Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not on trial

A mock-Angkorean temple stupa being erected to house Ta Mok's remains
With the Khmer Rouge Tribunal beginning again yesterday with the trial of Duch, it reminded me that last week I visited the final resting place of one of the most feared Khmer Rouge hardline leaders, who never managed to make it to stand trial for crimes against humanity, dying in custody whilst awaiting the formation of the Tribunal in July 2006. Ta Mok, The Butcher, Brother No 5 or Chhit Choeun to give him his rightful name, was the one-legged chief of staff and feared during the KR regime of the 70s and later ruled the northern part of the KR territory, operating out of Anlong Veng. To some of his followers he is remembered fondly, by others he's remembered with a cold chill as a murderer with the blood of thousands on his hands. As the KR began to unravel in the late 90s, it was Ta Mok who ended Pol Pot's command of the KR by placing him on trial, with the former Brother No 1 dying soon after during his house arrest. Almost a year later, in March 1999, Ta Mok was finally arrested and placed in custody awaiting trial. He never made it. And with his death, many felt robbed of justice. However, in Anlong Veng, Ta Mok is recalled with a degree of affection, owned a large house in the town which is open to the public to visit and his stupa, in the pagoda of Wat Srah Chhouk, is in the process of being upgraded, at the cost of his family, in a mock-Angkorean style. You can see the work being undertaken, which began four months ago, in these photos. More pictures from Ta Mok's house will follow soon.
The cement coffin of Ta Mok at Wat Srah Chhouk, just off the road towards the border
Ta Mok is recalled fondly by many residents of Anlong Veng
Tiles from the stupa roof are being glazed before being affixed
Setting the tiles in their mould before glazing takes place

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4Faces opening soon

A pal of mine, Eric de Vries will open his new gallery-cafe in Siem Reap very soon - 24 April to be precise - and the following story appeared in the Phnom Penh Post during my absence last week. In addition, Eric has launched the 4Faces website at www.4faces.net.

New Cafe Gallery

Siem Reap photographer Eric De Vries spent most of the weekend in Phnom Penh hunkered down with award-winning war snapper Tim Page to select a range of photographs to display at the opening of De Vries' new cafe gallery. Page has an ongoing exhibition of his iconic Vietnam War photos at Phnom Penh's Meta House and will now launch "almost the same" exhibition in Siem Reap. The Tim Page exhibition will debut in Siem Reap at the launch of De Vries's new cafe gallery, 4Faces, scheduled to open at the end of April in the street running parallel to Pub Street, near the Maharajah Indian restaurant.

De Vries, a member of the Asia Motion Photo Agency, said 4Faces will schedule new exhibitions every month on a specially-created 13-metre "black wall". Hopefully Dutch-born De Vries will not succumb to modesty by refraining from exhibiting his own works, as his arty black-and-white pieces have gained an international reputation, and an exhibition of his photos from his recent book, This Must Be the Place: Images of Cambodia, toured throughout the Netherlands. In June 2006, FCC Angkor exhibited his funky "Blues for Buddha" series, which documented the varied Buddha sculptures found in Cambodia and Thailand, including unusual Buddhas sporting Fu Manchu goatees and what looked like a Jimi Hendrix-style afro haircut.

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Two of the missing

One story that never seems to be far from the public eye is the disappearance of two photojournalists, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, who were last seen in 1970 as they rode their motorbikes into Khmer Rouge-held territory. Vietnam war photographer Tim Page has been in Cambodia recently continuing his search for the truth about what happened to them and I'm told is positive he's found Sean Flynn's last resting place. There's a book and a documentary in the offing I believe. Another book about the pair, Two of the Missing, Remembering Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, has just been updated and republished in paperback by Press 53. This new edition contains 18 pages of photographs by and of these two photojournalists. Most of these photos have never been published before. "Sean Flynn and Dana Stone were among the bravest and best of that daring young crew of photographers who covered the Vietnam War," says author and friend Perry Deane Young. "Flynn was on assignment for Time magazine and Stone was a cameraman with CBS when they were last seen heading around a Communist roadblock near the Cambodian town of Chi Pou." Director Ralph Hemecker has optioned the film rights to the book and is now in the process of casting. The screenplay was written by Young and Hemecker. Young is the author of three plays and nine books, including the bestseller, the David Kopay Story. A journalist with UPI during the Vietnam War, he remembers his close friends and colleagues as he examines their lives and wonders what led them to take this one final risk. Young also includes profiles of several other colleagues who took very different paths from Flynn and Stone, including the legendary madcap English photographer Tim Page.

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A few quickies

Smiling kids in a remote village on the 'ride from hell' between Stung Treng and Preah Vihear province
It's been non-stop since I got back home and tonight Davy from the Shadow of Angkor GH in Siem Reap gave me a call to invite me to dinner as he's in town for a few days, and then I fell asleep, understandably as we were painting the town a little too red during Tim's stay and my body is telling me it needs some rest. To keep you in the picture, here's five photos from last week.
Close to the edge at Preah Vihear
Tim is entertaining the young 'uns at Preah Vihear temple
Just one of the obstacles to overcome on the 'ride from hell' as I take a breather...
One of Tim's dolphin shots at Kratie, his photos were much better than mine, as the dolphins played hide and seek with both of us

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Old news

Nice to see that Goal.com have picked up the story I broke two weeks ago here that the Cambodian national football team coach Prak Sovannara has rung the changes after the team's three-match losing sequence at the Suzuki Cup finals in December by introducing 9 new faces into his squad, as they prepare for the AFC Challenge Cup group matches in Bangladesh at the end of next month. Here's the article, obviously re-worded from my own, that appeared in the South East Asia section of their website. It's good that someone at least took the trouble to give Cambodia a plug at all. Talking of the national team, their left-sided midfielder-cum-winger Chan Rithy played for the Phnom Penh Crown team as they collected the Hun Sen Cup on Saturday amid speculation that he could be off to play in the Thai Premier League next season. It's something I mooted a while ago that maybe 3 or 4 of the national team's best players need to take flight and go and play in some of the higher standard football around Asia to improve their skill, technique and big-game experience in order to bring that to bear in the international arena. I'm talking about keeper Samreth Seiha, Chan Rithy, Sun Sovannarith and the striking duo of Khim Borey and Kouch Sokumpheak. Anyway, here's that Goal.com article.

Cambodia Call Up Nine New Faces For AFC Challenge Cup
Cambodia have rung the changes ahead of some crucial matches... 30 March 2009

Prak Sovannara, the head coach of the Cambodia national team, has called on nine new faces to carry the team’s challenge for the upcoming AFC Challenge Cup qualifying round in Bangladesh with games against the hosts and Myanmar. Out of the 22 players called for the centralised training camp at the National Olympic Stadium, the decision was made to rely on the majority of the players from the recent Hun Sen Cup finalists - Phnom Penh Crown and Naga Corp FC. The Cambodian Premier League and Hun Sen Cup holders, Phnom Phen, already had Teing Tiny and Chan Rithy in the national squad and now they also have goalkeeper Peng Bunchhay, defender Lor Pech Seiha and offensive midfielder Keo Sokgnan in the line-up.

On the other hand, Naga Corp contributed striker Teab Vatanak, midfielder Pok Chanthan and defensive captain Om Thavarak alongside existing Kim Chanbunrith and Sun Sovannarith. Preah Khan Reach FC, who emerged as the third best team in the Hun Sen Cup last week, now have six players in the national squad with the addition of midfielder Khoun La Boravy. The other new faces in the Cambodia national team are right-back Pheak Rady from National Defense Ministry FC and Ly Ravy, a midfielder from Kirivong Sok Sen Chey. Those players who have been left out since their participation in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2008 are custodian Hem Samay, defenders Thul Sothearith, Chea Virath and Sun Sampratna, midfielders Sam Minar, Ieng Saknida, Ieng Piseth and strikers Pich Sina and Hok Sochivorn.


Vann Nath in Forbes

I missed this story about Vann Nath, the painter who survived the gruesome Tuol Sleng prison because he used his skills as an artist to outlast the Khmer Rouge regime, as I was away last week - coincidentally spending some time in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng. The article appears on the Forbes.com magazine website here and has come in for some criticism for a few inaccuracies. Judge for yourself.

The Goya of the Cambodian Genocide -
by Lawrence Osborne

How painter Vann Nath reveals the truth of what happened.

It doesn't take very long living in Phnom Pehn before a 10-year-old boy with dog-dark eyes slips a plastic-wrapped book into your hand as you are sitting at an outdoor cafe and says, "Genocide, sir, genocide book. Five dollar." The child hustlers here are so charming in that Oliver Twist way that you always give in and buy a genocide book and, even more depressingly, you open it. There are certainly many of them being touted by the kids working the Sisowath Quay alongside the Tongle Sap river. There are the works of the American scholar Ben Kiernan, or the harrowing war memoirs of Jon Swain and François Bizot, or various other memoirs with titles like Pol Pot Killed My Sister or A Year in Hell. Genocide is big business in Cambodia; even the set price destination menus inside the tuk tuks feature the "Killing Fields" - the former Khmer Rouge extermination camp at Cheong Ek--as their No. 1 Phnom Penh attraction, followed closely by Tuol Sleng, the secret prison known as S-21.

For the last few years, the U.N. has been sponsoring a weary, bickering, increasingly fruitless war crimes tribunal to condemn the last five senior members of the Pol Pot regime. In the summer of 2008, I watched in disbelief as Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, was judged "unfit" to stand trial for mental health reasons. This year, it has been the turn of the sinister Duch, the commandant of Tuol Sleng. The others on trial are Khieu Samphan, the former nominal head of state; Noun Chea, Pol Pot's deputy, and Ieng Thirith. But this month in Phnom Pehn I noticed that the papers were also filled with rumors that the UN was threatening to pull out of a trial seen as being manipulated by the nervous Prime Minister Hun Sen. The slippery Hun Sen is an ex-Khmer Rouge himself, after all, and he has many skeletons in his capacious cupboards.

On the streets, meanwhile, the most ubiquitous genocide book by far is a slender volume with the modest title, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: A Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21. Unwrap the plastic and you enter the most harrowing memoir of them all, a first-person account of the Khmer Rouge years by a naive country painter named Vann Nath: one of only seven men to survive Tuol Sleng. Sixteen thousand others were not so lucky. Some have called Vann Nath the Goya of the genocide, which was contrived by the Maoist regime of Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979. It was a period in which the strange, secretive dictator Pol Pot - whose real name was Saloth Sar - tried to create what the British historian Philip Short has called "the first modern slave state." Upon emerging victorious from a long guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol, Pol Pot's militant Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and drove millions of people into the countryside to work in collective farms. Twenty thousand died on the road in the first few days of the regime and during the next three years and 10 months, 200,000 were executed as "traitors." In total, between 1.5 million and 2 million died. When the Vietnamese army finally drove Pol Pot back into the jungles of western Cambodia, the country was strewn with the remains of the so-called killing fields.

But the Khmer Rouge did not cease to terrorize Cambodia. Supported by China, Thailand and the U.S., Pol Pot himself fought on in the wild Cardamom Mountains near the town of Pailin, on the border with Thailand. Atrocities continued. In 1994, Khmer Rouge units attacked a train on the Phnom Pehn-Kampot line and executed dozens of people, including three westerners. In 1997, the former Khmer Rouge propaganda minister Son Sen was murdered with his wife and children on Pol Pot's direct orders--a lurid crime that led to the dictator's downfall inside his own movement. Only with Pol Pot's death in 1998 did the movement begin to peter out, and the almost supernatural fear he inspired begin to recede.

