Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Great company and wonderful views

One wrong move and I was history! King-fu fans at Wat Ratanak Reangsey, north of Han Chey
I'm back home after a successful few days away in Kompong Cham, joining in the P'chum Ben ceremony with my good friend Sophoin and her family as well as getting out and about in the countryside on the hunt for the old and the new. It rained every day, as if Kompong Cham didn't have enough water already, but it didn't spoil my exploration and I will post my findings over the next week or so. In the meantime, here's a couple of pictures that just about sum up my long weekend - great company and wonderful views.
The beautiful countryside of Kompong Cham, near Wat Lovea

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Traffic hell

I've just finished dinner at the Lazy Mekong Daze restaurant on the Mekong Riverfront in Kompong Cham with the Kizuna Bridge lit by headlights from the stream of traffic crossing it and an electrical storm off in the distance lighting up the night sky every few seconds. I'm here for 3 nights and have booked into the Mekong Hotel, not a place I've stayed in before but it'll suffice. The LP is right, you can play football inside its cavenous corridors, and my bathroom is the biggest I've ever seen in Cambodia. It took forever to get here though. I caught the Sorya bus at 8.55am from the Central Market and I kid you not, 3 hours later we had only just crossed the Japanese Bridge. The traffic was horrendous and to cap it all, the coach kept stalling and the driver had to turn off the air-con so as not to drain the battery. People were passing out before my eyes. Some even got off and jumped into a taxi. I finally rolled into Kompong Cham at 2.30pm, drenched in sweat and in a foul mood, like the rest of my fellow passengers. I had time to whizz around a few of the town's pagodas and to admire some of its fading French colonial & Chinese architecture that is much in evidence before dinner. Tomorrow I'm off for a long-distance trip if the weather holds up. The Mekong River itself is pretty high at the moment and much of the lowland areas in the vicinity are flooded. I hope my intended route is still doable. Okay, time to sign-off, til the next time.

Blog Holiday

I catch the bus to Kompong Cham in an hour and will effectively be off-line for the next four days. I know Kompong Cham isn't in the remote wilderness these days but between travelling, pagoda-visiting for the P'chum Ben ceremonies and my own adventures in the Cham countryside, I don't think I'll have any spare time to get on-line. If I do, I will. If I don't, I'll be back late on Tuesday night with an update. Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Tarnished reputation

Let this photo be a lesson to all of the perils that await you where alcohol is concerned. I'm not proud of my actions. I can't actually remember them but this photo is proof (unless it's been photoshop'd). It's not clever and it's not big to drink. I blame Eric the happy snapper, his camera encouraged brazenness. This girl was a professional shirt-thief - she could undo buttons just by looking at them. My attempts to restrain her were futile. In my inebriated state, I was no match for her onslaught. However, if this can act as a warning to others, then my shame won't be so complete. Beware shirt-thieves in the bars of Phnom Penh but most of all, don't drink when a camera is closeby. And if anyone is eating whilst viewing this photo, I apologize.
My shame is complete. Photo courtesy of ericdevries.
It's a busy old weekend ahead. The 15-day Buddhist ceremony of P'chum Ben will end on Tuesday as Khmers all over the country visit their preferred pagodas with food and offerings for the sprits of their dead ancestors. I was planning on a visit to Battambang but plans have changed and now I will head for Kompong Cham tomorrow for a couple of days and fit in my pagoda visit, starting at 4am, on Sunday. As I'll be in the sticks, this blog will have a brief holiday too.
In case you weren't aware, tomorrow is World Tourism Day 2008 and Peru will be the focus as tourism chiefs concentrate on how to promote sustainable tourism whilst incorporating environmental, socio-economic and climatic concerns. Good luck guys. The new Cambodian government were sworn in yesterday, with just about everyone and their dog getting a ministerial job, except me. Oh, and the return of Prince Norodom Ranariddh is scheduled for Sunday after he received a royal pardon from his brother the King, for the embezzlement conviction he acquired last year. I don't think anyone will get the flags out.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dead as a dodo

A nice welcome for yours truly during our final goodbye. Photo courtesy of ericdevries.
Let me qualify this post by saying that anyone who knows me, will be aware that I rarely drink alcohol. Very rarely. Almost never. Except when I go out with my photographer pal Eric de Vries. He's a bad influence. Fortunately he's moving to Siem Reap at the weekend so our once every six monthly bar hops will cease. My liver can breathe a sigh of relief. Last night was our final goodbye. He's moving to Siem Reap to open up his own gallery in due time. At the moment his work can be viewed at the McDermott Gallery. We popped our heads into a few bars last night to check out 'the scene' and it was as dead as a dodo. I wish him well in the Reap. Link: ericdevries. Read comments for more.

Football funnies

A different style of team photo for the Preah Khan Reach football team
I've been in Cambodia for over a year now and I still haven't managed to watch a game in the Cambodian Premier League - that's football (soccer) to the uninitiated. I've seen the Cambodian national team play a few times but haven't yet got along to the Olympic Stadium to watch a top league game. However, I caught up with Chamroeun's blog that made me smile. He has a series of recent team photos of the top five teams in the Premier League, which Phnom Penh Empire already lead by a country mile, that are unusual to say the least. Hence I've posted a couple here just for our amusement. Photos are by Tep Phany.
League leaders Phnom Penh Empire, ready for the off
I have a few more chances to watch the national team next month, when they host the AFF Suzuki Cup 2008 Qualifying Tournament. Two teams will progress through to December's finals to be played in Thailand and Indonesia and Cambodia's matches will be against Laos (17th October), East Timor (19th), Philippines (23rd) and Brunei (25th). See you there.

Baby news

Congratulations to Kulikar and Nick, my work colleagues here at Hanuman, on the birth of their baby daughter yesterday afternoon, weighing in at 3.1 kilos. No name yet, more when I hear it. Mother, baby and hubbie are doing just fine.

300 actors are expected to take part in next month's Lakhaon International Theatre Festival in Phnom Penh. It'll be held at the Chenla Theatre between 3-9 October, it's free and will showcase traditional theatre styles from Cambodia, France and other Asian countries, though the Khmer styles (and there are many) will dominate with seven of the twelve plays being featured. The festival is being hosted by the French Cultural Centre, so annoyingly much of the publicity is in French though if you search the CCF website you will find a few scant words in English about the event. One day they will wake up and realize the world speaks English, not French.

This coming Saturday, 27th, the Chenla Theatre will also host another free event, the Cracking Bamboo International Percussion Festival from 7pm. Performers of differing nationalities will join together for this mini extravaganza of percussion, old and new. Get along if you can.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hot springs

I've never been there and don't intend to go anytime soon but I thought you might be interested in this Soaking in Southeast Asia blog posting that visited Cambodia's only hot water spring that is known about. It's way off the beaten track, lounging miles from anywhere in Kompong Speu province, which people only really pass through anyway, on their way to Sihanoukville. If you want to seek it out and find out all about the healing properties of hot springs for yourself, be advised to read this article first so you know what to expect - it's not a site that will immediately grab your interest. Even those building the golf course and resort lost the will to carry on halfway through. There's very little consensus on the name so pick one of the following - Tai Teuk Pous, Ta Te Teuk Pus, Te Teuk Pus or Phnom Te. Click here. Happy soaking.
I found the article while I was searching for stilted villages in and around the Tonle Sap Lake. I've been to a few villages on the shores of the lake (ie. Kompong Phluk, Kompong Khleang, Kompong Luong, Chong Khneas, etc) but there are many more that are waiting to be visited, if only I had, a) the time and b) the necessary transport. My 'fisheries' insider tells me there are plans to develop more eco-tourism sites around the Tonle Sap Lake and beyond but the locations are yet to be confirmed and more details may be available by the end of the year. They didn't say which year!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Prey Lang under threat

A brother and sister filmmaking team, Ben and Jocelyn Pederick from Australia, carried off the main award from last week's Environmental and Conservation Film Festival with their eleven-minute short film Prey Lang: One Forest. One Future. It's effectively a trailer for an hour-long film they are completing to tell people about the Prey Lang forest that covers parts of Preah Vihear, Stung Treng, Kratie and Kompong Thom provinces and the challenges it's facing in the future. Prey Lang is the largest primary lowland dry evergreen forest remaining in both Cambodia and Indochinese Peninsula and it’s in jeopardy. With an estimated 700,000 people relying on the forest for survival, logging and mining interests have the potential to destroy this critical, fragile and ancient forest habitat. Healthy wildlife populations including endangered species such as elephants, gaur, banteng, tiger and Asiatic black bears are all at risk as well as the indigenous Kuy communities who protect and rely on the forest for their daily needs. You can find out more about Prey Lang and the documentary here.

The World Savers Awards recognize companies that are innovative in five key areas: poverty alleviation, cultural and/or environmental preservation, education, wildlife conservation, and health. Yesterday at the Conde Nast Traveler's World Savers Congress in New York, six companies were named winners and they included Cambodia-based Journeys Within, for Health Initiatives. The tour operator's non-profit arm has added more than 180 water wells to the landscape around Siem Reap, helping nearly 4,000 Cambodians to avoid water-related disease. They also offer scholarships for university students, hold free English classes, and provide micro-loans for small businesses in Cambodia. Well done JW.

