Friday, October 31, 2008

Look-alikey 2

Continuing on the royalty linked to Bun Heang Ung theme, here's another couple of look-alikes. This time its Prince Charles, the future King of England and well-known for his large ears, and yours truly, in a cartoon drawn by Bun Heang Ung. I'm actually well known for my very small ears (and big nose) but as soon as I saw this cartoon I thought of Prince Charles, so I had to post it. I'll leave you to work out which one the cartoon figure is. I can confirm however, that I will not be playing the role of Charles in the forthcoming film of his life - I didn't make it through the auditions.


Prasat Chrey or N18 at Sambor Prei Kuk - host to a spreading strangler fig
One of the most evocative temples at Sambor Prei Kuk is N18, also known as Prasat Chrey, which is on the opposite side of the main road into the complex from the northern group of temples that surround Prasat Sambor. The sight of the brick-built 7th century structure being literally squeezed to death by the strangler fig tree that embraces it and sprouts high above its eastern entrance, makes for a great photo composition. The strangler fig is known for its seeds which are often bird-dispersed and which germinate in crevices, growing their roots downwards and enveloping the host, in this case a brick tower, while growing upwards to reach into the sunlight above the forest canopy. There are over 900 species of fig tree, or Ficus, around the world, and it's another member of the fig tree family, the banyan, which is famous for its roots that engulf the Angkor temple of Ta Prohm. Prasat Chrey, in addition to its tree overcoat also has an inscribed doorway in ancient Khmer script and false doors with their own version of a flying palace, but minus the royalty looking out. You'd be a fool to miss this picture on your visit to Sambor Prei Kuk.
The eastern doorway at Prasat Chrey
Ancient Khmer script on the doorjamb of the entranceway to Prasat Chrey
This is the false door and stone carving on the north wall of Prasat Chrey
The northern and western walls of Prasat Chrey can't escape the firm embrace
Up close and personal with the Ficus of Prasat Chrey
This is the southern view of Prasat Chrey and its photogenic overcoat
I didn't want to hang around too long in case I was next on the strangler fig's menu


I hadn't noticed it before today, but there's a real look-alikey resemblance between my favourite cartoonist and animator Bun Heang Ung, who lives in Australia and posts his cartoons, often with a sharp political bite under the name Sacrava, and his Royal Highness, King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia. I'm sure Bun doesn't try to make a living posing as the King at public events but Sihamoni, who has acted in his father's films in the past, could play the part of Bun in a film version of his biography, The Murderous Revolution. Now that would be a turn up for the books! If you are not sure of who is who, check the artist's pen behind the ear and you won't go far wrong.


A quick round-up of a few items. Last night's Cambodiana documentary at Meta House was a mite disappointing to be honest. It was a simple camera follows-three-naturalists into the Cardamom Mountains and besides the camera shake, the quality of the camera itself was a million light years away from the Nat Geo standard we've come to expect these days. Mind you, if I'd been trekking in the Cardamoms for 2 weeks, my hands would be shaking too. We saw a few birds and other creatures but nothing to write home about, unless you are a twitcher. Tonight should be better, a docu on travelling through Burma.
Lots of media coverage yesterday for the forthcoming opera Where Elephants Weep, an East-meets-West blend of traditional Cambodian music and Western rock that is modeled on Tum Teav, the Khmer version of Romeo and Juliet. The show will have a 10-day run next month in Phnom Penh and is the brainchild of Cambodian Living Arts. Watch out for this groundbreaking production starting on 28 November. The 4th annual Angkor Photography Festival begins on 23 November and I hear Phnom Penh will have one as well this year, organized by the French, so I won't even be able to read their promo leaflets! Last night the Phnom Penh International Music Festival began but it's a Germany-inspired classical Baroque music series of concerts so holds precisely zero interest for me.
Of considerably more interest is the Cambodian government's very vocal desire to sign the December treaty to ban cluster bombs and munitions around the globe. These silent killers still claim victims in eastern Cambodia in Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces, usually children who find and play with the bomblets or villagers who use the ordnance for scrap metal. This was the subject of the Skye Fitzgerald film, Bombhunters, which you can find out more about here.

I spotted a story in about three of the African players who turn out for my footy team in Phnom Penh, Bayon Wanderers. There's a fair few Africans over here in Cambodia, plying their trade with both professional and amateur football teams, and a few of the lucky ones are making a tiny bit of money with the sponsored teams, hoping that they will get spotted and snapped up by the larger professional sides in other Asian countries. The story of Daniel, Baba and John is a common one. They were given promises by African agents in their own country of Cameroon, that there were riches to be had playing pro football in Thailand. Duped into parting with agent's fees and making the trip to Thailand, the promises were never fulfilled and they had to move on, Cambodia being their next destination. Here they are keeping fit playing with Bayon but they really need to make some money for themselves and their families back home, so they will be willing to give their talents to the highest bidder, in fact, any bidder. The story in French is here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Uniquely Sambor

Tower N7 in the northern group, known as the Prasat Sambor group, has a wealth of interesting and quite well preserved flying palaces
The flying palaces of Sambor Prei Kuk deserve a few more pictures to highlight this unique decorative feature of the brick-built temples of the 7th century. So Sokuntheary, a Khmer-born archaeologist who has worked extensively at Angkor and Sambor as part of a team from Japan's Waseda University, joined our recent visit to Sambor and told us that 288 separate temples had been identified in the area, ranging from the larger structures such as Prasat Tao to small mounds of broken bricks. Under the guidance of Waseda, more excavations are currently taking place and new discoveries are being made to further enhance the reservoir of knowledge about this former capital city of the Chenla empire. The central characters in the palaces are likely deities or royalty and it looks to me that a male figure is usually the central character, flanked by two female attendants or wives though the passage of time has weathered the brick carving to make it difficult for my untrained eye to see. At the foot of the palaces are mythical creatures supporting the palace facade. All very unique though I have seen versions of flying palaces at other locations such at Phnom Bayang close to the Vietnam border in southern Cambodia.
Three deities in the central part of the flying palace, looking out of windows at N7
Four faces surround a central figure in the arched upper register of this flying palace on N7
Winged horses and mythical figures adorn the lower register of the flying palace at N7
A flying palace on the wall of tower N15 has deities and outward-facing makaras on the upper register
Three of five female figures that are shown in full-length on the middle register of tower N15
On the upper register of N15 it looks like a king is surrounded by attendants and outward-facing sea monsters, which are also found on lintels of that era

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Flying Palaces

The brick tower S10 in the southern group at Sambor Prei Kuk, showing the large flying palaces on its outside walls
Inside one of the flying palaces are deities and royal figures looking out
Flying Palaces are essentially a miniature facade of a palace with deities or royal figures looking out of the windows and doors of the building. These are most commonly found on the external walls of the brick temples at Sambor Prei Kuk, and other temples of that era - the 7th century - and were all once covered in white stucco and most probably painted. The flying palaces provide a wonderful decorative feature on the individual brick towers at Sambor in addition to the usual decoration such as lintels and colonettes. Due to the ravages of time, many of Sambor's flying palaces have not fared so well and the carving is indistinct, worn and weathered but they do make for a unique and quite colourful addition to the towers of this lovely forested setting, 30kms north of Kompong Thom. The friezes of winged horses and other animals and figures at the base of the flying palaces are another feature well worth a closer inspection next time you visit Sambor Prei Kuk. My time was very short during last week's visit, so my photos of the flying palaces are few. Next time I'm there, I hope to spend a few days visiting all of the 250+ temples that dot the landscape in that area.
This flying palace at Prasat Trapeang Ropeak still retains its original stucco covering
A flying palace with figures inside and carvings below at the northern group tower N7A frieze of winged horses and a Garuda style figure on tower N7
Fantasy mythological figures adorn the bottom of the flying palaces in the northern group
More fantasy figures, both human and animal in appearance
A flying palace on tower N15, near to the Isanborei craft hut at Sambor Prei Kuk


I haven't ventured into the Cardamom Mountains of south-west Cambodia as of now. A lack of temples and a lack of time have been the major obstacles to-date. Oh, and I don't like trips where I will be completely knackered in a short space of time, and getting around the interior of the Cardamoms sounds like hard work. There's a couple of projects on-going there at the moment, one at Chi Phat through Wildlife Alliance and another at Thma Bang through Conservation International. I hear that the Chi Phat project is putting on 4-day trips for private sector tour companies and the like in late November and December, so hopefully I will have the chance to find out a lot more, on the ground as it were. Aside from that, the Cardamoms are pretty wild and it's that veil of mystery that will be revealed at Meta House tomorrow night (Thursday 30th) when the debut documentary by Estelle des Dorides, Cambodiana, will take us on a 52-minute trip to the highlands, with Dorides present at the screening for a Q&A session afterwards. The Cardamoms is home to 14 endangered and threatened mammal species including Asian elephant, Indochinese Tiger, Malayan sun bear, pileated gibbon, Irrawaddy and humpback dolphins, and half of Cambodia's bird species. Roof-top start time, 8pm. On Friday at Meta House, there will be a showing of Burma All Inclusive, a 2007 film by Austrian filmmaker Roland Wehap who describes a fictive tourist journey through Burma, which should be interesting.

Random Thom

It wouldn't be me if I didn't include a Neak Ta figure, this one is from Wat Chey Sampeau
Here are some random pictures from my visit to Kompong Thom last week. I still have a flurry of photos from Sambor Prei Kuk to post here in the next day or two. Quite often on my travels I take far too many pictures of inanimate objects like temples, carvings and suchlike, and often forget to take enough people shots. It's the people of Cambodia that make the country so appealing - I must keep telling myself not to forget them going about their daily activities. One photographer who has this off to a fine art is Steve Goodman. Visit his blog to see what I mean. Anyway, enough babble, here's the pictures.
An early morning look at the main bridge, actually there are two of them, in Kompong Thom city that crosses the Stung Sen River
This husband and wife team take their oxen for a walk in Atsu village
A krama silk weaver of Atsu village in full flow
This woman is spinning a yarn - I didn't know whether to believe her!
A seima stone at Wat Chey Sampeau showing the goddess with the long hair, known variously as Preah Thorani or Preah Neang Kong Hing
Mr Vanny, my ox-cart driver at Sambor Prei Kuk
This black statue of a child, with bright red lips, is much revered at the summit of Phnom Santuk

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Off to a flying start

The Mekong Discovery Trail guidebook was officially launched yesterday afternoon at the Cambodiana Hotel. Private sector tour operators and the like were invited alongwith the good and the great from the Ministry of Tourism, presided over by HE So Mara, the Secretary of State. This was my first official function of this nature and once the speeches and formalities were done - the launch appeared later on the local tv news - we got to see the guidebooks. The initial print run is 5,000 and like their website, it's a thoroughly professional production. The folks at the Dutch NGO SNV have been behind this project and they have certainly given it a good base from which to grow. The Mekong River has been under-utilised as a feature in Cambodia's appeal to visitors with the dolphins at Kratie capturing the headlines to-date. The Trail will shift that focus onto an eco-tourism footing that will couple the attraction of the dolphins with a series of other activities to appeal to foreign and domestic tourists alike. These include mountainbike tours, home and pagoda stays, birdwatching, cultural performances, island hopping, boat tours, horse-cart rides and more. It's time that Cambodia made better use of the extensive options the Mekong River provides and this is a good place to start. It's still in its infancy as far as infrastructure and bedding down the community services on offer are concerned, but the opportunity now exists to make it work as long as the variety of options is appealing enough to tourists and the marketing machine ensures that they are made aware of the Trail. I urge you to visit the Trail's website which like the guidebook is very professionally produced and informative.
HE So Mara (centre), Secretary of State for Tourism, presides over the official launch of the guidebook

Out of action

The author in action - though this picture was taken a few weeks ago (courtesy Nick King)
Still on the football theme, I've been conspicuously absent from the Bayon Wanderers team line-up in recent weeks due to an eye infection that is refusing to clear up completely. Its been incredibly frustrating as my fitness was getting better after years (seven to be precise) of inactivity only for the eye problem to put me back on the sidelines. It also means I won't be able to take part in the Hun Sen cup competition where our team might be paired with one of the top club sides in the country and games played at the Olympic Stadium. What a bummer. I've been back to the doctors again this week for stronger medicine and I hope that will do the trick. In the meantime, the Bayon team will no doubt soldier on without me. There is a constant influx, and outflux, of players so I know I won't be missed. In fact I've been seriously disappointed with my own form whilst playing for the team, but I suppose that's understandable after such a lengthy lay-off, and I must remember that I am no longer a spring-chicken, far from it. I am not happy unless I'm scoring goals, so my rather pathetic tally of a few goals hasn't helped either. Anyway enough of feeling sorry for myself... onwards and upwards!

Lots of media coverage for the Amazing Race television series visit to Cambodia, that was screened this week. Not a programme that Hanuman Films got involved with as it was co-ordinated by a company from Vietnam. The feedback suggests that the programme suffered as a result, with complaints about the waste of such a venue as Angkor Wat with limp tasks for the teams to complete. In addition, I hear that Sokha Helicopters got wrapped over the knuckles by the authorities for flying over the temples and using a tracking shot down the causeway of Angkor Wat. A ban on flights around Angkor is the result.
Also there's an end to elephant rides to the top of Phnom Bakheng. Angkor Village hotel operate the elephants that take tourists to the top of the hill for the overwhelmingly popular sunset but with a 4pm ban on visitors - in an attempt to negate the impact of hordes of tourists clambering over the temple every day - seemingly about to take effect, they've called time on the elephant rides. However, they will still operate them in and around the Angkor Park. On the film front, Hanuman have recently completed the ground servicing for the immensely popular Top Gear tv series from the UK, with the three presenters travelling through Vietnam on motorbikes. Apparently it'll be a programme to remember. More on this later.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Match killer

Match killer Khim Borey - by Jean Loncle, Cambodge Soir Hebo
This is how much it means to Khim Borey, the Cambodian striker who netted the winning goal against Brunei on Saturday that took his country through to the Asean football championships to be held in December. The Armed Forces player, who was singled out by Cambodia Head Coach Prak Sovvanara as the "match killer" took his tally to three goals in the recent 5-team tournament, bettered only by his teammate Sam El Nasa, who netted four times. For once, thanks to Borey's winner, Cambodia will be battling it out with the big boys of Asean football, with Thailand and Singapore acknowedged as the top pairing. Sovvanara, who took over the coaching role after a series of changes at the top and steered the team through a rocky preparation for the tournament but onto ultimate success, said of Borey; "I didn't think he could play so professionally like he has this year because he was in very poor form last year. He was really bad, and now he has improved a lot. Borey himself, summed up his feelings after their success; "I am very happy to come out of this tournament a winner and I profoundly thank my coach and teammates, who have tried their best for the pride of our country." Both Khim Borey and Sam El Nasa will need to be firing on all cylinders come the team's 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup championship opener against highly-fancied Singapore on 5 December. Come on Cambodia!
Cambodia's 3 best players of the tournament. LtoR: Khim Borey (7), Chan Rithy (11) and Sam El Nasa (16) - by May Kunmakara, Phnom Penh Post
For more of Jean Loncle's Cambodia photography, click here.

Unsolved mystery?

A mystery face in a sandstone niche at S2 temple in Prasat Yeay Poeun group
These mysterious faces can be found inside the Mandapa entrance tower that stands in front of the central tower of Prasat Yeay Poeun, the Southern grouping of temples of the Sambor Prei Kuk complex in Kompong Thom province. Inside the tower is a sandstone canopy that experts have suggested is derived from Indian inspiration, Champa or even the Greeks during the Hellenistic period and which contains a dozen of these richly carved faces, these were the better preserved examples. The square canopy is also carved with floral and vegetal designs on all sides. The inside of the tower is difficult to access now after a collapse of the shrine in August 2006 because of heavy rain. An inscription at the site suggests this temple was dedicated to Shiva and an image of Nandi, the bull, may've been placed under the canopy. Other examples of small faces in niches, but without the tight-curly hair and moustache, can be found at the Asram Moha Issey at Sambor and at Phnom Hanchey. The faces certainly do not look Khmer and in a certain light remind me of the Three Musketeers!
Regular readers of this blog will recognise d'Artagnan from The Three Musketeers!
The faces alternate between looking left or right, but are definitely non-Khmer
This face appears to be wearing a crown above its curly hair
Greek, Champa, Indian, French? - anyone know the answer?
This face in a niche is less distinct than the others
Another face with a crown and a large bushy moustache and eyebrows
The floral designs on the sides of the canopy at Prasat Yeay Poeun

Sambor style

A typical Sambor Prei Kuk style lintel from the site's storage area
Indra on his mount airavata on the central medallion on the above Sambor Prei Kuk lintel
I have talked before about the typical style of lintel that showcases the pre-Angkorean, Sambor Prei Kuk era from the 7th century (around 610-650 under Kings Isanavarman I and Bhavavarman II) with its makara monsters, four arches and three medallions. A quick look in the storage area near the northern group of monuments at Sambor Prei Kuk reveals a couple of perfect examples. In the lintel above, Indra on his mount airavata sits in the central medallion though the figures above the makaras are a bit worn. The two prominent architectural styles following the Sambor Prei Kuk era were the Prei Kmeng and Kompong Preah styles that are notable for their absence of inward-facing makaras and medallions and the appearance of distinct garlands of vegetation and leafy pendants. And that's exactly what you can see on the central tower of the Prasat Tao group at Sambor. The four lintels still in situ, which is rare at Sambor, show a style more in line with the Kompong Preah characteristics, though its widely known that Sambor Prei Kuk was a complex that was added to and altered over a number of centuries, so a mixture of styles isn't unusual. Three of the lintels show a distinctive set of jeweled garlands with pendants, almost like a coat of arms, of vegetal motifs. There are no mythical figures, monsters or gods to be found on these lintels. The final examples I photographed on last week's trip to the temple complex were three lintels from Prasat Yeay Poeun, believed to be constructed at the beginning of the 7th century and though badly worn, two of them are definitely Sambor Prei Kuk style though the third looks more atuned to the Prei Kmeng style with large figures at each end and a narrative scene below the arch. My visit to Sambor was a short one, I wasn't able to visit many of the individual temples as there are hundreds so I'm sure there's more lintels to be spotted in situ, but at least the examples shown here give you a window into the Sambor style.
The rather plain and unadorned lintel above the east door to Prasat Tao
The southern door of Prasat Tao displays a lintel in the Kompong Preah style
More of the Kompong Preah style on the western door of Prasat Tao
The leafy pendants and wreaths denote the pre-Angkorean styles on the northern door of Prasat Tao
More Sambor Prei Kuk style lintels, though badly worn, at Prasat Yeay PoeunAnother worn and weathered lintel at Prasat Yeay PoeunI think this is more Prei Kmeng style above the eastern door of Prasat Yeay Poeun

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Unspoilt Sambor Prei Kuk

One of the evocative temples at Sambor Prei Kuk, known as Y Group M40!
Last week I enjoyed a FAM (familiarization) trip to Kompong Thom and more precisely Sambor Prei Kuk, to get a better look at the community-based services that have been set up by the locals aided by the German development organization, GTZ. The trip, with a bunch of fellow tour operators and journos from the Phnom Penh Post and Asia Life magazine, kicked off with a 2.30pm departure from the GTZ offices in Phnom Penh. We arrived in Kompong Thom in the dark after experiencing a thunderstorm en route and immediately went to inspect the new 20-bungalow Sambor Village hotel that is being built, with swimming pool and wi-fi next to the Stung Sen river just outside of town. At $50 a night it’ll be at the top of the hotel tree in Kompong Thom when it opens in late December. For my part I took a room at the dreary Stung Sen hotel, as the party of 20 was split between that and the newer Kompong Thom Village hotel. Joined by no less than the governor of the province, HE Nam Tom, for dinner at the Arunras restaurant, we finished off with a trip briefing, short film on the delights that the province has to offer and a fruit-shake on the sidewalk before bed.
A silk weaver at work on her loom in the village of Atsu
Some of the brick carving on show at Sambor Prei Kuk that includes winged creatures, horses, hamsas and much more
After breakfast next day, we boarded the bus for the bumpy 30kms ride to Sambor Prei Kuk, stopping off in Atsu village to visit a family-weaving project where we were given a demo and bought up most of their karmas before nipping into Wat Chey Sampeau to assess the possibility of a pagoda stay, noting a couple of broken pedestals in the grounds of the wat. At the complex of 7th and 10th century temples, our group was immediately surrounded by clamouring children selling their wares as we looked at the crafts hut, Isanborei, at the entrance, before we got on cycles, rented from local schoolkids, to begin our tour of the temples. For the next couple of hours we visited the three main groups of temples, stopping at strategic points to get the low-down from the local English-speaking community guides, all the while accompanied by the children still trying to sell their kramas - they didn't give up throughout our whole stay. The tracks through the forest were easy enough as we called into the groups at Prasat Yeay Poeun, Prasat Tao and Prasat Sambor but its hot and thirsty work on cycles, so the rest-stops to listen to the guides were welcome. We also saw some of the work of the Waseda University and their Khmer colleagues who are still excavating at the site and uncovering lots of artifacts and information about the site's past. The full chapter on Sambor Prei Kuk has still to be written.
A proud local posing with one of the Prasat Tao lions
Returning the cycles to the craft hut, we walked into the forest to our picnic-lunch spot next to the O Krouke river, passing en route the unusual square cella at Asram Moha Issey and the tree-engulfed Prasat Chrey. On typical wooden platforms, the setting was peaceful and the lunch provided by the community members was pretty good. Next on the agenda was an ox-cart ride back to the starting point, a nice add-on but a cushion is necessary to protect your rear-end. The community services at Sambor will certainly add new options to a visit to the site which is overlooked by the majority of visitors to Cambodia. Siem Reap and the Angkor temples are the big-hitter as you might expect, but Sambor has its own magic and making a visit easier for travellers and offering options like cycle and ox-cart rides, trained guides and picnics make it more appealing. Our coach then took us on a journey through the back-roads for a taste of the rural life on show and onto the revered mountain of Phnom Santuk after a quick stop in the stone-carving village of Kakoh. Only a few hardy souls managed the climb to the top of Santuk to view the collection of Buddhas on display, some hewn from the bed-rock of the mountain, before retracing our 809 steps to the bottom and heading for home, getting back to a wet Phnom Penh at 9pm. Sambor Prei Kuk has always been one of my favourite places in Cambodia and with the full backing of the local community, it would be wonderful to see more people enjoying this slice of unspoilt Cambodia.
Tree roots squeeze the life out of Prasat Chrey

