on the sidelines with a swollen leg and groin injury. I played my first game for the Phnom Penh-based Bayon Wanderers team a couple of weeks and have lived to regret it ever since - after 7 years without kicking a ball in anger my body rejected the sudden explosion in activity and rightly told me so! Watch this space for more injury reports.
The Meta House (Street 264) month of film and documentary screenings has already begun and this evening's offering is Rithy Panh's The Burnt Theatre, blending fact and fiction as it depicts a group of actors and dancers living and working in the burnt-out shell of Cambodia's former national theatre. Tomorrow (Thursday) will see some rare 1965 super-16mm footage of Cambodia's development through the early 1960s, followed by one of Norodom Sihanouk's films, Rose of Bokor. Filmed in 1969 on Bokor mountain amongst other locations around Cambodia, it features the King and his wife Monique (pictured), as Rose, amidst the triangle of French and Japanese control and the growing seeds of Khmer independence. Friday night will host three documentaries on HIV/Aids in Southeast Asia and on Saturday night, Rain Falls from Earth will enjoy its Cambodian premiere. All films begin at 7pm.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

PPP going daily

Just about anytime now the current bi-weekly Phnom Penh Post will be slipping into a daily newspaper format. The last twice-monthly version appeared a couple of weeks go, announcing it was the end of an era and telling its readers to keep their eyes peeled for the new daily edition. Word on the street is that the new version is imminent. Personally, I like the depth of stories in the PPP and if this continues in the new daily edition, it will be well worth stopping by my nearest newsstand each morning to buy a copy.

I was saddened to hear today that the Sunrise Children's Village in Siem Reap had been taken over by a gang of youths and staff threatened including Geraldine Cox, the founder of the orphanage. At the weekend, local police initially refused to help eject the youths who are former orphanage boys that have become involved in gang activity. The former government-run facility was adopted by SCV in 2004, though problems with the older boys have dogged it ever since. It houses over 70 orphans and disadvantaged kids. As I type this, I've just heard that the problem has thankfully been resolved. Trying to give these children a better life has always had its ups and downs for Geraldine and for evidence of this I recommend you read her amazing life story in her autobiography, Home Is Where The Heart Is. Link: SCV.

Colonial-era Savannakhet

A colonial-era building awaiting its eventual make-over in Savannakhet
The crumbling colonial-era buildings of Savannakhet in southern Laos are reminders of the importance the French attached to what was their largest trading and administrative centre south of Vientiane. Around the Spanish-looking plaza, which features St Theresa's Catholic Church at one end, the cream of the town's colonial-era buildings are being renovated and brought back to life. On my recent visit I didn't have time to see much of the town including its Dinosaur Museum, but I saw enough of its colonial heritage and Mekong River frontage to be charmed by its slow and peaceful ambience.
The peaceful plaza at the heart of Savannakhet
Attractive colonial-era buildings jostle for space around the plaza
This renovated colonial building is now a trendy restaurant
This nicely renovated 1926 building is now the Sala Savan guesthouse
Another ochre-coloured colonial building awaiting its spruce-up
This street could be anywhere in Savannakhet - empty and peaceful

Wandering back to 2002

Posing on the wilderness track to Preah Vihear in 2002 with our reliable Daelim moto
Whenever I hear the words Preah Vihear my mind automatically zips back to my first visit to the mountaintop temple in March 2002. As a passenger on the trusty Daelim moto of my great pal Sokhom, we completed a 500km round-trip to visit Preah Vihear from Kompong Thom and a trip I will never forget. If you think access isn't easy now, climbing the mountainside in those days was no cake-walk! Here's an excerpt from my Cambodia Tales that tells the story of our ascent of the mountain:

In a clearing, we caught our first glimpse of the mountain on which Preah Vihear temple sits, but it was still some way off and we had to negotiate four steep but dry riverbeds before we arrived at the village of Kor Mouy on the stroke of 2pm, more than six hours after leaving Tbeng Meanchey. Many of the houses were very new and belonged to the soldiers who guard the temple and the nearby border with Thailand. A recent squabble between the two countries had seen the border remain firmly closed in the preceding months with only access from the Cambodian side a possibility and talk of a road being constructed to take tourists to the very top of the mountain was rife in the Khmer press.

