Saturday, February 28, 2009

Captivating lady

On a personal note, I continue to feel sorry for myself over my skin infection that has now moved upwards to my face and this weekend I'm undergoing my third set of blood tests as well as x-rays and ultrasound before deciding to head for somewhere like Singapore or Bangkok early next week to try to get to the bottom of the problem. All the tests so far have proved negative or inconclusive yet my skin is still badly infected and I really don't look a pretty sight (not that I looked a million dollars before all this). It looks that bad that a photo I took the other day would put you off your food for a week so I won't post it. However, to cheer myself up, I had a lunchtime rendezvous today with one of my favourite people, Denise Heywood. She's in town for a few days and will promote her new book, Cambodian Dance, at an illustrated talk at Monument Books next Thursday (5th March) at 6pm. Denise honoured me by appearing as a guest speaker at two of my Magic of Cambodia charity days back in England a few years ago and hand on heart, she is one of the most passionate and evocative speakers I have ever listened to. If you just have 1 thing in your diary next week, make sure it's the Denise Heywood talk, I can guarantee you will be singing her praises as I do. And once you've listened to the talk, make sure you buy the book, it's a fascinating look at both classical dance in Cambodia as well as the individuals who've made its revival possible after the horrors of the 1970s. Dance in Cambodia is part of the nation's soul and Denise pays it all the respect it deserves in her wonderfully detailed book, packed full of pictures. At lunch we had lots to catch up on though she was a bit bewildered by the traffic in the city, having lived here in the early '90s for three years when UN landcruisers were jockeying for space with a multitude of cyclo's with hardly a moto and not a tuk-tuk in sight. She was off to a charity event at Raffles this evening or else we'd still be there now chatting about all and sundry. Let me direct you to her website where you can find out more about this captivating lady.

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Out of the Poison Tree

The postman delivered a small package today and in it was the dvd for the documentary film Out of the Poison Tree, direct from the filmmaker Beth Pielert, and now available to be seen for the first time in Cambodia, at Phnom Penh's Meta House on Saturday 14th March, at 6.30pm. Beth's beautiful and moving film follows Thida and her two sisters back to Cambodia to find out more about the disappearance of their father and to hear first-hand from Cambodians about the necessity for justice, a trial and forgiveness. The most poignant plea for justice came from a teenage schoolgirl, Davey Heng, standing amongst her classroom peers, in a flood of tears, but determined to state her point of view. As the Khmer Rouge Tribunal readies itself for the trial of Comrade Duch, this film is aptly timed for the voice it gives to ordinary Cambodians as well as well-known figures like Youk Chhang and Aki Ra. Archive footage and music from Long Beach artist praChly complete the picture. Saturday 14th March - don't forget the date. If you wish to purchase the dvd, visit Beth Pielert's GoodFilmWorks website.
Thida, Beth with camera and Aki Ra
Rasmei Buth holding a photo of her father, Bun Choen
Interviewing survivors for the documentary

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Closing chapter

Wooden signs point the way, coming from the South Gate direction
The southwest Prasat Chrung and the nearby irrigation channel formed by Run Tadev and Beng Thom were the final pieces of the Angkor Thom jigsaw on my epic cycle ride a few weeks ago. If you have time, it's definitely worth doing all or some of the embankment pathway on top of the mighty city walls, either on foot or by bicycle, just to experience a different perspective on the city and to enjoy the solitude, peacefulness and the surrounding scenery. I saw a variety of birds on my travels though the biggest, a crane, was sat on a solitary tree-stump in the middle of the moat near the last of the corner temples. Here's some final photos to close the chapter on my cycling adventure.
The southwest corner of the laterite wall and moat
The devata at this shrine have not escaped the attention of the temple robbers
The false window with blinds and two devata standing alongside
Two decorated posts with praying figures on the left side and vegetal scrolls on the right
A view out over the moat and the Angkor balloon in the distance
The last section of path before you reach Prasat Chrung coming from the South Gate
Run Tadev was either a very long laterite bridge or was used as an irrigation channel or sluice gate to allow water to run into the moat at the far end
The laterite structure of Run Tadev is covered by earth and vegetation and the other end of this long tunnel opens out at the foot of the moat
The marshy Beng Thom was used as part of the ancient city's irrigation system

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The final Chrung...and relax

The southwest Prasat Chrung, the final one of the four corner shrines on my cycle ride; this is the west false entrance.
My recent bicycle ride along the embankment walls of the ancient city of Angkor Thom seems to have been taking place for weeks, whilst in actual fact it took a little less than four hours and that included stopping to visit and photograph five monumental gates into the city, four corner shrines that few ever get to visit and negotiating a few breaks in the wall as well as meeting up with a group of five twenty-something Khmers, who were out for a picnic, on their bikes, as they reminded me that the day of my trip was a Buddhist holiday. They shared their water, as mine had run out and they offered to share their food as we chatted about life in general and about work - they worked for ANZ Bank - and so my 30+ years in British banking aroused their interest. Nice folks and it was good to chat having spent the previous three and half hours on my solitary ride. We met at the southwest corner Prasat Chrung, which translates as 'temple of the angle,' after my five minute cycle from the West Gate, parallel with the water-filled moat. This shrine is the most visited of the four corner temples as the access from the popular South Gate is straightforward. The prasat itself is similar to the others though its west door is false and it only opens to the east. The devata are here in numbers though they are small in size, the windows have half-blinds as in the other shrines but the only pediment carving I could find was on the ground and the Buddha image had been remodelled into a linga, a popular pasttime in the 13th century. I thought the temple might be a pleasant place to visit to experence a quiet sunset across the moat sometime in the future. After our chat, they cycled off to enjoy their picnic near the West Gate, while I stopped at a cutting in the forest which took me to an ancient laterite bridge and a nearby large pond. The bridge is Run Tadev and the pond Beng Thom and both acted as a way of letting out water from the city and into the moat. Then it was back to the South Gate, descending from the wall for the last time and cycling back to my hotel for some food and a well-earned shower. My cycle ride of around 13 kilometres was definitely an enjoyable way to see parts of Angkor Thom I'd never seen before, to get a different persepctive of the walled city and a way to enjoy a part of Angkor without the crowds. For the last four hours Angkor Thom had been mine, and mine alone and that gave me a great deal of satisfaction. I hope you've enjoyed the journey too. Try it sometime.
The pleasant cycle path from the West Gate heading to the southwest corner
The best devata on show at the southwest Prasat Chrung
This is Prasat Chrung from the south side, with its false door
The all next to this devata looks decidely unsteady
This pediment has a defaced Buddha, converted into a linga and lies on the ground, protected by red ants
A devata on the north face of the corner shrine
This devata is playing hide and seek with a tree growing next to the temple
The east entrance to Prasat Chrung is now supported by wooden beams. The stones in the foreground were part of a small shrine or gate to the east.

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Forgotten vibe no more

It looks a little like a mask, but its the north face of the West Gate, approached from the northwest corner shrineWooden struts support the sides of the eastern entrance of the West Gate of Angkor Thom
The embankment pathway from the northwest Prasat Chrung to the West Gate was the best section so far and completed in less than five minutes. I was now well over halfway in my bicycle ride around the top of the walls of the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The last time I'd been at the West Gate was quite a few years before when it was rarely used and quite atmospheric with a forgotten feel to it, nowadays that vibe has disappeared and it's been made safe with lots of wooden structural supports and a wooden driveway that takes you through the gate door and out the other side. This entrance to the city is now much more popular that ever before when only locals rode their bicycles through it, to and from their nearby villages. A popular route along one section of the wall, for walkers and cyclists, ends at the West Gate, having begun at the South Gate. If anyone does venture onto the city walls it is that section they normally choose. However, I hope I've given you a flavour of what the other sections of the wall can offer as well. I hadn't yet finished my cycle ride so after a good sniff around both sides of the gate, I took my mountain bike back onto the wall to complete my journey via the southwest corner temple. Stay tuned for more.
The face of the king looks down on the entrance into the city at the West Gate
This provides a good view of the wooden driveway installed at the West Gate, and the absence of 'atmosphere' there nowadaysLooking at the west face of the West Gate from outside the walled city
The west face has parts of the royal visage missing
Two faces of the West Gate, the south face on the right and the east face
A final profile look at the east face of the West Gate
A broken Lokeshvara pediment at the top of the wall, in front of the south face. You can just make out the torso at the left of center.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Basement roots

1978 was the year that the band with whom I've shared all of my adult years, Steel Pulse, really took off as a major force in British and world reggae. It was the year they released their first single, Ku Klux Klan, which they perform on this video, as well as their first album, Handsworth Revolution which did incredibly well and they capped the year by touring with the late and great Bob Marley. It also happened to be the year that I saw them play live for the first time, at Cheltenham Town Hall, my own backyard, on 2 June. A gig I will never forget as long as I live. As for this video, it was filmed in the cellar of lead singer David Hinds' parent's house at 16 Linwood Road in Handsworth, Birmingham, which the band used at that time, at the start of 1978, as their rehearsal studio. The footage was used for a film called Reggae in Babylon, a documentary about the reggae phenomenon in the UK that year. At the back is Selwyn Brown on keyboards, then there's Basil Gabbidon on lead guitar, Michael Riley (white cap, white trousers) on backing vocals with Phonso Martin (percussion and vocals), out front is lead singer David Hinds in his woolly hat, with Grizzly Nisbett on drums and Ronnie McQueen on bass. The quintessential Steel Pulse line-up. Enjoy.

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Sea Wall screenings

Your first chance to see Rithy Panh's latest feature-length film offering, The Sea Wall, here in Cambodia, will be upon us soon enough. The French Cultural Center (St 184) are screening the film, in French with English subtitles, on four consecutive nights, beginning on 4 March at 7pm. Entry is free. Panh is Cambodia's best-known international film director and launched his latest work, The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique), at the Toronto Film Festival towards the end of last year. With critically-acclaimed films such as S-21, Rice People, Burnt Theatre and lots more under his belt, he has moved into more mainstream cinema with his newest work adapted from a classic French novel and including the successful French actress Isabelle Huppert amongst a strong cast. The photo above reminds me of the Oliver Stone film Heaven and Earth which included Cambodian actor Haing Ngor amongst its cast.

Postscript: On Monday 2nd March there will be an exhibition opening at 6pm called 'The Making of the Sea Wall' at the Bophana Center on Street 200. The film itself will show for 4 nights from the 4th March at the CCF though tickets can be collected from the Bophana Center beforehand, just to make sure you get a seat at one of the 4 screenings.
Not in French but in English, though it'll be delivered by Christophe Pottier, the head of the French-based EFEO in Siem Reap, will be a talk on Friday evening (27 Feb) titled, 'Dating Temples: histories of styles and style of history?' at 6.30pm at the EFEO offices alongside the Siem Reap River. I am kicking myself that I won't be there to listen. Definitely my bag.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Well-kept and tidy

The main shrine of the northwest Prasat Chrung with a ruined small building in front
A pediment with a standing Lokeshvara minus its face and a group of acolytes
It's Prasat Chrung time again, this time the northwest one, sitting in the overhead sun with little shade, though tidy and well-kept, located at one of the corners of the walled city of Angkor Thom. The view over the wall looked out onto fields and cows to both right and left, though I could just make out the sandstone blocks that used to act as the wall of the long-gone moat. The track from the North Gate was straightforward except one massive break in the wall that had made the path at that point difficult to negotiate on my mountain bike. The devata in niches on the walls of the central shrine were in reasonable condition and a standing Lokeshvara, minus its face, pediment was still in situ above a grinning kala lintel. Any of the four shrines in the corner of the great city could double-up as a picnic venue, so keep that in mind if you fancy a day's walking trek along the walls of Angkor Thom. Next stop would be the West Gate that used to be the most evocative of the city's gates until the authorities decided to make it safe with enough timber to make a small forest.
The gentle track that leads to Prasat Chrung from the North Gate
A massive break in the laterite wall made this section hard to cross
Below the wall, green fields and grazing cows with some sandstone slabs at the foot of the treesA reassembled pediment on the ground showing a re-formed linga and two acolytes
The east entrance to the main shrine with its Lokeshvara pediment
A grinning kala lintel with vegetal scrolling below the pediment
This devata over time has lost her feet which now look stunted
An uncrowned simple-styled devata in a niche
Two crowned devata, the left holding a lotus blossom
The devata of the northwest Prasat Chrung are well developed though their decoration has worn over time
The main shrine of Prasat Chrung with its many devata, windows with blinds and different colours on it walls

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Giving back

4 of the 7 artifacts being returned to Cambodia
Thailand are making a big noise today after their cabinet agreed to return 7 artifacts that even they couldn't find an excuse to keep. There are another 36 sandstone sculptures that they are hanging onto until the Cambodian government can prove they are Khmer in origin. Essentially, Thailand are making Cambodia jump through hoops to get back artifacts that were stolen from Cambodia nearly a decade ago and found in a sea-freight cargo seizure by Thai customs. If Cambodia can prove provenance, either documentary or photographic, Thailand will return the other 36 artifacts. Until the handing-over ceremony, the 7 soon-to-be-returned artworks will go on show in Bangkok's National Museum. They include an 86-centimetre bust of a goddess and six heads of demons varying in height from 60cm to 81cm. Cambodia have been asking for the return of these items for a few years and only now have they agreed to their release. This is a thorny subject for me as I get easily riled when I hear of Khmer artifacts residing in other countries, when they really should be housed in Cambodia. Don't even get me started on the French, who came here, took what they liked the look of and returned to France with their ships laden with Khmer bounty. Presumably, the French removal firm that were employed to strip temples like Preah Khan of Kompong Svay of their treasures had a signed thumb-printed note from the local village chief that it was okay to remove the items from the country. As if. The French even had the brazen cheek to appoint a known thief of Angkorean sculpture from Banteay Srei, Andre Malraux, as their Minister of Culture for a decade.

In a similar vein, the former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, handed over his personal archive of over 1 million documents and 10,000 photos to... wait for it... the French National Archives in Paris, a couple of years ago. Can you believe it? As if they haven't got enough historic Cambodian items already in their possession. I await one of the former King's zany hand-scribbled notes explaining his reasoning behind this incredulous decision any day now. What was wrong with presenting these items, collected after 1970, to a Cambodian institution like the National Archives for example, or even (am I really saying this) the French-run Bophana Center, or leave them with me and I'll look after them. But keep them in Cambodia, it's the least you can do. I could almost feel Jane Fonda squirm when I heard the documents include a letter from the American actress to Sihanouk congratulating him on the Khmer Rouge victory and offering to take up their cause in the US - nice choice Jane. The 'Sihanouk Fund' will be housed at the Soubise Hotel in Paris - it's taken two years to catalogue the stuff. I'm speechless.



To give you a breather from my posts on my epic bicycle ride around the walls of Angkor Thom (which seems never-ending to me so goodness knows how you feel about it), I wanted to catch-up with a couple of items. The Oscars came and went last weekend and Steven Okazaki’s documentary film The Conscience of Nhem En (or lack of conscience would be more appropriate) didn't make it into the winner's envelope. Nevertheless, it has received great reviews and should be aired on television sometime soon in the States. If Steven would like to send me a copy of the dvd, we'll get it shown in Phnom Penh too. Steven I mean it, send me a copy. Meanwhile, Nhem En continues to seek money from anyone who'll give him some, for his Khmer Rouge museum in Anlong Veng.
On the subject of showing documentaries in Phnom Penh, Beth Pielert has despatched her Out of the Poison Tree film to me and with the help of Nico from Meta House, we hope to show the film on Saturday 14th March. I'll confirm it as definite once I have the dvd in my sweaty palms. This will be the first showing of this intriguing documentary in Cambodia so I hope it'll draw a big crowd of interested onlookers, especially with the currency of the Khmer Rouge trials so high at the moment. More to follow - I hope.
One of my favourite people is the renowned Angkor scholar Dawn Rooney. I count myself as very fortunate to have known Dawn for many years now and she has always been a mine of information and helpfulness personified. In a mini catch-up, she tells me she's recently completed her latest book, Khmer Ceramics, Their Beauty and Meaning, which has just gone to the publishers, following on from her last book, Ancient Sukhothai, Thailand's Cultural Heritage, published by River Books. When she's not lecturing, in her spare time, she's part of the Thai-Cambodian team on the Living Angkor Road Project and has just joined the Board of Trustees for the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap. Another friend is due in town tomorrow, namely Denise Heywood (pictured), lecturer, journalist, photographer and author of the new book Cambodian Dance, as well as one on Ancient Luang Prabang. She will give an illustrated talk on her new book at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard on Thursday 5th March. I know from experience what a wonderfully evocative speaker Denise is, so I urge you to attend.