The square cella of Asram Moha Issey at Sambor Prei Kuk

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cambodia's heroes

Cambodia's footballing heroes line-up before today's game
They did it. It wasn't pretty but they deserved their 2-1 win over Brunei to progress to the Asean Suzuki Cup Championship to be played in December. Cambodia's heroes turned out to be Sam El Nasa and Khim Borey with the goals that sank their plucky opponents though they had to wait until fifteen minutes from time to edge their noses in front. With a 2pm kick-off, the first-half was a turgid affair with both teams looking as though their efforts in the earlier games had dulled any spark of passion. With two minutes to go until the interval, Brunei made the home country pay for slack defensive play with the opening goal by Bujang. In injury time at the end of the half, Cambodia levelled when Chan Rithy's shot was parried and Sam El Nasa drilled home the rebound for his 4th goal of the tournament. The 2nd half was pretty much one-way traffic with Cambodia searching for the winning goal that would clinch one of the two places up for grabs in the Championship finals in December. That goal finally came with a little over 15 minutes on the clock to go when Rithy set up Khim Borey and the striker thundered his shot over the Brunei keeper to ignite wild celebrations amongst the 15,000 crowd. Those celebrations erupted at the final whistle as the Cambodian players raced to the touchline to toss their shirts to the jubilant crowd and to acknowledge their success in pipping Philippines on more goals scored after the teams finished level on points and goal difference. For the record, the Cambodia line-up was Oukmic, Chanbunrith, Raksmey, Borey, Saknida, Sochivorn, Rithy, Narith, Sovannarith, Nasa, Chansothea. subs: Seiha, Tiny, Virath, Sophearith, Sokumpheak. In the final game of the qualifiers, Laos were leading against Timor-Leste when I left in the second half and eventually won 2-1 to clinch the top spot in the qualifying competition. For the biennial tournament finals starting on 5 December, Cambodia will open up the series with a game against Singapore in Jakarta in Group A and will also meet Myanmar and co-hosts Indonesia, whilst Laos join Bangkok-based Group B with Malaysia, Vietnam and co-hosts Thailand.
The two teams take to the field, Cambodia in blue and white
The teams and crowd stand for the two national anthems
Scenes of jubilation at the final whistle as Cambodia celebrate their qualification. Note the increased attendance from the photo above.
Minus their shirts, Cambodia's joyous players are (LtoR) Sovannarith, Rithy, Nasa, Saknida and Tiny

Nerves a jangling

It's the big footy match in a few hours. Cambodia take on Brunei at 2pm and must win to progress to the finals of the Suzuki Cup in December. As the host team, the crowd expectation of Cambodian success will be high but Brunei can progress too and have already proved to be tough opponents in the five team qualifying competition that has been taking place over the last two weeks at the Olympic Stadium. In striker Mohd Shahrazen Said they have the one player who has caught my eye in the games I've watched. Cambodia themselves have done well in patches and played poorly in others. Today, they need to be on top of their game, display passion and desire to win and they might just do it. Come on Cambodia!
Just had confirmation that my brother Tim will be winging his way over to Cambodia from the UK on 5 November for a few weeks. Our previous trips to Ratanakiri and Laos were great fun, so this time around we may head down to the south coast area to see how things are shaping up down there. Stay tuned.
On the way to the Tiara Delgado film screenings at Meta House last night, I popped into my local bar, the Red Orchid on Street 278 in BKK1, for a bite to eat. Apparently I'm the only regular who never drinks alcohol! The owners are a lovely wife and husband team, with three great kids and bar staff who all make a visit there a very pleasant experience. Here's a photo of The 3 A's, a trio of young female bar staff, who joined the team a couple of months go and are settling in well.
LtoR: The 3 A's = Aya, Aphea and Anna

Friday, October 24, 2008

Delgado film night

The author meets the filmmaker at tonight's Meta House screening
Tonight was Tiara Delgado's film night at Meta House including the world premiere of her latest documentary Bitter Mekong - The Sambath Legacy. The filmmaker presented three of the four films she's completed on Cambodia and the trio of tonight's offerings were linked by one central theme, the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia's recent history. American-born Tiara moved to live in Phnom Penh in June of this year after many visits and felt United Nations Day was an appropriate time to screen her latest film which focused on the story of Huot Sambath, a former Cambodian Ambassador at the United Nations. It follows his son, Rami, who last saw his diplomat father at the age of six, on a journey to uncover his father's fate, including his first-ever visit to Cambodia, where he has since moved to teach English. The film also showed Rami's mother returning to her homeland after 40 years away. Rami's father was one of the top diplomats recalled after the Khmer Rouge assumed power and who was later interrogated and died at S-21. Preceeding Bitter Mekong were two of Tiara's earlier documentaries, Fragile Hopes from the Killing Fields (2004) and The Road to Closure - Understanding the KR Tribunal (2006). All three films featured interviews with Vann Nath, one of the S-21 survivors as well as music by Khmer rap supremo praCh. Bitter Mekong is still in post production and the 25-minute short should be finalized by the beginning of 2009. The subject matter of all three films is still very relevant in today's Cambodia so I expected a much larger audience turnout than actually showed up to view the work of this fine filmmaker.
Find out more about Tiara Delgado's work here.

A community twist at Sambor

Page 5 of today's Phnom Penh Post
Tourism, with a community twist
German organisation GTZ hopes creative partnerships will benefit locals and tourists - by Christopher Shay, Phnom Penh Post 24 Oct 2008

We made our way through Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom on bicycles rented from local schoolchildren and wearing kramas we had watched being made in a neighbouring village, while our guide explained the history of the site. Later, we ate lunch prepared by residents and took an oxcart to a craft store selling handwoven baskets.
Residents of Sambor Prei Kuk are newcomers to the tourism industry, but with the help of the German Development Organisation (GTZ), they have become quick leraners. The organisation has spent the last three years training community members in handicraft production, English-language skills, bookkeeping, marketing and business management.
Today, Sambor Prei Kuk - a village conveniently located halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap along Route 6 - is poised to become one of Cambodia's newest tourism hotspots, and one that will directly benefit the local community.
Sambor Prei Kuk is located on top of the ancient city of Isanapura, the 7th-century capital of Chenla. Despite years of looting and the ravages of war, important archaeological sites still dot the area.
In the early 600s, Chenla occupied large part of what is now Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, making it the dominant force in the region and an important predecessor to the Khmer Empire.
GTZ chose Sambor Prei Kuk to develop community-based servives because of its historical resources and location, said Ngin Hong, a local economic development coordinator at GTZ.
The region's history makes it an ideal stop for tourists to learn about the pre-Angkorian era before heading north to Angkor Wat.
"It doesn't just have gorgeous-looking temples in a beautiful forested setting, but it also has carvings galore, is steeped in history and sets the scene for clients on their way to visit Angkor," said Andy Brouwer, product manager for Hanuman Tourism.
GTZ will spend the next two years trying to forge ties between Sambor Prei Kuk and the private sector. It brought in Exotissimo Travel, a tour operator, early on to develop a viable tour product and to make connections with other private-sector partners.
Such partnerships are vital because GTZ will pull out in 2010, after which the community will need to run the industry by itself.
Community-based tourism projects have failed in the past when they lacked monitoring, maintenance and local understanding of market demand, said Daniel de Gruiter, a consultant from Exotissimo.
But de Gruiter is optimistic about Sambor Prei Kuk's future because of early private-sector involvement. "[GTZ] started to collect data and feedback from the private sector in the early stages, which helps them to develop in the right direction," de Gruiter said.
Many tour operators in Cambodia have started pushing clients towards community-based activities as the quality and quantity of options improve.
"If [tourists] feel they are giving something back direct to the local community, they find that appealing," Brouwer said.
Residents of Sambor Prei Kuk have already begun to reap the financial benefits of their new training. Sin Pich, a local coordinator of tourism services, said, "The community here is poor. Now, we can market goods and help people find jobs. People can make handicrafts and sell them to support their families." Residents can also learn more about their culture and pass down that knowledge to future generations, Sin Pich said.
Our local guide, Noun Vothear, said his job brings a great sense of satisfaction. "I want more and more tourists here because I enjoy telling people about Sambor Prei Kuk," he said.
Despite early signs of success, two obstacles remain: poor transportation infrastructure and the need for understanding between tourists and community members. The area's muddy, uneven roads can be major deterrents for many travellers. "The government has many plans if the infrastructure gets better, but the first measure the government wants to do is improve the roads," said Bin Kimleath, deputy director of the Tourism Department in Kampong Thom province.
A potential new partnership holds out some hope for the future. Provincial officials in Kampong Thom are in discussion with the World Bank and the Chinese government to help fund road infrastructure that would better connect tourist sites, Ngin Hong said.
Mutual understanding between tourists and community members can also pose problems to the area's fledgling industry. Local villagers need to know what appeals to Western tourists, while visitors must respect their local hosts.
Brouwer said communication difficulties are "understandable in many respects, as the providers of the community services are coming from the other end of the spectrum from the high-end clients".
On the other side, tourism operators need to educate their clients. Tour companies cannot handpick which tourists go to community-based sites like Sambor Prei Kuk, but they can make sure they know some basic rules.
"We should provide them with guidelines of what we see as responsible tourism and encourage them to act responsibly. We can't make them, but we can encourage and inform," Brouwer said.

Partners in Community Revitalisation

As product manager for Hanuman Tourism, Andy Brouwer sees collaboration between the private sector and local communities as a key component towards building a sustainable and mutually beneficial tourism industry that serves the needs of the local hosts and travellers alike. Community-based tourism services are poised to become a major component of the industry's future growth. "We as private-sector companies should encourage our clients to use these services where possible, as that will have a positive effect on the local communities... However, we have a duty to make sure these services are of a good enough quality," Brouwer said. Apart from generating additional revenue, such programs can reinforce community traditions. Sin Pich, a tourism operator in Kampong Thom, says traditional handicraft skills are being revived. "Once they have the knowledge, they can continue it and pass it down to posterity. The tourists show them that [traditional] knowledge is important," Sin Pich said.
Reproduced courtesy of Phnom Penh Post

In the dark

A dancing figure, possibly Indra on the back of a makara on a 7th century lintel in the gloom of the Kompong Thom museum
Let me apologise up front for the quality of these photos. The "museum" in Kompong Thom is not a museum, rather a dusty, long-forgotten storage hall where some of the province's best sculptural exhibits were left to rot and decay many moons ago. The pictures are so poor because the room doesn't have any natural light and in fact has just one strip light that barely emits any light at all. To photograph these exhibits properly would require professional photography lighting, which I don't carry around with me, as a rule! Flash photography is a no-no, as it just washes out the stone artwork. They are currently building an intimately tiny museum on the road to Siem Reap but it is so small as to not be worth the trouble, but I hope they prove me wrong. There are some fine examples in the cobweb-strewn storage hall at the fine arts headquarters opposite the Arunras Hotel - including half a dozen inscription steles and a host of lintels - though few know its actually there and with the appalling lighting and having to navigate an obstacle-course to see some of the objects up close, a visit is hard work.
A stylized female devata figure with ornamental headdress carrying a lotus flower
3 lingas taken using camera-flash though they appear washed out as a result
This well-ornamented devata in a niche appears almost Banteay Srei in style
I found this quite rare somasutra head under a table. It would've been at the end of the channel where holy water leaves the sanctity of the temple.

Media prostitute

I need to be more careful. Friends have already accused me (jokingly I hope) of being a media prostitute and then whatdoyouknow an article, 'Tourism, with a community twist' in today's Phnom Penh Post not only carries some quotes from me but also my picture! Chris Shay was part of the FAM trip to Sambor Prei Kuk last week and his positive write-up for the daily PPP about the efforts being made to create community-based services at Sambor appears today. I'll repost it a bit later. I didn't even know he was taking the photo - honest!
A media glutton showing the kids at Wat Chey Sampeau some shockingly bad photography

Here's my photo of the same group of children

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cambodia down but not out

The Cambodian team in red kit before their match against the Philippines today
As expected, Philippines gave Cambodia their sternest test of the Suzuki Cup football qualifying competition this afternoon, and Cambodia failed the test. In a tight game at the Olympic Stadium, the visitors ran out 3-2 winners, using their height advantage and football know-how to good effect, as well as their multi-national line-up that included a handful of players who ply their trade in England, Holland, Denmark, USA and a few from the Philippines! Cambodia were plucky and took the game to their opponents from the kick-off with Sam El Nasa heading the opening goal after 15 minutes. The Filipinos equalised five minutes later through Alex Borromeo and as half-time approached took the lead through one of the British contingent, West Brom's Chris Greatwich. Not to be outdone, Nasa took Cambodia into the interval all square, and the big crowd into raptures, with a good finish after a set-up by the busy Chan Rithy. In a close-fought second-half, Philippines got the decisive third goal after ten minutes through AFC Wimbledon striker Chad Gould and withstood some late pressure from the home side to edge the result and leave the qualification wide open. Cambodia still have a chance to go through in Saturday's final pool matches though they will have to tighten up their defence considerably, find some extra stamina and take their chances when they're presented. Make sure you are at the Olympic Stadium at 2pm this coming Saturday for the nail-biting finale against Brunei - it's a must-win game for Cambodia.
The Philippines (white) and Cambodia (red) teams listen to the national anthems
The two teams take the field for this afternoon's qualifying match. Cambodia in red kit.
The entrance ticket for the game. Cost = 2.5 US$

Back in the groove

Just back into the office after my Mekong Express bus journey from Siem Reap this morning. It was a whistle-stop couple of days in Siem Reap, not a temple in sight unfortunately though I did poke my nose into the storage building in Kompong Thom (opposite the Arunras hotel), where the fine arts folks keep their best pieces, awaiting the completion of their new provincial museum - which is probably the smallest museum I've ever seen. It'll be able to house a couple of lintels and one of their broken Sambor Prei Kuk lions and that's about it! Currently I'm steaming through my overloaded email in-basket and then off to watch Cambodia play the Philippines at 4pm in the 3rd of their AFF Suzuki Cup qualifying matches. It should be Cambodia's toughest test so far. More later.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Quiet as a mouse

It's been a bit hectic here in Siem Reap, hence shortage of posts yesterday & today. I've been whizzing about the place and will do more whizzing this afternoon, visiting hotels and then assessing boats on the Tonle Sap lake. Last night my good friend Now (pictured) was on her way to see me for dinner when she came a cropper on her moto on the road from Angkor Wat. When I saw her in the emergency room in the hospital clinic in Siem Reap, it was abundantly clear she had fallen face-first from her moto and her left cheek, mouth and chin had taken the full brunt of her fall. The medics applied some liberal stitching and injections and the x-rays revealed a broken cheekbone and very heavy swelling and bruising, as you can imagine. I felt pretty guilty as she was on her way to meet me for dinner and she had to make the trip from her home in Angkor during a heavy downpour. It was another salutary lesson for me of the importance of wearing a helmet when making even the shortest trip by moto. My fingers are crossed that Now recovers fully from her accident and that her scars are not permanent.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Phnom Santuk uncovered

This ferocious lion's head stands outside the entrance to the modern vihara. It looks very old but I wasn't convinced.
Some of the rockface carvings of Buddha that populate the summit
Phnom Santuk and its numerous Buddhas have been a center of worship since the reign of King Ponhea Dharma Reacha, who left the throne in 1494. It is believed some of the rockface carvings, particularly the large Buddha attaining Nirvana statues of more than ten metres in length, date back to that time. The modern day vihara of Prasat Touch has little evidence of its predecessors of earlier times whilst the legend of Santuk mountain has its roots in Khmer folklore and will easily take up half an hour of your time if you want to listen to a local recount the tale. The name of the mountain was known as Phnom Ason Mean Tuck (the mountain of sudden suffering), linked to the tale of a King and his ill-fated child, with the name changing to Phnom Santuk over time. The kilometre long grueling climb to the top used to be made easier by a group of men who for a fee, would carry you to the top in a sling hammock, though I'm not sure this is still the case. There were just a few beggars lining the steps when we arrived. Near to the top is a sacred spot where small coins could be dropped down a crevice between the large boulders, where the sound the coin makes, promises a good future. Today the spot is marked with a blue painted arrow and a troop of monkeys have made their home in the nearby trees. I didn't see it on this visit but one of the buildings at the summit contains a large tank of water in which a magical pumice stone floats in the water. And on the eastern side of the mountain is a waterfall, but again, not enough time on this fleeting visit to enjoy such a treat on a scorching day.
Buddha achieving Nirvana at the summit of Phnom Santuk
This reclining Buddha was more than 10 metres in length
At the feet of Buddha is this worshipper carrying a fan under his arm
Hewn from the sandstone rock, this Buddha makes an impressive statement
Another reclining Buddha inside a small cave behind the main vihara
The view from the top of Phnom Santuk looking south
Back on terra firma, those 809 steps will give me nightmares for months to come

Haven for Buddhist worshippers

A wall of colourful characters in a shrine at the summit of Phnom Santuk
Phnom Santuk, about 15kms south of Kompong Thom city is a much revered mountain and as such, attracts hordes of Cambodian worshippers at all times but particularly at weekends. My visit was late on a Friday afternoon and the mountain was strangely devoid of visitors except for a few of the members of our FAM trip who had made the exhausting climb to the top. After a dozen or so of the 809 steps I remembered my previous visit in 1999 when I vowed not to take the steps again and use the road to the top instead. But i carried on nevertheless and regretted it at regular intervals during my climb to the top. I feel tired just recalling it. My shirt was drenched in sweat by the time I reached the summit. Anyway enough of my whingeing. Phnom Santuk is a haven for Buddha worshippers. There are two very large reclining Buddhas carved into the rockface, and many others besides, in various poses and in numerous nooks and crannies, not to mention a variety of other Buddhist statues and symbols that make it such a well-established pilgrimage site. I can't find much that is written about Phnom Santuk other than some of the rock sculptures and shrines date back to the 15th century and the combination of reliefs and shrines, mixed with the natural rock formations and spectacular views over the surrounding countryside give the mountain a special significance for Khmer visitors. The modern pagoda at the summit is just one of a number of buildings awaiting investigation, if you still have energy left after the climb. My only regret was not to have a Khmer companion with me on the climb and at the summit, who could explain to me the detail behind the various stautes I encountered.
Two standing Buddhas carved into the rockface
I remembered these 4 statues from my visit in 1999. They are particularly popular.
The head of the largest reclining Buddha at the summit
The main body of the largest reclining Buddha
Another reclining Buddha alongside the largest example. I noticed that all the statues were numbered and somewhere there must be a list of them, with names and important information - anyone have that list?
Inside a small chapel was a large seated Buddha surrounded by ageing wall paintingsOne of the traditional wall paintings inside the small shrine amidst the reclining Buddhas

National pride

This is the Cambodia national football team that took the field against neighbors Laos in their opening match of the 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup Qualifying competition, played at the Olympic Stadium and won a close encounter 3-2. Cambodians adore football and they would love their national team to be a huge success. They haven't had much to cheer about in terms of football success, though the disabled volleyball team have shown that Cambodia can be a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Now its up to the footballers to match their volleyball colleagues and gain one of the two qualifying spots for the AFF Finals to be held in December. That would be quite an achievement in itself, even though Cambodia have home advantage and are the second best ranked team of the five nations taking part. However, they sacked their Korean coach a few months ago and have adopted a youth policy that they hope will pay dividends in the future, though like all fans across the globe, the Cambodian supporters will demand nothing less than immediate success. It remains to be seen if that thirst for success can be satisfied. I have the feeling that it will be a while yet before Cambodia take on that mantle and become a force in Asean and world football. Included in the line-up above are Chan Rithy (11) and Sam El Nasa (16), with Khim Borey (7) and Sun Sovannarith (14) on the front row. Photo courtesy of Tep Phany.

Posing at Prasat Chrey

Here's a motley bunch of travel agents & press posing at Prasat Chrey at Sambor
The temple of Prasat Chrey at Sambor Prei Kuk is easily one of the favourite photo-opportunities at the large pre-Angkorean complex just north of Kompong Thom because of its vice-like stranglehold of tree roots encircling the brick temple, literally smothering and squeezing the life out of the temple, its wall carvings and inscribed doorways. So naturally this was the best place for a team photo of the FAM trip group of travel agents and press from our visit on Friday of last week. And to complete the set, here's a solo photo of yours truly at the same temple.
And another pose, this time by the author in front of the evocative Prasat Chrey

Out and about

I'm just back after a couple of days in Kompong Thom and tomorrow morning I'm off again, this time to Siem Reap for a couple of nights for business. It will give me a good excuse to meet up with some friends I haven't seen for quite a few months, and others that I have, including happy snapper Eric de Vries, who recently swapped his Phnom Penh flat for a luxury villa with swimming pool in Siem Reap. However, I want to be back for Thursday as Cambodia play their next footy match against the Philippines that afternoon (4pm) and the following night, Friday, is the eagerly-awaited premiere of Tiara Delgado's film, Bitter Mekong, at Meta House. Also coming up soon, Saturday 25th to be precise, is the opening of a month-long exhibition of photographs called SMILE, by kids from the Centre for Children's Happiness, a home for disadvantaged children, at Gasolina on Street 57 (BKK1). Two events well worth a look I think.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Honours even

Cambodia line-up for a team photo before their game with Timor-Leste
The second series of games in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2008 qualifiers took place in a sweltering Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh this afternoon - and I was just watching. Goodness knows what it was like to play in. It was Cambodia's second game of four, coming a couple of days after their 3-2 success over Laos. Their opponents were East Timor (who also call themselves Timor-Leste), the least-fancied team in the competition. However, they played above their FIFA ranking of 200 for a large part of the game and were leading 2-0 with just 13 minutes to go before Cambodia clawed their way back into contention with a penalty. Khim Borey confidently placed his spot-kick past the keeper and less than three minutes later, Cambodia had equalised through Sun Sovannarith. Both goals were errors of judgement from the Timor captain Alfredo Esteves, who'd up to that point played a blinder. Cambodia's best player was the very left-footed Chan Rithy but he and his teammates failed to deal with a corner on the stroke of half-time and went in one goal down. The home side changed their goalkeeper at half-time and his first piece of action was to bring down a Timor striker to concede a penalty, which Timor converted to take a two-goal lead. The 2-2 scoreline was a fair result though Cambodia nearly snatched victory in a frantic last five minutes when Sina headed against the crossbar.
In the game that followed, Brunei surprised a Philippines team with an early goal and as an attacking force looked very dangerous, but defensively they were inept and their stronger opponents equalized before half-time. At that point I left the ground but the scoreline remained unchanged in the 2nd half. Cambodia face the Philippines in their next game on Thursday (kick-off 4pm) followed by Brunei on Saturday (2pm).
Cambodia kick off the 2nd half in front of a good crowd
Cambodia on the offensive against Timor-Leste at the Olympic Stadium today
With 8 seconds to go, the scoreboard shows the 2-2 result
All left foot, Cambodia's wide midfield star, Chan Rithy after today's game

Stone carvers of Kakoh

The one and only Jayavarman VII - the most popular carving in Cambodia, at Kakoh
This stone Buddha would cost you $5,000 to buy once its finished
I've visited them before but it's always worth a stop to see the stone carvers at the village of Kakoh, 14kms south of Kompong Thom on Highway 6. They're a very friendly bunch and always ready with a smile and will readily stop for a chat if you can speak Khmer. The stone they carve comes from the base of nearby Phnom Santuk and they tell me the village has been here for at least twenty years. Nearly every house along the roadside has a group of stonemasons busily at work all day long. They work from memory, I've never seen a picture or drawing next to them as they fashion Buddhas, lions, Apsaras and much much more from the stone with hand tools and a practised eye. Some of the smaller pieces make nice gifts or mantlepiece ornaments for your home and the price is cheap too, compared to the gift shops where much of their work ends up. Next time you are passing, make sure you stop and say hello to the stone cravers of Kakoh.
Wiping away a stone chip, the stonemasons work without safety goggles
A hammer and chisel helps to decorate the dress of this statue
Two stonemasons at work on this Apsara carving at Kakoh
A budding stonemason of the future? I've never seen a female stonemason at Kakoh
In the village of the stonemasons, this ancient carved stone is the local Neak Ta

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Justice at last

Justice at last - by Sheila Weber - Dewsbury Reporter, UK
The sister of an heroic British mine clearance expert executed by Cambodian guerrillas 12 years ago has welcomed a guilty verdict on the men who killed him. Pat Phillips, of Briestfield in Dewsbury, said: "My father, Roy Howes, and I feel that at last justice has been done." In an 11-hour trial in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, five men denied any part in the killing of 37-year-old Christopher Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth. But they described to the court the last moments of Christopher, who was on life-saving work for the Manchester-based charity, Mines Advisory Group. The court found four guilty - one was acquitted. Three were jailed for 20 years and one for 10.