The temple of Preah Vihear (or Khao Phra Viharn in Thai), mainly built in the 11th century by King Suryavarman I, commands the most spectacular location of any Khmer monument. To reach it, the climb up the mountainside would take us two hours at least, so Sokhom and I rested in hammocks at a shop-house belonging to Kouch and her two children for half an hour. As we walked to the foot of the mountain, part of the Dangrek Mountain chain that determines the border with Thailand, we met an Italian NGO worker and his four helpers who'd spent the night at the temple, which was our intention too, and I didn't need reminding that the spent shell casings and mine-signs we encountered recalled the days when the temple stronghold was a prized possession of the Khmer Rouge. The climb quickly became a real burden. I longed for an escalator (one of the off-the-wall suggestions by the Khmer press) as the canopy of trees made it extremely humid, the trail weaved around giant sandstone boulders and tree stumps but was pretty steep and frequent pauses to catch my breath were necessary. An hour into the ascent, we reached the midway point on arrival at the Bram Makara (15 January) village, much to my relief. The village as such consisted of just three houses and we rested at the first, where the family who lived there sold us some sugary drinks to boost our energy levels. We were joined for the second half of the climb by Chhoun Ny, an immigration policeman, who was due to begin his two day shift that evening. He'd been a policeman for fifteen years, mostly in Kompong Spue before transferring to Preah Vihear two years ago. According to Ny, I was the tenth tourist to visit the temple that week. The latter half of the trek was less arduous and in the open, though frequent rest and drink-stops were still a necessity. As we arrived at the small settlement at the summit, a large pig and her piglets squealed their welcome and a few families belonging to the HALO Trust deminers stationed at the site waved their hello.

I was exhausted as I rested in the immigration hut next to a tiny pagoda. The two-hour climb had been a real challenge and when one of the monks suggested I wash in their natural bathing pool nearby, I gratefully accepted his offer. I stripped, retaining a krama around my waist for modesty, and ladled cold water from the large rock pool over my head and body, alongside three other monks and Sokhom. A westerner using their washing facilities was very uncommon they told us but they were pleased to share and I was happy to accept. Refreshed, we walked through the village and on through a narrow 200 metre channel marked by small white stones and red markers. Danger!! Mines!! signs were everywhere, though the deminers had retired to their homes for the evening. As we reached the crest of the mountain plateau, the wreckage of a military helicopter lay off to the left and directly in front of us the Cambodian flag fluttered above the first gopura of Preah Vihear temple.

For more from my first Preah Vihear adventure, click here. To be honest my notes don't fully express how hard the climb was. At the time I was pretty fit but the first half of the climb was incredibly steep and so exhausting that I contemplated giving up more than once. Another real concern was the threat of landmines, so we stuck to what could loosely be called a track, though pulling ourselves up by tree roots and grabbing large stones for leverage, wasn't my idea of a recognised path. It was Sokhom's second visit so I put my trust in his judgement and we made it to the half-way point intact, where I collapsed onto a wooden bench. I was utterly shattered and I still remember that feeling as if it was yesterday. Fortunately the second half of the climb was considerably less strenuous.

Working to conserve

The work of Wildlife Alliance at places like Phnom Tamao Zoo and in their new ecotourism initiative in Chi Phat in the Cardamom Mountains are just the tip of the iceberg of their program's here in Cambodia. Here's a 'story from the field' that shines some light on the Chi Phat initiative.

A new day for community-based ecotourism
Wildlife Alliance's Jules Colomer takes environmental education on the road with the Kouprey Express and finds a way to blend his enthusiasm for mountain biking with a new ecotourism project in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains.

When you’ve just ridden 40 km of single track through the rainforest, swam in waterfalls, heard gibbon calls echo through the canopy, and watched giant hornbills cruise overhead, it’s important to remember that life is supposed to be tough in rural Cambodia. Thankfully a boat carrying ice makes its way to Chi Phat Commune by mid-afternoon, and the rambling wooden guest house offers good food and a great view of the main village street where locals go about their daily lives. Chi Phat, home to around 550 families, is one of the largest settlements in the Cardamom Mountains of Southwest Cambodia, and Wildlife Alliance, my host organisation, has been working to develop capacity in community-based ecotourism here since early 2007. Traditional use of forest resources has recently given way to increasingly commercial extraction of timber and wildlife, and community-based ecotourism (CBET) has the potential to provide alternative livelihoods to locals. It also contributes to poverty reduction and provides an incentive to protect the area’s rich environment. Recognised as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Cardamom Mountains’ 16 different ecosystems are home to many species, including endangered Asian elephants, Indochinese tigers, and Siamese crocodiles. The mountainous topography makes a welcome change from the generally pancake-flat terrain, and old logging roads and walking trails crisscross the forest – leading from village to village, to rivers, waterfalls and cultural artifacts. Chi Phat is a muddy 17km ride or 2.5 hours by slow boat from the nearest main road.

