Saturday, January 31, 2009

An Oscar for Nhem En?

Nhem En and some of the photos he took at Tuol Sleng in the late '70s
A 26-minute documentary about the man who took the photographs of the prisoners as they were marched blindfolded into Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh by their Khmer Rouge captors before being interrogated and then murdered, will be up for an Oscar later next month at the Academy Awards. Steven Okazaki's (pictured right) haunting story, The Conscience of Nhem En, looks behind the photos you see on the walls of S-21 at the man who was behind the camera and interviews three of the few survivors to have made it out of that hell hole. The absence of any feelings of remorse by Nhem En is chilling. ''I was only one screw of the machine. I did nothing wrong except taking photos at the superior's order,'' he claims. It will be the director's fourth Oscar nomination - he won best short in 1990 - for this short documentary, which he filmed in January of last year. It is his third film in a series of short personal documentaries, Three Journeys, which includes the Mushroom Club, a look at Hiroshima sixty years after the atomic bombing, and Hunting Tigers, a quirky look at Tokyo pop culture. Then Nhem En was a sixteen year old following orders, today he's deputy governor in Anlong Veng and has announced plans to build his own museum in the town, filled with his photographs and other KR memorablia. To find out more about the director, click here.
S-21 survivor Chum Mey is interviewed for the documentary

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More of the same

This looks like Yama to me, the God of the Dead, who is usually seen riding a buffalo, armed with his mace
The rock-bed carvings at Koh Ker look quite crude in comparison to other rock-face bas reliefs that can be found in the river at Kbal Spean for example or on the cave walls on and in the lee of Phnom Kulen. They need to be cleaned up and all the carvings revealed properly before making a serious assessment of them, though I counted nearly 100 individual sculptures, some more clearly defined than others. They may've been part of an underwater group of carvings in the dim and distant past if the water level of Trapeang Ang Khnar had been higher, or they could've been an offering to the gods depicted on the rock-face, though their location is not close to any of the larger temples at the site. They begin about 50m east of the small shrine of Prasat Khnar. They are facing west - the temples of Koh Ker have mixed orientation to the east and the west - and look out over the small pond. I hope to get back out to Koh Ker in the near future for another scout around and to get to visit some of the temples that have now become accessible in the last year or so.
I reckon this is the elephant-head of Ganesha, son of Shiva, who cut his son'r head off in a fit of anger and replaced it with the first thing he found! I've never seen Ganesha with multi-arms before though, so someone may be able to offer an alternative explanation.
This picture shows where the carvings are situated and that some of them are still covered up by earth
This looks like a worn carving of Shiva dancing whilst drunk
The figure on the right of the central trio looks like a hermit or rishi praying with his long beard
This section of rock with multiple carvings has been defaced and the heads destroyed except for the central figure
My guess is the underworld god Varuna riding a hamsa, though Brahma also rode a hamsa mount at times
An unidentifiable Buddhist figure in traditional posture, with the top of a linga above the boulder
Some of the final rock carvings at the Trapeang Ang Khnar site
Sitting atop one of the carved rock-beds was this three linga-yoni carved on top of the natural sandstone boulder


Rock carvings at Koh Ker

Sunlight shines on carvings of multi-headed Brahma and Yama holding his heavy mace
Now back to those carvings at Koh Ker that I promised you a few days ago. Koh Ker is a fascinating site in many ways. It was a brief blip in the dominance of Angkor as the capital of the Khmer Empire for over 500 years, when Jayavarman IV based himself there for a 23 year period from 921. At that time it was called Chok Gargyar. The temples built there were mainly dedicated to Shiva and the brief period saw a frenzy of temple construction and gigantic sculpture, topped off by the 40m-high pyramid of Prasat Thom. It was believed that a linga of at least 5m in height stood on top of Prasat Thom though no trace of it has been found. On my recent whistle-stop visit, I came across a series of rockbed bas-relief carvings at the site for the first time, numbering around 100 individually carved figures, representing all of the major gods, including Vishnu, Indra, Shiva and Brahma. The reliefs lie in two locations, close to the small pond of Trapeang Ang Khnar, and carved into the sandstone bedrock facing the small pool. Time and thieves have taken their toll on some of the carvings at the site but they are well worth a quick detour to see them and they provide the path for a nice walk through the forest to visit Prasat Damrei. Once the conservation folks have had chance to renovate and clean the carvings, and dig away at some of the earth to expose even more reliefs, then this will become a key stop on any tour of Koh Ker, a site that is now easily accessible by a 2-hour road journey from Siem Reap.
My guess is a brown bear - what's yours? This carving is the first in a long line of rock-bed carvings at Koh Ker
This carving looks almost prehistoric in its form. Does anyone want to hazard a guess as to what animal it is? My guess is rhinoceros.
I think the figure on the left is a rare relief of the elephant head of Ganesha, accompanied by a series of praying females
This looks like a carving of Yama - king of the dead - riding on his buffalo, or it could be Shiva riding on the bull nandi
This is Indra on the 3-headed elephant Airavata, though Indra's head has been cut away
Both central figures riding their mounts have lost their heads. It looks like Indra riding his elephant on the right but the other carving is too indistinct to identify
Varuna was the god of invisibility and is shown ridng his hamsa (swan) mount
Two seated figures, one holding a ball (!), the other a mace, though I'm loathe to guess either of them!
I'm erring on the side of Brahma for this carving though like many of the others, its indistinct and worn through time


Rock and roll update

It was fortunate timing that I caught up with film director John Pirozzi last night at Meta House and briefly chatted to him about his forthcoming film, Don't Think I've Forgotten. He's in Cambodia right now to finish shooting for the film, he's got the necessary financial backing to complete the project and will return to the States soon to edit and complete post-production. With a fair wind, he hopes to get the film out by May or at the latest June. Don't Think I've Forgotten is the story of Cambodian rock and roll of the '60s and '70s that captured the hearts of this nation but came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge took over and killed the majority of its stars. Pirozzi's film will celebrate Cambodia's own musical heyday, which has once again risen in popularity, particularly with the emergence of the band Dengue Fever, who Pirozzi himself has helped to promote with his film, Sleepwalking Through The Mekong.
It will be a full-length feature (90 mins) and he is really keen to get it shown over here in Cambodia as early as possible. It just so happens that he's a Cambodia nut, like a lot of us, and tries to spend a couple of months here each year. I asked him to spill the beans about the film knowing full well that he wouldn't, but at least he threw me a few scraps of information such as the film will include a few recreated scenes, as well as interviews with survivors and their relatives. In researching a subject like music in most countries it would be straightforward in picking through the archives, talking to old stars, finding rare recordings and so on. However, in Cambodia, there's none of that. Effectively, all the film footage was destroyed, all the stars that shone so brightly like Ros Sereysothea and Sin Sisamouth were singled out and killed. So its been a tough job and that's why its taken a while to complete the project, together with the usual problems that independent filmmakers have with funding issues along the way. However, Dengue Fever's success across the globe has given new impetus to the music and a real buzz of nostalgia for the unique melodies and hypnotic rhythms of Cambodia's rock and roll generation which will soon be on the silver screen for all of us to enjoy. Link: Film website.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Arn's mission

I finally managed to see The Flute Player for the first time tonight at Meta House, as part of an evening inspired by the work of Cambodian Living Arts, who are the main thrust of a revival in Khmer performing arts, thanks in no small part to Arn Chorn-Pond, the subject of the documentary film. Arn was a boy soldier in the Khmer Rouge and that stayed with him after he was adopted and taken to live in America. His passion to make something good from his past saw him return to Cambodia to seek out the old music masters, who survived the Khmer Rouge years and to record their music and to hear their stories. The Masters Program, which Arn supported by travelling the globe telling his own personal, and emotional story, became Cambodian Living Arts. His youthful appearance and effervescent enthusiasm belies the heartbreak and sadness that simmers just below the surface, so the success of CLA and the great work they have done in helping the next generation of musicians connect with the old masters is music to his ears. His own life was spared during the killing years by being able to play the flute, so music has been his saviour in more ways than one. Amongst the masters on show was a telling contribution from the chapei king himself, Kong Nai, who was filmed at his home in Dey Krahom, which has now been demolished, as of last weekend. The documentary was filmed in 2003.
Also, as part of the evening, a young CLA student, Sinat, played a series of traditional instruments for the audience and answered questions about both the music and himself, and a short film on the dying art of giant leather puppets was shown and featured a couple of troupes that perform this traditional art in Siem Reap. Fortunately the monks at Wat Bo in the town have been a catalyst in reviving this artform and it seems to have at least secured its future for the short term.
Arn Chord-Pond's own life was saved by playing the flute
Kong Nai gave his usual electric performance in the film
Giant puppetry in Siem Reap is now recovering from near-extinction
The giant puppets are illuminated by a large log-fire, when performing in the countryside
Sinat from CLA and his array of traditional musical instruments

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Footy in April

At last, there's some news on the Cambodian national football team front and it's confirmation that they have some games coming up in early April, in Bangladesh of all places. It is the qualifying group stage of the AFC Challenge Cup where 16 nations, split into four groups, will play round-robin league matches and the top team from each group and the best runner-up will go through to the 8-team final round (to be played in 2010). Already through are the reigning champs India, Tajikistan and DPR Korea. So who are Cambodia paired against I hear you ask? Well, Bangladesh for starters, as they are hosting all the Group A games and hope their new Brazilian coach, Dido, will have some magic up his sleeve. Also Cambodia will face Myanmar (as they did in the recent Suzuki Cup, where they lost 3-2) and the winners of Macau or Mongolia, who will play a pre-qualifying decider beforehand. On paper (well, the FIFA world rankings anyway) Myanmar and Bangladesh are 'better' than Cambodia but it's all pretty close stuff and Cambodia coach Prak Sovannara would be well served to get some friendly games in before the visit to Bangladesh, but with the Hun Sen Cup in full flow and the Premier League to start soon, he may not get that benefit. Let's hope the Cambodian FA see sense and give him that fair crack of the whip I've been talking about.


Prying eyes

The blue-shirted 7NG employers building a wall on the Dey Krahom site
I was at the Phnom Penh Centre building for a workshop on handicraft social enterprises this morning and thought I'd take a look at the Dey Krahom area, just out of curiosity. However less than a minute after wandering into the now levelled area where the Dey Krahom community used to be housed, I was shepherded out by a 7NG security guard on his walkie-talkie, who wasn't prepared to listen to my appeal to take a few photos. So the pictures here are from the top of the Centre that overlooks Dey Krahom (through the trees) and the Bassac White Building, where tenants are still living. The blue-shirted 7NG employees are busting a gut to build a 2.5 metre-high brick wall just a metre from the White Building, much to the annoyance of the tenants who would prefer a six metre space to allow for access and for safety. They've no chance, judging by the speed at which the wall is going up. The future of those residents (up to 600 families) in the White Building is now under threat, as 7NG has confirmed they'd like to purchase the property and relocate the tenants. As for Dey Krahom, apart from a few piles of rubble, its pretty empty and all the former homes of the residents have been flattened and the debris removed. You would never know a community had been residing there until the end of last week.
The new wall is just 1 metre from the ground floor of the White Building behindLife goes on in the White Building despite the wall-building going on under their nose

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bruno goes in-depth

Bruno Bruguier presents the 1st of his series of archaeological guidebooks of Cambodia
Okay so it was in French and I hardly understood a word, apart from the names of the Cambodian temples, but Bruno Bruguier's presentation of his latest work, the first in a series of six archaeological guidebooks on Cambodia that he hopes to publish, was well attended by the Fracophiles in the capital at the French Cultural Center earlier tonight. The 266-page book titled Phnom Penh and the Southern Provinces highlights the main ancient temple sites in the bottom half of the country to an in-depth level like never before, using recent photos and maps, alongside archive photos and drawings from the EFEO vaults as Bruno happens to work for the organization that has done so much to rescue and restore Cambodia's Angkorean heritage. Co-authored with his wife Juliette Lacroix, it's the first in a series of six they have written, though funding has been a tough nut to crack and with the help of Reyum, 3,000 copies have been produced. In front of such luminaries as Ang Choulean and Helen Jarvis, Bruno explained his approach to the research and some of his findings for half an hour before fielding questions from the audience. The first book concentrates on well-known temple sites such as Phnom Chisor, Tonle Bati, Phnom Bayang, Phnom Da, Ba Phnom and the cave temples of Kampot, but also introduces the little known sites at Prasat Chea Hao and Prasat Bassac in Svay Rieng. Funding permitting, he is looking to release the following titles in the future: Tonle Sap Basin and Sambor Prei Kuk; Banteay Chhmar and the Western Provinces; Kompong Cham and the Mekong Basin; Koh Ker & Preah Vihear - the Northern Provinces; Around Angkor.
Bruno takes time out to dedicate a copy of his new book