Vann Nath's electrifying, primitivist images inspired by Bollywood movie posters and drawn directly from memory, are the only testimony to what happened inside S-21, a former French school in the heart of the city where thousands were tortured and murdered under the eye of the psychopathic Duch. It's a paradox of torture (and genocide, for that matter) that it can rarely if ever actually be photographed as it happens. But it can be painted. Like Duch, Vann Nath is quite a well-known character in Phnom Pehn. He owns a large Khmer restaurant on Czechoslovakia Street with a dark dining room walled with bamboo and filled with the kind of miniature red-lit Chinese shrines that look like shrunken porn stores. He wasn't difficult to find in the end. A slightly stooped, white-haired man with a kindly, beaten-up face, he is to be found in his restaurant almost every day, self-effacingly holding court with a trickle of visitors and playing with his grandchildren.

You see at once the wounded, hunted eyes and the slight sense of bemusement--it's a face older than its years and yet somehow also younger. When you are one of only seven people who emerge alive from a killing machine that exterminated thousands, you inevitably wonder why it was you and not someone else. As Vann Nah explains in his book, he was only spared because he was a reasonably competent artist. Duch plucked him from the execution lists because he thought he might be able to produce a few decent propaganda portraits of Brother Number One, as Pol Pot was known. (The execution orders still survive, with Duch's signature at the bottom of a long list of Vann Nath's fellow prisoners and a red line under Vann Nath's name with a comment to one side suggesting that he be spared.)

We sat in the gloom of the dining room in the middle of the afternoon, under plastic vine leaves on trellises, while he ordered me a Khmer feast: mo-cou kroeung, a fiery sour soup, and spiced omelettes called pong teair. Vann Nath has his painting studio upstairs above the restaurant and, for all his odd celebrity, it's a quiet life now, by his own admission--daily painting, family and the business. Like most Khmers, he is reticent, refined, never raising his voice or making emphatic gestures. But from time to time he covers his face with a hand in a gesture of apparent nervousness. He said that he had never dreamed his life would turn out this way, that his work would become the most instantly recognizable icon of a surreal state crime. "I thought I would be painting landscapes. Indeed, I have now gone back to painting landscapes." On Jan. 7, 1978, the 33-year-old painter was arrested. As usual with the Khmer Rouge, there was no explanation, no credible charge; the whole process was somewhat mysterious.

Equally inexplicably, Vann Nah was tortured by electrocution. The questions were always the same. Was he a member of the CIA? The Vietnamese sympathizers? The KGB? He had never heard of any of them. He was then bundled into a convoy bound for Phnom Pehn, still with no idea what he had been arrested for. Instantly, he was catapulted into a Dostoyevskian world of secrecy, paranoia and terror. None of his fellow prisoners knew what they had been arrested for either. It hardly mattered. Decades later, many Khmer Rouge cadres freely admitted that most of the people they had murdered were innocent. Killing innocents was as important as killing the guilty. "Better to kill a thousand innocent people than let a single guilty one go," was one of the Khmer Rouge's cryptically absurd slogans. In the converted classrooms of S-21, prisoners were shackled together with iron bars. They were not permitted to talk, urinate, stand or even turn their bodies without asking permission from the ferocious teenage guards. If they ate cockroaches to supplement the appalling food, they were beaten savagely - sometimes to death. The guards knew, even if the prisoners didn't, that everyone there was doomed to die anyway.

Vann Nath's gripping paintings show many of these scenes: prisoners being flogged, water-boarded, their nails ripped out, their throats cut (it was rumored that blood was collected in this way and peddled to Phnom Pehn hospitals). In a 2003 documentary made by Rithy Panh, Vann Nath re-visited Tuol Sleng with some of the former guards, who were outwardly unrepentant. With demented enthusiasm, they re-enacted their cruelties - revolutionary children tormenting their elders. They stormed up and down the corridors for the cameras, screaming at the ghosts of long-dead prisoners. Vann Nath and Chum Mey, another survivor, watched them in stupefaction. "Pol Pot was always obsessed with the Cambodians disappearing as a race," Van Nath said in the restaurant. "There was this racial hysteria about the Vietnamese, about the Khmers being conquered and assimilated. But during that whole time I kept wondering if the Khmers were simply destroying themselves. I wondered, how can we do this to ourselves? Is it self-hatred? Are we trying to wipe ourselves from the face of the earth?"

We went upstairs to the open-air studio on the first floor - a terrace overlooking the tin rooftops. It was the rainy season and the skies lit up with monstrous flashes of lightning. The studio paintings were a mix: half political paintings, half idyllic, sunset-drenched landscapes filled with Ankgorian ruins, water buffalo and the timeless villages that seem to reside in the Khmer unconscious as a kitsch memory of a lost Eden. They are the kinds of images you see everywhere at Angkor Wat, sold by scores of artists by the roadside. But the Tuol Sleng images are something else. Also derived from memory, they have the gritty, driving force of a personal pathology. Among them stood one of the hallucinatory pictures of Pol Pot, clearly inspired by the iconography of Mao. Looking at it, I was reminded of a curious observation by the French writer Pierre Loti upon visiting the ruin of Banon at Angkor Wat, which is famous for its giant smiling faces of King Jayavarman VII. Loti found the temple terrifying because of those faces, which showed the smile of totalitarian power and cruelty, of calm implacability. When I told Vann Nath this he seemed to recognize the parallel. "Yes, I can see that. I made Pol Pot smile like that because that's what they wanted."

Like a miniature gulag, Tuol Sleng had its hierarchies, its survival strategies (futile in the end, of course) and its resident sadists. Over it all presided the cool, methodical, pedantic Duch, who took pride in the exactness of his bookkeeping. Every day he came into the studio, where a handful of artists were being kept alive for official purposes, and examined their progress. The executioners always came with him. I wondered how Vann Nah felt about Duch now. "Duch was always polite to me. He would come in and look at my portraits and admit that I was making a good effort. We both knew that if I didn't make that effort I would be taken out and shot with the others, but he could pretend to joke about it. He asked me to make Pol Pot look young and fresh. I ended up making him look like a teenage girl, with the pink cheeks. Duch was delighted. I was allowed to live."

Duch was himself a curious character. A former math teacher who had come under the sway of Maoism in the '60s, he was the same age as Vann Nath and had fought in the jungle army of Pol Pot for years. As it happens, he also interrogated the French scholar Francois Bizot in 1971 after Bizot was captured by the Khmer Rouge near Angkor Wat. The portrait of Duch in Bizot's book, The Gate, was unforgettable enough. Mildly sadistic and a fanatical Communist, Duch had spared Bizot because the latter could play chess and speak Khmer. This odd Frenchman was intriguing and Duch was too curious about him to have him shot. To Bizot, there was a cat and mouse quality to their relationship, and perhaps the same had been true for Vann Nath. Vann Nath's images are more than paintings, and they cannot be judged merely aesthetically. They are folk stories lit by a sudden flash of pornographic horror. His images of water-boarding, a technique used daily at Tuol Sleng, have recently found their way all over the Internet in the light of recent controversies, though few know the story behind them. For many in the West, it was their first actual image of the technique. It shows how the archaic tool of painting has once again become strangely powerful and relevant in the age of digital media.

The faded black and white photographs from 1975, "Year Zero" of the regime, often look like something from the distant past, like views of the Middle Ages. Our sense of distance from them is already extraordinary. But Vann Nath's brilliantly colored nightmares somehow remind us that most of us were alive at the time, living happy lives elsewhere. Pol Pot is not a figure from the distant past and memories are not digital. Last summer, I went every day to the trial out by the air force base. The defendants are ancient, but the machinery of U.N. justice has tried its best to be merciless toward the leaders of the genocide. (Nevermind about the thousands of subordinates who did the actual killing. They cannot be dredged up, for some mysterious reason, and they have slipped back into the population unnoticed: a thousand killers walking the streets with their shopping bags.) As the technicalities dragged on, many impatient Khmers in the audience began to hiss and mutter angrily. Many of them were survivors or relatives of the dead. One day, I was invited to accompany a group of relatives from a small country town called Takeo, who had been invited by the U.N. outreach program to visit Tuol Sleng. The idea was to teach them about what might have happened to their loved ones and to show them the place where they might have died.

Many of these aging farmers had never been to the capital before, and Tuol Sleng to them was just a terrifying word. They arrived at the museum at 8 a.m., a large group anxious at first to have their pictures taken on the neat lawns under the shade of the frangipanis. But soon the mood changed. Tuol Sleng is filled with hundreds of mug shots taken by the captors as the prisoners were being processed prior to being "smashed." There are men, women, children--wildly beautiful young girls, old men, defiant teenagers with bloodied faces, disillusioned Party members who seem incredulous, small boys with cherubic eyes. Each one has a number slung around their neck (there is a famous Vann Nath panting of these ghastly photographic sessions). And there are pictures of the killed, too, each one with his or her throat cut, their chests cut open. There is a girl who threw herself out of a window to commit suicide. And there are the pictures by Vann Nath at every turn, exhibited here as if to corroborate the evidence. The farmers were as shocked by Vann Nath's paintings as by the portraits of the dead - perhaps more so.

Then it happened. I was standing next to a series of photos of prisoners, one of which is quite well known: It shows a young woman sitting next to her baby, her eyes turned helplessly toward the camera. Most of the portraits are marked "unknown" and this was no exception. The woman next to me was also studying this photo with excruciating intensity, and finally she let out an ear-splitting howl of grief. Tears streamed down her face. She recognized the girl with the baby. The farmers gathered round and the U.N. officials came up quickly with their notebooks; it sometimes happened t-hat a visitor recognized a dead relative, and it had happened now. The girl in the picture - the number - had a name after all, and she was the woman beside Me's sister-in-law. She had had no idea what had happened to her all those years before. The girl's name was Ouk Sareth. In the photo, she was 29. The sister-in-law's name was Nob Chim. I spent a little time with Nob Chim. She was 50 now and said she remembered "every moment" of the Khmer Rouge nightmare. Her hands shook with rage; she felt dizzy and had to sit down. She remembered she had built dams and farmed rice for Pol Pot. Ouk's husband had worked in the Ministry of Forestry and as an official had been targeted by the Khmer Rouge. He had been dragged behind a car to begin with - a little warning torture, if you like. Later, he disappeared altogether.

Ouk was sent to Tuol Sleng, it seemed, never to return. Her baby was killed as well. It is only by listening to people like Nob that you finally begin to fathom how casually the state can kill. Duch had signed Ouk's death warrant; she had shared this small prison with Vann Nath, whose Pol Pot busts stood piled up in a corner of the same room. How intimate and suffocating these interconnections were. Yet the anonymity of the regime's cruelty is strangely connected to the anonymity of its prime instigator, the man born as Saloth Sar.

It is that same anonymity that Vann Nath - consciously or otherwise - has captured in his pictures. As Nob wept, I couldn't help looking over at the impassive, smiling faces of Pol Pot that Nath had created to save his life. They explained nothing. Or did they? Vann Nath's pictures of Pol Pot are the most unnerving of all because he has captured something about the man without even wanting to. Pol Pot was always shadowy and inscrutable. He was always a smiling face in a humdrum photograph, an elusive eminence grise who ruled from behind the scenes. (During his reign, Western analysts had only been able to ascertain that Saloth Sar was Pol Pot by examining photographs of one of his state trips to China.) Inside Cambodia, many didn't know him even at the height of his power, even as they were about to die at his hands.

When Duch asked Vann Nath to put a name to a picture of Pol Pot, the confused artist said "Noun Chea." The director was highly amused, for Comrade Number One often "disappeared." He was always the puppet-master, the hidden engineer of human souls. And in Tuol Sleng one cannot help asking the question: Who was he? In a remarkable 1997 video interview with the American journalist Nate Thyer, the deposed dictator admitted, "I am not a very talkative person. … I am not a special person." He meant it. He mentioned with a shy smile that the French author Jacques Vergès had known him for 30 years "as a polite, discreet young man" but nothing more than that. Saloth was nothing if not stunningly ordinary. "Am I a violent person?" he liked to ask. How secretive the torturers always are, screened by legalisms and pseudonyms and euphemisms, their operations always carried out behind walls and closed doors - from where images can rarely travel. "If I had not painted water-boarding," Vann Nath told me one night, "people would probably not believe it had happened at all." He paused, "Let alone sawing people in half."