Moving away from Cambodia and onto music, I informed you about Yaz Alexander's new 9-track mini-album Cry for Freedom here with its focus on roots and culture reggae, though Yaz is a woman for all seasons and her next album is already in the works, with a release date of October, and which will contain elements of soul, r-n-b, hip-hop and jazz, with productions from Sly & Robbie, Montell Jordan and Beres Hammond likely. Also in the works are three forthcoming concert appearances; 7th March at International Women's Day; 4th April with Mighty Diamonds, both in Birmingham, and 12th April with Beres Hammond and Maxi Priest at Wolverhampton.
Two great friends of mine, Selwyn Brown from Steel Pulse with Yaz Alexander

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Far north

The North Gate of Angkor Thom, from the south face
A break in the path and the massive laterite wall meant a diversion through the forest
The track along the earth embankment between the northeast corner temple and the North Gate was the most difficult to negotiate so far on my cycle ride along all four walls of Angkor Thom. The leafy path had three breaks in the wall to navigate including one where I had to lie flat on the ground with the mountain bike to crawl under the roots of a tree. Certainly the most challenging part of my epic ride so far. Below the wall, the moat had turned into a small stream and tended plots of land for rice and vegetables with the occasional water buffalo. I reached the North Gate in about fifteen minutes and took some pictures from the top of the embankment of the giant faces and the elephant trunks that reach to the ground before scrambling down to ground level with my bike. The gods and demons that line the outer entrance to this busy gate are in a pretty sad state with the majority of the heads missing, either stolen or removed for safe-keeping. The whole gate itself was restored in 1946, whilst its doorway opening would have originally been furnished with double wooden doors, mounted on pivots, which were fitted with a horizontal closing bar, the holes for which still remain visible in the walls. Like the other four gates that open up access to Angkor Thom, the North Gate is 23 metres high and crowned with four massive, enigmatic faces which I believe to be the glorified image of Jayavarman VII, the king responsible for the city and its fantastic array of buildings, and of course, its wall. I was now at the halfway point of my journey as I climbed the wall again to head for the northwest corner and the third Prasat Chrung.
My path along the wall's inner embankment was leaf-strewn and shaded from the sun
This was the trickiest break in the path and wall to negotiate as I had to lie flat to get under the tree roots on the right
Three of the giant faces as I approach the North Gate from the east
The three-headed elephant, Airavata, with Indra sat on top, can be found at all of the gates on both sides of the two openings
Another look at the face of Jayavarman VII from the east approach
The southern entrance to the North Gate
Looking down at the gods and demons guarding the entrance to the North Gate, mostly devoid of their heads
The two elephant carvings on the southern side of the North Gate are in great condition
A final look at the west-facing giant visage of the North Gate of Angkor Thom


Not a bed of roses

Life in Cambodia isn't all fun and temple visits. I've been burdened with a skin infection for months now which has nearly disappeared a couple of times then returned much stronger than before. At the moment, it's at its very worst as I await the result of more blood tests at the end of this week. Earlier tests ruled out a few possibilities but the doctors have so far been stumped as to the cause of the infection. It's affected my arms, legs, face and neck and it ain't a pretty sight, so much so that I've restricted my outings in recent weeks. However, I can't let it stop me from enjoying my regular jaunts to places like Meta House, where I went this evening. Early doors was the opening of a permanent exhibition of Tim Page's photographs and the famous Vietnam War veteran was there to sign a few prints. I missed that but I did see the documentary Vietnam American Holocaust and that was enough to make my blood boil - not such a good idea in my condition. Produced by Clay Claiborne, it's a shaming indictment of the American involvement in a war that killed approximately 4 million Vietnamese civilians and rained down bombs, death and destruction on Cambodia and Laos too. It turned too many GIs into cold-blooded killers as the footage and interviews from that time showed all too graphically. How an American can ever look a Vietnamese in the eye without feeling his country's eternal shame is beyond me.

Coloured faces

An artist's impression of a face from the North Gate of Angkor Thom? No, just me playing with the contrast button on my Adobe photoshop. The North Gate was the next stop on my epic bicycle ride along the walls of the great city of Jayavarman VII and all the gates hold an intense fascination for me. I think it must go back to the first time I saw the South Gate on my initial trip to Angkor way back when (it'll be fifteen years ago later this year), and then my first visit to the Bayon - I was just bowled over and that feeling has remained with me ever since. There is just something awe-inspiring about the giant faces.


Hanuman roster

Occasionally, I mention some film or television project that Hanuman Films are involved in here in Cambodia or next door in Vietnam. My office colleague Nick Ray and his wife Kulikar are the backbone of Hanuman Films and have been busy over the last couple of years with a number of major projects. Here's a run-down of the documentaries, dramas and television projects they've worked on in that time.
Jeremy Clarkson on a Vespa-boat on Halong Bay in Top Gear

Top Gear Vietnam Special – BBC – 2008

Hanuman Films was selected as the partner for the BBC Top Gear Vietnam special. Top Gear is one of the BBC’s best known programmes and the most popular show on BBC2. 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 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 Location Manager Nick Ray worked as Line Producer on the shoot and coordinated everything from filming permissions to motorbikes and amphibious 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 and around the world.

Ancient Megacities – National Geographic/ZDF – 2008

Hanuman Films was selected as the local production company for a National Geographic and ZDF (German television) drama-documentary on the history of Angkor. This was the story of the incredible hydraulic system of Angkor and how it ultimately contributed to both the rise and the fall of this great civilization. Several actors flew in from Germany for the drama scenes, which included the recreation of an Angkor-era market and the opening of an ancient canal, complete with dozens of labourers in ancient costume. Locations included many of the leading temples at Angkor such as Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Beng Mealea, Kbal Spean and Phnom Kulen.

Secret Worlds – Morningstar Enterntainment – 2008

This Travel Channel show sees host Michael Arbuthnot travel the world to discover ancient cultures and their incredible architectural legacy. He meets with leading archaeologists and researchers to piece together the stories of these secret worlds. Hanuman Films was selected to provide all production services for Morningstar Entertainment.

By Any Means – Long Way Down Productions – 2008

Popular motorbike adventurer Charley Boorman went solo for his latest series which sees him travel from London to Sydney ‘by any means’. He uses local transport of every shape, size and speed to travel overland through Europe and Asia. Nick Ray looked after him for the Cambodia part of the adventure, travelling with Charley and the crew from the Lao border at Voen Kham via the Mekong River and the temples of Angkor to the Thai border at Poipet. Transport included a rocket boat to Stung Treng, dirt bikes over to Angkor, a temple safari at Beng Mealea, an ox cart and a trip on the bamboo train. Cambodia was the highlight of the whole trip for Charley, according to the book that accompanies the series, and the rocket boat one his favourite forms of transport. Nick features extensively in the show, as he and Charley make their way across the country.
The Perfect Trip – MTV Europe – 2008

The ‘Dirty Sanchez’ crew travelled to Cambodia for a series of original challenges around Phnom Penh, including ox racing, snake eating and dabbling in traditional medicine. One of the most popular travel shows on MTV, the Welsh boys managed to get themselves in plenty of scrapes while journeying through Cambodia.

Pepsi Commercial – Radical Media – 2007

Radical Media, one of the world’s largest creative houses, came to Cambodia in October 2007 to shoot a major commercial for Pepsi's 2008 global campaign to promote the European Championships. Locations included the East Gate of Angkor Thom, the temple of Ta Prohm and the Old Market area of Siem Reap. Body doubles were in town for Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Frank Lampard, plus some pretty good footballing skills on display. The advert was a massive success, featuring Beckham, Ronaldhino passing the ball around the globe in a dazzling 60 seconds.
TUI commercial – Radical Media – 2007

So successful was the first Radical Media shoot that they returned for another shoot just two months later, this time a TUI commercial for the international travel giant. This commercial included elephants at the East Gate of Angkor Thom for both a television commercial and a series of print advertisements.
Al Jazeera – 2007

Hanuman Films has worked on several Al Jazeera shoots in 2007 and 2008. Al Jazeera operates a regional office in Kuala Lumpur and is known for its investigative journalism, covering stories that major news networks have overlooked. Hanuman Films is now an established partner for Al Jazeera in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn – BBC - 2007

Wealthy banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn left the world of investment banking in the early 20th century to travel the world and create a photographic archive of the people, cultures and monuments of the world. The collection was forgotten for many years, but eventually came to light again. In this series, the BBC travelled the world to visit places photographed by Albert Kahn in the 1920s, including the temples of Angkor. He also took many shots of classical dancers and landmark buildings in Phnom Penh. Hanuman Films was selected as the film servicing company for this project.
Dancing Across Borders - @123 Productions - 2007

This is a documentary about a young Cambodian dancer Sokvannara "Sy" Sar and his journey from Cambodia to America, from one culture to another. As a teenager, Sy became an accomplished performer with the Wat Bo School of Traditional Dance in Siem Reap. In 2000, American philanthropist Anne Bass came to Cambodia and watched the Wat Bo troupe perform. She saw that Sy had exceptional skill as a dancer and helped Sy travel to America to study ballet. Hanuman Films worked as the local production company to help facilitate this film.

Ancient Discoveries – Wild Dream Films - 2007

This show highlights the culture of traditions of Cambodia, including the living culture of classical dance, as well as the ancient history of the Khmer Empire and the incredible temples of Angkor.

Beyond the Chair – Travel Channel – 2007

A film about Andrew Shelley’s solo world tour in his all terrain power chair, this is the story of commitment and determination. The story is driven by the drama and conflict that naturally arises from Andrew¹s partial reliance on a power chair, due to his affliction with muscular dystrophy, to navigate through the most remote and exotic regions of the globe. This journey is the ultimate story of discovery and an inspiration to disabled people everywhere.

Turning Points of History – Barna-Alper – 2007

Now in its ninth season the internationally acclaimed documentary series Turning Points of History examines events of the 20th Century that have changed the world in which we live. It allows us to watch history as it unfolded through the eyes of eyewitnesses and principal players. The series has won close to 200 Canadian and international awards and boasts an impressive track record of strong filmmaking combined with impeccable journalism. For this show, the crew travelled to Cambodia to look into the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and protracted civil war in Cambodia, including the blight of landmines.

The Human Weapon – Jupiter Entertainment – 2007

This popular History Channel show came to Cambodia to highlight the national sport of Pradal Serey or Khmer kickboxing. Often abbreviated to Thai boxing, the sport of kickboxing has its origins in the time of the Khmer empire and can be seen on the bas-reliefs at Angkor. Presenters Jason (ultimate fighter) and Bill (wrestler) studied the sport with leading fighters, as well as learning about older sports like Bokator. For the finale, Jason fought against leading local kickboxer Oth Phoutang, younger brother of Eh Phoutang, Cambodia’s all time leading kickboxer.

Digging for the Truth – JWM Productions – 2007

The 'Digging for the Truth' series is the highest rated series on the History Channel and explores the story of how the Angkor temples were constructed and the amazing advances in engineering and hydrology that the ancient Khmers developed in the Angkor area. The hosts worked with conservation experts to help gain a better understanding of the historical and spiritual significance of the temples at Angkor.

Destination Truth – Ping Pong Productions – 2007

On the television side, Destination Truth came over to investigate the story of ‘Jungle Girl’ who came out the forests of Ratanakiri and looked into the existence of 'forest people'. The filming was raw and felt a lot like the Blair Witch Project. Nick Ray worked on setting up interviews and locations and met the crew in Ratanakiri. He was also interviewed by host Josh for the opening sequence of the show.

Jungle Girl – Fox Television – 2007

When the story broke in January 2007, it was big news all over the world. A girl emerged from the forests of Cambodia, almost 18 years after she first disappeared and the international media went wild for the Jungle Girl story. Fox Television contacted Hanuman Films to cover the story for them. Nick Ray (Producer) and Erik Lofting (Camera) travelled to Ratanakiri to interview the girl and her family. They also tracked down the woodcutter who originally found her in the forest.
1000 Places to See Before You Die – Ebsco Productions – 2006

1000 Places to See Before You Die is a travel show based on the best-selling book of the same name. The show features some of the world’s most iconic places and includes a sequence showing Angkor in Cambodia, plus some of the landmark buildings in Phnom Penh. Kulikar Sotho featured extensively as a tour guide in this show, introducing the host couple to many of the best known temples around Angkor and helping them sample the local cuisine and culture. The show also featured HanumanAlaya, our very own boutique hotel in Siem Reap.

Horizon Pandemic – BBC – 2006

BBC Horizon is a popular science and health show in the UK. For this episode, the crew travelled to Cambodia to film a drama-documentary on the subject of bird flu and its potential to spread globally. The shoot involved many actors and support crew, with locations in Phnom Penh and the surrounding countryside. The story followed the life of a construction worker who contracts the illness when visiting family in his home province, before returning to the city where it quickly spreads into a pandemic.

Who Cares About Art? – BBC – 2006

This one-off show was part of the BBC Imagine series about the world of art. The show looks at guardians of famous art collections around the world, including the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In Cambodia, we decided on something completely different and featured the famous ‘Sweeper of Ta Prohm’, famously shown on the front cover of the fourth edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia. The story follows his work sweeping around the temples and life with his family, as well his thoughts on life, death and religion.


Monday, February 23, 2009

One more look

The stele kiosk at the northeast Prasat Chrung
In a final look at my favoured Prasat Chrung, in the northeast corner of the walled city of Angkor Thom, I've read that the stele kiosk(s) were constructed after the death of Jayavarman VII to house the stelae - literally a long-list of names or descriptions inscribed onto stone slabs - which provided the foundation stones for the walled city and the huge moat surrounding it, as well as extolling the virtues of the king of kings. The walls themselves are 3.3 kilometres in length along each side and by now, I still hadn't reached halfway in my epic cycle ride around the walled embankment, as I continued to the North Gate of the city.
A solitary doorframe with a ruined pediment at the western end of the temple site
The southern false doorway of the main shrine with lintel, pediment and colonettes in situ
A pediment without its Buddha on a plinth and a kala lintel above the south-facing doorway
Two corner devata on the southern face of the main shrine at Prasat Chrung
The devata at the northeast shrine are definitely smaller and less decorated
The eastern doorway of the main shrine on the left and the stele kiosk on the right, unusually very close to each other

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My favourite Chrung

This is the northeast Prasat Chrung with its stele kiosk on the left
Now back to the northeast Prasat Chrung, sitting in isolation in the corner of the walled city of Angkor Thom and only accessible along a shaded track leading from either the Victory Gate or the North Gate of the ancient city. It's my favourite of the four temple shrines, all with the same name, because it appears to be the forgotten shrine of the quartet, it's more compact, it has a strangler fig tree doing its worst and embracing the central tower in a fatal stranglehold, it houses a series of pediments where the iconoclastic furore of the 13th century is clearly demonstrated and it boasts a stele 'kiosk' rarely seen in Angkorean architecture. The track on top of the walled embankment from the Victory Gate to the northeast corner was straightforward and I found the corner temple to be surrounded by trees and in shade. The first thing I noticed was the unusual kiosk at the eastern end of the shrine, with a series of half pediments-cum-lintels that had their Buddha image reworked into a linga, most likely defaced in the 13th century when many of Jayavarman VII's temples were altered. I wasn't clear whether each of the corner shrines, identical in most aspects, originally had such a kiosk, but only the northeast one has it today. The roots of the fig tree have pushed into the sandstone blocks of the main shrine and are slowly splitting the temple apart in numerous places. The devata on the walls are smaller than the other shrines and overall it looks like the temple has been reduced in size. A couple of pediments have been reassembled on the leaf-strewn ground but only one has a recognisable narrative. Continuing my cycle ride along the city walls, I headed for the North Gate.
The shaded track leading to the northeast corner of Angkor Thom. At the base of the wall the moat had turned into rice fields.
The strangler fig tree has the central tower in its vice-like grip
One of the pediment-lintels on the kiosk has had its Buddha image altered to a linga
Another defaced pediment-lintel on the kiosk with a linga flanked by two acolytes
This reassembled pediment on the ground has various figures surrounding a small linga on a plinth, where Buddha would've been sat originally
The northern entrance to the central shrine, which is open, unlike the other shrines
A defaced devata figure on the temple's outer wall

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Countdown for Denise

Early next month, Denise Heywood will return to Phnom Penh - her second home, having lived here and written for the Phnom Penh Post in the early 1990s - to present an illustrated talk at Monument Books all about her new book, Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods. It will begin at 6pm on Thursday 5th March, with free snacks. Do not miss this event! In the meantime, I would've posted an article about the book and another tome dedicated to classical dance, Earth In Flower, that recently appeared in The Cambodia Daily but it's copyright as rightly pointed out by the publisher, so you can read it here.