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Angkor's final chapter

The small temple of Mangalartha opens to the east
Sat quietly in a clearing some 300 metres from the road that links the centre of Angkor Thom with its Victory Gate entrance, lies the final full stop in the last chapter of the great Angkor monuments. It's a temple with three names, known variously as Mangalartha, Monument 487 and Prasat Top East and it's rarely seen except by the nerdy temple enthusiasts. I found the entrance and cycled down the leafy path but it might be a bit trickier in the wet season if there are any streams about. If you visit this temple, you will be alone, surrounded by thick forest, birdcalls and shafts of sunlight filtering through the canopy - sounds idyllic doesn't it, so try it for yourself.
The monument itself is a single sandstone sanctuary, high on a narrow base, with four stairways but lacking a roof, lintels or pediments in situ. There is an inscribed doorjamb and a stele at the site revealed that it was built at the very end of the 13th century, after the death of Jayavarman VII and dedicated to one of his inner court. It is the last known monument to be constructed in the great Angkor period of temple-building. In the leaves that cover the ground you can see at least two broken pediments, showing Vishnu in various poses, and confirming that Mangalartha was dedicated to the god's memory. It is certainly not one of Angkor's most memorable monuments but a pleasant way to spend a few minutes in a place of solitude and quiet contemplation, and it was my first return to this temple since my first visit way back in 2000.
In the top register, you can see the upper half of Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta, whilst below are worshipping figures
The temple has a series of false doors and windows as it sits on a tall plinth
In this pediment, Vishnu is seen striding across the ocean with various figures and animals also shown but the sandstone hasn't fared well in the forest
The sun shines through the forest canopy to bathe the temple in warm sunlight
The face of a naga covered in lichen, to be found amongst the leaves at the edge of the forest

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Treasure trove of the South

The front cover of Bruno Bruguier's archaeological guidebook
Bruno Bruguier handed me a mint copy of the brand new archaeological guidebook to Cambodia, volume 1, and titled Phnom Penh and the Southern Provinces, fresh from the first print-run tonight and its an absolute gem for temple-enthusiasts like myself. 266 pages, packed full of well-researched text and 236 photos, drawings or maps. It's a treasure trove of detail - the biggest drawback being that it's all in the French language, which I am even worse at than the Khmer language. Tomorrow night, Bruno will give a presentation about the book and his research work on the temples of Cambodia at the French Cultural Center at 6.30pm, in French and Khmer, and the book will be on sale, published by Reyum, for the first time. Co-authored with Juliette Lacroix, it will retail at around $15. He's already penned another five manuscripts for the remainder of the temples in Cambodia and is looking for funding to publish all of his works, even better would be to get them published in English too, and considerably open up the audience for his books. Working for EFEO has given Bruno access to a wealth of historical research, photographs and maps and he uses them wisely in his new book to provide a 'must have' tome for any self-respecting temple-hunter, even if they can't read or speak French like me. I had dinner with Bruno at Comme a la Maison tonight, accompanied by an old friend of mine, Cristiano, a fellow temple-hunter from Kompong Thom and two members of a French television film crew who are following Bruno in his work as part of a documentary on French-influenced cultural sites in SEAsia. If I was ever to throw a dinner party then Bruno and Cristiano would be on my guest-list - I could talk about Khmer temples all night long! Fortunately tonight, my fellow diners did me the honour of conducting most of the conversation in English.
An impression of a cave temple at Phnom Khyang by Henri Parmentier, from the EFEO archives dated 1927. I visited this cave temple just a few weeks ago.

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King of kings

The South Gate of Angkor Thom
I find the giant faces of Angkor, whether it be at the Bayon or the five gates that permit access to Angkor Thom, or even as far away as Banteay Chhmar or Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, absolutely fascinating and spellbinding. I always have. Ever since I first saw them in 1994 when I turned up in Angkor, wet behind the ears on my first trip outside of Europe, and stepped foot into this incredible world of gods and demons, kings and temples. They captured my heart and soul then, and still do today. I simply can't get enough of them. And any chance to show them off and I will. So that's why I will close my recent visit to the South Gate of Angkor Thom with yet more pictures of this impressive gateway into the palace of the gods. I know everyone who has been to Angkor will include photos of the South Gate in their collection and I admit to taking photos there on all of my numerous visits over the years. I can't stop myself. But of course, it's easy to miss the detail when you are blinded by the sheer scale of the whole. And there's enough detail on the gates themselves as well as the causeway lined with gods and demons to keep you occupied for hours. As for who is represented in the faces you see, looking out and surveying the scene from all angles, I tell myself it's the king of kings himself, Jayavarman VII. Today most Cambodians have a picture of the king on the wall of their home and in his day, during the 12th century, this was just another version of the same, images of the king on the wall of his home, reminding his subjects who was in charge and to whom they owed their allegiance.
The gate is crowned by a triple tower with four giant faces looking out at the four cardinal points; north, south, east and west
The faces of Ravana, leader of the demons, is dwarfed by the face-tower of Jayavarman VII
Indra sits atop his elephant steed Airavata on four sides of the South Gate entrance
The face of Jayavarman VII stares out at visitors to the South Gate
The detail of gods and worshipping figures are lost to most eyes who concentrate on the giant faces and the elephant trunks
The faces of the multi-headed gods are also dwarfed by the impressive face-tower of the South Gate
The western face of the South Gate is a little indistinct
Part of the moat surrounding the walls of Angkor Thom reflecting the late afternoon sun

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Arts revival

Passionate and articulate, Arn Chorn-Pond is the compelling subject of The Flute Player
Cambodian Living Arts are doing amazing things in reviving traditional Khmer performing arts. Everyone should support them. And you will get that chance this coming Friday (30th January) when Meta House on Street 264 will have a night dedicated to CLA. It'll start at 6pm and will include some traditional live music, a short documentary by Choun Sarin on the large shadow puppets of Sbaek Thom, and best of all, my first chance to see The Flute Player. This award-winning documentary by Jocelyn Glatzer has been out since 2003 but I've always managed to miss previous showings. On Friday I will demand a front row seat and nothing less. The film tells the compelling story of CLA-founder Arn Chorn-Pond, who I had the pleasure of meeting a year ago. At that time we took in a practice session by Ieng Sithul's young dance group sponsored by CLA in a room in the White Building before taking a walk through the Dey Krahom community next door to visit the home of legendary chapei master Kong Nai. With the destruction of Dey Krahom at the weekend, famed for housing many members of the city's artistic community, the future of the White Building is now being called into question. Arn and his team, including the likes of Charley Todd, Dickon Verey and a host of master musicians and teachers are leading the way in the revival of the arts here in Cambodia and forging a new path into the future with collaborations such as Where Elephants Weep. Find out more here.

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Too quiet for my liking

It's still too quiet for my liking over at the Cambodia Football Federation headquarters about the future of the Cambodian national football team. As I wrote in my blog here last month, I have been waiting for the fall-out from the team's recent participation in the AFF Suzuki Cup, where they played three games and lost all three. Coach Prak Sovannara is still in charge as far as I'm aware, and rightly so, guiding the team to the finals of the Suzuki Cup with such a young team (average age of 22) and should be given a fair crack of the whip, plus the fact that he's the only recognized senior coach in the country. However, there's been precious little comment from the guys at the top about the future, including any details of forthcoming games for the national team during 2009. The end of the year will see Cambodia taking part in the SE Asia Games in Laos but they will need to prepare for this with a series of friendly matches and any other regional mini-tournaments that they can enter. The FFC's top knobs have been over in France recently, sussing out some contacts at Paris St Germain and beginning the process of scouting any young Khmer talent that is currently playing abroad. They've already identified a goalkeeper currently playing in the French 2nd Division, though he'll have to be good to displace the current custodian, Samreth Seiha. I also get the vibe that they'll be seeking to give citizenship to anyone who sticks their hand up, claiming they have some Khmer blood in their family ancestry. I just hope it doesn't get silly like in Singapore where most of the team are as un-Singaporean as me. They're also heading for Switzerland to invite Sepp Blatter to Cambodia, god help us. Meanwhile, the Hun Sen Cup is in full flow with games at the Olympic Stadium every Saturday for the next few weeks. Qualifying matches took place in the provinces before the qualifiers were drawn against the professional teams of the Premier League and 1 game is being shown live on local tv every Saturday afternoon. The Cambodia Premier League begins again in early February. Finally, the FFC have kicked-off their own website but don't expect too many bells and whistles.


On the side of good

One of the gods, with broken nose and less than smiling lips, at Angkor Thom's South Gate
With those damn demons getting all the press, its about time we celebrated the gods, who're on the side of good, and are represented at the gates of the great city of Angkor Thom. Like the demons, there are 54 of them lining the causeway to the South Gate, and other gates, and they are distinquished by their serene look, almond-shaped eyes and conical headwear. Unfortunately, I was at the end of my tiring afternoon cycling around Angkor Thom and was heading for home when I stopped to take a few photos of the gods and I haven't really done them justice. Expect some more pics when I next visit, in the meantime, here's what I have.
The gods line up on the side of all that's good in the world
The majority of the heads of the gods and demons are copies. A room at Angkor Conservation is bursting at the seams with the originals from Angkor Thom and Preah Khan
The moat surrounding Angkor Thom is over 300 feet wide
A final look at the South Gate bathed in late afternoon sunlight before I cycle for home

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Book a night with Bruguier

This Thursday (29th January) at 6.30pm, I urge you to get along to a talk by Bruno Bruguier (above) called The Archaeological Sites of Southern Cambodia and which will be held at the cinema of the French Cultural Center on Street 218 - but please note, the talk will be in French and Khmer. Bruno is the man behind the excellent Carte Archéologique du Cambodge maps and after meeting Bruno a couple of months ago, I'm convinced his talk will be as enthusiastic and lively as the man himself. His presentation will be to introduce a new book he is publishing about the ancient archaeological sites in the southern half of the country. There is a downside, the book is only in French, as is the talk which will also be in Khmer for the benefit of locals, though Bruno would be happy to hear from anyone with the means to publish his book in English.
Bruno began his amazing project to map and record all of Cambodia's archaeological sites, before, during and after the Angkorean period, in 1990 and is still going. Funds have dried up to expand the database as Bruno would like, so he's also 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 already expanding the languages to include English, Khmer and Japanese. 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 now been published by Reyum with many photographs and maps and will be available on Thursday for the first time.

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Cambodia's largest linga

The location of Cambodia's largest linga - Phnom Bok
It's difficult not to connect the linga with the male organ especially when it sits astride the pedestal or yoni, which represents the female form. There are schools of thought that support that connotation whilst others see no sexual symbolism in it at all, choosing to identify the linga in its three components; the bottom part (representing Brahma) which is four-sided and remains under ground, the middle part (Vishnu) which is eight-sided and remains on a pedestal and the top part which is round and symbolizes the essence of Shiva. There are some fine examples of large linga at Koh Ker - as seen in the photo below - though the largest linga that I know of in Cambodia is to be found at Phnom Bok, but it takes an exhausting climb to reach the summit of the hill and the 10-ton linga itself is badly damaged. Phnom Bok is 25kms north of Siem Reap and is one of three mountain-temples built by King Yasovarman I in the late 9th or early 10th century, each of which was believed to have contained a giant linga in worship of Shiva. Only the Phnom Bok linga remains today and despite its damaged state, the 4 metre long stylised image of a phallus sits next to its original location and must've been a dramatic figure of worship in its heyday. About 150 metres away sits a three sanctuary tower temple also dedicated to the Hindu Trinity of gods (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma). Work has recently been completed to renovate the linga site but the wood and corrugated iron roof above it looks awful. The hole into which the linga would've stood upright is pretty deep and constructed of laterite stone blocks. And believe me when I say the 630 steps to reach the top demand a lot of energy. However, you are rewarded with gorgeous views over the surrounding countryside, an interesting hilltop temple and the largest linga in Cambodia.
The three sections of the massive linga are clearly visible, the round section is at the top
The linga looks a bit like a beached whale from this angle
The laterite-lined hole into which the linga would've stood upright
The rebuilt foundation of the linga was effectively a massive laterite pedestal
Another substantial linga, this time at the Koh Ker temple complex. I'm standing next to it to give you an idea of its height, I'm about 1.8 metres tall.