Grand old dame

The Hotel Renakse - a decade ago
One of the grand old dames of Phnom Penh, the Hotel Renakse is in the news todays as it looks like this ageing French colonial relic is up for sale, alongwith just about everything else in this city. It's owned by the ruling Cambodian People's Party, as it was the original headquarters of their predecessor, the Kampuchea People's Revolutionary Party in 1979 after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, and although leased to the hotel manager, it seems someone somewhere is trying to make a fast buck. I haven't had time to do any research but my recollection is that the Renakse was built in the late 1800s and was previously the main Cambodian Court. It's located directly opposite the Royal Palace and occupies a prime piece of real estate of some 6,500 square metres between the royal residence and the Tonle Sap River. As one of the city's oldest hotels, it has been showing its age for many years though some of its large rooms have been renovated and the outside walls given a lick of paint in recent times. I stayed there many moons ago, actually looking back it was a decade ago and it was very run-down at that time. I remember vividly going to use the toilet for the first time just as another power-cut struck, and as I shone my torch into the murky bathroom, I could see a long trail of ants scurrying across the toilet seat. It was not a good introduction to the hotel - which on first, second and last impressions was pretty dilapidated with peeling walls, broken furniture, non-existent staff and a musty smell that goes with something old and not looked after. I keep meaning to pop my head in again to check its current status, but keep forgetting.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Comeback kings

A dishevelled looking Bayon Wanderers squad after today's game - I'm far left front row
In the last couple of months my Sundays have been spent getting completely knackered running around chasing a football under a scorching sun, instead of taking a nice leisurely moto-ride out into the countryside and discovering the delights of rural Cambodia. I must be mad! We were scheduled to be playing an inter-squad game amongst ourselves today but it turned out we were up against a young CMAC team instead. With a squad of nearly 30 players turning up, it meant numerous changes throughout the game, making it almost impossible to offer up a cohesive resistance. It showed in the first half with our opponents capitalising on our defensive frailty to lead 3-1 at the break. The second half was a different story and our pressing and fitness brought its rewards as we ran out 6-3 winners, in the game played at the Old Stadium. It was nice for Aussie Nick King to get a goal before he departs for home this week. There's a good chance I will miss next weekend's games as I have been invited to Battambang for 3 days to help celebrate the P'chum Ben (honouring their ancestors) festival with Khmer friends.
Four of our best supporters, including the puppy

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Food for thought

This is the opening scene from the brand new movie, Heart Talk by Khmer Mekong Films showing a woman's body being hauled out of the Tonle Sap River opposite the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. It's KMF's second feature-length film and they took the opportunity to test the water with a preview audience screening at Meta House tonight. The moviegoers were asked to complete questionnaires at key points of the screening and their input will give KMF some food for thought before the production is finalized, ready for its introduction to Khmer cinema fans. As for the film itself, it was set in Cambodia's capital at a fictitious radio station, where two women presenters disappear and the male employees are in the frame before a final twist in what was a well-paced thriller-whodunit, led by Saray Sakana as Maly, the heroine and Pov Kisan as Heng the detective, better known as a comedy actor. Having the film set in various locations around the capital added to the interest for me and with some finishing touches here and there will see a film that local audiences should enjoy.
Postscript: A mug-shot of me at the screening appeared in Monday's Phnom Penh Post in a page of Around Town mug-shots. I didn't look happy about it!

An aid to being responsible

Responsible Tourism is one of the latest buzzwords that we hear, especially in a country like Cambodia, where it's almost a dirty expression to be just a tourist, you need to be responsible, pro-poor, green or an advocate of eco-tourism and so on. To help us understand more about this latest fad and to identify some tourism activities or projects that visitors can get involved in whilst in and about the Mekong region, a new booklet, the 148-page Guide to Responsible Tourism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, has been published. In it, 88 so-called responsible tourism activities are described from the three countries of the lower Mekong area, with 28 from Cambodia ranging from the PEPY Ride, to the Starfish Bakery in Sihanoukville to the circus in Battambang, Phare Ponleu Selpak. You'd think such a booklet would be free, following the example set by the Stay Another Day publication that promotes sustainable tourism and overlaps in many areas, but the latest guide is only available from the Ministry of Tourism for the pricely sum of $15. That's just plain crazy - I can't see many takers at that price. The Cambodia section has been written by Nick Ray of LP fame.

I am just back from the very geeky BarCamp Phnom Penh, held at the Foreign Languages University campus and very well-attended by a nice cross-section of expats and Khmers, eager to soak up the IT vibes radiating from every corner. It was an all-day informal affair so I turned up for the free lunch and the early afternoon sessions, one of which, 'how to date a Khmer girl', was of particular interest. Other more earnest presentations were on offer, most of which went way over my head, but were lapped up by the IT-savvy computer nerds in attendance. Nice to meet a few fellow bloggers at the type of event that will undoubtedly enthuse and excite those thirsty for new technology.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Jacobsen rewrites history

Authoress Trudy Jacobsen rewrites history from a female perspective
On a whistle-stop visit to Cambodia, anthropologist and authoress Trudy Jacobsen convinced the audience at tonight's book-signing session at Monument Books that Cambodian women have a more illustrious heritage than they're usually given credit for. She's rewritten history with the research for her book Lost Goddesses: The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History and brings a new focus on the power Khmer women have wielded in the past and which they should aim to repeat in the future. Her own experiences in Cambodia over the last twenty years provided the impetus to delve into topics such as Cbpah Srei, the Code of conduct for women, which was introduced by King Ang Duong in the 19th century and has resurfaced in the last two decades, effectively making women subservient to Khmer men. When asked, Jacobsen had no hesitation in naming Ang Mei as her favourite woman in Khmer history; crowned Queen whilst still her in teens, she was later imprisoned at Oudong and reportedly went mad. After London and Melbourne, this was Jacobsen's third launch of her book, published by NIAS Press, and she confided to the well-attended event that her next book will be a comparison of sexual contracts in Cambodia and Burma. In the meantime, her fervent hope is that Lost Goddesses will be translated into the Khmer language so Cambodian women can take heart from the strength and purpose of their predecessors.
Trudy Jacobsen autographs a copy of her book, Lost Goddesses

Better late than never

The Bayon Wanderers squad in Kompong Chhnang - I'm front row, 2nd from right
Last Sunday, the Bayon Wanderers football team took their suspect talents into the provinces, Kompong Chhnang to be precise. Our opponents were the province's professional team from the 2nd Division of the Cambodian League and they called themselves Sovanna Phum. The match was a close affair, lots of chances at both ends but the score was not close, the pro's ran out 4-nil winners. The match was played in sun and rain, which is the weather we're experiencing right now, the pitch for the most part resembled Kep beach and the crowd of a few hundred roared with laughter every time we mis-kicked, our shots went wide or as in the photo below, when the pro keeper saved Alex's first-half penalty. The penalty aside, Alex was easily our most outstanding performer on the day, I on the other hand had to keep wiping the raindrops from my new Edgar Davids' football goggles. Don't ask. Despite the result, the friendliness of the locals and the 'experience' was more than enough to look forward to our next trip into the provinces. Photos are courtesy of Nick King.
Alex's penalty is well struck, and well saved. Note the beach-like playing conditions

Heart to heart

A free preview screening of the new feature-length movie Heart Talk tomorrow night at Meta House will give the audience the chance to offer their views with an after-screening focus group session. The film, a second feature made by Khmer Mekong Films (KMF), directed by Tom Som and written by Brit Matt Baylis, is a contemporary thriller in which three female radio station presenters face mortal danger, with talented actress Saray Sakana (pictured) playing the lead role of Maly. The action starts at 7.15pm tomorrow night at Phnom Penh's Meta House on Street 264.
KMF are also celebrating winning a US Freddie film award, the medical world's equivalent of the Oscars, for their powerful half-hour drama about the importance of HIV tests for pregnant women, called Facing The Truth. Find out more about KMF and their heavy filming schedule here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lost Goddesses of Cambodia

To hear more about the plight of women in Cambodia, anthropologist Trudy Jacobsen (pictured) will present her new book, Lost Goddesses: The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History at a talk and book-signing event at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh from 6.30pm tomorrow (Friday 19th).
Jacobsen has lived and worked in Cambodia for quite a few years, took courses in anthropology, archaeology, women's studies, Sanskrit, and Asian history before gaining her PhD in 2004. Since then she's held fellowships abroad before returning to Cambodia to lecture on contemporary gender issues in Southeast Asia at the Centre for Khmer Studies and Norton University, and as a project advisor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh. Her book was published last year by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, who were responsible for two books last Spring that gave a greater focus on women in Cambodia and the uphill battle they face. Lost Goddesses highlights the lofty position women once held against their struggle to regain that lost ground today, whilst Mona Lilja's book, Power, Resistance and Women Politicians in Cambodia: Discourses of Emancipation gave a unique insight into the political struggles of Cambodian women.

Nick Ray in today's Post

Guide writer earns local cred
Arriving as a location scout for Tomb Raider - the movie that put Angkor back on the tourist map - Lonely Planet's Nick Ray knows his Siem Reap - by Peter Olszewski, Phnom Penh Post

The Siem Reap-Angkor complex has notched up another world first this month, becoming the first of three regional centres, and the first non-coastal attraction, to be featured in Lonely Planet's new Encounter books, aimed at short-term travellers. The series was launched in May last year, initially as city guides to locations such as London, Paris and Barcelona. The publishers decided to expand this concept to regional centres and this month released three books: one each on Phuket, Ko Samui and Siem Reap-Angkor. "Despite the headlining act that is Angkor, Lonely Planet says Siem Reap has its newfound status as Asia's historic hotspot," the publisher stated. "And in recent times, the town has undergone a metamorphosis from a quaint village to a centre for the international jet set."

The book is compiled by Nick Ray, a familiar name to Lonely Planet aficionados as he's authored a host of guide books. With this publication, he emerges as the world's foremost expert on Siem Reap, despite not being a resident. Ray lives in Phnom Penh, and some mutterings have emerged that it's a bloody disgrace that the world's foremost expert on Siem Reap is a blow-in from the big smoke down south. But, as Ray asserts, he packs plenty of Siem Reap cred. While he has never called Siem Reap home, he's been a regular visitor for many years. "I've spent a lot of time in Siem Reap on projects," he declared. "When I worked on Tomb Raider I lived here for about four months, and I tend to go there at least ten times a year. Ray was a location and logistics guide for the Tomb Raider movie and, if one accepts the notion that the movie helped put Angkor on the international tourist map, he deserves honorary Siem Reap residency for his role in the location being chosen for the movie.

To recap Hollywood-meets-Siem Reap history, Tomb Raider, the first Hollywood movie filmed in Cambodia since Peter O'Toole's 1964 Lord Jim, was originally slated to be a Chinese-located movie based around the Terracotta Army coming to life. But that concept was pulled when a Chinese movie featured the army. Cambodia was next on the list because in early 2000, Cambodian expat personality and prominent blogger, Andy Brouwer, was in Gloucester, England. He was visited by Sam Breckman, the London-based locations manager for Paramount, who had seen his website, and wanted to discuss the possibility of using Cambodia as a location for an Oliver Stone movie, Beyond Borders. Nick Ray, who had already edited a Cambodian guide book, was also in the UK. Brouwer introduced Breckman to Ray, and within a week Ray and the producer flew to Cambodia. Cambodia was chosen as the venue for that movie, but Stone pulled out. Paramount temporarily shelved that project, but opted to use Angkor for Tomb Raider. Ray told the Post he was aware at the time of filming that the movie would have a big impact on Angkor. "That was very much foremost in our minds, because it was obvious that Angkor was coming into prominence and Cambodia was no longer solely being associated with genocide and the Khmer Rouge and terrible things," he said. "Tomb Raider was a turning point in Cambodia's history. And now I watch tour guides completely inventing stories about what happened during the filming of the movie."