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The best of the rest

This devata at Prasat Chrung is in danger of being strangled by a fig tree sometime soon
Coming soon... continuing my cycle ride along the walls of the immense city of Angkor Thom, I came to my favourite of the four shrines that occupy the four corners of this ancient city. The northeast Prasat Chrung is well worth a visit, even if you are not thinking of copying my 4 hour cycle ride along the whole length of the city walls. It's in a lovely quiet spot, with just birdcalls for company, and the presence of a fig tree strangling the life out of the temple with its all enveloping roots. There are carvings galore to explore and this is a temple where you will definitely be alone. More soon.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gates galore

You can just see the Gate of the Dead through the forest of trees, outside the walled city
From the Prasat Chrung shrine in the southeast corner of Angkor Thom to the Gate of the Dead (East Gate) is less than five minutes by bicycle, though a big hole in the wall and the track meant one short diversion through the adjoining forest of trees. The moat at the foot of the wall had been replaced with rice fields and a few farmers shouted their hellos, as I carried by mountainbike down the embankment for a quick ride through the secluded gate and into the forest to see where the track took me. After five minutes I was still surrounded by trees, so turned back and climbed the other side of the East Gate to continue my ride along the top of the wall until I reached the Victory Gate. I highlighted both of these massive gates topped by the engaging four faces in recent blog entries, so will just post a few new pictures from my latest trip to the eastern wall of Angkor Thom.
A large hole in the wall of the ancient city and the track disappeared as well The shaded track as I approach the Gate of the Dead (East Gate)
The face of Jayavarman VII on the southern approach to the East Gate
Outside the city of Angkor Thom, this is the secluded East Gate through the trees
Praying figures on the side panel of the East Gate
The face of Jayavarman VII looks eastwards from the Gate of the Dead
The Victory Gate, from outside the ancient city looking eastwards
The east entry to the Victory Gate and the heads of the demon guardians
The imposing face of Jayavarman VII at the Victory Gate
A row of five praying worshippers on the Victory Gate


One of four

The southeast corner shrine, Prasat Chrung, at Angkor Thom
Very few visitors to Angkor Thom take the time to visit, literally, the four corners of this giant ancient walled city. Situated at each corner is a shrine temple, Prasat Chrung, that used to contain a stele with important information about the life and times of the city's builder Jayavarman VII, though they are now long gone and held under lock and key at Angkor Conservation. The four Prasat Chrung's are all similar in style, in a cruciform shape with two open porches at the east and west and two false doors at the other cardinal points. The outside walls are decorated with devatas and with false windows with balusters and blinds. Each temple has remains of standing Lokeshvaras in varying degrees of ruin, as are the temples themselves. Starting at the South Gate, I hauled my cycle onto the earth embankment that runs along the inner side of the eight metre high laterite wall and headed for the Prasat Chrung that occupies the southeast corner. The leafy track was under tree cover for much of the straight route and bouncing over tree roots I reached the corner in less than ten minutes. On my right side was a sheer drop down to the 100 metre wide moat, where locals were busy with their fishing nets. In front of me, a few trees gave the shrine some shade, whilst the remains of broken pediments had been reassembled on the ground, though there was little visible carving. A broken Lokeshvara pediment sat on top of a doorframe in front of the terrace leading to the temple itself, where aside from a few devata, some of which had been hacked at and their faces removed, there was little iconography to see. The large Lokeshvara on the east door pediment is now obscured by wooden beams keeping the doorframe from collapsing. With the sun getting hotter and much more of my Angkor Thom cycle ride to complete, I carried on in an anti-clockwise direction and headed along the shady track for my next discovery, the East Gate, aka The Gate of the Dead.
The shaded cycle track along the top of Angkor Thom's walls
Locals use their fishing nets to catch their lunch in the moat surrounding Angkor Thom
The track on the earth embankment and on the left, the edge of the outside wall
The ruined Lokeshvara and worshippers pediment on the solitary doorframe
Another Lokeshvara (top right) with acolytes but much of the carving is missing
One of the few devata to escape the temple robbers
This pediment with a large Lokeshvara in situ is obscured by large wooden beams supporting the east entrance in place
The temple doorjamb with some tapestry carvings for decoration

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Silent no more

The on-stage cast of Breaking the Silence; LtoR: Sakona, Tonh, Sovanna, Sotheary, Sokly, Sina, Vutha
Yesterday was a busy day, the type I enjoy the most. I was at the office in the morning then after watching some football on the tv, I went to see Chhim Sothy's exhibition of paintings at the Culture office on Street 63. Sothy was there to say hello, bubbling with enthusiasm and eager to show off his excellent artwork. I love his traditional style and will visit his studio soon to see more of his art, and maybe get a bargain or two. I then walked to the Bophana Center on St 200 for the 4pm first showing of the documentary Bitter Khmer Rouge by Bruno Carette and Siem Meta. The place was packed to the rafters with francophones as the film, which included interviews with Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, was only in French and Khmer. My schoolboy French - actually I only studied it for a year and then got bored - didn't help, so I didn't really understand a word and instead, look forward to seeing the English language version someday soon. However, the footage was interesting and primarily what I came to see anyway, as the filmmakers gave rank and file ex-Khmer Rouge, and their leaders, an opportunity to give their version of events.
The on and off-stage members of Breaking the Silence
I raced away from the Bophana Center and headed for my next appointment, and the 6.30pm start of the brand new play Breaking the Silence, staged at the exhibition hall opposite the National Assembly. This is a theatre piece with word, song, music and dance and is intended to get Cambodians talking about their Khmer Rouge experiences, which is why after two performances in Phnom Penh, the plan is to take it out to the provinces, which is a fantastic idea. Cambodians love live performance though they will see a new style, created by Dutch director Annemarie Prins, which they may find both disturbing and thought-provoking. In seven short scenes the four actresses, a dancer, a singer and a musician bring alive stories and situations from the Khmer Rouge period as a way of opening up a platform for discussion. I hope this will be encouraged when they take the play to the provinces, as this will be an opportunity for many to see their own experiences played out on stage in poignant scenes, like the girl who stopped talking as a teenager after she was brutally raped by Khmer Rouge soldiers, and thirty years on the stigma remains with her and fellow villagers still look the other way out of shame and revulsion. Prins and her team have produced a play that many will find heavy because of its contents but which is based on fact, aided by DC-Cam, and put into a performance situation alongwith song and monkey dance to ensure there's something for everyone. I think it works brilliantly.
Director Annemarie Prins (center) and DC-Cam chief Youk Chhang (white shirt) on stage at the final curtain of Breaking the Silence

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tradition in good hands

Hanuman, the monkey god in fine detail
A favourite Cambodian artist of mine is Chhim Sothy. His traditional style paintings, usually acrylic on canvas, bring figures like Hanuman, Rama, Lakshmana and Ravana alive with his flowing brush strokes and intricate artwork that regularly feature scenes from the Ramayana epic and Buddhist themes. A prolific artist, though each painting can take two to three weeks to complete, Sothy, now 40 years old, was trained in the traditional artforms including sculpture, graduating from the Fine Arts school in 1996. His works have been exhibited just about everywhere in Cambodia as well as overseas exhibitions in far-flung places like the USA, France, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and China. A display of nearly forty of his best works are currently being exhibited at the Dept of Culture & Fine Arts on Street 63 and the exhibition finishes at the end of this month. His Ramayana characters are displayed in full alongwith some of his less traditional abstract pieces. All of the artwork is for sale from $200 upwards. I recommend you get along and see it for yourself, and if you time it right, you can meet Sothy in person. He has time for everyone so stop for a chat in English, French or Khmer, or visit his studio on Street 109.
The artist at his own exhibition, Chhim Sothy
Traditional scenes abound at Chhim Sothy's exhibition on St 63
Two Ramayana figures in mortal combat
Another traditional Ramayana scene from Chhim Sothy's exhibition


What you don't know

Occasionally I can be a hopeless romantic. Not often, but sometimes it comes up on me when I'm least expecting it. This song is one such time. I've loved this track for a while now and just found the video of What you don't know, sung by Meas Soksophea, a very talented Khmer singer. Yes I know it's soppy but it reminds me of a very good friend in Siem Reap and it makes me smile whenever I hear it. And I can't stop singing along to it either. Enjoy.

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Roy Hill live, well almost

I'm trying something new by adding a video to my blog. Fingers crossed. It's by one of the funniest musicians I've ever had the good fortune to meet and listen to. His name is Roy Hill and I've mentioned him a few times before on this blog. Roy lives in England so his live gigs are becoming a dim and distant memory for me, but he's keeping up a regular stream of his comedic blog posts on his myspace site so at least I can keep in touch. And if he carries on with these video blogs that'll be even better. You can read more about him here.


Friday, February 20, 2009

South Gate devas

Enigmatic face on the South Gate of Angkor Thom, facing west
Regular readers will recall that I visited the South Gate of Angkor Thom a few weeks ago and failed to capture many shots of the devas (male gods) pulling on the giant naga, on the left as you approach the gate from Angkor Wat. It was remiss of me so here's a few photos to put that right. However, many of the heads are replicas with the originals removed to the Angkor Conservation depot for safekeeping many years ago, though telling which are originals and which are replicas is often very tough. My most recent visit to the South Gate was as my starting point for cycling all the way around the top of the massive city walls to each corner temple and each of the five gates that allow access to the walled city. More on that epic cycle journey soon. I say epic as it took me nearly 4 hours and in all that time I saw no-one else on the walls apart from when I reached the final corner temple, the southwest, I was joined by five Khmers out on their own cycle ride and picnic.
Behind the large naga head are the giant hands and the 4 faces of the gods
Looking along the line of sturdy gods (devas) towards the South Gate itselfMore often than not, the heads on the gods are cement copies
There are 54 sandstone gods pulling tha naga & 54 demons
A rare moment, the causeway leading to the gate is nearly empty
It looks old but my money is on a copy head
All of the gods wear conical hats and supposedly serene expressions
A look at the South Gate from the top of the wall, on the east side
The face of Jayavarman VII - you decide - facing east
3 of the 4 faces of the South Gate from the western approach


Earache amongst the beauty

Angkor Wat in the moments just before the sunrise
After a flurry of sunset shots in recent postings, here's a few sunrise views from a recent visit to Angkor, where I joined the thousands of mainly Asian tourists who had got up early to watch the sun rising from behind the scaffolding-clad towers of Angkor Wat. The western tourists arrived in their one's and two's whilst the Japanese and Koreans arrived by the busload, or fleet of buses, chattering away incessantly and taking photos of everything that moved, and didn't move. Obvious tip of the day - if you are looking for a quiet sunrise, don't go to Angkor Wat, or at least take earplugs.
The morning sun makes its first appearance above the treeline
A slight shift of position and the sun's position also changes
Another shift and the sun drops behind the towers for this photo of the reflection in the north pool
My final shot of the sun and the pool reflection as it rises between two of Angkor Wat's towers
A last look back as I leave the inner courtyard of Angkor Wat
There is so much decoration on the walls of Angkor Wat that it's easy to overlook some of the beautiful artwork that adorns the temple. At the north gate of the west gopura there are some fantastic tapestry carvings worth looking at. This warrior with a conical hat is just one example.
This figure is almost Greco-Roman in appearance in my view. The hairstyle is very unusual. It could be an asura holding a club but doesn't look fierce enough.
I think this is a male figure standing on a dancing horse but I could be wrong
This beautifully carved devata has been savagely hacked


Don't miss these

A quick reminder of some events taking place today and the next few days. At Meta House (St 264 near Wat Botum) tonight (Friday), there's the dual screening of New Year Baby, the 80-minute search for family secrets by Socheata Poeuv, followed by Seasons of Migration, showcasing the work of classical dance teacher Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. English language films start at 8pm. Tomorrow night, Saturday, same venue, are two films by the former King, Norodom Sihanouk, namely Shadow over Angkor (1968) and Rose of Bokor (1969), but don't expect great filmmaking, instead, enjoy them for the period pieces they are. Start 7pm.
Tomorrow night is also the first performance of the theatre art work Breaking The Silence, by Dutch director Annemarie Prins and Amrita Performing Arts. It promises to be something very special, dealing with memories and experiences from the Khmer Rouge period, and after the two weekend performances, will be taken on the road to the provinces. It starts at 6.30pm, at the exhibition hall opposite the new National Assembly building and tickets are free. If you can squeeze it in, there's a film about how the Khmer Rouge saw themselves at Bophana Center at 4pm tomorrow as well. Its called Bitter Khmer Rouge (Khmers Rouges Amers), by Bruno Carette and Sien Meta, but the downside is that this version is in French.
An exhibition worth a visit is a display of traditional paintings by artist Chhim Sothy at the Dept of Fine Arts on Street 63, which will run until the end of the month. Next week at Meta House, veteran war photographer Tim Page will be around to open his new permanent exhibition of some of his photographs at 6pm on Tuesday 24th, the same night as the documentary Vietnam American Holocaust by Clay Claiborne, which looks like a very interesting 90-minutes worth of viewing. Link: Bitter Khmer Rouge.

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Phnom circus

Every available vantage point is sought on Phnom Bakheng. This youngster tries his luck with this linga with the central shrine in the background.
I mentioned my recent visit to Phnom Bakheng for the sunset experience and how horrendous it was. The temple-mountain is a magnet for sunset snappers and there were literally thousands of people taking up every available inch, and making a din that completely spoiled the moment. It may be the highest spot in the Angkor Park to take your sunset pictures, and it used to be the best, but it's become a victim of its own success. Avoid it at all costs unless you simply have to tick the sunset box on your Angkor itinerary. Having said all that, a visit to Phnom Bakheng at any other time is definitely worth the long climb. The dangerous and direct route is now off-limits, so its a long circular climb to reach the top these days. The pyramid temple was the state capital for King Yashovarman I in 889 and has 108 prasats (shrines) in total and its central tower originally held a linga dedicated to Shiva. You have a great view of the Angkor Wat towers as they peep out of the treeline, but beware, the thousands who descend (or should that be ascend) on it each day begin to arrive at 4pm, so time your visit accordingly. Here's some pictures from my recent sunset visit.
The original steep and dangerous route to the top of Phnom Bakheng, now closed
A magnificent lion on guard at the foot of the original stairway
$20 gets you a lift to the top on this elephant's back
This lion is contemplating his next lunch - the Angkor Balloon
Angkor Wat's towers peering out through the treeline
Now and I got there early but still the crowds were already forming
One of the camera-clicking hordes at the Phnom Bakheng circus - oh, it's me!
With half an hour still to go to sunset, the crowds are thickening at the summit
The view that thousands come to see each evening at Phnom Bakheng

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

A chance to speak

One documentary film that is very relevant to what's been happening this week with the Khmer Rouge trials beginning in earnest is Beth Pielert's Out of the Poison Tree, that gives a voice to victims of the Khmer Rouge and was shot on location in Cambodia and the United States back in 2006. With the trial of Comrade Duch now underway and the involvement of civil parties in a trial of this nature for the first time, it's more important than ever to hear from those who were personally affected. Out of the Poison Tree has never been shown in Cambodia. I've been trying to get that rectified with a screening at Meta House in the next month or so. I'll let you know if I'm successful.