What does a VIDA (Volunteering for International Development from Australia) volunteer do in such situations? Having met a fellow Australian volunteer in Cambodia, Terry Wooltorton (an AVI with the NGO Live and Learn Environmental Education), with a shared passion for mountain biking, and with the support of Wildlife Alliance, we successfully proposed the development of a community-based mountain biking enterprise in Chi Phat and were awarded 25,000 Euro by the IUCN (World Conservation Union) to undertake the 9-month project. The project is based on building capacity in eco-awareness, hospitality, First Aid, eco-guiding, and mountain biking among community members. Trails are being mapped, groomed, and signposted. In November 2008, 12 quality mountain bikes will be brought in from Thailand, and a promotional multi-day ride for tour operators, media, and recognised mountain bikers is being organised by the community with the aim of providing the basis for a small-scale enterprise managed by Chi Phat’s democratically-elected CBET Committee. All benefits from the project are shared between local service providers and a commune fund administered by the Committee for the benefit of Chi Phat.

I spend roughly one week per month in Chi Phat, dividing my time between this project and managing Wildlife Alliance’s mobile environmental education unit, the Kouprey Express, which travels the country providing interactive, hands-on environmental education to rural primary schools in proximity to protected areas. Working with children who are eager to learn, participate, and who are excited by just the sight of the project vehicle (a coaster bus featuring a wraparound forest and wildlife scene) is a great experience. Between the busy schedule of tree planting, mural painting, bin decoration, and environmental games, the project managed to squeeze in a wildlife art competition to celebrate World Animal Day in September 2007. We worked with 250 children from five orphan and vulnerable children centres in Phnom Penh for a week, and took 50 lucky artists to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. There they saw the tigers, walked with the elephants, and prepared food for the bears – a special experience for the children, the majority of whom had never seen wildlife.

I’ve been here as a VIDA volunteer since January 2007, leaving behind a government job for the opportunity to experience Khmer culture and to contribute in a small but meaningful way to the people I interact with along the way. Clichéd, but true nonetheless. Being a VIDA has broadened my understanding of the vibrant and evolving Khmer culture, allowed me to meet people and see places that would otherwise be inaccessible, and provided me with a strong in-country support network. I can highly recommend the experience to anyone with an open, curious, and adventurous mindset. Copyright Jules Colomer

To find out more about the work of Wildlife Alliance, click here

Monday, August 4, 2008

Meta magic

I've been quiet on the Meta House front for the last month or so as to be honest, they weren't showing anything that grabbed my attention. I've been a regular visitor to their roof-top cinema and exhibition rooms for many months now so it was unusual not to set foot in their Street 264 headquarters for a few weeks. However, the month of August will see an end to my absence, in a big way. In fact Nico and his team have surpassed themselves with their program for this month. I've already penciled in a dozen nights' worth of viewing and it could be more! The main focus will be next Saturday (9th Aug) when filmmaker Steve McClure will be on hand to present a story of courage and survival in Rain Falls From Earth - Surviving Cambodia's Darkest Hour. Steve has put his heart and soul into this project and the story he weaves includes interviews with Vann Nath, Em Theay and Thida Butt Mam. Don't miss it! Also on my 'must-see' list are 1960's footage including Sihanouk's Rose of Bokor film (Thurs 7th), the double-docu night of Kampuchea: Death & Rebirth with Inside Pol Pot's Secret Prison (Fri 15th), two of John Pilger's best-ever documentaries, Year Zero and The Betrayal (Sat 16th), Rithy Panh's One Evening After The War (Sun 17th), a slew of Vietnam documentaries and to close the month, the double feature of Dogora and Baraka (Sat 30th). Maybe I should bring my camp-bed and stay for the whole month.

Your own place

An advert in today's The Cambodia Daily offers 'Your own place in Cambodia for $13,000.' Posted by American Assistance for Cambodia, the add continues; 'And a very special place indeed - a schoolhouse with your name on it. Cambodia's education system was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge holocaust. Today, some 3,000 villages have no schoolhouse. Any donation will help Cambodian children receive an education. But for $13,000 an entire schoolhouse can be built, and there are now more than 428 schools in Cambodia bearing a benefactor's name. An optional addition of $2,000 for English/computer teacher and $1,700 for computer and solar panels.' The advert gives Bernie Krisher as the contact, he's also the publisher of The Cambodia Daily.
Their website explains it as follows: AAfC's largest project, the Rural Schools Project, has helped build over 400 enriched primary and lower secondary schools in rural Cambodia since 1999. In this program, donors sponsor the construction of a school in a village that currently lacks one. Donors pay US$13,000 for a school, with matching funds provided by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, through partnership with Cambodia's Social Fund and Ministry of Education. After the school is constructed, donors are strongly encouraged to enrich the lives of students by funding improvments for their school. School improvements include English and computer teachers, computers powered through solar panels, Internet access through a satellite dish or GPRS system, a well or water filter, a school nurse, a vegetable garden, and a bookcase of books.