Pat, who previously lived in Hanging Heaton, said she and her family had never sought revenge but they were pleased the murderers had been brought to account. She said: "I am just sorry that my mother, who sadly died in 2007, did not live to see that justice has finally been done. "We are enormously proud of Christopher – he did not leave his team although he had the chance. Such actions when you know the danger you are faced with, take an enormous amount of courage." Christopher was awarded the highest posthumous award for his bravery, the Queen's Gallantry Medal, in 2001. The family met the Queen in private when they collected his medal at Buckingham Palace.

He and 20 members of his team were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge as they cleared mines in Cambodia in March 1996. Christopher offered to stay behind as ransom surety so the others could leave. But he and Houn Hourth were shot dead after a last meal of apples and tropical fruit. Their cremated remains were found two years later. Until then his family suffered the agony of not knowing Christopher's fate. Pat waged a campaign for information and George Cooper, an American lawyer based in Cambodia, worked for free in his spare time and combed through evidence for six years until he had enough to put the suspects on trial. In May 1998, Scotland Yard detectives recovered ashes from the site where Christopher had been found and his family held memorial service for him in his home village of Backwell, near Bristol before burying the remains in a local churchyard. Pat praised the 'dogged persistence' of the British Embassy and Foreign Office to bring the case to court.

Football fever

On my way back from Kompong Thom yesterday I had my fingers crossed that Cambodia had made a good start to the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifying football matches being held in Phnom Penh this week. They kicked-off at 4pm yesterday in the first of their 4 matches - and it must've worked as they beat Laos 3-2 at the Olympic Stadium, in front of 15,000 fans (pictured). They now play East Timor tomorrow (Sunday), kick-off at 2pm. I will be there. For the game against Laos, the hosts were 2-1 ahead at half-time with goals from Khim Borey and Sam El Nasa, went further ahead through Sun Sovannarith before holding out against a late surge from the visitors, to win 3-2 and give themselves the best possible start to the tournament. In the competition's opening game, Philippines beat East Timor 1-nil. Come On Cambodia!
By the way, here's the FIFA World Rankings for the teams taking part in the Suzuki Cup qualifiers this week: Philippines are ranked 165th, Cambodia 182, Brunei 184, Laos 190 and East Timor at 200.

Guimet catalogue

The Khmer sculpture housed in the Guimet Museum in Paris is the best collection of Khmer art outside of Cambodia. Much of it was taken to France by early explorers who pillaged the temples of Cambodia and shipped the best pieces back to their own country. Now, for the first time, a new book has just been released, in French (obviously) that presents a wide selection of these masterpieces in chronological order, 180 in total. They are the subject of a detailed entry and several illustrations showing the face profile, back and any detail. In the last part of the book, 122 secondary works are presented as thumbnails with captions. The book is the brainchild of Pierre Baptiste, curator of patrimony, in charge of the South-East Asia section and by Tierry Zéphir, research engineer at the Guimet Museum. The title is L'Art Khmer [Khmer Art in the Guimet Museum's Collections] and is 480 pages in length with 650 colour illustrations. See my visit to the Guimet Museum here.

Never forgotten

Christopher Howes
British charity worker Christopher Howes, murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1996 and whose killers were jailed earlier this week, will be remembered in Phnom Penh and Cambodia. As an acknowledgment of his humanitarian work and his bravery in negotiating the release of his de-mining team when they were captured by the Khmer Rouge, he was honoured with the naming of a street in the capital (formerly Street 96) - a plaque bears his name in front of Le Royal Hotel and near the American Embassy - a primary school in Siem Reap province at Kork Srok village also carries his name and he received the posthumous award of the Queen's Gallantry Medal in 2001. A fitting tribute to a very brave man.
Street 96 was renamed Christopher Howes Street
A plaque bears the name of Christopher Howes, in front of the NIM university building

Friday, October 17, 2008

FAM trip to Sambor

An unusual, non Khmer-looking face on a section of sandstone at Sambor Prei Kuk
Just got in the door after a FAM (familiarization) trip to the Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex just outside Kompong Thom city. We left yesterday afternoon, stayed overnight in Kompong Thom and visited the temple site this morning, with a trip to Phnom Santuk later this afternoon. It was a FAM trip organized by the German development organization GTZ, who've been working in tandem with the local community at Sambor to develop additional community services, aimed at improving the experience at Sambor Prei Kuk for visitors. This was a preview for private sector stakeholders and included a group of 18 reps from tour agencies and two guests from the local press. I think a good time was had by all, the new services add another dimension to a visit to Sambor Prei Kuk - one of the earliest capital cities in Cambodia dating from the 7th century - and one of my favourite places in Cambodia, and getting the local community involved is a great way forward. More on my visit over the next couple of days.
One of the temples at Prasat Trapeang Ropeak, engulfed in tree roots and weeds
One of the many reclining Buddhas carved into the rock on the summit of Phnom Santuk

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Preah Vihear dispute

Preah Vihear - a symbol of Cambodian pride
I'm sure you will have all heard by now of the real problems we're having on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, mainly around the Preah Vihear temple area. Yesterday the posturing by both sides turned nasty and two Cambodians soldiers died during a gun-battle. I will leave the news media to report further on that situation. In the meantime, I post this article by the esteemed historian Milton Osborne, which was originally published in August, which will give you the full picture of what's happening on Cambodia's northern border.

Preah Vihear: the Thai-Cambodia temple dispute
The diplomatic and near-military crisis of 2008 between Thailand and Cambodia reflects both deep historical tensions and contemporary domestic politics, says Milton Osborne.
The sudden re-emergence of contested Cambodian and Thai claims to sovereignty over about 4 square kilometres of territory close the Angkorian-period (9th-15th centuries) temple of Preah Vihear brought the two southeast Asian countries close to armed confrontation in July-August 2008. The dispute bring into focus the difficult relations that have existed between the two neighbouring countries ever since Cambodia attained independence in 1953, as well reflecting much older historical problems between the two countries. At one level the Preah Vihear crisis - supplemented by another dispute over a much less prominent temple-site at Ta Moan Thom, well to the west of Preah Vihear - may be viewed as a classic example of contested boundaries arising from decisions taken during the colonial era, when France was able to impose its will over the then weaker state of Siam (Thailand). This interpretation - which Cambodia rejects - is worth examining. But it is at least as important to consider contemporary developments in the context of earlier historical and geopolitical factors that lie behind Cambodia's existence as a state and the views held of it by its immediate and more powerful neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam. For while the governments of both Thailand and Vietnam may be hesitant to express the views held by some of their citizens, there is no doubt that in both these countries there are those who privately question Cambodia's right to exist as a truly independent state. In the case of Vietnam, a strong case may be made to argue that when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to defeat the Pol Pot regime in December 1978, it initially hoped that it would be possible to incorporate Cambodia into some form of "Indochinese Federation"; this would have included Laos, which would have been dominated by Vietnam. Such a view was a continuation of the explicit thinking of the Vietnamese Communist Party in the 1930s and into the 1960s, when the party held the view that neither Cambodia nor Laos had a right to run their own revolution.

The uncertain state

The distinguished historian David Chandler noted (in A history of Cambodia) that until the 17th century Cambodia was a "reasonably independent" state. By the 19th century it had lost this status and its internal politics were dominated by its powerful neighbours, Siam and Vietnam. Perhaps the most useful, if shorthanded, way to describe Cambodia's situation in the mid-19th century was that it was a vassal state in a tributary relationship to two suzerains, Siam and Vietnam. But of those two powerful and expanding states Siam had by the 1840s assumed the more important position. Moreover, and despite some Cambodian rulers having sought assistance from Vietnam, Siam's greater dominance also reflected the fact that the two countries shared a similar culture. It was one deeply affected by adherence to Theravada Buddhism and by surviving shared beliefs and court rituals that harked back to Hindu concepts of the state developed during the Angkorian period.

In the decades immediately before the French asserted their colonial control over Cambodia in 1863, Cambodian rulers looked to the Siamese court in Bangkok to guarantee both their position and their legitimacy. This situation is exemplified in the fact that members of the Cambodian royal family often spent long periods as hostages in the Siamese court in Bangkok. This was true of the last king to rule Cambodia before the arrival of the French and of King Norodom I before he came to the throne in 1860. At the same time Siamese officials occupied senior positions within the Cambodian rulers' courts, determining which foreign representatives they were permitted to meet. In these circumstances, and from the Siamese point of view, Cambodia's king was a person who held power at their behest. Again using European terminology, the Cambodian king was for the Siamese court the holder of a vice-regal position. This complex relationship differed sharply from the way in which Vietnamese rulers viewed Cambodia. Both in theory and in practice the Vietnamese rulers in the first half of the 19th century were ready to pursue policies which, had they succeeded, would have transformed Cambodia's status into being an integral part of the Vietnamese state governed in accordance with Vietnam's Chinese-influenced administrative practices.

The border line

The French gained control of Cambodia in 1863 and established their "protectorate" over the country - though in every way that mattered the term "protectorate" was merely a legal figleaf to hide the fact that was a French colony. At the time, Cambodia's territory did not include what are now the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap. These two important areas had fallen under Siamese control in 1794, the outcome indeed of what had been a long reduction of Cambodian control over former Angkorian territories. A contemporary reflection of this process is the fact that a substantial number of Khmer (Cambodian) speaking Thai citizens continue to live in northeastern Thailand, an area in which there are many Angkorian-period temples.

In the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, Anglo-French rivalry in mainland southeast Asia led to the adjustment and implantation of borders that remain essentially unchanged to the present day. It was in this period, for example, that the northern states of modern peninsular Malaysia were removed from Siamese to British control. In Cambodia's case, and reflecting France's greater coercive power, this mixture of mapping and absorption led to the return to Cambodian sovereignty of the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap. This process was consolidated in 1907-08 with the establishment of a Cambodian northern boundary that took in the temple of Preah Vihear, located on an escarpment 525 metres above the northern Cambodian plain. But the precise coordinates of the boundary at this point were apparently in contradiction to the principle that had been laid down when the boundary between Cambodia and Siam was being delineated: namely, that the boundary should be drawn in terms of the existing watershed.

This created a potential problem from an international legal point of view, and led to an appeal by Thailand to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague to rule on the question of which country had sovereignty over Preah Vihear. In June 1962, the court ruled that indeed Cambodia held sovereignty. But the factors which led to this decision were not based on a judgment as to whether the boundary established in 1907-08 was "fair" or that it had been drawn in relation to the location of the watershed. Rather (and to summarise very briefly), the ICJ's decision rested on the fact that over many decades the Bangkok government had not disputed the validity of the map drawn up by the French, and agreed to at the time by the Siamese authorities, that incorporated Preah Vihear into Cambodian territory. The court also accepted that Siam had recognised Cambodian sovereignty in various other ways, including through visits to the temple by senior Siamese officials who were received by members of the French administration then governing Cambodia.

Thai ambition, Cambodian fear

However, it is fair to say that legal considerations are not always at the heart of Thai thinking on relations with Cambodia. From the time of Cambodia's gaining independence in 1953 until the onset of the Cambodian civil war in 1970, relations between Thailand and Cambodia were marked by almost continuous difficulty. While there were brief periods when relations were "correct", in others diplomatic relations were suspended. Throughout these years Thai security services worked to undermine the government in Phnom Penh. This was a fact explicitly stated to me by a senior Thai official with security responsibilities, during an extended discussion of Thai-Cambodian relations in 1980. General Channa Samudvanija observed that in essence, Thai policy towards Cambodia was to support those forces within the country that opposed the existing government. The rationale behind such a policy was the Realpolitik view of seeking to weaken a neighbour with which Thailand had substantial policy differences: Thailand supported United States policies in southeast Asia and Cambodia did not. Without placing excessive weight on the continuity of Thai policy at this stage with previous historical relations with Cambodia, there is no doubt that the views Channa advanced were also in part a reflection of those relations.

In similar fashion, it would be incorrect to regard the conflict that erupted in July 2008 as a direct manifestation of the view expressed in 1980 by General Channa. For it is clear that the crisis arose in part out of domestic Thai politics - and the positions being taken both by the government led by prime minister Samak and his political opponents. The Thai opposition had sought to undermine the Samak government by criticising its readiness to support Cambodia's wish to see Preah Vihear inscribed on Unesco's world heritage list.

Nevertheless, discussion of the issue of Preah Vihear within Thailand does represent yet another instance of a readiness of some Thais, whether politicians or ordinary citizens, to adopt and advance positions that seek to undermine what they see as irrelevant and irksome Cambodian interests. The readiness of some observers to resort to describing the situation as an expression of big brother-little brother rivalry is too simple, but it would be equally wrong to dismiss this aspect of Thai and Cambodian thinking about the relationship between the two countries.

At the same time, there is no doubting that the ingrained sensitivity felt by many Cambodians in relation to their relations with both Thailand and Vietnam on occasion borders on paranoia. This was demonstrated in the events of 2003, when a Thai TV actress with a popular following in both Thailand and Cambodia was supposed to have stated that she would not perform in Cambodia until that country restored Thailand's sovereignty over the great Angkorian temple of Angkor Wat. Whether the actress, Suwanan Kongying, made such a statement or not, the publicity that surrounded her alleged remark led to serious ant-Thai rioting in Phnom Penh; the damage included the destruction of the Thai embassy and many Thai businesses (there was also a barely averted attack on the Thai ambassador). Here, again, a deeper analysis of the 2003 riots suggests that domestic Cambodian issues were involved.

The wall between us

This intimate yet conflictual history means that even the settlement of the latest dispute is no guarantee that the situation has been settled once and for all. For the wider issues associated with Preah Vihear are no nearer to being resolved. The mutual military withdrawals from the temple area have brought respite; but the memory of the febrile stand-off between Thai and Cambodian armed forces, amid ultra-nationalist rhetoric from politicians on both sides, remains fresh. The ever-present readiness of politicians in both countries to stoke the flames of nationalist animosity is reflected in the suggestion by a Cambodian official that the Phnom Penh government might build a wall that would exclude access to the temple from Thai territory - as is possible at present.

Indeed, at least for the moment diplomacy has won out over war, as two sessions of talks between the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers have helped create a marginally improved atmosphere. The fact that the new and highly regarded Thai foreign minister, Tej Bunnag, had been appointed at the direct wish of the king is also of importance. Now, however, Tej Bunnag's decision to leave his post - though unlikely to have any immediate effect on the Preah Vihear issue at a time when Bangkok is preoccupied with domestic political turmoil - may be regretted over the longer term since he was undoubtedly a calming influence in relation to Thai policies. In any event, a lengthy and continuing period of political turmoil in Thailand creates the possibility that the question of Preah Vihear may yet return to haunt Thai-Cambodian relations.
Reproduced courtesy of under a Creative Commons licence.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pics from countryside #2

The laterite Kuk Ta Prohm prasat, surrounded by green paddy fields
Inside Kuk Ta Prohm is a statue of Dambong Daek
A rare and interesting laterite temple, Kuk Ta Prohm
Part of a brick prasat still standing at Wat Srangae
A colourfully painted linga in the vihara at Wat Srangae
Depicting the legend of Preah Ko and Preah Keo at Wat Lvea
A sailor's nightmare on the walls of Wat Lvea

Pics from countryside #1

The multi-coloured vihara roof at Wat Botum Ratanak Tameah
An older style mural inside Wat Svay Tahen
An interesting representation of Angkor on the road to Prey Chhor
A Buddhist figure in meditation at Wat Kralong
An inscribed stele at Wat Kralong, next to the new vihara being built
The boys of Wat Kralong, just before I made them all giggle
Some guy that happened to be along for the ride

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Into the countryside

A great pal and brilliant srey motodup, Sophoin
After taking part in the P'chum Ben ceremony at Wat Dei Doh in Kompong Cham city with Sophoin and her family in the morning and enjoying an early lunch, we headed out at midday along the road running parallel with the Mekong River towards Kang Meas district, though we only caught glimpses of the river when there was a break in the houses. Overnight rain had made the bumpy road muddy in places and with it being a holiday, a lot of young men on motos were racing along the track at breakneck speeds. It was easy to see why road fatalities always soar during the P'chum Ben festival period. Sophoin is a very safe moto-driver but we had a couple of close shaves where motos with three or four teenagers on board were going way too fast and where the road narrowed dangerously. Fortunately they were just close shaves and not accidents. We called into a few pagodas en route including Wat Botum Ratanak Tameah with its colourful roof, Wat Preah Theat, where I failed to find any trace of a ruined brick temple called Prasat Dambang Daek, and to see some old wall murals at Wat Svay Tahen.

At Peam Chikang, we sought directions to Wat O Trakuon (aka Wat Moni Sarawan) where a genocide memorial is located and over 30,000 victims were reportedly killed. I've already written about the stupa and the site in another posting. I met the twelve monks who live at the pagoda and chatted for a while with Kimly, a monk born in the village but now studying at Wat Koh in Phnom Penh, who'd returned to his village for the festival and whose grandparents had been killed at the site. Leaving Wat Trakuon, we returned to Peam Chikang and turned north, heading for Prey Chhor on Highway 7, some 12kms away. En route, we were temporarily held-up at a bridge where hundreds of people had gathered to swim in the river using large inflatable rubber tyres and food stalls had set-up causing a traffic jam, and nearby a stone replica of a trio of Angkorean towers had been erected to form a gateway across the road. Before we reached Prey Chhor, we took a diversion through swathes of beautifully green rice fields to Wat Kralong, where the monks and a bunch of youngsters proudly showed off an inscription stone, a boundary marker with a meditating figure carved on its side, a pedestal and some seima stones around their new vihara under construction.

From Prey Chhor, we headed west for a further 15kms before taking the road to Wat Srangae. Half a kilometre from the pagoda stands Kuk Ta Prohm, an unusual laterite prasat with a Neak Ta figure inside and surrounded by more luscious green paddy fields. At Wat Srangae itself, another Neak Ta shrine contained broken fragments around a termite mound and part of a brick wall remains upright next to the new vihara being built. Inside the vihara was an interesting linga with colourful painted figures on its sides. The pagoda was incredibly busy and noisy as hundreds of youngsters were dancing in groups to celebrate the festival. Heading back towards Kompong Cham along Highway 7, we stopped at Wat Lvea which is sat on top of laterite foundations, with a shrine to the famous legend of Preah Ko Preah Keo before reaching the city at dusk and a well-earned fruitshake.
This is what happens to Buddhists who get it wrong, at Wat Preah Theat. More photos to follow.