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It makes sense

I've some news hot off the press for you: the first-ever Phnom Penh screening of Tim Pek's feature-film directorial debut, The Red Sense, will take place on Friday 24th April at 7pm at Meta House, next to Wat Botum. After receiving a Cambofest award when it got its first Cambodian screening in Siem Reap in December, Pek's made-in-Australia film about revenge and forgiveness when a women discovers the identity of the Khmer Rouge cadre who killed her father, will be very timely considering the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal that begins again today in Phnom Penh. There were fears that the film's topic was too sensitive for some to be screened here, but it will now be shown afterall. You can find out more about the film here and I'll be bringing you additional news from The Red Sense camp closer to the screening date.

This Wednesday night (1 April) at Meta House, to coincide with the start of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, journalist/author/filmmaker Tom Fawthrop will present his rarely-seen documentary, Dreams & Nightmares: Cambodia Ten Years After Pol Pot, which he directed and produced for Channel 4 in 1989, and other films focusing on the Khmer Rouge legacy, beginning at 7pm.

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Em Theay's sadness

With the legendary Em Theay (she's squeezing my hand behind my back) in March 2008
I've just heard some very sad news but I don't have all the details as yet. A house fire destroyed the possessions of one of Cambodia's true national icons, Em Theay, last week, leaving this lovely lady without any of her prized items including her books of priceless photographs which she proudly showed me when I spent some time with her in March last year. This lady lives for classical dance and her memories, which she loves to share with her students, family and friends. I can't begin to imagine how she feels after this tragic incident. There are moves afoot to get a benefit fundraiser sorted out to screen the film The Tenth Dancer by way of providing some monetary help to Em Theay, though nothing can replace the prized possessions she has lost. To remind you about Em Theay, here's one of my blog posts from September 2006:

After posting the Beyond the Killing Fields blog entry yesterday, I recalled that Em Theay was the main subject of a documentary I watched many years ago called The Tenth Dancer, which focused on the strength and resilience of the women of Cambodia in rebuilding their traditions from the fragments of a shattered society. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the death or disappearance of over 90% of Cambodian artists, including most of the dancers of the Royal Ballet. Theay was one of the 10% to survive. The Tenth Dancer was made as long ago as 1993. Em Theay is still dancing and teaching today and performing abroad at the age of 75 years old - by anyone's reckoning that is a remarkable story.
Em Theay was chosen to dance at the age of seven by Queen Kossomak, for whom her parents worked as domestic servants. She grew up in the Royal Palace and was a dancer and singer in King Sihanouk's Royal Ballet until the Khmer Rouge took over her country. At that time she was forty-three and was sent to live in Battambang, where her talents didn't go unnoticed and her captors encouraged her to sing and dance as well as work in the fields. In 1975, twelve of her 18 children were alive. By the end of the KR period, seven had died and only five were left. Em Theay returned to Phnom Penh where her knowledge and skills of the traditional arts were put to use as a teacher at the National Dance Theatre and the Royal University of Fine Arts until quite recently. She is a vital link to Cambodia's past, quite literally a living national treasure and one that Cambodia should be tremendously proud of.


The front line

Myself and Tim (right) pose at the 5th Gopura at Preah Vihear during last week's visit
Lots of photos and articles to upload from last week's trip but yesterday was a busy one as it was Tim's last day in Cambodia and we did some scurrying around town sandwiched between a traditional Sunday lunch at the Green Vespa and a tasty curry at Sher-e-Punjab. We got home at 2am, he left at 7am for the flight back to England and I, and my liver, can now take a few months rest before he visits again.
It was interesting to read the local papers from last week about the continuing tension at Preah Vihear. We were there last Wednesday just moments after a group of armed Thai soldiers had approached the disputed border area, but we weren't aware just how nervous and agitated the Khmer soldiers were who gave us access to the barbed-wire border pass at the foot of the temple stairs. They did look a bit glum and said we couldn't take any photos whereas the rest of the troops we encountered at Preah Vihear, and there were a lot, were all very amicable and friendly. But we were at the 'front line' so to speak, so its not often you get such access in a disputed area, especially minutes after an incursion that could've sparked another gunfire battle that killed a few troops a while back. The full story about our visit to Preah Vihear to follow soon.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cup final fever

The highlight of today's cup final - a female acquaintance, Sokun, entertaining the masses
Quickly back into the swing of normal everyday life after my week away with my brother Tim in the provinces of the northern reaches of Cambodia, I had a couple of hours at work this morning before lunch at Cafe Fresco's and then onto watch Cambodia's version of the FA Cup Final, in this instance called the Hun Sen Cup, played at the Olympic Stadium. It wasn't a classic by any means, with Phnom Penh Crown managing a solitary one-goal victory over Naga, as expected, but they made heavy weather of it. Their Cameroonian semi-final sensation Lappe Lappe was kept very quiet by Naga's skipper Om Thavarak, so it was left to his teammate Keo Sokgnan to edge out their rivals with a goal late in the second half. The crowd was a fair few thousand with the main stand brimming with row upon row of military personnel, boy scouts and fans of the two sides rented for the occasion and handed a t-shirt. The VIP area was overflowing with people only seen once a year at the cup final whilst deputy PM Sok An turned up ten minutes into the second-half to milk the applause. The pre-match warm-up was provided by a band with female singers, one of whom, Sokun, I knew from our recent late-night drinking sessions, so it was a bit of a shock to see her entertaining the masses. With some recent articles in the Phnom Penh Post - including a photo of national coach Prak Sovannara in Thursday's edition - I was able to legitimately claim a press-pass for the cup final, though Tim's was a little more dubious. Tonight we'll aim to watch England's footy friendly which kicks off just after midnight Cambodia-time, whilst the earlier part of the evening is reserved for making more new friends. Postscript: England won 4-nil, and Crown's reward for lifting the Hun Sen Cup was 70 million riel ($17,500).
Substitutes and press cameramen snap the soon-to-be-victorious Phnom Penh Crown team before kick-off
The two teams line up before kick-off at today's cup final as the stadium begins to fill
The main stand is reserved for military personnel and the like
More crowd-pleasing before the big kick-off from Sokun.
The Hun Sen Cup, the Golden Boot Award and Player of the Match trophies before kick-off


Back home

No I'm not going to post a video of the England football team singing their 1970 World Cup song 'Back Home,' it's just confirmation that I'm back in Phnom Penh after my week away in the sticks (where internet and blog updates are only available in my dreams), visiting Kratie and the frisky dolphins, Stung Treng and the moto mafia, then the trip from hell from the Mekong River across the wilderness to Tbeng Meanchey and then onto Preah Vihear - where we missed an international incident by 1 hour - Anlong Veng and Banteay Chhmar before getting in last night at some ungodly hour. We used a variety of transportation, met some great people and Tim and myself had a ball as usual. Obviously more to follow, but it's the Hun Sen Cup Final this afternoon at the Olympic Stadium so detailed posts will have to wait a few days. And thanks to the fan club for worrying so much!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Frisky dolphins

Though we were out at 6am this morning to whizz up to Kampi to get our dolphin fix, it was well worth it as the 'early bird catches the worm' or in this instance a considerable amount of dolphin activity ranging from the regular splash when they slightly break the surface of the water, to full, head-out vertical appearances followed by full, body-out somersaults, which we didn't expect to see. There was one group of four dolphins who circled our boat for twenty minutes, providing us with a series of displays across the range I mentioned above. This was Kratie dolphins at their best and most customer-friendly. The boat pilot ferried us to three locations to catch sight of the dolphins, all within100-300 metres of the riverbank, most of the time using his oar rather than his engine so he didn't scare them off. It's difficult to judge how many dolphins were in the area, or whether we kept seeing the same ones, but it was certainly an experience that exceeded our expectations. And just for good measure, we were the only boat on the river during the hour-plus we were on the Mekong. For those who haven't seen the dolphins at Kampi, it's 16 kms north of Kratie, took 25 minutes by moto and the cost per person for the boat ride was $9, quite a hefty rise from recent years but if everyone has the experience we did, they'll think its worth it.
Following our dolphin fix, we carried on north as far as Wat Sarsar Mouy Rouy, the 116-pillar pagoda at Sambour, stopped at the village of Baay Samnom to chat to a group of women and children for half an hour, before heading back for a sticky-rice with nuns encounter at Phnom Sambok. We called into a few wats en route including Wat Thma Krae where I spotted a partial lintel at the base of some steps that was in good nick. Back in Kratie for 1pm, we ate at U-Hong restaurant next to the market despite there being a power-cut that affected the whole town. Now its time for some shut-eye for an hour or so. Tomorrow morning we head for Stung Treng before a cross-country adventure to rendezvous with our transport at Tbeng Meanchey (for the onward trip to Preah Vihear and Banteay Chhmar).

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kratie sunset

Despite just a few hours sleep - Tim is setting me a very bad example - we caught the 8am Sorya bus to Kratie and eight, yes 8, hours later we rolled into the sleepy riverside town. It was hot though with a hint of thunder in the air, the water levels of the Mekong River are low exposing large sandbars and we had a nose around the Wat Rokakandal site before settling down for a chat with a variety of locals and a fruit-shake along the riverbank, as the sun sank behind the clouds. My chicken curry at Red Sun Falling was pretty hot and tasty and boo-hoo to the writer of the Ultimate Cambodia guidebook who gave the bar the thumbs-down without even setting foot in it and based on someone's sexuality. Shame on you, but at least it keeps the bikers away. Off to see the dolphins at 5.30am tomorrow, well maybe a few splashes if I'm lucky. I'm hoping the low water levels will enourage them to be far less candid than usual and I'll take along a beach-ball just in case they're up for some fun [wink].


Friday, March 20, 2009

On our travels

A trip into the Cambodian countryside beckons early tomorrow morning. My brother Tim has arrived from England - my body clock is already shot to pieces after two late-night and early morning sessions painting the town red - so at least my liver will thank me for the rest as we head up along the Mekong River to Kratie and Stung Treng over the weekend, followed by the Route 66 section from the Mekong to Tbeng Meanchey and visits to Preah Vihear and up along the northern border area of Cambodia through Anlong Veng and onto Banteay Chhmar. We should return to Phnom Penh in about a week but as a result, posts to this blog will be sporadic, to say the least. Internet connections in the boondocks still leave a lot to be desired.

It's hard to believe that my last serious visit to stay in Kratie was as long ago as December 2000, when I managed to catch a glimpse of the dolphins and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets as well as get a feel for the relaxed and laid-back lifestyle along the Mekong. And my teenage guide in those days was none other than Phanna, now a successful businessman in Phnom Penh with fingers in lots of pies including No. 10 guesthouse at Boeng Kak Lake. It will be fun to compare my 2000 trip with the 2009 version. Lets hope for more of the following:
Sunsets are a treat in Kratie

Unreported World

Tonight on Channel 4 television in the UK, a filmed report from the Unreported World team focuses on Cambodia. Read about the background in this C4 exclusive.

Cambodia: Reporter's Log: Reporter Jenny Kleeman writes of her experiences making Cambodia: Selling the Killing Fields for Unreported World.

One of the most unsettling things about forced evictions is that it's impossible to know exactly when they are going to happen. For the 150,000 Cambodians currently under threat of displacement, that means living in a state of perpetual insecurity and fear. For a British crew hoping to document what a forced eviction looks like in Cambodia, it means my producer Andy Wells and I couldn't be sure if we'd be able to capture the key event in our film until it was happening right in front of us. After a few days of researching the story from our UK office, our contacts in Cambodia told us a large-scale eviction was imminent in the capital, Phnom Penh. The residents of Dey Krahorm had received their final eviction notice a month before, and the 120 families who remained on the site didn't seem to be reaching an agreement with the government over compensation for their land. The dispute had been going on for nearly four years. Even though it appeared to have taken a more serious turn in recent weeks, no one could tell us whether the residents would be forced from their land in a matter of days, weeks or even months. But we wanted to make sure we didn't land in Cambodia after it had taken place. We took a punt and decided to fly out as soon as our visas were ready – a week earlier than planned.

