Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pidan at Reyum

As I missed the Pidan exhibition opening earlier this week at the Reyum Gallery , whilst I was in the area this morning I paid a visit with Sophoin to find out a bit more about pidan, something which I was totally unaware of until recently. It's actually a piece of cloth that is traditionally hung above statues of the Buddha, so for years I've been visiting pagodas around the country and was oblivious to an artform in front of me, but which I didn't even notice! It can be made from different types of cloth of different colours, sizes and design but the best pidan is made from silk and is beautifully patterned, much of it coming from the old hol pidan silk-weavers of Takeo. The pidan exhibition at Reyum has some beautifully patterned pieces on show, information on how it is produced and a book has been published by Reyum and the Japanese-led Pidan Project Team to document this vanishing art.
Sophoin spots her favourite piece of pidan
The walls of Reyum are lined with examples of multi-coloured pidan
This busy scene has a variety of colourful characters included in its story
This is easy to spot, its Hanuman with Angkor also represented
This is part of the story of Prince Vessantara from the life story of Buddha
Elephants and temples feature heavily on this example of the pidan artform

32 Sothearos Boulevard

The frontage of 32 Sothearos Boulevard
32 Sothearos Boulevard, known this week as the Bodega, is the well-worn neo-classical French colonial style building opposite the National Museum that has been vacant for a while now but which is slated for development in the near future by FCC. As part of the current Phnom Penh photography exhibition, it's been temporarily taken-over by the Melon Rouge Photo Agency and is hosting a collection of photography, video and slideshow presentations until 7 December. I paid a flying visit this morning to snap anything of interest I could see, though I must say I wasn't blown away by the photos on display. The building itself dates from 1930 and is pretty knackered and needs some loving care and attention to breathe some life back into it. Nevertheless, it was nice to have the opportunity to nose around. Link: Mr Bodega
Neo-classical wall mountings are on the ground and 1st floors
Colourful floor tiles with dizzying patterns in need of a good clean
This lady carrying a pitcher on her head is under threat from vegetation
More of those patterned floor tiles on the 1st floor
This elegant classical beauty can be found on the ground floor
Ah, even more of those patterned tiles
With flowing hair and clothes, this beauty belongs to a bygone era
These floor tiles are certainly in need of some restoration
One of the photo exhibits under a classic arch on the 1st floor
A reminder of what is not allowed inside
This neo-classical doorway also has chinese influences
The National Museum is to be seen from the 1st floor balcony at the Bodega

Silence from the minnows

The Suzuki Cup's minnows - Cambodia
I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record but I still can't understand why the press here in Cambodia, well the English-language press as I don't read Khmer, has remained completely silent about the upcoming AFF 2008 Suzuki Cup tournament in which Cambodia, the competition's underdogs, minnows, no-hopers, call them what you will, will pit themselves against the best countries in the region. It's Cambodia's world cup if you like and yet the column inches devoted to their build-up, preparation and chances of success has been precisely zero, zilch, nada, nowt. Piss poor is how I see it. I can go online and find pages of reports from the other countries but for Cambodia its been a barren build-up to their biggest competition for years. Some of the other countries like Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia have had their teams in training camps for the last two months and have played up to ten friendlies and a warm-up tournament to get to the peak of match fitness. Cambodia's preparation has been considerably less, with the national Premier League only finishing its final games last weekend, leaving the national coach Prak Sovannara with just two weeks to prepare his squad for the competition. Obviously that's not nearly enough time to get them in the right shape physically or mentally, but its as good as he's going to get so they'll have to deal with it as best they can. The squad are preparing themselves at the National Football Centre 17kms outside of the capital, training each morning and evening before they fly to Jakarta three days before their first game. Their last serious match together was the 2-1 success over Brunei in the final game of the qualifying tournament in Phnom Penh on 25 October when Khim Borey's goal fifteen minutes from time sent them through as runners-up to Laos. In the qualifiers, they also beat Laos 3-2, drew 2-2 with Timor Leste and lost 3-2 against the Philippines.

The competition has been spilt into two groups. Cambodia are in Group A where the games will be played in Jakarta and they will kick-off the tournament against the current holders and favourites Singapore next Friday (5th Dec). Singapore themselves, coached by Serb Raddy Avramovic, have just finished their domestic S-League championships so are in the same boat as Cambodia, but their squad is far more experienced in international competition and are tipped to win the Suzuki Cup for a third consecutive time. Cambodia will meet co-hosts Indonesia in their second game on the 7th, and then finish their group matches against Myanmar on the 9th. In the Thailand-hosted Group B, which has been switched to Phuket as the airport problems in Bangkok escalate, the host country managed by Brit Peter Reid will face Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia. The semi-finals will be played from 16-21 December and the two-legged final on 24 and 28 December. In all honesty Cambodia are not expected to progress or even get a point from their group matches. Their experience at this level of competition is virtually non-existent and with their obvious weaknesses in defence, and with so little time to put it right, I'm hopeful the coach will get his team playing an all-out offensive gameplan. The matches will be televised, so even if the English-language newspapers remain silent, you should be able to watch the games on tv here in Asia. Come on Cambodia!

Final engagement

Two authors meet - the real one is on the left
A well-attended book-signing and talk by Sichan Siv at Monument Books last night was the final public engagement of the former Ambassador's brief visit to Cambodia with his wife Martha. It went so well that Monument sold its complete stock of his book, Golden Bones. In his talk, before he invited questions from the audience, Sichan mentioned the importance of the 4 F's - faith, friends, family and freedom - and of course the message that underlines everything else in his book, and his life, to never give up hope. He invited feedback from everyone who'll read his book and hopes it will be published in the Khmer language sometime soon; its currently being translated into Chinese.
It's a book-signing - what else did you expect!
Sichan Siv discusses a few select passages from his inspiring memoir, Golden Bones

Statesman Son Soubert

Meeting Son Soubert for the first time with an intro from Martha Pattillo Siv. Photo courtesy Jim Mizerski
I mentioned yesterday that I was fortunate enough to meet His Excellency Son Soubert a couple of times and thanks to photographer Jim Mizerski, here's the record of our first meeting at the National Library for the donation of his memoir Golden Bones, by former US Ambassador Sichan Siv. Jim, a resident of Long Beach, California and a retired American naval officer, has often been in Cambodia following his passion for photography since 2003 and has held exhibitions of his work here, and was kind enough to let me post a couple of his photos. Introductions were made by Martha, Sichan's wife before Sichan joined the conversation. HE Son Soubert is a member of Cambodia's Constitutional Council and a former deputy speaker of the National Assembly. He originally trained as an archaeologist in France, became a professor in the Faculty of Archaeology of the Royal University of Fine Arts and has held many positions in government. During 1993-98, he served as second vice-president of the National Assembly and in March 1998, he became president of the Son Sann Party, a party founded by his father, who served as Prime Minister in the late-60s and who formed the Khmer People's National Liberation Front in 1979, one-third of a three-part coalition movement that opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in the '80s.
In deep discussion with Sichan Siv (left) and Son Soubert (right). Photo courtesy Jim Mizerski

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The legendary Ieng Sithul

The man on the left with the krama is the legendary Ieng Sithul. Forget the other guy.
I mentioned last night that the extraordinary Cambodian performer Ieng Sithul was involved in the new opera Where Elephants Weep and realized you may not have heard of this particular man, even though he's instantly recognizable in his homeland. Ieng Sithul is a master of many Khmer traditional instruments and a classical and traditional singer of great repute. He is from a musical family and sang professionally as a child before the Khmer Rouge years. Afterwards, he studied instruments under his uncle, Meng Hun, the greatest instrumentalist of the last two decades. Sithul is now a familiar host on Cambodian television, radio (right) and stage and one of the most popular recording artists in Cambodia today. He has a deep knowledge of traditional culture and is a high-profile supporter of classical Khmer art with his involvement with Cambodian Living Arts. However for the last twelve years he has suffered from a heart ailment which has meant he has had to be very careful with his schedule. But that didn't stop this Khmer living legend from taking a group of young Cambodian folk dancers and musicians from the Tonle Bassac in Phnom Penh on a tour of the UK and Scotland in August, where they performed at the WOMAD Festival (WOMAD) in England and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning awards, rave reviews, and audience praise throughout. Now he's playing three parts no less in the headline-grabbing opera at the Chenla Theatre and gathering a new set of fans in the process. Long may he continue.


Bruno and his maps

One of Bruno's maps of Preah Vihear province
Speaking to Bruno Bruguier over lunch yesterday whetted my appetite for further adventures into the Cambodian countryside to unearth ancient archaeological sites that Bruno and his team have already identified on their Carte Archéologique du Cambodge maps, which cover all the provinces of the country where archaeological sites can be found. It was our first chance to meet up after many emails back and forth and Bruno is a man after my own heart. But of course he's the expert and I'm the complete amateur. He began his amazing project to map and record all of Cambodia's archaeological sites, before, during and after Angkor, in 1990 and is still going. Funds have dried up to expand the database as Bruno would like, so he is open to offers for funding to continue this invaluable work. He's registered over 4,000 sites, has another 1,000 that need to be finalized before they can be added to the maps and database and he knows there are still areas like the Cardamoms and Svay Rieng that have yet to be properly explored and documented. He hasn't done it alone of course, a small team has worked with him over the years to locate the main sites and then to widen the search on the ground with the help of local villagers. The maps themselves are a collaboration between EFEO (The French Institue of Oriental Studies) for whom Bruno works, when he's not teaching Khmer history at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the Ministry of Culture & Fine Arts. The maps have been published in both French and Khmer and are for sale at the National Museum and the French Cultural Center for $3 each. A corresponding interactive website, Carte Interactive des Sites Archéologiques Khmers (CISARK) with photos and additional information can be found here and though its mostly in French, Bruno is hoping to expand the languages to include English, Khmer and Japanese. But all this takes time and money, which is always in short supply. As an additional off-shoot of the project, Bruno and his wife have written six manuscripts of the major temples and archeological sites around Cambodia, on a regional basis. The first of those manuscripts, Southern Cambodia, has been made into a book by Reyum with many photographs and maps and is scheduled to be published at the end of January next year. The text will be in French because there was no funds available to translate it into English. If you haven't already guessed Bruno and his EFEO colleagues are all from France. It was a great pleasure to meet Bruno, I loved his natural enthusiasm for his work and I'm sure we'll remain in touch as I feed him any additional information I unearth.

New acquaintances

Sichan Siv explaining his previous visits to the National Library, as a schoolboy
A day of meeting and greeting. I met HE Son Soubert this afternoon at the National Library for the first time and then again at the Opera Premiere at the Chenla Theatre in the evening. A very gracious man who has a penchant for archaeology, as does another first-time liaison with Bruno Bruguier, my lunch-time companion at Khmer Kitchen restaurant. Son Soubert has served in many positions in government in Cambodia, is very highly respected for his statesmanship, and is the son of the late Prime Minister Son Sann. For his sins, Bruno works for EFEO and teaches at the Sorbonne, and is the man behind the CISARK archaeological maps of the provinces of Cambodia - a fantastic resource for any temple-hunter like myself. We talked maps (he's looking for more finance to extend the mapping project), temples and about his forthcoming book on ancient temples in southern Cambodia, due out at the end of January. The only problem - it's to be published only in French, by Reyum.
The reason for visiting the National Library was to witness the donation of a copy of his inspiring memoir, Golden Bones to the head librarian at the Bibliotheque, Khlot Vibolla by former Ambassador Sichan Siv, in the city for a couple of days before heading back out to the United States. Accompanied by his wife Martha and a host of high-ranking government officials, Sichan presented the book to the library recalling his days spent in its hallowed halls and has a dedication in his book, taken from the library walls. I was shown around the library with Martha by Khlot, who took great pride in her collections and it was great to see so many youngsters in the reading room taking advantage of the library's extensive bookshelves, which were decimated by the Khmer Rouge and the halls used as a pigsty. As soon as this event finished I jumped on a moto and headed over to the Chenla Theatre for my night rubbing shoulders with the stars!
Sichan Siv and his wife Martha are accompanied by Khlot Vibolla (green) and Thary Ung (red)
A dedication on the wall of the Library can be found at the front of the Golden Bones memoir: 'Force ties for a time. Ideas bind forever'
Sichan Siv & Martha with some of the government officials who joined the book donation ceremony
On the steps of the Bibliotheque with Son Soubert on the far left and members of the Library staff

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Elephants are celebrating

The legendary Ieng Sithul and a freeloader who gatecrashed the premiere - oh that's me then!
I must say I really enjoyed the show tonight. My thanks to Anthony for the ticket and to Marie, his wife and my companion for the evening. Where Elephants Weep was my first rock-opera and I hope it won't be my last. If you suspend belief for the duration of the performance, the musical-cum-opera is a love story of course, between Sam and Bopha set in Cambodia in the mid-90s, mixing traditional elements of Cambodian music with a rock element which worked well and though it's heavily influenced by the involvement of western actors and production team, it captures its fair share of the conflict between tradition and modernity in Cambodia today. I'm the least qualified to give an in-depth critique of the show, suffice to say it was a professional performance from all concerned and one which will show another dimension to the performing arts for the local audiences next week. The show attracted the great and the good from senior government ministers to actors, actresses such as Dy Savet, singers including Preap Savath, statesmen like Son Soubert and Sichan Siv, the list was endless. On stage I was so pleased to see the likes of master musician and singer Ieng Sithul, the beautiful classical ballet star Sam Sathya and Dang Kosal as one of the bodyguards. Kosal was working at Meta House until he joined the production three months ago and its a wonderful opportunity for the young man to make his mark. The tickets for tonight's VIP world premiere topped $250 including a champagne and cocktail reception, so once again thanks to Anthony for the freebie.
The two leads - Sam (Michael K Lee) and Bopha (Diane Veronica Phelan)
Members of cast and crew celebrate their success
Ex-Meta House pal & bodyguard Dang Kosal and his PR photo above in the cap
Executive producer John Burt (front) and members of cast, crew and friends enjoying the limelight. Yes, that's BosbaPANH sat on the floor.