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On the side of evil

The evil wrongdoers of the South Gate of Angkor Thom
Continuing yesterday's theme of demons and evil wrongdoings, here's a few more shots of the row of 54 Asuras or demons, at the South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom. Identifiable by their grimaces and fierce visage, the demons are in direct confrontation with the gods for the elixir of life that springs from the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The number of demons and gods are the same on the South Gate causeway, though there's a difference when you view the same scene on the walls of Angkor Wat - in that famous bas-relief there are 92 asuras and 88 gods. Never a good idea to have more demons than good guys in my view. Just below the demons is the moat that encircles Angkor Thom, approximately 3km in length on each of the four sides. The demons and gods both grip the naga tightly, which is also meant to represent a link between the world of men (outside the temple) and the world of the gods (inside).
More evil demons with their fiercesome expressions
A view of the moat that surrounds Angkor Thom
The last section of the 54 demons pulling the naga
This photo shows the wall of the causeway and the demons along its length
Taken from the wall of the city, you can see the demons on the left and the gods on the right

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Demon faces

The face of a demon, an Asura at the South Gate of Angkor Thom
How about a few more ancient faces, notably from the latter part of the 12th century and who currently reside at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. All of these belong to the Asuras, commonly known as demons and who dominate the causeway and bridge on the right-hand side as you approach the gate on arrival at the great city. They are easily recognisable by their grimace, their elaborate crown and bulbous eyes as they grip the naga in their cosmic tug of war with their sworn enemies, the gods, as the myth of the Churning of the Sea of Milk is played out in all its glory. There are 54 of them in total, an identical number to the gods, who line up in similar formation on the left-hand side of the causeway. The South Gate is the most popular, and most photographed, as the sculptures here have been extensively restored, though many of the heads are replicas rather than the originals, the majority of which have mysteriously taken flight. At the end of the row of demons, nearest to the gate itself, is the multi-headed demon ruler Ravana holding the head of the naga, Vasuki. Well, that's what the experts would tell us and who am I to argue. The overall scene crowned by the magnificent South Gate itself makes a great way to enter Angkor Thom and I never tire of passing through this glorious entrance into the city.
The lack of eyes and a broken nose make this demon appear even more fierce
An elaborate feathered headpiece for this chubby looking demonThe bulbous eyes and downturned mouth are typical features of Asuras
This demon looks almost distasteful in his pose
The multi-headed demon king, Ravana, occupies the final spot before the gate itself
Detail of the feet of a demon, pointing in different directions!
This is the top of the demon's sampot and belt, finely carved in all its detail

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The Gate of Victory

One of those incredible faces, the southern face of the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom
A few posts ago I highlighted the Gate of the Dead, well today, it's the turn of the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom. Whilst the other four gates of the city converge on the state temple of the Bayon, the Victory Gate pierces the eastern wall surrounding the city 500m north of the Gate of the Dead and leads directly to the Royal Palace. It is identical in style to the other gates, 23m high with a triple tower carved with four faces, closely resembling the known statues of Jayavarman VII. It's believed that the faces were added later than the main construction, which took place in the latter part of the 12th century. At the base of the tower, on either side, a three-headed elephant with trunks that are picking lotus flowers, form pillars. On the eastern approach to the gate, headless gods and demons stand guard carrying a seven-headed naga, with most of the heads removed to Angkor Conservation for safe-keeping or stolen by looters. I approached the Victory Gate along the top of the laterite city wall from the East Gate via a leafy, shaded track that had a sheer drop of 8m on one side. After surveying the gate I headed off into the centre of Angkor Thom for more exploration.
The leafy, shaded track along the top of the city wall. The sheer drop is on the left
The western face of the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom
Lokiteshvara carving with two worshippers on the top of the Victory Gate wall
The top of the Victory Gate, seen from the south
The base of the elephant trunks, picking lotus flowers, with elephant carvings
Indra, flanked by two worshippers high on the wall of the gate
A full head and a half-head of an Asura (demon) at the east entrance to the gate
The face of a god at the entrance to the Victory Gate
A row of headless gods carrying the naga at the Victory Gate

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kien Svay away days

Srey Keo, Sith, Odom, Karin, Srey Kun, Kimsour
I've been hanging out with friends in Kien Svay this weekend and boy its been hot. Add to that a generator failure and life in the countryside ain't easy. But its been great fun with this bunch of kids keeping me busy all weekend, playing games of every description and swimming in the pool. It's back to the office tomorrow, despite half the nation taking a holiday for Chinese New Year.
Srey Keo, 4, tucking into a can of pop
I'm taking the role of grandad to read stories to the kids. We had enough light from a battery for a few photos


Saturday, January 24, 2009

The death of Dey Krahom

These shanty homes in front of the White Building at Dey Krahom have now been levelled
I'm not in Phnom Penh at the moment but earlier this morning, at 6am to be precise, the wreckers moved in to demolish the remaining homes of the shanty-town dwellers who had refused to accept the offer of a cash settlement and new land on the outskirts of the city. Dey Krahom has been levelled. The 3-year struggle of the residents has been crushed and the former home of many of Phnom Penh's artistic community has witnessed its final scene. Unfortunately, their's is not a singularly sad story, its happening all over Cambodia. So sad.
These homes have now been reduced to piles of rubble


Koh Ker prelude

This woman tending her herb garden was happy in her labour
I have a lot of photos to show you from Koh Ker, considering I only paid it a very brief visit earlier this week. They will follow soon enough, but in the meantime here's a few snaps to keep your interest. At the moment, there's not enough hours in the day. This weekend I'm staying with friends in Kien Svay, about 20 kms south of Phnom Penh, so my posting may be a bit erratic, again.
Yours truly and one of the giant linga of Koh Ker at Prasat Thneng
I love this reconstructed male figure which I found on the ground near Trapeang Ang Khnar
The sturdy laterite wall of Prasat Pram, with sandstone finials on top
At Prasat Damrei broken elephants lie on the ground, disconnected from their feet


In motion

Eric de Vries at the Equinox photo auction, with one of his pictures
My good pal Eric de Vries made a whistle-stop visit to Phnom Penh yesterday to show his face at the Equinox 3rd anniversary party that included a photography auction under the auspices of the brand new photography agency in Cambodia, its first, Asia Motion. With a dozen photographers on their books, Asia Motion aim to corner the Asia market offering a wide range of photographic styles and perspectives in social, artistic, commercial, press, fashion and advertising photography. However, their base is in Cambodia and last night the auction was one way to introduce their work to the public. The bar on Street 278 was heaving when we walked in, we stayed a short time and squeezed out again. It was full to bursting with expats - attracted by the free punch and food no doubt - the range of languages overheard was wide and it was exactly the type of place I abhore. And I wasn't overly impressed with the examples of photography on show either. But much like a painting exhibition and anything arty, it's all down to personal taste and preference. For example I disagreed over a photo that I thought was plain and boring whilst someone else thought the same picture was magnificent - it's all in the eye of the beholder. Link: Asia Motion

Friday, January 23, 2009

Working out

Working out in the mid-day heat
Whilst I was pouring over the foundations of a ruined Angkorean temple site a few kilometres past Banteay Samre last week, I heard some grunting and muted thuds coming from a thicket just around the corner. Being of a nosey disposition, I ventured over to the thicket to find three Cambodian men in their twenties, giving this punchbag some serious attention with feet, fists and arms, despite it being mid-day and scorching hot as well. Through my translator, I asked if they were kick-boxers and they said no, but they liked to come to this spot to work out and to take out their frustrations - and judging by the efforts they put in, they must've had a few. I felt tired just watching them and taking a few photos. They carried on, taking turns to rest before stepping up to the punchbag again to kick, punch, elbow and knee themselves into a deep sweat, as I said my goodbyes and returned to Siem Reap.
These guys had feet and hands made of steel
Any rest was short-lived as they again stepped up to deliver their blows to the punchbag


Safari adventures

My Koh Ker safari experience, warmed by a blazing log fire
Do you fancy a night under the stars in the forest next to one of Cambodia's remote temples? Well that's what I did earlier this week as I road-tested Hanuman's already highly-successful Temple Safari (or Beach Safari) experience. Koh Ker was the location - two hours north of Siem Reap and in the middle of a 10th century former capital of the Khmer Empire - and the proximity of the massive pyramid of Prasat Thom couldn't be bettered. Although the top of the pyramid is currently closed for safety reasons (when its open again it will give you amazing views over the tree-line for miles around), there are more than twenty other temples that have been demined, made safe and opened up in the last couple of years, that still very few people have seen. As for the experience itself, a team erected my tent in the bush near to the temple walls whilst I was exploring and I came back to take a hot shower in the 'African bush-style' tent provided for that sole purpose. There was also a toilet tent with a wooden box and standard toilet seat to ensure my privacy. The main tent itself is 2.5 metres high, so plenty of standing room, it's 3 metres wide too, so lots of space for two camp-beds, tables and clothes stands. It has two-layers of waterproofing and comes with mosquito protection and five meshed windows for light and breeze. For sustenance, I sat at the table under the veranda awning and enjoyed an abundant meal prepared by a local cook from the village with 4-courses, fruit to finish, plenty of drinks and accompanied by a blazing log fire just a few metres away. My previous camping experiences were never like this. I fell asleep to the sounds of Cambodian wedding music drifting my way from the village about a kilometre away and awoke to a cacophony of bird song at 6am, ready for an early breakfast, more exploration and a trip back to reality. Hanuman offer temple safaris to other locations such as Preah Vihear, Banteay Chhmar, Preah Khan, as well as beach locations along the south coast. Link: Hanuman
The main sleeping tent, 2.5m high, in the late afternoon
The toilet and shower tents nearby
My bed for the night

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Commaille's corner

The plaque on the tomb of Jean Commaille at Angkor
Angkor isn't all temples and children trying to sell you guidebooks, kramas and "cold drink mister." In the quiet south-west corner of the road that runs around The Bayon, at the very center of Angkor Thom, lies the tomb of Jean Commaille (right), the first curator of Angkor. He was 48 years old when he was murdered by bandits on 30 April 1916 on the road to Angkor Wat. Jean Commaille was the first of several Frenchmen to make a significant contribution to the conservation of Angkor as the first curator of Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, better known as EFEO, the authority responsible for maintenance and protection of the temples in the Angkor area. It was he who began the mammoth task of clearing the temple sites from the jungle that had consumed them and wrote the first guidebook - Guide aux ruines d'Angkor - to the temples in 1912.
The granite tombstone of Jean Commaille, Angkor's first curator
Commaille was a painter who went to Indochina with the French Foreign Legion. He was in Angkor painting in 1898, and was then employed by the public works department in a variety of jobs before becoming curator in March 1908. His pioneering work and lifestyle - his home was a straw hut beside the Angkor Wat causeway - evidently suited him. Not so his wife. Apparently unable to live without her piano, she packed her bags and left. Commaille's initial task was to clear Angkor Wat of vegetation before beginning on Angkor Thom. He opened up the great avenues leading to the five gates, cleared the Bayon's courtyards of rubble - stacking the blocks of stone in huge piles, where his successors would search for missing fragments from the bas-reliefs - and cut down the trees in the square framed by the Royal Terraces. It was a slow job and one that was never finished. At the time he lamented that "Every month, perhaps every day, some stones would fall. The complete ruin of the temple was only a matter of time, and it was necessary to consider how to halt it without further delay." Today Commaille's tomb, granite rock crowned by a lintel containing Indra astride his three-headed elephant, sits forlornly in its silent corner, surveying the Bayon as tourists flock to his Angkor Park in ever-increasing numbers.
Commaille's tomb, crowned by an Indra lintel and two colonettes