Thom (big) problems at Ta Muen

Prasat Ta Muen Thom - a tug of war between Cambodia & Thailand. Photo: courtesy Mike Newman
It had to happen eventually. I see the news media are now linking the little-known Ta Muen Thom temple to the stand-off at Preah Vihear, 130kms to the east of the smaller site. Reports of Thai troop movements at Ta Muen have made the press though in reality, the temple has been 'occupied' by Thailand for a few years now and that shows no sign of abating. It's small fry compared to Preah Vihear but it's a subject that still rankles with Cambodians whenever its mentioned.

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

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

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Au revoir to Banteay Thom

The northern tower of Banteay Thom
The southern (left) and central towers of Banteay Thom. The rear of the central tower has collapsed in part
This is my final post on Prasat Banteay Thom, a remote temple just a few kilometres from the main Angkor Park route but rarely-visited and so well worth seeking out next time you have some time on your hands. Built by the great temple builder Jayavarman VII, it is mostly sandstone with three central towers though its galleries are of laterite, it has a host of excellent carvings on its pediments, lintels and wall panels as well as a series of devata and male dvarapalas in niches on its walls. My first visit was in 1999 when the whole site was overgrown and the red ants did a great job of protecting their temple, and today its just as remote though its been tidied up and the 'ang krang' don't bite so much! Nevertheless, you will most likely be all alone when you visit the temple.
With the sun behind the eastern gopura, this pediment photo isn't one of my best. The pediment shows Prajnaparamita and a lower register of 12 crowned women holding lotus flowers
The lintel on the eastern gopura is badly mutilated and you can just make out the kala
Banteay Thom has some gorgeous wall panels and these Buddhist figures escaped mutilation in the late 13th century
These medallion wall panels show a variety of birds and animals with the Goddess Preah Thorani in the center, wringing her hair of water
Inside the laterite gallery that runs around the inside of the outer temple wall
This poorly defined naga antefix was one of the few remaining items from the small temple of Prasat Kron Nup, closeby Banteay Thom but completely levelled by temple thieves

Pediments at Banteay Thom

Over the southern door of the southern tower, this pediment depicts the Great Departure with the horse of Siddhartha being supported by the gods, his tail held by Chandaka and eleven dancing apsaras below, which seems to belie the suggestion that the departure was in silence
Without the religious mutilation at the end of the 13th century and the thefts of the 20th century, the pediments and lintels at Prasat Banteay Thom would've been a dream for any temple buff. As it is, we are left with a case of 'what might have been' and to fill in the blanks left by the people who've defaced these excellent carvings from the 13th century and the reign of Jayavarman VII. Banteay Thom is off the beaten track and therefore a prime target for thieves looking for priceless Khmer artefacts and features, and this very real problem that exists at the remote temples of Cambodia was demonstrated in the last decade when Banteay Thom lost some of its treasures, hacked from its walls and lost forever. Today the temple is a great place to visit for its quietness, located in a copse of trees and within a few minutes walking distance of a couple of small villages. It's rare that any visitor to the Angkor Park ventures to the temple, so it remains one of the Hidden Secrets of Jayavarman VII.
Both the lintel and the pediment above have been badly defaced. A row of worshippers remain but the main figure, probably a Lokeshvara, has been removed
An almost identical scene with the pediment losing its central figure and the lintel losing its Buddhist theme including its kala
Even this row of seven worshippers have been defaced - the remainder of the pediment is mutilated
Both the central figures from the pediment and lintel have been removed in the anti-Buddhist religious fervour of the late 13th century
The Lokeshvara has been scratched out leaving two attendants, nine worshippers and a ruined lintel
A row of worshippers and a defaced lintel, minus its kala
This pediment from the north face of the central tower at Banteay Thom shows the assault of Mara, with Preah Thorani flanked by two horsemen in the center, the upper register is defaced, while a large kala occupies the lower register, alongside dancing figures