Ray's Siem Reap Encounter book reflects his extensive knowledge and fondness of the area. "I absolutely enjoy the place," he said. "One of the things I like most about Siem Reap today is the variety of restaurants and that it's now a lively town, which it never used to be. You can dine on very good Cambodian food, Asian food, international food, and then stay out quite late - unlike in Hanoi or Bangkok where they have curfews. It's a very open place now, and quite international. This has happened over the last five years, and the real take-off was from about 2003 and 2004. Before that there were only a few bars in Siem Reap. The first one was Angkor What?, which opened in early 1999 even though they claim they opened in early 1998, then the Red Piano, and Ivy." Ray said he also loves the back streets and side alleys of Siem Reap, which many tourists never get to see. "Another of my favourites is the shady back lanes. Following the east bank of the river further north from the Royal Residence residency, you have a lot of wats. It's a pretty area, with local street markets, more like the 'real' Cambodia.

Ray of course cites the temples and Tonle Sap as other wonders, but he does have criticisms about Siem Reap's unplanned sprawl. "The traffic is getting bad, and returning from the temples in tourist rush hour in the late afternoon is fairly crazy. There's also a lack of focus in the planning. There's not enough vision of where Siem Reap needs to go, or any attempt to control this development in a positive way. Everyone in Siem Reap seems to be playing catch up. It would be nice for them to get ahead of themselves, and have plans in place rather than constantly trying to rectify earlier problems."
Article copyright Phnom Penh Post & Peter Olszewski

Empowering others

The story of Kari Grady Grossman and her book Bones That Float has been told here a few times, but its a story worth telling time and again. More here.

Woman establishes school in Cambodia - by Stina Sieg, Glenwood Springs Post Independent
In an act of charity, it takes real love to empower people, rather than make them depend on you. Kari Grady Grossman has come to understand that. The reason why is quite a journey. In 2001, she was a freelance journalist, working for the Discovery Channel’s website and living in the mountains of Wyoming. These days, she’s a Front Range mother of two adopted children, an award-winning author and founder of a successful school in her son’s native home of Cambodia. "To be honest with you, I’m kind of in awe,” she said. She’s not the only one. Her recent book, “Bones That Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia” has won several accolades, and Grossman herself has been named “Peacemaker of the Year” by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. She’s given presentations across the country, and thousands have bought her memoir. People seem eager to hear her story. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a simple one to tell.

Her connection to Cambodia began when she and her husband, George, wanted to start a family and faced infertility. World travelers already, they thought of international adoption immediately. Grossman liked the idea of being part of some distant place. “You’re not just American anymore,” she explained. “You’re Cambodian-American. You’re Indian-American. You’re really connected with your child’s history.” She completely took that to heart. After adopting Grady, now 8, from an orphanage, she learned about his country’s complex history, about the abhorrent acts committed by its government and the role our own government had there. What she saw was a corrupt, war-torn nation, and she just wanted to help. Full of empathy and good intent, she started up the Grady Grossman School in a small, mountain town and began a nonprofit to support it. For years, she acted mostly in a fundraising capacity. Her efforts were valiant, but something was missing. She wanted more for these people. “It wasn’t very empowering for them to depend on a nice girl in Colorado to raise money for them,” she explained, “And (what) we really needed to do with that community was empower them to support their own school.”

What she was dealing with was a culture so used to foreign aid that its citizens felt entitled to it. It was frustrating for Grossman, as she wanted these people to feel they could help themselves. At Grossman’s school there were constant absences of both teachers and students, and some of the surrounding areas were completely deforested, as the trees were cut for fuel. The two issues might seem divergent, but they weren’t. It all stemmed from an economic and social depression, one that discouraged any form of creative problem solving. These people didn’t feel ownership over their own lives, and they’d been scared into silence about it for years by their government. They were desperate and had no idea how to make things better.

So Grossman decided to shake everything up for them. These days, the Grady Grossman School is completely different than before. Teachers want to be there, because they’re compensated extra for their attendance. The town’s environmental nightmare has been squelched, as Grossman found the residents a way to make briquettes out of waste instead of using wood. The manufacturing of this burnable material generates income, as well, which helps the residents stay afloat, and allows more kids to stay in class. Instead of just being given funds, people have to work for them. If they want a library or some other addition, they have figure out how to pay for it. Slowly, the people who want change are taking over the reigns of their lives — economically, socially and educationally. Strangely, by making the villagers more fiscally accountable, it’s as though Grossman’s setting them free. “Our mission is to empower communities to sustain schools through economic development,” she said, adding later, “We’ve kind of stumbled on a real answer.”

In America, her nonprofit, formally known as Friends of the Grady Grossman School, is now Sustainable School International. As she sees it, this is a totally new way of running a charitable organization. She can’t help but want to spread it far and wide. But, of course, when it comes to dealing with people, nothing is cut and dried. Though her family moved to Fort Collins to be closer to a major airport recently, Grossman can’t always be in her adopted village to oversee things. She has Grady and her 4-year-old daughter, Shanti (from India) to take care of. In her absence, all kinds of things can happen. People can make mistakes and argue and use poor judgment. They’re human. They are what makes Grossman’s efforts so complicated and trying — and absolutely rewarding, too. This is really about people, after all, not the schools. “You’re telling them you believe in them,” she said. And that’s what makes all this possible.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Prehistory under threat

I haven't featured much pre-Angkorean stuff on my blog but the newsworthiness of prehistoric Cambodia has risen in recent years with various sites under the cosh from villagers looking to make a quick killing by unearthing saleable items for antique dealers. Heritage Watch are the main people over here trying to educate and highlight the dangers this looting brings with valuable information about the country's past being lost every day. However, help is at hand, if that help can find and secure these sites before they are pillaged. Read all about Germany's help with a prehistoric site at Prohear village in Prey Veng province that is yielding invaluable finds and unique information here. Also visit the Memot Centre for Archaeology website for more details of prehistoric Cambodia.

Howes trial update

I've been waiting patiently for developments in the trial of the alleged killers of British deminer Christopher Howes (left) and his Cambodian interpreter Houn Hourth, who were murdered in cold blood a few days after their abduction by the Khmer Rouge in March 1996. Today's Phnom Penh Post carries the story that the Municipal Court in Phnom Penh may open the trial of five former Khmer Rouge guerrillas sometime this month, but more likely the beginning of October. In a surprise move last November, three ex-rebels were arrested and charged with the kidnapping and murder of the two deminers, the alleged mastermind Khem Nguon, Loch Mao and Chep Cheat. Nguon, who served as number 2 to the notorious one-legged KR commander Ta Mok, had defected from the rebels to join the Cambodian armed forces at the end of 1998, and was awarded the rank of brigadier-general in the defence ministry. The others became civil servants. Loch Mao has been identified as the man who is believed to have shot Howes in the back. Two other arrests were made in May this year, of Sin Dorn and Puth Lim. All five men face 20 years in prison for premeditated murder and 10 years for illegal confinement if convicted. They have been held at Prey Sar prison since their arrests. The names of the killers had been known to the Cambodian authorities for many years but the appetite for taking former Khmer Rouge cadre into custody only gathered steam with the progress of the Tribunal and the arrest of senior KR leaders. Twelve years after the murders of Christopher Howes and Houn Hourth, we may just see justice prevail at long last. For a detailed look at the history of this case, click here.
Street 96 in Phnom Penh was renamed Christopher Howes Street in memory of the British deminer

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Eye, eye

I can't see much at the moment. I have an eye infection that has closed up much of both of my eyes and given me skin rashes on my wrists. When I visited the doctor last night, even before I sat down he said, "asthma." I told him that I suffered a lot with asthma as a child and he said, it was the reason for my eye and skin problems, that may've been triggered by the weather, or by a nut allergy! He convinced me he knew what he was talking about when he showed me the problem in a medical textbook with colour photos. It was exactly what I was suffering with. Every few years I get a bout of asthma and need an inhaler to make it more comfortable but this is the first time my eyes have puffed up badly and rashes appeared. I'm now on a course of treatment and if it works, I will have great faith in the Cambodian medical profession; if it doesn't work... well, let's hope it works!

Even though I can't see it for myself... the best novel on Cambodia for a long, long time, Geoff Ryman's The King's Last Song, has just been unleashed onto an American audience for the first time by Small Beer Press. Originally published by HarperCollins two years ago, the new edition has an extended afterword by the author in which Ryman notes how both his sources and experiences added to the writing of the novel. In it, Ryman brings some substance, albeit fictional, to the life and times of the god-King Jayavarman VII, and he does it brilliantly in my view. If you haven't read the novel yet, I implore you to get out there and buy it. Find out more here.
The publisher's blog reports: The cover of Geoff Ryman’s The King's Last Song is made up of two photos, one by Pablo Carral Vega (from Corbis) and one by Jeremy Horner (Panos). Our cover is a variation on the UK HarperCollins edition with a new typeface, new text, and so on. The files we got from HarperCollins were complicated, quite beautiful, and fascinating to work with. This book sold pretty well in the UK so we are sending it out far and wide to try and generate some good reviews and word of mouth. There aren’t many novels set in Cambodia (either modern day or historical) so this one fills a gap. Booklist gave it a starred review and Library Journal gave it a strong recommendation. We, of course, do too! It’s a gobsmackingly-large canvas novel to dive into - very much autumn out on the hammock reading. Geoff is teaching this semester at UC San Diego (where he just taught at the Clarion Workshop, too), so if you’re in the area look out for possible readings.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Can you believe it?

The headline 'Lightning kills more Cambodians than Landmines' seems perverse in itself, but it's true. Known as one of the most heavily-mined countries on the planet, demining operations and landmine safety education have led to a sharp decrease in landmine deaths in recent years. To-date in 2008, landmines have killed nine people, but for the same period, 77 Cambodians have died due to lightning strikes. This doesn't take into account the number of injuries sustained as a result of landmines (Cambodia has over 40,000 amputees) and lightning bolts but in itself, the relatively low number of landmine deaths is positive news, if you can call any death a positive. Last year, landmines killed 26 people, with lightning killing another 45, so the sharp increase in lightning deaths is becoming a major concern.