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Where Andy weeps

A street ad for When Elephants Weep on Monivong Boulevard
I'm miffed again. This time it's with the folks at the Khmer Rock opera Where Elephants Weep that has garnered so much attention in recent weeks and where the publicity juggernaught has been in overdrive, promoting the event which kicks off tonight with its VIP Premiere at the Chenla Theatre. I booked my tickets for one of the cheaper shows on Saturday 6th when the WEW cast did a brief preview at Meta House over a week ago, and I called them today to arrange a time to pick up the tickets. Lo and behold, all tickets have been sold out for all the shows and my booking has been ignored, even though I gave it to one of the ticket organisers! I am not a happy chappy as you might imagine. I have given this opera a lot of coverage on my blog, I am even a judge in a competition with Expat Advisory to give away free tickets, yet I find myself cut adrift without a ticket of my own. There's been mention of another show being put on, but even so, I ordered my tickets in good faith and to-date, have been badly let down. It's all well and good promoting an event and getting it out there in front of everyone but that needs to be backed up with a robust ticket and booking operation in the background, or else it falls flat on its face. I am awaiting a call from WEW to see whether they have managed to wrangle me a ticket afterall. It also makes me wonder whether I'm an isolated case or whether there's a rump of unhappy opera enthusiasts gnashing their teeth like I am. More later.
Update (12 noon): I'm not crying as much now. Just had call from WEW and they can get me some cheap tickets for Saturday 6th. Not the seats I booked and I'll be with the riff-raff (only kiddin') but at least I should get to see the opera afterall. Well done WEW for coming through with a compromise after you made the booking error, and therefore the compromise is all mine! But as my mum used to say, beggars can't be choosers. She was full of useless quotes like that. Her all-time favourite was 'never trouble trouble, til trouble troubles you' - whatever that means. She is long departed from this planet, but not forgotten, her quotes live on.
Further update (2pm): I've stopped crying and am now smiling. Someone just called and offered me a ticket for tonight's VIP Premiere, free of charge, as long as I accompany their wife. I agreed without hesitation. A free show, lovely female company and I get to see it on opening night. The day could not have turned out better. I should moan more often!


Just another week

With tourist numbers to Cambodia already falling, the crisis at Bangkok's two airports is helping no-one, least of all Thailand. They seem hell-bent on becoming Enemy No 1, and it's succeeding. They've also accused Cambodia of laying landmines at Preah Vihear. What next? Are Cambodia putting arsenic in the Mekong River - whoops, that was a story this week too. In other news, Siem Reap Airways have been grounded; foreigners can marry Khmers again; rumours abound that Angelina Jolie and Brad will be here for the opening night of Where Elephants Weep; Global Witness and the monkey rights groups attack the government again; Somaly Mam gets 1 million Euros from Germany; Placebo will play Angkor Wat; the new OK Condom gets its public airing on Monday; and Cambodian monks get some more bad press with the rape of a British woman in Battambang. Oh, there are two photography exhibitions in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh but very little, if any, local involvement amongst the exhibitors, hence I haven't bothered to mention them. As you can see, it's just another week in Cambodia.
A monk in Battambang wearing my brother Tim's sunglasses

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Students get message of hope

Sichan Siv takes time out after his talk to meet members of the student audience
Nearly 500 students, monks and teachers at Pannasastra University listened intently to a forty-minute talk from Sichan Siv tonight at the University's Srey Dim Conference Hall on Norodom Boulevard on his life story and the main theme running through his memoir Golden Bones to 'never give up hope.' His is a remarkable story of a Cambodian-born immigrant in the United States to rise to such a prominent level in government and diplomatic circles and to have served two US Presidents with distinction. He answered questions from the assembly before taking time out to chat to individual students, pose for photos and autographs. As an ambassador-in-residence for Troy University in Alabama, Sichan is hopeful of establishing a partnership with Pannasastra, where he previously spoke to students and faculty members more than two years ago. Following the event, I was able to join a very enjoyable dinner party at Malis restaurant in Sichan's honour, hosted by Minister of Education, Youth & Sports, Dr Kol Pheng, who is the founder of Pannasastra. Sichan Siv is due to present a copy of his book to the National Library tomorrow (Friday) at 4pm and on Saturday at 6pm will host a book-signing session for his Golden Bones autobiography at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard.

Letters to the editor

My letter to the editor regarding the appalling lack of national sports coverage made page 6 of the Phnom Penh Post today. They chopped it up a little bit (but they do reserve that right) but they printed it nevertheless. Bravo. They know their faults as confirmed by their chief subeditor - I hope they manage to get a sports editor/reporter soon to fill that void.

Here's the letter as printed in the PPP:
More national sport coverage, please
Dear Editor,
To say I am disappointed with the local football coverage provided by the Post is an understatement. [On Tuesday] I read a back-page article on homeless football, a full-page article no less, about five teenagers! Good luck to them, I say, but at the weekend the final matches of the professional Cambodia Premier League were played and new champions crowned with absolutely no mention at all in the Post.
There is too much coverage of international sport and almost zero coverage of national sport, especially football, which is so immensely popular in Cambodia. Very soon, the national team will take part in the AFF Suzuki Cup in Indonesia, but so far no articles about the build-up to this competition have appeared at all.
I think the Post needs to urgently review its sporting priorities to ensure a good mix of national and international stories, without an emphasis on the latter.
Andy Brouwer, Phnom Penh
Or click this link.

One more look

One of the classical dancers in reflective mode
In wrapping up the book launch event at Monument Books last night, here's a few more photos just to spread the limelight about a bit more fairly, instead of the radiant Srey Mao grabbing all the attention. The teenagers put on a great show, both with their dance and their music, and how they conducted themselves in general. They were a credit to their teacher and the NGO that looks after them. I hope they get many more similar opportunities to show off their artistic skills. Don't forget the NGO name, Angkar Sangkruos Komar Borey Bakheng from Preak Leap, just outside Phnom Penh.
This is Hanuman, the monkey king giving himself a good scratch
The dancers and the orchestra come to the end of their first performance
One of the female dancers in full regalia
The 9-member pinpeat orchestra and two of the singers at the front - all teenagers
Classic Khmer beauty and poise

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Book launch minus author

The classical dancers give their support to the new book, Cambodian Dance
It didn't seem right that a book launch could be scheduled without the appearance of the author but that's exactly what happened at Monument books in Phnom Penh this evening - and it turned out just fine. In fact Monument Books went out of their way to make up for the absence of author Denise Heywood, residing back home in London, by entertaining the good crowd with a performance of classical Cambodian dance, accompanied by a youthful pinpeat orchestra, a great spread of food and drink and an introduction to the evening by celebrated author and owner of the publishers, River Books, MR Narisa Chakrabongse. It was earlier this year that Narisa, the founder and chairwoman of Green World Foundation, had boycotted an offer to carry the Olympic torch in protest of China's actions against Tibet. She is a well-established author herself with books published on the Thai royal family and edited Denise Heywood's new book. The teenage dancers and orchestra came from the Preak Leap-based NGO Angkar Sangkruos Komar Borey Bakheng, who provide free arts training to the poor and gifted of the village of Bakheng, just outside the capital. They put on a fine show which fitted in perfectly with the theme of the evening's launch, and the title of the new book, Cambodian Dance. I must also congratulate Monument on their catering efforts too (courtesy of Java Cafe) but of course they now have to maintain these high standards they have set themselves, starting with the book-signing by Ambassador Sichan Siv and his Golden Bones book on Saturday evening.
MR Narisa Chakrabongse offers her view on the excellent new book by Denise Heywood
Three of the dancers and the pinpeat orchestra, all from Bakheng village
Some of the audience show their appreciation for the dance performance
The whole company take their bow at the end of the show

The adorable Srey Mao

Srey Mao takes a well-earned breather after her dance performance
Srey Mao was one of the teenage dancers who performed at the book launch of Denise Heywood's Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods at Monument Books in Phnom Penh this evening. She was radiant in her shimmering green bodice and sampot, ornamental bracelets and anklets and her gold head-dress known as a mkot, topped with fragipani flowers. One of the dancers from Angkar Sangkruos Komar Borey Bakheng, where all the performers and musicians were in their teens, she trains for a couple of hours each day to hone her dancing skills. She isn't in the top echelon of dancers that perform with the likes of Cambodian Living Arts or Amrita Arts as she is still learning her art but her admirable performance this evening was full of promise and she could easily go onto join one of the top troupes with a little luck. She is also a beautiful girl in the classic Khmer tradition and in the golden age of classical dance would've been whisked off into the royal ballet and the King's harem. Here's some more photos of Srey Mao strutting her stuff in demure fashion.
Full of movement, Srey Mao is backed by a youthful pinpeat orchestra
No smile, her gaze is fixed, she is in the zone
Srey Mao follows the lead of her dance colleague in gold and yellow
Hours of practice and stretching makes perfect
Framed by her fragrant flowers, Srey Mao is a study in concentration
Srey Mao, a radiant beauty
The end of the dance, the end of the performance

No time to fart

I'm rushing around like a blue-arsed fly today. First we had a counsel of war in the office to decide on a strategy to deal with the problems at Bangkok's two airports, where all flights in and out have been cancelled. Bloody anti-government protesters should be shot (just joking). I'm still amazed that the Thai military have not adopted their usual heavy-handed approach to civil matters. Usually they just go in guns-blazing.
Then I attended a meeting at GTZ to discuss the results of a recent FAM trip to Sambor Prei Kuk and to look at ways in which the community-based tourism project there can move forwards. GTZ are currently helping them out but won't be in place forever so the community have to get their act together, both now and in the future. They have a real good product in the pre-Angkor temples of Sambor Prei Kuk, but getting a robust community-project off the ground isn't easy here in Cambodia. GTZ then treated us to lunch at a nearby eatery.
This afternoon, I was at the British Embassy trying to get through the legal paperwork for a passport for a friend's new-born baby. It's like pulling-teeth, the paperwork is typically bureaucratic and every i needs to be dotted and every t crossed, in triplicate. It was already my 2nd visit to the Embassy on the same mission. I ended up having to go and locate the baby in question and take photos of her against a white background. Not an easy task to keep a two-month old baby still whilst lying on a large white t-shirt! I may have to try again tomorrow as my initial efforts were crap.
In an hour I will be off to Monument Books for the book launch of Denise Heywood's gorgeous coffee-table book Cambodian Dance, which is going ahead without Denise, but at least we'll have some classical dance performers strutting their stuff alongwith some refreshments. In a double-header, I will have to miss Gillian Green's book launch at Reyum on Cambodian textiles, which to be honest is a bit too specialist even for an avid book fiend like me.
To give me some peace of mind, here's a sunset - I adore sunsets - from my recent trip to Sihanoukville, taken from Independence Beach.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lack of sports coverage

I am very miffed at the Phnom Penh Post and their coverage, or lack of, local and national sport. They pack their three pages of daily sport with international sports stories and articles from the newswires, namely AFP, the British newspapers or those from the States. But they fail miserably to cover what I see as important local and national Cambodian sports stories that deserve equal billing, at least, with the worldwide stuff. Take Monday's PPP for example. It displayed stories about Arsenal's current woes, Hong Kong golf and the demise of British rugby, but failed to even give a one-liner to the conclusion of the Cambodia Premier League football championships on Saturday and Sunday. There is absolutely no excuse for this omission. If they had asked me, I would've done them a few lines. Instead they missed an opportunity to highlight a sport which has massive grassroots appeal in Cambodia. To omit details of this national football competition - it deserves a weekly round-up at the absolute minimum - is scandalous in the extreme. The Cambodia football team will be playing in their first Asean football competition finals for years in the Suzuki Cup in Jakata early next month - will the PPP even be aware of it? In any other country, the build-up to this competition would be filling column inches for weeks in advance - but not at the Phnom Penh Post. Then, blow me down with a feather, the PPP today hosted a story that filled the back page about five homeless boys who will compete in the Homeless World Cup in Australia next month, representing Cambodia. A local story I grant you but no-one has ever heard of the Homeless World Cup. PPP get your priorities right please.
I whipped a letter off to them earlier today and their chief subeditor responded in double-quick time. He lamented the lack of a dedicated sports editor (they are searching for one as I type) and agreed that more coverage of local sport is needed, adding that he sincerely hoped for an improvement in the near future. I wholeheartedly agree. The PPP is an important source of news in Cambodia, but that must include the cream of the local and national sport if it is to realise its claim as Cambodia's Newspaper of Record.

Man of vision

I was pleased to read today of an award to a man with a vision who helped to create the Cambodia Trust and give life and hope back to thousands of disabled people across the globe, especially in Cambodia. I met Dr Peter Carey (pictured) for the first time in 2003 when he gave a talk at one of my Magic of Cambodia charity days in the UK. I was impressed. The story of kicking-off the Trust was bread and butter to me at that time and Peter and people like Stan Windass deserve more than awards for their selfless efforts to help others. Anyway, here's the story.