Once we'd touched down, it seemed our arrival was premature: the Dey Krahorm residents had managed to negotiate a stay of execution and the situation was quiet once again. In some ways, this was a relief for us: it meant we could get to know some of the key characters from Dey Krahorm - like Vichet Chan, the community representative - in relative calm. We got an insight into community life that we never would have captured had we arrived only a few days later. The news finally came that that the armed forces were poised to seize Dey Krahorm after we'd already done a full day's filming and were several hours away from the capital. It was as unexpected for us as it was for the residents. We managed to get back to Dey Krahom by 10pm. We had no idea what we were going to see that night, but once we'd spoken to Vichet and seen how distraught he was, it was clear that we could be about to witness the end of the community.

When the event you've come to film finally unfolds in front of you, you just keep filming. On the day that Dey Krahorm was raised to the ground, we worked for 30 hours straight. There was always another piece of the story to cover: from the construction of barricades before dawn and the brutality of the eviction itself to the impromptu press conference the government held on the rubble a few hours after it. By the time it was all over, we were truly exhausted. But for the people we'd been filming, it was only the beginning. They now faced the task of moving whatever they had managed to salvage to the relocation site, and trying to rebuild their lives away from the capital.

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When a young woman takes her own life, as someone we all knew from working with her for the last couple of years did yesterday, it puts into perspective that we never know what will happen tomorrow, and we can never really know what's in the minds of others. I'm not trying to be profound, far from it, I just feel numb that someone we all knew and liked so much for her positive attitude and gregarious nature on the outside, could be so troubled inside and with nowhere to turn as to make such a tragic decision. Today is not a good day. My sincere sympathies are with Kong's family and her friends, many of whom are in our office and simply cannot comprehend what has happened.
With Kong in Sihanoukville in Oct 2007

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hanuman Film Night

Meta House, here in Phnom Penh, will be hosting a Hanuman Film Night on Saturday 11 April to provide a taste of some of the diverse film and television work that the company has been involved in since it began in 2000. If you are planning a shoot, they're the ones to get things done here in the Mekong region, whether its scouting and managing locations, getting permissions, providing extras, building sets, transport, costume, you name it, they've done it on countless productions all over the area. Nick Ray and Kulikar Sotho, the two people behind Hanuman Films, will be on hand to introduce examples of their work, to answer questions and to give you an insight into what goes into making the slick documentary, film or advert that you see on the screen. The screenings will include Timewatch: Pol Pot (BBC, 2005) and Top Gear Vietnam (BBC, 2008) together with two shorts: part of the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the first Hollywood film for 36 years to be set in Cambodia and a recent Pepsi Commercial that went global.


Upside Downside

And finally, here's a video of the track Upside Downside from a good friend, Percy Dread, formerly Percy JP McLeod of British reggae band The Natural-Ites. Percy is a top guy, a fantastic vocalist and songwriter. He was due to release his solo album, with the same name as the video track, back in 2006 - he even sent me a pre-release copy to review and it was excellent - but the CD was never released. I've never got to the bottom of why the music-buying public was not blessed with this release. However, you can enjoy the video track and read more here.

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Juvenile Delinquent

And if you want some more of the reggae sounds I grew up listening to, here's a video from another of my fave bands, Black Roots, and their Juvenile Delinquent track. Black Roots were from St Paul's in Bristol and began life in 1979. Ten albums later, and definitely one of Britain's best loved reggae performing bands of the 1980s, Black Roots called it a day. This track was one of their earliest 12" releases and was also on their debut 1983 album. Taking the lead vocals for this track is Delroy O'gilvie, recorded live in 1987. Read more.

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Picture on the Wall

One of the classic reggae tunes that I was hooked into during my teens and twenties. This is The Natural-Ites and their legendary Picture on the Wall track that reverberated throughout the globe and is still popular today. The singers are Ossie Samms and Percy JP McLeod, backed by the Realistics band. The track was released in 1985 though the video looks like its from the latter part of the decade, most likely 1988 after Neil Foster had left the band. Enjoy. Read more.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Meet the coach

Cambodia's national team coach - Prak Sovannara
I recently chatted to Prak Sovannara about his own career as a player and coach before becoming the Cambodian national team coach midway through last year, and the first surprise is that he's just 36 years old, making him one of international football's youngest coaches. Born in November 1972, he made his debut for his country at 21, retired from playing at 27 to concentrate on coaching and took on the national team hot-seat last year at the tender age of 35. He's Cambodia's only Asian Football Federation A-licence qualified coach, coaching at junior, youth and club level before taking the top job after Korean coach Yoo Kee-Heung was sacked. Sovannara is quick to single out the influence of Joachim Fickert, whom he played under in the national team when the German coached the Cambodia side during the 1990s. "I learnt so much from him, about organization, tactics as well as how to handle players on and off the pitch, " he said.

Sovannara's playing career began at 17 for the Civil Aviation team in the 2nd Division. As a wide right-sided midfield player, he combined football with his sports teacher studies before joining the more-fancied Division 1 Royal Bodyguard team in 1993 - a move to a club that swept all before them in the top flight of Cambodian football during his half a dozen years there. 1993 also saw him make his international debut against a visiting USSR U/19 team, at the age of 21. It was in 1995 that Cambodia, with Sovannara as a regular in midfield, took its first tentative steps back into re-establishing its international presence. They took part in the SEA Games in Chiang Mai though their years of isolation clearly showed, conceding 32 goals and scoring none in their four matches. A year later, with Fickert (pictured) now at the helm, they took part in the Tiger Cup in Singapore, where they lost all four games, in the SEA Games in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in 1997, where they won twice and narrowly missed the semi-finals, and finished third in the Presidents Cup in the Philippines the same year.

1999 was a watershed year for Sovannara. In the SEA Games in Brunei, he was to play the last of his international matches for Cambodia, as well as parting company with his successful club side. He passed his B-licence in coaching that year and decided that coaching was where his future lay. He was 27 years old. Though he'd been involved in coaching schools and junior teams, he now moved up a notch, as assistant coach to the national youth team for the next three years, before another step up, this time as assistant to the new Cambodian national coach Scott O'Donnell for a couple of years. In 2006 he tasted a year in charge of club side Phnom Penh Empire, leading them to runners-up spot in the Cambodia Premier League before returning to coach the national youth team at U/17 level. Seemingly groomed for the top job in Cambodian football and definitely the best-equipped homegrown coach, Sovannara was the man the FFC turned to after the departure of Yoo Lee-Heung and following a few early forgettable results, he gained immediate success by guiding the country through qualification to the finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup. The next challenge will be to qualify for next year's AFC Challenge Cup finals with success in Bangladesh next month, as well as a good showing at the SEA Games in Laos at the end of the year. It won't be an easy task but Sovannara has shown he's prepared to take on that challenge, as he continues to shape and define his youthful squad.

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Wait for it...

I have a feeling in my bones that life is going to get pretty hectic over the next two weeks as my brother is arriving from England tonight and that usually signals an upsurge in nighttime activity, whilst next week we've got a plan to get out and about. Nothing's confirmed as yet but I'd like to get a good look at the activities along the Mekong Discovery Trail for myself as well as get the up-to-the-minute truth on what's happening up at Preah Vihear these days. We shall see. Just before we disappear into the blue yonder, I fancy popping my head into the Reggae & Dub party at Club Gasolina on Friday night, anyone care to join us?

Who's in and who's out?

I stopped by the Olympic Stadium at 7am this morning to get an update on the Cambodia national football team from coach Prak Sovannara, the man in charge of the country's football elite. My time was short and I didn't want to interrupt the squad's early morning training session, so I hope to catch him for a full interview sometime soon. In the meantime, I can exclusively reveal the comings and goings from the national squad of 22 players, who will form the nucleus of a reduced squad, which will travel to Bangladesh for the three AFC Challenge Cup Qualifying Group matches at the end of next month. Sovannara has been pretty ruthless in putting together his first squad for 2009, with nine players out, and nine players in. The new faces include three players each from the Hun Sen Cup finalists, Phnom Penh Crown and Naga Corp, so he's certainly selecting players who are already in good form.
Crown, the league and cup holders, who already have Teing Tiny and Chan Rithy in the national line-up, now have goalkeeper Peng Bunchhay, defender Lor Pech Seiha and offensive midfielder Keo Sokgnan amongst the 22. Naga, with Kim Chanbunrith and Sun Sovannarith already regulars in the team, have also provided new faces in the shape of striker Teab Vatanak, midfielder Pok Chanthan and their captain and defensive kingpin Om Thavarak. Preah Khan Reach, beaten semi-finalists on Saturday, are the best represented club with six players in the 22, now that midfielder Khoun La Boravy has been added. Completing the new additions to the squad are the National Defense right back Pheak Rady and Ly Ravy, a midfielder from Kirivong Sok Sen Chey.
The players who have made way after featuring in the 22-man squad for the preparations for the Suzuki Cup games in December are keeper Hem Samay, defenders Thul Sothearith, Chea Virath and Sun Sampratna, midfielders Sam Minar, Ieng Saknida, Ieng Piseth and strikers Pich Sina and Hok Sochivorn. Squad training for the Bangladesh matches officially begins at the end of this month so the players who were being put through their paces this morning, were there on a volunteer basis. They were still waiting for permission to use the pitch at the Olympic Stadium so were restricted to the grassy areas behind the goals as they concentrated on their fitness and ball skills. Such is the life of the national team.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mark your diaries

It's been very quiet on the Cambodia national football team front in recent months following their involvement in the Suzuki Cup in early December. Three defeats left the team licking their wounds but it wasn't unexpected, they were the least-fancied team in the whole competition afterall. Aside from a few mutterings and talk of bringing Khmer nationals over from France to be considered for selection, there's been a dearth of football chatter, especially about the national team. In the background, national coach Prak Sovannara has simply got on with the task of lifting his team's spirits for the forthcoming AFC Challenge Cup Qualifying Group matches in Bangladesh. Initially scheduled for early April, they have been put back until the end of next month. The two-legged pre-qualifying decider between Macau and Mongolia has at last been scheduled for 9th and 16th April and the winner of that tie will go into the group matches in Bangladesh.
With all matches to be played at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka, Cambodia will meet the hosts Bangladesh on Sunday 26th April, then either Macau or Mongolia on the 28th and two days later, Myanmar. Three games in six days is a tall order and both Bangladesh (174) and Myanmar (159) are higher-ranked in the FIFA list than the Cambodia team at 180th, but Sovannara is putting his players through their paces as I type, and will have benefitted from getting the squad together for nearly two months before the matches take place. He's made changes to the pool of players from whom he will select his squad of 18 players to take to the games in Bangladesh. Six players have departed including Thul Sothearith from Phnom Penh Crown and Pich Sina from Naga whilst six new faces have joined the national squad, who are currently training every morning at the National Stadium in Phnom Penh. Don't forget to mark your diaries with those three games at the end of April.