This coming Saturday (20th), all computer geeks, nerds, techies and enthusiasts will be heading for the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center on Russian Boulevard at 9am til 5pm to share information about technology, blogging and the like. Over 100 people will be at Bar Camp Phnom Penh on Saturday and if it tickles your fancy, log in here for more infomation.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Chhnang chumps

Not its not me modelling the Bayon Wanderers shirt!
I'm just back from our trip to Kompong Chhnang for our friendly football game against the professional team, known as Sovanna Phum, from the province. I'd love to report that our Bayon Wanderers team won handsomely and performed heroically, but I can't, though we did play particularly well for much of the match. We simply failed to score whilst our opponents made us pay for many missed chances, eventually running out 4-nil victors. It sounds one-sided but it wasn't. Both teams created lots of opportunities and both goalkeepers were in great form. After a wicked bounce deceived our keeper to give the professional 2nd Division team a one goal lead, we had a penalty saved and missed some glorious chances before we visibly tired and our young Khmer opponents took control in the last quarter. I played in two spurts for about an hour as I try to regain my match fitness, though frustratingly all the chances fell to others in the team. The game was watched by a few hundred spectators (reports of thousands were exaggerated!), with a high-decibel running commentary in Khmer over the loudspeaker system. The pitch was little better than a beach and the game before ours, two other teams from Phnom Penh, was played out in a thunderstorm. Nevertheless, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, just the wrong result.

Clarkson on Cambodia

Jeremy Clarkson's career as car reviewer and BBC Top Gear presenter has made motoring into show business, but he has earned himself the description of an "equal opportunities loudmouth" for his opinionated commentary on all aspects of life, appearing weekly in The Sunday Times. Clarkson was also in Cambodia recently, on a family holiday. Here's what he's written in his UK Times OnLine column today.

Miss Street-Porter, I have a job for you in Cambodia

Since we’re told charity begins at home, it’s better, I’ve always thought, to give £1m to a hapless British person than 10p to an organisation that provides sandwiches for prisoners in Turkey. Now, however, I have decided that, actually, charity begins in Cambodia. Some people get all dewy-eyed about Africa. That’s jolly noble, but I don’t see the point because I fear that no matter how much money you pump in, the bejewelled pigs that run the place will pump it straight back out again, into the coffers of Kalashnikov and Mercedes-Benz. The only thing I’d send to the dark continent is a team of SAS hitmen to shoot the likes of Mr Mugabe in the middle of his face. Others would say that we have enough problems on our own shores without getting all teary over the children of Mr Pot. I disagree, because these days, every time I think of underprivileged people in Britain, the hideous face of Shannon Matthews’s mum pops into my head, all greasy, fat and stupid, and it’s hard to summon up any sympathy at all.

Cambodia, though, is different. It’s a country of 14m people but between them they have only about 5m legs. In fact, there are 25,000 amputees, the highest ratio per capita of any country in the world. This is not because Cambodians are especially clumsy. It is because of landmines. Nobody knows how many mines were laid during the endless cycle of warfare, but it’s sure to be in the millions. What we do know is that since the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and drove the madman Pol Pot into the hills, 63,000 people have trodden on one. One man has had his left leg blown off four times. They gave him a good prosthetic after the first and second explosions, but since then he’s had to make his own out of wood.

And it’s still going on today. In most places in the world, you can get three rice harvests per year from your paddy field. In Cambodia, it’s one. This is partly because the Khmer like a weird sort of rice that’s harder to grow, but mostly it’s because you set off with your plough and within minutes there’s a big bang and your water buffalo has become a crimson mist. As a result of the ordnance lying in every field, no one is fighting for a right to roam in Cambodia. They have no equivalent of the Ramblers Association. They have no concept of Janet Street-Porter. In fact they have no concept of England. Because the education is so poor, most people there believe the world is made up of four countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Everywhere else is France. All white people are therefore French. Angelina Jolie, who adopted a Cambodian baby, does much to help clear the landmines and has been made a Cambodian citizen, is French. I was French. And every night, most of the men settle down to watch Manchester United and Chelsea slug it out for honours in the French Premier League. I’d never met an adult anywhere in the world (apart from America) who’d never heard of Great Britain. In Cambodia nobody had.

What’s more, you will never see a Cambodian person wearing sunglasses. Mainly this is because the average wage in Cambodia is less than £400 a year and so Ray-Bans are a bit out of range. But also it’s because Cambodians all have flat noses. So sunglasses simply fall onto the floor every time you hop to the shops, and every time your buffalo explodes. That’s what did it for me. The sunglasses. Not the education. Not the notion of living in a country where there is no Janet Street-Porter. The landmines made my eyes prickle, but my heart just mushroomed over the idea that they can’t afford to wear shades. And that even if they could, they’d keep falling off.

I have therefore decided that I must do something. Unfortunately, however, we all reach a point like this when we decide we must help, and then it’s so very hard to know what should be done next. Secretly we all know that for every pound we donate to a large charity, only 2p actually reaches the people we have in mind. The rest is spent on adverts for highly paid co-ordinators in The Guardian and expensive offices in London’s glittering West End. You always feel you want to go to the root of the problem. But in the bee that’s come to nest in my roost, that’ll be hard. Earlier this summer a team of Australian doctors happened upon a little girl in the town of Siem Reap. Her face had been horribly disfigured, by a bloody landmine I suppose, and they were overwhelmed with a need to help. They went to meet her parents, and her father was keen that his daughter be sent to Australia for plastic surgery. Her mother, however, went ballistic when she discovered the poor child would once again look normal. “How will she be able to beg then?” she asked. And the Aussie medics were sent packing.

I can’t even ring the Cambodian government for help because I fear it would be extremely enthusiastic and then all the money I sent over would be spent on fixtures and fittings in the finance minister’s next luxury hotel. That’s if I could raise any money in the first place. It’s hard when money’s tight here and everyone else has their own pet project. I suppose I could write to Ray-Ban asking it to design a cheap pair of shades that can be worn by someone who has no nose. But I think it’d be better if I started work on some designs for the most brilliant mine-clearing vehicle the world has ever seen. I’m thinking of strapping some ramblers together, and then . . .

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Getting the message across

The all female Messenger Band, with band leader Vun Em on the far right
Campaigning and highlighting the plight of garment factory and sex workers as well as land-grab issues was the aim of the all female protest song Messenger Band at Meta House earlier tonight. The six girls are all factory workers and in their spare time they take messages out into the provinces as well as taking part in annual events such as International Human Rights Day and Women's day. Initiated a couple of years ago by the Womyn's Agenda for Change, they sang their half dozen songs a cappella and were accompanied by two video songs, filmed by David Eberhard. They sounded pretty good and their messages certainly appealed to the large audience at tonight's event.

30th anniversary for Handsworth Revolution

The distinctive graffiti-style logo for Steel Pulse was designed by Martin Fuller in 1978
Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have a terrible memory. Hence my failure to highlight a very important date a couple of months ago. 21 July was the 30th anniversary of the release of Steel Pulse's seminal debut album Handsworth Revolution. It changed my life forever. And I don't say that lightly, it's the truth.

I have an unfinished 30,000 word biography of the band on my pc and here's a section of it that highlights the release and impact of that first album. Island Records had signed the band at the back-end of 1977 and their first single Ku Klux Klan reached the UK Top 50 despite limited airplay due to its controversial subject matter. The band were pleased with the single, so were the record company and work began on their first album. The band's Manager Pete King recalls the unanimous decision over the producer of the album. "Karl Pitterson was who we wanted. The main reason was that the band and I had heard the version (dub) side of a track he produced for Ras Ibuna called Diverse Doctrine.. the atmosphere, the echo, blew everyone away. Karl was already linked to Island...so everyone was happy with the choice." Pitterson was one of Island's heavyweight reggae producers and had previously worked with top Jamaican acts like Bob Marley on the album Exodus, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. It proved a master-stroke. The chemistry between Pitterson and the band was electric, as guitarist Basil Gabbidon enthuses, "He was fantastic. Karl was like another member of the band and just a few years older. He brought clarity, precision, more arrangement, a tighter, professional feel and enhanced our sound by drawing it out of us. He improved the lead and backing vocals in particular." Drummer Grizzly Nisbett was also sincere in his appreciation of the band's early mentor. "Karl Pitterson took what we had, moulded it and made it better. We liked his production before we met him as we'd heard his stuff. He came to Linwood Road, sat on a speaker and listened. He liked what he heard. Karl was a musician, a producer, a writer and an engineer. One of the best. He brought out the musicianship in Steel Pulse. He showed us what we could do and what we were capable of. He pushed us in the right direction, how to do it and when to do it. We learnt a lot from him as far as studio work and techniques were concerned. We basically had no idea. We'd never really been in the studio before. We were fresh, nervous, it wasn't perfect but no other album sounded anything like Handsworth Revolution, thanks to Karl Pitterson." King remembers, "Not a great deal of preparation before recording began. We more or less put the live set on the album. The band would spend ages laying down the tracks, then go back to the hotel to rest. I would then spend hours with Karl mixing the tracks, with Godwin Logie also involved. I had an input though it would be hard to measure. I had a brilliant relationship with Karl, who brought with him a great vibe, good techniques and was one of the guys. Godwin was the tape op and was a lovely guy, an extra ingredient."

The result was their seminal debut album, Handsworth Revolution, released on 21 July 1978 to positive critical acclaim, even though Island supremo Chris Blackwell was allegedly a little uncomfortable with the inflammatory title. The cost of the album, with studio time at a premium, came out at around £40,000. The original illustration and concept for the album cover of a crumbling city with vegetation devouring the ruins was put together by the band's two former art students, David Hinds and Basil, though the final sleeve artwork was completed by graphic design student Andrew Aloof, working for the Bloomfield-Travis agency. I tracked Andrew down and he's now the Director of Art & Design at Hastings College in southern England and runs his own design company. "Bloomfield-Travis were the design company that got me involved. I'd just finished my graphic design degree and was doing well for myself as a freelance illustrator, in fact I'd already had my own exhibition, mostly with portrait and figure work. To be honest, I've done tens of thousands of pieces of artwork ranging from the Sunday Times & Radio Times, to the Royal Ballet to an album sleeve for Status Quo [Whatever You Want, 1979]. I did a few record covers but I'd never heard of Steel Pulse when I was asked to do the artwork. The designers gave me a creative direction and briefing based on something like urban regeneration or suchlike but it was so long ago I can't really remember. I don't even have a copy of the illustration and I certainly didn't realise the band were still going. Strangely, lots of people have commented on that particular cover, moreso than any other album sleeve I've designed. It was the 2nd or 3rd record cover I'd done." He was genuinely pleased to hear that his artwork has sold around the globe and is instantly recognizable and associated with one of the world's greatest and long-lasting reggae groups. Like Martin Fuller, who designed the Steel Pulse logo that has been the band's symbol for the last 25 years, little did they know that so many years later we'd still be admiring their superb handiwork.