Courtroom mumblings

It was all over in ten minutes. The three presiding judges filed in, called the court to order and signalled the corrections official to bring in the five men accused of murder and abduction. Khem Nguon (pictured right) brushed past his fellow captives with a large manila envelope covering his face from the telephoto lenses of the press photographers at the court gates. His four co-defendants shuffled in behind him, looking cowed and fearing the worst. They were followed in by members of their families looking equally downcast. The Nguon family bodyguard plonked his large frame down next to me on the wooden seat at the rear of the tiny courtroom. On the other side of me was Phnom Penh Post reporter Georgia Wilkins. Lead judge Iv Kimsry wasted no time in announcing the outcome of his deliberations following the full-day trial on 3 October, handing out guilty verdicts and jail sentences of twenty years to Khem Nguon, Loch Mao and Puth Lim for the murder of Christopher Howes, whilst Sin Dorn was jailed for 10 years for his part in the kidnapping of the MAG demining team. A fifth defendant, Chep Cheat was acquitted for his part in the kidnap. The judge announced that the three accused of murder must also pay a total of $10,000 between them to the families of the deceased. Everything that was said by the judge was in Khmer. My own translator was late arriving for the announcement and just caught the last few seconds of Iv Kimsry's verdicts, so I had to wait until the courtroom cleared to glean the full details from the MAG Country Programme Manager Rupert Leighton, who sat in court with Elizabeth Evans from the British Embassy. Georgia looked as equally perplexed as I did, but had her Khmer colleague to rely on for the facts. As soon as the judge had stopped talking, the majority of the fifty people in the courtroom bolted for the door. Before the accused men, dressed in blue regulation prison uniforms, were allowed to leave the room, they had to sign and thumbprint a record card and were then escorted outside to sit on benches at the back of the Municipal Court yard, where family members crowded around them to offer condolences and food. Khem Nguon, regarded as the man who supervised the murder, was comforted by his two children, but well away from the prying eyes of the photographers. Khmer press reporters attempted to get interviews with the prisoners as they awaited transportation back to Prey Sar prison but only Puth Lim (left) seemed willing to talk, claiming his innocence. I grabbed a few minutes with Chhun Kham, the widow of Houn Hourth to speak to her about her husband before BBC reporter Guy De Launey arrived and interviewed her briefly, though she looked ill at ease, and Rupert Leighton, who handed out a prepared statement from MAG and Christopher's family. Soon after, the scene was quiet again, the press had packed up and left and the only people remaining were the prisoners, who would begin their new jail sentences as soon as their corrections van was ready to leave.
For video footage of reactions to the verdict, click here.
Photographs courtesy of PPP and AP

MAG welcomes verdict

A statement from the Mines Advisory Group website earlier today:

MAG welcomes verdict in murder and abduction trial of its employees in Cambodia
The international charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG) welcomes today's guilty verdict in the trial of those responsible for the abduction and murder of MAG employees Christopher Howes and Houn Hourth near Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 1996. "Today, we feel that justice has been done for our two colleagues who were brutally murdered whilst carrying out life-saving work," said MAG Chief Executive Lou McGrath. "For more than twelve years the families of our colleagues have been fighting for this verdict and we are all extremely satisfied with today's outcome. Hopefully now, the loved ones of Chris and Hourth can finally move on with their lives."
"My father Roy Howes and I welcome the verdict of the court and feel that at last justice has been done," said Patricia Phillips, sister of Christopher. "Although we have never sought revenge, we are pleased that the murderers of Christopher and Hourth have been brought to account. I am just sorry that my mother, who sadly died in 2007, has not lived to see that justice has finally been done."
"We are enormously proud of Christopher - he did not leave his team although he had the chance. Such actions when you know the danger you are faced with, take an enormous amount of courage. He was an extraordinarily brave man, dedicated to assisting the people of Cambodia to rid their country of landmines and was awarded the highest posthumous award for his bravery, the Queens Gallantry Medal, in 2001."
MAG also hopes this case will highlight the urgent need to protect humanitarian workers as they carry out life-saving work across the world. "There are people like Chris and Hourth working all over the world trying to help victims of disaster and conflict, it is simply unacceptable for the safety of such workers to be compromised or for them to become targets themselves," added McGrath.
Christopher Howes had been working with MAG in Cambodia since 1995 and was dedicated to assisting the people of Cambodia, one of the most heavily mined and unexploded ordnance contaminated countries in the world. Twelve years on from this tragedy, MAG continues to carry out life-saving work in Cambodia, helping the most vulnerable households in mine-affected communities who require extension of agricultural land, schools, health clinics and temple construction, road access and clean water sources.
Link: MAG

Houn Hourth

Whilst the media have concentrated on the story of Christopher Howes, the British deminer who was kidnapped and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in March 1996, his interpreter Houn Hourth, who was also brutally murdered, has remained largely in the shadows. In the wake of the guilty verdicts handed this morning to three former Khmer Rouge cadre for the murder of the two Mines Advisory Group charity workers, I spoke briefly to the widow of Hourth, Chhun Kham, about her husband. "He was 30 when he was killed. He had worked for MAG for about a year in Battambang, where he was born in O Dambong village. Before working for MAG, he worked at the Thai-Cambodia border area as a driver and as a translator, and that's where he learned his English. We were married in April 1985 and we had two children together. The two boys are now 23 and 18 years old. We still live in Battambang city." Now 39 years old, Chhun Kham was satisfied with today's verdicts but for her the death of her husband and loss of her children's father will never go away. When asked by reporter's for her comments on the presiding judge's award of $10,000 to be paid to her by the three men found guilty of murder, she replied; "money cannot compensate for my husband's life." If she ever receives the compensation amount, she told me that she would like to build a small house.

Hourth (pictured) and Christopher were abducted by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in March 1996 whilst on a demining mission in Siem Reap province. Hourth stayed with his British technical advisor when the rest of their MAG demining team were released, only to lose his life shortly after, when the Khmer Rouge decided he'd outlived his usefulness. At the trial on 3 October, it was revealed that Cambodian intelligence officers and British police detective Mike Dixon interviewed many of the key witnesses in 1998 and who recovered Hourth's skull from the village of Kul in July 1999. It was understood that Hourth had been murdered by a cadre called Han after he was deemed surplus to requirements, whilst Howes had been taken to Anlong Veng, kept in a school before he was shot and his body burnt a few hundred yards from the home of Ta Mok. At the time of the trial, Chhun Kham gave a statement about the impact on her life of her husband's death, asking the court to jail the people responsible and to award her compensation for their actions. "Since my husband's death, my family has endured great hardship by lacking money to support the studies of my two sons, clothes, and enough nutition and when occasionally my sons get sick, I have no money to pay for medical bills, so that I need to borrow from someone for this payment. Nowadays, I don't have a job besides selling vegetables at Boeung Chhouk market in Battambang province." Today the widow and family of Houn Hourth received some justice for his murder twelve years ago and the compensation will help if it's ever received, but it will never make the pain of his loss go away.
[photo courtesy of Mrs Chhun Kham]

Guilty of murder

Murdered Briton, Christopher Howes
It took less than ten minutes for head presiding judge Iv Kimsry to call the court to order and to announce the verdict against the five defendants in the Christopher Howes and Houn Hourth murder trial this morning. The five accused were led into the tiny courtroom at 8am, ordered to stand and Iv Kimsry read out the verdicts against each of the defendants, announcing guilty verdicts for four of them and an acquittal for a fifth. He also ordered three of them to pay $10,000 in compensation to the widow of Houn Hourth. It was justice, finally, for the families of the two men who were kidnapped, alongwith their demining team, in March 1996 and brutally killed a few days later. Houn Hourth was murdered when it was decided his translating skills were no longer of use, whilst Christopher was taken to Anlong Veng, interrogated and then taken out and shot in the head. His body was doused in petrol and burned. Two years later, British police visited the scene and collected DNA evidence that confirmed his death.

The guilty verdicts and twenty year jail sentences were handed down to Khem Nguon, who was known to be the 2nd in command of the Khmer Rouge forces at Anlong Veng behind his mentor Ta Mok, Loch Mao, who witnesses identified as the man who shot Christopher, and their driver Puth Lim, who admitted to being present at the murder and to burning the body. A fourth defendant, Sin Dorn was found guilty of kidnapping the deminers and received a ten year jail sentence. A fifth man, Chep Cheat was acquitted of all charges.

Immediately after the verdicts, the Mines Advisory Group, the charity for whom Christopher and Hourth were working at the time of their murder, released a statement from Christopher's sister, Patricia Phillips. "My father Roy Howes and I welcome the verdict of the court and feel that at last justice has been done. Although we never sought revenge, we are pleased that the murderers of Christopher and Hourth have been brought to account. I am just sorry that my mother, who sadly died in 2007, has not lived to see that justice has finally been done. We are enormously proud of Christopher - he did not leave his team although he had the chance. Such actions when you know the danger you are faced with, take an enormous amount of courage. He was an extraordinarily brave man, dedicated to assisting the people of Cambodia to rid their country of landmines and was awarded the highest posthumous award for his bravery, the Queen's Gallantry Medal, in 2001." Hourth's widow Chhun Kham when asked by reporters about the compensation award, said: "money cannot compensate for my husband's life." Christopher was 37 years old and Hourth (pictured right) just 30 when they were killed.

The investigation work completed a decade ago by the Cambodian team working alongside the British police led by Mike Dixon, put together much of the evidence and witness statements which persuaded the three presiding judges of the guilt of the accused. Investigating judge Iv Kimsry had spent the last year and a half involved in examining the evidence and the guilty verdicts announced today were the result of that painstaking work behind the scenes. I attended the 1-day trial on 3 October and heard just the tip of the iceberg of evidence that weighed against the accused men, all of whom denied the charges against them. Today, the court delivered the guilty verdict twelve years after this brutal crime, bringing closure for the families of the deceased men.

For more on Christopher Howes, please visit my website

Monday, October 13, 2008

Busy schedule

I received an early birthday gift today in the form of Golden Bones, the recently published memoir by Sichan Siv, the Cambodian-born former US Ambassador to the United Nations. A hardback copy of the book arrived from the publishers HarperCollins with a request to review it pending Sichan's visit to Phnom Penh at the back end of November for a book-signing session. His story is an incredible journey from his birthplace in the small village of Pochentong to the corridors of power and influence in America. I have already begun reading with great interest.
An early birthday gift because it's my 49th, yes, I can't believe it either, my forty-ninth birthday on Wednesday. I agree, I don't look older than 35 but my youthful good looks belie my real age and my birth at the back-end of the 1950s. I stopped celebrating my birthday many moons ago though this week, it's just one diary note in a busy calendar. Tomorrow morning is the verdict in the Christopher Howes/Houn Hourth murder trial. The session is scheduled to begin at 8am in the Municipal Courthouse opposite the Olympic Stadium and as I've said ad nauseam, I will be there to hope that justice is served for the families and friends of Christopher and Hourth, twelve years after their tragic deaths.
On Thursday and Friday I will be in Kompong Thom and more specifically Sambor Prei Kuk as a guest of GTZ and the Sambor Prei Kuk authority who are organizing a FAM trip for tour operators and the press to see first-hand their new range of community-based services they're offering to enhance a visit to the pre-Angkorean temple complex, one of my favourite places in Cambodia. I didn't need my arm twisted to agree to go. And on Saturday night, there's a John Pilger extravaganza at Meta House with 3 of his best documentaries, Do You Remember Vietnam, Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia and Death of A Nation: The Timor Conspiracy. It's an 8pm start.
I couldn't possibly reveal who this gorgeous baby is but let's just say his birthday is on Wednesday and he'll be 49 years old

Latest from DC-Cam

The Documentation Center of Cambodia have just issued their third quarter report for 2008 and it shows they are proceeding at full steam with their project to introduce parts of the book by Khamboly Dy, A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) into the high school curriculum later next year. Both teacher and student guidebooks are being produced, training arranged for 24 national trainers, who will then train 185 provincial trainers, as well as training for a further 3,000 high school and secondary school teachers. A massive project but an important one to ensure this important period in the country's history receives an appropriate level of focus for all schoolchildren.
The DC-Cam team also recently helped filmmaker Rithy Panh with material for use in a planned documentary film on Khmer Rouge culture, whilst their Museum and Exhibition team are planning a new photo exhibit for Tuol Sleng, entitled Living Hell: Democratic Kampuchea 1978, using photos, film footage and music from an archive of materials of a 14-day visit to Cambodia by the Swedish-Kampuchea Friendship Association in August 1978. The delegation consisted of four delegates, including Gunnar Bergstrom. They were taken to see the Royal Palace, hospitals, factories and cooperatives in Phnom Penh, Kampot, Sihanoukville, Kompong Cham, Kompong Thom and Siem Reap. They met and dined with KR leaders including Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. And now Gunnar Bergstrom has donated his archive to DC-Cam. The exhibit will open at Tuol Sleng on 18 November and then travel around half a dozen provinces for three months at a time. The exhibition will also be shown in Phnom Penh at the Reyum Art Gallery.

Talking of exhibitions, the National Museum in Phnom Penh will this week open a new section on pre-Angkorean stone inscriptions to coincide with a conference on the same topic that the museum is hosting. The inscribed stele will be presented with panels that carry their text translated next to them. It's all part of a project to revamp and enhance the museum's collection and exhibition rooms that include a new lick of paint, enhanced viewing positions for some sculptures and sections arranged by themes and periods.

Awaiting justice

Tomorrow morning at 8am in the courtroom of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the three presiding judges led by Iv Kimsry will deliver their verdict against the five defendants charged with the abduction and murder of British deminer Christopher Howes (pictured left) and his Khmer translator Houn Hourth (right) more than twelve years ago. Although the five men who stand accused - Khem Nguon, Loch Mao, Puth Lim, Sin Dorn and Chep Cheat - were identified a decade ago by a joint Cambodian and British investigation team, it took until November of last year for the right climate to prevail and for the authorities to arrest and detain the alleged perpetrators. The 1-day trial of the five men took place on Friday 3 October when the court questioned all five defendants, heard from witnesses including members of the investigation team and listened to closing arguments by both prosecution and defense counsel. The verdict will be determined by the evidence that the presiding judges have already seen in private, allied to what took place in court. The delay in bringing the accused to court meant two of the key perpetrators died before they could be arrested. The five men face 20 years in prison for premeditated murder and 10 years for illegal confinement if convicted.
For me this murder case is personal. I never met Christopher, who was killed in March 1996 after his abduction, but I was affected by his disappearance, both because he was a fellow Brit in Cambodia - I first visited Cambodia a couple of years before his murder - and also because he came from Bristol, just twenty minutes drive from my own home. I was in contact with his parents at the time and two years later they invited me to attend a memorial service in his honour though regrettably I wasn't able to go. The two deminers died whilst trying to rid Cambodia of the scourge of landmines - something that upset the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and signed their death warrants - and they deserve justice, more than twelve years after their deaths.
For more on Christopher Howes, please visit my website here.

Pics from Highs and lows #2

Dis-interested boy squatting on a lintel at Wat Sopheas
A weather-worn 7th century lintel at Wat Sopheas
A superb example of a 7th century Sambor Prei Kuk style lintel at Wat Sopheas, with Indra on his elephant at the center
Another 7th century lintel at Wat Sopheas, one of 4 near the main vihara
A hard to photograph lintel with swirling vegetal rolls and unrecognisable central figure, from Wat Sopheas
A Neak Ta figure keeping guard over a worn lintel and moonstone at Wat Po Preng
A Prei Kmeng style 7th century lintel in the grounds of Wat Speu
One of two original sandstone seima stones in the grounds of Wat Speu

Pics from Highs and lows #1

The kung-fu fighters of Wat Ratanak Reangsey
The wooden ceiling and central shrine at Wat Mony Rotana
Inside Prasat Kuk Lvea, near Han Chey, looking up at the broken roof
The doorway to Prasat Kuk Lvea, a temple devoid of carvings and surrounded by vegetation
The main vihara and 100 year old stupa at Wat Stung Trang
A row of shops and houses, all closed, facing the Mekong Riverfront at Stung Trang
The colourful pagoda at Wat Sovannakiri Meak

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Highs and lows

The adorable Kove & author at the gate to Wat Sopheas
On any exploratory trip into the Cambodian countryside there's always likely to be some high and some lows. More often they are full of highs and fortunately few of the latter. For the longest trip of my recent visit to Kompong Cham, Sophoin drove the moto, whilst I carried the map and kept look-out for anything of interest. Our destination was the northern reaches of the province, initially alongside the west bank of the Mekong River and then further west into the rubber plantation area and back home again. On the agenda, were a few archaeological sites and two genocide memorials.

The popular site at Han Chey was our first target though we stopped off to see the colourful murals at Wat Kean Chrey Krov and the wooden ceiling and pillars at Wat Mony Rotana en route. A couple of kilometres before we got to Han Chey, which I have covered extensively in previous postings and which is well worth the 20kms trip north from Kompong Cham city, we asked around for Prasat Kuk Lvea and were pointed to a large clump of bushes and trees, which on closer inspection revealed a fairly substantial brick tower that had seen better days. There were no carvings to be seen, the roof had caved in and it was almost impossible to photograph, so we moved onto Han Chey, which is far more photogenic and cared for. There's lots to see at Phnom Han Chey and the crowds that were celebrating P'chum Ben made it an extra special visit for me. An hour later we were on our way north, stopping off at Wat Ratanak Reangsey where a group of boys made me laugh with their kung-fu impressions but suffered our first disappointment when we located Phnom Monti and despite scrabbling around in the undergrowth on top of the small mound, I could find no trace of the alleged three ruined brick towers, next to the large reclining statue of Buddha. Nearby, Wat Stung Trang should've housed our first genocide memorial but the achar, or laymen, at the pagoda told us it had been dismantled many years before and the skulls and bones of the deceased re-buried. They showed us the building which had been used as the prison, and the site was believed to have contained more than 20 large pits, lying to the west of the pagoda, housing in excess of 5,000 victims. Either side of the pagoda's vihara were two large stupas erected early in the last century, one of which was sat on the laterite foundations of something much older.

Stung Trang is a sleepy rest-stop on the banks of the Mekong River, 33kms from Kompong Cham and we struggled to find anywhere to eat, settling for a plate of fried pork in a stall next to the Lycee and opposite the scruffy market. There was nothing else on the menu. We turned inland and headed west towards the district of Chamkar Leu. Suitably refreshed, it was a hot day so we stocked up with bottled water and called into the colourful Wat Sovannakiri Meak as we passed by half a dozen bridges under repair and at 2pm, reached our next target, Wat Sopheas, 3kms off the main road. We knew it was there as two gigantic loudspeakers were blasting out Khmer music at a decibel level to hurt your eardrums at 100 metres. Unfortunately, the carvings I wanted to see were much too close to the speakers for comfort. The music was part of the pagoda's P'chum Ben celebrations and had already attracted quite a crowd, all of whom quickly perked up when I arrived in their midst. Wat Sopheas had been the site of a brick temple in Angkorean times but that had long gone and the remaining evidence was four lintels, an eroded stele and some sandstone blocks behind the pagoda. My interest in the lintels aroused the curiosity of the younger children who crowded around me but all ran away when I asked them to pose, except one brave little girl. The lintels and stele had been cemented into a water-collection tank and were pre-Angkorean and more specifically in the Sambor Prei Kuk style from the first half of the 7th century with inward facing makaras, four arches and three medallions, the central one carved with Indra on airavata. One of the lintels was different from the rest but hard to photograph as a concrete seat had been erected in front of it, and the figure in its center was badly eroded. The inscribed stele was impossible to make out and had suffered from the ravages of time. I spotted a couple of Neak Ta as we were leaving and whilst I took a photo, I saw eight year old Kove in the corner of my eye, as she ran from the pagoda to say hello and pose for a picture, not afraid of the barang in the slightest. She was so adorable.

Disappointment was to follow when we called into Wat Po Preng in Veal village, the supposed site of another genocide memorial erected to honour the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Located next to the forest of Trapeang Khna where scores of small graves had held the corpses of over 10,000 people, the laymen told us it had been demolished years before, but they did show us a shrine which housed a very worn and indistinct lintel and a large moonstone. We carried onto Wat Speu but again were out of luck as the achar explained that the brick temples had disappeared and nothing remained at the pagoda. Also a memorial hut with victims' bones had been erected on the site but it too was long gone. As we were leaving the pagoda, I spotted a sandstone lintel sitting under a tree, next to a large lotus flower bud in laterite and a couple of old seima stones. The lintel was 7th century and most likely Prei Kmeng in style but it began to rain heavily and stopped any further searching of the area as we sheltered from the downpour. It was after 4.30pm and we decided to call it a day. We bought a couple of plastic raincoats in gaudy yellow and pink, braved the rain and made a beeline for Kompong Cham, passing through Chamkar Leu at speed and whizzing past the extensive rubber tree plantations that the area is famous for. We arrived back in the city at 6pm under the cover of darkness, the raincoats had done their job well and we stopped for a bite to eat at a small eatery near the main roundabout. Our trip had a mixture of highs and lows but for me, any trip into the Cambodian countryside will always be a success.
Little girl and her ice cream - the bravest of a group of children at Wat Sopheas
The gorgeous green countryside just outside Stung Trang. More photos to follow.

Dei Doh lions

Standing Bayon-era lion at Wat Dei Doh in Kompong Cham
I have a couple of posts left to complete the tale of my recent visit to Kompong Cham for the P'chum Ben festival and the opportunity to pay respects to the ancestors of my good friend Sophoin and her family. In addition we completed a couple of road trips out into the countryside of her home province, with Sophoin driving the moto and myself as passenger, which always raises eyebrows, especially out in the sticks. To see a barang is unusual, but to see a barang on the back of a moto being driven by a beautiful Khmer girl, is something else. If they've seen barang before, it's usually all kitted out on a large and noisy dirt-bike roaring through the countryside without stopping. Despite being born and brought up in Kompong Cham city, Sophoin has seen precious little of her province as she now lives and works in Phnom Penh, and in reality, few Cambodians take time out to travel around their own locality. They are either simply too busy with their daily lives or not interested enough to explore what's in their own backyard. And if they do, they usually concentrate on the more traditional Khmer recreational pursuits like visiting waterfalls, rivers and anything to do with water. Seeking out old bits of stone, carvings or ruined prasats rates rather low on their activities' shopping list. So when we visited Wat Dei Doh, the largest pagoda in the city to honour her father and deceased ancestors, I was immediately attracted to two large sandstone lions that stand proudly in front of the main vihara, whilst the hundreds of Khmers surrounding me, paid no heed to them at all. I couldn't find out the prasat they'd come from but both are originals and judging by their upright stance, flashing teeth painted white for extra effect, mane and ornamented breastplate, they likely date from the late 12th century or Bayon period. Certainly an unexpected find. I must also state that Sophoin is not like a lot of Khmers. She loves to explore and to enjoy new places, new experiences. She's also developed a questioning attitude that is a great asset to me in my explorations and her help has elicited a lot more information at many sites than I would've otherwise found out.
A decorated breastplate and mane with flashing teeth date this sandstone lion to the 12th century at Wat Dei Doh

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bricks and mortar #2

The Hotel International was built in 1900 but is now dwellings and shops on St 130
As it was so hot this afternoon, I stayed in the shade for much of my whiz around town to picture some of the more interesting buildings before they disappear from view in the frenzy to modernize Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, the best time to photograph these buildings is in the morning, but you live and learn don't you. Nevertheless, here's some of the buildings I snapped whilst looking primarily for the off-yellow French colonial-style variety of architecture. There's lots of interesting stuff about and the folks from KA-Tours will take you around by cyclo on the 2nd Sunday of each month if you fancy it. This will be a 'to be continued' series of posts as there's so much out there to see. Enjoy.
Nature running wild in this 2nd floor window of a colonial building on Street 5
1918 was the construction date for these colonial apartments, in need of some care on Street 130
A restored building on Street 13 now used as a Vietnamese Christian Church
This colonial-style corner building on Street 13 is very popular
An 1890's colonial administration building on Norodom Boulevard under renovation

Bricks and mortar #1

These arched windowed- balconies were built in 1931 along Street 108 near Phsar Chas
I've yet to take advantage of the architectural tours run by the KA-Tours folks as they usually take place on a Sunday, and I keep those days free for football and sleeping when I'm not out and about in the countryside. Nevertheless I whizzed around a few places by moto today to snap a few city buildings, primarily before they get knocked down in the mad frenzy to modernize and rebuild that is gripping Phnom Penh. The city began life in the 15th century but nothing remains from that time as all construction was of wood. Chinese shophouses started to spring up when the French arrived in the 1860s and it wasn't long before they introduced their colonial style, yellow in colour, architecture, often public buildings such as the Post Office, Central Police Station and so on. Some of these still remain to see and the KA folks will show you these and later, more modernist style buildings of the Vann Molyvann variety. In the meantime, here's a few I spotted today, leaving aside the more obvious examples of the Le Royal Hotel, Railway Station, National Library, National Museum and the Central Market.
An interesting colonial tower house in need of some care and attention on Street 108
The abandoned Central Police Station next to the Post Office on Street 13
A temporary washing-line to catch the afternoon sun on Street 100
A colonial style balconied building on Street 13 in front of the Post Office