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Rags to riches

Sokvannara Sar is an unusual Cambodian performer. Instead of performing traditional Khmer dance, he is a rising star of classical Western-style ballet and brought his art to Phnom Penh in 2006 when he danced at the opening of the then-new American Embassy in the city to great acclaim. He's come a long way in a short time after he was spotted by arts patron Anne Bass in a dance group at Preah Khan temple in Angkor and given the opportunity to study ballet in New York. Better known to all as Sy, he has adapted incredibly well to his new life in the United States and appears on course to make a big name for himself in international ballet. His rags to riches story was the focus of Dancing Across Borders, a documentary by Anne Bass, which enjoyed a preview screening at the French Cultural Centre last night. Her sympathetic portrayal gave a glimpse into the sheer hard work needed to make an impression in the fiercely competitive world of ballet and how Sy has grasped his chance with both hands. Among the invited guests, popular Cambodian crooner Sapoun Midada, who sang the film's closing song, mixed with luminaries such as senior minister Veng Sereyvuth, former Ambassador Roland Eng and the new United States Ambassador Carol Rodley.
Film director Anne Bass with Khmer singer-songwriter Sapoun Midada at last night's screening
The song that closed last night's film is called Pouk Euy, Me Euy, or Dear Father, Dear Mother, and sung by Sapoun Midada, a superstar amongst Cambodia's music-hungry fans. Alongwith Preap Sovath, Midada is at the very pinnacle of the music scene in Cambodia and writes many of his own songs. He's particularly known for his sentimental love songs though the song for the film was based on a county boy who moved to the city to support his family by playing guitar, something which Midada is also well-known for.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hidden treasures

Brahma, the god of creation, with 4 faces and the remains of 4 arms, at Koh Ker
I was only at Koh Ker for a couple of hours of daylight on Monday of this week - I was testing out Hanuman's safari tents - but made a discovery amongst the trees and bushes which I failed to see on any of my previous visits to the former Khmer capital of the 10th century. It was a hunch that turned into a goldmine when I located a series of rockbed bas-relief carvings at the site, which number around 100 individually carved figures, representing all of the major gods, including Vishnu, Indra, Shiva and Brahma. It looked like the area they were in had recently been cleared of vegetation so I'm assuming the majority of them have lain undisturbed for a long time. The bedrock in that corner of the site was sandstone and the figures had been carved facing a small pond known as Trapeang Ang Khnar lying closeby; the bas-reliefs were in two locations, one of which had clearly acted as a quarry for some of the material that was used in constructing the nearby temples. I'll post more photos in due course, but here's a taster of these carvings, which reminded me of other rockface carvings at Kbal Spean and on Phnom Kulen.
Eight figures carved into the sandstone bedrock include hermits and the odd god or two



My night in the forest of Koh Ker, warmed by the log fire
Apologies for the lack of posts, but I've had a hectic schedule these last few days. Following my quad-bike adventure, it was off into the forest surrounding the temples at Koh Ker, a couple of hours north of Siem Reap, to experience for myself, the safari tents that Hanuman provide for their guests who wish to enjoy a unique adventure at the remote temple sites around Cambodia. And I would say this of course, but really, they are damn good. Then it was back on the bus to Phnom Penh and straight off to see the documentary Sleepwalking Through The Mekong at Meta House last night. The film's director John Pirozzi was present to introduce his film, shot when the band Dengue Fever came to Cambodia a couple of years ago to bring their own brand of 60s and 70s psychedelic Khmer pop-rock back home. Fronted by a Cambodian-born singer Chhom Nimol, the rest of the band originate from Los Angeles and have become a major tour de force on the American music scene, releasing three critically-acclaimed albums to-date. The film follows their fortunes as they encounter Cambodia for the first-time during a 9-day visit and from the footage we saw, they had a ball. The scene where they join the children from the Bassac slum, who are part of the Cambodian Living Arts program, was just classic soppy entertainment. And the accompanying musical soundtrack was bread and butter to my two Khmer friends that joined me at the screening. Nice film, great band. Tonight, at the French Cultural Centre, I've been invited to a preview screening of Anne Bass' Dancing Across Borders documentary with cocktails beforehand. Should I wear a suit? Have I got a suit? No is the answer, so I'll go smart casual.
Film director John Pirozzi introduces his documentary on the band Dengue Fever
Chhom Nimol, the Cambodian-born lead singer with Dengue Fever
Chhom Nimol and the band are introduced to the Cambodian public on the CTN tv channel
Kong Nai was one of the masters that the band performed with during their visit to Cambodia

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Quad fun-time

I'm getting in some practice on my quad before we begin. I chose No 1 of course!
I've always shied away from motorbikes per se as it's never been something I've been keen to try, however, Quad bikes are a different kettle of fish altogether and after my first-ever Quad experience this afternoon, I'm a confimed fan. A dozen Hanuman employees took to the backroads and rice fields surrounding Siem Reap for a 90-minute runaround on the quads and I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say we had a ball. Okay so it was dusty, but the welcome from the village children who turned out in force along the route, as well as the peaceful sunset in the distance, when we stopped to give the less-confident drivers a whirl in a rice field, was well worth a bit of dust in the face. Only qualified car drivers are allowed to pilot the quads and after a half-hour of instruction and safety preparation, we took some picturesque tracks through a host of small villages - I noticed many homes had a Ting-Mong (scarecrow) on duty alongwith groups of excitable children shouting and waving a spirited welcome - and into the countryside. Accompanied by the quad-bike owners, we weren't allowed to let rip on this, the shortest of their routes, but I'm sure a much-longer adventure would allow you more lee-way to expose your quad-rallying skills. Nevertheless, it was a great way for the Hanuman team to end their brief stay in Siem Reap, dusty or not. Quad-biking gets a definite thumbs-up in my book.
A quick snap across the countryside as the sunset approached
A short break near a canal so time for a picture with one of my colleagues, Chrep
The setting sun provided a great backdrop to our trip
The dozen members of the Hanuman quad-biking rally team. LtoR: (back) Vichet, Chrep, Kosal, Kimchean, Nary, Serey, me, Daroeurn, Sim, Pisey; (front) Rith and Thoeun.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Gate of the Dead

One of the enigmatic faces of the Gate of the Dead
The East Gate of Angkor Thom at the Angkor complex of temples just outside of Siem Reap leads nowhere. Unlike the other four gates of Angkor Thom, the Gate of the Dead, as it's also known, is therefore rarely-visited though it's still in fair condition. The leafy track that runs the one and half kilometres from The Bayon to the gate was occupied by birds, butterflies and a shy troop of small monkeys when I paid a visit last week, apart from that it was deathly quiet for a gate by which dead bodies were allegedly disposed of. Like all the majestic gates at Angkor Thom, the East Gate is 75 foot in height with four faces of Lokiteshvara (or Jayavarman VII if you prefer, as I do) staring out to the four cardinal points. The quartet of elephant (Indra's mount, Airavata) trunk pillars, either side of the entrance, have fared to varying degrees, as have the praying figures above, and at this gate, there are no gods and demons holding nagas still remaining. Some wooden supports are in evidence to stop the elephant trunks from collapsing but by and large, the gate is in good nick. After admiring the amazing craftsmanship of these late 12th century builders, I took my bicycle onto the top of the eight-metre high wall and cycled along the parapet to the Victory Gate nearby.
The 1.5 kilometre leafy lane that runs from the Bayon to the East Gate
The western side of the gate with the elephant trunks on either side of the doorway
Indra and two consorts have seen better days
The nose of the south-facing Lokitesvara is missing
Another view of the south-facing Lokitesvara and praying figures
The Gate of the Dead from the eastern approach, which becomes a small track into the surrounding forest
A stylized lotus blossom on the wall next to a collapsed elephant trunk
Three praying figures above the eastern face of the East Gate of Angkor Thom

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My room at the fashionable Hotel De La Paix
Its all black & white in the Hotel De La Paix - the other side of my room
Some faces from the Hanuman party last night. LtoR: Chrep, Kulikar, Kosal, Nary, Kimchean. None of me as I was dancing and my moves are simply too quick for the camera!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Invitations are coming thick and fast over the last few weeks. They include birthdays, house-warmings and wedding party invitations by the truckload after I jokingly complained about the lack of them even though it was the wedding season in Cambodia. Tonight it's the annual Hanuman staff party here in Siem Reap, where I'm staying in the lap of luxury at the fashionable Hotel De La Paix. I've just had a swim in the hotel's 1st floor pool - boy was it cold - and will get ready for tonight's party extravaganza soon enough. In checking my emails, Anne Bass has sent me an invitation to attend a preview screening of her Dancing Across Borders documentary film at CCF on Wednesday 21st, with cocktails beforehand. I flagged the film in my blog a couple of days ago so it was a nice gesture to get the invite from Anne. I will definitely be there. After tonight's party I've got another couple of nights in Siem Reap before heading back to Phnom Penh on Tuesday. Well that's the plan but it's liable to change at any time.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Inside the UN

If you can get along to Monument Books on Norodom in Phnom Penh at 6pm tomorrow (Saturday 17th) then you can meet author Derrick 'John' Jeffrey, who will be signing copies of his novel, East River New York, published by Three Pagoda Press. It's a thriller set in Cambodia, Thailand and Hong Kong and the author draws from his own experience of working with the United Nations, particularly with UNTAC from '91-93 as an international observer here in Cambodia. He now spends his time between Bangkok and Phnom Penh and opened up the River View restaurant on Highway 1 in the distant past. It promises to be an entertaining event with a free buffet and wine. Bravo Monument for putting on more of these events in recent months. Unfortunately, I can't make it as I'm returning to Siem Reap for a work's staff party for a couple of nights.



Now in white, Sokhy Ly in orange at the wedding party
A few pictures of some of my very best friends in Siem Reap. All the photos were taken on Sunday when I attended Sokhy Ly's wedding in Bakong district, stayed at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse and rounded off the day with a birthday party at Rieng's brand new home.
Kim in red with her youngest brother David and Now, at the Shadow of Angkor GH
An unshaven ruffian alongside Now, resplendent in white
Family fun at the party: LtoR; Dad Kim Rieng, Nara (in stripes), Chantrea and mum Sovann

Thursday, January 15, 2009

My schedule

The East Gate of the city of Angkor Thom
Okay, enough stalling, what have I been doing the last few days? After attending parties galore in Siem Reap on Saturday and Sunday, it was all work, work, work on Monday through til Wednesday night. Now that I work in the tourism industry, rather than visiting the temples purely for fun, a few days in the temple capital of the world (in my view) necessitated me casting a keen eye over some of the Angkor temples, how and when to visit to see them at their best (without the crowds), testing guides, trying out a few remote sites and so on. Monday morning was spent meeting our new staff in our Siem Reap branch before a six-hour bicycle ride around Angkor Thom after lunch. I started at the South Gate and headed for the rarely-seen East Gate (or Gate of the Dead) which doesn't lead anywhere hence its solitude. I took my bike on top of the city wall to ride onto Victory Gate, sought out the hidden last known shrine of the Angkor period, Mangalartha (aka Monument 487 and Prasat Top East), before poking around some bits of rubble near the two Khleangs and the towers of Prasat Suor Prat. Onto the oft-overlooked handful of shrines that make up the Preah Pithu group - which house some fine carvings and are very peaceful - and then over the road to visit Tep Pranam and Preah Palilay. The latter was a major disappointment now that they have cut down the trees that gave it it's own unique forest setting. Hot and sweaty, I headed back to the office to catch up on my emails before taking my evening meal at the Curry Walla on Sivatha Street.
The gods lining the causeway to the South Gate of Angkor Thom
The eerie dawn light at Ta Prohm
Tuesday was an early start for a dawn visit and sunrise at Ta Prohm. It was pitch black when we arrived at 5.30am, no-one was about, not even the Apsara guards, and it was just me, my guide, a torch and the shrill of the green parrots that inhabit the temple's trees. We walked through the temple as the dawn light gradually improved as the sun rose over the horizon - which we obviously couldn't see as the temple was in the way - but the solitude inside one of Angkor's busiest temples was palpable and evidenced when my guide jumped a foot in the air as something scurried across our torchlit path. At 7pm we eventually saw another human as we made our way out of the east entrance and headed back for breakfast. I forgot to say that my overnight stay was at the Tara Angkor Hotel, which is pretty swish in all aspects, and their breakfast was a real treat after my early start in the extremely chilly air. Now warmed up, my day continued with the aid of my old pal, Kim Rieng and his moto. At 9am we headed out for a 9-hour trip to see a few of the remoter, rarely-visited sites of Phnom Bok, Prasat Banteay Ampil and Chau Srei Vibol. More on these sites in individual postings but Phnom Bok was a killer of a climb with 630 steps to the top, Banteay Ampil involved walking barefoot and pushing the moto through two small rivers and the route to Chau Srei Vibol was sandy and hard going. It was good to get back to my room at the HanumanAlaya (yes another change of hotel) for a welcome shower prior to a lovely meal and late-night chat at the home of my friends Eric and Lida.
Tree roots strangle this window frame at Prasat Banteay Ampil
The face of a demon, asura, on a false door of one of the towers of Bakong
A 5am start beckoned again on Wednesday. A new guide, a new temple, this time Preah Khan, but the bitterly cold air was the same. Preah Khan was an almost identical replica of Ta Prohm except there were no parrots, no sign of life at all, except for some bats, more doorways to duck through and by the time we reached the Hall of Dancers the first rays of sunlight were peering through the trees at the eastern entrance. Both of the guides gave me an excellent historical overview of the temples and the carvings (by torchlight) but also added snippets about the religions, the various gods, fauna, wildlife, customs, and so on. Certainly it reminded me that though my travels for many years have been solo, a well-informed guide who knows his/her stuff adds immeasurably to a visit to Angkor for first-timers. I'm certainly no novice but I learnt a few things on both of my dawn visits that I hadn't known before. After breakfast I conducted some training in the Siem Reap branch, took the opportunity to visit The Sothea luxury five-star resort that will open next month and gulped down lunch. Kim Rieng returned with his car this time and we headed out to the Roluos Group for a whistle-stop visit to Bakong and Preah Ko before taking a short-cut towards Chong Khneas, for an early evening sunset boat cruise on the edges of the Tonle Sap Lake. Dinner at HanumanAlaya and for the second time I fell asleep at my pc whilst trying to upload some photos to this blog. This morning it was back to Phnom Penh by Mekong Express at 7am - it takes six hours - despite the bus being clipped by a truck and we then came across a major road accident where a man's body lay in the road, motionless, with blood seeping from his head and his mouth. I fear he wasn't going to survive.
These are monks going to meditate, though they appear armed and ready to do battle
Some of the day's last rays of sunshine over the Tonle Sap Lake