One of my fave prasats

This defaced pediment is located on the eastern gopura of Banteay Thom. The Lokeshvara has been expertly chiselled away leaving two asuras either side who are seen torturing the central missing figure. Crowned worshipping figures sitting in anjali are below
One of my favourite smaller temples at Angkor has to be Prasat Banteay Thom. It's rarely visited - the policeman on duty told me I was the first visitor for a month when I paid a visit a couple of weeks ago - and I remember it very fondly after my first visit in 1999, just a couple of years after it had been 're-discovered.' In its prime it would've been a real jewel with lots of intricate carvings on pediments, lintels and wall panels throughout the site. Today its a victim of religious mutilation and modern robbery. As a temple built by Jayavarman VII, it was constructed in the early 13th century and despite the disfigurements of the latter part of that century and the temple thieves of the last decade, it still has much to see. Because of its remote location off the normal tourist route - access is only possible by walking or by moto - quite of few of the devatas in niches are sadly missing their heads and many of the lintels and pediments have been vandalized. Nevertheless, I urge you to pay a visit and I will bring you some of its iconography and carvings in this and a couple more postings.
A wall panel shows Preah Thorani (Goddess of the Earth) standing on a lotus wringing her hair to defeat Mara with two figures in medallions with long javelins
A female devata that has lost her head in the last decade
A similar devata that has so far managed to keep her head, holds onto her earring
A dvarapala door guardian figure - guarding the abode of Shiva - at Banteay Thom
The face of this fierce dvarapala guardian has been eroded, with a kala carving on top
This dvarapala has lost his head too, like many of the devata at the temple
This shows the laterite gallery that runs around the temple and a large banyan tree that clings to the walls

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Closing the Wat Phu chapter

This lintel shows Vishnu riding his mount Garuda, who clutches a multi-headed naga
The central sanctuary which sits on the upper level of Wat Phu in southern Laos has a wealth of classic Khmer iconography and carvings of devatas and dvarapalas to admire. This series of photos close the chapter on Wat Phu's beautiful array of carvings, though I must mention the small museum at the entranceway, which is a 'must-visit' on your Wat Phu schedule. Its well presented with good signage and has some wonderful pieces on show that have been removed from the main site for safe-keeping and to explain the Wat Phu story to visitors. I can't recommend the temple of Wat Phu highly enough - I was so glad I made the effort to visit it on my trip to Laos, and I'm sure you will enjoy it too.
Detail of Vishnu riding 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
The popular image of Vishvakarma and kala in a broken lintel at Wat Phu
Detail of Vishvakarma - architect of the gods - sat above a kala in munching mode, as he makes a meal out of a foliage branch
Another Vishvakarma and kala lintel at Wat Phu, under attack from white lichen
This half pediment above the northern door shows a scene of monkeys fighting, most likely Valin and Sugriva
This doorway shows Vishvakarma on the lintel and a few fragments of Vishnu sleeping on the snake Ananta in the pediment above
The lichen covered rishi (wise man) at the foot of this wall panel is topped by another small figure in prayer

Beautiful lintels at Wat Phu

The southern door has a beautiful rendition of Krishna subduing the poisonous snake Kaliya by dancing on his head and splitting him into two pieces
There's not enough hours in the day - I'm sure I've said that before! However, I have finally found a spare few moments to post some of the gorgeous lintels and carvings that can be found in the central sanctuary of Wat Phu, the Khmer-built temple ruins set on a mountainside in southern Laos, which I visited recently. The lintels are beautifully carved, contain a variety of motifs and scenes and I'm sure there's a couple that I forgot to photograph in my haste. Note for myself - make sure you don't miss any in future by doing a methodical check before you leave, as you don't know when you will return! Nevertheless, this 11th century temple is unique in many ways and is definitely worth visiting if you are in Laos.
On this broken half pediment, worshipping figures pay respect to a meditating Shiva
On this lintel over the southern door to the central sanctuary resides Indra on his three-headed elephant mount Airavata, with two kalas at either end keeping guard
Vishvakarma is never far from the action and appears here sitting on a fierce kala on this lintel above one of the antechamber doorways
On this slightly worn lintel over the central doorway, Indra is again accompanied by his 3-headed Airavata
This interesting lintel shows a meditating Shiva, as a rishi, in the center of a line of worshipping and praying figures, sat atop a kala
A close-up of Shiva in deep meditation, sitting on a pedestal and holding a rosary
This gorgeous lintel shows Vishvakarma in full pomp and ceremony, above a kala and surrounded by four rearing lions

River of Victory

A documentary film looking at the hopes and fears of three people whose lives are immersed with the Stung Meanchey garbage dump in Phnom Penh will be the focus of Steung Mian Chey: River of Victory. Currently in production and seeking funds, the film is the brainchild of Trevor Wright, director, Todd Smith and Jordan Augustine, who traveled to Cambodia to do humanitarian service and were bowled over by the inspirational people they met at the garbage dump. Their story will focus on three of these people, Scott Neeson, the founder of Cambodian Children's Fund, together with a mother, Samphoas and a child, Samnang. Keep tabs on the film's progress here.