A month earlier on 23 June, their second single from their debut long-player, Prodigal Son, was released and got to number 35 in the UK singles chart, their best-ever commercial chart placing. It also generated the band's only Top of the Pops appearance on 6 July, alongside The Buzzcocks, Justin Hayward and Showaddywaddy. Timing was crucial and this brief but important exposure on prime-time national television on such a popular show, watched by millions every week, was geared to aid the sales of the album, released a few weeks later. However, Pete King believes they missed a trick. "I felt the band took too long to do the album, and Island took too long to physically release it - we could've been a number one album, without a doubt. The album came out when everyone was on holiday. It was a shit time to release it. The press had been building up and building up for a while, but that was our first taste of how to become a victim of a record company's machinations. You shake hands with the devil and hope for the best, whilst trying to exert as much pressure and influence as you can muster. We sold an initial 75,000 copies to get a silver disc from the BPI. I later lost it to the bailiffs when my studio went under but I bought it back at auction for £25!" He also recalls, "They were always going to be an album band on Island Records. The singles they released didn't work. It was all geared around album sales. The big issue for me was that Island wouldn't do anything in America, nor let me do anything either. It was very short-sighted and intransigent of them I thought. They only concentrated on England and Europe."

Incredibly, for a debut album, it reached ninth spot in the British LP charts in just ten days following its release and the band had struck gold, with eventual sales of over a quarter of a million. Its stayed in the Top 50 album chart for three months. "We recorded the album at St Peter's Square, Island's HQ in London," recalls Basil. "If we'd put the album out three weeks earlier, I'm sure we'd have got to number one or at least the top three. People were waiting for it, we were gigging all the time and had a large fanbase." There was another morale boost for Pulse during the recording of the album, as Grizzly explains. "We met Bob Marley at the Island studios for the first time. We'd just come out of the basement, the 'Fall-Out Shelter' we called it. We were relaxing upstairs, playing pool and listening to the tapes we'd just recorded. He walked out of the offices section and came over and said 'hello guys, I like what you're doing'. We just stood there shaking, with our mouths open. Bob had an aura about him, you had to love him, we all did. Toots Hibbert was also in the studios during the recording sessions." On its release, Adrian Thrills for NME regarded the album as, 'a laudable achievement; a fully-realised first album, well worth its wait even though it'll sting your pockets to the tune of four crisp notes. The Pulse have certainly cultivated one of the most distinctive reggae sounds around; the Pulsebeat is given its character by both the brawny organ work of Selwyn Brown and, more than anything else, by the decidely rock-orientated guitar of Basil Gabbidon and lead singer David Hinds. Side one opens with the title track and two more consecutive blinding aces in Bad Man and Soldiers, all in all the three outstanding tracks here. Elsewhere there's the sloppy Sound Check, the frisky Macka Splaff, some neat flamenco guitar on Prediction, Prodigal Son and of course Ku Klux Klan, still sounding like one of this year's most worthwhile singles....Steel Pulse have their finger firmly on the mood of a generation.' The rest is history.

To find out the full story on Steel Pulse, as documented by this author, click here.

McKitty takes the lead

Donovan McKitty in action with Steel Pulse last month (pic copyright Gabe Lawrence)
As I'm now living in Cambodia, I'm a little out of the loop on developments with my favourite band, reggae legends Steel Pulse. I find out the latest news a few months after the event. That goes for any line-up changes within the band, which are pretty rare but they happen. For example, its come to my attention that the band's exceptional lead guitarist Moonie Pusey has been missing from their live line-up this year. He wasn't on stage in Brazil in March and was absent again for recent shows in California. As for the shows in-between, I've no idea, as I said I'm out of the loop. Steel Pulse's lead singer and founder David Hinds makes it his policy not to talk about band member changes, preferring instead to let the music do the talking and focusing on Steel Pulse as a whole rather than the individuals within the band. The man who has taken on the role in Moonie's absence is veteran guitarist Donovan McKitty, who's played with all the top Jamaican artists like Burning Spear, Shinehead and many more. I've no confirmation whether the change is a permanent one - but my reliable sources tell me it is.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Reggae kicks-off

Basil Gabbidon kicks-off Reggae Rockz
Tonight in Birmingham, UK, Reggae Rockz 2008 will take place with the band Gabbidon top of the bill and supported by Yaz Alexander and others. It all takes place in the open-air in Centenary Place and kicks-off the weekend-long ArtsFest. I used to be a regular attendee at the festival and at all Gabbidon's gigs, so as I'm on the other side of the world I'll listen to some of my reggae albums tonight instead and hark back to the good old days.

This article on Gabbidon appeared in the Birmingham Mail recently.
Reggae Rockz for Gabbidon by Alan Cross
Little did Basil Gabbidon know as he sat as a pupil in a classroom at Handsworth Wood Boys School in the early 70s that his future included three Grammy nominations and an album regularly chosen as one of the top 100 records of all time. Like many boys of his age, Basil learnt to play guitar and decided to form a band at school. With guitarist and singer David Hinds and bassist Ronald McQueen, he created Steel Pulse who at one point were the biggest selling reggae band in the world. Their hugely influential 1978 album, Handsworth Revolution, made them a household name and they were invited to play at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration at The White House. But for Basil fame and fortune was not all he wanted. Although the band continues to tour worldwide, it is now approaching 25 years since he left the group.

So what has the 52-year-old been up to since? Along with raising his family in his beloved Handsworth and teaching in schools, for a while he had a trio playing heavy rock and reggae called Bass Dance which regularly toured Germany. But in the last five years Basil has emerged as the most important guardian of the legendary Birmingham reggae sound. He organised the magnificent Reggae Rockz concert in Centenary Square in 2005 which attracted an audience of thousands. He has encouraged countless musicians to play reggae and, along with his brother Colin on drums, has put together Gabbidon, a ten-piece band playing classic reggae with a twist of rock grooves and African rhythms. The band has been rehearsing and recording and tomorrow at The Roadhouse in Lifford Lane, Stirchley, Basil enters a new phase of his musical career as he launches his long awaited album, Reggae Rockz. Recorded and produced with the help of Burning Spear bassist Paul Beckford, it's a vibrant mix of reggae, rock and dance.

Also on stage at Reggae Rockz tonight will be Yaz Alexander and her backing singers Black Pearl, namely Emmah and Annie. Yaz is another workaholic, is on the go all the time and when she's not performing under her own name, she is teaching and coaching countless others to improve their singing ability. She simply never stops. After tonight's gig, where she will showcase tracks from her Life Begins album, next month Yaz will travel to the United States to perform at the Caribbean Heritage Reggae Festival in Birmingham, Alabama and at the New York Harvest Festival before returning for more gigs in the UK.

Yaz Alexander (centre) with her backing sisters, Emmah (left) and Annie

Chhnang awaits

This coming Sunday should be interesting. I'm off to play football in Kompong Chhnang with the Bayon Wanderers team and we are scheduled to face one of the province's professional teams, with a big crowd expected. I hope the spectators aren't expecting a red-hot team of expats as they'll be sadly disappointed! More like a team of old crocks, judging my own efforts over the last few weeks. However, it'll be a good experience to play in the provinces, and in front of more than one man and his dog. Kompong Chhnang is 90kms northwest of Phnom Penh and most people simply pass through on their way to Battambang by road, or on the boat up the Tonle Sap on their way to Siem Reap. I'm not convinced the pitch will be as good as the one at the Old Stadium but we shall see. I first went to Kompong Chhnang in 2001 and here's my report from back then.
Following hot on the heels of the WASH initiative I mentioned a few days ago, that is educating the need for people to wash their hands to avoid disease, comes news that the perils of smoking are to be introduced into the school curriculum here in Cambodia. Bravo. It's one of my pet hates and it's dangerous too. Over half of the population here smoke and as you can imagine, it's filtering down to the teenagers, keen to look cool as they do in the adverts plastered around the place. I'm all for educating children of such perils, as I am for teaching them basic first-aid and how to swim alongwith the other basics we take for granted.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Heraldic lintel reliefs

This god is Indra seated atop his 3-headed elephant mount, Airavata
According to the man in the know, namely Vittorio Roveda, the images carved onto the lintels and pediments of Khmer temples can be classified into three types, decorative, heraldic or narrative reliefs. Decorative refers to ornamental motifs such as foliage, garlands and scrolls, pearl strings and occasionally repetitive small figures. Heraldic denotes symbolic figures of men or animals in a static or proclaiming attitude, whilst narrative reliefs depict an event or action that is part of a story. In Khmer reliefs, the events narrated refer either to selected events from Indian or Buddhist mythology, ie, Ramayana or the life of Buddha, or to facts of Khmer history, ie, the battle against the Chams.
The most common type of lintel carving to be seen on Angkorean temples is the heraldic relief. These are normally lintels in which a small, seated deity in the lalisana position (royal ease) on a plinth over the head of the mythological kala. Usually the deity holds a staff of command (danda), a club or a lotus. The kala, or less commonly the makara, is shown disgorging garlands from the sides of its mouth minus the lower jaw. This central figure may represent Indra, holding a lotus or a vajra, either seated on Airavata (his elephant mount) or directly on the kala, or he may be any unspecified god holding the staff symbolic of divine and temporal power. The plinth or throne on which this figure sits is often decorated with lotus petals.
Alternatively this figure may be Vishvakarma, who symbolises the idea of a powerful god and of central power. He is also the architect of the world and the maker of the gods' weapons. This attribution may have been convenient when the carvers did not have specific instructions or symbolic references, and needed a figure to stand in for any one of the many powerful Hindu gods. Vishvakarma is my favourite of the lesser known gods as he seems to appear so often on lintels. For example, I counted him sat in the central space on 23 lintels at Phnom Chisor. This god is prolific to say the least.
Other possible identifications of the figure on top of the kala include that of Parasurama, the 'Rama with the axe' always depicted holding an axe or sword, or the dikpalas (lords of directions). These include, besides the already mentioned Indra, Yama on his buffalo holding a danda, Varuna on a hamsa, Kubera on a horse and Agni on a rhinoceros. However, their placement in respect to the cardinal direction they represent is often anomalous in Khmer temples. Other heraldic reliefs are carved with a small figure of Vishnu on Garuda, or Brahma on a lotus. Although the representational focus is on individual Hindu gods, they are inactive, simply seated on a throne or on their mounts. Often they are depicted protected by an arch supported by two pilasters.
It seems that from the 11th century onwards, the simple kala head was given the addition of two short arms pulling the garlands out of its mouth. In this form it may relate to the demon Rahu, of which only the head survived Vishnu's punishment after having drunk a sip of amrita, the elixir of immortality. A kala of this type may also resemble the head of a lion, which protected access to the temple. When the kala has its lower jaw, it is referred to as kirtimukha from the Sanskrit 'glory-face'.
Much of what we know about the symbolic meaning of the carvings comes from the research by art historian and teacher Vittorio Roveda. His book, Images of the Gods, is an invaluable resource in this respect and most of the detail above comes from Roveda's exhaustive studies. I and many others owe Roveda a massive debt of gratitude for opening our eyes and minds to the wealth of detail left by the Khmer temple builders. Both of the reliefs shown here are from the Khmer temple of Wat Phu in Southern Laos.
The glorious Vishvakarma sat atop a fierce kala with two short arms

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rithy Panh's latest

Rithy Panh (seated) gives direction to actor Gaspard Ulliel in The Sea Wall
Rithy Panh, Cambodia's best-known international film director, launched his latest work, The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique), at the Toronto Film Festival yesterday. Panh, with critically-acclaimed films such as Rice People, S-21, Burnt Theatre and lots more under his belt has moved into more mainstream cinema with his newest work adapted from a classic French novel and includes the successful French actress Isabelle Huppert amongst a strong cast. It should be out at cinemas before the end of the year after another festival screening in Rome.