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Arty-farty dance

I don't pretend to understand or even like much of the contemporary dance I've seen, I'm more of a traditionalist, but every type of work deserves its five minutes of fame and contemporary dance is no exception. One such work that may be seen in Cambodia in the near future, after a tour of Canada and Singapore, is a new work of contemporary dance by Canadian choreographer Peter Chin, Transmission of the Invisible. His work is the result of several years of research in Cambodia and intensive workshops with two of Amrita Arts outstanding young Khaol (Cambodian male masked dance) artists, Phon Sopheap and Yim Savann with three of Chin's dancers from his company Tribal Crackling Wind. The work premiered to critical acclaim in Canada in February of last year and will tour Canada early this year as well as in Singapore in the summer.

Staying on the arts front, two princes from Cambodia's royal family have publicly called for control of the nation's Royal Ballet to be handed back to the Royal Palace, from whence it was moved to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in 1970. They suggest it will improve the quality and attendances, and maybe give all those royal advisors something to do as well. Why oh why the Royal Ballet aren't performing regularly at the Chaktomuk Theatre or elsewhere is beyond me. There is definitely mileage in putting on regular, scheduled shows for tourists and Cambodians alike, that can be a platform for their back catalogue of works, generate income and sharpen skills of performers, not to mention providing employment and opportunities to the students leaving the Fine Arts campus every year. It's a no-brainer for me and has for a long while left me scratching my head.

Finally, Manhattan socialite, philanthropist and arts patron, Anne Bass, debuted her film Dancing Across Borders in Siem Reap at the weekend. Back in March 2007 I highlighted the documentary in progress on a rising star in the world of ballet, Sar 'Sy' Sokvannara (pictured), a gifted Cambodian dancer who'd trained at the School of American Ballet and was with the Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle. The full-length film is now complete and waiting to be unleashed upon the public. It chronicles Sokvannara’s journey as a dancer as he uses the skills he learned from traditional, ritualistic Cambodian dances with the Wat Bo school in Siem Reap to the ballet stage in America.

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These girls were seeing how many could fit on one rope before they fell into the moat surrounding Angkor Wat
I've been either too busy (the saying, rushing around like a blue-arsed fly springs to mind) or too tired (3x 5am early morning starts for the last 3 days are to blame) to post anything over the last couple of days. Will rectify that later this evening. Apologies to anyone who has visited my blog in the last couple of days expecting my usual updates. I must whip myself into shape!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thom on two wheels

This how I felt after six hours on the bike this afternoon! Actually this is a demon, known as an asura, at the South Gate of Angkor Thom.
This is just a quickie post as I'm in an internet cafe and the connection isn't the best. As I spent the morning in the office, I decided on some fresh air this afternoon to get a view of Angkor from a bicycle saddle. I never learn do I. A sedate ride to Angkor Wat would've been nice and easy but I decided to fit in as many temples as I could - of the smaller variety - to see if there are any gems hidden in the forests of Angkor Thom, and of course there are. More when I get a better connection, in the meantime, here's a few photos from this afternoon's tiring adventure.
The little-visited Preah Pithu group of temples has been a target of sculpture robbers in this failed attempt to steal these two devatas from Temple U
40 sitting Buddhas line the inside walls of the main sanctuary of Temple X in the Preah Pithu group. These Buddhas suggest a 14th century date for this temple.
The attractive forest setting of Preah Palilay has disappeared now that they've cut down the trees that sprang from its base - what a shame.
This looks like a wildlife park but it is in fact Angkor Park where the monkeys are getting cheekier by the minute. This family set upon this parked car looking for food.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Party animal

Monks blessing Kim Rieng's new home
It was wall-to-wall parties today in Siem Reap, though they were all pretty sedate and more a chance to catch up with friends than to let my hair down. After breakfast I was off to Kim Rieng's brand new house tucked away in the suburbs of Siem Reap for an official house blessing by five monks from Wat Kesararam. Rieng's father in law, Heng, who has been my driver on many occasions in the past, designed and helped to build the house for Rieng, who has been busy enough with his jobs of policeman and Angkor tour guide. The monks chanted and splashed water over the attendees for an hour or so before they were whisked back to the pagoda in time for their lunch. Extended family and friends then sat down to enjoy a large spread afterwhich I returned to the Shadow of Angkor for a chat with Kim and her parents. Just after noon, my good friend Now arrived to accompany me to the wedding party of Sokhy Ly and Narith, which was being held a few kilometres past the turn off to Roluos. I first met Sokhy Ly a while ago when she worked in an internet cafe, we kept in touch and then I was proud of her when she progressed to working at the Angkor National Museum. Today she married Narith and I've never seen her look so grown-up and happy. We stopped for a couple of hours of food and drink before Now took us back, on her moto, for a quick look at the yet-to-be-opened Dara Reang Sey Angkor Hotel, which is on Route 6 near Psar Leu in Siem Reap town.
Part of the ceremony to give Rieng's new home a good start: Sovann & Rieng are on the left
Children enjoying the music after the blessing
Myself and the blushing bride, Sokhy Ly
My companion to the wedding party, Now, resplendent in white
The happy couple, Narith and Sokhy Ly
The two sisters and their parents who run the popular Dara Reang Sey Hotel in Phnom Penh have really gone to town on this new venture - it's gigantic by comparison to their Phnom Penh operation. They will open the doors on Thursday with a soft opening of 82 rooms and then have plans to complete another 80 rooms, a massive restaurant and open the already-built swimming pool and spa. It's a definite step-up with swish new rooms, all with air-con, balconies and mod cons. In the current economic climate I hope it works out for my friends, who've acted as my surrogate family on many of my previous visits to the city. Back in town, I bought Now a new crash helmet, for two reasons. She couldn't really afford her own - she works as a souvenir seller at Angkor Wat - and the last time I saw her she had just had a very bad motorbike crash and had hurt her face badly because she wasn't wearing a helmet. Complete with her new look, we took off back to Rieng's home for the birthday party of his son, six year old Nara. All the same faces as this morning but louder with a happy birthday theme and the song of the same title, which played over and over. Nara and his younger sister, Chantrea, just three, are two adorable children and Rieng and Sovann his wife, should be very proud of them. My attendance elicited another wedding and an engagement invitation, so I should be making my way back for the former in early February, when Sovann's younger sister Dary will get married. The parties concluded for today, I switched to the HanumanAlaya boutique residence for my overnight accommodation, after saying my goodbyes to Rieng, his extended family and Now.
The impressive new Dara Reang Sey Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap
The unfinished swimming pool and Spa at the new Dara Reang Sey Hotel
A children's birthday party is all about the cake and having fun; here, Nara and Chantrea (right) enjoy a special moment

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Arrival in Reap

A side view of the unfinished Shadow 2 guesthouse in Siem Reap
Not much to report from today as most of it was spent on the bus getting from Phnom Penh up to Siem Reap. Six hours all together, after leaving the Mekong Express office at 7.30am this morning. On arrival, I was welcomed at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse by Kim, whose smiling face has been missing from the reception of the Shadow for a year now, but she's back home on holiday from her studies in Australia and brightening up the place with her infectious enthusiasm for just about everything. We went to see their new building just over the river and Shadow 2 is not far from completion. Give it a month or two and the 20 rooms of Shadow 2 will be welcoming its first guests. It looks pretty swish too with lots of wood in evidence as well as balconies, air-con and fitted showers. Next to be completed will be a small swimming pool. Kim and I called into have a nose around the Soria Moria Hotel a couple of doors away before returning to Shadow 1 where one of my best friends Kim Rieng was waiting to whisk me off to see his brand new house. In fact the official house-warming ceremony is tomorrow when a few monks will be invited to bless the house, which is a 1-storey building with three main rooms. It's taken Rieng a while to get his own place but the look of pride on his face when he showed me, was clear to see. I also hope it will be a pick-me-up for his wife Sovann who lost her new-born baby last month because of a weak heart. Then it was back to the Shadow for dinner with some Aussie friends of Kim and an early night. Tomorrow I'm booked for the house-warming and a wedding party in the Roluos area, so looks like another full day of meeting and greeting and enjoying the company of friends.
The imposing frontage of Shadow 2, looking more like a hotel than a guesthouse
Kim Rieng's pride & joy - his brand new family home


Friday, January 9, 2009

Gearing up

Jeremy Clarkson on a Vespa-boat on Halong Bay

I mentioned a while ago that Hanuman Films were commissioned as the production company to work with the BBC Top Gear crew on a Vietnam special. Top Gear is one of the BBC’s best known programmes and the most popular show on BBC2 in the UK. The Vietnam special was originally conceived as an old car journey from Phnom Penh to Hanoi, but later evolved into an epic bike journey from Saigon to Hanoi. Jeremy Clarkson on a Vespa, Richard Hammond on a Minsk and James May on a Honda Cub, the journey included Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and Halong Bay. For those who haven’t seen the show - it aired in the UK at the end of December - it ends with the conversion of the bikes into amphibious boats to travel to the end point on Halong Bay. A television first, it is unlikely we will see motorbikes on Halong Bay again. It was quite a James Bond experience filming with six speedboats and a helicopter to capture all the angles. Our own Nick Ray worked as Line Producer on the shoot and coordinated everything from filming permissions to motorbikes and amphibious craft with a team of up to 15 in Vietnam. The shoot was a great success and the show received rave reviews in the UK press. The story behind the shoot is worth another television special all on its own.


Too much fun

I'll be winging my way to Siem Reap, by Mekong Express bus not plane unfortunately, early tomorrow morning and have a packed schedule for the next five days that include a wedding party, house-warming party, homecoming party as well as some research work at Angkor and in Siem Reap connected with my own job. So that's 5 days full of the two things I've always loved about Cambodia, my Khmer friends and the ancient temples, it doesn't get much better than that in my opinion. I should have some spare moments to post here during that time, but don't be too hard on me if my posts are a bit sporadic. I'll simply be having too much fun.

Plan for DC-Cam

Youk Chhang at the Documentation Center of Cambodia - DC-Cam to you and me - has just sent me a copy of their planned strategic focus over the next two years to promote memory, justice and reconciliation for the victims and survivors, and their descendants, of the Khmer Rouge regime and its aftermath here in Cambodia. I've posted it here as it's worth reading the whole plan instead of any abridged version I can concoct. We must also remember that DC-Cam are providing the bulk of evidence for the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal that is taking place as we speak.

I. A Physical Legacy

Building a Permanent Genocide Research Center: DC-Cam has begun to build a permanent center to expand our work and ensure a long-term commitment to human rights and genocide prevention in Cambodia. The Cambodian Ministry of Education has generously provided us with a large parcel of land in Phnom Penh for that purpose. The land, which totals nearly 4,800 square meters, is situated on the campus of the Beong Trabek High School, fittingly on the site of a former Khmer Rouge prison. We have enlisted a team of expert architects in New York to design a building complex that will house the permanent center. They are aided by architecture students from Columbia University and the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s School of Fine Arts. We plan to break ground for a new building complex in 2010.