Bakong's male guardians

Though badly weathered and eroded this Bakong dvarapala still retains a thin smile
It's only right that as the girls who adorn the walls of the brick towers at Bakong (in the Roluos Group) have had their stint in the spotlight, now it's the turn of the boys, or the male guardian dvarapala to be precise. There are eight brick towers and I'm not sure why some have devata and others the male figures shown here. They are similar in that they are sculpted from the base brickwork and would've been enhanced by lime mortar (stucco) back when they were fashioned in the 9th century. Much of that has now disappeared, though these males still adopt a dominant and forceful pose, especially as they are the guardians of the temple and their stance would dissuade wrongdoers from entering the holy shrine. Hands on their hips and carrying a spear or long club, these guys mean business.
This dvarapala at Bakong is topped by a mini-temple in lime mortar
Strong and imposing, these male guardians deter evil spirits and wrongdoers
The brickwork with this dvarapala has darkened over the centuries, though he still retains his immense strength
Hands on hips and determined to repel evil spirits from Bakong
This male guardian is holding a small mace or gada, his weapon of attack
A gorgeously carved false door to a brick shrine at Bakong with two fierce lion-monster faces on either door panel just to deter wrongdoers

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Colonial postcards

A postcard of Angkor Wat from the early part of the 20th century
Collecting postcards isn't everyone's cup of tea but there are some fantastic examples out there which show Cambodian scenes in the first half of the 20th century - temples, countryside, town views, palace scenes, monks, servants, transport and so on - and I'm kicking myself I didn't start collecting them from day 1. One man who has is Joel Montague and he's currently arranging his collection and researching other postcards for a forthcoming book to be published later this year, or early next year by White Lotus Press. It'll be called Cambodian Colonial Postcards and will include up to 900 views from the time they began to appear, in 1902, up til the 2nd World War. It's certainly a book that I'll be keen to acquire. Joel is not just into collecting postcards either. He's recently held an exhibition of Cambodian Business Signs, 25 of which he has hung in a gallery in the United States town of Wellesley. Shop signage in Cambodia has often appeared quirky and comedic to western visitors and Joel decided to take that back to the States for public consumption on a recent visit back home. Read the story here.
Servants from the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in the early part of the 20th century


Monday, March 16, 2009

Devata of Bakong

Up close and personal with a devata from Bakong
Following close on the heels of the rich vein of lintels to be found at the pyramid temple of Bakong, the 9th century capital city of King Indravarman I at Hariharalya, or Roluos as its known today, here are a few of the devata that flank the doorways of some of the eight brick towers at the foot of the pyramid shrine. They share this position with male dvarapalas too, which I will post soon. The devata are made of sculpted brickwork that would've been covered in lime mortar or stucco as it's also called, in their heyday, most of which has cracked and fallen away through time, leaving the exposed brickwork. The figures are in niches which offer representations of mini-temples in themselves. They stand on plinths with full-length skirts and wear conical hats but mother time hasn't been particularly kind to the majority of them in terms of their current appearance.
Looking regal and serene, this devata at Bakong has lost most of one arm
The style of the female form is in its early stages here at Bakong, not yet achieving the beautiful representations we see later at Angkor Wat for example
Another good example of a devata at Bakong, now devoid of its stucco lime mortar covering
This devata has a fat face and isn't at all beautiful in her appearance
On the faint white trace of stucco remains on this devata and is missing from the mini-temple above
This devata stands on a tall plinth and the mini-temple above her is in fair condition, as is she

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Bakong lintel views

Vishvakarma sits above a spewing kala on the lintel above. Figures on elephants rise out of the garland.
I'm trying to catch up with some blog posts today including the final instalment of the lintels to be found above the doorways of the eight brick towers that surround the central pyramid sanctuary of Bakong in the Roluos Group, near Siem Reap. Constructed in the 9th century these lintels are evocative and beautifully presented with lots of vegetal scrolling, gods and deities festooned around a central kala theme in most instances. My next posts will show some of the devatas and male guardians that also enhance this particular temple complex.
No fierce kala monster on this lintel, which is practically covered in small naga heads and a central god figure on a plinth. The top of the lintel is badly damaged.
Naga heads, flying apsara figures and a central kala on a lintel that has seen better days
You can just see the brick indentations above the lintel in this photo. The lintel itself is very badly eroded and in danger of collapse.
A more regimented lintel, in fine detail, particularly the gods in a line above the central narrative, though the lintel itself is damaged
Two large nagas form the ends of this lintel narrative, with a central Vishvakarma figure though the rest of the lintel is in poor condition, and in danger of breaking apart
The final lintel, with naga ends, and a small god sitting on the kala, who is spewing forth the garlands from which dancing figures emerge
This is one of the eight brick towers, in the northwest corner, on which these lintels are still in situ and represent some of the finest of their style in all Angkor

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

At the beginning

The first major motion picture to be made in Cambodia in thirty-six years was Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, released in 2001 starring Angelina Jolie. Hanuman Films were the local servicing partner for Paramount Pictures and arranged for all filming permissions, import of equipment, accommodation and transport as well as production catering. That's not to mention handling the sensitivity of the first shoot at Angkor for so many years, ensuring it went without incident. A floating village was created on the royal pond in front of Angkor Wat, a royal visit from the Chinese premier and the King of Cambodia to Angkor had to be negotiated, as well as the logistical nightmare of getting all the equipment brought in container trucks from Thailand, with a wrap after just eight days of intense activity. This article from the Guardian newspaper at the time, provides a further insight into this incredible project that again put Cambodia on the film-making map.

Raiders of the lost temple
What happens when a big-budget Hollywood film rolls into one of the world's most isolated and strife-torn countries? James East reports on Tomb Raider's week-long shoot at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Guardian 8 December 2000.
Any Buddhist monks making a pilgrimage to the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat two weeks ago would have been greeted by an unexpected sight: a strikingly pretty, superbly toned young woman engaged in unarmed combat with a group of masked marauders, watched by a full-scale Hollywood production crew. For this sacred site is one of the chief locations used in the filming of Tomb Raider, the first big-screen outing for Eidos's phenomenally successful cyberbabe, Lara Croft.

Lara, in the shape of Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, was looking exceptionally lithe in a jet-black catsuit; the result, apparently, of several months spent bungee jumping, motorbike riding and martial-arts training. Closer examination proved impossible, alas: bystanders who strayed too close to the set were scared off by cries of "Oi, you! Keep back!" from a pack of hulking British minders. A few hours later, a group of daytrippers visiting the Bayon temple asked what all the trucks and cameras were for. The temple guide explained that they were filming a "love story". Had they been allowed closer to the set, the tourists would have witnessed something rather different: a grim-faced Lara expertly power-sliding her Land Rover through a morass of mud and water for the cameras. For director Simon West, there was never any question about who should play the lead. "Angelina was always my only choice, not even my first choice," he said. "It really was a one-horse race. If she didn't do it, I can't think who else would have been suitable."

Tomb Raider is the first film to be shot in Cambodia since Peter O'Toole played Lord Jim in the shadow of Angkor Wat in 1964 (one reason why West wanted to film there). Since then, however, the country has had other things on its plate: bombed by the US during the Vietnam war, ravaged by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge cadres in the 1970s, under occupation by Vietnamese troops in the 1980s and engulfed in civil war in the early 1990s, it has long been a no-go area for hardened backpackers, never mind unwieldy US film crews. Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984), which described the background to the murder of some two million Cambodians by Pol Pot's regime, was filmed in neighbouring Thailand.

So the impact of Tomb Raider could be significant. If the film incarnation of Lara Croft is anything like as successful as her virtual counterpart, Cambodia can expect to enjoy something of a renaissance. Judging by the impact on tourism of the modestly successful Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Beach, which triggered a mini-invasion of Thailand's Phi Phi Leh island, Angkor could be swamped with tourists within a couple of years. For a time, though, it looked as if the Cambodian Tourist Board would have to postpone its recruitment drive, since the scenes to be filmed there nearly did not happen at all. Cambodia's film infrastructure is almost nonexistent, and much of the equipment had to be brought in from Thailand along a road that once ran through a Khmer Rouge stronghold. The road is littered with potholes and mines, and the transport crew - with the assistance of a minesweeper and the Royal Cambodian army - had to drive almost 30 trucks full of equipment along it. Inching its way towards Siem Reap, the gateway to the temples, the convoy often had to stop altogether while soldiers repaired the bridges ahead. "I can't wait until it is all over and they have gone home," said a frazzled transportation manager, gulping down a beer at the end of a particularly weary day on set. "Then I can get some sleep." He was, he said, being paid just $500 per week.

For most locals, however, used to the daily grind of negotiating washboard roads, the sum represents a king's ransom. Five hundred dollars equates to more than a year's wage for most Cambodians, who usually scrape by on one or two dollars a day. Susan D'Arcy, publicist with the Paramount film unit, said hundreds of Cambodians had been employed for Tomb Raider as extras or crew. Tens of thousands of much-needed dollars have been pumped into the local economy in hotel bills, mobile-phone rentals and wages. For translator Riem Sunsoley, who learned his English in a refugee camp on the Thai border, the film has been a huge boon, earning him $25 a day for five weeks. He is putting the money towards building an orphanage for the street kids who live around the temples. He is thankful to Hollywood, but says political peace is more important. "If politics does not go downhill then everything will develop. I hope more people from other countries will come to Cambodia," he said.

Just as valuable as the influx of cash, says Paramount, is the fact that Cambodians are witnessing first-hand how films are made. In the 1960s, Cambodia had a small but vibrant national film industry, largely thanks to the patronage of the country's movie-mad king, Norodom Sihanouk. Its chief output was formulaic, sickly-sweet love stories that were unashamedly cranked out for the masses. But Pol Pot single-handedly devastated the industry, killing most of the directors and actors who failed to flee the country in time. Since the ascension of former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, the country's film industry has remained stagnant, stifled by the popularity of Hollywood and Hong Kong kick-and-chop movies. More importantly, Cambodia has no purpose-built cinemas. The old French colonial theatres have been converted into warehouses, shops or karaoke bars, and most movies are watched at home in the form of pirate videos. The fuss surrounding Ms Jolie and company, hopes the local artistic community, will revive interest in both film and film-making.

The film is also good news for the temples. The conservation authority responsible for preserving and protecting the complex is charging Paramount $10,000 per day for seven days. Much of the money will go back into caring for the temples themselves. Cambodia's conservationists have worked hard to avoid the outcry that followed the filming of a Mortal Kombat sequel in Thailand, where fight scenes were shot among the ruins of the Buddhist temples. Devout Buddhists were upset that violence had been allowed to disrupt what should have been a haven of peace. Conservationist Ashley Thompson, of Cambodia's Apsara temples authority, said the agency had worked extremely closely with Paramount to ensure that Cambodia's image was not sullied. "The film has made it past the censors here in Cambodia. What they told us is that there is violence, but that there are no guns and that Khmers [Cambodians] are not portrayed as violent people, but foreigners."

An extremely detailed contract was also drawn up to ensure that the temples would not be damaged in any way. However, the authorities decided against insisting on total control of what could be filmed. "Coming out of years of oppressive regimes, it seemed that censorship should not be something that we supported. Cambodia should be open, and violent films should be allowed, even if we don't like them," said Ms Thompson. Cambodia has found peace under strongman Hun Sen. But halfway through filming came an unwelcome reminder that the peace is all too fragile. On November 24, the capital, Phnom Penh, reverberated with the sound of gunfire when between 70 and 80 armed men laid siege to the city centre. Eight were killed and scores of suspects were rounded up. The alleged leader of what has been called an attempted coup was later arrested in Siem Reap - just a few hundred yards from where the Tomb Raider crew was staying. If the violence continues, salvaging Cambodia's tarnished image may be a task beyond even Lara Croft.


The Disappeared

A brand new novel by Kim Echlin has this month been published in Canada. It's called The Disappeared and tells the story of love between a Canadian girl and a Cambodian student who returns to his country, never to be seen again. That forces the heroine to go in search of her lost love and to discover the truth behind the country of his birth. For Echlin, this is her third novel, as well as having experience as an arts documentary producer and writer for various publications.
The following is an excerpt from the book, copyrighted to the author and Hamish Hamilton Canada.

The torturers of Tuol Sleng complained of working long hours, of fatigue. They confessed that it was difficult to prevent themselves from killing in a temper. But they did not complain of the violence. They said, If we did not kill, we would be killed.

You did not want to come with me to Tuol Sleng, Street 103, the hill of the poison tree.

I said, If you do not come I am going anyway. But I want you to come with me.

You said, No use.

Borng samlanh, come. I want to know what you know.

I put my arms around you and you let me and you said, You smell so good.

Tuol Sleng is raw.