Cheery Chhnang

It makes a nice change to read a travel article from one of the unsung destinations in Cambodia - Kompong Chhnang. It brought back memories of my first visit there in November 2001, which you can read here. Tom Cockrem in the Malaysia Star online brings us up to date.

Chaotic, cheery Chhnang - by Tom Cockrem (Malaysia Star online)

Kompong Chhnang in Cambodia is a fantastic destination in itself — exotic and chaotically old world. The flood waters had not come. The houseboats sat low at the foot of their long-legged neighbours — the stilt houses on the land. The soaring height of these informed how far the river might soon be expected to rise. The floaters would rise with them, until almost eye to eye with their stilted counterparts. The river here was busy with the comings and goings of so many kinds of craft — fishing boats, ferries, sampans, hawker boats and canoes, some motor-driven and some propelled by oar. The women at the helm wore multi-hued pajamas, just like in Vietnam. But this was Cambodia. The river was the Tonle Sap, and the town, Kompong Chhnang. I was on a ferry heading north from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, with a view to visit Angkor. But Chhnang seemed to me a fantastic destination in itself — intriguingly exotic and chaotically old-world. I decided then and there to make it back here some time, and get to see close up how these people of the river live their lives.

So a few years down the track, and I am back in Phnom Penh, and off to Kompong Chhnang. Only this time I cheat a bit, and travel by bus instead of boat. It would take just two hours. I am dropped off at the market end of town. It’s some 2km inland from the river, and looks like any other small Cambodian urban centre, with nondescript shophouses and a good amount of grunge. The market itself, though, would be good fun to explore. To get to the river you take a moto (taxi motorbike) down the long main street to Pasar Krom — the waterfront market. It feels a little strange sneaking up on the river from behind, so to speak. The road is lined by a motley assortment of small businesses and shacks. In between, you glimpse the countryside — the vivid green wetlands given over to rice, commanded here and there by thatched cottages on piles. Meanwhile, greetings are coming thick and fast — “Hello, sir”, “Good afternoon”, “What’s your name?” It’s nice to feel so welcome. I pass a temple complex with saffron-robed monks smiling hellos from the yard. A dirt road branches off to the right, and heads down to a stream. It crosses a breakwater — one that draws a crowd. Net casting fishermen share it with the traffic, as well as sporting kids, as a bevy of motor bike owners wash their machines. Now there’s a novel scene!

When it gets to the river, the road does a sharp left to become a kind of esplanade. On the riverbank side are lots of little eateries and stalls. The “esplanade” soon turns into a track, and I am in amongst a maze of wooden stilts. Then the fun begins. The people are so friendly here, I reach celebrity status before I’ve made a hundred yards. Ladders lead steeply up to the cube-like domiciles perched atop the piles. Once ensconced up there you must feel pretty safe, except maybe in a storm. Backtracking now, I stand on the riverbank and overlook the houseboats down below. There are far more than I could ever have imagined. They are moored in neat rows stretching away as far as you can see. A high rickety bridge takes you over the stream — the one with the breakwater. A lady wearing a conical hat awaits my arrival. “Boat — five dollar one hour!” And who could resist her charming smile. I tell her I’ll be back tomorrow morning. An even bigger smile!

The scene here is simply amazing. Makeshift plankwalks lead out to rowboats that take commuters and school kids to and from their homes. Neighbours sit and chat across the decks. Fisherman mend engines and nets, and the kids just lark about. Boat builders and mechanics work away on the river or the shore, and floating shops sell everything from groceries to soup. Most of the boat dwellers are, in fact, Vietnamese. They are fisherfolk who have ventured up the Mekong from the Delta, then worked their way up the Tonle Sap. Around 150,000 Vietnamese make Cambodia their home. Most reside in Phnom Penh, but many are fishers and rice farmers who have followed in the wake of the not infrequent Vietnamese invasions of Cambodia. The first of these occurred in the 17th century, and the most recent was in 1979.