The permanent center will be called the “Sleuk Rith Institute.” That name reflects our core objectives, as well as our Cambodian heritage. Sleuk rith are dried leaves that Cambodian religious leaders and scholars have used for centuries to document history, disseminate knowledge, and even preserve culture during periods of harsh rule. They represent both the beauty of knowledge and the power of human perseverance during times of peril. The permanent center will serve three core functions. First, it will be a physical memorial, encouraging visitors to honor and remember departed victims and all those who suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime. Secondly, the center will be an educational hub, enabling current and future generations to learn about Cambodia’s harrowing past. Education will ensure that Cambodians never forget those who unjustifiably died and suffered, and it will empower them to prevent similar abuses in the future. Finally, the center will be a hub for research, seeking to become the leading Asian institution focused on genocide studies, one that will be connected to leading scholars and other institutions throughout Asia and the wider world.

II. A Legacy of Memory

Genocide Education in Cooperation with the Ministry of Education: Genocide education is crucial if Cambodians are to preserve their history and remember those who perished under Khmer Rouge brutality. Education is also essential if Cambodians are to understand why and how the genocide happened, appreciate the effects of the tragedy, and address the many continuing challenges that flow from the genocide. DC-Cam is currently in the process of working with the Ministry of Education and academic experts to establish a core curriculum on genocide and other crimes against humanity, which will be introduced to Cambodian classrooms at the end of 2009. Together with local and international experts, we are providing in-depth training to 24 Cambodian officials, who will serve as leaders in genocide education. They, in turn, will train 185 educators to lead efforts in various districts throughout Cambodia. We will also host roughly 3,000 secondary school teachers from around the country for shorter basic training programs.

Our curriculum and training program will revolve around DC-Cam’s history textbook The History of Democratic Kampuchea. Our textbook has received plaudits from around the country and the world. It is the first of its kind, educating Cambodian youths about the Khmer Rouge tragedy after three decades of relative silence on the subject in Cambodia’s schools. It is also available in digital format on the Internet, therefore reaching a global audience. Genocide education is a key to liberating the victims of Khmer Rouge terror and transforming them into leaders in the global quest for human rights and dignity. Our work with the Department of Education has received wide international acclaim and support, including from the US Agency for International Development; the governments of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium; the open Society Institute, and the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy.

Remembering the Victims of Democratic Kampuchea: DC-Cam also plans to compile and publish a book of names of all those known to have died under the Khmer Rouge regime. The compendium will be based on our research and will tangibly recognize and remember those who perished. To date, there are more than a million names in our databases. New names and related information are still being added. The book will be distributed to every commune in Cambodia and placed in the commune’s office, which will give current and future generations a concrete memorial dedicated to those victims who died. The compendium will also allow families and future generations to be able to trace their family history, a search that for many is still not over. To reach the larger global community, we will post an electronic version online.

III. A Legacy of Justice

Making Our Documents Available Worldwide: Another way DC-Cam will promote memory and justice, at home and abroad, is to digitize over 900 reels of microfilmed documents from our archives. We are now working with Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and the Center for Research Libraries to bring about that important goal and make our impressive collection accessible via the internet. Doing so will allow scholars, journalists, media, government and international officials, ordinary Cambodian citizens, and members of the diaspora to conduct effective research on the genocide. Toward that end, we also maintain strong collaboration with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Examining Crimes by Lower-Level Khmer Rouge Officials: A further goal of our work is to expand the legacy of justice underway at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia. DC-Cam plans to conduct a study relating to the crimes committed by lower ranking Khmer Rouge cadres. The study will trace various abuses that occurred under the Khmer Rouge regime, looking into the less-researched area of crimes by lower-level members of the regime. In fact, DC-Cam has conducted thousands of interviews of former Khmer Rouge officials and cadres since 2001, with support from the Ministry of the Interior. The study will provide victims, some of whom may feel disconnected from the ongoing criminal process upcoming tribunals, with an opportunity to testify about their own experiences, and thus come to terms with their past. Like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the study hopes to focus not on placing blame on particular individuals, but rather giving victims a chance to speak and be heard–a crucial step towards national reconciliation and justice.

Commemorating Key Human Rights Laws: Finally, DC-Cam will seek approval from the Royal Government of Cambodia to convene a forum commemorating the passage of key human rights laws. In particular, we intend to highlight the Genocide Convention, the watershed treaty that condemned and prohibited genocide sixty years ago. We also intend to draw attention to the recent ASEAN Human Rights Convention. We hope to lead a forum in collaboration with the Cambodian government, which adopted the Genocide Convention in 1950 and signed the ASEAN Human Rights Convention on December 10, 2008. The former represents one of the bedrocks of modern international human rights law, while the latter expresses a renewed regional commitment to basic human rights and dignity.

The proposed forum will include local and international participants and serve to illuminate the critical continuing need to promote human rights and prevent genocide, in Cambodia and beyond. We hope that the forum will also establish a community of scholars, advocates, officials, and others from inside and outside of Cambodia to carry on that mission. DC-Cam aims to serve as a principal hub in Asia to ensure that atrocities like those in Democratic Kampuchea never happen again.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fruit on wheels

I saw some parallels here in Phnom Penh when I read this story on the press wires yesterday. Okay, so the locals haven't yet begun to ride around town with makeshift crash-helmets but if the prices rise steeply, then watch out for some ingenious ways around the road law. At the moment cheap helmets can be bought for as little as $3 on almost every street, though they'll probably give you as much head protection as a piece of dried fruit! Other similarities of course include the erractic motodops and bribeable police.

Improvised helmets in Nigeria
Police in Nigeria have arrested scores of motorcycle taxi riders with dried fruit shells, paint pots or pieces of rubber tire tied to their heads with string to avoid a new law requiring them to wear helmets. The regulations have caused chaos around Africa's most populous nation, with motorcyclists complaining helmets are too expensive and some passengers refusing to wear them fearing they will catch skin disease or be put under a black magic spell. The law, which came into force on January 1, pits two factions equally feared by the common motorist against one another: erratic motorcycle taxis known as Okadas, whose owners are notorious for road-rage, and the bribe-hungry traffic police.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ronnie inspires

Another of the people I've featured on my blog before is Ronnie Yimsut (right) and this article about him recently appeared in the Business Journal of Milwaukee by Pete Millard. It speaks for itself.

Inspiration: Refugee's life story inspires colleagues

Many words capture the essence of Ranachith [Ronnie] Yimsut’s first 47 years: brave, devoted, unselfish, tireless, ambitious, giving — and the list goes on. There is one word, however, that people who work with Yimsut often use to sum up the Cambodian refugee who escaped the savage Khmer Rouge regime more than 30 years ago. “Simply stated, the word for Ronnie is inspiration,” said Rick Kell, a US Forest Service team leader for technical services who works with Yimsut, a landscape architect at the service’s Eastern Region headquarters in Milwaukee.

Yimsut escaped the Khmer Rouge death squads when he was a teenager by sheer tenacity and an inner quest for freedom. His mother, father, aunts, uncles and several cousins allied with the Khmer Republic government forces weren’t so lucky. They were among the 1.7 million people murdered by the Khmer Rouge during a bloody rebellion that extended from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Yimsut escaped to Thailand, a journey that took him 150 miles from his home in Siem Reap province, and was then imprisoned by Thai officials as a political refugee. Thanks to the intervention of the International Red Cross and a CBS '60 Minutes' story by the late Ed Bradley, Yimsut was set free and eventually immigrated to Oregon, a state that welcomed tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees in the late 1970s. “Most of us will go through life and never meet anyone who has persevered the hardships or even remotely understand what Ronnie has overcome,” said Robin Gyorgyfalvy, a district landscape architect at the Deschutes National Forest in Bend, Ore., and a former colleague of Yimsut’s.

Yimsut eventually received a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon. He started his career with the U.S. Forest Service in Bend, and moved to Milwaukee three years ago. “I didn’t know what I was getting into with the cold and snow, and the high taxes,” said Yimsut, whose personal blog always compares the temperature of Milwaukee and Bend or Portland. By day, Yimsut is a landscape architect for the U.S. Forest Service in Milwaukee, a regional headquarters that covers 20 states from Minnesota and Missouri east to Maine and Massachusetts. Yimsut designs and plans National Forest recreation and tourist sites and conducts environmental impact studies on landscape ecologies and ecosystems. He is called on to help reclaim or conserve resources that have been damaged by floods or fires.

Service Back Home

During his off hours, Yimsut devotes his time, educational resources and money to redeveloping his hometown near Angkor, a city that’s home to one of the most sacred archeological sites in all of Southeast Asia. From his home in Greenfield, Yimsut oversees development of Bakong Ecotourism Technical College, a 27-acre campus in Siem Reap province at the northern end of Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. The technical college is intended to provide skills to Cambodian residents in the villages of the province and city of Angkor who entertain more than 2.5 million tourists annually to the Angkor Wat World Heritage Monument site. The site stretches over more than 200 square miles and contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. As part of his involvement with a nonprofit organization called Project Enlighten, Yimsut also founded a 'cow bank' program that provides breeding cows to impoverished Cambodian farmers. For a $300 donation, Yimsut and Project Enlighten can supply a cow that will deliver a family from poverty, said a spokeswoman from Project Enlighten.

Once or twice a year, Yimsut, his wife and children travel to Cambodia to visit friends and Yimsut’s brother and sister-in-law, who survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Yimsut already has begun construction of the technical college, which is his prized project. “I always strive for excellence and seek new challenges while considering the past, present and future,” Yimsut said in a recent interview. The technical college will provide training in various skills needed in cultural and environmental conservation. There also will be a focus on service industries such as hotel services, restaurants and professional guide services, as well as foreign language and computer literacy instruction. Yimsut estimates the technical college startup costs will range from $75,000 to $100,000. He’s pursuing funding from public grants, endowments and private contributions. By 2010, the Cambodian government estimates the tourism trade in and around the Angkor World Monument Heritage Site will exceed $2 billion.

At the same time Ronnie Yimsut is juggling his nonprofit endeavors and full-time job at the Forest Service, he finds time to write. Yimsut co-authored The Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, published in May 1997 by Yale University Press, and In the Shadow of Angkor, published in March 2004 by University of Hawaii Press. He currently is working on a personal memoir titled, Journey into Light, which he hopes to have published in several languages. "Ronnie has a work ethic and integrity that’s exciting to be part of,” Gyorgyfalvy said. Meanwhile, back at the Forest Service, Ronnie Yimsut’s foremost mission is to flood-proof many of the national forest assets in the eastern region. He’s also working to preserve many of the scenic byways within national forests for future US generations.


Between Heaven and Earth

A few days ago I posted a short article on Sarorn Ron Sim and his career as a photographer, film camerman, producer and more besides. At the same time Sarorn posted this article to his own blog which is definitely worth re-posting here so you can find out more about his early childhood in the border camps on the Cambodian-Thai border in the early 1980s.

Between Heaven and Earth: KD17506
Photo by: UNHCR/KD17506/ Refugee Camp II/Thailand 1984

This picture is my story. An image that speaks for every fiber of my soul, every reason for my being. It is, in many respects, the image that I've longed to recapture. Every time I look at this image, I am born again. A constant reminder at the journey we've been through as a family, as refugees, as survivors of war and genocide. It is a reflection of me that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

From 1975 to 1979, my parents were separated from their family, torn apart by civil war in Cambodia - a spillover from the war in nearby Vietnam. Lead by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge began a campaign to exterminate anyone who could rise against them: doctors, teachers, monks, and civil servants - anyone who had a voice. The rest were put to toil in slave camps through out the country - working 16 hours on one meal a day. Those who received a bullet to the head were considered lucky - the rest were left to starve. By the end of their reign in 1979, over 2 million Cambodians had perished, half of Cambodia's population. It was later dubbed by the international community as the Killing Fields of Cambodia. In July of 1979, my parents escaped the slave camp they were in. Walking for 3 days without food or water through dense jungles littered with landmines, they finally made it to the safety of a UN refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border. In December of 1980, I was born.