It is easy to imagine this place transformed from museum back to extermination center in an hour. Everything left as it was. Burned walls. Bloodstained floors. Metal bed frames and shackles and electrical wires. A barrel of water to submerge a head. People walk over the courtyard graves before they know what they are walking on. There are hand-drawn signs, concrete block rooms, walls of photographs and glass cases of skulls. Paintings of the tortures, fingernails pulled out, men lying in rows on the classroom floors, shackled at the ankles, prisoners beaten and left in tiny cells. The eyes of those whose names disappeared stare from the walls. Their spirits are unprayed for because any family that might have prayed for them is dead.

Five thousand photographs of the dead of Tuol Sleng. Each picture refuses anonymity. Boy number 17. He has no shirt and they have safety-pinned his number into his skin. A small woman with the number 17-5-78 pinned on her black shirt stares into the camera and at the bottom of the photo a child’s small hand clings to her right sleeve.

Grief changes shape but it does not end.

It was a hot day and your forehead was damp. You said, When I first got back I came here to see if I could find pictures of anyone I knew. Tien’s whole family disappeared. I never found anyone who knows what happened to them. In the first months people wrote the names of those they recognized on the pictures. I found no picture to write on.

In Tuol Sleng a person is asked to stare. A person is asked to imagine clubbing someone to death, imagine attaching wires to genitalia, pulling a baby by the ankles away from its screaming mother and smashing its head against a tree.

I was numbed by this vision of a human being. I stood beside you and you were so far away that I could not touch you.

In Tuol Sleng a person can be torturer or tortured, a person can imagine a Pure system.

The Khmer Rouge said, Better to kill the innocent than to leave one traitor alive. This is the heart of Purity.

When I was writing this, I dreamed an old woman came to me and said, Help me to see into the darkness. In the dream I protested, How?

See the child. She has a strong jaw, but her eyes are a child’s eyes. Look into the pupils of her eyes. This is a body made vulnerable. This girl is available to wound. She does not even wear a number. She was not even worth a number. This is war. This is the darkness. This child too was murdered in Tuol Sleng.

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First time in Cambodia

I've got a bee in my bonnet about films and documentaries that concentrate on Cambodia but haven't yet been shown here. There's been an explosion of films about Cambodia in recent years yet many have not been screened here for the general public, hence the reason why I arranged last night's Out of the Poison Tree screening at Meta House. It's an important film that gives Cambodians a voice about their own past, and with the Khmer Rouge trials about to begin in earnest, it was very timely and relevant. I was pleased with the size of the audience, all the seats were taken and the feedback on the film afterwards was very positive. I know Beth the director and Thida, the main subject, were very happy that their film was shown here and we now plan to show the film again in next month's Meta House programme. I took some screen captures including two of the most poignant moments in the film, where widow Lech Buon said she is still waiting for the return of her husband after 30 years, and 16-year old schoolgirl Davey Heng, who spoke so eloquently of her desires for justice. My thanks to Nico at Meta House for putting the film into the programme and I hope to get some more films shown there in future months.
Thida Buth Mam and her sisters return to Cambodia to find the truth
Schoolgirl Davey Heng who spoke so eloquently through a flood of tears
Widow Lech Buon is still waiting for her husband's return, 30 years on
Some of the audience at last night's first-ever screening here of Out of the Poison Tree


All smiles at Olympic

All smiles for hatrick hero Jean-Roger Lappe Lappe. You can tell he's an important asset - he's surrounded by security personnel
Saturday afternoon is reserved for football here in Phnom Penh and so it was off to the Olympic Stadium to watch the two semi-finals of the Hun Sen Cup competition, a precursor to the start of the Cambodia Premier League. There's quite a bit of money on offer for the winners and all the professional teams here go into the hat with the lesser lights, so there's always that chance of a giantkilling. However, this year's cup semi-finals came down to the four best teams with Phnom Penh Crown the obvious favourites. They won the league and cup double last year and look set to do the same this season too. In Jean-Roger Lappe Lappe they have a Cameroonian striker who has power, pace and quality finishing skills and he was the dominant factor in the first of the two semi's yesterday. His hatrick sealed a 4-0 win for his fancied team against Preah Khan Reach, who are no slouches themselves with four national team players in their line-up, but on the day they were no match for Lappe Lappe and his teammates. Barring a disaster, they may as well pick up the cup now instead of waiting for the final on the 28th - just kidding. In the second semi, Naga Corp saw off the navy boys from Phuchung Neak, 2-0, in a closer encounter, but still a little one-sided. So the final will be Phnom Penh Crown (formerly Empire) and Naga Corp and should pull in a good crowd on Saturday 28th March.
Phnom Penh Crown line up before the semi-final. Their team included national players Chan Rithy, Thul Sothearith and Teing Tiny.
The other victorious semi-finalists, Naga Corp. They included national team captain Kim Chanbunrith and Sun Sovannarith.
Perhaps more importantly, I had a brief chat with the Cambodia national team coach Prak Sovannara (pictured) who was casting a watchful eye over members of his national team that were playing on the pitch below. With the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying group games coming up in Bangladesh very soon, he's already got his squad together, five days a week, putting them through their paces and expects to take a squad of 18 players to the three-game tournament next month. With three of last year's squad retiring, he's called six new players into the training camp, including two from Phnom Penh Crown and a striker from Naga. The matches will be against the hosts Bangladesh, Myanmar and the winners of Macau or Mongolia, who will play a pre-qualifying decider beforehand. If I can fit it in, I'll try to pay a visit to one of the national team's training sessions next week.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Angkor's rival

Today's Cambodia Daily Weekend supplement cover featuring Banteay Chhmar
An article in today's The Cambodia Daily puts the focus onto the remote Angkorean temple complex of Banteay Chhmar in the northwest of the country. More on the 4-page article later, after I've been to watch the Hun Sen Cup semi-finals at the Olympic Stadium, as well as hosting the film Out of the Poison Tree at Meta House later tonight. Busy day.
Postscript: Anyway back to the article. The fact is that Banteay Chhmar is an incredible monument but it lies in virtual ruin. That will be the job of the restoration efforts of the government and the Global Heritage Fund to decide what to do - partial restoration, full restoration or leave it but make it safe. One comment in the article said that it would take 150 years to restore - not sure they'd get funding for a scheme that long! As it stands, GHF are beginning a restoration effort (since March of last year) on the third enclosure and one of the face towers, under the leadership of John Sanday, who spent many years restoring Preah Khan at Angkor. Another aim will be to have the temple added to the World Heritage List, as Preah Vihear was recently added. The article also alighted on the touchy subject of zoning and land concessions around the temple site and the effect on villagers, as well as the community-based tourism efforts being made in the area. Its interesting that up to 38 family homes are involved in their 'home stay' operation now, and in the last year, over 700 visitors used the facilities.


Under a full moon

The on-stage cast of Breaking the Silence; LtoR: Sakona, Tonh, Sovanna, Sotheary, Sokly, Sina, Vutha
Last month, I watched the first performance of an excellent play titled Breaking the Silence, which has now just finished its initial run in the countryside of Cambodia, taking its message out of the city and amongst the rural population. Here's a report from yesterday's International Herald Tribune.

A drama of closure for victims and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge - by Sally McGrane (International Herald Tribune)
In Cambodia's Takeo Province, night fell on a field across from the village pagoda. Women cooked crispy cakes over open fires to sell to the crowd. By the time the lights came on, several hundred villagers had assembled in front of a portable stage. The Cambodian actors, dressed in street clothes, began speaking in Khmer. "So many stories. We have to tell our stories," said one. Another said, "How did it happen that Khmer killed Khmer?" 'You must try," said a third, "To help us think this through." The audience in this heavily former Khmer Rouge area watched with attention as "Breaking the Silence," the Phnom Penh-based Amrita Performing Arts' new play, proceeded on Sunday night. Written by a Dutch director, Annemarie Prins, "Breaking the Silence" is based on oral testimony from Khmer Rouge members and victims who had taken part in interviews at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. The play tells the stories of seven perpetrators and victims in a series of short vignettes.

But it is not just a play. Performing concurrently with the Khmer Rouge tribunals, "Breaking the Silence" is an appeal to Cambodians on both sides of the divide to speak up about what happened to them. "We want this to be in the service of the community," the Amrita's program director, Suon Bun Rith — whose grandmother lives in Takeo, just down the unpaved road from the performance space — said on a recent weekend. To this end, after each show, Suon or an emissary invited audience members to come forward and tell their stories. After the performance Sunday night, a man took the microphone. "Those who killed should come and see this show," he said, going on to say that he lived near a man who had killed several members of his family. He cited a scene in the play in which a former Khmer Rouge nurse apologizes for not helping a woman's dying father, explaining that she was trapped by circumstances. "Sometimes I try to talk to this man who killed my family," said the speaker. "But he just turns away." The play is very sympathetic to the perpetrators whose stories it tells, portraying them as victims in their own right. "We don't blame anyone," said Suon. "We want the community to start a dialogue."

The play premiered in Phnom Penh in late February, and then toured the provinces for eight performances, the last of which was Wednesday. This is unusual in a country in which nearly all cultural events take place in the capital or in Siem Reap (and was the cause of some pre-performance confusion for a food vendor in Takeo, who asked Suon if this was going to be a magic show put on by traveling medicine salesmen). The fact that it reaches isolated areas is part of what makes the play so powerful, according to Youk Chhang, who runs the Documentation Center of Cambodia and collaborated with Prins in the early stages of the project. "People talk about the tribunals, and of course that's good for the victims," he said. "But these people can't go to the trials." He was referring to the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal that began Feb. 17th in Phnom Penh. "This is something for them in the village. This is their stage and their court."

Chhang, who recently proposed to the minister of education that the play be included in school curriculums, dismissed the idea that a Western director might impose a Western understanding of trauma on the actors and audience. "Genocide is a crime against humanity," he said. Prins "isn't Dutch, she's human." He reconsidered, then said, "The title — 'Breaking the Silence' — that's foreign. But we don't call it that, in Khmer." While Amrita translates the title more or less directly, Chhang said that only a handful of educated city dwellers refer to it that way. "The villagers call it 'Khmer Rouge Stories' or 'Pol Pot Stories,'" he wrote in an e-mail message. For Chhang, the play holds up a mirror for the audience — something, he said, that was important for the victims' process of healing from the trauma they have experienced. He also cited the play's emphasis on Buddhist philosophies of forgiveness. Then he added, "I think of myself as a strong person, a bone collector. A relentless genocide investigator. But the first time I saw this, I cried."

The four main actresses were all victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Morm Sokly, in her 40s, plays a 7-year-old girl in one vignette who, famished, steals the family's rice. "My own experience gives me a depth of understanding for what we play on the stage," she said. "The girl who steals the rice — I have that guilt in myself." The younger members of the production said that they learned from the play, as well. "Before, as a Cambodian, I knew my mom and her family had had very sad experiences and lost family members," said Chey Chankeytha, 24, a classically trained dancer who choreographed the show. "But I had never heard from the people who worked in the killing fields. From the play, you see how it felt to be a Pol Pot child soldier. We should know both sides."

The play's current run ended this week under a full moon in a field across from a rice paddy in Kandal Province with a small but rapt core audience (several middle aged women had returned for a second night in a row). Barring funding problems, the performance will resume in November after the rainy season with another eight shows in the Battambang and Siem Reap regions. Given the reactions of those who choose to speak after the performances, "Breaking the Silence" seems to hit a nerve. After the Saturday night performance in Takeo ended, a gray-haired woman took the microphone. Crying softly, she said, "This was my story I saw on the stage. The kids might not believe it, but it's true."