The sound of Pan Ron lives on

Pan Ron would've been the 1st lady of Khmer music in the 60s and early 70s if it had not been for the magic of Ros Sereysothea. Nevertheless, Pan Ron (pictured) was, alongwith Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth, at the vanguard of Cambodian rock and roll music of that period and wrote and performed hundreds of songs that have become classics of her generation. She rose to prominence by dueting with Sisamouth in 1966 and there was no stopping her after that. That is until the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and tragically cut short her life, and that of as many of Cambodia's artists in all genres, as they could find. For Pan Ron her death came quickly after the guerrilla force took over in April 1975. She was soon identifed, which was inevitable considering her stardom, driven to a pagoda in Bati district and murdered. That pagoda is Wat Troap Kor in Takeo province, a site I visited myself on New Years Day this year. According to eye witnesses, Pan Ron was taken with her two small nephews, blindfolded and walked about 200 metres behind the vihara where a group of more than 30 people were killed. Now the site of a genocide memorial stupa, DC-Cam records show that 70 mass graves at the pagoda are believed to have contained upwards of 40,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge's killing frenzy. Pan Ron was one of those 40,000 innocent victims, though unlike the others, her legacy lives on in her timeless music.
The genocide memorial at Wat Troap Kor in Bati district
Some of the 40,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge at Wat Troap Kor, one of which was Pan Ron

A volcanic temple

The recently-restored Kuk Preah Theat temple at Phnom Han Chey
You may've thought the chapter on Phnom Han Chey was closed, well think again. This small mountain has much to reveal including this very unusual prasat, known as Kuk Preah Theat, which is located on the lower side of the mountain - essentially, a large hill - overlooking a beautiful stretch of the Mekong River. It has been restored in the last couple of years with donations from the US government as it was in severe danger of breaking apart and is now sitting in a well-tended garden with the foundations of another ruined prasat next door. I first visited Kuk Preah Theat in 2000 and described the place as 'dark and brooding' which is certainly isn't these days. Then, the temple was surrounded by thorny undergrowth and was a stone's throw from the river; nowadays, its much further from the riverbank and in fact a road has been constructed between the two. I was told the location of the temple hasn't changed, but I beg to differ. Nevertheless, the Chenla period late 6th/early 7th century prasat is constructed of basalt, a volcanic rock that was rarely used by the temple builders as far as I'm aware and only a few examples exist. One of the reasons is that trying to carve this rock must've been a tough task, as can be seen by the fairly primitive carvings on its exterior. However, the mysterious faces are interesting, forty of them in all - I'd love to know who they represent - together with a lintel in pre-Angkorean style. It's an unusual and intriguing temple and combined with the other structures on Phnom Han Chey, make the 20km trip north from Kompong Cham city well worth the effort, especially as the road is now in good condition.
The impressive and still slightly brooding doorway to Kuk Preah Theat
The primitive carving of a late 6th century lintel and faces at Kuk Preah Theat
Who does this mysterious face belong to? Any suggestions?
Inside the prasat is a large pedestal and yoni
A side view of the basalt-built prasat showing its faces and lotus flower on top
The restored tower and the foundations of a second prasat next door
Some of the remains of the second tower with its lotus flower pinnacle

Exceptional athletes

All of the 10 CNVL teams line up on court at the Olympic Stadium
If I was feeling a bit narky yesterday then watching the disabled volleyball finals at the Olympic Stadium last night put a smile on my face. These guys are exceptional athletes and are a shining light for the whole of Cambodian sport. With the best player in the country, Mean Veasna in their ranks I fully expected the Phnom Penh Sunway Dragons to dominate the final, but it was the well-drilled teamwork of the Kompong Speu Siemens Kangaroos that took charge from the off and never let up, winning 3-nil. Both teams had their moments, with the Dragons relying heavily on Veasna and their coach Chuoy Kim Horn, who's also the National Team manager, but the less-fancied Kangaroos repeated the form that took them to the top of the league table. Before the grand final, all of the ten teams in the qb National Volleyball League lined up on court to hear the national anthem sung by 12 year old BosbaPANH and to speeches from Chris Minko, the CNVL Chief and the Minister of Social Affairs.
On stage BosbaPANH sings the Cambodian national anthem
The grand final gets underway with a service from Phnom Penh Dragons

Friday, October 10, 2008

Feeling positive & negative

Tonight is the grand final of the disabled Cambodian Volleyball championships at the Olympic Stadium, so count me in. These guys put on a great showing in the World Cup a year ago and tonight should be no exception. Ray, sorry Christian Zepp is back in the country to take charge of the National volleyball team ahead of next month's World Cup Finals in Slovakia. Best of luck to him and the team. I'm scheduled to play football early on Sunday morning though my eye infection is only just clearing up so I may rest it for another week, rather than risk making it worse. At lunchtime today I took my glasses into an opticians as I'd sat on them and bent the frames. Fifteen minutes later I was on my way with repaired frames and a smile, the owner knew I lived around the corner and said as we were neighbours, there's no charge. Result!
Now you probably know me as Mr Positive. But sometimes even I get dragged down with everyone else. At the moment I'm really fed-up with a couple of things, one is the crap parking on the pavements by all Cambodian drivers. It often means I have to step into the road and that is simply dangerous in these parts, especially with traffic coming at you from all directions. There are suggestions that heavy fines will be imposed on culprits beginning pretty soon but that will just mean the policemen will get fatter pay-checks. In the meantime, my mutterings as I walk along any street are getting more expletive-laded by the day. 2nd groan is films like this, Uncle Rithy, which will be shown at Bophana Center on Saturday 18 October at 4pm. I'd love to go and watch a 97-minute film that introduces the work of Cambodian filmmaker, Rithy Panh, whilst he directs his thirteenth film, an adaptation from the novel of Marguerite Dumas, Sea Wall, his choice and his activities during the shooting in Sihanoukville. Unfortunately, it's the Khmer version of Jean-Marie Barbe's film with French subtitles for goodness sake. What good is that to anyone? No-one wants to speak French anymore in Cambodia, everyone is learning English, so desperately trying to hold onto the past by ostracizing a potentially large audience is self-defeating by the folks in charge of Bophana and the CCF. Get with it guys, convert to Anglais and increase your audience substantially - take a leaf out of the Meta House 'guide to increasing audiences' book.

Even more from the summit

A ruined brick prasat with colonette next to the main vihara at Wat Han Chey
In closing my visit to the summit of Phnom Han Chey, just north of Kompong Cham city, here are a few more examples of the wealth of items to look for on a visit there. As well as a gorgeous girl selling sugar-palm juice who refused to let me take her picture, there are two other small, ruined prasats, one of brick with a nicely-ornamented colonette lying on top, and another made of basalt rock, with a sandstone yoni and pedestal amongst its ruins. A small insciption stele with ten lines of Sanskrit lies a few feet from the large brick tower of Prasat Han Chey, and around the main vihara are eight decorated sandstone seima stones that look pretty old too. Finally, on two different areas of the summit are two Neak Ta statues, of the same person. I haven't posted any Neak Ta for a while, so its good to be back on the Neak Ta trail again. This figure is the same one you see when you enter Battambang and which dominates your entry into the city from the direction of Phnom Penh. I'm told its also one which can be found at courtrooms all over the country and to whom witnesses and accused pay respect and swear to tell the truth. His name is Neak Ta Dambong Dek or 'iron rod old man spirit.' With his fiercesome face, he gained my immediate respect.
A basalt-built ruined prasat overlooking the Mekong River at Phnom Han Chey
A solitary inscription stele near to Prasat Han Chey
One of the seima stones surrounding the main vihara at Wat Han Chey
Neak Ta Dambong Dek near a part of the hill being converted into a Buddhist monastery
A popular Neak Ta Dambong Dek closer to the main vihara at Wat Han Chey

CNN Top 10 Hero

Recognition for the work that Phymean Noun (right) and her team at People Improvement Organization in Phnom Penh are doing to provide schooling and job training for hundreds of Cambodian children who work in Phnom Penh's trash dump at Stung Meanchey and elsewhere, has arrived in the shape of selection as a Top 10 CNN Hero. “I can’t believe that CNN has selected me”, Noun said. “It is amazing that CNN has taken the time to produce a program to profile people who are doing selfless work in the world”. She was selected by a panel that included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Branson. She will receive $25,000 and will be honored at CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute, to be broadcast from Hollywood on 27 November. A poll will determine who receives an additional $100,000 for receiving the most votes. For more on the work of PIO, click here.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

More from Han Chey

The brick temple of Prasat Han Chey
Wherever you are on top of Phnom Han Chey you are never far from a ruined prasat dating from the 7th or 8th centuries. The main brick-built Prasat Han Chey lies adjacent to the main vihara, facing east and still showing signs of its original stucco covering, which would've been gloriously carved in its heyday. There are inscriptions on both inward-facing sides of the only doorway and for many years, these were believed to be the earliest inscriptions in Cambodia. They described the King, Bhavavarman II, his son, famous persons and erection of a linga, 35 lines in Sanskrit text, on the left looking out, and twelves lines on the right side. The original lintel is long gone, there's a motley collection of heads and bits of carved stone inside and the remains of a somasuta on the outside wall. This pre-Angkorean brick temple from the Chenla era is complemented by the rare sandstone cella on the other side of the main vihara as well as a basalt-built prasat called Kuk Preah Theat at the foot of the hill, next to the Mekong River. Phnom Han Chey is well worth a visit, the road is good from Kompong Cham and the people are ultra-friendly.
35 lines of Sanskrit text on the doorway of Prasat Han Chey
The doorway into Prasat Han Chey
Detail of the Sanskrit lettering found on the doorway, praising the King
A few heads, a pedestal and other bits of carved stone inside the prasat
The fine workmanship on display inside the top half of Prasat Han Chey
Few traces of the original stucco carving remains in situ
A side view of Prasat Han Chey, near Kompong Cham

Reyum riot of colour

Hen Sophal brings King Jayavarman VII to life in this portrait
A splash of colour was unveiled at Reyum Gallery on Street 178 tonight with the launch of an exhibition of twelve Cambodian artists under the title, Through Our Eyes. All of the artists have an association with Reyum and have exhibited before. Their new creations are an examination of the present, coloured by the past and influenced by the future. Over thirty paintings line the walls of the gallery, offering differing styles and formats, from impressionism to traditional subjects. The twelve artists represented in the exhibition include Hen Sophal, whose studio is four doors away from Reyum, and others like Chhim Sothy, Chan Lay Heng, Chhoeun Rithy, Tum Sarenm and Duong Saree. The exhibits will remain on show until early November. Get along and see the talent that Cambodia has to offer. The opening night saw a crush of people, mostly Khmer, visiting the exhibition, including many schoolchildren.
A modern market scene titled Beggar by Hen Sophal
Gritty realism by Tum Saren, called Domestic Violence, one of 4 Saren paintings on show
A riot of abstract colour called Pchum Ben by Chan Lay Heng
A traditional scene called Life Along The River by Chhoeun Rithy
Detail of a painting by Duong Saree which is called Moving House
A typical Chhim Sothy painting, called Cultural Memory, showing the fight between good and evil

Secrets uncovered

A doorway inscription at Prasat Han Chey in Kompong Cham province
I've just heard a rumour of an imminent exhibition of inscriptions from the Angkorean period that will take place at the National Museum in Phnom Penh and whilst I try and get some details of the event, which is easier said than done, here's an article that appeared in Inside Smithsonian Research Magazine in their winter 2006 edition about the behind-the-scenes work taking place to discover the secrets of the past.

Stone sculptures yield clues to Cambodia's ancient Khmer culture - by Virginia Myers Kelly
With cracks in his smooth stone belly and his plump arms severed at the elbows, the statue of the god Shiva from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat region is not the imposing figure he once was. Shiva’s regal head, crowned in a conical diadem, still towers above the faithful who arrive to place offerings of flowers where his feet - long lost in the countryside of Cambodia - should be. At the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, art conservators are slowly resurrecting Siva - the Hindu god of restoration and destruction - and other stone sculptures dating from the sixth to 13th centuries. There is Vishnu, preserver and sustainer of life, his legs and torso intact but arms and head missing; Buddha, still highly revered despite this particular statue’s head-only state; and King Jayavarman VII, his benign visage perched atop an armless torso. Jayavarman VII, one of the most notable rulers of Angkor, reigned when that kingdom’s elaborate temples were the center of a complex civilization. “Angkor was the most extensive preindustrial city in the world,” explains Conservation Scientist Janet Douglas, who is working hard to discover more about Jayavarman’s past. “It was a huge civilization that we’re just beginning to understand.”

Douglas, of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is conducting petrographic detective work on 29 samples of stone obtained from Khmer sculptures, such as the one of Jayavarman. Bertrand Porte, the École Française d’Extrême-Orient conservator who sent Douglas the samples, is pain-stakingly piecing the statues together. Before Douglas began her investigation, art historians weren’t sure exactly what types of stone the ancient carvers used and where it was quarried. In her laboratory, she has begun to unlock these secrets. This general lack of knowledge of Ankor’s statues has been aggravated by a number of factors. Tangled in jungle temples long buried by time, the statues were made inaccessible by years of war and political instability in Cambodia, land mines, unpaved or nonexistent roads, and a population that only recently has begun to appreciate the significance of its national treasures.

Douglas’ work is limited by a dearth of samples of reliable provenance. “By removing minute stone fragments from select spots on the statues, Porte has provided a rare opportunity to analyze the stone used by the Khmer,” with minimal harm to the artworks, Douglas says. Normally, “taking samples from sculpture is to be avoided, because we do not want to cause further damage to these historically important works of art.” In a lab at the Freer and Sackler galleries, the precious Khmer stone samples are stored near other artifacts under Douglas’ purview—among them fifth-century Korean gold earrings, an ancient jade ax and a dagger crusted with decayed cloth. The stone fragments look dull beside these treasures until she looks at them using a petrographic microscope. The Khmer sculpture samples are all composed of various types of sandstone. Sliced into translucent slivers and attached to microscope slides, the tiny brown stone samples, when magnified, become dazzling mosaics of jagged shapes fitted together like an ancient puzzle.

Douglas is using petrographic microscopy to categorize the sandstone fragments based on their grain types, using color, shape, texture and other rock characteristics, such as porosity and cementing materials. Douglas conducts higher magnification studies on a scanning electron microscope, where chemical compositional information can be collected on the grains within the sandstone. Cathodoluminescence microscopy is another tool being applied with the help of Sorena Sorensen, a geochemist in the Department of Mineral Sciences at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. This method uses electrons to bombard a sandstone sample until it emits light to produce an image resembling brilliantly colored abstract art. These images are then analyzed to characterize the color, size and texture of the mineral grains. Using these analytical tools, Douglas can see past the gray sandstone and begin to consider its unique characteristics that are hidden on a microscopic level. Distinctions among the sandstones are based on relative amounts of various rock grains, such as quartz, feldspar, igneous, limestone and basalt, as well as natural cementing materials, weathering and geologic origins of certain grains.

In her examinations, Douglas has discovered that five of the samples are composed of grains weathered from igneous rock sources. This leads her to conclude that an important group of sculptures carved in the Bayon style and dated to the 12th to 13th century most likely originated from a common source, such as Cambodia’s Kulen Mountains. At the National Museum of Cambodia, Porte continues to restore the sculptures as they become available. Although Porte's efforts are dwarfed by the vast challenges of his location, Douglas is reinforcing his work in her laboratory on the National Mall. She expects that her research will someday help art historians lift the veil of mystery surrounding Angkor’s long-obscured past and its remarkable Khmer artisans.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cella at Wat Han Chey

A reclining Vishnu minus Ananta at Wat Han Chey, north of Kompong Cham city
Phnom Han Chey lies 20kms north of Kompong Cham city, on the banks of the Mekong River and boasts an interesting collection of ancient prasats and modern-day pagoda buildings. On my recent visit the whole area was heaving with people celebrating the P'chum Ben festival, having travelled from far and wide to join in the ceremonies. My presence was warmly welcomed as the only barang in their midst. The site is also known as Chey Kiri mountain and for the energetic there's a 295 step climb to the top, or for the older visitors like me, there's a couple of drivable roads to the top. Next to the main vihara at the pagoda of Wat Han Chey, sat on the summit of the mountain and surrounded by gorgeous views of the Mekong, is an unusual square sandstone cella with a series of well-defined carvings. Above the only door to the cella is a narrow lintel which shows two images of the reclining Vishnu, though surprisingly there's no Ananta, the snake on which Vishnu usually lies. the two images are arranged as decorative elements alongwith three medallions on what is believed to be a pre-Angkorean structure, most likely from the 7th century. At the foot of the cella are miniature stylized representations of a larger temple, almost in the style of the 'flying palaces' of Sambor Prei Kuk, where a similar cella resides. Other imaginary animals appear in a decorative frieze around the base too. A larger stupa-styled concrete pinnacle has been added to the top of the cella. Altogether an unusual and interesting 'find' at Wat Han Chey. There are other historical elements to Han Chey, as there are more modern and garish monuments. More soon.
The square sandstone cella with concrete pinnacle at Wat Han Chey
The reclining Vishnu lintel and colonettes at Wat Han Chey
A reclining Vishnu and medallions on the Wat Han Chey lintel
A stylized 'flying palace' at the base of the cella at Wat Han Chey
The doorway and modern shrine inside the square cella
Imaginary monsters on a decorative frieze around the bottom of the cella

Olympic final

Get along to the Olympic Stadium this coming Friday at 5pm to watch the build-up for the Grand Final of the 2008 qb Cambodian National Volleyball League (disabled) competition between Kompong Speu Siemens Kangaroos and the Phnom Penh Sunway Hotel Dragons, which will start at 7.30pm. The event will be broadcast live on CTN and the preparations will include live music performances by 12 year old soprano BospaPANH and Cambodian rock band Coconut. This end of season finale will then allow the Cambodian National Standing Volleyball team to get down to completing their build-up for the 2008 WOVD World Cup, taking place in Slovakia in November. Link: CNVL

Return to her roots

A documentary filmmaker born in Cambodia returns to her roots next week to take up a post with the Documentation Center of Cambodia as its Civic Affairs Officer. Kalyanee Mam's new role will be to engage local and civic society leaders and the media in the promotion of justice, as well as leading DC-Cam's involvement with the ECCC's Victims Unit. As a lawyer, photographer and writer, Kalyanee (pictured) has worked on human rights issues in various countries including Cambodia, China, South Africa, Mozambique, and Iraq. Her past work has included assisting refugees in South Africa, documenting the atrocities committed against women during the Khmer Rouge Regime here in Cambodia for DC-Cam, and working as a lawyer in Mozambique and Iraq. She escaped from Cambodia with her family in 1979, soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and eventually fled to the United States as a refugee in 1981. She's a graduate of Yale University and UCLA Law School. Kalyanee is currently directing and producing Between Earth & Sky, a feature length documentary film that follows the hopes and struggles of four young Iraqis living in Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. You can find out more at her website here.

A different story

The performance of a frail and bowed Khem Nguon at last Friday's murder trial for the five accused of the abduction and killing of Christopher Howes and Houn Hourth, was a world away from the swagger and media-savvy style of the last leader of the Khmer Rouge. For much of 1998 it was Nguon (pictured), with a hot-line to the world's press, who claimed to have succeeded Pol Pot and then Ta Mok as the head of the Khmer Rouge forces in Anlong Veng, though his story sounded very different as he pleaded for leniency in the courthouse last week. Denying his involvement in the military side of the guerrilla force, he claimed instead a role as a cadre involved with the local farming community and pooh-poohed the notion that he was the chief lieutenant of Ta Mok, instead offering up the deceased Khem Tem in that role. It remains to be seen whether Khem Nguon will be convicted of the murder of Christopher Howes, but it's worth a reminder of some of the story behind this former Khmer Rouge leader.

Blog posting dated 21 November 2007:
Khem Nguon
was charged last week by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with the kidnapping and murder in 1996 of Christopher Howes, a British demining expert from Bristol in Southwest England, working in Cambodia with the Mines Advisory Group. Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth were captured by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in a remote village in Siem Reap province in March 1996, transferred to the KR stronghold of Anlong Veng and murdered. Though Nguon denies his involvement, it’s alleged that he supervised the killing on the instructions of his commanding officer, the brutal one-legged Ta Mok. Arrested alongwith Nguon were Loch Mao, a CPP-affiliated district official in Anlong Veng, who is alleged to be the man who pulled the trigger, and Chep Cheat, believed to be their driver. Further suspects are also being sought. [Puth Lim and Sin Dorn were subsequently arrested and charged].

I’ve peered into the murky world of the Khmer Rouge to try to find out more about Khem Nguon but as you might expect, permeating a guerrilla organization isn’t easy sat at a desk and hard-line fighters don’t as a rule issue detailed biographies. However, Nguon, 58, originally from Takeo province, joined the Khmer Rouge movement in the ‘60s and was a Ta Mok loyalist from the days when ‘The Butcher’ ran the Southwest Zone with an iron fist. After the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, Nguon served in the Military Division 502, an air-force unit. Later, he was sent to Shanghai in China for three years of military training specializing in radar, air-strikes and artillery. In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post in 1998, Nguon said he did not return to Cambodia until after the 1979 ousting of the Khmer Rouge by the invading Vietnamese when he joined Ta Mok’s forces at their Anlong Veng base in northwest Cambodia as the Chief of Military Division 980.

During 1997 and 1998, Nguon was a key player and very vocal in the internal drama within the Khmer Rouge leadership over the control of the movement. After Pol Pot had his Defense Minister Son Sen and his wife Yun Yat executed in June 1997 over their alleged secret negotiations with the Phnom Penh government, Ta Mok with Nguon, as his chief lieutenant, arrested Pol Pot alongwith senior cadre, Saroeun, San and Khan. The resultant show-trial of Brother Number One was held on 25 July 1997 and all four were convicted of betraying the movement; Pol Pot was placed under house arrest, the other three cadres were executed. At the time, Nguon courted the media and told reporters he had destroyed Pol Pot and rid the world of a tyrant. After Pol Pot’s death in April 1998, Nguon said he had hoped to hand over Pol Pot to a war crimes tribunal but he’d died of a heart attack. His quote at the time was; “What I can tell you is that he was quite old and he dropped his life like a ripe fruit.”