Here's a review of the film by Howard Feinstein of ScreenDaily.com.
The poor, emaciated widow and mother of two in colonial Cambodia portrayed by Isabelle Huppert in this potent adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s novel is as far from Catherine Deneuve’s portrait of a glam, well-coiffed landowner in French-occupied Vietnam in Regis Garnier’s Indochine as the two films are from each other. The Sea Wall is directed by Rithy Panh, a Cambodian-born filmmaker who now resides in France, a man who proved he could capture the feel, the tropical textures and sounds of his native country as far back as Rice People (1994). Garnier’s Indochine, in contrast, was overblown, brushed with a varnish that disguised the realities of imperialism in tropical climes. Panh is not afraid to reveal the worms in a gorgeous world of lush palms and attractive rice paddies in what might be construed as paradise, a concept literalised in the film. The lack of gloss may cost this multilayered movie some of its potential audience, but the mix of natural beauty, period politics, and powerful acting, especially on the part of Huppert, should bring in sufficient aficionados of fine arthouse fare.

The Sea Wall is set in the early 1930s, when cruel oppression by French bureaucrats and soldiers and their Cambodian collaborators was fanning the first flames of revolution. Huppert’s mother is a former schoolteacher from France who moved to Cambodia 20 years earlier with her civil-servant husband. She bore him two children, virile 19-year-old Joseph (Ulliel) and beautiful tease Suzanne (Berges-Frisbey), 16, neither of whom has ever been out of the country. The paddies that so determined the fate of the peasants in Rice People perform a similar function here, though in The Sea Wall the lives of both colonists and indigenous peasants are determined by the condition of the fields. In the latter film, a weak sea barrier collapses regularly, allowing salt water to flood and ruin the new crop. Like the rice itself, the mother is slowly dying from the whims of nature and from the incompetence and blatant corruption of the French bureaucrats she is unafraid to confront. She also tries to organize the Cambodians so that they will strengthen the wall and refuse to give up their land.

An extremely wealthy son of a Chinese capitalist, Monsier Jo (Douc), arrives not on a shiny white horse but in a shiny new luxury car. He becomes obsessed with Suzanne, whom he impresses by showering her with expensive gifts. Her mom, worried about losing her land, and even her racist brother are not above pushing her into marriage for money. Yet this handsome man, who at first appears merely a spoiled dandy, turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In collusion with the French, he uproots the locals from their land, burning their homes and treating like criminals on a chain-gang march. The dying mother correctly predicts that one day the children of her devoted Cambodian servant, nicknamed Colonel (Vathon), will rise up against their European overlords.
For more on the films of Rithy Panh, click here.

Hinds on podcast

The folks at Piratepods.com have just posted a 28-minute podcast interview with David Hinds, the mainstay behind my favourite band of all time, reggae legends Steel Pulse. They even included a couple of my questions in the interview too. David sounded calm, relaxed and in good spirits as he talked about his influences and what shaped some of the band's most famous tracks. Steel Pulse are workaholics, they tour almost constantly and though the band are originally from England, they spend most of their time overseas. It was great to hear David say that the lyrics and demos for a new studio album have already been laid down. However, these things take time and it may be this time next year before we see the next album offering from the band. Their last was African Holocaust in 2004. David also hinted that if a promoter could be found, they'd willingly consider a first-ever gig here in Cambodia. Anyone out there? Here's the link to the podcast. And as ever, here's my own website on Steel Pulse, the largest on the internet.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hang Yunn

HE Veng Sereyvuth expresses his pride in Khmer culture at the end of Hang Yunn
Well, considering it was supposed to be an informal, almost dress-rehearsal by the classical dance school of the Secondary School of Fine Arts, tonight's debut performance of a traditional story called Hang Yunn at the Chenla Theatre, was both well-attended by the rank and file and bristling with VIPs. Top seat in the house went to Veng Sereyvuth, the Minister of Culture, who gave an impassioned speech about the arts at the end of the night, as well as UNESCO representatives and such notables as the legendary dance mistress Em Theay. From what I could gather it was a story of illicit love, a baby born out of wedlock, a disappearing husband, a stolen baby, a marriage between mother and son (though they were blissfully ignorant of the fact), a giant bird and the return of the prodigal husband. All fairly standard stuff in Khmer folklore. The costumes were as gorgeous as ever, the performers polished and precise and the musicians made me move my feet. Missing from the line-up was my pal Sam Savin who was to have played the prince in the show but couldn't make it.
The errant prince and his father in full flow
The princess, their grown-up son and the prince

Bitter Mekong premiere

Filmmaker Tiara Delgado will bring her latest documentary, Bitter Mekong, to Phnom Penh for its premiere screening at Meta House on Friday 24 October, to coincide with United Nations Day. Delgado is a prolific filmmaker and this is her fourth documentary on Cambodia. The main subject of Bitter Mekong is Rami Sambath, whose father was Cambodia's Ambassador to the UN and who heeded the call of the Khmer Rouge for overseas Khmers to return to Cambodia, and was never seen again. He perished at Tuol Sleng. The film documents Rami's journey as he looks into his father's heritage and legacy whilst discovering his own identity and sense of belonging at the same time.
Delgado used her own money to finance her first documentary called Fragile Hopes from the Killing Fields, which she completed in 2003 and which explored the stories behind four survivors and their families, and was narrated by actress Susan Sarandon. Compassion and Controversy was a film about the issues surrounding the adoption of Cambodian orphans, whilst The Road to Closure - Understanding the Khmer Rouge Tribunal brought into focus the desire for justice some thirty years after the nightmare in Cambodia began. It was in 2002 that she set up Global Vision Video which provides production services to educators, activists and non-profit groups seeking to promote their causes on film and video. Make sure you keep the evening of 24 October free, the screening begins at 7pm and Delgado will be there to host the event.
Link: Global Vision Video

The 2nd Environmental & Conservation Film Festival will be held in Cambodia this month, following on from the success of last year's event. It will be hosted on three successive evenings from 16 September at the French Cultural Centre on Street 184 in Phnom Penh. With screenings starting at 6.30pm, each night will present three screenings of a range of documentaries with prizes for the best films. For me the highlights are as follows; 16th: Cambodiana, a 52-minute look at the Cardamom Mountains by Estelle des Dorides; 17th: 32-minute film called Tackling the Challenge, all about global warming from the British FCO; 18th: Forests of the Future, a 26-minute story of groups working together in five Mekong countries to save forests.

Kim gives his all

Here's an article that touches on the equality or otherwise of the Beijing Paralympics using Cambodia's sole representative as an example of the have not's.

Oscar Pistorius tramples over notions of equality in Beijing
The four core values of the Paralympic movement are courage, determination, inspiration and equality - by Simon Hart in Beijing for The Telegraph (UK)

It was hard to argue with the first three as Vanna Kim lined up for his 100metres race in the Bird's Nest Stadium. But there was a problem with the fourth. Kim is a 40-year-old Cambodian who, in 1989, had the misfortune to do what more than 40,000 of his countrymen have done since the Khmer Rouge were ousted 29 years ago. He stepped on a landmine and had his right leg torn off below the knee. When you consider that Kim is the only representative in Beijing of a couuntry with one of the highjest percentages of disabled people in the world, the doubts start to creep in about Paralympic equality. But there was another more immediate reason to question the gradient of the playing field as Kim settled into his blocks, wearing a rudimentary running blade that had been donated to him by the South Korean government because he was too poor to pay for one himself. Two lanes away from him was a certain Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee who only just missed out on making his country's Olympic relay team. Attached to his legs were the reason for his famous Blade-Runner nickname: a pair of state-of-the-art J-shaped Cheetah Flex-Foot transibial, carbon-fibre running blades designed by Icelandic company Ossur "to store and release energy in order to mimic the reaction of the anatomical foot/ankle joint of able-bodied runners".

Poor Kim. In a pre-Games interview with a Cambodian newspaper he had described himself as "70 per cent hopeful" of triumphing in Beijing, but his dream disappeared the moment Pistorius' blades jumped out of the blocks and disappeared into the distance, taking him to victory in 11.16sec by a margin of Usain Bolt proportions. Kim, with a limping running gait, was a distant last in 13.45sec. Welcome to the real Paralympic world. No wonder the Cambodian looked bewildered as he wandered alone through the media area beside the track, unable to share his first Paralympic expereince with anyone because nobody spoke Cambodian. Pistorius, on the other hand, was in hot demand by reporters and, ever personable, happy to oblige with his dreams about winning three gold medals in the 100, 200 and 400 metres, and maybe breaking one of his own world records.