Thame charity founder awarded Beacon Prize - ThamesNews.Net, UK
Dr Peter Carey has been awarded the Beacon Prize for Leadership for his work in co-founding the Cambodia Trust and leading its expansion across Cambodia into Timor Leste, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, making a positive impact on the lives of over 30,000 landmine survivors and other disadvantaged disabled people. The prize was awarded at a ceremony in London on November 18, 2008. Peter is just one of six recipients of the 2008 Beacon Prize and joins the ranks of previous Beacon winners such as Sir Bob Geldof, Jamie Oliver and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, who have all been recognised for their charitable work through what has become known as the 'Nobel Prize of the charity world', a phrase first coined by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The Cambodia Trust has developed rehabilitation services for disadvantaged disabled people in four developing countries and trained local staff to run these services in the long-term. Peter helped to found the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics (CSPO), where students from Cambodia and other developing countries are trained to internationally-recognised standards to prescribe and fit prosthetic limbs and orthopaedic braces, which are essential for the rehabilitation of people affected by landmines, polio, leprosy and other conditions. Peter has a strong commitment to ensuring that his projects are sustainable and so has placed great emphasis on working in partnership with local government and NGOs. The aim is to build local capacity so that projects can eventually be handed over to local, trained management.

Under Peter's leadership: 122 students have graduated from CSPO, including enough Cambodians to staff all the rehabilitation centres in Cambodia. Around 30,500 limbs and braces are being fitted by CSPO graduates annually, enabling thousands of landmine survivors and other disabled people to gain self-sufficiency. Over 80% of children receiving rehabilitation at the Trust's rehabilitation centres go on to start school once their mobility is improved; over 230 disabled children receive the support they need to attend school every year; around 150 disabled adults a year are assisted to start vocational training or on-the-job training, with 80% accessing work thereafter; 612 adults have received start-up support to establish small businesses; 9 former CSPO students have graduated with Bachelor's degrees, enabling a phasing out of expatriate staff at CSPO as Cambodians qualify as lecturers and leaders.

CSPO has also trained prosthetists from Afghanistan, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Timor Leste, Georgia, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kiribati, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Martyn Lewis, former Chairman of Beacon, who hosted Tuesday's Prize Ceremony, said: "The impact of Peter's work is truly outstanding, not only because of the sheer numbers of landmine victims and disabled people who have received assistance, but also because of the local capacity he has built through training up professionals and working closely with local people."

Speaking just ahead of the ceremony, Peter said: "I am delighted to win a Beacon Prize and I sincerely hope that it will focus attention what can be a forgotten problem – the physical disabilities that landmine survivors can be left with. A great deal can be done for them and lives can be rebuilt but this requires international support and resources." As well as receiving his award, Peter was inaugurated as a Beacon Fellow, a community of Beacon Prize winners who together champion charitable causes across the globe and nurture a wider culture of giving in the UK.

Below is a blog post on the Cambodia Trust's website from Peter Carey, which explains a bit more:

The Cambodia Trust will soon be celebrating its twentieth birthday. So much has happened in that time yet it still seems just yesterday when when the three Trust co-founders - former diplomat John Pedler, peace facilitator Stan Windass and myself as oddball Oxford historian with a life-long involvement in Southeast Asia - were sitting around the fire in Stan Windass’s house in Adderbury plotting an humanitarian initiative in Cambodia. Just three ordinary people with a determination to do something for one of the most beautiful but tragic countries in the world.

What could such a group do to address such a pressing need as that posed by Cambodia’s landmine victims, the initiative requested of us by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen? The first donations, which came from the public response to our appeal in The Independent Magazine of 3 August 1990 by generous-hearted people like yourselves, enabled us to get started. Like the widow’s mite the £90,000 contributed to that magazine appeal and the £25,000 offered by Clive Marks of the Lord Leigh and Ashdown trusts has multiplied mightily over the past two decades. Now the Trust is one of the world’s leaders in the provision of quality rehabilitation and international-standard teaching in the prosthetic-orthotic field. In Cambodia alone over 20,000 people have been rehabilitated in our clinics. Truly international and counting over 15 nationalities amongst its pupils - The Cambodian School of Prosthetics & Orthotics has prospered mightily inspiring our principal funder, the Nippon Foundation of Japan to support similar initiatives in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Here the hand of fate has pointed at me. After 42 years variously as student, graduate researcher and teaching fellow at Trinity College, I have resigned the safety of Oxford’s most beautiful college for a new life in Jakarta, a country which I last knew in the 1970s as a doctoral student and which is now much in the news given US President elect Barack Obama’s childhood when he was four years a junior high school student in Indonesia’s capital city. No longer an academic, I am now the Trust’s new Project Director in Indonesia for that vast (240 million population) and vibrant country’s first international school of prosthetics and orthotics.

This new school is being established under the auspices of the Indonesian Ministry of Health and is designed to become Indonesia’s premier teaching institution for health professionals in the disability field. One day, its graduates will staff the planned six provincial prosthetics and orthotics schools and may themselves train enough practitioners to address the needs of Indonesia’s estimated 2.5 million amputees. A daunting task for the Trust’s next twenty years and one which proves that all great enterprises come from the heart! Link: Cambodia Trust

Monday, November 24, 2008

Looking forward

The Cambodia football team charged with Suzuki Cup success next month
With the end of the Cambodia Premier League season at the weekend, all football eyes will now turn to the national team's participation in the biennial AFF Suzuki Cup 2008 Championships that will be played in Indonesia and Thailand early next month. Football is a massive participation sport in Cambodia, though most of it takes place on the streets, on waste-ground or more visibly, on the car park at the Olympic Stadium, with very little in the way of organized leagues and even less suitable venues to perform the noble sport. It's very much a grassroots game here in Cambodia but it's one of the few sports in which its citizens can get excited about and their last-gasp 2-1 win over Brunei in the qualifying matches a few weeks ago, put them through to their first championship finals for years. The jubilant celebrations at the end of the Brunei game were ample evidence of the passion that football can generate though with a very poor international record, Cambodia know their limitations. Very much the underdogs, alongwith fellow qualifiers Laos, the Cambodian team under coach Prak Sovannara, will begin their tournament in Jakata against much-fancied defending champions Singapore on Friday, 5th December, in a Group A game that will be televised here in Southeast Asia. They will then meet co-hosts Indonesia (7th) and Myanmar (9th), whilst the Group B games will pitch Laos against Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand in Bangkok. Coach Sovannara will be looking to the striking duo of Sam El Nasa and Khim Borey to get the goals to give their team any hope of success but it's at the back where the coach knows his team is most vulnerable and where they will have to work extra hard to nullify their opponents. It will be a tough ask, that's for sure.
Keep up to speed with the Championships at the Suzuki Cup's official website.

Cute kids

This is 12 years old Srey Keo who helped out at the family crab restaurant in Kep
Every visitor to Cambodia will remark on the cute kids that can be found everywhere in this country. Okay, some of them can be a little pushy along the riverfront in Phnom Penh or at the temples of Angkor, but most are just as cute as they come. Tim and I encountered hordes of them on our recent travels to the south coast and we rarely miss an opportunity to interact with them, from pulling funny faces, to playing football, shuttlecock-keepy-uppy and badminton. And a big beaming smile of white teeth is sufficient reward for all the effort, especially on a hot day. Here's some of the cutest we met on our recent travels.
This little 'un ran up to us shouting and waving but went all quiet for the photo!
These four youngsters were enjoying a water culvert at Kbal Chhay outside Sihanoukville
Two tiny tots on the road to Phnom Chhnork, outside Kampot
A model of the future? 8 year old Vansy couldn't stop posing in Kep
Six year old Kanya got in on the posing act as well
These two adorable sisters were part of our escort party at Wat Kirisan near Kompong Trach
Meet Srey Leak, one of the helpers at Tek Chhou Zoo near Kampot
Cutting grass at Tek Chhou Zoo were Srey Mao (left) and Tee; technically not kids but cute nonetheless
Two water pools at Tek Chhou Zoo kept these youngsters occupied for ages
These youngsters loved jumping in and splashing the Barang with the camera!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Meet and greet

Ambassador Sichan Siv (pictured) arrived in Cambodia a couple of days ago to visit Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and will be holding court in the capital at three events later on this week, to promote his memoir, Golden Bones and to reiterate its message to 'never give up hope.' The main event will be a book-signing session at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard on Saturday 29 November at 6pm, where Sichan and his wife will be present to meet, greet and talk about his life story in person. And what a journey it is; a roller-coaster ride of despair that turns to hope and a remarkable and inspiring success story, worthy of any boys-own comicbook. Before the Saturday event, the Cambodian-born former US Ambassador to the United Nations will give a talk to the students of Pannasastra University on Thursday (27th) at 6pm, and will then present a copy of his book to the National Library the following day, Friday (28th) at 4pm.
Don't forget the book event at Monument this coming Wednesday (26th) when Denise Heywood's gorgeous Cambodian Dance coffee-table book will get its official launch, in association with the publishers River Books. A display of traditional classical Cambodian dance will go hand in hand with free food and light refreshments, beginning at 6pm. On the same afternoon, the Reyum Gallery is hosting a book launch and exhibition with author Gillian Green and her latest publication, Pictorial Cambodian Textiles, a more specialist topic, at 4.30pm.

Au revoir

Sunday afternoon brotherly bonding at the Post Office
My brother Tim is off back to Blighty tomorrow morning so today is his last day in Phnom Penh...and we spent half of it fast asleep. A late night on Saturday night was the reason - we started with cottage pie at The Gym Bar until it was invaded by Aussies, which ain't a pretty sight, and then we watched a fair bit of footy on the tv's upstairs in Huxleys - and neither of us got up before mid-day today. After rising out of our pits, we went to the Green Vespa for a traditional Sunday roast lunch and then had a walkabout around the Post Office area of town (to sample a bit of the French colonial-inspired architecture, hence the title choice - French isn't usually my language of choice, ever) before heading back for a shower and back out again to say a final farewell. There's no peace for the wicked. Here's a few snaps from this afternoon's exersions.
The imposing facade of the Post Office enjoying a lick of paint these days
A large troop of monkeys seems to have made its home on Street 102 and can be seen climbing all over the nearby buildings and electrical wires
The former Police Headquarters, now home to squatters and due for renovation
A restaurant on the corner of Street 100 which was featured in the film City of Ghosts
The posh elegance of the 110 year old building that house's Van's restaurant on St 102
All tourists do it and Tim is a tourist, don't let him tell you otherwise; at the Royal Palace

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Salute the champions

Salute the CPL Champions, Phnom Penh Empire
I finally got to see my first Cambodia Premier League footy matches today and they just so happened to be two of the final games of the season. The Championship title has already been won by Phnom Penh Empire, at a canter, over their nearest rivals Preah Khan Reach and Build Bright United. The margin going into this weekend's final games was ten points. However, Empire have taken their foot off the pedal in recent times and were guilty of the same again this afternoon against the National Defense team, with the latter winning 2-nil leaving Empire looking anything but a title-winning outfit, with three consecutive defeats to close their season. Cambodia's national team saviour Khim Borey did the damage for the military team, scoring the first with a lob and after the break, his cross was deflected in by a defender to register a two-goal success against their jaded opponents. In the first game of the afternoon at the Olympic Stadium, the half a dozen African-born players dominated the match between Build Bright and Khemara Keila, which BBU won 3-1. Both games were played in the hot scorching afternoon sun. The standard was poor if comparing it to the football I'm used to in England both at Football League and Conference levels, but then again us Brits don't play in these hot-house conditions. The passing was quite slick at times, the teams moved the ball around on the floor and tried to play a passing game, whilst the African players stood out with their physical presence and natural skill against the smaller in stature and busy Khmer players. I didn't care much for the agonized rolling around the floor only for the player to be stretchered off and then jump to his feet instantly, but this disease has spread across the globe and Cambodia is no exception.
The successful National Defense line-up, with Khim Borey on the far right, back row
The two teams walk out into the arena, led by international stars Khim Borey (red) and Chan Rithy (blue)
A sizeable crowd of about a thousand turned up to watch the games at the Olympic Stadium
Postscript: Following the final two games of the season played on Sunday afternoon, there was a late shuffle in two of the final top three places in the Cambodia Premier League, though of course nothing could stop Phnom Penh Empire from claiming the Championship, with a six-point gap over their nearest challengers. For their coffers the club received a cash-prize of $10,000, to add to the Hun Sen Cup they've already won this year. Runners-up were the National Defense team, boasting the league's top scorer and Golden Boot winner Khim Borey with 18 goals. Pipped into third place were last year's winners Naga Corp, with Preah Khan Reach inched out into fourth on goal difference.