Just days later, he was again in the news when he announced he’d replaced his long-time mentor Ta Mok as commander of the Khmer Rouge, had changed their name to the National Solidarity Party and was making peace overtures to the Cambodian government, citing; “…to bring about national reconciliation where all parties announce an end to the war which no one has won, no one has lost.” With the Khmer Rouge in their final death throes, Nguon and half a dozen military generals finally surrendered to the Cambodian government on 6 December 1998 in exchange for amnesty and exemption from prosecution. He said he brought with him 5,000 troops and 15,000 civilians living under KR control. However, less than a month later he was threatening a resumption of hostilities if attempts were made to arrest other former Khmer Rouge leaders. It seems Khem Nguon had a quote for most occasions and a hot-line to the world’s press around that time. He’s been conspicuously silent in more recent years.

A part of Nguon’s amnesty was the award of a position as Brigadier-General in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, acting as an advisor to the defence ministry. One of his most recent responsibilities with the RCAF was to participate in the military commission tasked with resolving border issues with Thailand. He speaks Chinese, Thai and reasonable English and has been living in Phnom Penh until his arrest. In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post in 1998, Nguon claimed he was not present at the shooting of the British de-miner, though he had spoken to him before his death, the shooting was ordered by Pol Pot and supervised by Saroeun, one of the cadres tried and executed after the Pol Pot show-trial. However, eyewitness testimony provided to British police detectives tells a different story. It alleges that Howes was shot from behind on the order of Ta Mok and his deputy Khem Nguon, who supervised the killing and was the last one to speak to him. The Scotland Yard report named those responsible as Ta Mok, Khem Nguon, Colonel Kong, the cadre who pulled the trigger and three members of Nguon’s bodyguard unit, known only as Rim, Lim and San.

Until now, the Cambodian authorities have not had the appetite to arrest the men responsible, despite lobbying from the former British Ambassador Stephen Bridges that resulted in deputy prime minister Sar Kheng saying that any prosecution must wait until the time was right. That time arrived last week and Khem Nguon is now in custody awaiting trial, alongwith two Khmer Rouge cohorts. If found guilty, the men face sentences of between 10 and 20 years imprisonment.
For more on Christopher Howes, please visit my website here. Photo courtesy of Phnom Penh Post.

Answers to Intrigued?

Answers to the Intrigued? question as follows:
The blue military-style cartoon character above was on guard at the entrance to one of the gates at Wat Han Chey pagoda. I first visited Han Chey in December 2000 and it was a quiet place offering great views across the Mekong River. On last weekend's visit, it was anything-but quiet, the whole pagoda was awash with people celebrating the P'chum Ben festival and in addition, many new temple buildings had been erected. I couldn't find out any other information about the guardian at the gate but I thought he wouldn't look out of place in a children's playground.
In another of the recently constructed buildings at Wat Han Chey, about 15kms north of Kompong Cham city, is a low-ceiling building with some quite remarkabe life-like wax figures inside. These are recreations of some of Cambodia's most revered and famous monks, sixteen in total, that draw the faithful in to honour them and to wish for good fortune. In the UK we have Madame Tussaud's where the famous are recreated in statue form, and here was Cambodia's religious version.
The mysterious face in stone will remain unknown for the time being. It is one of forty such faces that adorn the upper levels of the very unusual temple of Kuk Preah Theat that has recently been rebuilt with the aid of a grant from the United States. It now sits in a pleasant garden setting at the foot of Phnom Han Chey, overlooking the Mekong River and is constructed of a dense volcanic stone known as basalt. I will post more pictures from this temple and the prasats of Wat Han Chey in the next few days.
Finally, the game of follow my leader was as a result of my search for ruined temples in the Kompong Cham countryside. I stopped off at a pagoda called Wat Vihear Thom and soon after was walking through rice fields, both dry and wet, on the hunt for lintels, pedestals and carvings at two separate locations. Both were a few kilometres from any road so it necessitated a walk across fields and dykes and as is often the case, when a barang starts walking in the fields, we were quickly joined by a small group of inquisitive children. Here's a photo of my translator and good friend Sophoin at one of the sites with ten of the kids.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


A famous cartoon character perhaps?
Intrigued? Wait a few hours and I'll bring you the full story behind these pictures taken last weekend on my travels around Kompong Cham province.
These monks have taken a vow of silence
Who, why and where is this mysterious face?A game of follow-my-leader in the Cambodian countryside

Through their eyes

The Reyum Institute, a non-profit NGO dedicated to Cambodian arts and culture, will Thursday (9th) begin hosting a new exhibition of paintings by twelve contemporary Cambodian artists, who've all exhibited with Reyum in the past. This exhibition, titled Through Our Eyes, will focus on the present and how the artists view today. Amongst the works of a dozen artists will be Hen Sophal, Chhim Sothy, Prom Vichet and many more. The opening of the exhibition will take place at 5pm at Reyum, opposite the Fine Arts campus and National Museum in downtown Phnom Penh and the exhibits will remain on view until 5 November.
In town today or very soon are a couple of old friends in Doug Mendel, the firefighter guy who is kitting out the Cambodian fire service seemingly single-handedly. His tireless efforts to raise funds to bring equipment over from the States for the fire stations around the country are worthy of so much praise. More notable efforts to bring schooling and a better life for the villagers of Chrauk Tiek in a remote area of Kompong Speu province are in the capable hands of Kari Grady-Grossman, the author of the wonderful book Bones That Float, which I would recommend to everyone, and her Sustainable Schools International team. If it works out I'll be enjoying an Indian meal with Kari this evening so she can update me more fully on the opening of a library at the school and an update on their brickette-making community business. Link: SSI.
On the subject of eyes, my eye infection hasn't cleared up as I hoped. It got better then returned with a vengeance, so I've been nursing 'red eye' for a while now and treatment is continuing with stronger cream and tablets. It's meant a temporary hold on my football-playing activity whilst I sort myself out. On the football front, don't forget Cambodia has a series of home games this month as they seek to qualify for the AFF Suzuki Cup finals. The opening game against Laos on the 17th is following by matches against East Timor, Philippines and Brunei.

An inspirational book

Sayana Ser reading from the diary (pic courtesy of Tibor Krausz)

Anne Frank diary resonates with Cambodians - by Tibor Krausz, The Jewish Journal

As a young girl in the early 1990s, Sayana Ser often spent the night cowering in fear with her family in an underground shelter her father had dug beneath their home on the outskirts of this capital city. Outside, marauding bands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas battled it out with government forces. Meanwhile, brutal mass murder was still fresh on civilians’ minds. A decade later, as a 19-year-old scholarship student in the Netherlands, Sayana chanced upon the memoirs of another girl who had feared for her life in even more dire circumstances. It was “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, the precocious Jewish teenager who hid from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam until her family’s hiding place was discovered and she was sent to her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “While reading the book I couldn’t hold my tears back,” Sayana recalls. “I wondered how Anna must have felt and how she could bear it.”

Sayana now is the director of a student outreach and educational program at a Cambodian research institution that documents the Khmer Rouge genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, up to 2 million people—a fourth of the population—perished on Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in one of the worst mass murders since the Holocaust. Sayana, who wrote her master’s thesis about “dark tourism,” or touristic voyeurism at genocide sites in Cambodia and elsewhere, also visited several Holocaust memorials and death camps. “I couldn’t believe how one human being could do this to another, whether they were Jews or Khmers,” she says. On returning home, she sought permission to translate the Anne Frank diary into Khmer. The Holocaust classic was published by the country’s leading genocide research group, the Documentation Center of Cambodia. It is now available for Khmer students at high school libraries in Phnom Penh alongside locally written books about the Khmer Rouge period. Such books include “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, which recounts the harrowing experiences of a child survivor of the killing fields.

“I have seen many Anna Franks in Cambodia,” says Youk Chhang, the head of the documentation center and Cambodia’s foremost researcher on genocide. A child survivor himself, Chhang lost siblings and numerous relatives in the mass murders perpetrated by Pol Pot and his followers. “If we Cambodians had read her diary a long time ago,” he says, “perhaps there could have been a way for us to prevent the Cambodian genocide from happening.” Anne Frank’s message, he adds, remains as potent as ever. “Genocide continues to happen in the world around us even today,” Youk says. “Her diary can still play an important role in prevention.” Although the story of Anne and her resilient optimism in the face of murderous evil has touched millions of readers around the world, it may particularly resonate with Cambodians, Sayana adds. “Under Pol Pot, many children were separated from their families. They faced starvation and were sent to the front to fight and die,” she explains. “Like Anna, they never knew peace and the warmth of a home.” Inspired by Anne’s diary, she adds, some Cambodian students have begun to write their own diaries to chronicle the sorrows and joys of their daily lives.

Children in Laos, too, can soon learn of Anne’s story and insights. In the impoverished, war-torn communist country bordering Cambodia, almost a million people perished during the Vietnam War, while countless landmines and a low-level insurgency continue to take lives daily. Yet with books for children almost nonexistent beyond simple school textbooks, Lao students remain largely ignorant of the world and history. In a private initiative, an American expat publisher is now bringing them children’s classics translated into Lao, including Anne Frank’s diary. “I was describing the book to a bright college graduate here and gave him a little context,” says Sasha Alyson, the founder of Big Brother Mouse, a small publishing house in Vientiane, the Lao capital, which specializes in books for Lao children. He recalls the student asking, ‘World War II? Is that the same as Star Wars?” Anna Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” he says, will provide Lao children with a much-needed lesson in history.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Lightening the mood

Green and wet rice fields abound around Wat Lovea
Gorgeous views abound throughout Cambodia. Here's a few from Kompong Cham province that I snapped last weekend towards the end of the P'chum Ben Festival. A great excuse to get out into the countryside and enjoy some fresh air and great company.
The Mekong River breaks its banks near Han Chey
Beautiful countryside outside Veal village in Chamkar Leu district
The view of the Mekong River from Phnom Han Chey
The countryside around Prei Chor
The lazy and languid Mekong River as it flows past Kompong Cham

Continuing my search

Some of the victim's remains at the memorial at Wat O Trakuon in Kang Meas district
On my travels around Cambodia I am not only interested in ancient temples and prasats that most visitors would not look twice at, but I'm also keen to track down as many memorials for the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide as I can. What I've found to-date is that of the 80+ sites recorded by the investigators at DC-Cam, quite a few have literally disappeared from view, either intentionally, where the bones have been buried and the stupa dismantled, or by time and theft, whereby some memorials have been robbed of their contents. It's a fact that some people will come and take away bones and clothing that originally constituted a memorial set up to remember the victims of this terrible black period in Cambodia's recent history. My understanding is that it's most likely family members who knew that their relatives died in that location and take the bones to give them a formal Buddhist ceremony. At other memorials I know that neglect and theft by animals have taken their toll on certain sites as well. Relatively few of the sites receive the care and attention I think they deserve. They are afterall a permanent physical reminder of what can happen when the lives of individuals become expendable and that must simply never happen again. I appreciate not everyone shares my views and may argue that memorials are but a way of prolonging the hatred, but I prefer to think of them in the true sense of a memorial, as a way of commemorating each person that died as a result of the Khmer Rouge disregard for the sanctity of life. Anyone who sees the stupa at Choeung Ek, filled with the bones of 8,985 dead cannot fail to be moved to ask why. And the killing fields of Choeung Ek were not the biggest collection of mass graves in Cambodia. Far from it.
The yellow and blue genocide memorial stupa at Wat O Trakuon in Kang Meas district
Remains excavated in 1982 are housed behind glass at Wat O Trakuon
On last weekend's visit to Kompong Cham province, I went searching for three memorials. I found one in Kang Meas district that represented some 467 separate mass graves, believed to contain 32,690 dead bodies at that one site alone. My search for the other two proved fruitless as they have been dismantled and the bones buried. The site in Kang Meas district, which hugs the northern riverbank of the Mekong River, is a kilometre or so from the district centre at Peam Chikang, in a pagoda called Wat O Trakuon (aka Wat Moni Sarawan). In a corner of the wat's grounds stands a fairly discreet yellow and blue-painted stupa and behind its dirty glass panels are the bones of the deceased. The pagoda and a nearby school were used as the district's main prison by the Khmer Rouge between 1974 and 1978. The first victims were Lon Nol soldiers and then people evacuated from Phnom Penh, brought to the site by boat and ox-cart. The 467 graves at the site were partially excavated in 1982 and the bones placed in the memorial. A monk at the pagoda, Kimly, told me that the blood of the victims was still smeared across the walls of the wat until it was whitewashed over, repainted and modified last year. Writing on the stupa wall also revealed that a donation from Prime Minister Hun Sen had enabled it to be built in 1992 and then three rich benefactors had upgraded it a decade ago. What made the visit even more poignant is that my companion on the trip, Sophoin, had told her mother of our intended visit and she revealed for the first time, that her brother had perished in Kang Meas district during the Khmer Rouge regime. The stupa before us effectively represented the last resting place of one of Sophoin's closest relatives and will enable her family to commemorate his memory in the future. It was also a memorial where the monk Kimly could pay his respects, as both of his grandparents were killed in the slaughter at O Trakuon.
Kimly, the locally-born monk who now resides at Wat Koh in Phnom Penh, and the author
The two memorials that had disappeared from view just happened to be the farthest away from Kompong Cham. My long road trip by moto wasn't all for nothing as I visited a couple of prasats en route but the genocide memorials at Wat Stung Trang and Wat Po Preng had been dismantled many years before according to the achar, or laymen, at both pagodas. It was 33kms from the city to Stung Trang on the banks of the Mekong River and the laymen at the pagoda of Wat Stung Trang showed us the building which had been used as the prison but confirmed the wooden memorial had been demolished years before and the skulls and bones of the deceased re-buried. The site was believed to have contained more than 20 large pits, lying to the west of the pagoda, housing in excess of 5,000 victims. Turning west and heading for the district of Chamkar Leu, famed for its rubber plantations, we called into Veal village and Wat Po Preng after about 25kms to find that its memorial had also disappeared. Located next to the forest of Trapeang Khna where scores of small graves had held the corpses of over 10,000 people, Po Preng is no longer a site where the locals can honour the dead.
The pagoda building used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge at Wat Stung Trang, recently given a lick of paint
The main vihara at Wat Po Preng no longer hosts a genocide memorial in its grounds

Inside the film industry

Here's a look inside the Cambodian film industry by resident reporter Andrew Nette and it doesn't make pretty reading.

'We Don't Have a Film Industry'
- by Andrew Nette, Newsmekong/IPS
Internationally acclaimed director Rithy Panh remembers how, as young boy in pre-war Phnom Penh, cinema played a central role in his family life. "When I was young we had so many cinemas not like the situation now, and we used to go to the films all the time. Western, Indian and Khmer pictures, I loved them all." The director, whose most recent film is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s novel, ‘The Sea Wall’, responds bluntly to a question about the health of Cambodia’s film industry: "I think the situation today is that we do not have a film industry. We have an entertainment industry. Most of the production is karaoke, soap opera and TV drama. Either that or there are institutional films made by NGOs and the like. There is no film industry in the way there is in the West."

After being devastated by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s film industry enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the eighties and early nineties, only to be demolished again by rising production costs, the availability of cheap DVD copies and widespread cinema closures. "The situation now is parlous," says Matthew Robinson, executive producer of Khmer Mekong Films, a local film production house. "Most people have turned to making cheap karaoke spots for TV-- either that or poor quality horror films, because they are cheaper and more popular." Documentary films were shot in Cambodia by foreign filmmakers as early as the 1920s. Silent films, locally produced by Cambodian directors trained in France, first appeared in the fifties. As part of the post-independence renaissance in the arts and culture encouraged by the country’s monarch King Norodom Sihanouk, hundreds of Cambodian films were made in the sixties and early seventies. Movie production companies opened their doors and cinemas were built across the country. Encouraged by the relative cheap cost of tickets, people flocked to see European and locally-made films.

The Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975 brought an abrupt end to this. Most of the country’s actors and directors were killed. Negatives and prints of films were destroyed or went missing. With the exception of a few crude propaganda pieces, the Khmer Rouge produced no cinema.
After the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in early 1979, cinemas began to re-open and production companies re-emerged and were soon importing films. "After the fall of the Pol Pot regime, many people flocked to the cinema," recalls Kong Kantara, director of the Cinema and Cultural Diffusion Department at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art. "There were no Khmer films so we brought them from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Vietnam." "It was not unusual to see up to 800 people a day in one cinema alone, no matter what they showed," recalls Tom Som, a young director with Khmer Mekong Films. "At the time there was no TV, no cable and no competition," says Kantara. The introduction of VCRs, video cameras and taped foreign TV shows in the early nineties led to a major decline in ticket sales, resulting in the closure of many cinemas. In the mid-sixties, Phnom Penh had more than 30 cinemas. According to Robinson there are now three. Admission prices are high by local standards, at one US dollar per ticket. A few more cinemas are located in large provincial capitals such as Battambang and Siem Reap. "There is simply nowhere for the limited product that is produced to be shown," says Robinson. "The property boom has meant cinema owners can make more selling or renting out their venues as casinos or restaurants. If cinema owners responded by making their cinemas better, they could fight back. But they do not have that type of investment and to be honest, they don’t have the films."

Although the exact number is hard to pin down, most industry observers agree that only a fraction of the movie production houses existing in the mid-nineties still operate today. Most of these churn out a steady stream of poorly made and scripted horror films and slapstick comedies, which are shot on a low budget, including dubbing the sound after the film has been shot because it is cheaper and faster. Lack of trained crews and equipment is another problem. "A lot of people think making a film is buying a camera and putting people in front of it," says Robinson. "They do not think about the story, the script or the production values." The almost non-existent enforcement of copyright and intellectual property laws further discourages investment in films."Now you make a film, release it and two days later, it is in the markets, copied and being sold," says Panh. "Copyright is a vital issue and if we do not deal with this it will destroy the industry."

Panh is Cambodian born but was trained in France, where he escaped after his family members were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. His most famous film, ‘Rice People (1994)’, depicts the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in rural Cambodia. It was entered in the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and was the first Cambodian film to be submitted for an Oscar. His other films include ‘One Evening After the War ‘(1998) and ‘The Burnt Theatre’ (2005). All were co-produced with European companies that provided the vast bulk of financing. ‘The Sea Wall’, which Panh finished shooting late last year in the southern port city of Sihanoukville, is set in Cambodia during the French colonial era in the 1930s, just as the first signs of revolution were starting to appear in the countryside. ‘’ has compared Catherine Deneuve’s portrait of a French landowner in French-occupied Vietnam with Regis Garnier’s ‘Indochine’, but much grittier. "We use film like you go and buy a hamburger," says Panh. "We have to educate young people to love cinema but for this to work, we also need to produce better films."

Although it has the same aim, Khmer Mekong Films sees itself as filling a different niche to that occupied by Panh’s complex, European-style art house pieces. Its first film, ‘Staying Single When’ (2007) is a romantic comedy about a man trying to find a wife in Cambodia. It enjoyed a four-week cinema run and is shown regularly on state TV. Robinson describes the company’s current project, ‘Heart Talk’, as a ‘Hitchcock-like thriller’ involving three young women working in a Phnom Penh radio station. It is slated for local release in November. A former executive producer for the top-rated British drama ‘East Enders,’ Robinson came to Cambodia earlier this decade on a three-year contract with BBC World Service Trust, the charitable arm of the BBC. He hopes Khmer Mekong Films will play a key role in increasing the skills base of the local industry, both to make better films and lure international crews to shoot in Cambodia. "I think this place is ripe to be discovered," Robinson says of Cambodia. "There are beautiful locations and beautiful people. The trouble is that until the skills base increases, they (international directors) will bring their own crew and use Khmers only for the lower end jobs like extras and drivers." Improving the quality of the kingdom’s film and television industry is also a priority of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art, which is seeking investors to establish Cambodia’s first movie studio.

Note: Read an interview with Rithy Panh on his latest film here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Tribunal disappointment

I heard some news yesterday that will be a further disappointment to those observing the Khmer Rouge Tribunal taking place in Cambodia. It follows hot on the heels of news that the trial against Duch, the former chief of Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge centre of interrogation in Phnom Penh during the KR reign of terror over the country, has been delayed until the beginning of December at the earliest, as prosecutors want to extend the level of his accountability. The latest blow to the Tribunal is the recent resignation of Stephen Heder, one of the ECCC's key investigators with the office of the Co-Investigating Judges and without doubt one of the most knowledgeable people on the hierarchy and complexity of the Khmer Rouge leadership. Heder has returned to his duties as a lecturer in political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and the Tribunal can ill afford to lose someone of his experience, knowledge and integrity. He first visited Cambodia in 1973 as a journalist for Time magazine and subsequently researched Cambodian politics and human rights for organizations such as the UN, the US State Department, Amnesty and the Holocaust Museum. A leading scholar on the country, he has written numerous articles and monographs on Cambodia including the book Seven Candidates for Prosecution, the only historical-legal analysis of the individual culpability of senior Khmer Rouge leaders, and is fluent in the Khmer language. His departure weakens the Tribunal. It was Heder who put some numbers on who he thought should be targeted for investigation under the auspices of the Tribunal in a public forum on which he was a panelist in 2004, when he said 10 senior leaders and 50 of the most responsible subordinates should be considered. Heder also published a paper in 2005 called Chain of Command Responsibility for the Murder of Christopher Howes: Perpetrators and Witnesses, which unfortunately I have never been able to get my hands on.

More from Mendel

This man gets more press coverage than anyone I know, and it's all deserved.
Mendel takes gear to Cambodia
Philanthropist to deliver 14 boxes of firefighting equipment - by Jonathan Batuello, Summit Daily News, Colorado, USA
Former Summit County resident Doug Mendel is making his 12th philanthropic trip to Cambodia this week, where he will be for the next three and a half weeks distributing firefighting equipment. He will be taking 850 pounds in 14 boxes of firefighting bunker gear to deliver to the Phnom Penh fire department and checking up on five other stations he has supported in Sihanoukville, Kampot, Battambang, Siemreap and Banung. Mendel started the relief fund five and a half years ago to help support fire stations and children in Cambodia. In that time he has managed to have two fire trucks put into use, including one donated by Breckenridge’s Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District, and raised $63,000 through the sale of crafts, donations and fundraisers.