Of course, Cheetah blades or not, Kim was never going to challenge an athlete whose achievements have transcended Paralympic sport and who has done more than anyone to raise the profile of disability athletics. But the race proved is that a huge class divide is emerging among Paralympians, both athletic and economic. Kim was only able to make the trip because 60% of his air fare from Cambodia was paid for by the Beijing organisers, with the rest being raised through private donations in his homeland. Pistorius, meanwhile, has been complaining bitterly in Beijing that he and fellow South Africans had to endure economy-class tickets to China while sports officials stretched out and slugged back champagne in business class. He has also been outspoken about the hideous pyjama-style costume that the South African team were supplied with for the opening ceremony and which he and his fellow athletes voted not to wear because the clothing was "something I would be embarrassed to wear in front of millions of people while representing South Africa". If it sounds as if the Blade-Runner has come over all prima donna, the South African government have certainly taken his complaints seriously, ordering a top-level inquiry into the behaviour of team officials. One Freedom Party MP has even described the aeroplane seats fiasco as a "national outrage".

Economy-class tickets? Parade costume? Kim can surely only dream of such luxuries, but he inhabits another world from Pistorius, who has already tasted the big time at some of Europe's top athletics meetings this summer and, cleared to run against able-bodied runners by a court of law, can look forward to plenty of pay days and first-class plane tickets to come as he jets around the world. Kim still has the 200 metres to look forward to before catching his subsidised flight home to Phnom Penh. The snag is that he will have to contend with Pistorius again. With luck, he will have more success with his new career path, coaching disabled athletes in Cambodia. He should have plenty of customers, and plenty to tell them about his own salutary lesson in Beijing.

Note: Kim was given a wildcard into the Paralympics after winning a silver medal in the ASEAN Games in Thailand earlier this year. He has three gold, ten silver and five bronze medals in international competitions under his belt, though the Paralympics is his hardest test on the biggest stage.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The past & the future

Better late than never...I forgot to mention that this month there's a focus on architecture in Cambodia, past and present with a series of lectures, exhibitions and publications that will highlight what's been and challenge the local arts community as to what will happen in the future. People like Vann Mollyvann helped shape Cambodia's architectural past with over 100 major public works in the 50s and 60s and many people refer to his work as the pinnacle of the golden era of architecture in modern-day Cambodia. But many of his legacies have already disappeared. So far the latest batch of new buildings springing up around Phnom Penh in particular isn't something that is finding favour with the purists. The month-long Architecture & Urban Design project will include a guided tour with Vann Mollyvann himself, though disappointingly it'll be in French and Khmer, of which I speak neither, as well as lectures at Java Cafe, the French Cultural Centre and Meta House. The exhibitions include In Transit at Meta House from 16th and a look at traditional Khmer wooden architecture with Darryl Collins at Java Cafe on the 22nd.

Behind the walls

Bou Meng, one of the handful of survivors from Tuol Sleng
These images are from one of 4 films screened at Meta House last night, here in Phnom Penh. They are the 3 interviewees from the documentary film Behind The Walls of S-21: Oral Histories from Tuol Sleng, produced in 2007 by DC-Cam and director Doug Kass, that tell some of the story of what took place at the Khmer Rouge's center of interrogation. Two survivors, Bou Meng and Chum Mey were kept alive because of their skills as an artist/painter and as a mechanic, and describe their imprisonment whilst guard Him Huy tells his side of the story too. Powerful stuff. The 3 other films shown were a ten-minute short on DJ Sdey, a light-hearted look at Cambodia's number one DJ/rapper; a video letter reflecting on contemporary art in Cambodia; and a video presentation by the artists themselves from the Art of Survival exhibition. It was fascinating to hear how each of the 17 artists had interpreted their own individual reflections on the Khmer Rouge genocide for the exhibition, part 2 of which is still running at Meta House and the Bophana Center.
Survivor Chum Mey was kept alive because of his skills as a mechanic
Tuol Sleng guard Him Huy describes how he was forced to kill an inmate

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hush hush

An unofficial first showing of a brand new story, Hang Yunn, by the students and teachers of the classical dance school of the Secondary School of Fine Arts will take place this Tuesday (9th) at the Chenla Theatre in Phnom Penh at 6pm. Don't tell anyone, but turn up and get in on the night, and it's free. Performances of new classical works are rare but with the fantastic collaboration of Amrita Performing Arts, they are increasing slowly but surely though each work takes many months to prepare and train the dancers before it can be incorporated into the repertoire and performed in public. I haven't managed to find out any details of the Hang Yunn story so I'll be there on Tuesday to see it for myself.
It's a busy weekend on the football front. Bayon Wanderers, the mish-mash of expats and Khmer players that I joined a couple of months ago, have a game at 2pm today at the Old Stadium and then two more games tomorrow, in the morning and afternoon. Fortunately we now have a large squad of players to select from, and fingers crossed my dodgy groin will hold out, though the dark clouds hovering overhead may put the games in some doubt. The Old Stadium is now run by the Armed Forces and as such they will cancel games at short notice depending on the weather situation. It's understandable as the games are friendlies and there are a dearth of good pitches in and around the capital, so they need to protect their pitch.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Wrap-up for Year Zero

Very close to final edit and wrap-up is the 90-minute film Year Zero: Story of A Khmer Rouge Soldier. Director John Severson has to finalize the film's score with award winning composer Jesper Kyd before submitting the finished article to the Sundance Film Festival in the States before the end of this month. Year Zero is a film about the power of the individual, as the cameras follow the story of a former child soldier, Aki Ra, who, as a very young child of six was drafted into the Khmer Rouge and planted hundreds of landmines for them. It shows how he decided to rebel and to dedicate his life to changing his country's circumstance ever since. Starting from humble beginnings and now as an international symbol of one man's purpose to eradicate landmines, Aki-Ra's Cambodian Land Mine museum has now relocated near Banteay Srei and has changed the lives of tens of thousands of people who visit each year. Find out more here.

And there's more...

The figures are out, and there's more people in Cambodia than ever before! Shock, horror. And more than half of them are women. Result. The total population is 13, 388, 910 as at March 3rd this year. There's six and a half million males, but more females. The population growth rate has slowed but its still higher than most of SEAsia. It didn't come as a surprise to me that Kompong Cham province is the most populous, as nearly everyone I meet originates from there. One in 5 Cambodians now live in an urban area rather than in the countryside, though if recent government calls for families to move into remote areas along the Thai-Cambodian border are heeded, we could see a change to that demographic. This was the first census for a decade and these are just the preliminary numbers only.
I liked the sound of WASH day on Wednesday. 1,000 villagers and primary school kids in one of Phnom Penh's 76 commune's focused on the importance of washing hands in order to prevent the spread of disease, with a hand-washing display arranged by USAID. A global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) day is set for 15 October (my birthday!) as its the UN's Year of Sanitation this year. This is important - over 2 million children die every year because of diarrhoea - clean hands can save lives.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

That's all folks!

The gloomy face of the mukhalinga at the Khmer temple of Ou Moung
For the final post on my 2-week visit to Laos, which I undertook a couple of months ago with my brother Tim in tow, I think it's fitting to end with a Khmer temple, just to ensure I bring it back full circle. The temple, which I visited on the penultimate day of the trip, is variously called Ou Moung, or Vat Tomo, or Huei Thamo but whatever name you choose, it hardly rivals the majestic location or diverse iconography of its near neighbour Wat Phu, but is worth a visit nonetheless. Set in a forest resounding with bird-song and flanked by a small tributary of the Mekong River, it houses a rare mukhalinga, a stone linga with two clearly-defined albeit gloomy faces, that I'm astounded is still in situ and has not been moved to a place of safety. Our visit was unrestricted and we were alone at the temple so I fear for the linga if anyone with less honourable intentions than ours, makes the effort to visit the site. The stone linga is sat inside the southwest gopura which is the best preserved of the ruins, which include the remains of laterite and brick towers. Some of the sandstone doorways are decorated with figures and nearby a couple of lintels, naga antefixes, a somasutra with makara head and a series of boundary posts are all that remain. An inscription found at the temple many moons ago declared it was dedicated in 889 to a consort of Shiva. We spent an hour at the site, I could've stayed much longer, as these sites hold a great fascination for me. Tim on the other hand was bored after about ten minutes!
This lintel features Indra atop his three-headed elephant Airavata, alongside two praying figures
This 7-headed naga has had its central head removed, a pedestal lies behind
This narrow lintel shows Indra (without his elephant) or possibly Shiva, with a partial naga antefix above
A fierce naga head from one of the handful of naga antefixes in the undergrowth
The southwest gopura is comprised of laterite blocks and sandstone doorways. A drop to the left leads to the small river
The mukhalinga in situ within the southwest gopura
A dancing lion at the foot of a pilaster on the southwest gopura

Making my blood boil

Did they do it deliberately to raise my hackles? The Phnom Penh Post gave a whole page to focus on Christian missionaries in Cambodia in their Wednesday edition, which was guaranteed to make my blood boil. Even mentioning them is bad enough but to give them a whole page with a photo of two clean-cut, white-shirted Mormon 'butter-wouldn't melt' hometown boys on their cycles and quotes like; "My purpose is to welcome others to come into the Word of Christ. I wouldn't be here if I didn't love it." I abhor them and their crap. Apparently 13 million people worldwide believe their bullshit, with 8,000 of them here in Cambodia. And they're just one of the Christian groups infesting the country, converting unsuspecting locals in their wake and reporting their successes back to HQ. They haven't knocked on my door yet but when they do there'll be fireworks.
Luckily they didn't knock last night, as I didn't even have the energy to open the door! Yesterday afternoon I got off work a couple of hours early to play football at the Old Stadium for the Bayon Wanderers midweek team against regular opponents Devenco. I am still weeks away from anywhere near proper fitness and I was blowing out of my arse at the final whistle, even though I only played about sixty minutes in two spurts. Up until now I didn't really appreciate the impact that my seven-year lay-off has had on my body. It's got used to not running, not breathing, not stretching, literally not doing anything sporty and its fighting back as I try to get it approaching my former fitness levels. Niggling injuries haven't helped, neither has an irritating chest cough but excuses aside, I have to be realistic and tell myself that I will never regain the speed and agility that I used to possess - well, I would say that wouldn't I. No-one else thought I was fast or agile but I think you get the picture. Oh, and the result, we lost a close-fought game, 2-1.