Mr Peepee

This is Peepee with his Mickey Mouse ears and his colourful tuk-tuk
Meet Mr Peepee, our tuk-tuk driver in Kep. He called himself Peepee, though it later turned out to be spelt Pipi, but that was after we went through all the jokes and puns you'd expect if someone told you their name was Peepee. Nice guy, harmless, not in the remotest pushy like some of the drivers you find in most locations. In fact, in a queue of drivers Mr Peepee would find himself at the back because of his gentler nature. Married with one son, he works selling real estate to Koreans when he's not being a tuk-tuk driver, or the other way around, I'm not quite sure. He also wants to set up his own tour company business - but then, doesn't everyone? We spent a couple of days with Peepee, visiting the sites of Kep, then off into the countryside to visit three caves with ancient temples inside, two of which were news to Peepee despite having lived in the area all his life, then he dropped us off in Kampot on day 3. He looked after us very well, took us to the Seagull restaurant which was a good find and has a good character. If you are in Kep for a couple of days, give him a call on 012 282 029. His full name is Long Sarapich, but he responds better to the name Peepee, sorry Pipi. He's 25 years old and lives in the village of Chamcar Bei, in the shadow of Phnom Voar. Before getting married and starting his family, Peepee was a monk for five years at Kompong Tralach pagoda, which was a stroke of luck as he was up to speed on the genocide memorial that is housed at the wat.
Peepee posing at the doorway of a prasat inside a cave at Phnom Khyang in Preah Kak village. He had never heard of this place before we told him.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Kim's fresh crab

This girl murders crabs for a living! The lovely Kim at Kep's Seagull crab restaurant
Kep is well known for its fresh crab. There's the crab market on a slither of beach before you get to the main beach area with its seafront seafood shacks and fishing boats moored close to shore, then there's the picnic platforms and mats just by the main beach. Take your pick, there's more than enough fresh crab to go around. Our favourite turned out to be the Seagull restaurant, in the middle of the row of twenty-odd shacks near the crab market area. We were introduced to it by our tuk-tuk driver, Mr Peepee and it was an excellent recommendation. The food was very tasty but it was the family who run the business that made it that bit more special. Particularly 23 year old Kim, who was lively, funny, spoke great English and admitted to slaughtering thousands of crabs in her career as a crab chef! The menu is in English, the prices are very reasonable and you can choose the crabs you like the look of from the crab pots that are kept in the sea just in front of the restaurant. Kim sent her younger brother out to haul in one of the pots and then picked out the fattest and freshest crabs just for us. We followed her into the cramped kitchen to watch her at work, putting countless crabs to the sword and using her culinary talents to good effect to present us with two excellent meals on two separate days. I rarely eat crab but these tasted good to me and the sound of the waves lapping gently against the shore under the stilts of the restaurant was music to my ears. The crab fishing boats bobbed on the sea just metres away, with an occasional new arrival bringing a flurry of activity from the crab sellers on the sandy beach nearby. Everyone eats crab when they go to Kep, I suggest you seek out Kim at the Seagull and ask her to whip you up one of her specials.
Wading out to get the freshest crabs for our plates
Kim selects only the best for us, and often the smallest are the tastiest
Into the frying pan, some of the crabs have beautiful blue coloured legs
Kim and her mum work as a team in cramped conditions
Srey Keo, Kim's adorable twelve year old cousin, who kept us entertained
The nondescript entrance to the Seagull restaurant at the crab market, but don't be fooled, culinary delights await within

Where Elephants Eat

Munching away to their heart's content at Tek Chhou Zoo near Kampot
I couldn't resist my own take on the forthcoming first-ever Khmer Rock Opera, Where Elephants Weep, which will get its Cambodian premiere at the Chenla Theatre in Phnom Penh on 28 November. These two gentle beasts can be found enjoying their grass lunch at Tek Chhou Zoo near Kampot.

As for the opera, the public relations juggernaut that is backing the show has gone into overdrive and leaflets, posters, press releases, previews and just about everything else (I'm sure t-shirts, coffee mugs, logo-encrusted underwear, etc will be available soon) is flooding Phnom Penh as I type. It's sure to be a real spectacle as Cambodian and American music theater combines together to raise the bar of professional art performance with this ground-breaking show of a modern Khmer love story, merging local traditions with Western musical structures. I've booked my ticket, have you booked yours?

To experience it for yourself, here is the performance schedule:
World Premiere VIP Performance - 28 November 2008
6:00pm Champagne Arrival
6:30pm Performance
8:30-9:30pm Cocktail Reception
Tickets: GOLD Circle $250, SILVER Circle $150, BRONZE Circle $100
Gala Night Performance – 29 November 2008
6:30pm Performance
8:30-9:30pm Cocktail Reception
Tickets: Exclusive Seating $75, Premium Seating $50, General Seating $25
General Admissions Performances: 5, 6, 7 December 2008
6:30 Performance
Tickets: Exclusive Seating $12, Premium Seating $5, General Seating $2
The ticket reservation hotline is +855 (0) 23 220 424, 017 603 408. Or email at Their website is here.

Monument double-header

There's a couple of upcoming events at Monument Books, the leading bookstore in Phnom Penh located at 111 Norodom Boulevard, that will be well worth attending if you are in town next week.
* * * * *
In association with River Books, they are hosting a launch of Denise Heywood's brand new book Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods on Wednesday 26 November between 6-8pm. As well as a performance of traditional dance, there will be free food and refreshments available. Denise's lavishly illustrated coffee-table book is a true celebration of classical Khmer dance and so much more - I urge you to get a copy.
* * * * *
The second book launch will be on Saturday 29 November at 6pm when Sichan Siv, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations will be at Monument Books to sign copies of his autobiography which was published by HarperCollins earlier this year. The book - Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America - is a gripping read as Sichan takes us on a roller-coaster ride of despair that turns to hope and a remarkable and inspiring success story. Sichan and his wife will be present to meet, greet and talk about his life story in person.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Faded charm of Kep

This once-elegant villa had its own swimming pool and servants quarters, now squatters reside in the property
Kep-sur-Mer was established in 1908 as the playground of the rich and famous of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge years of the late '70s put a stop to all that. Up to that, the French and Cambodian elite preferred its balmy shoreline and gorgeous orange sunsets to the heat and bustle of the city. Some villas even boasted swimming pools, but the vast majority now lie in complete disrepair, a shadow of their former colonial or modernist Khmer New Wave style glory. It's believed there were some 1,200 villas in Kep and the surrounding area that fell foul to the Khmer Rouge mantra to destroy everything that didn't meet their warped ideals. What the KR didn't wreck, then looting and neglect have completed the job. The best of the properties hug the side of small hills that dot the coastline, including the Royal Palace of the former King, although Sihanouk allegedly never stayed there. Other houses are pock-marked with bullet holes with their shaded tree-fringed steps leading to concrete skeleton relics of the good times. Overlooking the beach, the Hotel de Kep is being renovated, again, whilst the expensive villas of the Knai Bang Chatt resort were originally designed by a student of the country's favourite architect Vann Molyvann. Don't be surprised if more of the villas are turned into luxury accommodation for rent. Soon the faded ghostly charm of quiet Kep will disappear forever.
This hilltop villa lies in ruins
The sea-view from the balcony window of the hilltop villa is obscured by the trees
A ruined stone villa will soon be covered by vegetation
This villa is located next to my guesthouse, Kep Seaside
Cattle find a home in a ruined villa
Interesting patterned stonework on this ghostly ruin near our guesthouse; nothing remains intact inside the house
This re-invented boutique place to stay has added elements to its original construction; not yet open for business

City of ghosts

This Cambodian-style villa lies opposite the Kep crab market
One of the pleasures of visiting Kep on the south coast of Cambodia is to revel in it's abandoned feel and some say ghostly past by visiting the slew of ruined and overgrown villas, but go now before they all disappear under the surge of construction work being undertaken on renovating or rebuilding these witnesses to the Khmer Rouge ideal of destroying anything of a bourgeois and decadent lifestyle. From the early part of the 2oth century, Kep was a haven for the elite of the colonial power France and the rich Cambodia aristocracy, who flocked to their weekend villas at Kep-sur-Mer. The murderous Khmer Rouge regime left the inhabitants dead and their mansions and villas in tatters. Locals talk of bodies found in the fuel drums of the local petrol station. Today, the villas, many in the new wave style of modernist Cambodian architecture of the '50s and '60s, are left empty or host a squatter family of two. All of them have already been snapped up cheaply by property speculators looking to make big money as the seaside resort and the coastline continues to gain in popularity. Included in the array of villas are two that belonged to King Norodom Sihanouk, whilst the mansions in the French colonial style are the one's most likely to receive a make-over rather than the sledge-hammer.
The King's Palace, on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, was never actually used by the sovereign
A viewing platform at the King's Palace at Kep, looking out to sea
Left to rot and roofless, one of 1,200 villas in the Kep area
The only inhabitants at this villa were bored cows munching through the grass
This villa was impossible to gain access to because of the dense vegetation
The second royal residence, the villa of King Norodom Sihanouk that looks out onto Rabbit Island in the bay directly in front
This small French colonial style house is being renovated in its original style, in a quiet side-street in Kep

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Never give up hope"

I've waited a while to get to read Golden Bones, the story of Sichan Siv's extraordinary story of survival from Cambodia's darkest hour to living the American dream and rising from apple picker and cabbie to represent his adopted country as an Ambassador at the United Nations. It is truly an inspirational story and whilst Sichan makes no bones (sorry but i couldn't resist it) about his love for America and what it has helped him to achieve, he doesn't miss an opportunity to remind us of his golden bones - blessed with incredible luck - roots, whether in the form of his mother's mantra of "never give up hope," a classic Khmer folktale or stories of his return to trace those that helped him on his incredible journey. As a Brit I learnt quite a bit about the American system from Sichan's book, I smiled inwardly when I read of his friendship with one of my all-time favorite thriller writters Eric Van Lustbader and that his father's village is named Hanuman, the name of the company I now work for. In addition, he has a connection through his favourite teacher, Roger Jones to my hometown of Cheltenham in England, and during my own lobbying days in the early '90s, it was Roger's brother Nigel, my local Member of Parliament, who supported my efforts at a national level. It was a pleasure to finally meet Sichan and his wife Martha last year during one of their frequent visits to Phnom Penh and in the flesh, Sichan and Martha are a sincere and down to earth couple, he has a mind like a steel-trap, the memory of an elephant, is not afraid to poke fun at himself and would easily make my top three list to invite to a dinner party - his wealth of experiences would keep everyone engrossed all evening. The style of the book is easy to read, and whilst he skips over his story between working for both of the Bush presidents, there's more than enough in this HaperCollins-published memoir of a classic American immigrant success story to strike a chord with everyone.

I posted a Q&A with Sichan (right) by email in May 2007, almost a year before the memoir was published. Here's what he had to say:
Q. After 30 years in the US, do you think of yourself as Khmer or American? And how do you reconcile one alongside the other?
I am both. I am an ABC: American By Choice or American Born Cambodian! I feel privileged to be an American of Cambodian ancestry, enjoying the blessings of freedom and opportunities, and being able to maintain an ancient cultural heritage.
Q. What was the catalyst for your career at the White House and then at the UN?
I became interested in the US political process while watching TV coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions in the summer of 1976. From my involvement in refugee resettlement and the plight of Cambodia in the 70s and 80s, I became more familiar with how Washington works. In 1988, I volunteered for the Bush campaign to better understand presidential elections. The thought never crossed my mind that I would end up working for two Presidents of the United States.
Q. What has been the rationale and motives behind your successful career?
Adapt and be adopted! I had two dollars in my pocket when I arrived in America in 1976. I worked hard to adapt myself to America, so that America would adopt me. My mother told me when I was a child to “never give up hope, no matter what happens.” Hope kept me alive and helped me move forward in some of the most difficult circumstances.
Q. To be employed by 2 US Presidents is a rare achievement, but what would you consider as your proudest moment...and your greatest achievement?
At the White House, I was proudest when I said “On behalf of the President.” At the United Nations, when I walked in, my colleagues from 190 countries looked at me. Through me, they saw America. They saw its promise. They saw its opportunity. They wanted to hear what I had to say. When I uttered: “On behalf of the President and Government of the United States and the American people,” that was my proudest moment. My greatest achievement has been the ability to implement the President’s policies that help hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Q. Were you able to achieve anything working for the Administration that aided and supported Cambodia and the Khmer people?
My two presidential appointments, at the White House under President George Bush (41) and as an ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush (43), had national and global scope. They were not to work on Cambodia. Yet, at the White House I was able to participate in the peace process that led to the 1991 Paris Accord and organize numerous briefings on Cambodia to maintain awareness and keep the issue front and center. At the UN, the United States has been the leader in all UN development, economic, and humanitarian programs. I am happy that the Khmer people have benefited from them.
Q. Briefly, what did your Ambassadorial role involve over the last 5 years?
The focus was from “cradle to coffin.” My responsibilities ranged from children, to health, HIV/AIDS, economic issues, food crises, humanitarian disasters, human rights, refugees, women, all the way to aging. The United States is the largest donor to all these programs and my office at the US Mission to the UN oversaw some 70% of the U.N. budget.
Q. Have you returned to Cambodia since leaving in the 70s?
I returned to Cambodia the first time in March 1992 while I was still at the White House. It was 16 years after my escape from the Khmer Rouge forced labor camps. It was quite an emotional trip. In 1994 I took my wife to visit. Since then, we have been to Cambodia on a regular basis. Each time, we enjoy staying longer and longer. I am also pleased to support Cambodian communities around the world.
Q. Can you encapsulate the flavour of your memoir to be published early next year?
GOLDEN BONES is a human story. It recounts my journey from humble beginnings in a sleepy village in Cambodia to the corridors of power in Washington, DC. It is about an extraordinary escape from hell in Cambodia; an American journey from apple orchards to the White House; a timeless and universal tale of love, dreams, hope, and freedom. This is the unique history of two lands: opposite sides of the earth; two cultures: ancient and modern; two nations: weak and strong; two societies: poor and rich. It is the true story of one mother’s love and sacrifice, of her son’s hope and struggle for survival, and his life between these different worlds.
Q. Finally, what does the future hold for Sichan Siv?
It is hard to predict the future. I will continue to connect, to share, and to inspire. Hopefully, “the best is yet to come!”

Sichan Siv is due to return to Phnom Penh this week. A book signing has been pencilled in at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard in the capital for Saturday, 29 November at 6pm. If you can get along to listen and meet Sichan, I am sure you won't be disappointed.
Link: website.