On this trip, he will check the status of everything he has already donated and get ideas for what is needed in the future. “I’m going to let them know I’m not going to be coming next year because I need a break to concentrate on fundraising,” Mendel said. “(I’m) going to touch base with them and see how they are doing and see what their wish list would be for when I do come back in 2010.” Mendel now resides and runs his fund out of Montrose after living for a short time in Moab, Utah, and his project is gaining more support in that area. “It’s definitely picking up,” he said. “With the schools, I was able to sell in May when I first moved there ... and I’ve had a lot of media exposure there.” Although Mendel no longer resides in Summit County, he still visits often and plans to continue to sell crafts in the area. He is planning on being back in the county in November to sell at local schools and then in December for the Christmas bazaar in Silverthorne. “I still have wonderful support here, so I do my best to come here, ...” Mendel said. “I feel fortunate that, even though I moved away two years ago, I’m still able to come here seven times a year ... because I know Summit County enjoys helping out with my endeavors helping the Cambodian people.” Beyond contributing by selling crafts, Mendel is hoping that his extra time in the United States will help garner more attention and financial support. “I’m looking for donations to kind of ramp up my efforts to have fire trucks and fire stations in Cambodia,” he said. Donations can be made on Mendel’s website,

Meta magic

The Meta House program for this month is an interesting mix of film and music. Meta House is on Street 264 in Phnom Penh and does a great job in providing a monthly diet of events which has something for everyone. Whilst the filmed music of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Woodstock doesn't grab my lapel, it will for others, and the nights dedicated to Burma, Guatemala and Rwanda will also interest many. For me the films about Cambodia hold the greater interest, none more so that the premiere of Tiara Delgado's Bitter Mekong on Friday 24th. The filmmaker will be there to celerate her film, a look at the return to Cambodia for Rami Sambath to find his father's legacy, and to acknowledge UN Day.UXO night on Thursday 16th will include the Bombhunters documentary by Skye Fitzgerald and a film by Ian White on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The hypnotic Dogora gets an airing on Thursday 23rd, whilst Pilger Night on Saturday 18th will see three of his best docu's on Cambodia, Vietnam and East Timor. One documentary I hope to make is Cambodiana on Thursday 30th, which goes under the veil of mystery that is the Cardamom Mountains by director Estelle des Dorides. All rooftop events now begin at 8pm.

Ramblings from the court

Okay, I'm going to ramble on a bit here but I wanted to get down some thoughts from the murder trial I attended on Friday, here in Phnom Penh. It was the first murder trial I've been to, my only other experience at court was a juror on an open and shut death inquest many years ago, so I'm a virtual novice and like most people, I'm ashamed to say my only experience of courts is from the television.
I found the Khmer courtroom a relaxed and very different place from my little experience of a British courtroom. Not austere at all and so relaxed that at a break in proceedings, when the rain on the corrugated rooftop made it impossible to hear what was being said, the blue-uniformed defendants were allowed to wander around the small room, mingling with their family and friends. There was one prison warder for the five defendants, though I did clock two army personnel with AK-47 rifles standing in the shadows outside. During the hearing and after they'd answered questions, the defendants squatted on a tiny wooden bench at the front of the courtroom with their back to everyone except the three presiding judges. Each of them looked frightened by the ordeal, cowed and apologetic in their body language and far removed from their alleged status as cold-blooded killers. Khem Nguon, who was the leader of the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas to surrender to the Cambodian government a decade ago looked anything but the strutting, media-courting individual that enjoyed the high profile he achieved after his former bosses, Pol Pot and Ta Mok, lost favour in the die-hard guerrilla hierarchy. He lent heavily on the 'invalid card' complaining of hearing difficulties and at one point collapsed whilst giving evidence even though the judges had offered him a chair. His two grown-up children were allowed to administer help to their frail-looking father. His blue prison outfit was 'less uniform' than his fellow defendants and I got the vibe that he receives a different level of treatment than they do, though as a man with connections and a former brigadier-general in the Army, that shouldn't come as a surprise. And don't forget, he is afterall, innocent until proven guilty.
That brings me to some real concerns that I have. The whole trial was conducted in Khmer. A friend accompanied me to the court - I arrived at 11.30am, more than three hours after it had begun - so I missed a big chunk and as I don't understand Khmer, I had to rely on my friend's translation. And she is not a translator. However, I felt I got the gist and that gist did not overwhelm me with the weight of evidence against the accused. This was a murder and abduction trial yet much of the evidence consisted of uncorroborated hearsay and interviews that were conducted a decade ago without witness statements being signed or thumb-printed at that time. The men admitted to being present either at the kidnap or at Christopher Howes' death. In their view, that was their level of involvement, and at all times they were acting under orders from superiors, which would've meant death if they didn't do as they were told. None of them admitted to being in charge or of pulling the trigger. But then I didn't expect them to, its the prosecution's job to present that evidence, and I didn't feel convinced they did that. But this is not a case where the prosecution has to convince a jury. It will be the decision of the three presiding judges as to whether the evidence is good enough to convict on the charges of kidnap, murder and membership of an outlawed group. As for their interpretation of the evidence and exactly how much evidence is required to convict at a Cambodian trial, we will have to wait until 14 October to find out.
What else did I glean from proceedings? Well, there was no forensic evidence produced in court and there was no positive identification of the accused by members of the MAG demining team that were kidnapped at the same times as Christopher Howes and Houn Hourth. The investigation by the Cambodian intelligence officers and British police that were sent to assist a decade ago appeared to be more of a fact-finding exercise than a formal police-style enquiry. They obtained statements from key witnesses at that time, including some of the defendants, but now standing in court some ten years later, their stories had changed, their memories had faded and the blame for the order to kidnap and kill was laid at the door of two guerrillas who have subsequently died. How convenient. As I said I wasn't overwhelmed by the weight of evidence. It was flimsy at best. If convictions are achieved, they may be for conspiracy or of a lesser sentence than originally hoped. Who can tell, second-guessing Cambodian judges is not, and never will be, an exact science.
What did really annoy me though was the relaxed nature of the trial. I know its Cambodia and everything is easygoing but this was a murder trial, not a petty bag-snatch. Mobile phones were not switched off, and even the defense and prosecution team received incoming calls and left the room whilst proceedings continued. It was really disconcerting. The security personnel were the worst culprits, their phones were the loudest and they constantly left the door open, so the honking horns and traffic sounds from the street flooded through the courtroom and drowned out the evidence being given. The judges appeared determined to finish the case in one day. They rattled through the defendants testimony and then the witnesses with much haste, questioning was basic and lacking any depth, closing statements were less than passionate by both the prosecution and defense teams and the decision to adjourn pending the verdict came quickly and was almost lost in the frenzy of everyone trying to leave the court, with proceedings ending at just past 7pm in the evening. However, I was pleased to see a couple of members of the British press in court, Tom Bell (Daily Telegraph) and Ian MacKinnon (The Guardian) had made the trip from Bangkok to be present and MAG's Chief Executive Lou McGrath OBE had flown over from the UK to witness the proceedings. Now we must wait until the judges deliver their verdict on 14 October. It's been a wait of 12 years for justice for Christopher and Hourth - we can wait a little longer.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What the papers say

Here's a few excerpts of what the United Kingdom press had to report on Friday's trial of the five former Khmer Rouge cadre accused of abduction and murder of Briton Christopher Howes and Cambodian translator Houn Hourth in March 1996.

Christopher Howes: He stayed behind for his men - and ‘died from a single shot’

The five former fighters, facing trial in the capital, Phnom Penh, all denied taking any personal part in the killings of Mr Howes and his translator, Houn Hourth, and blamed the crime on two other guerrillas who are believed to be dead…Twenty other members of Mr Howes’s team were held, but were released after he agreed to remain with their captors as surety for a future ransom. But he and Mr Houn were shot dead within a week after being given a last meal of apples and the tropical fruit durian, according to Cambodian prosecutors…A joint investigation by Cambodian and Scotland Yard detectives suggested ten years ago that Loch Mao was responsible for the killing. But yesterday the accused man insisted that his senior commander, Khem Tem, had ordered a soldier named Nget Rim to carry out the murder. “Howes fell backward. It was one single shot,” Mr Loch said. “Khem Tem then ordered me to fire more shots. I walked up with the intention of firing a shot into his chest, but Khem Ngun [another of the defendants] yelled, ‘That’s enough, he is already dead’.”…Mr Khem, who subsequently defected from the Khmer Rouge and was a major-general in the Cambodian Army at the time of his arrest last November, said: “Another Khmer Rouge soldier close to Ta Mok [a senior commander] ordered the shooting of Howes in the head, and then I turned my face away and felt shock.”…Another of the accused men, Put Lim, said that Mr Howes was killed at night and his body was cremated on a wood fire.

Khmer Rouge soldier tells of Briton's murder - by Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, UK

More than a decade after a British charity worker was seized and murdered in Cambodia, a former Khmer Rouge soldier has told how he was shot dead at night, before his body was doused with diesel and burnt. In a court in Phnom Penh, Put Lim, one of five former soldiers on trial for murder, said Christopher Howes and his Cambodian translator were killed after being seized close to the Angkor Wat temple in 1996.

Pol Pot ordered murder of British mine-clearer, court told: Trial hears Khmer Rouge leader had blanket policy to murder foreigners on grounds they supported the government – by Ian MacKinnon, The Guardian, UK

A British mine-clearing expert who was murdered in Cambodia and his remains burned to hide the evidence was killed on the orders of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, a court heard today…Howes was shot within days of his capture while leading a mine-clearance team north of Siem Reap - home to the Angkor Wat temple complex - after his abductors lulled him into a false sense of security by laying out a sleeping mattress for the night and giving him fruit…His interpreter, Huon Houth, who was among the 30-strong team from British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), was murdered a day earlier when his captors deemed him "no longer necessary" because one of the alleged killers spoke English…Investigations by a Scotland Yard team working with the Cambodian police eventually unravelled Howes' fate, declaring he was murdered after forensic tests on bone fragments found in a fire. The evidence collected from witness statements in the two years after Howes' disappearance was presented at the Phnom Penh court today by former Metropolitan police anti-terrorism officer, Mike Dickson, now an advisor to the UN-backed Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal…One of the accused, Khem Ngoun, 59, the former chief-of-staff of the one-legged Khmer Rouge army commander, Ta Mok, was a brigadier-general in the Cambodian army until his arrest. Along with the others, Loch Mao, 54, a Khmer Rouge officer who became a civil servant, Cheath Chet, 34, Puth Lim, 58, and Sin Dorn, 52, the frail Ngoun faces life imprisonment for murder and illegal detention when the investigating judge, Iv Kimsry, delivers his verdict in 10 days' time…In a marathon session the court heard today of the chilling last days of Howes and Hourth after their abduction on March 26 1996. Some of the de-mining team escaped almost immediately while all the others were released after Howes declined to abandon his staff to fetch ransom money. Howes and Hourth were taken towards Anlong Veng. But in an interview with the British detectives, Khieu Sampan, the Khmer Rouge's nominal head of state, said that Hourth was killed in Kul village after Ngoun said the interpreter was unnecessary. Howes was held in a school where Ngoun interrogated him, before he was taken out into the countryside to a road near the house of Mok, who passed the order to "solve the problem" and kill him. Howes was taken in a white Toyota pickup truck driven by Lim, accompanied by four guards including Ngoun, Mao, and two others, Khem Tem and Soeun Rim, who subsequently died. In a statement to police before his death, Rim said Mao killed Howes with two bullets from an AK-59 rifle provided by Ngoun. Both Ngoun and Mao changed earlier statements they made and maintained only Rim, who died in 2004, fired the fatal shots. Mao is adamant his weapon jammed and he could not fire. All the accused argued they acted on orders of the Khmer Rouge's brutal "brother number one" and that failure to do so would have meant certain death.

Court hears chilling details of how British landmine expert was taken into the Cambodian jungle and executed by Khmer Rouge - by Richard Shears, The Mail, UK

A British mine clearance expert was offered a final meal of forest fruits before being shot in the head on the orders of the Khmer Rouge, a court has heard…The 37-year-old Bristol man was captured by troops serving Cambodian despot Pol Pot in 1996 while leading a Mines Advisory Group operation at the temples at Angkor Wat. It later emerged that Mr Howes persuaded the guerillas to free other captives while he and his interpreter, Houn Hourth, remained. He became a hero in Cambodia and has a road in Phnom Penh named after him. In May 1998, a Scotland Yard investigation discovered it was likely Mr Howes died soon after arriving at the camp.

Khmer Rouge guerillas who killed British mine expert go on trial: Five former Khmer Rouge guerrillas went on trial in Phnom Penh yesterday for the murder of the British mine clearance expert Christopher Howes in Cambodia 12 years ago - by Tom Bell, The Telegraph, UK

Members of the mine sweeping team testified yesterday that Mr Howes refused to leave them to fetch ransom money, preferring to stay with his men and negotiate their release. His bravery earned him a posthumous Queen's Gallantry Medal. The Cambodian King Noradom Sihanouk named a street in the capital after him. The others were soon released but Mr Howes and his translator, Houth, never were…The court heard that when one of the accused, Khem Noung, took charge of the prisoners he allegedly quickly killed Houth. Mr Noung could speak English himself so the translator was "no use any more", said to the investigating judge. Mr Noung took Mr Howes to the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, it was claimed. Mr Noung testified that at a meeting with Ta Mok, a notorious, one legged commander known as "the butcher', he received a chilling message: "Brother does not want to keep the foreigner alive". That was a reference to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge's "Brother Number One". The same night, three of the accused including Mr Noung drove Mr Howes into the dark in a pickup truck, the court heard. They ordered him to sit in front of the car and gave him some fruit to eat, it was claimed. Puth Lim, the driver, told the court, "They told me to turn on the headlights so the foreigner can eat the fruit. After that I heard gunshots"…Mr Howes's funeral pyre burnt all night as the killers tried to dispose of the evidence, prosecutors said. In the morning they raked through the ashes and allegedly presented the bone fragments to Ta Mok. None of the three men accused of being at the scene of the crime denies they were present, but they tried to shift the blame for the killing onto others – some of whom are now dead. The two other defendants admitted their role in the kidnapping, but said they would have been killed if they refused.

Pol Pot deputy in court over Backwell land mine expert's execution Bristol Evening Post, UK

Christopher Howes' father, Roy, 80, is too weak to travel and will not face the man – the Khmer Rouge's last active leader – alleged to have ordered his son's execution 12 years ago…Mr Howes's parents held out hopes that he was still alive and captive for more than two years. But he and his Cambodian interpreter, Huon Hourth, were executed by a bullet to the back of the head within days of their kidnap. The Mines Advisory Group paid out $120,000 in ransom money, but the go-betweens turned out to be hoaxers and disappeared with most of the fund. A witness interviewed in 1998 said: "He was asked to sit down first. Then he was shot from behind." The bodies were burned on rubber tyres and their ashes scattered over a lake.

British man offered final meal before execution The Metro, UK

Speaking from his home in Backwell, Bristol, today, Mr Howes' father Roy said he had been waiting for many years for the facts to be made public. Mr Howes, 85, who finds it difficult to talk due to illness, said: "I think they are wicked, wicked men. They should go to prison forever if found guilty. The pain will always be there. "I'm relieved that this trial is taking place after so long and I hope justice will be done." It is widely believed the trial had taken so long to come to court because the men enjoyed immunity. …The opening of the trial shed light for the first time on the intimate details of the murder. One of the defendants, Put Lim, 57, said in evidence that Howes was executed at night before his body was cremated on a diesel-soaked woodpile. The assassins had first offered condemned Mr Howes a meal of apples and durian - a pungent tropical fruit, said prosecutor Hing Bun Chea. Mr Howes persuaded the soldiers to free many of his colleagues while he and the interpreter remained in their clutches.

Ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers tried for murder of Britonby Ker Munthit, Associated Press

Five former Khmer Rouge soldiers accused of killing a British mine-clearing expert 12 years ago testified Friday that another soldier shot the man in the head as he sat in the dark at their remote base, illuminated only by car headlights…The one-day trial for his murder ended late Friday after closing statements from the prosecution and defense. The judge, Iv Kim Sri, said he would deliver his verdict on Oct. 14. The five defendants, all former Khmer Rouge guerrillas, testified that two other guerrillas - now believed dead - were instead responsible for Howes' murder and that of his Cambodian translator. Three of the defendants gave vivid accounts of the Briton's execution-style killing, describing how the guerrillas had driven him in a car to their base in Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia, arriving at night. There, they rolled out a plastic woven mat and asked the Briton to sit down to eat apples and durian, a tropical fruit known for its pungent aroma, as he was illuminated by the headlights of the vehicle. A Khmer Rouge commander named Khem Tem ordered a guerrilla soldier named Rim to shoot Howes in the head, they said…Rim and Khem Tem are not defendants. Rim was killed by a land mine in 2004, according to his wife, and Cambodian press accounts have said that Khem Tem died in a road accident in neighboring Thailand. Khem Ngun, who is one of the defendants, denied other witnesses' allegations that he had given the order to kill Howes, but acknowledged that he was present at the scene of the killing. Howes' body was burned on a pile of wood doused in diesel, according to the testimony. One of the defendants told the court that he collected pieces of bone left from the cremation and gave them to Ta Mok, then the Khmer Rouge military chief, as proof of the execution…Little is still known about the killing of interpreter Houn Hourth, who got separated from Howes and was shot dead by a Khmer Rouge guerrilla in another remote village. Chhun Kham, his widow, said she received a skull in November 1998 that investigators said was her husband's and held a traditional Buddhist funeral ritual with it. "I urge the court to punish them for the death of my husband," she said. All five defendants appeared in the Phnom Penh courtroom in blue prison uniforms. They are charged with premeditated murder and illegal confinement of persons, crimes punishable by life imprisonment. There is no death penalty in Cambodia…Lou McGrath, the chief executive of the Mines Advisory Group who attended the trial, distributed a written statement from Howes' father, Roy Howes, and sister, Patricia Phillips, calling the slain Briton "an extraordinarily brave man dedicated to assisting the people of Cambodia to rid their country of land mines." They expressed thanks for the efforts in bringing to justice those "responsible for the senseless murder of two fine and brave men. We seek not revenge but justice in their names," they said.

Meanwhile, The Cambodia Daily review of the court case by Prak Chan Thul under the title Five Suspects in Demining Deaths Stand Trial included the following; The most senior of the five suspects, Khim Ngon...told the court that Ta Mok had ordered him to pick up Howes from the Khmer Rouge troops in Siem Reap and bring him to Anlong Veng. Khim Ngon asked the court for leniency, pointing to his age and the promise of reconciliation offered those who defected from the Khmer Rouge. "I am really 59 by the end of this year," he said. "I collected the forces integrating into the government, believing that I would rebuild myself in the society and would be safe with my wife and children," he added. The three person defense tem representing the five men challenged the court's decision to charge their clients under the 1994 law outlawing the Khmer Rouge. "What about Ieng Sary who brought in 4,000 troops in 1998? Will he be charged?" said attorney Lim Eng Ratanak, who defended Puth Lim. "It is against the legal procedure. If they charge, it has to be tens of thousands of people."

Steps of the ancients

The teenagers of the Apsara Arts Association in Phnom Penh
Charmed by the steps of the ancients in Cambodia - by Rob Crossan, The Independent, UK
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did their best to wipe it out. But Cambodia's historic dance is making a recovery of sorts

Boramey Chhaychan is 23. She has been dancing since she was nine, and learning apsara – the ancient and almost extinct dance of Cambodia – for the past six years . "It takes a huge amount of concentration to be the best," she tells me as she smoothes down the tiny creases in her makot – the silk gown into which she is sown before each performance, in order to achieve the requisite figure-embracing fit. "The body has to be soft and flexible at the same time, your fingers have to be soft, too. There's also so much bending involved if you are the lead dancer that you absolutely can't be fat either," says Boramey. The list of requirements goes on. The apsara dancer should have, according to instruction manuals, "a round body like the body of a red ant" and "the eyes must be oval and sharp with folds in the eyelids". Assuming that their eyelids are blessed with the requisite folds, the apsara dancer can then take to the stage, accompanied by instruments including the kong thom, a horseshoe-shaped semi-circle of metal chimes resting on wood that the player sits in the middle of, taut drum skins called rumana and a fish-skeleton-shaped xylophone called roneat thung.

Tonight, after days of sporadic power cuts, electricity miraculously returns to light up the stage as Boramey begins to perform the ancient dance of the perfect celestial female beings of the Khmer kingdom. Her hips roll in slow motion, fingers rise coquettishly to the hips and lips, long thin fingers are outstretched, beckoning and then recoiling. But only the tiniest glimmer of coy sexuality is ever hinted at. The falsetto choir of voices of the dozen singers to the side of the stage wails as the drum, slow and steady as a heartbeat, begins to flutter and float. Boramey kneels on the floor, seemingly as brittle as a falling leaf, before rising like an uncoiling snake. Her bare soles and heels are just as expressive as the hands and arms; every limb creates a flowing narrative of shapes. Boramey ends by joining both thumbs together in the centre of the chest – an expression that is circumspect, meditative and motionless.

This extraordinary dance dates back to the 12th century. Yet in the late 20th century Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge almost succeeded in wiping it out for ever. Even now, it only just survives: "The locals don't really seem to care about apsara," laments Vang Metry, of the Apsara Arts Association. "We only really get visitors from overseas who come to see our students perform. I give away free tickets sometimes but still almost nobody from round here shows up. They'd rather go and see rock'n'roll, I guess." The Apsara Arts Association, set up 10 years ago, is a remarkable creation. It is located in the district of Thmey in the west of chaotic Phnom Penh. The theatre is built on concrete stilts beneath a thatched roof. The sides of the theatre are exposed to the huge lotus plants that rest on the waters of the Pong Peay. This is a stagnant expanse that carries the weight of much of the neighbourhood's sewage; to Westerners, the first word of the area's name is spot on.

The 130 students at the apsara school range in age from four to 23. A significant number are orphans. Accommodation is provided for them within the school; they practise dance in the morning and study in the afternoon. It's not just the allure of rock'n'roll that is preventing any chance of apsara regaining ground in the popular consciousness. Fire destroyed the National Theatre in 1994. And the University of Fine Arts, where apsara and other traditional dances are taught, was sold off to a property developer last year. The faculty was moved far out of Phnom Penh on a dirt road that is regularly washed away in wet season, a move which has had dire consequences for student numbers. An additional problem is that to be a lead apsara dancer you must be unmarried and a virgin. When one of the country's best new prospects performed in front of the tourism minister for Cambodia in 2000, he decided to marry her. "He stole her from us!" claims Metry. Now divorced, Ouk Phalla still dances. But, due to the law of the apsara, can no longer play the lead in ancient stories such as The Churning of the Ocean Milk, which tells how apsara girls were created through a symbolic Brahmanist scripture. According to myth, the apsara dancers performed in the sky. Their curvaceous figures grace the bas-reliefs of the Angkor Wat temples. The iconic towers of this ancient complex comprise Cambodia's most popular tourist attraction. Angkor Wat was once home to thousands of apsara dancers, who performed for Cambodia's kings during the 12th century, a time when the kingdom covered vast areas of what today is Thailand and Vietnam. The dancers on the walls of the temples are naked, though dancers today are adorned in silk chorabab skirts and five-pointed crowns with red frangipani flowers sown on to the side with cotton thread to create the effect of a falling stem.