Friday, March 13, 2009

Lintel heaven

The north-west brick tower in the foreground with the stepped-pyramid of Bakong behind
I promised you more of the beautiful lintels that adorn the eight brick towers that surround the base of the imposing stepped-pyramid from the 9th century at Bakong in the Roluos Group, near Siem Reap. The sandstone lintels are decorated with a variety of monsters and a richness of motifs that makes them among some of the best decorative lintels in Khmer art, according to many. The upper band of the lintels are usually very high with a row of worshippers or deities. The brick pediments immediately above them were sculpted too but modelled in stucco, which has disappeared over time. Some of the lintels are in fantastic condition though others are weathered or have been disfigured, though each of the lintels here follow pretty much a similar design with floral garlands across the center of the narrative.
Full of figures, fifteen in total with two lion-like creatures known as gajasimha at the ends and Vishvakarma sitting on the kala. There are also naga heads and a row of deities at the top.
A much less intense lintel narrative with far fewer figures though essentially the same design with Vishvakarma the central god
Much of this lintel is badly eroded though figures riding elephants remain clear, as do the deities high above
The figures high above are less defined and the lintel is full of floral scrolling, with Vishvakarma again sat regally on the grinning kala
Quite a vivid lintel though partly disfigured. There are many figures either side of Vishvakarma on a plinth - no kala at all - with a multitude of naga heads and two human figures at the ends of the entwined garlands
Detail from a corner of the final lintel, showing a small figure bearing the weight of the lintel and above a human figure has replaced the makara-cum-gajasimha

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Cambodia by Jimi Lundy

Jimi Lundy is a Cambodian-born singer who writes and sings great songs and ballads. His debut album, Steal My Heart, containing this track, Cambodia, came out in 2004 and it's definitely time we had album number two. Jimi has also contributed music to the soundtrack of The Red Sense and images from the film run through this video. He lives and works in Australia.

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The long search for justice

The above is the headline in today's Lifestyle section of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper. The article is credited to me and is effectively the Q&A I did with Beth Pielert and Thida Buth Mam, the director and main subject of the film Out of the Poison Tree, that gets its Cambodia premiere at Meta House tomorrow (Saturday) night at 6.30pm. The article is already on-line at the PPP website here.

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A taste of Red Sense

Director Tim Pek's The Red Sense movie received its premiere in Melbourne, Australia a year ago but has only been screened in Cambodia once to-date, at the CamboFest in Siem Reap in December. I'm now hoping to get it screened in Phnom Penh, so in the meantime, to whet your appetite, here's a trailer from the feature-length movie.


Meet Song Kosal

Meet Song Kosal: One afternoon, at age six, Song Kosal’s life was changed forever. While working in the rice paddies with her mother in Bavel village, Battambang, she stepped on a landmine. Kosal’s right leg was severely injured and had to be amputated. She now walks with the assistance of a single crutch.

When she was 12, with the support of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Kosal became active in the Cambodian Campaign to Ban Landmines. After campaigning extensively in Cambodia, she traveled to Vienna, Austria in 1995 and spoke to government officials at the Convention on Conventional Weapons. She was the first person to sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty in Ottawa, Canada, and was present in Oslo, Norway, when the ICBL and Jody Williams were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "Sometimes I dream that I have two legs again and I run freely in the ricefields, feeling the grass under my toes," says Kosal. "I really wish that soon my friends and I can play without danger, with no more mines in our fields."

Kosal has taken her message to Spain, Australia, Japan, Canada, United States, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Mozambique, Morocco, Belgium, Switzerland and France. She has met with heads of states and dignitaries around the world including the King of Cambodia, Queen of Spain, Queen of Jordan, and the US Secretary of State. She has given addresses at the Hague Appeal for Peace and Meetings of States Parties. She created the Youth Against War Treaty and presented the over 263,000 signatures collected to the Bush administration in 2001 in an effort to influence the US to join the Mine Ban Treaty. That same year Kosal was named ICBL Youth Ambassador.

As ICBL Youth Ambassador, Kosal represents youth campaigners and survivors at events worldwide. Kosal has succeeded in putting a face to the many lesser-known child landmine survivors around the world. In her role as ICBL Youth Ambassador she continues to raise awareness around the world, while pursuing her university studies in Phnom Penh. Song Kosal has dedicated her life to creating a world free of landmine dangers.


Bleak and powerful

3 drug addicts from Vancouver's Eastside in Heroines
I invested some time this evening to watch a couple of documentaries that had absolutely nothing to do with Cambodia. Meta House was the venue for two films by a man with 30 years in tv, film, music and theatre, Stan Feingold. An Emmy-winning director, Stan is in Cambodia for a reason, but more of that later. Tonight, he introduced two of his films, Prisoners of Age, an immersion into the world of geriatric convicts whilst following the photographic work of Ron Levine, followed by Heroines. The latter is a story of drug addiction and prostitution in Vancouver's Eastside, again mirroring the work of another photographer, Lincoln Clarkes. All pretty bleak stuff but powerful portraits nonetheless and which have been seen all over Canadian television and are still used for educational purposes. When Stan is not back in Canada producing reality-tv shows, he's currently shooting footage for a landmine awareness film focusing on the controversial Miss Landmine Cambodia project, which is underway. He was kind enough to let me know he's a regular reader of this blog, which introduced him to Karen Coates, the author of the excellent book Cambodia Now and her photographer husband Jerry Redfearn, both of whom then arrived to watch the films at Meta House. Small world. Karen and Jerry are now living back in the States but also split their time here in Asia. It was good to see them both again. Talking of photographers, I hope to have some news soon of a brand new photographic gallery and exhibition space opening up in Siem Reap, courtesy of my good friend Eric de Vries. Between you and me, he's managed to persuade veteran photographer Tim Page to exhibit some of his iconic photographs for the first month of the gallery's existence. Quite a coup.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Amongst the best?

One of the beautiful lintels to be found at Bakong in Roluos
The sandstone lintels that can be found adorning the eight brick towers that surround the base of the central pyramid temple of Bakong in the Roluos Group near Siem Reap, are considered by many who know their stuff, as amongst the very finest lintels in Khmer art. Later today I'll post some photos of most of the lintels in situ so you can judge for yourself. They date from the late 9th century, the reign of King Indravarman I and whilst they are rich with figures, their central motif is usually a kala with vegetal garlands and makaras or nagas appearing at the ends. I visited Bakong a few weeks ago and whilst I agree they are very beautiful lintels, their narratives are bested by other lintels I've seen on my travels, though perhaps not in such high numbers as can be found at Bakong. More to come.
Finer detail from the lintel above. The central figure is Vishvakarma sitting astride kala who is spewing garlands, upon which 4 figures are riding elephants. There are sea makaras at each end, lots of floral scrolling and a line of acolytes at the very top of the lintel.

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Cambodia premiere

This coming Saturday (14th March) at 6.30pm, the first screening in Cambodia of the documentary film Out of the Poison Tree will take place at Meta House, next to Wat Botum in Phnom Penh. Don't miss it. It's the story of a family's search for truth about the horrific years of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. It's relevancy is so appropriate with the first of the Khmer Rouge trials soon to take place, some thirty years after the regime was toppled. It's an opportunity to hear what today's Cambodians think about justice and forgiveness.
Filmmaker Beth Pielert's beautiful and moving film follows Thida Buth Mam and her two sisters back to Cambodia to find out more about the disappearance of their father, Buth Choen and to hear first-hand from Cambodians about the necessity for justice, a trial and forgiveness. Perhaps the most poignant plea for justice comes 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 acclaimed Long Beach artist praChly complete the picture.
A faded picture of Thida Buth Mam's father, the subject of their return to Cambodia to search for the truth


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Footy update

I haven't been around much to catch any of the on-going Hun Sen Cup football competition being played in Phnom Penh in recent weeks but this coming Saturday is the semi-final stage at the Olympic Stadium here in the capital, and I hope to catch some of the action. The two games will be played in the afternoon and will see league champions and cup holders Phnom Penh Crown (formerly Phnom Penh Empire, pictured above) take on last year's 4th-placed Preah Khan Reach, while the unfancied Phuchung Neak will do well to stop Naga Corp. In the quarter-finals, Phuchung Neak provided the shock of the competition when they knocked out the Defense Ministry on penalties. However, the military team had themselves to blame by putting their national striker Khim Borey on the bench from the start. Naga also needed spot-kicks to defeat Ranger FC (previously Khemara Keila), who had national striker Kouch Sokumpheak in their ranks and who netted five times in the previous round but couldn't repeat the feat in this game. The other semi-finalists are the cup favourites Phnom Penh Crown, who beat Build Bright one-nil - they boast the national defensive partnership of Thul Sothearith and Teing Tiny, as well as left-footer Chan Rithy in their line-up - whilst Preah Khan Reach knocked Post Tel aside 3-0. Preah Khan have four members of the national squad in their ranks together with legendary veteran striker Hok Sochetra. The Hun Sen Cup Final will be played in Phnom Penh on 28 March.
The next games for the Cambodian national team will be in Bangladesh of all places in early April, as they take part in the qualifying group stage of the AFC Challenge Cup, with games against the hosts, as well as Myanmar and the winners of Macau or Mongolia, who will play a pre-qualifying decider beforehand.


Finding Face

Hats off to local newspaper The Cambodia Daily today with a couple of stories that caught my attention and which deserve a quick mention. The first is a new documentary film that will open today for its premiere at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva, titled Finding Face. It's all about the case of teenage karaoke video star Tat Marina, who was doused in acid during an attack at the end of 1999. It cites the story of Marina's years of plastic surgery and her decision to never return to Cambodia, while the film also focuses on the spate of other attacks on women in the months that followed. No-one has ever been brought to justice for the attack on Marina. Skye Fitzgerald and his wife Patti Duncan created the 80-minute documentary but have no plans to show it in Cambodia for fear of reprisals against some of its subjects who still live here. Find out more at Spin Films. Fitzgerald's previous focus on Cambodia was in his 2007 film Bombhunters, whilst Tat Marina's story was also used as the basis for the graphic novel Shake Girl, which you can read about here.

Next up was the front cover lead of a story that never seems to go away, or come to fruition. It's Nhem En again, the guy who took the face photos of the ill-fated Tuol Sleng prisoners on arrival at S-21 during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia's late '70s, and who now wants to build a museum documenting the Khmer Rouge using his own pictures. He's bought the land for his project which he will host in the former KR stronghold of Anlong Veng, where he is deputy governor and the museum will house his personal photos from 1975 up until 1998, though his S-21 pictures will not be used, which seems ill-advised to me. He's on the hunt for money of course, which sounds like a never-ending record in his case, claiming that a simple prototype museum which he wants to complete by the year end will cost him $50K out of his own pocket. You may recall that a film about him, The Conscience of Nhem En by director Steven Okazaki, was recently in the running for the best short documentary Oscar. When I see comments like, "the world should thank me for my work," and "everything I did was just following the regime's orders," alongwith his view that his photos are the reason that the world cares one jot about Cambodia and the suffering it went through, I get very annoyed that he gets so many column inches and then realise that I've just done exactly the same as the newspapers...duh!