Next morning, I’m as good as my word. Traversing the bridge again — risking life and limb — I am met by the boat lady with the hat and the smile. She soon has me seated in her boat and conveyed out amongst the other crafts. She works a single oar while standing at the bow — how I wouldn’t know. The houseboats have a surprising array of mod cons — TV, karaoke and the like. The rowers sidle up to one another for a chat. A hawker boat stops by, and they maybe grab a coffee or a snack. Gee, it ain’t so bad here living on the water, after all. Back on terra firma, I find an alternative route back up town. It’s a dirt road lined with shrub-enshrouded homes. Motorised traffic here is light, and the road is given over to vendors, cyclists and strollers such as me. Life seems idyllic in these parts, in a minimal communal kind of way. I am invited onto verandahs, and get to meet the family — all three generations — plus relatives and friends. It’s not hard to really like Chhnang. Sundown sees me back on the “esplanade”, relishing this cooling river breeze, a chilled Anchor beer in my hand. The hawker stalls get busy around this time. Any wonder. I drink to cheery fellow diners and to the houseboat residents below, to everyone I’ve met in Kompong Chhnang, and also to this ferry on the river passing by. Now I bet it’s on its way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Market time in Muang Sing

The oldest market seller we could find at Muang Sing
These are a few photos from my visit to the colourful morning market at Muang Sing, in northwest Laos. It lies close to the Chinese border and many of the ethnic groups, which number nearly 40 in the whole province, converge on the market to sell their wares each day. The market sells lots of fresh produce, meat, fish, vegetables and bottles of lao-lao rice whisky and many of the sellers from the different ethnic groupings such as Akha, Hmong, Mien, Tai Dam and Lolo still wear their traditional clothing to market. Make sure you get up early!
Fresh beef is on the menu for this market trader
There were lots of fresh fish on view, most of them still swimming
Vegetables and greens were much in evidence
Traditional Akha headgear is still worn by many
A Tai Dam tribeswoman at Muang Sing market
There were food stalls amongst the sellers of produce for an early morning snack
The market at Muang Sing was a great place to sample the early morning sights, sounds and smells

Two extraordinary women

In today's Huffington Post, writer Marianne Schnall focuses on two extraordinary women.

Isabel Allende, Loung Ung and the Power of Memoir

It's mind-numbing. Four hundred thousand dead and 2.45 million displaced in Darfur; 5.4 million dead in fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998; epidemic levels of violence against women and children. With the constant repetition of such statistics of devastation, what can move us to action? At an upcoming Women & Courage Conference at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, Isabel Allende and Loung Ung (pictured) will cross paths. These two extraordinary writer/activists demonstrate that the most direct and powerful way to comprehend human suffering is through compelling, first-hand accounts.

Two daughters of exile, Allende and Ung present a study in similarity and contrast. After happy, affluent childhoods, both fled their countries, Chile and Cambodia, after watching them disintegrate into violence, struggle and genocide. And both later wrote memoirs of suffering and survival, stories of personal courage. But from here their stories diverge. In the 1970s, Isabel Allende was already a journalist and young mother when the violent overthrow of her father's cousin, Chile President Salvador Allende, occurred. She helped many young leftists evade the Pinochet death squads before a series of threats forced her family to flee to Venezuela. Her best-selling first novel, House of Spirits, drew on her experiences then. A generation younger, Loung Ung was only five when the violent 1975 Khmer Rouge regime forced her family of nine to flee Phnom Penh for the Cambodian countryside. Posing as peasants, they lived through every human's worst nightmares. First They Killed My Father is the memoir that tells her wrenching story of labor camps, starvation, attempted rape and the loss of her family. Ung and one brother eventually made their way to the United States, where she ultimately became a human rights activist. Her second memoir, Lucky Child, tells the story of the challenges of her new life juxtaposed with those of her sister who remained in Cambodia.

Today, as U.S. citizens, Allende and Ung value their freedoms, but view the American media with critical eyes. "It seems to me we are living in a time in which fear is used as a tool in the media, entertainment, culture, and politics," says Ung. I think right now, it takes courage to live a life of hope. A life of insights. A life of family. And to not buy into this fear that we're being sold." Allende doesn't mince words. "The media could do a much better job, that's for sure, especially the media that targets women. ... Human rights? They couldn't care less! Their message to women is all about consumerism, looking sexy and pleasing men in bed. And yet they have the potential to make profound changes for the better in women's lives." Allende, an avowed feminist, has drawn liberally from her story and those of her family for her novels, but her first memoir, Paula, written amidst the storm of emotion provoked by her daughter's illness and death, has an extraordinary intimacy and authenticity. Calling a memoir "an invitation into another person's privacy," she has a new one just out, The Sum of Our Days. "I have more freedom when I write fiction, but my memoirs have had a much stronger impact on my readers. Somehow the 'message,' even if I am not even aware that there is one, is conveyed better in this form."