Pielert's hour-long film follows Thida Buth Mam and her sisters' search to unlock the mystery of their father's disappearance in 1975. Her quest allows her to meet many people personally affected by the events of the 'Pol Pot time' and a desire to uncover the truth about what took place and why. These include Youk Chhang, the Director of DC-Cam, Arn Chorn-Pond, Aki Ra, Arun Sothea and the Venerable Yos Hut Khemacaro, while music will be supplied by Long Beach rapper praChly. Thida and her family's story has already been told in two books, authored by JoAn D Criddle under the titles, To Destroy You Is No Loss (published in 1987) and Bamboo & Butterflies : From Refugee to Citizen (published in 1992). She has been a speaker on genocide issues for many years, has appeared on US daytime tv show Oprah and has been a long-time advocate of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Thida was also featured on Steve McClure's film Rain Falls From Earth.
Filmmaker Beth Pielert with Thida Buth Mam

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Reggae explosion

Live reggae music was a staple part of my diet when I lived in England and I miss it. But just because I'm not there anymore, doesn't mean I can't flag events that I really recommend you get along to. Friendly Fire Music is an events organizer, a record label, a music studio and a collective of reggae musicians, singers and DJs. In that guise they are hosting, at the Hare & Hounds pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham, on Friday March 6th, 9pm, one of my favourite bands, Gabbidon. Their mix of old school and up to date reggae, roots and ska, with a smudge of rock guitar by Basil himself is sure to sell out quick, so get your tickets early. Click here for more info.
Later in March, Friday 20th, Friendly Fire will also host at the Hare & Hounds, Capital Letters, the legendary 8-piece UK roots band formed in the late 70's in Wolverhampton. As one of the first bands to be ever signed by Greensleeves, they released a hit single Smoking my Ganja which to this day remains a very sought after 12 inch release. They've now reformed and will play their first gig in nearly thirty years next month.
Link: Gabbidon

Bokor under seige

The atmospheric charm of the Bokor Palace Hotel - soon to be lost forever?
The magic of Bokor Mountain may soon be lost forever, though even the might of the Sokimex Group will not be able to stop the clouds and fog from rolling in and obscuring everything on a regular basis. This week, the ground-breaking ceremony took place on the $1 billion new development that Sokimex are putting in place to transform the summit of the mountain, located along Cambodia's southwest coastline. Access to the mountaintop has been closed until April at the earliest as Sokimex make a start on their project that will include a 12-16 storey five-star hotel, three 3-star hotels, a shopping center, residential area of apartments and villas to house 6,000 people, an amusement park, a casino and cable car system, not forgetting an Arnold Palmer golf course. What planet are these people on? The same planet that has about half a dozen satellite cities surrounding Phnom Penh in limbo due to the world's financial crisis. By the way they still haven't finished constructing the new road to the top a year after they started. And there's still no word on whether the atmospheric Bokor Palace Hotel will be renovated or torn down, most likely the latter. So with the landscape at Bokor undergoing change, Kampot will have to devise other ways to attract tourists - though with a new port, a special economic zone and a hydropower dam at Tek Chhou, these are likely to send visitors scurrying in other directions. I don't sound very optimistic do I?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Neak Ta and women to the south

The most lively carving at the south gopura is a headless Vishnu on the shoulders of Garuda and surrounded by an army on the march. This is at the western end.
The south gopura and the building you see when you enter the Angkor Park
Completing my Angkor Wat discoveries, some fifteen years after I first started, meant I took the little-used track past the pagoda until I reached the southern gopura of the 4th enclosure and the last piece of the Angkor Wat jigsaw. When I think about it, I feel a bit ashamed with myself. I've travelled far and wide across the Cambodian countryside on the hunt for Angkorean temples, getting excited at finding a few sandstone blocks in the middle of a forest and yet, under my nose, there were parts of the greatest temple on the planet that I still hadn't visited, and enjoyed. So last week it was with the greatest of pleasure that I finally made it to the two farthest-flung gopuras that I reckon 99.9% of visitors to Angkor Wat don't even know exist. And I don't blame them, as there are more than enough wonders on show in the main body of the temple to keep 99.9% of visitors fully occupied. It's only members of the Angkor Wat brotherhood society that make it out to the remoter parts, but that suits me just fine. So what did I find on my travels? The south gopura is actually seen by nearly everyone who comes to Angkor. As you turn right or left at the end of the long road that brings you from town to the moat of Angkor Wat, the south gopura is the building you see amongst the trees directly opposite the end of the road. It's just that you never bother to visit it. If you do, you'll find 25 devatas, mostly in pairs, some pediment carvings in good condition and a large Buddha statue inside the main chamber, usually with a couple of older ladies giving offerings. The statue is a Neak Ta called Ta Pech and is badly eroded and partly-covered by a huge termite mound. I'm told that it's known for it's malevolence and that if an aircraft flies over Angkor, it must make three turns around Ta Pech or else it may crash into the moat. Ta Pech can also divulge winning lottery numbers if you provide it with wine and cigarettes. I don't believe it but the locals do. The gopura is a nice and secluded spot for a picnic or just a brief respite from the tourist hordes that are trampling all over the main temple about four hundred metres away. But don't forget to bring some goodies to keep Ta Pech on your side.
Two devatas with effervescent hairstyles on the wall of the south gopura
The northern face of the south gopura, as you approach it from the main temple
Two uncrowned devatas front-on though their feet are turned sidewards
This is the legend of Ta Pech, a malevolent Neak Ta according to my sources. It looked like a big termite mound draped in an orange robe to me.
Worshippers on a pediment fragment that probably housed Vishu makes his giant strides
Half pediment battle scene at the south gopura, southern face
A lively battle scene on a half pediment on the southern face
Two beautifully crowned devatas on the wall of the south gopura
An angled look out of the southern gopura and onto the large moat


In transit

Two of the 40 heavenly devata on the walls of the east gopura of Angkor Wat
After my first-ever visit to the north gopura of the 4th enclosure, I headed to the opposite side of the sprawling Angkor Wat temple complex to visit the south gopura, also for the first-time, stopping briefly at the east gopura along the way. I literally jumped off the moto to snap a few pictures and will spend more time at this entranceway on my next visit to the temple. In the meantime, here's a few pictures of some of the delights awaiting you at the east gopura, often used as the back door to waiting transport for the hordes that file through the main temple each day. The forty devata at this gate are some of the best at Angkor Wat, rivalling the women on display around the central tower sanctuary at the very top of the temple. They are all crowned and their jewelry is abundant which would imply that this gate was used by powerful people and for important ceremonies in its heyday. To get a much better understanding of the important role played by the women on the walls of Angkor Wat, you must read Kent Davis' website - absolutely fascinating stuff. My south gopura photos will follow later today.
This pediment at the east gateway shows Yama on his buffalo and two rows of worshippers
Two more of the devata at the east gopura of Angkor Wat
The mysterious devata of the east gopura, crowned and in pairs
Heavily decorated devata of the east gopura, with eyes and mouth open
A broken pediment on the ground shows a line of worshippers in prayer, probably from the lower register of the pediment


The day of reckoning beckons

Survivor Vann Nath is seeking justice for himself and Cambodia
After a long dry spell, it rained for the opening day of yesterday's landmark Day 1 of the trial of Comrade Duch, some thirty years after the Khmer Rouge were kicked out of Phnom Penh. Duch was the chief of the Tuol Sleng prison where at least 12,380 people were tortured and murdered and he is the first of five former Khmer Rouge leaders to face the music, at long last. The trial is expected to take up to three months with 35 witnesses ready to give evidence on behalf of the prosecution. The photographs posted below are a handful of victims amongst the thousands that died under Comrade Duch's control who cannot give evidence at the trial. It is in their name and the name of millions of others who died or suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge that justice, however long it takes, must be served.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Unseen Angkor Wat

The secluded northern gopura of the 4th enclosure of Angkor Wat
The best of the northern gopura pediments, this one shows Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana with followers and animals in attendance, on the western facade
Thousands of visitors pass through the western gopura, or outer entrance of Angkor Wat each and every day, oblivious to the fact there are three other gopuras, though some see the eastern gopura if they leave by the back door to board their coach. Those two entrances have access across the moat, the north and south gopuras do not and therefore are seen by just a handful of the most devout Angkor Wat brotherhood. I'm ashamed to say that I've been visiting Angkor Wat for fifteen years and I paid my first visit to the north and south gopuras just two weeks ago! Please forgive me fellow members of the AW brotherhood. Hold on, there isn't really a secret brotherhood society, I made that bit up, but you know what I mean. Up until my recent visit I'd always figured these two gopuras were simply too far away to walk, obscured by trees and out of eyeshot, but accompanied by my friend Now, who sells souvenirs in the grounds of the temple, we took her moto to finally complete my visit to all four gopuras of the 4th enclosure fifteen years after it all began.

And I'm glad I finally made the effort. I was rewarded with some new aspects of Angkor Wat that I'd never seen before, some gems that had lain hidden by my past lazyness and two secluded spots where I'm sure I could've stayed all day and not seen another soul, despite the footsteps of thousands just a few hundred metres away. My first stop was at the north gopura, much less complete and decorated than its more-celebrated western cousin, which welcomes all of the temple's visitors each day after they cross the wide moat. It's not stunning to look at and the inside is devoid of decoration but it houses a few carvings of note, though the most suprising omission is that there are no devatas to be seen, anywhere. Angkor Wat is renowned for its regal display of these stunning beauties which decorate its walls and chambers, but there are none at the north gateway. It appears that this gopura was the least important of the four but why? Just one of many mysteries that Angkor Wat throws up. The carvings are on full and half pediments above the doorways and ends of the side galleries and reassembled versions on the ground that leads to the moat. They are mostly incomplete but some narratives are identifiable. My visit lasted no more than fifteen minutes but it was one that I was glad I'd made after all this time.
The portico and entrance chamber to the northern gopura
Facing the sun so the pediment isn't clear but it represents Krishna defeating two asuras on the eastern facade with followers below
A four-armed Vishnu in a fight with an asura on a half pediment above the soutern doorway
There's no devata so how about my beautiful srei motodop, Now, who works at Angkor Wat every day of the year
Two pediments reassembled on the ground just in front of the moat
This pediment shows Vishnu, without body on the shoulders of Garuda
The head of Vishnu and two flying Apsaras
Up close and personal with a flying Apsara
Detail of a naga head from one of the reassembled pediments at the northern gopura


The weave of history

Silk thread waiting to be woven at Wat Pradak weaving co-operative
A bicycle wheel comes in handy to load the silk thread onto the spools
On a recent trip to Siem Reap, I took a ride out to Pradak village, sometimes called Preah Dak, now a flourishing community with lots of houses selling rattan souvenirs and palm sugar, but a decade ago, a very poor village which you missed in the blink of an eye on the road to Banteay Srei. It's noticeable as you pass by each house, how many of them have a well and water-pump donated by a well-wisher from the States or England nowadays. I headed for Wat Pradak where the local weaving co-operative have set up a weaving center in the grounds of the pagoda and provide high quality silk kramas, sampots and accessories to the Artisans d'Angkor retail outlets in Siem Reap. They were more than happy to let me wander around taking photos and asking questions but they had nothing for sale on the premises as all of their output goes to their retail partners. The girls at the weaving looms were a happy bunch and smiles and a few pros sa-aat's later and I was on my way. Next stop was a relic of the Angkorean period, 9th century to be precise, when much of the village would've been underwater as part of the now-dry East Baray and Krol Romeas was a type of sluice gate that was used to regulate the flow of water in and out of the baray, and into the Roluos River. Today its just a series of laterite walls and foundations where the locals grow herbs and vegetables, though it was obvious some survey and excavation work had recently taken place to determine its correct use. It's also fancifully called a rhinoceros pit and measures 40 by 100 metres. This is where I heard a trio of kick-boxers practicing their art in a clump of trees nearby.
More of the same as an old bicycle is put to good use
Weaving a sampot with the tools of the trade on her bench, including her prize possession, her mobile phone
I counted at least sixteen weaving looms in the co-operative's building in the grounds of Wat Pradak
Time for a laugh and a joke at my expense
Weaving continues apace despite interuptions from me
This is sleepy Wat Pradak with the usual wall paintings inside
An excavation trench by the team from the Greater Angkor Project at Krol Romeas
A wall and steps leading down into the Angkorean sluice gate known as Krol Romeas

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Forever until now

Leang Seckon's Prison Guard depicts Comrade Duch, who's trial began today
Hong Kong is the new location for an exhibition called Forever Until Now of Cambodian art reports CNN's Miranda Leitsinger.

Cambodian art: Past to present

  • Fourteen artists, ranging in age and practice, displaying their works
  • One work depicts Duch, a former Khmer Rouge leader facing genocide tribunal
  • Cambodia's arts were stunted by the 1970s genocide and civil war
  • Some 50 artists now practicing their craft in the Southeast Asian country

Bamboo, woven into the shape of human stomachs. Red, sky blue and orange pencil shavings glued onto a large canvas form a woman's traditional hair clip. A collage of magazine clippings, drawings and found materials depict Cambodia's tumultuous modern history. These are a few of the offerings on hand in Hong Kong at one of the first large international exhibitions of artists from Cambodia. The work by 14 artists varies in practice - video, photography, collage, wood shavings, paper, bamboo and painting - as well as in themes, from reflecting on the Southeast Asian nation's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime to the emerging modern Cambodia, with traffic lights and all. "Every artist in this show is referencing ancient tradition and recent history," said Phnom Penh-based curator Erin Gleeson, noting the wall-size depiction in folded paper of the serpent Naga (which in Cambodian culture represents the people's mythical birth) to a collage of 20th-century Cambodia and its six different regime changes. "The show is looking at the present - 'Forever Until Now' is the title - and it is this lineage of the past, you see that in the show, and then you see artists that arrive at the present," she added.

The show opens Friday and runs through March 22 at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. Gallery owner and director Katie de Tilly said she believed it was important the artists get international exposure. " ... it's really at the beginning of their art emergence. Obviously, they've had a very hard history," she said. "This is really the beginning of contemporary Cambodians who are expressing very original ideas in their artworks and I think that that's what makes it very unique and to show to the rest of the world." Cambodia, which lost an estimated one-quarter of its population or at least 1.7 million people - including an estimated 90 percent of its artists - under the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, has a small but growing artistic community: there are some 50 practicing artists out of its 14 million people, Gleeson said.

The genocide and ensuing war, which only ended in the last decade or so, stifled the development of the arts in one of the world's poorest countries. "The legacy of that is now in every facet of a developing society," said Gleeson, who noted the country had no art books when she arrived in 2002 on a fellowship to teach art history. "There's an absence of infrastructure for them, there's an absence of materials, there is no art store. ... they are quite inventive about mixing materials to make them of a higher quality or last longer, but in many cases they don't know archival techniques." The harsh weather conditions - a dusty, hot season and a rainy monsoon - add to the trying work conditions. "Everything's against them," she added. "Their parents in many cases are coming from a really disadvantaged background, as the majority of the country is economically."

Some of the art included in the show looks at the Cambodia of today, such as Leang Seckon's "Three Greens" - an acrylic painting showing children in school uniform crossing a road with a yellow light, red light and three green lights, along with cows and roosters. The piece shows the changes in a country that recently got stop lights, with animals, people and traffic mingling on the main roads of the capital. Sopheap Pich, a Cambodian-American whose family migrated to the U.S. in 1984, works with bamboo and rattan - materials often used in Cambodian traditional farming and crafts - to make sculptures. His work, "Cycle 2," is the joining of the stomachs of an infant and an elderly person that for him brought up ideas of Cambodian traditional village life. "You belong to each other, you help each other out," he said. "But also, if you look at the lines and you see how it's shaped by hand, it's not very perfect, so it's also about struggle...

"You could say it's a cycle of trying to hold onto each other, now we are living everywhere in the world, Cambodians are all over the planet," he added. "All this technique and pattern that I am quite obsessed with ... it's about this idea of trying to hold on with very simple means." Chan Dany, a 25-year-old artist who graduated from one of the country's three art schools, creates textured patterns that appear almost like tapestry using pencil shavings in various colors. The works on display in the show are from a series based on Cambodian architectural decor, such as door and window shutter carvings, and include ancient Khmer forms whose shapes are derived from nature. "When I started learning art, the teacher introduced a lot of new ways of making art, new ideas that were very difficult for me, so I had to think a lot," he said through a translator. "So then I looked around at what my classmates were doing and I started to think about what they weren't using for their work, so I started to collect the things that they didn't use when they were making art and started to think about my way of making art using those materials. I like the first piece I did (using the pencil shaving technique) because I had never done it this way before and since then I kept on making it," he said.

The younger artists "seem to be expressing something more fresh," while the work by artists from the older generation is "much more heavy," de Tilly said. Some of the works of the Khmer Rouge period include a painting by Vann Nath, one of seven people to survive the regime's infamous S-21 torture prison. His painting, "Pray for Peace," depicts women wearing traditional Cambodian funeral scarves praying en masse under troubled skies by stormy seas. Another work, Leang's "Prison Guard," tells the life of Duch, a former teacher who ran S-21 and goes on trial Tuesday before a U.N.-backed tribunal on charges that include crimes against humanity.

The art scene has been growing slowly in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh over the last few years: Sopheap started a group to promote contemporary Cambodian art practices and two art institutes offer programs apart from the Royal University of Fine Arts. One factor that has also made Cambodian contemporary artists different from their counterparts, for example in neighboring Vietnam, has been the lack of outside influence, such as was the case with Chinese contemporary art 30 years ago, de Tilly said. "Cambodia still is very much influenced by itself and so the development is happening on a slower pace but as well very interesting," she said. "They seem to not have as much international exposure to materials, magazines, publications, so you really do feel - it was the same just after the Cultural Revolution in China - that they didn't have exposure to many publications and things, and so their art was developing at that moment in time. ... it's very interesting to document it and see what's going to happen in the future," she said. Part of the exhibit will be shown at another of the gallery's venues in Hong Kong and will run through April 25.