At one with nature

What a magnificent creature, such beauty and strength. A tiger at Tek Chhou Zoo
I have a slew of photos from my recent trip to the south coast of Cambodia to bring to you. Before I do, here's three animal shots that my brother Tim snapped at Tek Chhou Zoo on our recent visit there. Thank goodness Tim's spending the next two days in Battambang as it'll give my liver some time to recover from the bashing it's been taking in the last week and more.
The orangutans at Tek Chhou are loveable and smart, but these apes are smart anywhere you find them
This prowling male lion did not like Tim taking this picture and sent a stream of piss through the cage bars

Hectic night

The Reyum exhibition was an opportunity to touch base with Youk Chhang, director of DC-Cam
Last night was a hectic one. I skivved off work to attend the 5pm opening of the Living Hell exhibition at Reyum, next to the National Museum, where Swede Gunnar Bergstrom returned to Cambodia after an absence of thirty years to apologise for his support of the Khmer Rouge regime at the time of his 1978 visit, and to present an exhibit of his personal photos and his memories. With the support of DC-Cam, a book, Gunnar in the Living Hell, has been produced and Bergstrom gave a detailed account to last night's packed Reyum audience of his visit and his views today. It was also an opportunity for me to touch base with Youk Chhang, the director of DC-Cam, whom I first met a decade ago.
After dinner at the Rising Sun with friends, Tim and I made our way to Meta House for a preview of the forthcoming Khmer rock opera, Where Elephants Weep. Producer John Burt gave an impassioned overview of the project whilst composer Him Sophy gave us his insight into this unique work that will kick-off at the Chenla Theatre on 28 November, with the public performances set for 5, 6 & 7 December with tickets costing $2-12. Members of the cast were present and two of the opera's musicians gave us a sample of what to expect. It certainly sounds like a performance that will be worth watching. For Tim and I the night extended onto some of the city's nightspots. I'm pleased to report that the medicine prescribed by my doctor at the weekend is having a positive effect on my skin infection and I look almost human again!
Visitors to Reyum look at some of the photos on display
A television camera catches some of the speech by Gunnar Bergstrom, on his 1st visit back to Cambodia since 1978
Producer John Burt (left) introduces composer Him Sophy to the audience at last night's Meta House preview
A hectic night, but still time enough for some brotherly bonding at the Meta House's Intersection exhibition. Tim is on the left.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Title anyone?

I've heard of being pissed on from a great height but I'm still not sure what happened here with one of the young guides who walked with us to Phnom Chhnork just outside of Kampot last week. Some people will do anything to be in a photo.

Twice captivated

The wonderful Em Theay, aka The Tenth Dancer
I received a note from Sally Ingleton, the producer of the excellent documentary The Tenth Dancer today that reminded me about her main subject of that film, Em Theay. This icon of Cambodian classical dance was identified by Sally as the focus of her film back in 1993 and I recall how I was captivated by this wonderful lady at the time, and of course I have been lucky to meet Em Theay in person, and have been equally captivated in real life too. Sally has a great website with lots of details about her 1993 documentary, which I urge you to visit and read. Click here for more. As a taster, here's what Sally wrote about making the film at the time.

Australian producer/director Sally Ingleton describes how she came across the inspirational story of The Tenth Dancer - Em Theay, one of the few members of Cambodia's Royal Court Ballet who survived the Pol Pot purges.

As a documentary filmmaker I am always on the lookout for an irresistable story. And what makes that story come alive is personality. In 1989 I was in Phnom Penh witnessing a performance of Cambodia's National Dance Company - formerly known as the Royal Ballet. The setting was exotic. By the banks of the Mekong River sat a large theatre with a pagoda shaped roof. On stage were over thirty georgous women dressed in velvet sequinned outfits who with graceful hand gestures and intricate eye movements were acting out one of the ancient storytelling traditions of the East. In the wings was a toothless elderly woman singing and clapping out a rhythm dictated to by the dancers steps. I sensed we would get to know each other and indeed we did.

She was 62 year old dance master Em Theay, one of only a handful of dancers to survive the brutal Pol Pot years. A remarkable woman, full of energy, compassion and humour. Almost single handed she had rebuilt the famous Royal Ballet. I was introduced to Em Theay and one her pupils Pen Sok Chea and that night they told me their history.

Em Theay grew up in the palace as her parents were servants for the king and queen. She learnt to dance from the age of six, finally joining the Royal Ballet in her late teens. She became a principal dancer in the 1950's and toured many countries accompanying the then young monarch, Prince Sihanouk. She was so keen to perform that often the palace wouldn't know she was pregnant until only a few weeks before she gave birth. With a wicked chuckle she confessed that she had had eighteen children! Eventually she became a teacher and one of her best pupils was the statuesque Pen Sok Chea. Their fairytale existence came to an abrupt halt in 1975 when Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh and the story of the 'killing fields' began. Both Em Theay and Sok Chea were forcibly evacuated from their homes along with almost the entire population of Phnom Penh. For days they walked and walked into the countryside until they ended up in a work camp with thousands of others.

Em Theay took with her only a few belongings - a dance sarong, some incense and her treasured notebooks which contained the record of many important sacred songs and dances. She couldn't bear to part with them as they were the only memory of her former life, so she sewed them into a pillow case and hid them inside the walls of her hut. When soldiers came looking for paper for which to roll cigarettes with - often offering food in exchange - she kept silent. Not even the threat of starvation could make her part with her books. It was an act of courageous resistance, for to be recognised as one of the king's dancers was a death sentence. In order to conceal their identities both women lied to the Khmer Rouge. Em Theay pretended she had been a market seller and although Sok Chea didn't even know how to sew she claimed to be a seamstress, just willing herself to do it when the time came. At night Em Theay would light incense towards the wall of her hut and pray to her ancestors that one day she would return home to train the dancers once more.

Em Theay's wish came true. In 1979 after Pol Pot's army had fled into Thailand, she returned to Phnom Penh and began the task of putting the Royal Ballet back together. She sought out her former pupils and teachers only to discover that most had died. Those who remained were malnourished and after three years of hard labour, lacked the suppleness and grace so necessary for Cambodian traditional dance. Determined not to let the culture perish, Em Theay gathered the surviving dancers and then recruited friends and relatives to build up the numbers. Day by day she fed, pushed and prodded their bodies until gradually their flexibility and memory of the ancient dance movements returned. Her perserverence paid off. Today the National Dance Company of Cambodia has over sixty members and the Fine Arts School has more than three hundred students of traditional dance.

Now 40, Sok Chea finds her commitment to dance is much greater than when she studied as a young woman. In those days there were so many dancers whereas since Pol Pot the troupe has had to work extremely hard to rebuild itself and its repertoire. She acknowledges her debt to Em Theay. 'Under Pol Pot I lost some of my drive and talent. Since then, Em Theay's been like a mother to me, guiding and training me so that some of my spirit has returned'.

When the dinner was finished I knew within the personalities of these two women lay a compelling story - one which exemplified the resilience of the Cambodian people as well as the sensibility of the artist. I was determined to make a film about them and set about the arduous task of attracting finance. Two years ... and hundreds of phone calls, faxes and knocking on Executive Producer's doors later, the story was sold to both the BBC and ABC television with the rest of the budget coming from the Australian Film Finance Corporation and AIDAB.

Suddenly making the film became daunting. I couldn't speak Cambodian; a civil war with the unpredictable Khmer Rouge continued; and getting permissions from Cambodian authorities became like a Byzantine game of hide and seek. What sustained me through it all was the generosity and friendship of Em Theay and Sok Chea who allowed me to enter their life opening up the channels of communication to a universal language.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sterling on track

A big favourite of mine is Handsworth-born Donna Sterling, who was Steel Pulse's backing singer for five years before the birth of her second child in 2004. She's got a wonderful bubbly personality, bags of energy and of course, has a super voice and vocal range. Her grounding in the cabaret circuit gave her the experience of performing in public before she joined Steel Pulse, sharing backing vocal duties with Sylvia Tella. Tella left in 2000 and Donna carried the solo supporting role until her departure in 2004. Since then, she took some time off before returning to fine tune her voice in the Midlands' jazz and blues circuit as a vocalist with bands like Andy Hamilton & The Blue Notes, Headrocka and her brother's outfit, David Lloyd Henry's Flat Five Band. In recent months, she's again been working with Selwyn Brown from Steel Pulse on her own project, an album of already-written tracks in a variety of moods from reggae to blues to RnB to jazz, which she is hoping will come to fruition sometime next year. In the meantime, she's going to test the water with two singles around Christmas time, including a cover of Billie Holiday's God Bless The Child. In addition, she recently linked up with Steel Pulse again to help out on backing vocals for their Vote Barack song, which was released to coincide with the US presidential elections, and may help out again in the future. The future is something that Donna is looking forward to, she's feeling very excited about recent developments and is looking for the collaboration with her brother and Selwyn to take her to the next chapter of her musical journey. Keep up to date on Donna's progress here.

Pulse posters

Steel Pulse headlining in Detroit in 1982
Don't stop me, I'm on a roll with the Steel Pulse posts. I just came across a couple of Steel Pulse posters from bygone years and as a sucker for the history of the band I have a duty to bring them to your attention. My unofficial website on the band has many such priceless artifacts waiting for you to peruse. Click on Steel Pulse On-Line for more of the same.
The top poster is from a concert by Steel Pulse on 20 August 1982 at the Grand Circus Theatre in Detroit, USA. The bottom poster shows the band as support artists for Herbie Hancock on 22 September 1984.
Supporting jazz legend Herbie Hancock in 1984
I've just finished watching the DVD Door of No Return which my brother brought over on his latest trip. It was essentially a chronicle of their visit to Senegal to play an Amnesty International concert in 1999 and a subsequent tour of the US. It included interviews with band members, lots of live concert footage and went with the band to the slave island of Goree. Directed by Michel Moreau, it has been in the can for a long time, so it was good to see band members like Donna Sterling and Grizzly Nisbett on camera, with Sylvia Tella prominent throughout and a timely reminder of the brilliance of lead guitarist Moonie Pusey. Pointedly, there were no interviews with Conrad Kelly or Alvin Ewen but members of the sound crew were given air-time!
To finish, below is a photo of the regular Steel Pulse band members around that time, though without Grizzly Nisbett or the two regular female singers, Donna Sterling and Sylvia Tella in the picture, it's hard to tell exactly when the photo was taken.
LtoR: Conrad Kelly, Moonie Pusey, Sid Mills, David Hinds, Alvin Ewen, Selwyn Brown

Revamped web presence

Anyone who knows me or has visited my website will know of my love for the music of Steel Pulse, the British reggae band who rocked my world in 1978 and have continued to do so to this day. Their music has been a consistent soundtrack to my life since those heady teenage days of the late 70s. The band are still going strong today, playing concerts around the globe and have just introduced their new online website. Whilst scanning through the pages I noticed that the biographies of the current and past band members were taken, both text and photos, from my own unofficial Steel Pulse website. You can read them here. Now I don't have a big problem with them using my work without asking or acknowledging, and I'm told that the website is still a 'work in progress' so watch out for more additions (maybe even an acknowledgment or two!). In recent weeks, the band have released their Vote Barack song just before the over-hyped United States presidential elections and now that their nominee is the president elect, they intend to update the song to Go Barack and release it via MySpace very soon. Hopefully it won't make it onto the tracklist of the band's new album, which lead honcho David Hinds has said he's currently working on and looking to release next year. Their last, African Holocaust, was released in 2004. Before I finish with this Steel Pulse post, click here to see more than 70 wonderful photos by Alan Hess of the band in recent action, including a few of Pulse's latest addition, guitarist Donovan McKitty.

Feeling glum

I'm sat at home feeling glum and very sorry for myself. I can't even go out without people pointing at the human panda. I visited the doctor last night - three hours in the waiting room at his house - and even he was taken aback by how bad I looked. He immediately put me on ten tablets a day (Cambodia's answer to everything) including steroids for the next five days then ordered me to return to see him. Fingers crossed this helps to turn the corner as my skin and face is not a pretty sight. So you get the picture as to what I'm on about, here's a photo of me just before I visited the doctor yesterday. Sorry if anyone is eating when they read this! The skin around my eyes, wrists and on my forehead is dry and flaky and the doc says it's inflammation of the skin (dermatitis) caused by a reaction to something. All I know is that it's as itchy as hell.

Anyway, enough of my moaning and groaning. To cheer myself up I always visit Roy Hill's MySpace website to see if music's funniest (much of it is black humour) man has posted anything new. Hey presto, he has! Here it is and here's a link to Roy's excellent MySpace site.
Nov 11th: The curate's egg
Thank you to everyone who came to the Turks Head on Friday for a real curate's egg of a show. I may have to start preparing setlists that are actually setlists, but where's the fun in that? On to Boxford next - Nov 22nd - sadly the final date of a most enjoyable world tour. It's been a really hectic schedule - seven shows in seven months - and I deeply regret having taken only two pairs of socks. Highlights? The opportunity to meet some of the people who send me abusive emails, soaking up foreign culture, particularly East Horsley, bumping into the Dalai Lama in Homebase, Postsmouth, and walking unnoticed through Wigan disguised as a policewoman.
I really miss watching Roy in action. It's one of the few things I miss about dear old Blighty.