Sitting here tonight, I am neither embarrassed nor ashamed to tell this story. In fact, I'm rather proud. Proud of my parents. Proud to be their son. But as I gaze upon this image, sorrow invades my soul. I remember the hardships we faced, the hunger we felt and the poverty we endured. Combined with a constant barrage of robbing and looting from within the camp, we were forced to live our lives in constant fear. At night, the stars would illuminate the sky, lighting a path for us to run for safety from within our very own safety zone - as Thai soldiers would invade our camp, sometimes, taking everything we had--our pots and pans, pillows and blankets. Life as refugees meant you were nothing more than an international homeless person.

The first five years of my life was spent there. I don't remember much, but what I do remember most was the hunger and fear - it's something you can't forget, no matter how old you are. On a weekly basis, aid workers would hand out rice and tuna, but it was never enough. Sharing food rations between the three of us, there were times when my parents did not eat, so I could. People died from eating whatever they could find in the jungle.

This picture is a testament to our survival. Sometimes, I envision myself behind the camera, the photographer taking this picture. I wonder if he or she had ever imagined that an image like this could have such a profound effect on ones life. I wonder what the photographer was thinking... As old and torn this picture may be, it is the picture of my family that I treasure in my wallet - reminding me of my haunting past. I've come a long way, that' s for sure. But when people ask me how I got started doing what I do or what motivates me while I'm shooting, I show them this picture - and just like that, they understand. I hope you understand too...

As I'm typing this, a silky-smooth layer of oil and sweat slowly creeps to the tip of my fingers. My heart pounds to the beat of every key stroke, while and my mind spins to the tune of faded memories from long ago. Faded, but never tarnished. I never thought I'd post about my journey - never knew anyone would be interested, except for the few who find my life fairly fascinating, if at all. I'm no one special. Not a writer, nor a preacher. Just an average Joe who eats at your local diner, drinks from the carton and sleeps til noon whenever he can. As as child, I went to public school, played little league hockey, went Trick-or-Treating, and enjoyed snapping girls bras. Heck, in college I even once dressed up as Santa for a children's Christmas party when the original Santa fell sick. An Asian Santa. Wow.

By all accounts, I had a normal upbringing. And today, if you were to look me straight in the eye, you'd never believe my story. You'd say I'm lying. You'd say I'm full of shit. But believe me when I say this: "war is no lie." It's not easy telling your friends that you're a child of war. While growing up in Canada, I never did. I hid it deep within me. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to be called a refugee, an immigrant, a minority. I was ashamed to say I am Cambodian. My face would turn red and I'd stare at my feet while the other kids laughed and giggled in amusement. Cambodian. Where's that?

My parents worked twelve hour days, seven days a week. When I got home from school, I'd cook for myself, vacuum the house and made sure the meat was defrosting so mom could make supper when she arrived. On weekends, I'd go to church when my neighbors invited me. When it was a Buddhist holiday, my parents would take me to a temple. They never discriminated. I was taught to love, to cherish each other and to forgive. They never cared if that message came from Jesus, Buddha, or Allah. A far cry from the world they had left behind.

It's interesting when you think about it. They've gone through so much pain and suffering, yet, they still find it in their hearts to forgive. To forgive the soldiers who killed their families, robbed them of their childhood and raped them of their freedom. To forgive, but never forget. Some nights, when my mother couldn't sleep, I'd see her sitting alone, arms crossed, eyes glistened in pain. I'd ask her what's wrong - and slowly, she'd raises her head and look deep into my eyes. Her voice trembled in sorrow, her face washed in fear. As a child, she would stay up at night and wait for her father to return from the farm. They would spend hours every night, reminiscing about life and times gone by, planned her future and imagined dreams coming true. He'd tell her everything that happened in the village that day, not even the slightest gossip could escape his ears. For a twelve year old, it was the best part of her day. One night, as she heard her father coming up the steps, she pretended to fall asleep - just to see his reaction. She laid still. Her father, realizing that he had worked late that day, stood there and watched her in silence. He said a prayer for her and closed her door. The next morning, the Khmer Rouge invaded her village. Lives shattered like broken glass. Blood seeped into the ground, forever leaving their mark for reincarnated souls. Piles of bodies flood the landscape while those who escaped ran for their lives, only to be caught and forced into slavery. She never saw her father again. I'll never forget that night when she told me this story. I was twelve.

Today, I'm writing for you this story - not to make you weep or to cause you pain, but more importantly, for myself - for a soul looking for closure, looking for light. If I could, I'd take back every moment I felt ashamed, every instance I felt sorry for who I am and where I'm from - I'd take it ALL back. As I read the comments that you have generously posted, I find solace in knowing that I'm not alone. And even though I've never graced your presence, I know that there's a world out there that understands the complexity of our being, the triumphs and tragedies of human kind. From the depths of my heart I thank you for reading and for understanding. May peace be with you.
Link: Ron's blog


January 7 hang-over

A scene from the Olympic Stadium this morning, courtesy of CTN. The stadium was packed out with over 60,000 people, and I missed it!
Damn it. I had a ticket for the January 7 mass celebrations at the Olympic Stadium today but overslept and missed the start of the event at 7.30am this morning. I know all about the arguments for and against the celebration of this anniversary - it's 30 years since the Khmer Rouge regime was ended in Cambodia and the ruling CPP party are using the occasion to celebrate the work they have done in developing the country and achieving national reconciliation, whereas opposition voices say the demise of the Khmer Rouge only served to commence a decade of Vietnamese occupation - but I still wanted to experience it, but turning up late was not an option, so I watched it on television for a short while and then came to work. My alarm didn't work but it also didn't help that I was out late last night. I'm not a regular on the bar scene in Phnom Penh but my pal Eric was in town and as I missed his recent wedding party, the least I could do was join him and his wife last night. We kicked off at Meta House to have a look over the Tim Page photo exhibition - Eric is a professional photographer himself and has recently moved his business to Siem Reap - then we enjoyed a Chinese meal at a restaurant on Monivong before heading for the riverfront to commence our party-animal lifestyle with an expresso coffee at El Mundo (yes, we really know how to party) before installing ourselves at the bar of a nearby drinking outlet. I can't blame Eric for missing the Olympic gig this morning, but he was a contributing factor.
Imagine my surprise that the drinking outlet we visited last night would also give me such a nice welcome with this wall decoration in my honour!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cambodia up, but down

2007's tourist numbers to Cambodia have been released and even though the latter half of the year took a big hit due to global financial woes and then the Bangkok fiasco by the Thais, Cambodia still saw an 6% increase in arrivals, with 2.15 million people visiting, though the forecasts had been as high as a 20% expected increase. Near neighbours Vietnam, Laos and Thailand also experienced a drop in their expected tourism numbers and 2009 looks set to be just as difficult for the industry as the latter half of 2008 was. Luxury and long-haul holidays are the first to suffer when everyone is tightening their belts though the numbers of visitors from Vietnam to Cambodia are up and this trend looks set to continue with the relaxation of visa restrictions recently. In fact tourist arrivals from Vietnam were second only to Korea in the top five, with Japan third, United States fourth and China in fifth place. On a sour note, Thailand seem to be doing their best to upset Cambodia (Preah Vihear and the recent airport blockages spring to mind) and the most recent example took place on Christmas Day when nearly 250 Khmer passengers, most of whom had valid Thai visas or exemptions, were refused entry upon arrival. Many of the passengers on the inaugural Jupiter Cruise that left Sihanoukville were senior government officials and RCAF generals but that didn't hold sway with the Thais who refused to let them leave the ship when it docked for a day and night in Pattaya.
Two locations where tourists will no longer be able to stay whilst in Cambodia have been in the headlines this week. The Renakse Hotel, a colonial-style building opposite the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, has been closed by court order and the owner and remaining guests evicted by military police. It certainly looks like this grand old dame of the city has seen it's final paying guests. I stayed there a couple of times in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, down on the south coast, the impending multi-million dollar redevelopment of the idyllic Koh Russei, also known as Bamboo Island, which sits off the coast near Ream, has begun with the notice to quit handed to the owners of the Bamboo Island Bungalows there. Expect more evictions anytime soon.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Reaching for the sky

Colourful stupas abound at Wat Botum
Whilst walking to Meta House last night, I took a detour through Wat Botum and whilst I was admiring the brightly painted and ornate stupas that point skywards, I got into a conversation with a monk who'd just been for religious instruction at Wat Ounalom. We talked about the Buddhist teachings within a set of paintings by Khmer artist Svay Ken, who the monk had heard had passed away the previous month. He was interested to see my digital photos of some of Svay Ken's paintings and we talked about some of the behaviours that are contained within the paintings. He said he was very pleased to see these paintings and hoped they would be made available to the public as a way of strengthening the bond between Buddhist teachings and the public. I had to agree that if good behaviours can be made more appealing, either by way of painting or even music, then that is a great way to instil such morals and teachings to a wider audience. It was only a brief meeting but I think we both went away happy with our connection and agreement on the topic. By the way, Wat Botum is one of Phnom Penh's five original wats and dates back to 1422. In those days it was a small island surrounded by a lotus blossom-filled pond. Today, Wat Botum has been extrensively rebuilt and the main vihara dates from 1937. The compound contains many decorated stupas, some of which house the ashes of members of the royal family. It is also the seat of the Thammayut (royalist) Buddhist sect, the smaller of the two main Buddhist sects in Cambodia and which gained prestige because of its adoption by royalty and the aristocracy.
The stupas of Wat Botum near the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument
The royal stupas of Wat Botum

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Page exhibits his past

Tim Page recalls his golden age of photography, the Vietnam War
You could almost smell the cordite in the air as Tim Page, the veteran Vietnam War photographer held court at a packed-out Meta House tonight. Page is in town for a few days to host this exhibition of his photos as well as sniffing around for more clues to the fate of his two friends, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, who were the main focus of the Q and A session that followed the screening of the 1991 Granada documentary Danger On the Edge of Town. Page, who was wounded in action three times, captured some of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War and has authored many books, and has more projects on the go after recently relocating to live in Australia. He certainly hasn't closed the book on the Flynn and Stone disappearance and revealed that movie makers are ultra keen to put the story on the big screen. As for Page's exhibition, the photographs covered two levels of Meta House and were on sale for $450 and more, attracting immense interest from the audience who were captivated by a man who made his name more than forty years ago in the melting-pot of Southeast Asia.
Flynn and Stone, the focus of Danger On the Edge of Town
Sean Flynn in his Saigon flat, pictured by Tim Page
Tim Page's photos line the walls of the Meta House, attracting intense interest
Tim Page's infatuation with Sean Flynn is clear for all to see


Survivor memoirs

In anticipating the forthcoming publication of Bou Meng's memoir, Bou Meng: A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison s-21, to be published by DC Cam sometime very soon, and as I keep getting asked questions about survivor accounts and memoirs from the Khmer Rouge years, I'm listing below the memoirs of that time that I'm aware of. I'm sure I've missed some out, so let me know if you spot any omissions. I have asterisked the Top 10 books I recommend you buy. And my favourite, well it must be the incredible A Cambodian Odyssey of Haing S Ngor with Roger Warner.