Tep Pranam

This standing Buddha at Tep Pranam has been reconstructed with concrete and its original sandstone pieces - its head is not original and its posture is one of giving instruction and teaching
Another of the smaller temple sites that I visited on my bike ride around Angkor Thom a few weeks ago was Tep Pranam. It's easy to miss as there's no sanctuary or obvious structure, instead its a raised terrace that leads onto two large Buddhist statues, where locals come to worship and pay their respects. Dates for this former monastery differ, some as early as the 9th century some as late as the 16th, but what we see today is both the large seated Buddha, and the standing Buddha behind, have been reassembled from broken pieces. There are some excellent sandstone lions at the start of the terrace alongwith some broken nagas and tucked behind the seated Buddha are some assorted pieces of sculpture. Tep Pranam and Preah Palilay are very close together and see few visitors, so its a secluded and quiet spot away from the crowds.
A massive reassembled seated Buddha calling the Earth to witness and to attain enlightenment at Tep Pranam
A close-up of Buddha's hand where concrete has been added to the original sandstone to make the hand whole again
Perhaps one of my favourite lion statues in all of Angkor, I love the expression on the face, fierce and questioning at the same time
A broken slab of sandstone with a carving of a seated Buddha, tucked behind the larger statue

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Saved from destruction

The east gopura of Preah Palilay bathed in sunshine
Above a worn lintel, this western-facing pediment shows Buddha sat on a plinth under a tree with two acolytes holding parasols
Angkor scholars have disagreed on the date of construction of the temple of Preah Palilay. Henri Marchal assigned it to the 12th century but without a stele or epigraphic reference, other experts have put a late 13th, early 14th century date on it, mainly because the Buddhist images have not be defaced, as they have been elsewhere. This usually took place in the early 13th century iconoclastic reaction against images of Buddha relating to Jayavarman VII, though the more remote temples like Banteay Chhmar escaped this destruction. So the pediments and lintels of Preah Palilay, particularly on the eastern gopura, have not been altered though in my view, they are not as good as some experts rate them. But hey, what do I know. I have commented on the carvings under each of the photos, and as always thank Vittorio Roveda for his help in understanding the main themes that we see today. Without him we'd be pissing in the wind. Can I say that? I just have.
This three tier pediment shows Buddha at the top, two ladies offering their children just below and at the bottom, three elephants passing through the forest. This pediment is on the western face over the main door.
Though difficult to make out, this pediment on the northern side shows Buddha subduing the mad elephant Nalagiri, by placing is hand on the kneeling elephant's head
This double pediment, on the southern face of the gopura, shows Buddha in meditation under the boddhi tree, with rows of worshippers in the lower register
On the south side, Buddha on a plinth, in meditation with 10 worshippers below him
Up close - the meditating Buddha under the boddhi tree with acolytes in attendance
In the lintel below the pediment, Buddha is dying and lying on his left side. In the upper pediment, a standing Buddha is surrounded by acolytes and two rows of worshippers below. These are on the eastern face of the gopura, above the main door.
A closer look at the standing Buddha, on a plinth, and his worshippers
Finally, above a very worn lintel, the pediment shows Buddha receiving offerings from the animals of the Parilyyaka forest (from where Palilay derives) including an elephant, monkey and peacock. To be found on the east-facing side of the Preah Palilay gopura.

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Forest by name and nature

The tall central sanctuary tower of Preah Palilay, no longer in competition with the trees
A time-weathered lintel showing Varuna on three small hamsas over a central kala
Continuing my recent Angkor adventures: After the solitude of Preah Pithu, I crossed the Royal Square and headed into the farthest reaches of the city of Angkor Thom by paying a visit to Preah Palilay, which was named after a forest. On my last visit the central sanctuary was festooned with tall trees standing higher than the sixty-two foot high tower, but to my surprise the trees had been cut down leaving their stumps looking like giant hands and the site under a blanket of wood chippings. The tree-pruning had certainly robbed the temple of its secluded atmosphere and I was further disappointed when a young monk offered to pose for photos for a small fee. I asked him to leave me in peace - which was a weird role reversal - as I climbed the tall terrace to scramble inside the main sanctuary, noting a couple of lintels still in situ. The sandstone entrance gopura to the east on the other hand was in good nick with a feast of carvings, which because they were not defaced in the early 13th century have prompted scholars to suggest the date of construction was later that century and early next. The pediments and lintels of the gopura are Buddhist by their themes and numerous in number. Further east is a long causeway with lions and nagas as well as a large modern Buddha, that lead onto another terraced site, Tep Pranam.
A cracked lintel of Indra on three-headed Airavata over a grinning kala in the central sanctuary
The remaining tree stumps look like giant hands walking through the picture!
This is a pediment fragment of Buddha in meditation
The reassembled modern Buddha on the terrace in front of Preah Palilay
The hand of Buddha, palm pointing to the ground and facing inward denotes the attitude of Calling The Earth to Witness
One of the wide-mouthed lions on the Preah Palilay terraceA naga balustade in good condition covered in lichen

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The Dutch come a cropper

A new monograph from Silkworm Books throws light on a fascinating story of conflict between Cambodia and the Dutch East India Company in the 1630s, part of the little known period between the fall of Angkor in the mid-fifteenth century and the arrival of the French in the late nineteenth century. In Murder and Mayhem in Seventeenth-Century Cambodia: Anthony van Diemen vs. King Ramadhipati I, the author Alfons van der Kraan has based his story on unpublished Dutch archival sources, and examines the relationship between Cambodian king Ramadhipati I and the Dutch Governor-General at Jakarta, Anthony van Diemen, which eventually led to the slaughter of an expeditionary force at Oudong and the massacre of the Dutch trading post in 1644. Van Diemen died a year later and relations were patched up for the sake of trade but not before the Dutch abandoned all ideas of making Cambodia a Dutch colony.

No more silence

A run through of the new play for Culture Ministry officials held this week
Breaking the Silence is the latest offering from Amrita Performing Arts here in Phnom Penh and will be performed on Saturday and Sunday, 21 and 22 February at the Exhibition Hall, opposite the new Parliament Building on Sisowath Quay. This new work incorporates theater, poetry, music and dance based on memories recounted during interviews conducted with a wide range of Cambodians who lived during the Khmer Rouge regime. Veteran Dutch director Annemarie Prins, who staged the successful 3 Years, 8 Months and 20 Days play, will return to stage the play which will then tour the Cambodian provinces, reaching out to those of whom the work is about. The performance will feature the same three actresses Kauv Sotheary, Morm Sokly and Chhon Sina from the 3 Years play as well as a musician, singer, dancer and three young Cambodian visual artists who will create the scenic elements. It will be in Khmer with English subtitles.
The Amrita Performing Arts nonprofit organization was formed in July 2003 as part of the revival and preservation of Cambodian traditional performing arts. Based in Phnom Penh, they have continued to develop their repertoire whilst expanding it to include contemporary expression in dance, theater and music. Many of the artists involved with Amrita's projects come from the University of Fine Arts - both students and teachers and the three actresses who will take part in the play are all at the University. To read more about the activities of Amrita, click on: APA. To read a blog about the play, not all in English, click here.

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Sunset on Cambodia

The setting sun from the top of Phnom Bakheng, where the crowds make it a forgettable experience nowadays
No, don't worry I'm not leaving Cambodia... these are just some pictures taken on my recent trip to Siem Reap and a view of the end of the day at two very different locations, both looking out over the expanse of fields and water, so prevalent in this beautiful country. Above is the view, over the tree-tops, from Phnom Bakheng, looking out to the western baray on the far right. It was hard to take a photo without a horde of tourist heads in the shot, but I managed it. The top of the mountain is a magnet for sunset snappers and there were literally thousands of people taking up every available inch, and making a din that completely spoiled the moment. It may be the highest spot in the Angkor Park to take your sunset pictures, and it used to be the best, but it's become a victim of its own success. Avoid it at all costs unless you simply can't stay away.
On the other hand, the two pictures below were taken on another hill, south of Siem Reap at Phnom Krom. This was a totally different experience altogether. The views were just as good, actually they are better (in the rainy season they must be fantastic with the fields flooded with water) and I was practically alone. A couple of other tourists had the same idea as me, but they arrived, snapped and left me in silence as I watched the sun slip below the horizon. You need a temple-ticket for Phnom Krom and its a fair hike up the mountain but the weathered temple looks good in the late afternoon sun and the views across the fields and the northeast corner of the Tonle Sap lake are simply gorgeous. Go now before the hordes realize what they're missing.
A beautiful setting sun from Phnom Krom, minus the hordes
A patchwork of green fields and water await you from the top of Phnom Krom

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From clay to pot

Srey Pich is preparing her ball of clay before sitting at her potters wheel. Behind her on the left is a pot she made earlier.
Okay, she's now ready to begin, in a workspace underneath her wooden house
During a visit to the pottery-making village of Ondoung Rossey yesterday in Kompong Chhnang, I watched the making of a small, simple pot from start to finish with a timeframe of about 15 minutes. Srey Pich is the only potter in her family and most of the items she makes are sold in the ceramic development co-operative shop just along the lane. However she also has a few items for sale in the space under her house, where she spends her day at her potters wheel, watched by her children, grandmother and chickens. To begin, she plonked a ball of clay in the center of a turntable, which she rotated with a foot pedal. As the wheel span quickly, she pressed and squeezed the clay, gently pulling upwards and outwards into a hollow pot by a series of techniques known as centering, opening, flooring, throwing (not literally) and trimming. After she'd finished on the wheel, she left the pot in the sun to dry. I didn't see a kiln to fire the pot so maybe sun-drying is sufficient, though I doubt it. Perhaps someone can tell me.
First step is to center or shape the clay into the correct style
Now she is opening the pot by making a hole in the center of the clay
Time for a quick joke whilst the opening continues
Combining the skill of opening and throwing, or forming the pot walls
Srey Pich concentrates whilst she throws or pulls the walls of the pot into shape
The pot takes shape as she pulls the walls to an even thickness with her skilled hands
Srey Pich is almost finished, with just some trimming to make her pot complete
There's a variety of pots, some with patterns, for sale underneath Srey Pich's home
Part of the ceramic co-operative showroom in Ondoung Rossey village, with a variety of pottery on display

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Airborne moto

The Edge X microlite in all its glory
Thanks for all the feedback on my photos from my incredible flying experience last week with Eddie and his microlite. Amongst the emails was a request for a couple of close-up photos of the two-seater microlite (or ultralight or trike as it's also known). Built in Australia, the Airborne Edge X trike is so adaptable that it's been used across the globe for tracking migratory birds, elephant conservation in Africa and of course, archaeology studies in Cambodia. I found the seats to be very comfortable with plenty of leg room and if you have the right camera equipment (I didn't) then the trike is simply fantastic for ariel photography. It's made of aluminum and weighs under 200kg. If I recall correctly, Eddie can fly for at least a couple of hours before refuelling, at heights of over 1,000 feet and at a steady 40 miles per hour. A wind-free day is the perfect time to fly. We had a little bit of wind during our flight but in Eddie's secure hands I hardly noticed. And if you want to buy your own 'flying moto', you are looking at around $25,000 per trike.
The microlite up close and personal
The propeller was just behind my passenger seat, which was behind Eddie's pilot seat
The man himself, Mr Eddie Smith, pilot supreme
A look at the control panel during the flight, with its dials for altimeter, speed, temperature and tachometer, and room for Eddie's feet!
This was the take-off and landing runway, not exactly Heathrow, but the trike is tough and can handle rough terrain


Mummified monk

The Most Venerable Sam Bunthoeun in his mummified state at Oudong
I've introduced you to the life-like waxwork models of some of Cambodia's leading clergy in the past. A group of sixteen statues of the most eminent and revered Buddhist monks can be found at the hilltop temple and pagoda of Wat Han Chey, near Kompong Cham. To add to the collection, yesterday I visited more of the same as well as the mummified body of another leading Buddhist monk at Oudong. The Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Center is a large, sprawling complex at the foot of the Oudong mountain where the youthful advocate of human rights Sam Bunthoeun was appointed president and chief abbot in 1996. Seven years later in February 2003, aged just 47, he was gunned down by two unknown assailants at Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh, after he encouraged monks to register and vote in the National Assembly elections at that time. No-one has ever been arrested and the investigation remains open. Today his body lies in a large glass case and has become a popular pilgrimage for his followers, and anyone wishing to view a mummified body at close range. It's impossible to get so close to the body of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, so this will satisfy those with a similar curiosity. There was a group of small children with me when I visited and they didn't seem fazed at all by this rather gruesome looking body in front of us. In the corner a very life-like wax model is a bit surplus to requirements when you have the real thing next to it, and a group of real monks were stationed closeby to deliver good fortune on the steady stream of visitors. All a bit bizarre but that's Cambodia for you.
A very life-like waxwork model of a seated Sam Bunthoeun
In the background of their former abbot, these four monks enjoy a light-hearted moment
The glass-fronted casket containing the mummified body of the chief abbot
The monks bless the assembled throng with flower petals

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Child survivors

The screen capture is poor but so is the quality of my Year Zero dvd, but these are the 4 male survivors with the children in early 1979. Vann Nath is the tallest of the men.
I am a little bit confused, though it doesn't take much to befuddle me sometimes! It's concerning the recent flurry of press talk about the child survivors of Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, once the Khmer Rouge took flight as the Vietnamese army rolled into Phnom Penh at the beginning of 1979. It's been suggested that the fact that children were amongst the survivors of the horrific Tuol Sleng prison was only really identified when the Vietnamese recently donated archival footage a couple of months ago, of the first few days after Tuol Sleng had been liberated. Bullshit. Even I knew there were child survivors of Tuol Sleng way back in 1979, as footage of them appeared on John Pilger's documentary Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, when it was aired in October of that year. Four male survivors including Vann Nath and Ung Pech are shown with four tiny boys, as Pilger relates that just eight people survived from the thousands killed at the prison. Two of the boys, brothers Norng Chanphal and Chanly, have now been identified and have stepped forward to offer themselves as witnesses for the forthcoming trial of the S-21 chief Duch. In addition, Vietnamese photographer Ho Van Tay is helping in the hunt for the children, as he was one of the very first people to enter Tuol Sleng after the Khmer Rouge evaporated, and kept in touch with some of the children during the 1980s. It's his pictures that hang on the walls of the individual cells of Block A. So my question is, had no-one thought to seek out these children before now, and it sounds like the answer to that question is a resounding no.
Another poor quality screen capture but it shows the 4 men and the 4 young children, quoted as S-21 survivors by John Pilger in 1979

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Up, up and away

Some good news to report for Cambodia on the international football scene. FIFA's current rankings have just been released and Cambodia are now in 179th position, an improvement by a few rungs on the ladder from most of last year, though to be sandwiched between Somalia and Palestine isn't much to shout about! Their best-ever ranking was way back in July 1998 when they were rated at 156th, their worst being 188th at the end of 2005. The next games at national level will be in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying group stage with matches in Bangladesh, against the home nation, Myanmar and the winners of Macau or Mongolia, who will play a pre-qualifying decider beforehand.
As I mentioned a while back, the Football Federation of Cambodia are now casting their net far and wide for fresh faces for the national team. The hierachy were in France recently to watch a match involving 35 French players, all keen to play for Cambodia, and cobbled together for the event by former Cambodian player Pen Phat, who lives in France. It's just a pity they didn't ask national team coach Prak Sovannara to see the talent on show too. Next stop in the overseas window-shopping spree will apparently be America. Here's what the FFC supremo Lt General Sao Sokha had to say when asked about the national team; "Our national team is not very strong right now but we hope to make gradual progress and improve our performances. What we would like to do first of all is to strengthen the domestic league and cup competitions through the clubs. Our development plans have yet to bear fruit so we have started looking for Cambodian players overseas who can help make the national team stronger." He seems to have convenienly forgotten that the average age of the national team is currently 22 years of age, many members of the squad have progressed through the youth system and they reached the AFF Suzuki Cup finals for the first time in eight years recently.


Who are they?