750 victims remembered

A sightless skull peers out from inside the genocide stupa at Wat Kompong Tralach
En route to visit a couple of cave temples outside of Kampot and Kep last week, we called into Wat Kompong Tralach, a fairly typical pagoda along the road to Kompong Trach though this wat holds a reminder of the Khmer Rouge geonocide in the form of a stupa housing the remains of 750 victims of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 70s. Our tuk-tuk driver Pipi was the perfect guide as he had spent five years of his life as a monk at this very pagoda. In the south-east corner of the pagoda compound is a shabby-looking cement stupa with the remains of the disinterred victims arranged on two shelves inside, with skulls on one side and bones on the other. Pipi told me that a couple of mass graves had been discovered next to the wat and had been dug up in 1979. The wat's vihara had also been used as a prison and the walls of the pagoda were smeared with blood before it was repainted a few years earlier; "to scare away the ghosts" reported Pipi. It's believed that the bones of some 500 victims were brought to the stupa from another mass grave site at Prey Trapeang Sdao, a couple of kilometres away in the rice fields, where eleven graves had been uncovered immeditaely after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. There are a couple of other memorials for victims in Kampot province, though on this trip I didn't have time to visit them.
The shabby-looking stupa at Wat Kompong Tralach
The victims bones are arranged onto two wooden shelves inside the stupa
Some of the skulls from the 750 victims of Wat Kompong Tralach and Prey Trapeang Sdao
The leg and arm bones of the victims at Wat Kompong Tralach
Skulls and money, left as offerings to the dead spirits of the victims
The renovated main vihara reflected in the large pond at Wat Kompong Tralach

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Q & A with actress Sophea Pel

Sophea Pel as her music idol, Ros Sereysothea
One of the most eagerly-awaited feature films, when it's finally completed, will be The Golden Voice by American director Greg Cahill. He's already produced a stunning 25-minute short film that tells the latter stages of the story of Cambodia's most famous and much-loved singer Ros Sereysothea. The darling of Cambodia's music-loving populace, Sereysothea was murdered in the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 70s but has left an indelible mark on Cambodian society where her records are still avidly played today. The star of The Golden Voice movie is actress Sophea Pel, who earned rave reviews for her portrayal of Sereysothea, her first serious acting role, and will play the singer again in the feature film once director Cahill has gathered together the necessary funding. I caught up with Sophea by e-mail to delve a little deeper into her own story and that of the film itself.

1. Can you describe your feelings when you watched the 1st public screening of Golden Voice?

When I saw the first screening of Golden Voice at CSULB (hosted by the Cambodian Student Society in Long Beach), I was overwhelmed with tears of happiness, seeing the result of our hard work, seeing how many people came to watch it, and very moved by the movie itself. [The premiere was on 28 October 2006 and was attended by over 400 people at California State University Long Beach].

2. What did you feel, portraying Cambodia's greatest ever-female star on screen?

I was very excited and at the same time felt pressure to do my best. It was a dream come true for me. And it still hasn’t hit me that I’m portraying a person whose voice I’ve adored and whose songs I always sing along to. I had no idea what RSS (Ros Sereysothea) was like as a person and I worried that I may not measure up because she is such an iconic figure. I felt proud that I had the opportunity to play my favorite female singer.

3. Let's start at the beginning - when and where were you born?

I was born in a village called Chnuorh, Battambang (it is now in Banteay Meanchey province), not far from Phnom Leap in December 1979.

4. Can you give me a few childhood memories of growing up in Cambodia?

I remember quite a few things:

a) playing in the rice field and as a result got bit by a leech. My dad had to come and remove it from my ankle.

b) My grandpa playing his favorite songs on the tape player. After years past, I still remember the songs when I hear them.

c) I remember seeing many people gather together for Khmer New Year and my family sneaking away from the crowd and into the jungle towards Thailand and the refugee camp.

d) Being at a mini celebration in the village and remembered this one particular song by a Khmer singer that I’d often sing when I was around 5 years old. My cousin told me of the time when I would sing that song to her in the village. When I went to Cambodia in 2006 she told me what the song was and it all came back. I still remembered the first line of the song, 20 years later - I guess that was my first interest in singing.

5. What special significance does Battambang hold for you and your family? [it was of course Sereysothea's birthplace too.]

It holds significance because I believe it’s the place where my mom and dad got displaced to after the Khmer Rouge. It’s where I was born, followed by the rest of my younger siblings. There was a lot of history of struggles to survive after being raised from the dead during the Pol Pot regime, much like everyone else in the country. Most of my parent’s friends and neighbors prior to 1986 still live in Chnuorh and having gone back in 2006, made me realize how fortunate I am.

6. When, why and how did your family move to America?

In 1986 my family left Battambang via the jungle/forest to Site 2 in Thailand with the advice of my uncle who resides in the USA. We settled in Site 2 until 1989, and then went to Chunburi, Thailand for almost another year until coming to California in 1990. My uncle and aunt from my dad's side sponsored my family to the US, not long before the refugee camp closed. We came to the US, I believe not just for a better future but also for our safety. Things were not going well in Battambang; men still went off to fight a battle that I’m unsure of.

7. Can you describe the difference, the culture shock if you like, of moving and living in the US?

As a kid to a new environment, things were definitely different. I was most fascinated with escalators at the airport and that there were different colors to people. I was in a cleaner environment where life seems more predictable and planned out; waking up at a certain time to go to school, eat at a certain time, etc. One of the challenges that I faced was the feeling of being lost; my communication was limited, learning to interact with other ethnic kids. I did not talk much in school because my English wasn’t good enough yet. It probably took me about a year to adapt with the encouragement of my dad’s family and the school system that placed me in ESL classes.

8. When did you begin to feel 'at home' in California?

I’m not quite sure but I would say some time in school. By then, I had a better understanding of what life in the US is about and more control of my own life. I started working in high school and I also started driving. When I started opening and socializing, I knew that I was comfortable with my surroundings, and therefore, felt like it was home.

9. How quickly did you learn to speak English?

I would say that it took me about a year to learn conversational English because my cousins' here didn’t speak much Khmer. I learned a lot of English and they learned a lot of Khmer from my siblings and I.

Sophea Pel

10.What was the catalyst for your singing career - when did it all start?

I don’t consider it as a singing career; to me it’s more of a hobby and once in awhile I get to show off my hobby on stage. The catalyst was after the filming of the Golden Voice. I found out about Dara Band through Narin Pot (who played Chenda in the film). She introduced me to the band members; after observations and thinking about it, I decided that I would join. There were previous bands that asked me to join too, but I didn’t want to, either because they were not right for me or it could be that the timing wasn’t right.

11. Tell me how your singing has progressed - a timeline if you like?

I think at the age of 4 or 5 in Cambodia, songs started to capture my attention. When my family went to the refugee camp in Thailand, we did not have access to music, but when I was about 9 years old I started to be exposed to Khmer music and I would sing along. At the age of 10 my family emigrated to Long Beach, California and ‘til then I would always sing along to any Khmer music that I got to listen to. At the age of about 16, I asked my mother to buy me a karaoke machine, which I practiced with a few times a week. Then in 1998 (at age 18), I joined a karaoke singing contest, winning first prize, with the highest score. In 2004, I entered into another contest in Long Beach and took another first. In summer of 2006 I joined the Dara Band, performing at weddings and parties once in a while.

12. Tell me about your current singing activities?

There are not much singing activities at this point because I have been busy with work and more involvement in a play. I’m helping out backstage and also a little onstage with the play “Song of Extinction”. I don’t have a speaking part, but I believe that the experience I gain will help me in the future.

13. You also study classical dance - tell me more about that?

In late 2005 I joined Khmer Arts Academy. There were a few dances that I learned and also performed in public with my group. Nowadays, I’m not very involved due to time commitments.

14. What other interests and hobbies do you have?

Nowadays, I try to make more time for drawing (mainly still life and realistic art). I also love to crochet; that is what I’m trying to do now. I also love photography. Besides those hobbies, I also play pool, pretty decently too.

15. What are your current musical preferences/favorites?

My music choice has always been Khmer oldies, especially that of Mrs. Ros Sereysothea. I love singing along with her beautiful voice. I love any romantic/sentimental English songs too.

16. How did you land the part of Ros Sereysothea in Golden Voice?

I heard about the casting for the film through a post made by Director Greg Cahill on I checked out the source and waited for a few days before emailing. By then, I saw the casting post on a Khmer newspaper called Khemara Times. That’s when I decided to email Greg. A few days after getting two scenes and two songs down, I went in for the audition. I was extremely nervous but hopeful at the audition. About a week after that, I received the call from Greg saying that I had got the part. That was one of the highlights for year 2006 for me.

17. How aware were you of her place in Khmer history?

I was aware that she was a great singer prior to the Khmer Rouge era and that she was murdered by Khmer Rouge. Other than that, I didn’t know much else because as we know, many records have been destroyed during the atrocities.

18. How did you find the experience of acting for the 1st time on camera?

The experience of acting on camera for the first time was new but I felt comfortable about it. Before I was used to doing things only once, but when it comes to film, I had to try to get used to repetitively filming the same scenes from different angles. The challenge that I overcame was trying to keep the emotions the same. The days of filming were long, but I knew that I had to always try my best to reap good results.

19. How different do you think acting in a full-length movie will be?

I think it will be a bit different, but I think my experience in the short film will help prepare me for the feature film. I know that there will be longer workdays and I that I will be put to the acting challenge of being exposed to new events in her life, new emotions, etc. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to show my ability.

20. What other experiences do you have on screen, television or stage?

I have been in a church Christmas play called Bethlehem A.D. playing the role of Virgin Mary. Recently I was a background person on the NBC show called Medium. Currently, I’m involved in a play called “Song of Extinction” by EM Lewis. For the next month and a half I will be playing a non-speaking role as a mother and helping with moving props on and off stage, at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood, CA.

21. Please tell me about your academic and working career?

I attended California State University, Long Beach. I have been working in Long Beach for almost 10 years as a computer technician.

22. Finally, what direction do you want your career to take?

As far as my acting career, I would love to be in more films (short or feature), plays, TV shows or simply background work and put my face out there. I would like to join the union and also get an agent soon. As for my working career, I hope to keep working and also doing more work in the film industry.

To view the movie's website, click here

Sophea Pel as Ros Sereysothea

Living Hell

This coming Tuesday (18th), a travelling photographic exhibition will open at the Reyum Gallery in Phnom Penh before moving onto show at the ECCC, Kompong Cham, Takeo, Battambang and Tuol Sleng. Gunnar in the Living Hell is an exhibition of colour photos from a 14-day visit to a Khmer Rouge-controlled Democratic Kampuchea in August 1978 by a Swedish delegation. A member of that delegation, Gunnar Bergstrom will return to Cambodia for the first time since 1978 to open the exhibition, having donated all of his personal collection to DC-Cam, who will host the exhibits. Bergstrom freely admits to a grave misjudgement on his part for failing to see through the propaganda show put on by the Khmer Rouge for the Swedish visit. They were taken to Phnom Penh, Kandal, Siem Reap, Kompong Som and Kompong Cham provinces where they saw hospitals, factories and schools. They even had dinner at the Royal Palace with Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. It wasn't until survivor reports and stories came out a year later that Bergstrom knew he had been duped. A book has been produced to accompany the exhibition.

Here's a taster

Last night's bloody red sunset from Independence Beach in Sihanoukville
It's noon, it's boiling hot but we're still fully clothed at a secluded beach in Ream National Park; Tim's in the dark shirt
A beautiful lion poses for the camera at Tek Chhou Zoo near Kampot
This is Vansy (8) and Kanya (6) posing for the camera at one of the ruined villas in Kep
A forgotten genocide memorial is hidden away in a corner of Wat Kompong Tralach near KepOne of the many ruined villas of Kep that are being swallowed up by vegetation
The crab is fresh and Kim the chef is a bundle of fun at the Seagull restaurant in Kep's crab market
The gorgeous sand and solitude of Independence Beach in Sihanoukville
See it before it disappears - the entrance to the Bokor Palace Hotel

Home at last

Ah, back in the comfort of my own home. It's been a nice break, especially as Tim is over here from England and we always have a good laugh when we get together, but my week-long trip to the south coast of Cambodia has been spoiled by my skin and eye infection. I need to get it sorted quickly as it's really getting me down. I honestly look like I've just gone ten rounds with Cassius Clay (that shows how old I am!), the bags under my eyes are big enough to hold a weeks' shopping and the skin on my arms is not a pretty sight. I caught the Paramount Express bus back from Sihanoukville at 7.45am this moning ($7) and was back in my apartment at 12.30pm. Tim has stayed on in S'ville to do a couple of days of underwater diving off the island of Koh Tang - he's an experienced diver and thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I'm off to see the doctor again this evening to seek some stronger medication as the stuff I'm on right now isn't doing the business. I'm just downloading my photos from the trip, all 650 of them and will post a few soon just to give you a flavour of the last 7 days.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Goodbye S'ville

Our plans changed this morning when I got a call from microlight pilot Eddie offering Tim and I a lift to tour the area north of Sihanoukville - unfortunately it was in his car not his microlight! However, it was too good an opportunity to pass up, so we didn't, pass it up I mean. So today was spent with nice guy Eddie, his camry and the people of Stung Hau, a fishing village 25kms north of S'ville and the Khmer families enjoying a dip in the waterfalls of Kbal Chhay. The latter was on our return trip via Highway 4 and the waterfalls were much better than I expected. Often Khmers give the term waterfall to locations that are no more than cascades or rapids but Kbal Chhay deserves the waterfall title. There was a lot of water and a fair few families taking a dip fully clothed at the various levels of the falls, which are spread out over a large area, where at least two rivers converge together. We all know the Khmers love water and so Kbal Chhay certainly ticks that box. On our return to S'ville, we called into the Independence Hotel for a looksee and were treated to a seafood sunset dinner by the general manager, as the sky turned a lovely bloody red colour in the distance. A nice way to end my stay on the south coast as I will catch the bus back to Phnom Penh early in the morning. My eyes have really not enjoyed this trip to the seaside so a return visit to the doctor is on the cards for tomorrow afternoon. Wish me well.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ream away day