Cruising the islands

Taking a leisurely boat trip on the Mekong River
During the rainy season, this stretch of the Mekong River can expand to nearly 15km across, but during the dry season it recedes and exposes thousands of islands, hence the name, Si Phan Don or Four Thousand Islands. For our brief look at the area, we took a boat from in front of our guesthouse on Don Khong island and sailed down the Mekong past another large island called Don Som before we reached Don Det and Don Khon, two islands joined by an old railway bridge and the laid-back lifestyle that attracts quite a few of the backpacker crowd to its collection of bungalows and guesthouses. We hired some bikes to cycle around Don Khon, heading first to the Ly Phi waterfalls, some very energetic rapids that as we arrived, so too did a couple of trucks carrying a horde of Thai tourists, all dressed in the same yellow-coloured shirts and snapping away at anything that moved, including Tim and myself. We didn't see the bamboo fishermen who risk life and limb for their daily catch, but some of their basket-traps were in evidence. Our cycle ride also encountered Wat Khon Tai, a pagoda built on the site of a former Khmer temple with a few stones scattered about, as well as one of two railway engines, rusting in a field, left-overs from the French colonial age when they built a narrow-gauge railway to transport cargo across the islands. Our next and final stop before heading for the land-border crossing at Dong Kralor was the largest set of rapids on the border known as Khon Phapheng. The site is a tourist trap funded by the coachloads of Thais who arrive every day but there's no disputing the power of the rapids as millions of gallons of water crash over the rocks and into Cambodia every second. It was a great spectacle and we avoided the crowds by climbing down to the water's edge for a close-up view - mind your footing, one slip and you're history. It was a dramatic way to end our two-week stint in Laos, and it was fitting that water, which had featured heavily in our schedule, should have the last say. It was my first visit to Laos and I certainly hope it won't be my last - the country and the people are well worth making the effort.
Some of the bungalows on the island of Don Det
One of the few remaining crumbling French colonial buildings on Don Khon
The Ly Phi Falls, or Tat Somphamit, means 'trap (bad) spirits'
The Ly Phi falls are on the southwest corner of Don Khon island
One of the rusting narrow-gauge railway engines on Don Khon
The power and aggression of the Khon Phapheng Falls, on the border between Laos & Cambodia
Up close and personal with the mighty Mekong River at Khon Phapheng

En route to 4,000 Islands

Early morning rice-collection time for the monks in Pakse
Here's a few photos en route from Pakse to the Four Thousand Islands (aka Si Phan Don) at the southern tip of Laos. We arrived late at night in Pakse and left early in the morning, so I didn't see anything of the town, which was a pity, but my schedule was a tight one. Our first stop was the Mekong River crossing at Ban Muang, in order to visit Champasak and of course, its nearby ancient Khmer temple of Wat Phu, which I've already covered in great detail in previous posts. After the morning at Wat Phu and some lunch on the riverbank in Champasak, we took the ferry back to Route 13 and continued south, stopping at another ancient Khmer site, Ou Moung, also known as Tomo (which I'll post tomorrow). After a quick detour to visit the unique Kingfisher Eco-Lodge, we headed for our overnight accommodation on Don Khong island, on the banks of the Mekong River. Its the largest of the inhabited islands and the quietest too. I could've heard a pin drop, if I'd had one. We stayed at the rustic Auberge Sala Done Khong and we were the only visitors both there and at the other nearby guesthouses. We took a quick tour of the island but it was dusk when we arrived, so we got the staff at the nearby SSX hotel to rustle up some food and had an early night.
A fishing boat community on the Mekong River at Ban Muang
Loading the car ferry at Ban Hat for the crossing to Don Khong island
Kids playing in the water at Ban Hat
The Mekong River looking dark and brooding at Ban Hat
Early morning on the Mekong River, taken from my accommodation on Don Khong island
It's 6am on the Mekong River in the town of Muang Khong
The sun has risen on the sleepy Mekong

Monday, September 1, 2008

Waterfall haven

The upper falls at Tat Lo
One of the most enjoyable features of travelling in Laos is that you are never far from the next waterfall, and I'm a sucker for waterfalls. As we made our way from Savannakhet to Pakse in southern Laos we detoured to visit three of the main waterfalls in and around the Bolaven Plateau area, with our first port of call the falls at Tat Lo. There are three falls hereabouts though we only had time for two of them, the third is a 10km hike away. The first set of cascades is near the town and the Tadlo Lodge which has a prime location with gushing water for sending its clients to sleep, whilst the larger falls is another 700m upstream. Not earth-shattering but very pleasant nonetheless. Our next stop was something else altogether. Tat Fan is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Laos with parallel streams of the Huay Bang Lieng plunging out of dense forest and down a sheer drop of 120m to the valley below. We saw it from the top of the opposite cliff at the TadFane Resort, but the view wasn't panoramic due to the dense vegetation and you couldn't see the valley below without slipping over the edge, not a good idea! Our final set of falls were at Tham Champee, about 5kms from Tat Fan and in a gorgeous forest setting, idyllic were my thoughts at the time. We were there just before 6pm and the light and sounds of the surrounding forest were a great way to end our waterfall adventures. We got to Pakse in the dark, and the rain, for a night of luxury at the Pakse Hotel, who looked after us like royalty.
The lower falls at Ta Lo, called Tat Hang
The bungalows of the Tadlo Resort straddle the Tat Lo waterfalls
One of the beautiful butterflies we saw at Tat Lo
The dense forest setting of the spectacular Tat Fan waterfall
The two streams send their water cascading 120m to the valley below at Tat Fan
The idyllic setting for the Tham Champee waterfall
The end of the day at Tham Champee - a beautiful spot to finish our adventures in the Bolaven Plateau

Buddha takes a rest

A Buddha figure surrounded by some pretty sharp teeth, at That Ing Hang
The story goes that during his wanderings, Buddha felt sick and rested by leaning against a tree at the site now known as That Ing Hang. It's located about 12kms northeast of Savannakhet in Laos and a relic of Buddha's spine is reputed to be kept inside the thaat (stupa). Much revered and the focus of an annual festival that draws tens of thousands, That Ing Hang is a 16th century 9m-high construction attributed to King Setthathirat, the Jayavarman VII of his time. The stuccoed exterior hosts some fanciful carvings, a few of which I've posted here, whilst the lower section chamber contains a collection of Buddha images but was locked on our visit and the keyholder was nowhere to be found. The cloisters surrounding the stupa house a large array of seated Buddhas, whilst a weather-beaten sandstone lion suggests it was deposited there from an old Khmer prasat in the neighbourhood, most likely Heuan Hin, at some stage.
The much revered stupa at That Ing Hang, near Savannakhet
One of the wall guardians at the stupa, with a mini-me figure at its feet
This sandstone lion looks Khmer in origin to me and may've come from the nearby prasat at Heuan Hin
Another guardian figure with a cheeky grin and fancy clothing
Some of the hundreds of Buddhas lined up in the surrounding cloisters
Detail from a doorway at That Ing Hang

Meta's messages

It's that time of the month again when I look at the program of events at Meta House (on Street 264 in Phnom Penh) and pick out anything that I like the look of. Bit of a mixed bunch for September in my view and not much that really stands out, though the choice is wide and probably something for everyone is how I would describe this month's schedule. I quite fancy the rough-cut version of the first showing of Heart Talk, a who-done-it feature film from Khmer Mekong Films that will show on Saturday 20th. Maybe a chance to have a say in how the final version will appear. On Wednesday this week (3rd) there's a 96 minute drama film dealing with human trafficking and child labour issues in Cambodia from the BBC called In The Dark. It was shown in cinemas and on tv last year. The Messenger Band (pictured) make their Meta House debut on Saturday 13th. Formed by female garment factory workers a couple of years ago, they sing about globalization, sex work and child labour. The Womyn's Agenda for Change initiated the band as a way of getting across their message and it seems to work. There's a slew of other documentaries and films throughout the month on a variety of topics, as well as two exhibitions, Art of Survival until the 12th and then on 16th, a new exhibition opens, In Transit: Phnom Penh's urban spaces. Something for everyone at Meta House.

Peace in every step

The Bangkok Post posted an article on the late Maha Ghosananda - the Father of Cambodian Buddhism - at the weekend. I think it's worth having a look. Maha Ghosananda died in March 2007, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated monk who was a major factor in the rebirth of Buddhism in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. He passed away in the US, where he'd been a frequent visitor since the late '80s. Born in 1929 in Takeo, he was elected a Supreme Cambodian Buddhist Patriarch by fellow monks in 1988 for his tireless efforts to revive Buddhism, human rights and for peace. In advocating the latter, he led a series of 'Dhammayietra' peace walks in Cambodia in the '90s and received four Nobel Peace Prize nominations for his efforts. The article, Peace In Every Step, can be viewed here.


Apologies to any readers expecting to see more Cambodia-biased articles and comment on my Blog, it's been a bit one-sided with photos and references to Laos in recent days. There's two reasons for that. The first is that I wanted to promote Laos after my recent visit there, as I found the country to be a wonderfully heady mix of beautiful scenery and welcoming people. It isn't Cambodia and never will be, but it's definitely worth a visit. And I've still got lots of photos to post, so be warned. The second reason is that I've not done much over the past couple of weeks aside from work and sleep. A groin strain has curtailed my football activities during that time and my weekend jaunts into the countryside have all but dried up in the last couple of months. To be honest, its a conundrum as I primarily play football on a Sunday, which was formerly my favourite day for getting out and about and finding those interesting nooks and crannies outside of Phnom Penh. Its a dilemma, as I love my football but I also love to explore. There's no easy answer to this one and for the time being, football is winning.

Going south

It's all smiles for our rice paddy visit near Pak Kading
I've already brought you some of the field photos we took on our trip south from Vientiane, as we headed for Savannakhet, some 450 kms away. However, here are some more. These girls were in a rice paddy between Paksan and Pak Kading and were great fun, led by the ever-smiling Chan and despite some initial shyness, they gladly posed for a team photo with Tim and myself. Other stops along the route included Wat Phabat Phonsane, revered for its golden Buddha footprint that was discovered in 1933, with its ornamental stupa and reclining Buddha; the view of the jagged limestone pinnacles from the sala viewpoint at the top of Phou Pha Mane, the highest peak in the Hin Boun conservation area; the French colonial architecture in the sleepy town of Tha Khaek; and the venerated stupa of Pha That Sikhottabong, some 6kms outside of town. In a peaceful spot on the banks of the Mekong River, the stupa was renovated by King Setthathirat and has some ancient Khmer naga antifixes if you look hard enough.
The ornamented stupa at Wat Phabat Phonsane, with its revered golden Buddha footprint
Wat Phabat Phonsane also has a large reclining Buddha on display
Here's a team photo of our rice paddy friends, with the leader Chan on the far right
It was rice planting time during our trip, hence the hordes of women in the fields
The jagged limestone peaks from the Hin Boun sala viewpoint
Both Chinese and French architecture prevail in Tha Khaek
Here's some of the French colonial architecture on show
Looking through the door of the main sim, this is the stupa at Wat Pha That Sikhottabong