Khmer Rouge victim remains at a memorial at Wat Troap Kor in Bati district
For the last few months, there has been lots of press talk about the possibility of at least another half dozen former Khmer Rouge leaders being charged under the current Khmer Rouge Tribunal process. There are five in custody today, four of them being part of the main central committee that made the 'big picture' decisions (Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Thirith), the other is Duch, chief of the S-21 prison. But no-one has mentioned any names for these new half dozen suspects. I'm sure everyone at the court knows who they are and so do the press, but no-one is saying. You can guess why. And I'm sure that the former Khmer Rouge cadre still living in Pailin and Anlong Veng know whether they are likely suspects too. News that one of the inner circle, former KR Commerce Minister Van Rith, died in November in Kandal brings to light the need to get on with the main trial, and any additional trials, as quickly as feasible before ageing suspects and witnesses die. The question remains, who are these additional six suspects that International Prosecutor Robert Petit has submitted to the court? Well, two of them could be Sou Met and Meah Mut, the commanders of the air force and navy during the Khmer Rouge regime, both of whom were named by Stephen Heder in his book Seven Candidates for Prosecution. Others who remain alive and were part of the inner circle include ministers Thiounn Mumm and Keat Chhon (he's still a minister today); and Thiounn Prasith, who was the KR ambassador to the UN. However, less-senior cadre like Duch, and other prison chiefs and interrogators whose hands are covered in blood could also feature among the half dozen and those names are much harder to track down. It's still not clear whether more suspects will be taken into custody, but my view is that they should, and they must be included in the current trial that is unfolding. Too many have got away with too much for too long, it is time they were identified in public and brought to justice.


Trials underway

One of the Tuol Sleng victims where Duch presided over thousands of deaths
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is hotting up this coming week with the initial trial hearing for Duch, the former head of Tuol Sleng Prison, aka S-21, the first of the trials of the former Khmer Rouge leaders to come to fruition. He's been incarcerated for nearly a decade already but it'll be another month or so before his trial proper gets underway. It was way back in 1999 that Duch revealed himself as the former S-21 chief, he'd been living under the assumed name of Ta Pin, and he was subsequently arrested. Now is the time of reckoning for Duch. He has admitted his role in the Khmer Rouge regime and his case is perhaps the most open and shut of the five that are in custody awaiting trial. We shall see. This article appeared in today's Times Online. There will be many such articles over the coming days and weeks, which I won't re-print here, or else my blog will collapse under the weight of them. Suffice to say I will post anything that I think adds new insight into the trials.

Masters of Cambodia's killing fields face justice at last - by Anne Barrowclough

Him Huy, a seasoned executioner at Tuol Sleng, studied the list of names of people he would kill that night. When the silent, terrified prisoners had been lifted on to his lorry he drove them out to the pretty orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. There, he took them one by one to the ditches that had been freshly dug, forced them to kneel and clubbed them to death with an iron bar. “Sometimes it took just one blow, sometimes two,” he told The Times. “After I clubbed them someone else would slit their throats. But every time I clubbed someone to death I would think, tomorrow, this might be me kneeling here, with one of the other guards killing me.”

In the orgy of cruelty unleashed on Cambodia during the insane years of Pol Pot's rule, Tuol Sleng, formerly a high school, was to become a symbol of the apocalyptic state the Khmer Rouge created. Enveloped in secrecy and identified only by the code name S-21, it existed solely to interrogate and kill the men and women incarcerated behind its walls, the vast majority of whom would never leave it alive. From 1976, until Vietnamese troops took over Phnom Penh in January 1979, as many as 17,000 men, women and children were taken to S-21 to be interrogated for counter-revolutionary crimes, and then killed. Only 14 are known to have survived, although recent evidence suggests that five child prisoners may have escaped and still be alive today. Thousands of innocents died here - but so too did members of Pol Pot's own circle, Khmer Rouge soldiers and the prison's own guards. “Out of my interrogation unit of 12, only I survived,” said Prak Khan, a soldier who became a torturer at the prison. The man who presided over the atrocities of Tuol Sleng with fanatical devotion was Kang Kek Ieu, also known as Comrade Duch, who was posted to S-21 in 1976. He goes to trial this week, accused of crimes against humanity.

Today Cambodia is, on the surface, a peaceful country with a thriving tourist industry. Casual conversations with Cambodians reveal nothing of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years. But behind the superficial serenity, the people are still traumatised by their memories. In interviews with The Times, the prison survivors, guards and even those who carried out the worst atrocities described Duch as a man of almost sub-human cruelty, who instilled terror into prisoners and guards. Bou Meng, an artist who was taken to S-21 in 1977, remembers how Duch would visit the room where he and dozens of other prisoners were shackled to the floor. “He ordered me to beat the man beside me with a bamboo cane while he watched,” he said. “Then Duch ordered the man to beat me. You could see the pleasure in his face.” Duch was a frequent visitor to the torture rooms, where he drove the interrogation units to ever-harsher techniques as they worked through the day and night in four-hour shifts. “The sound of screaming was all around us all the time,” said Vann Nath, a former prisoner and now a renowned artist.

Duch brought the orderly mind of a dedicated teacher to S-21. He kept a meticulous record of the prison's workings and read every confession. Often, he would send them back with corrections marked in red pen, as if they were the test papers of a reluctant student. “Sometimes the confessions came back saying, ‘must get more from the prisoner',” said Prak Khan. The prisoners were deemed guilty simply because they had been accused - and it was the interrogators' duty to force them to admit that guilt. Many admitted to crimes they did not even understand. “I had not even heard of the CIA,” said Bou Meng. “But they beat me with bamboo rods and electric cables until I confessed that I worked for the CIA and the KGB.”

“We kept torturing them until they confessed,” said Prak Khan. “If they didn't, the torture got worse. We pulled out their finger and toenails and gave them electric shocks. Sometimes we would tie a bag over their head so they suffocated. We'd take it off just as they were about to fall unconscious. If they still didn't confess, they'd be killed.” Some inmates were sent to a clinic to “donate” blood to the army hospitals. Prak Khan, whose interrogation room was adjacent to the doctors' clinic, said: “They would bring the prisoners blindfolded and tie them to the beds with their legs and arms spread out. They attached lines to their arms. The tubes led to a bottle on the floor. They pumped all the blood out until the bodies were limp. Then they threw the bodies into pits outside.”

The routine was always the same for the prisoners taken to S-21. Told they were being taken from their homes to work as teachers, doctors or mechanics, they were handcuffed on arrival, photographed and forced into cells, often 60 at a time, where they were shackled by the ankle. They were banned from speaking to guards or each other. At night they were not allowed even to turn over without permission. “If the guards heard our shackles they would beat us,” said Chum Mey, a mechanic. He spent his first two weeks being tortured day and night. “They pulled out my fingernails and toenails. Then they put electric wires in my ears. I heard the generator and then I felt the fire coming out of my eyes. After 12 days and 12 nights I signed their confession and they took me to a big room with other prisoners. Every night we waited to hear the trucks come. If midnight arrived and they hadn't come we knew we would live another 24 hours.”

The guards lived through their own hell. Him Huy, known to the prisoners as “Cruel Him”, said: “One day I would be guarding prisoners with another soldier and that afternoon the other soldier would be arrested. You always expected to be arrested.” Prak Khan often recognised old friends among the people taken into S-21. “When I heard the names of people I knew, I pretended I didn't know them,” he said. “If I showed I recognised them I would be killed too.” After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, Duch disappeared into the jungle. In 1996 he met a group of American missionaries and converted to Christianity. A journalist discovered him working as a medical orderly in 1999 and he was arrested, at last, by the Cambodian police. On Tuesday Bou Meng, Chum Mey and the S-21 guards will be among the scores of Cambodians who will crowd into a courtroom to see their tormentor brought to trial. Duch has since apologised to the survivors of S-21 but it is not enough. “He asked my forgiveness,” said Bou Meng. “I could not give it to him.”

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Closing the page on Preah Pithu

Though indistinct, this is Vishnu on Garuda fighting Bana - I think - at Temple Y
In finally closing the chapter on my recent visit to the secluded Preah Pithu group of temples in Angkor Thom, there were two more to visit, Temples V and Y, with the first having little carving to speak of, whilst the latter was very different in style to the others but with some indistinct carving still in situ. On the ground, around all of the five shrines were pieces of sculpture that were worth inspecting, so if you do have a poke around Preah Pithu don't forget to inspect the many fallen stones, which you can easily overlook if you concentrate on just the shrines themselves. It's an easy mistake to make, especially if you have a restricted time-frame. Preah Pithu is worth a visit, for a slice of peace and quiet in an otherwise busy Angkor Thom area around the Bayon, it has some interesting carvings on show, especially the friezes of Buddhas in Temple X. It's also nice to have a temple to explore all on your own. Try it and see for yourself.
This is definitely Vishnu taking three strides across the world, with an orderly court scene below, in an unusual half pediment at Temple Y (#485)
The pale green lichen and time has weathered this pediment so I can't identify its message (at Temple Y). I feel like a failure.
The trees provide a background for Temple X, and a good example of the stone blocks strewn over the ground
The sun is shining on Temple V, pictured from the southwest corner
An almost perfect Naga head on the ground near Temple X
I can't be sure but this looks like a carving of my favourite minor god, Vishvakarma, usually seen on lintels, sat above a grinning kala. This is the guy who created the universe, so why they call him a minor god I'm not so sure. He's up there with the best of them in my book.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Temple X revealed

Temple X and its 40 Buddhas
A week ago I promised more photos from Temple X (aka Monument 483), the temple within the Preah Pithu group of Angkor Thom which is bedecked with Buddhist iconography whilst the other four shrines at the site are decorated in more traditional Hindu-inspired motifs and reliefs. The inner walls of Temple X house a very unique series of seated Buddha carvings, forty of them in total, which renowned scholar Claude Jacques suggests that the temple was built, or certainly partially decorated in the 14th century. All of the Buddhas are posed in the same seated stance and are shown in the attitude of Calling The Earth to Witness, relating to the moment of enlightenment of Buddha. The legs are crossed, the left hand is in the lap of Buddha and the right hand is pointing to the ground with the palm facing inward. It relates to how the Buddha meditated all night to overcome the fears and temptations sent by the demon Mara. Instead, the Buddha called the Earth Goddess to witness that the Buddha achieved enlightenment in order to share with the rest of the world. Witnessing that, the Earth Goddess wrang her hair, releasing flood waters that swept away the demon Mara and all the temptresses he had released. It was that easy.
Two rows of Buddhas line the inner sanctuary walls at Temple X
A corner niche of Buddhas with a small amount of vegetation
The bottom row of Buddhas are slightly larger than the top row
Some of the individual Buddha carvings are quite simple
At the left hand side of the rows of Buddhas are two kneeling worshippers
Parts of the inner wall of Temple X display differing colours of the sandstone, due to weathering over the centuries
The roof is open to the elements allowing the sun to highlight the carvings
The final set of 13 of the total of 40 Buddhas of Temple X
A weathered lintel inside one of the chambers shows a row of seated Buddha figures in various poses
In a side chamber of Temple X, a linga stands upright without its yoni

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Give them back!

A momentary flash of frustration crept in again today, as it does most days living in this country, when I heard the story of how unlikely it is that the government of Thailand will hand back 43 ancient Khmer sculptures, weighing more than eight tonnes, that were discovered and seized at a Thai port ten years ago. Since then talks at the highest level have failed to get any of the items returned, even though the Thais have recognised 18 of them as belonging to Cambodia - isn't that big of them. However, they are dragging their feet in returning any items and it looks like just 7, all decapitated heads of statues, will eventually come home. My frustration is borne out of Thailand's and other countries, especially France, that have obviously acquired Khmer antiques but refuse point blank to co-operate with the Cambodian authorities and return the artefacts to their rightful home. I also read in an interview with Michel Tranet in Wednesday's Phnom Penh Post about countries who've rented antiquities for exhibitions but have not bothered to send them back, whilst France had some items for restoration before the civil war and have kept hold of them. How crazy is that. In fact, Tranet, a former Secretary of State at the Culture Ministry in the 1990's, allegedly resigned because the government was more involved in abetting smugglers than stopping them. He is quite damning in the interview about his former paymasters, accusing them of corruption and complicity in trafficking antiques, even using an example of foreign diplomats using their immunity to sneak items out of the country to show how widespread the problem is. He's currently setting up a museum in his own house, to show off some 400+ items he's managed to preserve and retain in the country, finding many of them at places like the Russian Market.

However my frustration turned into a smile when I read the following headline on the same page as the Michel Tranet interview - Good Shag Kills Boyfriend - which related the story of a 39 year old man, with a history of high blood pressure, who passed away after twice having sex with his girlfriend. At least he died with a smile on his face.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Beautiful women

Two of Angkor Wat's devatas pictured earlier this week, bathed in the early morning sunshine
The Phnom Penh Post today caught up with my good friend Kent Davis and a part of his current work in examining the beautiful women of Angkor Wat. No, not the souvenir sellers that pester you to buy a t-shirt but the beautiful dancers carved into the walls of this magnificent temple. Here's what they had to say.

The mysterious women of Angkor - by Jessie Beard
Researcher Kent Davis theorises that the many carved images of women found throughout the temple complex hold the key to the origins and purpose of the ancient monuments.
A team of researchers, led by US educational program and marketing executive Kent Davis, is analysing 7,000 digital photos taken in November 2008 for a database that will attempt to unveil a mystery that's been bugging Davis since he first visited Angkor Wat in November 2005. He wants to determine why there are so many images of women in the temples, and he's postulating a theory that Angkor wasn't built to honour kings or gods, but to glorify women.

When Davis first came to Angkor, he immediately became fascinated by the carvings of women and instinctively felt they had been historically trivialised as decorations. "I wasn't prepared for the temple's human side as realistic carvings of women greeted me. Quite clearly, the images of these women were a major part of the monument's design and purpose," he said. "These women who are so extraordinary and so filled with significance have remained unstudied and unappreciated in modern times. The fact that they have been hidden in plain sight during 150 years of intense Khmer scholarship is truly amazing. But a quantitative analysis could unlock the secrets these complex women have guarded for so long."

Using a computer database, the project involves recording the diverse features of the women, enabling detailed analysis of them for the first time since they were carved. Davis also departs from convention by referring to the women shown in temple carvings as devatas, not Apsaras. "No one knows what the ancient Khmers called the women at Angkor Wat. I generally choose to use devata for historical and semantic reasons. About a hundred years ago, some scholars began using the Hindu term apsara, and that became more common over time." Davis's use of the term devata and his quest to comprehensively analyse the collection of female carvings was also inspired by the work of a young French woman, Sappho Marchal, who began classifying the women by their attributes in her own personal drawings. Marchal lived at Angkor Wat and was the daughter of the second curator of the Angkor Wat conservation program. She published a book, Costumes et parures Khmers d'apres les davata d'Angkor-Wat, in 1927, and when Davis discovered her writings, he became even more determined to finish what Marchal had started all those years ago.

Davis has already evaluated 1,780 carvings of women and expects to include over 1,800 carvings in his study. He said that once he amassed about 25,000 digital photos of the carvings he was studying, the sheer complexity required that a computer database be used. But on April 17 last year, Davis's project received a major setback - fire gutted his house and studio, destroying a collection of more than 2,000 books on the history of Southeast Asia and material he had prepared to republish the book Angkor the Magnificent, originally written in 1924 by American socialite and Titanic survivor Helen Churchill Candee. The book is credited with introducing the concept of Cambodian tourism to Americans, and Davis's revised version was scheduled to go to the publisher the day after the fire. But the biggest setback was the destruction of Davis's original notes and manuscripts on female statues at Angkor Wat, including a hard drive containing about 25,000 photos of the female carvings.

Not to be deterred, Davis returned to Angkor Wat last November to redo some photography. "I had logistical help from three Cambodians and three European scientists in Cambodia. But due to the independent nature of the study, their contributions are unofficial. Now, the only limitations to progress are time and money. I have most of the photo data again and have built the database program. The process of preparing the images and inputting the data will be quite time-consuming. The first paper published will be a technical study I just completed with Michigan State University researchers using computer technology to analyse the faces of the 259 devata on the West Gopura. Beyond the database, I have an enormous amount of research data about the images in relation to Cambodian, Southeast Asian and South Asian culture. The introduction to this body of work will be published in the anthology to be called Daughters of Angkor Wat, through my publishing company DatAsia."