Performances continued in the dancing pavilion of the Royal Palace for moonlight shows until the Khmer Rouge seized power in the mid-Seventies. Pol Pot's murderous thugs began to exterminate anyone who they believed stood in the way of achieving a peasant agrarian utopia. That included the practitioners of apsara. Anybody with any hint of intellectual merit was slaughtered by order of "Brother Number One", as Pol Pot was known. Judgments were made on terms as spurious as whether a person wore glasses. Veng was a dance instructor who was forced to leave Phnom Penh and work in the fields. "I had to hide my CV," Veng tells me. "The Khmer Rouge asked me what my job was and I lied and told them I was a farmer. It was only by going into the fields and observing what people did that I didn't get killed. I watched the farming methods that everyone else was using and simply copied whatever they did. Somehow they never noticed that I wasn't a farmer and I avoided death."

After the regime was finally defeated by an invading Vietnamese army, apsara was considered a low priority when it came to rebuilding this most disturbed and abused of societies. It was only in 1995 that the first revived performance was staged, guided by Princess Boppha Devl, a dancer with the royal troupe in the Sixties. She studied the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat to re-learn the 1,500 positions that masters of the dance must know. As the light darkens and a post-show dance class ends with the students giggling as they try to maintain their difficult stances, Vang laments the problems of keeping apsara alive. "It's not getting any easier. We have power cuts almost every day in this part of the city. The government doesn't support us in any way," she says. "We rely entirely on funding from foreign donors. Culture is not a high priority for the government, which is a shame as this is such an important part of Cambodian history. A lot of the students here are now dancing in the tourist restaurants near Angkor Wat. I would love there to be a day when visitors would mention apsara before they mention Pol Pot. If this is lost, then a part of Cambodia is lost forever."

Note: Apsara Arts Association, 71 Street 598, Phnom Penh (00 855 12 979 335; Perfomances take place most Saturdays at 6.30pm.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Justice on trial

Christopher Howes - awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for his bravery
A long day in court today came to a messy conclusion at 7.05pm when the presiding judge Iv Kimsry announced the trial of the 5 Khmer Rouge cadres accused of murdering Briton Christopher Howes and his Cambodian translator Houn Hourth, would be adjourned until 8am on 14 October. Throughout the day, which began at 8.10am at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the judge had looked set on concluding the trial in just one day as all five defendants answered questions about their role in the abduction and murder of the two members of the MAG demining team that were kidnapped on 26 March 1996 and killed a few days later. Evidence was presented, witnesses called, statements read out and closing arguments heard from both the defense and prosecution before the three judges decided enough was enough and adjourned. All five defendants pleaded their innocence, instead claiming the order to kill and the actual shooting of Bristol-born Howes was in fact the responsibility of two other Khmer Rouge guerrillas, both of whom are conveniently dead. The blame for ordering Howes' death was laid at the feet of Khem Tem, who died in a car accident near Surin in Thailand in June 2007, whilst Soeun Rim was fingered as the man who shot Howes in the head from close range, and who died in a landmine incident in 2004.

The man who many believe supervised the killing of Howes and was the last person to speak with him, Khem Nguon (pictured right), cut a frail and pathetic figure in court, a far cry from the swaggering media-hungry opportunist who led the final draft of Khmer Rouge soldiers to defect to the government in December 1998. Nguon, now 59 years of age and who collected an amnesty and a Brigadier-General posting in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces for his defection, shuffled into court at 2.30pm with a hearing-aid in his left ear, and within the hour had collapsed into the arms of security personnel, requiring support from his two children. He also shunned the limelight of his former Khmer Rouge noteriety, refuting suggestions that he was Ta Mok's No 2, instead promoting Khem Tem to that lofty position, and claiming he merely offered advice to farmers. Like his fellow defendants, Nguon claimed memory loss, blamed others and wriggled his way out of any suggestion that he had organized the killing of Christoper Howes. Meanwhile, Loch Mao, who was in the frame as Howes' killer and had admitted as much in an earlier interview, said his gun failed to fire when he aimed it at Howes' chest and that the Briton was already dead from a fatal shot from the gun of Soeun Rim. The other defendants, Puth Lim who was Nguon's driver, Sin Dorn and Chep Cheat allegedly played lesser roles but still face murder charges.

Included amongst the witnesses were former Cambodian intelligence chief Colonel Dom Hak, Scotland Yard detective Mike Dixon and members of Howes' MAG demining team. It was Dixon who interviewed many of the key faces in the murder inquiry on behalf of the British Embassy in 1998 and who recovered Houn Hourth's skull from the village of Kul in July 1999. It was alleged that Hourth had been murdered by a cadre called Han after he was deemed surplus to requirements, whilst Howes had been taken to Anlong Veng, kept in a school before he was shot and his body burnt a few hundred yards from the home of Ta Mok. It would be another two years before forensic evidence identified bone fragments belonging to Howes and confirmation of his death given to his parents. Howes' father Roy was not well enough to attend today's trial and he was represented by Lou McGrath OBE, the Chief Executive of MAG. However, both families of the murdered deminers will have to wait a little while longer to see if justice is delivered as the verdict from the presiding judges will be announced on 14 October.

MAG welcomes trial

A statement from the Mines Advisory Group website earlier today:

MAG welcomes the decision to bring to justice those accused of murdering MAG employees Chistopher Howes and Houn Houth in Cambodia in 1996. Our two colleagues were abducted and brutally murdered whilst working near Siem Reap and until now the perpetrators of these senseless killings have yet to be brought before a court of law. MAG has strongly condemned the brutal murders of Chris and Houth and supports all efforts to protect humanitarian workers as they carry out life-saving work across the world. MAG has continued to support the victims’ families in their 12 year pursuit for justice and welcomes this trial as a long-awaited culmination of their dedicated efforts. The verdict and possible sentencing is expected in the morning of 14 October 2008.

On the 26 March 1996, technical advisor Christopher, his interpreter Houth and a team of MAG deminers were abducted by Khmer Rouge (KR) soldiers whilst working in an area near Siem Reap. The terrible fate of the two men remained unconfirmed until the capitulation of the Khmer Rouge in 1998. Sadly for the families, the bodies of our colleagues were never recovered. Christopher Howes had been working with the Mines Advisory Group in Cambodia since 1995 and was dedicated to assisting the people of Cambodia, one of the most heavily mined and unexploded ordnance contaminated countries in the world. The street in front of Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh was renamed "Christopher Howes Boulevard" by King Norodom Sihanouk in memory of Chris’ bravery and commitment to humanitarian work in the country.

Twelve years on from this tragedy, MAG continues to carry out life-saving work in Cambodia. Working across the six provinces of Battambang, Krong Pailin, Banteay Meanchey, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom and Kampong Cham, MAG teams help the most vulnerable households in mine-affected communities who require extension of agricultural land, schools, health clinics and temple construction, road access and clean water sources. Website: MAG

Lest we forget

Today was the long-awaited trial day for the five former Khmer Rouge cadre accused of kidnapping and murdering British de-mining expert Christopher Howes and his Cambodian translator Houn Hourth (pictured) in March 1996. I have covered the events of the abduction and the subsequent rumours, lies, alleged sightings and false alarms that followed - click here - before the true fate of both men was established a couple of years later. Bristol-born Christopher came from my neck of the woods in England and so I have concentrated on him to a large extent in my previous postings. However, we must not forget his heroic translator Houn Hourth, who stayed with his technical advisor when the rest of their de-mining team were released, only to lose his life shortly after, when the Khmer Rouge decided he'd outlived his usefulness. His widow, Chhun Kham was at today's trial, which I also attended, and gave a statement about the impact on her life of her husband's death, asking the court to jail the people responsible and to award her appropriate compensation for their actions. Life has been tough for Hourth's widow and in her statement she reiterates; "Since my husband's death, my family has endured great hardship by lacking money to support the studies of my two sons, clothes, and enough nutition and when occasionally my sons get sick, I have no money to pay for medical bills, so that I need to borrow from someone for this payment. Nowadays, I don't have a job besides selling vegetables at Boeung Chhouk market in Battambang province." Houn Hourth was part of the Mines Advisory Group de-mining team that was helping to make Cambodia a safer place when he was kidnapped and murdered, he deserves justice and so does his widow.
[photos courtesy of Mrs Chhun Kham]

The legacy lives on

The main police station in Kompong Cham is a perfect example of the colonial legacy left by the French
In concluding my look at the architecture of Kompong Cham city, I've posted a few more examples of the faded French-colonial style buildings that can be found in pretty much every nook and cranny of the city's tree-lined boulevards and tight, cramped streets around the central market area. The influence of the French administration permeated all levels including the architecture of provincial centres like Kompong Cham, Kratie, Kampot and Battambang until the country finally gained independence in 1953. Their fading legacy lives on in their buildings.
This corner pharmacy and house looks onto the grassy boulevard running parallel to the river
Lovely porticoed balconies overlooking the fruit-shake stalls two blocks from the riverThese shop-houses have decorated arches, tailor-made for shop-fronts
This abandoned house is in need of loving care and attention
The city's Provincial Hall was known as the 'Black Building' before it was painted!
A glorious example of the new Khmer style of architecture that is prominent in the capital
The French-built sports centre including swimming pool and diving board that now moonlights as the city's Tourism Office and a fish farm!

Faded elegance

Faded elegance and an illustrated stone balcony in the old French quarter of Kompong Cham
Today Kompong Cham is a ghost of its once cosmopolitan, vibrant self back in the 1930s and 1940s, when it served as a thriving river port on the mighty Mekong River that supported the sprawling rubber plantations nearby and boasted a wealth of French colonial buildings in grid formation around the central market, though most are now in a state of semi-neglect. A lick of paint and a hinge or two to repair the faded wooden shutters would transform the city centre, though I doubt it will happen soon. One or two of the colonial relics have been touched up but precious few have received the required loving care and attention. The guard-tower on the far bank of the river has been restored and painted mauve and white but the furnace is no longer set alight to warn the town that invaders are on their way. On a stroll around the city centre I snapped away at some of the French colonial-style buildings and post some of the first-floor views here for your delectation. I tried to find out more about the buildings of Kompong Cham but without success. Perhaps one of my readers can lift the veil on the colonial history of Kompong Cham.
Decorated arches lend a certain charm to these 1st-floor balconied apartments
This row of shop-houses faces onto a row of fruit-shake stalls that do brisk business every evening
A touch of paint has brightened up and enhanced the building on the left
These shuttered windows, without a balcony, look out onto the central market
More faded colonial elegance near the central market
A gorgeous portico balcony with supporting columns opposite the central market
Wall decoration adds a touch of style to this 1st-floor apartment

Thursday, October 2, 2008

P'chum Ben ceremony

One for the family album: LtoR: Veasna (brother-in-law), Phanno (nephew), Sopheap (sister), Phanna (niece), Pheany (aunt), Kimsan (mum), Sophoin, Hun (uncle)
One of the reasons I went to Kompong Cham was to join in the final days of the important 15-day P'chum Ben ceremony with my good friend Sophoin and her family. Sophoin lives and works in Phnom Penh but her family all live in Kompong Cham city and like many of her fellow countrymen, she travelled back to her homeland to join her family for this special occasion, to honour the dead, especially her father who died earlier this year and was cremated at the pagoda. However, it's not a solemn occasion as there was much merriment at the pagoda when we visited, though due respect was shown to the monks and laymen during the ceremonial parts of the morning's activities. Offerings of food, drink, clothing and money were made to the monks, to the spirits of the deceased and to say the pagoda, Wat Dei Doh, was heaving with hordes of people, is an understatement. It's a great opportunity for friends and relatives to meet up and exchange news, gossip, cement the family bond and everything else, and to do what all Cambodians love to do, pose for photographs. Sophoin and the female members of her family had been up since the early hours cooking food for the ceremony and for lunch, which is where we went after visiting the pagoda, to enjoy a gorgeous meal of chicken curry, cooked especially for me.
Sophoin (right) pays her respects in the main vihara at Wat Dei Doh
The faithful provide rice for the monks in the alms bowls
The vihara at Wat Dei Doh is packed with people listening to the chanting of the monks
These incense sticks caught alight just as this man approached the holder - he must've had singed eyebrows!
Sophoin takes a moment to pose in front of the vihara at Wat Dei Doh

Team photos

These boys from Wat Ratanak Reangsey were prepared to do battle
There seems to have been a series of team photos on my blog in recent weeks - so why stop now! Here are some team photos from my long weekend in Kompong Cham, all of them captured at pagodas around the province. If some of the smaller children look a bit scared, it's because they are - many of them have never seen a barang up close, let alone been asked to pose for a photograph by one. And on many occasions, the children ran away squealing as soon as I said 'som taut roop.'
Another wat, another team photo, this time at Wat Sovannakiri Meak, near Stung Trang
These boys were trying hard to stifle their giggles at Wat Kralong near Prei Chhor
No smiles from these guys who take it all very seriously, at Wat Vihear Thom in Kompong Siem district
The Wat Ratanak Reangsey group from Han Chey now have a stick to beat me with!

Fantasy Tiger pilot

Larry Partridge, better known for flying over fifty relief missions into Cambodia during 1975 in operation 'Ricelift' which he described in his memoir Flying Tigers Over Cambodia, has just published a fictional novel along the same lines. Titled Kindred Spririts: Dying To Live, it's a 178-page fantasy based on an American pilot who deliberately crashes his airplane to save the lives of children and is rewarded by a guardian angel who makes him mortal again. Read an interview with the author here.

Cambodia - Kingdom of Wonder

You wouldn't believe I work in tourism would you...I forgot to mention the new branding for wooing tourists to visit Cambodia. In attempting to highlight the country and its many attractions, the tourism folks are now telling everyone that Cambodia is more than just Angkor Wat. With a heavy focus on eco-tourism, adverts on CNN International also include Apsara dancers, beaches, shadow puppets and of course, Angkor, under the new slogan of Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder.

So how do you think its sits alongside the other slogans in this part of the world? Here's a few for your digestion: "Amazing Thailand. “Uniquely Singapore.” “Incredible India.” “100% Pure New Zealand.” “Where The Bloody Hell Are You? Come To Australia.” “Malaysia, Truly Asia.” “Indonesia—Islands of the Gods.” “Korea—Soul of Asia.” “Hong Kong—Live It, Love It.” The list goes on. As you are probably aware, Cambodia received 2 million visitors last year (and tourism revenue amounted to $1.4 billion). So how are the other countries in Asia doing on visitor arrivals? Malaysia rose from single digits to 17.5 million visitors in 2006. It expects to hit the 22 million mark this year, and will dislodge Thailand as Southeast Asia’s most preferred destination, being voted as 2007’s world’s favorite. Already the world’s fifth most popular tourist destination, China plans to be the global leader by 2020. China received 28.12 million tourists last year whilst Hong Kong welcomed 28 million. With a national carrier that boasts of flying the world’s biggest aircraft, the A-380, Singapore is about to hit its target of 17 million visitors in 2008. Thailand are looking at receiving 15 million guests this year. Indonesia averages 5.5 million visitors yearly, Vietnam reached 4 million in 2007 whilst the Philippines will receive 3 million. Finally, Laos topped 1.6 million arrivals last year.

Bring on the Ting Mong

The male Ting Mong figure accepts some riel from this disabled former Army soldier
Traditionally used for raising funds by pagodas, important festivals like P'chum Ben see the appearance of the larger-than-life puppets with giant heads known as Ting Mong, hence it was no surprise to see them at Wat Han Chey, 20kms north of Kompong Cham city on Sunday. Accompanying the monks on their walk to the vihara, and amidst a cacophony of drums, whistles and clashing cymbals, the Ting Mong danced and pranced their way amongst the large crowd of onlookers, collecting small riel notes and drawing lots of laughter and giggles, especially from the children. Rooted in the animist beliefs of many Khmers, they are an important facet of Cambodian culture and despite their playful antics, these traditional clowns form a bridge between the spirit forces and their Buddhist beliefs. The male and female figures, with papier-mache heads and wooden hands, were accompanied by smaller characters including the monkey-boy and would perform a short dance at the promise of a cash windfall. They brought a smile to everyone's lips.
This small girl looked terrified by the two Ting Mong figures in front of her
Accompanied by monkey-boy, the two brightly-dressed Ting Mong figures danced through the crowds
These two Ting Mong figures at Wat Han Chey mercilessly teased the disabled boy sat on the ground, but he responded by lifting up the female's dress! The crowd loved it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Remarkable carvings abound

A 'mini flying palace' on a rare cella at Prasat Han Chey
Intricate carvings are the hallmark of the Angkorean-era craftsman who decorated their magnifient temples with gloriously intricate lintels, pediments and other carvings. On my visit to Kompong Cham at the weekend to celebrate P'chum Ben, I also got out into the countryside on the hunt for some of the smaller temples that just a handful of tourists visit but which contain some beautiful examples of the art of carving from the Angkorean period. These two shown here are just a brief taster of what I found. The top carving can be seen at the base of a square cella at Prasat Han Chey, north of Kompong Cham city, and is a miniature stylized representation of a larger temple, almost in the style of the 'flying palaces' of Sambor Prei Kuk. The kneeling and praying female figure below is from a lintel I located under a tree at Wat Speu in the Chamkar Leu district, on the northern fringes of the province. The lintel appeared to be in the Sambor Prei Kuk style (mid-7th century) too, which technically is pre-Angkorean but I'm sure you get my drift.
A praying female figure on a lintel at Wat Speu in Chamkar Leu district

30 years on

Photographer Nhem En at Tuol Sleng
The Khmer Rouge cadre who photographed the prisoners of Tuol Sleng as they arrived at the former school-cum-interrogation center, will be the subject of a film by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki (Days of Waiting,1990), who spent much of January in Cambodia, producing his latest documentary, The Conscience of Nhem En. The hour-long program, which will air on the United States' channel HBO in 2009, takes an intimate look at the country 30 years after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. In the film, three of the S-21 survivors will tell their stories, as does Nhem En, a 16-year-old at the time, who photographed thousands of prisoners before they were executed. His testimony lacks regret or sympathy. “The interesting thing for me was the photographer,” says Okazaki of Nhem En. “He was a Khmer Rouge soldier, who was trained in lighting and photography, but he is not a traditional sort of character to build a movie around. He was 16 years old and he is kind of a cold, cold person. It became sort of the challenge of this film: to build it around someone who actually is not admirable.” Okazaki traveled to Cambodia to conduct research for the film and was surprised to find so many of the interview subjects available. He decided to begin production immediately. Outfitted with just a single Sony HVR HDV camera, and assisted by an associate producer, he spent 17 days shooting interviews and capturing stills of the surviving prisoner photos. Many were intentionally destroyed by fire once the Khmer Rouge’s reign came to an end. “When the Vietnamese came in, I think they immediately realized the importance of them and preserved them, and decided that the prison would become a museum,” says Okazaki. “There is an exhibit there and they’ve mounted the photographs, sort of haphazardly. And sometimes you don’t know what it is that you are looking at. But for some strange reason, they used a large format camera and lighting, and did these quite beautiful portraits of the people before they were killed. Some of the people clearly know that they are about to die, but some people look strangely oblivious to what is going on.”
Note: Another documentary titled The Genocide Forgotten, by American professor Tim Sorel will also come out next year to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. He will focus on ongoing efforts to educate and inform Cambodians, especially young Cambodians, about what happened in the country in the 1970s, and how awareness of history can lead to a national healing. I helped out Tim with the shooting for his film in March this year. Expect a slew of documentaries and films early next year to acknowledge the anniversary of the end of the Khmer Rouge control of Cambodia.

Getting closer

This boy dismounted moments after I took this picture
I'm getting closer to that quintessential photo of the lone boy sitting on a water buffalo surrounded by hectares of bright green paddy fields. It's a picture that's managed to elude me so far despite my extensive travels across this beautiful country. Everyone else seems to manage it, but not me. I see the opportunity in the distance but when I get closeby, the boy usually dismounts or turns away at the moment of truth. It's happened so many times that I'm definitely jinxed when it comes to that photograph. However, here's a couple of shots of buffalo boys taken yesterday in Kdei Beng village, miles from anywhere in Kompong Cham province.
On their way home for the day

The people you meet

Vannat and myself on the riverfront at Kompong Cham. The Kizuna Bridge is in the background.
As always on my trips into the countryside of Cambodia, it's the people that I meet that make my time so worthwhile and enjoyable. For example, take a couple of people that I encountered on my visit to Kompong Cham this weekend. I was walking along the riverfront, cursing silently that both the western-run cafes, Mekong Crossing and Lazy Mekong Daze were closed, when a moto pulled up alongside me and a voice said, "can I help you?' It turned out to be none other than Vannat, a local tour guide that I'd wanted to meet for a few years but never managed it! Recommended to me by Nick Ray and mentioned in the Lonely Planet as 'the man to meet in Kompong Cham,' it was like meeting an old friend as we chatted for half an hour about the secret places to visit in the province and the people that we both knew. He's been a teacher for many years but makes himself available as a guide, speaking both English and French fluently and knows his province inside out. He was due to be the fixer for some architects the next day, who were looking to renovate an old wooden pagoda on an island in the Mekong, whilst also taking another group of VSO workers on a visit to the best-preserved of the wooden pagodas, at Wat Moha Leap. This man is seriously busy, but next time you want the services of the best guide in Kompong Cham, call him on 012 995 890.
Yesterday morning I was passing the French-built Kompong Cham tourism office - which used to be a sports centre and still boasts a swimming pool and diving board, though the only swimming done now is by the fish in the fish-farm - when my friend Sophoin said she recognised the man standing on the steps, so we stopped to chat. His name is Pong Yen and he's been the city's Director of Tourism for the last twenty years but still recognised one of his former students even though they hadn't seen each other for a decade. Some officials bask in their title and position, but not Pong Yen. He immediately invited us to a tourism event later this week (which I had to decline), was down to earth and jovial and we talked about how the profile of the province had risen in recent years with easier access and the emergence of popular sites like Han Chey, Teuk Cha and so on. He also reminded me that the city has a museum which I still haven't seen for myself but will on my next visit. A genuinely nice guy.
Pong Yen and myself on the steps of the Tourism office at Kompong Cham