I can't type much today as my eyes are really bad and they need to rest, so this is just a quick update from day 2 in S'ville. I managed my first visit to Ream National Park today, accompanied by Tim and my good friend Vy, who lives here and was on holiday from her job with the Sokha Beach Hotel. Paul, our friendly tuk-tuk driver - yes there are some here - took us to the park HQ for an intro and then we boarded our own boat for a two-hour ride past the mangrove swamps and onto Koh Sampoach Beach. En route we spotted a handful of white-bellied sea eagles and a couple of kingfishers, but no dolphins, but then we didn't reach the beach until noon and they usually appear early and late in the day. Gorgeous white sand and very secluded, we ate our lunch to the sound of the waves hitting the beach before a 3 kilometre hike through the forest to the fishing village of Andong Toeuk to reboard our boat, eventually getting back to S'ville by 4pm. A pleasant day all round though the sun was out and beating down hard so the boat could've done with a bit more cover. Right, I'm off to rest my eyes as they're killing me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Not a happy bunny

Maybe Sihanoukville wasn't such a great idea afterall. It's full of half-naked tourists, many of them unwashed, annoying tuk-tuk drivers and the weather is far too hot for my liking. My eyes are really playing up now and lunch at Mick & Craig's wasn't up to scratch either. So far it's all going pretty badly. I'm with my brother Tim, who's over here for a couple of weeks' rest and relaxation and we've already sampled the delights of Kep and Kampot, so S'ville seemed the most obvious choice, even though I'm not a beach-lover by any stretch of the imagination. Dipping my toe into Ream National Park looks likely tomorrow with a trip to one of the islands on the cards for Friday and then back to town on Saturday or Sunday. Perhaps the strangest thing to happen to us so far was on our visit to Tek Chhou Zoo a couple of days ago. When we arrived at the monkey cage, one of the long-tailed macaques started to furiously masturbate himself (I didn't realise we were that good-looking!) and then whilst photographing the maned-male lion, he turned around and aimed a stream of piss at Tim. Welcome to a zoo in Cambodia!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On the road in Kampot

Reporting in from Kampot... I've just finishd my mixed grill meal at the Rusty Keyhole after an exhausting day at Bokor Mountain. We spent a couple of nights in Kep, nice and relaxing though we got out and about a fair bit before heading for Kampot yesterday. We crammed in the nearby rapids and the zoo and a night at the Bokor Mountain Lodge before we tackled the real thing at 8.30am this morning. It was horrendous, well the road was. Yes its been widened but it ain't finished and looks like it'll be years before it is. Maybe the Sokimex company have bitten off more than they can chew with this one. I am black and blue from riding in the back of the pick-up truck as we bounced over every hole, bump and crevice in the unfinished road. The ruined hotel, casino, church, post office, King's residence, etc are still the same, perched on the summit, nothing has changed since my last visit a few years ago, though the Ranger station has been spruced up. We had good weather, the mist held off, the sun stayed behind cloud and the 1-hour hike through the forest on the way up was a tough introduction, on top of the bumpy ride. We also hiked to the waterfall, so all in all, I'm knackered. Add to that my eyes are really suffering and look as though I've gone ten rounds with Cassius Clay. Tomorrow we head for Sihanoukville without a specific plan in mind. We'll see where the wind takes us. Much more and of course some photos when I get back home on Sunday. Bye for now.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A bad influence

LtoR: The Bad Influence and the Zombie enjoy some brotherly bonding
I knew it. My younger brother Tim is a bad influence. He arrived at Pochentong Airport at 7.30pm last night amidst a downpour with lightning silhouetting the airport buildings. The tuk-tuk broke down twice on the way back into town. By 10pm we'd showered, changed and eaten and were hitting a few bars. I eventually crawled into my bed at 4am this morning the worst for wear and was up again and at my desk by 8am. At this pace, there's no way I will be able to last the next three weeks. I still have my skin infection around my eyes so I already look like death warmed-up! Now I look like someone from The Night of the Living Dead - though I've never seen the film. We're off tomorrow morning, early doors, on the coach to Kep, where we'll stay a couple of nights before moving onto Kampot and Sihanoukville. I see the Sorya bus prices have gone up as it's a holiday - well technically it's not, but any excuse to screw a few more dollars out of the barangs! I'm not convinced I'll have any time to blog over the next week, so be prepared for a big reduction in normal service, which will be resumed after the weekend of 15th/16th. However, I will blog if I get the opportunity. Honest. That's if I'm not fast asleep.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Kingdom of Wonder branding

As I work in tourism, then the least I can do is bring you the new branding identity for Cambodia - Kingdom of Wonder. It's designed to demonstrate 3 key elements: 1. Cultural Attractions - a unique cultural heritage spanning more than a thousand years of history; 2. Natural Attractions - astonishing scenery with dense, unexplored mountains, forest, rivers, caves and waterfalls; 3. People and Traditions - Cambodians are extremely hospitable, resilient, welcoming and kind; smiles are heartfelt. These are the elements, the essence of what Cambodia wants to project as a country, both locally and globally. The main tagline is Cambodia - Kingdom of Wonder and the primary brand colour is golden orange to denote monk's robes, sunsets, warm people and vibrant culture. The flagship identity will be the unique and iconic Angkor Wat (above) and the following six logos will be used when promoting destinations and activities of interest.
Community-Based Tourism logo (above) to be used for community-based, rural tourism products including visits to villages, rice paddy fields, silk weaving farms and village homestays
Coastal Destinations logo to be used for tourism to the southern coast's white-sand beaches and off-shore islands including Sihanoukville and surrounding areas like the mangrove systems of Ream, Kampot, Kep and Koh Kong
Culture logo to promote traditioanl music and dance including the famous Apsara dancers, world-renowned institutions like the Cambodian Royal Ballet, The Royal Palace and Museum, silk and other handicrafts like silk weaving and stone and wood carving
The Cuisine logo (above) will identify food including cooking classes, restaurants offering tasty Khmer cuisine, vibrant markets and festivals
The Mekong logo will accompany promotion of the Mekong River and the Dolphins as well as Kratie, Stung Treng and journeys to the Lao border
Nature and Ecotourism logo for nature-based tourism including travel to mountains, forests, rivers, caves and waterfalls, any ecotourism-related activities, elephant trekking, indigenous cultures of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri and areas of outstanding natural beauty and primary jungle that are home to a variety of animal species

Cambodia - Kingdom of Wonder

Tender Loving Care

The TLC-1 on its way to be launched (pic Daniel Rothenburg)
Hats off to Jon Morgan and the volunteer crew of TLC-1, also known as The Lake Clinic - I prefer to call the boat Tender Loving Care - who have begun their ambitious project to bring medical care to the villages that dot the shores of the Tonle Sap Lake. From its home port in Kompong Khleang, TLC-1 will get out onto the lake every week to bring much-needed healthcare (including dentistry and prenatal care provided by visiting foreign volunteers) and support to families who would otherwise have little or no chance of receiving such vital care and education. One of their regular stops is the 1,000-inhabitant village of Moat Khla ('Tiger's Mouth'), where the whole village relies on fishing for its livelihood and has no running water or electricity - the lake and its waterways serve as both the source of drinking water and as their toilet. Find out more about the Lake Clinic here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Just arrived on my doormat is an excellent book - Pol Pot's Cambodia - aimed at 14-18 year olds which does a comprehensive job in explaining to teenagers the roots of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and the internal workings of his merciless forces that resulted in a devastating iron-grip over Cambodia in the 1970s. It's 160 pages are educational, factual and informative, it carries a wealth of photographs, biographies, a timeline and glossary, and if translated into Khmer would give Cambodia's schoolchildren a real insight into who and what happened to their country. Published by Twenty-First Century Books in their non-democratic Dictatorships series, the author is Matthew Scott Weltig, a former university lecturer well-versed in Asia. Other books in the series include Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Kim Jong Il's North Korea and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe - and they highlight some of the world's most feared and ruthless regimes.

Jayavarman 7th comes to life

Did you ever get to buy a copy of Geoff Ryman's The King's Last Song - if not, why not? It's the best novel written about Cambodia for ages. I urge you all to get a copy. Here's my review at the time of the book's release together with a short Q&A with the author.

Review: I eagerly awaited Geoff Ryman's novel, The King's Last Song, that links the glories of the Angkor dynasty of King Jayavarman VII with modern-day Cambodia, and I was richly rewarded. It's excellent. I particularly loved the passages that yielded such a vivid and atmospheric recreation of life in the court of the King during the twelfth century that I could almost taste it. Okay, much of it was from the author's own imagination, but I believed it. The book swirls around the life story of Jayarvarman VII written on gold leaves which are found and subsequently stolen. The hunt is on for their recovery and with it, we gain an insight into the Cambodia of today. This book sets a towering standard for new fiction writing on Cambodia that will be difficult to match, let alone exceed. I take my hat off to the author for a wonderful and evocative story that I found impossible to put down. I urge everyone with an interest in Cambodia to buy this book and then encourage your friends and family to do the same.

Q&A Interview: In the run-up to the book's release in March 2006, I asked Geoff Ryman to fill in some of the blanks about the book itself and his interest in the country.

You are widely known for your science fiction and fantasy books, so why a mainstream fictional novel about Cambodia, and what was the catalyst for the book? "I've certainly written and won awards for my SF novels, but they're only about half my work. The most successful novel was 253, about 253 Londoners on a train. It crashes. But mostly the passengers just sit. Was, a historical novel, used The Wizard of Oz as a way into different eras of American history and different kinds of American childhoods, from the 1870s to 1989. In particular about half the book was set in Kansas in the 1870s. The catalyst. Well my first successful fantasy novella, The Unconquered Country was a phatasmagoria around Cambodia. I'd seen a photograph in Look magazine in the States which showed a Cambodian woman in hospital next her soldier husband, not realising he was dead. The image just wouldn't go away, it haunted me for years, especially during and just after the Pol Pot era, when it would have been difficult to travel. Unconquered Country finally came out in 1985. In 2002 I was invited by friends to stay at the Australian archaelogical dig at Siem Reap. I was very lucky and got a tour from the dig director Roland Fletcher of all the monuments in the order they were built, which was an overwhelming introduction to the history. I came back and immediately started to write the Jayavarman sequences. But there was a lot of expense, research, travel and reading to be done. I went back to Cambodia 4 times in two years, the last trip funded by the Author's Foundation. On my second trip, meeting so many Cambodians during the research inspired the modern plot and the whole modern half of the book took off from there."

How close are your ties to Cambodia today? "Gosh, the ties should be closer. While there the last time I tried to help set up a writing workshop. I also recorded and got broadcast on Resonance FM a ninety-minute piece about arts in Cambodia. But a lot of pretty severe changes in my personal life have just got in the way of getting back mom in California is very ill, etc."

Can you give a brief precis of The King's Last Song? "The made up bit of the story is that Jayavarman VII's son has dictated to him his father's personal memoir. It is written on gold leaves to avoid decay and insects, but during the pro Hindu revolt, the book is buried to preserve it from destruction. We do know from a fragmentar inscription translated by Saveros Pou that texts were ordered to be written on gold. Indeed, the person commanding the writing did have the title Jayavarman, there is some justification for this conceit. In 2004, the fictional memoir is accidentally discovered again. There is widespread concern that such a treasure, containing Jayavarman's words, is not stolen. Unfortunately, it is stolen at gunpoint, and the general and the dig director protecting it are taken hostage. The modern story concerns the efforts of two modern Cambodians to get the book and the Professor back. Map is a Patrimony Policeman with too many bad memories of the wars. Veasna, a motoboy in his 20s helps him... without being aware that during the Pol Pot era, Map killed his parents. This relationship is mirrored by that of the Professor, a Frenchman called Luc Andrade, and his kidnapper, en ex-Khmer Rouge cadre. By the end of the novel, both of them are working together to translate the Sanskrit of the original into modern Khmer. Intercut with the efforts to get the book back and to translate it are flashbacks to 1960, 1967 and in one long section to do with Map, 1988 and 89. About half the book is idylls of the King, sections of Jayavarman's life from age six up to the consecration of Preah Khan in 1191. It is also interspersed with sections from the fictional memoir. Some poetic license is needed to get the story to flow, and there is still a lot we don't understand about J.VII's life. So I've had to make up/fill in gaps against a considerable amount of disagreement among scholars as to when he might have been born, what his relationship was with the Chams, etc. So the book is a kind of a collage around Cambodian themes. One thing it does not have is a chapter set in the Khmer Rouge era. That time has been more than adequately covered by people who lived through it." For more, click here.

A 12th century portrait of Jayavarman VII at the Guimet Museum in Paris

More smiling

Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend the launch of the SMILE photography exhibition at Gasolina in BKK1 at the end of last month but the exhibits will remain in situ until later this month, so still lots of time for me, and you, to get along and have a look at this remarkable photography project where all the pictures on show were taken by children who'd never used a camera in their lives before. You can read all about the project and the results in Michelle's blog here. The children also got to visit the Royal Palace for an audience with the King and Michelle talks us through the experience, which was shown on local tv. Well done to HRH for taking an interest. Not trying to decry the television appearance but it doesn't take much to get on tv here. I apparently appeared twice in recent weeks and was seen by Khmer friends; as an interested bystander at the Municipal Court for the Christopher Howes murder trial - the footage was also shown on CNN - and at the launch of the Mekong Discovery Trail booklet. Usually anything with the hint of officialdom gets covered by the local tv channels here like CTN or Apsara, and if barangs are in the picture, even better.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


We had a taste of the traffic chaos expected during the water festival's 3-day horror-show next week, when the traffic lights failed on the city's main thoroughfares around 5pm tonight and every road including all the side roads around BKK1 were snarled up with traffic jams. It was complete madness and much like what I experienced during last year's water festival period. This year I won't be around as I'm off to the south coast on Saturday for a week's break. My brother is due to arrive on Thursday night from the UK for a 3-week visit and I've booked us a couple of nights in Kep for the weekend to escape both the water festival as well as the Independence day ceremonies that will take place this coming Sunday. I've never stayed in Kep before, so that'll be a first. We'll then move onto Kampot for a night or two before heading to Sihanoukville for a couple of nights and then we'll see where the wind takes us. I wouldn't mind at least two nights on an island somewhere, but we'll see. For those remaining in town, and for the hundreds of thousands who will come into the city from the provinces, there will be a host of music performances to enjoy as well as the boat racing of course on the Tonle Sap River from the Japanese Bridge up to the finishing post directly opposite the Royal Palace. Let's hope there's no repeat of last year's boat fatalities.