"Ultimately, my goal is to work with Cambodian researchers and the Apsara Authority. But the onus is on me to prepare substantial evidence before approaching them with my paradigm, which is that the primary reason Angkor Wat was built was to protect, honour and glorify these women, as well as the feminine principles that they represent. My view is that Angkor Wat is there because of the women," he concludes.
Kent Davis (left) and myself, when we met up in Phnom Penh in December

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Life saving music

News of a documentary in production about the life and work of musician Sonny Thet to be shown in next year's Berlin Film Festival, will be welcomed by his fans in his adopted country of Germany. Now 55, Thet returned to his place of birth, Cambodia, at the end of last year to complete the filming, having moved to Germany at the end of the '60s to study music. He graduated in cello and his eclectic style of mixing classic, rock, jazz and Khmer traditional sounds ensured his group, Bayon - named after the famous Angkor temple in his homeland - found a niche in the music market in his adopted country of East Germany. Thet's versatility is his strength and as well as producing his own recordings, he's taken part in numerous theatre, radio, film and television projects. He gives about 120 concerts a year and owes his life to his music, having avoided the excesses of the Khmer Rouge period, where his family were wiped out. "I was lucky to be able to leave Cambodia before Pol Pot came to power. When I'm feeling bad, I get out my cello and really play my heart out," he remarked. Find out more about his music here.


Temple mountains

Lets take a closer look at two of the temples I flew over on Tuesday morning in the two-seater microlite. The top one is Pre Rup, built in 961 and one of the most important temple mountains as it marks the transition from the pre-classic to the classic period of Angkor. It consists of two terraces, on the second of which is a three-tier pyramid. At the top, the central tower is flanked by four corner towers, all in brick. The central shrine would've housed a linga dedicated to Shiva. Below the upper tier are twelve smaller towers and on the ground floor, are another five larger brick towers, opening to the east and catching the rising sun as can be seen in the picture. One unusual feature of Pre Rup, where a sunset view across the surrounding ricefields is worth considering, is the presence of a sarcophagus, though some scholars debate this feature.
Also dedicated to Shiva, East Mebon was constructed in 952, so is older than Pre Rup and used to be in the centre of a huge, now dry, baray. Known for its elephant statues, East Mebon has three terraces with the five brick towers of the upper tier, open to the east with remains of stucco and some particularly fine lintels. Both temples are pre-cursors to the intricacies of the Banteay Srei style and the great temple constructions of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

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Seen from the air

Banteay Samre seen from the air
To round off the photos taken on my microlite flight on Tuesday morning - well those where my finger isn't blocking the view, as I held my camera tightly and the reflection from the sun on my viewfinder made it almost impossible to see what I was photographing - here's a few more temples as well as some general shots from our cruising height of around 500 feet up. The flight over Phnom Bok was both exciting and scary all at the same time. The mountain is 770 feet high and we were well above the summit, where I had been only a couple of weeks before. On that occasion I had to climb the 600+ steps to reach the top. I much preferred the ariel view - far less tiring. If you wish to enjoy seeing part of Angkor and the surrounding countryside, let me know and I'll put you in touch with the pilot Eddie. It's an experience you won't forget.
I've yet to visit this temple on the ground as it was flooded on my last attempt. It's Phnom Tor at the corner of the eastern baray.
Looking over Eddie's shoulder as we head for the summit of Phnom Bok
The temple on the top of Phnom Bok, some 770 feet up. The shrine housing the giant linga is at the top right of picture.
This small temple, Prasat Leak Neang, sits in the shadow of Phnom Bok and I've yet to visit it on the ground
A small trapeang or pond, one of many that dot the landscape
A small village surrounded by trees
A look at the brand new road to Anlong Veng, that begins at Roluos
Water buffalo in a swamp near Banteay Samre
The moment of truth, just before we take off on our hour-long adventure

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Temple topping

A birds-eye view of East Mebon temple

So how would I describe my microlite experience? I was remarkably calm as Eddie did a five-minute test flight to check everything was in wording order. I didn’t dwell on what could go awry, focusing instead on what I would see and wondering whether my point and shoot camera would do justice to the views. Eddie landed, I climbed into the rear seat and he strapped me in and checked the microphone was on. Within two minutes we were airborne, so there was no time for last minute panic, as we bounced along the narrow track before lift-off. If I say the first few minutes or so took my breath away it would be a gross understatement. Buffeted a little by the wind, don’t forget we are open to the elements not in a helicopter for cissies, we quickly rose to a high altitude – the highest we reached was 1,100 feet – and I found it difficult to focus as the nerves and adrenalin kicked-in. I had no choice but to put my trust in Eddie’s flying skills and he kept me expertly occupied with a running commentary.

Ta Som is almost obscured by the trees enveloping the site
A great view of East Mebon with the morning sun highlighting the temple
Pre Rup stands out way above the treeline
An almost perfect picture of Pre Rup considering I couldn't see what I was doing!

With a blanket of smoke obscuring the bottom half of Phnom Bok and beyond, we quickly arrived above the first of the eleven temples, Ta Som, that we’d fly over on our 1-hour flight. I was pleased to still see a good amount of tree cover at this edge of the Angkor Park as we soon encountered East Mebon and Pre Rup in quick succession. Despite the haze in the distance, I could make out Srah Srang lake and the Angkor balloon, as we dropped a little lower and headed out over a patchwork of rice fields, small trapeangs (ponds) and villages with Eddie waving constantly whilst I gripped my camera tightly to take some photos. Battling with the wind – we were cruising at about 40 miles per hour – the sun’s reflection on my camera view finder meant I couldn’t see what I was taking pictures of, so it was really a case of point, shoot and pray. Eddie meanwhile was flying with one hand and snapping away with the other like a true pro.

A view of the fields leading to Srah Srang in the distance
The solitary tower of Prasat Trapeang Phong at Roluos
In what seemed like no time at all we were above the area of Roluos and circling the tower of Prasat Trapeang Phong before an incredible approach to the temple pyramid of Bakong. Even I couldn’t fail to get a good picture of this. Preah Ko and Lolei were next as we headed out for Banteay Samre and the tiny Prasat Tor, passing the brand new golf course that has been plonked in the middle of this rural landscape. My first real feelings of trepidation – Eddie had kept our tiny machine so steady and level throughout the flight – was when he announced we would fly over the top of Phnom Bok. I immediately thought of updrafts, downdrafts and stuff I had no idea about though Eddie said it would be fine, and of course it was. In my mind, flying over level ground is one thing, flying over a hill is altogether different but it was a thrill to look down on the summit, where I had been on foot two weeks earlier. Just behind the hill was a small brick prasat, Leak Neang, that I’d never seen before and it felt weird to discover a temple from the air rather than on the ground. We tracked the new road that leads to Anlong Veng for a couple of minutes before beginning our approach to landing, on the same narrow track we’d left exactly an hour before. We landed with the merest of bumps and I thanked Eddie over the intercom for a fantastic trip as we came to a stop in the field behind the police station, a few kilometres south of Banteay Srei. My birds-eye view of a part of Angkor and the Cambodian countryside was a privilege and I can’t thank Eddie enough for taking me up and looking after me so well. It was a thrill of the highest order and as ‘safe as houses’. If you fancy getting the same buzz, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with rocky-steady Eddie The Eagle. It's no exaggeration to call it the trip of a lifetime.
The majestic pyramid temple of Bakong surrounded by water
The microlite is in competition with Preah Ko in this photo
The temple of Lolei is almost hidden in the grounds of the pagoda

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kudos to the Post

I wasn't happy with the sports coverage in the Phnom Penh Post back in November and told them so. They had the balls to print my letter at the time and so it was only fair that I gave them kudos for their greatly improved sports coverage in recent months. On Monday of this week, the Post printed my letter in their Letters to the Editor section. Here it is:

Sports coverage has improved dramatically
Written by Andy Brouwer
Monday, 9 February 2009

On November 27, 2008, you printed my letter bemoaning the lack of locals sports coverage in the Post. In all fairness, your coverage has improved dramatically since then, and I must congratulate you for this welcome change for the better. Local football, in particular, has been extensively covered in recent months, and I hope this trend will continue for the forthcoming Cambodia Premier League season and the international matches scheduled for Apriil.
And, of course, let's not forget the other sports played in the Kingdom. Bravo the Post.

Andy Brouwer
Phnom Penh

In the skies above Angkor

This is Bakong temple in the Roluos Group, from about 600 feet up - breahtaking!
I count myself incredibly lucky to be enjoying my life so much here in Cambodia and it just gets better and better. This morning I joined microlite pilot Eddie Smith in the skies above some of the temples of Angkor and beyond for a new and exhilarating experience. Seeing Cambodia from the air is what Eddie does for a living, and what a living it is! When he's not taking scholars into the air for a birds-eye view of the landscape to spot ancient settlements or water canals and suchlike, he's helping landmine NGOs, film crews and a handful of tourists to experience Cambodia from above. He also trains the potential microlite fliers of the future. We headed out to a field on the way to Banteay Srei at 7.30am this morning and whilst Eddie took the 'flying moto,' as the locals call it, for a quick test-run, I mentally prepared myself for one of the most amazing trips of my life, and I wasn't disappointed. More later as I catch my breath and my legs stop shaking, but believe me when I say the hour I spent in the skies above Cambodia is something I will never forget.
Eddie takes her up for a test-run before my big moment. I sat in the seat behind Eddie for my 1-hour flight

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Monday, February 9, 2009


This morning's sunrise over Angkor Wat
Cream-crackered, or knackered, is how I felt this afternoon after an early start for sunset followed by cycling along the complete length of the walls of Angkor Thom, the royal city at the heart of the Angkor complex. After seeing the Phnom Bakheng circus for myself the previous evening, I was up at 5am for the sunrise at Angkor Wat this morning, which was an even bigger 'big-top circus' than the night before. It felt like most of the inhabitants of Korea, Japan and China were crammed into the grounds of Angkor Wat to witness the sunrise, and all of them were talking at the same time. It was horrendous, saved only by the magnificence of Angkor Wat and the sun as it rose above the central towers. Long gone are the days when it was just me and the cicadas for company. Nowadays thousands pack themselves in for the sunrise experience, covering every available vantage point waiting for 'that' shot. After my superb breakfast back at the Tara Angkor, I got on my bike to complete a cycle ride I've always promised myself, in rare moments of madness, which is a complete circuit of the walls of Angkor Thom. It wasn't easy in places as the wall has collapsed in a few spots which meant carrying the mountainbike on my back but the solitude was appealing, visiting all five gates is always worth it and seeing the four smaller temples in each corner of the city was a first for me too. A job well done. I had lunch at Angkor Wat with my friend Now, who was back at her stall selling souvenirs after her day off yesterday for the wedding party, and I rounded off my afternoon with a swim in the pool at my hotel. Dinner was courtesy of my friends at Shadow of Angkor where I dined with Eddie, who flies microlites for a living and showed me his videos and photos just to prove what a different perspective it puts on Cambodia. I was convinced. More soon.
One of the giant faces at the North Gate of Angkor Thom
Even a small temple like Prasat Chrung, in the southeast corner of Angkor Thom, is not safe from temple thieves, as this devata can testify
The West Gate of Angkor Thom used to be almost forgotten, now a wooden ramp provides regular access for nearby villagers and the atmosphere has been lost

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

I've been lax again

Now is one of the most genuine and kind-hearted people I know and I'm proud to be her friend. She is a souvenir seller at Angkor Wat.
You'd think I'd be able to find the time to update my blog, I'm only in Siem Reap for goodness sake, not in some remote village in the back of beyond. However my excuse is that the hotel I stayed in last night didn't have free wi-fi and neither does the hotel I moved into today. The rest of the time I haven't stopped to catch breath. However the internet aside, both hotels are excellent and I shouldn't moan as they are both complimentary, courtesy of the respective hotel's sales teams. The Victoria Angkor, where I stayed last night, was top drawer stuff. They gave me the Maharadjah Suite room and it was like a dream, the bed was so comfortable that I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. It's a 5-star hotel so I would expect it to be pretty good and it didn't disappoint. This morning I moved to the Tara Angkor, a new boy to Siem Reap's four-star class hotels and it too is damn fine. I stayed here a couple of weeks ago and the breakfasts are the best ever. My room is pretty good though the bathroom could be a little bigger and my mouth is already watering when I think of tomorrow's breakfast!
My classy bedroom at Victoria Angkor Hotel
Now and I arriving at the wedding party, with the sun full in our face
I got into town on Saturday after the usual six-hour bus trip from Phnom Penh, meeting my pal Sokhom and another friend, Chunly, who I hadn't seen for two years, at the lunch-stop in Kompong Thom en route. I popped into the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse to see Kim and her family before booking into the Victoria, having a quick swim and then out for dinner with Thanet, the sales manager of the Tara Angkor. As always she is the most generous of hosts and my chicken curry was unusually presented but pretty tasty. This morning I was out at 6.30am to take part in one of the traditional ceremonies for the wedding of Dary, the sister-in-law of my best friend Rieng. I joined a long line of guests carrying trays of assorted goodies to the home of the bride's parents, in this case, Rieng's newly-built house, before we tucked into an open-air breakfast, bathed in glorious sunshine. I retired to the Victoria to pack before Now arrived on her moto to take me to the lunchtime wedding party at a local restaurant, where nearly 500 guests ate and drank themselves to their hearts content. Now and I left around 2pm and headed out for a whistle-stop visit to a couple of areas of Angkor Wat I've never been to before and then we joined the hordes on top of Phnom Bakheng for sunset. I wanted to see how bad it really is these days and believe me, it was gruesome. Every possible vantage point was taken well before sunset and most of the audience was Asian, and very pushy. It was not a moment to savour in the slightest but we stuck it out til the end before we wandered back down the hill in the dark and headed for home. Now returned to her home in the Angkor Park whilst I headed for a curry at the popular Curry Walla and the internet shop, where I'm typing this right now.
The sun is out for the newly-married couple, with Dary resplendent in her 10th outfit change of the day
It got even worse than this at the top of Phnom Bakheng as sunset approached, as the scramble for places intensified

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Friday, February 6, 2009

X marks the spot

One of the 40 seated Buddhas on the inner wall of Temple X
Temple X (aka Monument 483) is the temple within the Preah Pithu group which is bedecked with Buddhist iconography whilst the other four shrines were decorated in more traditional Hindu-inspired motifs and reliefs. More photos to follow, especially of the inside walls of the main shrine of Temple X which have a very unique series of seated Buddha carvings, forty of them in total, which renowned scholar Claude Jacques has suggested means the temple was built, or certainly partially decorated in the 14th century.

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On my travels

Although I'm still in the throes of posting photos from my recent trip to Siem Reap just a couple of weeks ago, I'll be on the Mekong Express bus again tomorrow morning, winging my way back up north to Siem Reap for another wedding and a couple of days scooting around Angkor. My friends at the Victoria Angkor and Tara Angkor, two of the best hotels in Siem Reap, have offered me accommodation, so I can sample their delights first-hand. Life isn't all bad. The wedding is the sister-in-law of my best pal Rieng and the party is on Sunday. On Monday I might well be back on my bicycle for a trip along the full length of the walls of Angkor Thom, while on Tuesday there's a small chance of a very special look at Angkor, but I won't count my chickens on that score until the day arrives. Don't you love a mystery?