**Denise Affonco: To The End of Hell: One Woman's Struggle to Survive Cambodia's Khmer Rouge (2007)
Var Hong Ashe: From Phnom Penh to Paradise: Escapr from Cambodia (1988)
Joan Criddle & Teeda Butt Mam: To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian family (1987)
**Dith Pran; Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors (1997)
Adam Fifield: A Blessing Over Ashes: The Remarkable Odyssey of My Cambodian Brother (2000)
**Chanrithy Him: When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (2000)
Sokreaksa Himm: The Tears of My Soul (2003): After The Heavy Rain (2007)
Vannary Imam: When Elephants Fight: A Memoir (2000)
Bree Lafreniere: Music Through The Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia (2000)
Bun T Lim; Surviving Cambodia, The Khmer Rouge Regime (2007)
Richard Lunn: Leaving Year Zero: Stories of Surviving Pol Pot's Cambodia (2004)
**Somaly Mam: The Road of Lost Innocence (2007)
Someth May: Cambodian Witness: The Autobiography of Someth May (1986)
Nancy Moyer: Escape from the Killing Fields (1991)
**Vann Nath: A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21 (1999)
**Haing S Ngor & Roger Warner: A Cambodian Odyssey (1987)
Kim Chou Oeng & Marchelle Hammack: Climbing Back Up: The Killing Fields of Cambodia and Phnom Dangrek The Untold Story (2003)
U Sam Oeur: Crossing Three Wildernesses (2005)
Chileng Pa & Carol A Mortland: Escaping the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Memoir (2008)
Clare Pastore: Chantrea Conway's Story: A Voyage from Cambodia in 1975 (2001)
Laurence Picq: Beyond The Horizon (1989)
Sydney Schanberg: The Death & Life of Dith Pran (1985)
Vione Schow: Phay Vanneth: Dead or Alive? (2002)
Theary C Seng: Daughter of the Killing Fields (2005)
Vatey Seng: The Price We Paid (2005)
Gail Sheehy: Spirit of Survival (1986)
Darina Siv: Never Come Back: A Cambodian's Journey (2000)
**Sichan Siv: Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America (2008)
Dara O Sok: The First 22nd Years (2008)
Sam Sotha: In The Shade of A Quiet Killing Place (2007)
Sophal Leng Staff: Hear Me Now: Tragedy in Cambodia (1996)
**Martin Stuart-Fox & Bun Heang Ung: The Murderous Revolution: Life & Death in Pol Pot's Kampuchea (1985)
Molyda Szymusiak: The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood 1975-80 (1987)
Vek Huong Taing: Ordeal In Cambodia (1980)
Champ S Teng: Cambodia, As I Remember: The True Story of a Beautiful Country Under War (2002)
Saoran Pol La Tour & Vivian Kirkbride: Vantha's Whisper (2002)
**Loung Ung: First They Killed My Father (2000); Lucky Child (2005)
Ma Vany: Life In Danger (2002)
Oni Vitandham: On The Wings of A White Horse (2006)
Carol Wagner: Soul Survivors - Stories of Women and Children in Cambodia (2002)
Usha Welaratna: Beyond the Killing Fields: Voices of Nine Cambodian Survivors in America (1993)
Ly Y: Heaven Becomes Hell: A Survivor's Story of Life Under the Khmer Rouge (2000)
**Pin Yathay: Stay Alive, My Son (1987)
Bun Yom: Bun's Story - Tomorrow I'm Dead (2005)

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Dengue Fever - Sleepwalking Through The Mekong
As befits a new year, January is looking like it's going to be a busy month, for me personally at work as well as in my leisure time. I should be heading to Siem Reap next weekend and further afield later in the month. I've promised myself to get my arse back onto the football field. And there's a smattering of documentaries and events that I'd love to attend too. Won't be able to fit all of them in but I'll give it a good go.
More on the events. Meta House kicked it off with an exhibition by Srey Bandol last night, and tonight, there's another Meta exclusive, with acclaimed photographer Tim Page holding court on the upper floor with his photos, some chat, a documentary and more besides. It starts at 6pm and I recommend you get along. During the rest of the month, Meta House is chockablock full of goodies worth seeing. The pick of the bunch for me is on Tuesday 20th when director John Pirrozi will present his rockumentary Sleepwalking Through The Mekong as it follows Los Angeles band Dengue Fever on a journey to Cambodia to perform 60s and 70s Cambodian rock n' roll in the country where it was created and very nearly destroyed. The homecoming of singer Chhom Nimol adds an extra touch to proceedings. Well worth noting your diary for this event. Also to watch out for is the excellent New Year Baby documentary from Socheata Poeuv on Sunday 11th, showing first in Khmer and then in English. An evening with Cambodian Living Arts on Friday 30th is also in my diary. As well as live music, The Flute Player telling the compelling story of Arn Chorn-Pond will be shown. Other events that will be covered during January include the Khmer Rouge legacy, UXO, garment factory workers, human rights, BBC World Trust, the environment in Cambodia and much more. It really is an action-packed month for Meta House.
One event that I'm ultra keen to attend is the talk by Bruno Bruguier on Thursday 29th at 6.30pm called The Archaeological Sites of Southern Cambodia which will be held at the cinema of the French Cultural Center on Street 218. I met Bruno a few weeks ago and his presentation will be to introduce a new book he is publishing about the ancient archaeological sites in the southern half of the country. There is a downside, the book is only in French, but the talk will also be in Khmer and English. Bruno is an enthusiast for his subject and I know his talk will be well worth attending.
Link: Sleepwalking.

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Preah Vihear on show

Artist Srey Bandol poses alongside one of his exhibits at Meta House
Battambang's finest artist Srey Bandol opened his first exhibition at Meta House on Saturday night with a collection of twelve mixed media drawings from his first-ever visit to the mountaintop temple of Preah Vihear. His visit, in August last year, coincided with a downpour hence the title of his exhibition, Raining At Preah Vihear, and his drawings, which have a dream-like, ethereal quality to them, reflect his thoughts on the situation he found during his visit, that the temple and history are not clearly seen. In fact, he sketched with one hand, whilst the other held an umbrella, and later found that his drawings were unusable, so had to redraw all of the works, to which he then added newspaper cuttings and his own handwritten words to give each picture its own currency. Bandol is the art and animation director at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, teaching and producing his own artwork in a variety of media, though he's best known for his fine pencil drawings. He's had exhibitions in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap as well as exhibiting overseas in Norway and the Philippines, and Reyum have published two books of his work. The exhibition will last until 10 January. As part of a Preah Vihear double-header on the same night, press photographer Vandy Rattana presented a selection of his photos from a one-week visit to Preah Vihear a few months earlier, which gave the audience an idea of the situation he found between the Cambodian and Thai soldiers occupying the temple complex.
Srey Bandol's ethereal drawing of Gopura V at Preah Vihear
A giant naga is the focus of this drawing from Preah Vihear
Two of the 12 drawings by Srey Bandol at Meta House
Looking down at Gopura V from the causeway leading to the main temple
The walls of the exhibition at Meta House
The title of the selection of photographs by Vandy Rattana

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Svay Ken has his say

A father's advice to his children by Svay Ken, painted in July 2008
Svay Ken's paintings of a series of Buddha's teachings have a raw, naive quality to them as the artist himself provided a commentary to each of the paintings to which he had added the basic precept in Khmer language, in a documentary produced by Erin Gleeson on behalf of the Bophana Center, where the half-hour film was shown on Saturday afternoon. Svay Ken knew that this work would be some of his last, they were completed just prior to his death in December, so he described in great detail the moral and behaviour behind each painting. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had discovered his artistic streak late in life but was very clear in the message he wanted to convey in his paintings.
"When you are rich and famous, do not look down on your poor relatives and friends"
"Continually improve your knowledge, do not be lazy or ignorant"
The artist Svay Ken provides a running commentary to this series of paintings on the teachings of Buddha

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Come on Harriers

Tonight I'll be attending the Srey Bandol exhibition at Meta House but secretly I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for a Kidderminster Harriers win in one of the biggest days of the British football calendar, the 3rd Round of the FA Cup. This is the round where the minnows, the underdogs, effectively teams like Kidderminster, get the chance to upset the form book and inflict disgrace and embarrassment over their bigger opponents. This season, Kidderminster have beaten King's Lynn, Cambridge United and Curzon Ashton to get to this point, whilst for mid-table Championship team Coventry City, it will be their first game in the competition. Harriers now play in the Blue Square Conference, some three divisions below Coventry and are in 3rd spot in the table, on a good run of form and will fancy their chances of putting on a good show at the Ricoh Stadium, home of the Sky Blues. If I was in the UK I would be amongst the 2,500-plus Harriers fans who'll be cheering their team throughout the 90 minutes later today. I'm not, so I'll have to make do with the internet to find out the result. To read more about my football allegiances, click here.
Postscript: Harriers lost 2-nil to Coventry. Oh well, there's always next year.


Sarorn's many hats

Sarorn Ron Sim
A man with many hats - producer, director, cinematographer and editor - Sarorn Ron Sim has been capturing the world through his camera for more than a decade. He made a name for himself at university before starting out as a regional news videographer in Canada and going onto become a sought-after filmmaker, winning numerous awards and accolades for his work in film and television. His highly-acclaimed and award-winning documentary film, I Am Khmer, screened at numerous film festivals around the world, is the story of his personal search for identity and self-discovery as he traces his family's return to Cambodia more than 20 years after they were forced to leave their homeland. Together with co-producer Steven Bray, Sarorn took viewers on a roller-coaster ride of emotion and excitement in a compelling film that took two years to plan, 45 days to shoot and six months of post production. Intially the two friends had produced a seven-minute film about Sarorn's parents, Forgotten Past: Beyond Cambodia, which they then expanded into a 1-hour documentary after their visit to Cambodia in 2001. His subsequent documentary, news coverage and corporate work has taken the 28-year-old, who was born in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, around the globe and his film work has been aired internationally on National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Link: Sarornsim.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

The French

One author who I won't be reading anytime soon despite having written two books on her experiences under the Khmer Rouge and her eventual return to Cambodia over twenty years later, is Claire Ly (right). The reason for my tardiness is that they are both in French, with her first book also available in Italian, Polish and Khmer. But not in English, which is a shame. The author published Escape From Hell: Four years in Khmer Rouge Camps, in 2002 and followed that up with Return to Cambodia in 2007. She's also recently completed an illustrated children's book, Kosal & Moni, about how two children find out about the past. Claire Ly was a professor of philosophy when the Khmer Rouge confined her and her family to work camps after 1975. Her father and husband were murdered and she lost other close family members before she finally reached a refugee camp, from where she emigrated to France, her home today. The experiences she endured altered her Buddhist beliefs and she was baptized as a Catholic in 1983. More here in French.

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What's on

Events coming up in Phnom Penh include veteran Vietnam War photographer Tim Page's exhibition of photographs, as well as documentary screenings, Q&A's and so on at the Meta House, beginning this coming Sunday (4th) from 6pm. Also at Meta House from Saturday 3rd will be a collection of drawings titled Raining at Preah Vihear by Battambang artist Srey Bandol, who already has his drawings in print by Reyum in the book Looking At Angkor and another book aimed at children, In The Land of The Elephants. The 6pm opening on Saturday will be followed by a film/photo presentation of fellow artist Vandy Rattana.
Over at the Bophana Center on Saturday 3rd, a 4pm screening of a documentary on the late Cambodian artist Svay Ken will take place, in Khmer but with English subtitles, followed by another film, Two Neighbors.
Wednesday 7th is a national holiday here in Cambodia (Victory over Genocide Day). It will actually be the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and I'm sure this landmark occasion will be acknowledged by a plethora of documentaries on tv but the main celebration of the anniversary will be at the Olympic Stadium in the city, where it's expected over 60,000 people will attend a mass rally. There's some grumbling here that 20,000 students are being forced to attend and it's little more than a rally in support of the CPP, but I'm sure the kids will enjoy their day off school, I know I used to. I loved the comment from a CPP lawmaker who said pointedly to the opposition whiners; "Only those people with a mental problem oppose Jan 7."

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Damp squib

The arrival of the new year turned out to be a disaster for the organizers of the open-air party at Hun Sen Park in front of Nagaworld in Phnom Penh tonight. They sold tickets for a princely amount for a garden buffet to some, whilst the average-joe reveller turned up to watch the music stars for free but at a distance, only for everyone to be disappointed by the inclement weather. It rained as I arrived a little before eight o'clock and then bucketed down for nearly an hour before I decided to call it a day, already drenched through to the skin. Sat at home watching television instead, the rain began again around 10pm and is still going strong now, a little after 12.30am. Talk about rain stopped play, on this occasion, rain completely washed out the new year celebrations. The once immaculately laid-out buffet tables were a waterlogged shambles as the musicians and dancers took shelter under the stage back-drop, the television crews huddled together under makeshift umbrellas and the security personnel left their posts to avoid the driving rain, retiring instead to the adjacent food stands. The Apsara tv channel saw the new year in with a classical dance performance, where I spotted my friend Sam Savin as one of the dancers, whilst I chose to watch one of those silly Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It's now 2009 and a new year full of wonderful experiences I hope for us all and I wish my readers a successful and happy new year.
It's standing room only as the new year revellers shelter from the rain inside a stall
Staying on the damp squib front, the conservative nature of Cambodia shone through again with the decision to postpone tonight's 2nd showing of the Where Elephants Weep rock-opera on the CTN channel after the Ministry of Information ordered the station not to air the programme. The Ministry had received a letter of complaint from the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist monks who have taken exception to the portrayal of monks in the opera and have demanded apologies from all concerned. They don't seem to grasp that it's make-believe (though a musical rock-opera is something new for them to comprehend I grant you) and that consderably more damage has been done to the general perception of monks in Cambodia by a series of violent attacks and a rape in recent months by members of their order. Such a pity that this new development in the performing arts in Cambodia should be clouded in such controversy.