The legendary Jet

Of the ten competing teams in the Cambodia Premier League, Post-Tel FC lie second from bottom. Even a name change in August from Intry Kraham Post FC hasn't done the trick, but at least they have as their coach, the most famous name in Cambodian football history. Hok 'The Jet' Sochetra is a legend in his homeland. His goal-scoring prowess saw him net 42 goals in 64 appearances for his country, even though for many of the games, he ended up on the losing side, such is Cambodia's form as one of the poorer teams in world soccer. Under German coach Joachim Fickert they did enjoy a flicker of success in the 1997 President's Cup and Southeast Asian Games and Sochetra was feted for his somersault celebration after scoring in a defeat to China. He stopped playing for the national team after the 2000 Tiger Cup competition when he landed a job with the Samart cell phone company, and his new employers refused to let him play for the team. He was just 26 years old. At the time experts rated him one of the top two strikers in Southeast Asian football and the telephone company had hired him for his popularity and promotional value, then refused to let him play! In the international wilderness, Sochetra gained weight and wasn't the same man when his employers relented and he received call-ups for a World Cup match against the Maldives and for the Tiger Cup in 2002. Lacking his renowned deadly finish in front of goal, Sochetra called it a day on the international scene despite his superlative scoring record and instead got on with a coaching role, both as an assistant coach to the Cambodian U-23 squad and as player-coach with the new Samart United team, who won the Cambodian League Championship in their first season in 2002. He spent a few seasons in charge at Samart, who changed their name to Hello United and then Phnom Penh Empire, playing sporadically until calling a halt to his playing career when taking over the reins at Intry Kraham Post, now called Post-Tel FC. If anyone can bring about a change in fortunes for the team by the sheer weight of their personality, then Hok 'The Jet' Sochetra can.

Are they for real?

My question is - are these people for real or is someone taking the piss? I really do despair at the drivel I hear from these do-gooders and they really can't be serious about all this Christ-crap can they? I know I shouldn't get worked up about this, but I do. Stop preaching, stop converting, stop making my blood boil, and go home.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008: A life-changing dip in the Mekong
What a beautiful day we enjoyed in Phnom Penh today. Keo Nirath became a sister in Christ, and so now is a member of the growing Cambodian ecclesia. A small group of us caught a tuk-tuk to riverside, for Brothers Steve and Nirann to baptise Nirath, and so, changing her life forever. Her commitment to serving God and Christ for eternity was simple and quiet; exactly how she wanted it. Afterwards, we enjoyed several Bible readings from Psalm 37 and Philippians 4, which were briefly discussed under the shade (after we were kicked off the grass by the police, wanting to preserve the grass-strip for the Water Festival!). This did not deter from the meaningful words expressed from God’s word, as we meditated on this amazing dedication from Nirath towards our Creator. As part of the celebration, a delicious feast was had at a nearby restaurant. Nirath is the elder sister of Nirann (the Girls' dorm manager) and has been studying at BEC during 2008. She previously followed the Seventh Day Adventist faith and is in her first year as a medical student at university. She is a dedicated student of the Bible and will be a strong addition to the PP Ecclesia. Her humility and her strength amaze and inspire. We found out recently that she has had no money for food for weeks and has relied on friends for help. Nirath devotes her spare time to caring for orphans and young people in return for accommodation. Sadly the cost of her degree has recently doubled and she is unlikely to complete her studies. Her reserves of strength and faith in God will be required in these trying times. We all love her so much. Thank you God! We pray that Nirath’s baptism will strengthen her new brothers and sisters, and encourage the many people she reaches out to. Praise be to our Father, as His worldwide family rejoice, as the angels and Christ do. Abi Catchlove. More of this crap here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Denise's Celebration of Dance

Just arrived this afternoon with the ink still wet on its pages is Denise Heywood's glossy coffee-table book, Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods. Denise adores Khmer art and classical dance is an extension of her love and this shines through in this celebratory book, with a foreword by one of the country's best dancers of her generation, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi. Lavishly illustrated with lots of gorgeous photos and drawings, the book introduces a history of Cambodian dance, the role of the French in bringing it to the attention of the West, the paintings of dancers by Auguste Rodin, the Reamker from which many of the dances were born, and the stories of the dancers and teachers who have played a vital role in its revival after the Pol Pot horrors. The book also discusses Khmer music, shadow puppets and the future of dance in Cambodia. It's 144 pages with 300 illustrations, 208 of them in full colour and published by River Books in Thailand, at a cost of $45.00. Denise lived in Cambodia for a couple of years, and is a journalist, lecturer, photographer and acknowledged expert on art and history of the countries of the Mekong region. She's an all-round whirlwind who oozes passion and energy for her topics and is much in demand as a speaker and tour leader. She is also the author of the book, Ancient Luang Prabang. In her latest book she has done Cambodia proud with a beautiful publication.

And finally...from Sambor

A decorated pedestal that has been uncovered by the archaeological team at Sambor Prei Kuk
To bring to a close my recent visit to Sambor Prei Kuk in Kompong Thom province, here are a few photos from the 7th and 10th century temple complex. I was only there for a maximum of a couple of hours and to be frank I only really scratched the surface of what's there to see as I was part of a 20-strong FAM trip of tour agents and press to sample the new community-based services on offer. My next visit will be more considered and more in-depth.
Floral patterns on the sides of the pedestal that was found in the southern group of shrines
On the upper level of the pedestal you can see the fierce face of Rahu and a hamsa with wings
A more traditional pedestal and yoni amongst the small collection at the site's storage hut
The two Sambor lions stand proud at the entrance to Prasat Tao
The rectangular ceiling of Prasat Tao and the amazing brick construction on display
The Sambor lions are renowned for their strength, ferocity and their gorgeous manes. Un-reconstructed lions can be found at the Kompong Thom cultural storage hall in town.
Another ceiling, this time the octagonal shrine called N7 in the northern grouping
Excavation work is prominent at Sambor and this is uncovering new information about the site all the time. This brick shrine N4 is in the northern group.
One of the mysterious faces at the top of the square cella known as Asram Moha Issey

Meta tips

I won't be in Phnom Penh for a few of the Meta House events this month but here's my pick of what they've got lined up. A precursor to the first Khmer Rock opera, Where Elephants Weep, which will run from 28 Nov til 7 Dec, will be held at Meta House on Tuesday 18th (8pm start), whilst Shooting The Messenger, this coming Saturday 8th, will encourage debate about the value of edutainment, hosted by the man behind Khmer Mekong Films, Matthew Robinson. There are a handful of evening events with locally-produced documentaries at their core, focusing on such diverse topics as NGOs in Cambodia (there are over 6,000 of them), human trafficking, ecosystems (including a showing of Prey Lang on Friday 21st), the life of children, the Khmer Rouge legacy and the contemporary music scene. Enough to get your teeth into I reckon. There's also a showing of the Palace of Dreams film about HIV and youths at risk on Tuesday 25th, and a Friday 28th run-out for the exclusive Kampuchea: Death & Rebirth documentary. You can catch the Meta House schedule at their website or visit them at Street 264, near Wat Botum.
A tip for anyone who isn't aware of its existence. The AsiaLIFE Phnom Penh guide is an absolute must-get magazine produced at the start of each month and focuses on the month ahead. It's a gorgeously produced, full-colour mag, over 100 pages and it's free. It concentrates on forthcoming entertainment and cultural events, food and drink but be quick, once it hits the streets, it disappears like lightning. The front cover of the mag in May contained a photo of my favourite waitress at the Thai restaurant of Bai Thong. Good choice Ed.
Finally, I've just heard that 4 concerts will take place in Cambodia this month and next, as part of a campaign against human trafficking by the music television giant MTV. The highlight will be a 7 December gig by The Click Five and other bands at Angkor Wat, with other shows at Ochheuteal Beach in Sihanoukville and in Kompong Cham, and a 12 December wrap-up concert at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, to coincide with Cambodia's National Day to Combat Human Trafficking. Rock on for a good cause.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Temple styles

This marriage between man-made brick and nature is at the entrance tower of S3 in the southern group
Continuing my photo-gallery from my recent whistle-stop tour to the 7th and 10th century temple complex of Sambor Prei Kuk near Kompong Thom, here's a few of the different styles of temple construction on display, but by no means an exhaustive review. Of the 288 separate towers or temples that have been identified, many surrounded by enclosure walls and standing on platforms, they come in varying shapes and sizes. Many are square or rectangular, whilst others are octagonal. Each shrine opens to the east and most have false doors on the other sides. Typical are recessed tiers, with flying palaces on the outside walls and corbelled vaulting inside the tower. Construction-wise, experts believe the bricks used to build the shrines were rubbed together to achieve a perfect fit and adhered to each other with a vegetable-based glue. The bricks were then carved in situ and often stucco was applied to allow for more fine-tuned decoration.
This broken square brick shrine, S17, lies outside the main inner grouping of temples in the south
The main tower, Prasat Yeay Poeun of the southern grouping of temples
An octagonal tower known as S7 in the southern grouping
The large recessed tower of Prasat Trapeang Ropeak, also known as the Z group
The central tower, Prasat Tao with its lions, of the central grouping at Sambor
An octagonal shrine N17 from the northern group complex
The large square tower of Prasat Sambor, which suffered a direct hit by an American bomb
A reconstructed linga and yoni shrine on the edge of the northern grouping of temples
A rectangular shrine N30 wrapped in strangler fig vines, away from the main complex of towers

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Pulse on Obama

Steel Pulse, undoubtedly the greatest reggae band on the planet, have come out firmly in support of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States with a brand new song, Vote Barack. Its a typically catchy tune by the band who have been right behind Obama since March of this year when they endorsed him on their official website as the next man to lead the United States. Listen to the song and watch the video here. In the band's press statement to accompany the release of the song, they said:
"After nearly two years of a grueling and ugly campaign, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has proved that he is the right choice to be the 44th president of the United States of America. Steel Pulse believes him to be a person of integrity, intelligence and genuine goodwill. We take him at his word that he wants to move the nation and humanity beyond its religious and racial divides and that he wants to lead the United States to that company of nations committed to human rights. We are confident that the senator will cast his net widely in search of men and women of diverse, open-minded views and of superior intellectual qualities to assist him in the wide range of responsibilities that he must superintend. According to David Hinds, founder and band leader, “Barack Obama is the Bob Marley of politics. Just like Bob used his music to unite mankind, I believe that Senator Obama will utilize his policies to make the world a much more harmonious place. Bless !! ”. “We couldn’t be more excited,” said Selwyn Brown, another founding member of the band. This endorsement may be of little note or consequence, except perhaps that it comes from an unlikely source: namely, a Rastafarian Reggae Band. Nevertheless, it is important to be said publicly in a public forum in order that it is understood. It is not arrived at without careful thought and some difficulty. No doubt some of our friends will see this as a matter of intellectual treachery. We regret that, and We respect their disagreement. But they will readily agree that as Africans, we are first human. As private citizens, we must voice our concerns for the well-being of our nation without partisanship when decisions that have been made endanger the body politic."
The song, 4 minutes 12 seconds, was penned by David Hinds, Selwyn Brown and Sidney Mills and was released just a few days before the presidential election which is scheduled for Tuesday 4 November. As a Brit I have absolutely no interest in the election whatsoever, other than who has his finger on the red button, but at least the song is nice and catchy!

Online advice

Water Festival - coming soon to a river near me!
The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office website often gets poor press because they are ultra cautious in their warnings to expats and tourists visiting countries around the globe. But of course you can understand their position as they are obligated to provide advice which makes people aware of the potential dangers they may face and they will always err on the side of caution, and rightly so. It is up to the individual to either follow, interpret or ignore the travel advice that the FCO provide. By the way 85,000 British nationals visited Cambodia last year, 78,000 of them on holiday and most of those visits were trouble free. In their latest updated travel advice, the FCO mention the recent spat on the Cambodia-Thai border and an underlying threat of terrorism. This week they've also reminded us about two forthcoming celebrations. The Water Festival (Bonn Om Touk in Khmer) public holiday period over 10 -13 November, means the population of Phnom Penh will increase dramatically. Between 1-2 million additional Khmers are expected to flood into town from the provinces to take part in the festivities, which include boat races. Crowds will be especially large around the riverfront area which increases dramatically the risk of pick pocketing and bag snatching and a large increase in traffic on the roads of the city. FCO reminds visitors to be extra vigilant, not to carry large sums of money, expensive jewellery, etc. All sound advice. I'm planning on being out of town myself for the festival as the roads are simply crazy for the 3 days with all of the additional traffic and people on the streets. It's gridlock. My brother will be here for a couple of weeks so for at least a week, we're heading to the south coast to do a bit of exploring in that area.
The second celebration is the annual Independence Day parade on Sunday 9 November. It'll celebrate Cambodia's 54 anniversary of independence from those pesky French and the parade will last from 7am in front of the Royal Palace, up to the Independence Monument and then back to the riverfront. The authorities are expecting 100,000 people to take part in the celebrations, many more than usual. More gridlock. Oh and by the way Cambodia has a new British Ambassador, he's Andrew Mace and he's a mere youngster, in his mid-30s I believe. Makes me feel kinda old. Interestingly, 569 British nationals are registered as living in Cambodia, including me. To see the online FOC advice, click here.