Back in the day

A faceless devata on the wall of Temple U in a typical Bayon style dress
Delving into history, it was King Yasovarman II in the middle of the 12th century that began building the Preah Pithu group, though it continued through the 13th and into the 14th century. There's a mix of Hindu and Buddhist iconography at the temples, with Temple X full of friezes of Buddha. The French conservators of EFEO restored the temples in 1908 and 1920 and it's worth scouting around the fallen stones and fragments on the ground surrounding the main shrines for a few gems of sculpted stone. Back in time Yasovarman was assassinated and Angkor was sacked by the invading Chams and abandoned before being revitalised by the king of kings, Jayavarman VII from 1181 onwards who went onto construct the Bayon, Ta Prohm and many more temples. Here are a final flurry of photos from Temple U or Monument 482 as it's also known, one of the five shrines of the Preah Pithu group.
This lintel looks unfinished and could represent Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana above a grinning kala
On this corner stone, a devata is accompanied by a dvarapala guardian with his mace
A complete dvarapala standing guard, ready to repel invaders, on the wall of Temple U
Vishvakarma, who symbolises the idea of a powerful god and of central power, sits above a kala with typical Bayon floral relief either side
This dvarapala guardian appears to have lost his feet in the restoration of the temple in the early 1900s
Devatas at different levels populate the walls of Temple U
This wall decoration of dancing figures is above a window opening
A fallen stone column with more dancing figures inside medallions

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Temple 482 = Temple U

This lively lintel has the multi-armed dancing Shiva, accompanied by Vishnu and Brahma, as well as two lions being devoured by a fiercesome kala
Sat in a quiet corner of Angkor Thom, though they are better known by their letters, the five shrines at Preah Pithu also have numbers designated to them. Temple U for example is Temple 482, whilst Temple T is 481. Located behind Temple T and surrounded by a moat, Temple U has a wealth of carvings to keep you occupied for half an hour. The sanctuary, on a high base, has male guardian figures, dvarapalas, as well as female devatas in niches at the corners, in varying states of disrepair, as well as three lintels showing three very different stories. There's the Churning of the Sea of Milk, there's a lively scene of a dancing Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma trio on top of a kala head and an unfinished lintel that might be Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana above a grinning kala. As I stood at the top of Temple U I noticed a couple of Apsara guards amongst the trees surrounding the temple, enjoying a crafty cigarette, the first people I'd seen since I entered the complex.
Temple U in shade taken from the southeast corner
A broken fragment of a god lying on the ground
Two worshippers pay their respects to a re-designed linga on a plinth
The Churning of the Sea of Milk lintel facing north
Vishnu is the central character here, sitting on the giant naga being pulled by gods (left) and demons (right). Below Vishnu a tiny elephant and a horse are featured.
The full Shiva dancing lintel in situ on the west side, a lively central theme then a more sedate floral pattern towards the ends
On the right is a dvarapala guardian and behind are two devatas, one of which has been unsuccessfully hacked away by thieves
This voluptuous devata is incomplete, as her lower half is missing

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U for unrestored

A scene from the Churning of the Sea of Milk
The second temple of five at Preah Pithu is Temple U, similar in style to Temple T but with more carvings to see. Here's a picture of the detailed carving from a lintel showing Vishnu dancing during the Churning of the Sea of Milk, whilst a line of gods pull on the giant naga Vasuki. More photos from Temple U later. Vishnu is the Protector, the god who preserves universal order and fights to restore harmony. He's one of the good guys.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Love is in the air

Ruud and Monira enjoying the moment. Kim Lieng is just behind Monira
Love is in the air and it turned into a wedding today for one of Hanuman's best tour guides, Monira, who married one of her former guests, Ruud in Phnom Penh. There was a big turnout from Hanuman to wish the happy couple well for the future, which looks like it will be spent back in Holland, rather than in Cambodia, once formalities have been sorted out. Monira has been a very popular English-speaking guide, has received great feedback and has followed in the footsteps of her mum, Kim Lieng, who is the best female tour guide we've ever had. It's a pity we'll be losing Monira, but of course we wish her a happy life with her husband. I was accompanied to the wedding party tonight by my good friend Sophoin and it was good to see all of the Hanuman management team on parade.
Ruud and Monira prepare to walk down the tunnel of friends and confetti
As befits her, the light is shining on my companion for the evening, Sophoin


Time for T

Temple T's best lintel showing the Churning of the Sea of Milk. In the middle a 4-armed Vishnu dances.
Amongst the trees and a water-filled moat was Temple T. It was early afternoon, not a soul in sight and just some birdcalls as a backing soundtrack to my visit. This is the first of the five temples of the Preah Pithu group that sits to the northeast of the Royal Square in Angkor Thom and sees practically no visitors. Occasionally the Angkor elephants come here for a dip in the moat but not on this day. The five temples have no names, just letters and numbers (Temple T is Monument 481). They were built in the 12-13th century. Temple T's approach is via a terrace with nice naga balustrades that lead onto a three-tier foundation topped by a shrine, without a roof. On the grassy floor surrounding the shrine are fallen lintels and carvings that house a few gems, whilst the tower itself has a few devatas in various states of disrepair. The best lintel I could find amongst the stone fragments was a Churning of the Sea of Milk lintel that was difficult to make out due to weathering and the lichen covering the carving. I moved onto Temple U that sits closeby.
The small sandstone pyramid of Temple T in the afternoon shade
A white-faced devata on the wall of the ruined shrine at the top of Temple T
A fragment of a kala lintel on the ground at Temple T
Two dancing figures on a decorative stone
Another kala figure devouring garlands of flowers with a beheaded figure sat on top

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Meta House in February

So what are the highlights as I see it, at Meta House in Phnom Penh for this month? This Saturday (7th Feb), Stanley Harper's twenty-year work, Cambodia Dreams, chronicling the life and times of grandmother Yan Chheing (pictured right), will show. Well worth the effort, as are a number of screenings this month. Take for example, Thursday (12th) and Friday (13th) next week. In the news recently has been the destruction of the community of Dey Krahom, so Red Earth Village by Erik Lofting will take on special significance (will show Thursday), as will Rithy Panh's Paper Cannot Wrap Embers, a documentary about prostitues living in the White Bassac Building next door, to be shown Friday (7pm). Wednesday 18th will see a documentary on confronting the Khmer Rouge legacy by Jan van den Berg and Willem van den Put called Deacon of Death and Friday 20th, you have two films to enjoy, Socheata Poeuv's New Year Baby and the classical dance documentary Seasons of Migration. The fomer king, Norodom Sihanouk gets a screening of two of his films from the '60s, on Saturday 21st with Shadow Over Angkor and Rose of Bokor. I also recommend Vietnam American Holocaust on Tuesday 24th, a film produced last year that gets under the skin of the conflict, which coincides with the opening of a new permanent exhibition of pictures at Meta House by veteran war photographer Tim Page. Don't forget, Meta House is on Street 264, next to Wat Botum.

The five letters of Angkor

Faces of the faithful, sitting on the ground at Temple T, from the Preah Pithu group
Continuing my look at some of the minor temple sites in Angkor that I visited a couple of weeks ago, sometime today I will post photos from Preah Pithu, one of the less-visited group of temples within the walls of Angkor Thom. If you didn't know they were there, you'd miss them in the blink of an eye but they are well worth a look, if you have oodles of time to spare. Its a quiet corner of the city, well away from the crowds you find at other sites, and you'll be rewarded with an attractive forest setting, only birdsong for company and a wealth of carving if you keep your eyes peeled, as much of it sits on the grassy floor. There are five temples in all, curiously known by letter or number, rather than by name. More later.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ministry of silly ideas

"Krama madam? postcard sir? slip-on erosion protection shoe sucker?"
Seeing my own photo of a pair of sandals in the last post reminded me of the erosion protection shoes that some bright spark has come up with, as a way of making money, especially from those concerned with the footprint they leave behind. As the numbers of tourists visiting the Angkor complex of temples in Cambodia goes up and up, there is serious consideration being given on how to limit the damage of all these extra people to the structure of the temples, not to mention the water supply around Siem Reap to service all of those massive hotels. Sorry, I digress. The Angkor erosion shoe idea - which has been kicking around since 2006 at least - came from a Khmer company (or are they South Korean, reports are mixed) CCK, who have devised a slip-on shoe "designed with cushy rubber material" to be worn over your normal shoe. They also say, "the shoes have been enhanced with soft-spots on the bottom, which reduce the friction and prevent various shoes such as spiky, hard-bottom material, and etc, from touching the temple floors. The shoes provide slipping-free and comfortable cushion feeling while tourists can enjoy beautiful and majestic scenery." Well, that's the sales pitch and they seem to be pushing the idea once again. I must find out how much it would cost for the erosion shoes; 100 riel sounds a suitable price. I hope to be up at Angkor again next week, I must remember to find out. There was concern when it was first announced a few years ago as the company said they would burn the used shoes after the gates to Angkor closed each evening - not exactly the footprint visitors were hoping to leave behind.


Behind the trees

Garudas and a pair of monk's sandals
Within the grounds of the great city of Angkor Thom there are at least seven active wats or monasteries. Each deserves a few minutes of your time, if you have any time to spare. Most people don't have that luxury as they whizz around Angkor in double-quick time, but if you do, have a nose around the wats to see what you can dig up. On my recent cycling expedition to the East Gate of the city, I popped into two of these monasteries. The first was Preah Se-ar Metrei, which is located amongst the trees on the western side of the road between the South Gate and the Bayon. The vihara is an open-sided affair made of wood and corrugated iron though the terrace that supports the vihara is bordered by a large collection of upright garudas, with their arms aloft holding up the floor of the terrace. I've seen similar figures at Banteay Chhmar. There are more beaked figures holding up the small terrace that leads onto the vihara too. Apart from a monk lounging in a hammock inside the vihara, his ear glued to his mobile phone, there was no one else at the site.
The garudas show their strength in holding up the terrace at Preah Se-ar Metrei
The open-sided vihara at Preah Se-ar Metrei monastery
The outer wall of the terrace shows garudas for much of its length
This series of damaged garudas sits on the small platform leading to the vihara at Preah Se-ar Metrei
A circular carved sculpture at Wat Tang TokThe ruined laterite shrine in the grounds of Wat Tang Tok
The second monastery was at Wat Tang Tok, as I cycled into the heart of Angkor Thom from the Victory Gate. Located to the north, it is almost opposite the walled area called Vihear Prampil Loveng. The monastery houses a ruined laterite structure that was once a small shrine with a few sandstone carvings nearby including an unusual circular sculpture and a naga head. Nearby, Vihear Prampil Loveng is a walled compound with a series of five terraces leading to a small shrine housing a Buddha that was rescued from the Bayon many years ago. It is preceded by a series of lions and elephant statues that are still in reasonable condition, and behind the shrine is a walled pond that leads onto the series of twelve towers known at Prasat Suor Prat. This is a peaceful area of Angkor Thom rarely visited by anyone and would be great for a picnic. Back on my bike, I took a route around the back of the towers and the North Khleang as I headed for my next stop, Preah Pithu.
The distinctive head of a lion at Vihear Prampil Loveng
A sturdy elephant stands guard at Vihear Prampil Loveng
A well-preserved lion head at Vihear Prampil Loveng
A view of the terraces at Vihear Prampil Loveng
The series of terraces leading to the main central shrine at Vihear Prampil Loveng
The walled pond behind the main shrine and backing onto the towers of Prasat Suor Prat


Monday, February 2, 2009

Mekong Run

After I spent yesterday afternoon on a boat on the Mekong River, it was timely that the Sunday Times in the UK published an archive report from Jon Swain in yesterday's edition, that provided an insight into life on the Mekong River during the year, 1974, before the Khmer Rouge finally gained control of Cambodia. Jon Swains' superb book, The River of Time, is a must-have book for any collection of stories from that period in history.

From the archive: Dodging Khmer Rouge bullets on a Mekong run - by Jon Swain
March 10, 1974: the world's most dangerous boat trip, to Phnom Penh.

I joined Convoy TT173 at Saigon and selected a freighter called Bonanza Three: her wheelhouse, our refuge during the attack, was protected by a thick wall of sandbags and her skipper, Captain Herri Pentoh, was a “real crackerjack”, according to a US aid official on the Phnom Penh run. Captain Pentoh, a wiry 27-year-old Indonesian with long, greasy hair, stood in the wheelhouse gazing awkwardly at the river bank through binoculars, partly because the solid wall of sandbags restricted his vision, but mostly because, like Nelson, he had only one good eye. The other, made of glass, gave a wild, staring accent to his face.

Bonanza Three, anchored in the oily waters of Saigon harbour, seemed an ugly, rusty old tub, fit for the scrapyard, and that was the reason why she had been chosen for the Mekong River run: her owner thought her expendable. Happily for him, the American government is committed to Phnom Penh’s survival and, so far at least, it has always made it worth his while to gamble the ship and the lives of his crew for a quick return. “The risks are high, but generally so are the profits,” explained Johnny Khoo, manager of the Singapore-based shipping company that runs her. It is understood that profits fluctuate around £17,000 a trip.

The big joke aboard Bonanza Three was the loo. Apart from making privacy a farce, fist-sized shrapnel holes in the door and wall made it all too obvious that the consequences of using it at the wrong moment could prove disastrous. Happily, the Khmer Rouge gunners, notoriously bad shots, have never caught anyone with their pants down. The ship’s radio officer, I was told, was “absent”. Only later did I discover that the poor fellow had been killed two months before, blasted in his cabin by a rocket. Members of the crew had scooped up the pieces in a plastic bag and are still trying to erase this from their memories.

The convoy passed the first big danger point almost unchallenged. At Peam Chor, 15 miles beyond the frontier, the Mekong suddenly curves and narrows to a 500-yard channel – an ideal and frequent ambush spot. Conspicuous to our straining eyes were the hulks of two ammunition barges sunk 10 days before, during the last run. All that remained were pieces of rusty machinery poking from the sluggish water. With the sleepy little town of Neak Leung just a fading smudge to stern, the danger seemed over. Even Captain Pentoh relaxed, unzipping his flak jacket and pulling off his helmet, for he knew that no convoy had been hit on the home run for nearly a year. The ambush came quickly, with a rocket attack on the lead ship, the Monte Cristo, as she steamed past the Dey Do plywood factory only 12 miles from Phnom Penh.

From the wheelhouse on Bonanza Three, two ships astern, it was impossible to assess the damage, but flames and a feather of black smoke on the Wing Pengh, the ship 300 yards from our bows, denoted that she, too, had been hit. Machine-gun bullets clanged and rattled off the hull. In the wheelhouse, the little Cambodian pilot carried on with his instructions, his voice as steady as a rock, his fear betrayed only by his delicate fingers tightly wrapped round a small ivory Buddha. The words “starboard easy” had just left his lips when the rocket burst aft. The explosion felt like a heavy blow in the back. Nobody moved or said anything, except the captain, who said, “Bloody hell, we’ve been hit”, then looked around embarrassed.

Nobody bothered to leave the wheelhouse and inspect the damage until we were safely tied up at Phnom Penh’s dirty brown waterfront an hour or so later. The rocket had missed the steering column by a fraction of an inch; had it hit, Bonanza Three would have been sent circling out of control. A winch was badly damaged and there were a lot of holes, but she had survived yet another Mekong River run. Pinned to a blackboard in the press briefing centre in Phnom Penh that evening, the Cambodian high command’s communiqué tersely read: “A convoy of five cargo ships, two petrol tankers and three ammunition barges has anchored at the port of Phnom Penh after passing up the Mekong without incident.”

The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975. Millions of Cambodians died in the “killing fields” massacres that followed.

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Lazy dayz

The Mekong River, late Sunday afternoon
I spent Sunday afternoon lazing around on a boat along the Mekong River with friends, stopping at a nameless island north of Phnom Penh for a swim, sunbathe and jet-ski session (which I didn't join in). A nice way to while away a few hours out of the city.
Afternoon fishing on the Mekong River
Teamwork is vital to haul in the larger fishing nets
Large nets and building sites
The sun across a field
The sun begins to set on a peaceful afternoon on the river
A hazy end to a lazy day

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Picture paradise

Photographers love Cambodia. Whether its the Siem Reap-based black and white photography of John McDermott, who is finally bringing out a book this year on his iconic Angkor photos, or self-published books from the likes of David Seaver and Filippo Minelli, the numbers of photographers locating themselves in Cambodia is growing by the minute. There are now two photographic agencies vying for business, having been set up in the last couple of months. I shouldn't forget my old pal Eric de Vries of course, and countless others. Eric has already self-published three books including his 2006 book, Images of Cambodia. David Seaver's book, Cambodia, Breaking the Bonds of History, is the result of six years documenting the changing face of this country, whilst conceptual-artist Minelli is a world traveller and painter who brought out his Cambodia photo-book last year. Both the latter two books are available through, as are others from lensmen dedicated to bringing you the beauty of Cambodia and beyond. Link: Eric de Vries.

Cry For Freedom

She's back with a nine-track stop-gap mini-album to keep us in the groove before her next full-to-brimming third album in the Summer. Yaz Alexander is my favourite female singer on the planet. She has a beautiful voice, perfect pitch and a delivery style to knock your socks off. I really miss not being able to see her perform live. It's a cross I have to bear living in Cambodia. However, I can still listen to the music, which is available on CD Baby. Her latest offering is the mini-album Cry For Freedom and has all the usual beats and bass lines, meshed with her reggae roots background and complemented by her seductive voice. It's a stop-gap because she's on course to release her next blockbuster later this year, following the release of her incredible debut solo album, Life Begins, in December 2007. The tracks on Cry For Freedom are: Cry For Freedom; How Much More; Enemies: Life; Better Must Come; (Do) The Right Thing; Cry For Freedom (Soulful House Remix); Love; Sister.
She isn't stopping there either. In between laying down tracks for album # 3, she's recorded a new R&B song called Days of Thunder, which she'll put out with a video, has some more gigs lined up including support for Mighty Diamonds in Birmingham, and every Monday she puts on free singing workshops with young gifted Birmingham singers, aided by Steel Pulse's Selwyn Brown when he's not on tour. Giving back to the art that has given them so much is in Yaz's and Selwyn's blood. Link: CD Baby.

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