Similarly, Ung feels that memoirs "connect the humanity in us." She explains, "We often hear about many hundred thousands killed in Darfur, and two million in Cambodia. All these big numbers. Memoirs bring it down to a family, a face... it breaks down that barrier of what is Cambodia, Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Darfur - down to a father, a mother, a brother, a sister. How I missed my mother - is that very different from how your children miss you? How I long for my father's touch on top of my head is not different from any other child's longing." Ung's story is searing. Told with simplicity and drama from a child's point of view, it includes events that are simply beyond the bounds of our comfortable western experience. At one moment, after Ung's father has been taken away and executed, her mother picks her three strongest children - including Ung, who is at this point seven years old - and essentially says to them, go away; go off in three different directions; say that you are an orphan; get lost so that you can survive. Ung's emotionally devastated mother then remains with her smallest, weakest child. Grief-stricken and starving, they both will be executed by the Khmer Rouge. Ung - tiny, clever, rebellious - comes across as extraordinarily courageous, the ultimate survivor. Yet Ung sees what is universal in her story. "As a child, it took courage to survive the war that I was in," she says. "As a young girl, it took courage to be true to my brown skin in a sea of white children. ... It takes courage for all of us to be a woman, a mother, a sister; to be together in a society that is breeding so much fear." Allende agrees: "Women have always been courageous. ... They are always fearless when protecting their children and in the last century they have been fearless in the fight for their rights. ... In times of conflict, war, poverty or religious fundamentalism, women and children are the first and most numerous victims. Women need all their courage today."

Both Allende and Ung, in the context of the Omega Conference on Women & Courage, are issuing a call to action for all women. The message begins with the awareness that we all need to call on the "everyday" forms of courage, and to support each other in that. "We get so caught up in all these different issues - whether it's the economy, the war, oil crisis, or the election - that sometimes we forget about the challenges women face every day. It's important to come together and to re-connect on that level," says Ung. And from Allende, "Sisters: talk to each other, be connected and informed, form women's circles, share your stories, work together, and take risks. Together we are invincible. There is nothing to be afraid of." And both Allende and Ung call for activism. Allende (who founded her own women's advocacy organization, called The Isabel Allende Foundation) sees a distinct role for senior women, who have education, resources and have been empowered by the women's movement. "Our role as grandmothers is to protect young women and children, to work for peace in every way and at every level, and to improve the quality of life for everybody, not just the privileged." "Overall, I think the more team members we have - be it memoir writers, journalists, peace corps volunteers - to go out there and report on human rights issues in the world, the better," says Ung, who's been active on behalf of a variety of causes affecting her homeland, as well as for the elimination of land mines around the world. "Ultimately, I think our goal is the same; to create a safer and better world for all of us." "Our role is to dream a better world," says Allende, "and to work courageously to make that dream possible."

Article co-written with Patty Goodwin. This article originally appeared at the Women's Media Center.

A much longer one-to-one interview with Loung Ung by Marianne Schnall appears here. In the interview Loung lets on that she's writing a book about her great grandmother, her grandmother and her mother and the family's migration from China to Cambodia to America.

By Any Means

Charley Boorman on the bamboo train location shoot in Battambang
Last month, our own Hanuman Films crew hosted the By Any Means team for their filming in Cambodia, presented by motorcycle adventurer Charley Boorman. Hanuman's Nick Ray met the team at the Lao border and they travelled to Stung Treng by rocket boat. They then continued by dirt bike along the pretty dirt roads of the Mekong River, passing through Stung Trong district and the rubber plantations of Chamcar Leu, eventually enjoying a 'Temple Safari' experience at Beng Mealea temple. The following day the team continued to Phnom Kulen to experience some jungle rides before making a base at our HanumanAlaya Hotel in Siem Reap for a few nights. Photographer Julian Broad flew out to meet the team in Siem Reap and spent a couple of days shooting the cover shot for the book that will accompany the series. After exploring the temples, the team continued west to Sisophon to experience the 'bamboo train' or norry and then continued their journey to Bangkok and beyond. Both Charley Boorman and Producer Russ Malkin agreed that Cambodia was the high point of their journey from London to Sydney using any means of transport. And that was on camera, not just to flatter the Hanuman Films team for all their hard work. The television programme will be shown later this year on the BBC and the National Geographic channel. Link: byanymeans