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Feeling a whole lot better

I am back in the office today, with my repaired skin and everyone says I look healthy again. It's a little too early to celebrate as I'm still on medication but at least I can be seen in public again without small children running away shouting and screaming hysterically. And when I get around to shaving my face, I might just begin to look human again. The improvement in such a short space of time has been dramatic and if people didn't eat whilst reading this blog, I would post before and after photos, but I wouldn't do that to even my worst enemy as I did look pretty horrific at the end of last week. The skin man in Singapore deserves a lot of credit.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Head in the clouds

With my head in the clouds
In bringing to a close my brief sojourn in Singapore, primarily for medical care but I couldn't stop myself from doing a little bit of sightseeing, though my early departure meant I missed out on a visit to the Asian Civilizations Museum, I haven't taken any photos from up in the skies for at least a couple of weeks, so here's a few more to add to my collection. You may recall my last bout of aerial photography was in a scary microlite ride near Angkor a month ago. This new bout was on the Silk Air MI608 flight as it made its way into Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh.
A bird's-eye view of Pochentong Airport and runway as we sweep around
Part of the suburbs of Phnom Penh city
Getting up close and personal with Pochentong town center
A more conventional view of the Pochentong Airport arrival terminal as we land

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Inside the Poison Tree

Thida (left) and Beth (right) filming Out of the Poison Tree at Angkor
This coming Saturday (14th March), the first showing in Cambodia of the documentary film Out of the Poison Tree, will take place at Meta House (next to Wat Botum) at 6.30pm. Filmmaker Beth Pielert's beautiful and moving film follows Thida Buth Mam 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 comes 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. I urge you to come along to Meta House and watch this film. Below is a two-person interview with Beth and Thida to give you more details about the film and their personal views.
Q. Where did the idea for the film come from?
A. [Beth] In 1998 when I finishing up my short film Kiss My Cleats, I was visiting family on the East Coast and I shared a ride to the airport with Henry King Jr., a former junior prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. Meeting Henry sparked an idea for a film about 'Right Livelihood' where people who were exposed to great injustices like the Holocaust worked in careers that helped bring justice to the victims. The summer of 1999, I was spending time with Henry and researching other potential subjects when my mother handed me an article from the New York Times that featured Craig Etcheson and his work at the Yale Cambodian Genocide Studies Program. As I was in Connecticut already, I was able to meet Craig and interview him on camera. In doing so, I learned more details about the Khmer Rouge regime and the long-overdue need for justice. By that time, Craig had already co-created The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and encouraged me to get to Cambodia in person as the trial in his opinion was bound to happen soon (this was 1999). In 2000 I flew to Cambodia with my step-father Robb and together we spent 10-days exploring Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime to better understand their desire for justice and what they had lived through. It was after we journeyed to Siem Reap and Robb discovered Aki Ra and the Landmine Museum that I became hooked on the story of healing and reconciliation for Cambodia. This was the year 2000 and personal stories of healing and reconciliation for survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime were not yet prevalent. I began production in earnest on Out of the Poison Tree in 2001.

Q. How did you and Thida meet?
A. [Beth] I met Thida Buth Mam in 2002 through Maureen Phalon who knew Anne Weills, co-creator of CORKR. By 2002 I had already shot interviews with the Director of DC-Cam, Youk Chhang and Aki Ra, in addition to a former Khmer Rouge soldier and loads of smaller interviews all of which made up the framework for the film. But, I was in need of a contemporary component, an arc that could join stories from the past with the present. I always thought this would be the Trial but, unfortunately for the people of Cambodia and the film, that was taking forever to materialize. Anne suggested I meet with Thida, who had lived through the regime and who could potentially serve as a consultant. Thida and her incredible family were so generous with their time and stories that Thida went from consultant, to translator to Associate Producer of the film. When Thida phoned one day in late 2004 to say that she and her sisters were returning to Cambodia specifically to look for her father Buth Choen, I requested that I film her and their journey and they generously agreed.

Q. When did filming take place in Cambodia? How long did the process take from start to finish?
A [Beth] There were 3 trips to Cambodia: the first was a research, pre-production trip in 2000, the second was the first production trip in 2001, and the third and final production trip took place in 2005 with Thida and her sisters.
The film took seven years from concept to completion: 1999-2006.

Q. What do you hope people will take from the film?
A. [Thida] For me, I want to tell the Khmer Rouge genocide story. If we look into the reasons the Khmer Rouge had which led to the genocide, they were all reasonable, especially when a nation is under dictatorship or oppression, it can happen again, especially in Cambodia. The Cambodians must know themselves well to prevent this from ever happening again. Also, I was hoping to give voice to the victims of Cambodia. I hope I represent them well. Cambodians should be fearful of the return of the Khmer Rouge the same way the Americans are afraid of another Vietnam War.
A. [Beth] There are several things that I hope people take away from Out of the Poison Tree, the foremost being - understanding. Understanding what it was like to be a country like Cambodia caught in the middle during a time of great political tension between the US and Vietnam. The fallout from economic stress caused by the US bombings, starvation and military dominance helped enable the Khmer Rouge to come to power. I also wanted to provide a sense for what it was like from the victim's point-of-view and how this unquenched justice spans the generations as you see with Heng Davey, the young school girl. I wanted to provide a sense for the 'choiceless choice' position many of the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge Regime were in - for many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers it was truly kill or be killed. Finally, I wanted to capture some of incredible beauty that is uniquely Cambodian both in landscape and in the Khmer people. My one regret is that I didn't adequately capture the humor of Thida and her sisters, a humor and lack of bitterness that truly amazes me to this day.

Q. Thida, is the search for your father now complete? What did your Mum think of the film?
A [Thida] No,
I decided to stop. I don't think I can deal with finding out more details. Every time we find out a small fact around my father's fate, I went crazy in my head and heart. I think it is best that I don't know. I have many years more to live and I don't want to live with that horrifying story of my father. Basically, I went searching the truth about my father and found the truth about me, I cannot handle the truth. As for my mum, she is like me, she cannot handle the truth. She discouraged us from going and never asks me about it. When I bring it up, she starts crying, so I stop bringing it up.

Q. What are your hopes for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal?
A. [Thida] M
any things, here is my short list:
1. They (all of the Khmer Rouge leaders) admit to their crime.
2. They apologize.
3. They explain to us why they did what they did.
4. They tell us who else was behind this. China? Vietnam? Thailand?
5. That this practice of law or justice, will make the Cambodian judiciary system better.
6. Acknowledgment of a brutal time in Cambodia where history will be well written and that my generation feel that we have done our best.
7. The Genocide story will stay alive.
A. [Beth] In many ways I wish that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal had been created in the image of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission out of South Africa. I think that granting amnesty to the perpetrators may have expedited the Trial and yielded more details about the 'how and whys' of the Khmer Rouge which would help create an accurate account for the history books, help the world understand how this could happen so as to prevent future Khmer Rouge and most important enable Khmer Rouge leaders to say to the Khmer people: 'I did this, this is why, I know it was wrong and I'm sorry'. That said, I know Duch just said he was sorry which is huge. Admission and remorse - finally! I also echo Thida's wishes and my hope is that there are clear consequences, however late they may be, for the egregious acts that were committed during the Khmer Rouge and that they are enforced and examples are set for a better government in Srok Khmer.

Q. Finally, Thida will you return to live in Cambodia?
A [Thida] I
have bought some land where I plan to build a home when I can afford it. I hope, in my retirement, to live in Cambodia most of the time. I hope I can contribute back to my homeland.

Note: If you wish to purchase the dvd, visit Beth Pielert's GoodFilmWorks website.

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Medical update

2nd appointment with the skin man at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital here in Singapore this morning and progress is good. I look human again now and am feeling much more confident about being around people. The skin man was going to admit me into hospital when he saw me initially as I really wasn't well on the outside but because I didn't have a fever, he gave me the benefit of the doubt. The course of treatment, pills and creams, have already done wonders and I am so relieved. It's not finished yet of course, I've only been on treatment for 4 days but the improvement to-date is remarkable. This skin man knows his stuff. He'd like me to stay another 15 days to find out what caused it but that's too long, so I hope to get back to Phnom Penh in the next day or two. How rude of me not to introduce the skin man. Meet Dr Lee Chui Tho (pictured), consultant dermatologist at Mt Elizabeth Hospital. As I've already implied, he is a top man in his field and diagnosed my condition within moments of me walking through his door. He promised to treat and clear it and so far he's kept to his promise. If you ever need the services of a guy who knows skin, he's your man. Click here. [End of medical update]
Postscript: Couldn't wait to get back home, so to avoid the crowds that would be waiting upon my return (according to Eric), I got a seat on the plane back this afternoon and am already at home, looking at my face in the mirror without wincing for the first time in a couple of months. Now all I need to avoid is the following: heat, sun, sweating, dust, insects, food, stress, people and any genetic disorder passed to me by my parents - if I manage all that, I shouldn't get a recurrence anytime soon!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Temples... what else do you expect?

This devotee is preparing the goddess Kali for a ceremony at Sri Veermakaliamman temple
Although I kept out of the sun as much as possible, I went on a walkabout of Little India today as well as popping over to Chinatown on the MRT train system just to get a few hours of sightseeing under my belt. My skin was looking considerably better, people weren't staring at me anymore and so I felt more comfortable than I have been for quite a few weeks. It's back to see the doctor tomorrow morning, but in the meantime it was out and about whilst still taking it easy and leisurely. First on my viewing list was the Hindu temple of Sri Veeramakaliamman and I walked smack bang into a ceremony with clashing cymbals and loud music accompanying a line of temple devotees performing a symbolic parade much to the delight of the hordes of followers packed into the courtyard. The temple is dedicated to the Goddess of Power, Kali and was built as early as 1855. There was so much going on at the same time it was hard to keep track of everything. Pressing on, I had a look at the shophouses along Dunlop Street before a quick visit to the Masjid Abdul Gafoor mosque, built in 1907 with a unique sundial on its entrance, the only one in the Islamic world dedicated to 25 chosen prophets.
The gopuram entrance way to the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali, located on Serangoon Road
A devotee at the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple annoints a worshipper with white paste on the forehead
This brightly-painted second floor shophouse is in the Little India Art's Belt area
A well-kept group of shophouses have been converted into the Kerbau Hotel on Dunlop Street
Not all the shophouses on Dunlop Street have been kept in good condition
The unique sundial at the entrance to the Masjid Abdul Gafoor mosque
A quick ride south on the MRT train and I got off at Chinatown, popped into MacDonalds for a bite to eat and then headed along the lantern-decorated Temple Street with its strikingly-painted 3-storey shophouses before visiting the oldest Hindu temple in the city, the Sri Mariamman, originally built in 1827. By comparison to the first Hindu temple today, this was as quiet as a mouse and the only one where they expected you to pay for your camera. Chinatown was much more overtly commercial than Little India, and a lot more colourful. The Chinatown Heritage Centre (cost: 10 Singapore dollars) was well worth it for a real insight into the birth of, and daily life in the Chinese area of the city through the ages. I'm still under doctor's orders so I took the MRT back to my hotel for some rest and to post this blog. By the way, so far the MRT prices work out at a little over a single Singapore dollar, cheap, clean and very convenient. Would I want to live here, no thanks, way too busy, way too developed, way too organised and no-one looks anyone else in the eye, they're all too busy and pre-occupied with their lives. And I was told off for taking a swig from my bottle of water whilst waiting for the train to arrive - honest!
Brightly coloured paintwork brings Chinatown to life on Temple Street
This gorgeous 3-storey shophouse hosts a travel agency on Temple Street
Lanterns abound along Temple Street, as part of the colourful scene in Chinatown
The busy gopuram of Sri Mariamman temple even though inside it was a quiet haven of peace
Every level of the Sri Mariamman gopuram has the goddess Kali being worshipped

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

An hour in Little India

Its hot so an umbrella comes in handy for this cyclist on Petain Road
With an improvement in my condition, I decided on a longer walk around part of the Little India district of Singapore prior to my lunch, rather than staying cooped up inside my hotel. Following a route in the Little India Walking Guide leaflet published by the Singapore Tourist Board, I headed first for some fine examples of shophouse styled homes in Petain Road, numbered 10 to 44. A shophouse is usually a 2 or 3-storey building where the first floor is used for retail purposes and above the shop, are the family's living quarters. However the excellent examples on Petain Road are purely homes and well kept homes at that. Just outside a shophouse is the 'five-foot way', a covered corridor literally five feet wide, that provides shelter from both sun and rain. Next was the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Hindu temple with its elaborate gopuram entrance tower depicting gods, goddesses and mythical beasts. Tuesday and Fridays are the holy days when the temples are abuzz with religious fervour, but even today it was busy with many people stopping by for a chat and to eat inside the shrine. I didn't see anyone doing any worship of any kind. This temple is on Serangoon Road and is dedicated to Lord Perumal, the Preserver of the Universe and god of mercy and goodness. The gopuram, depicting stories of Vishnu, is a later addition in 1975, whereas the original shrine was founded in 1855. Next door is the Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya temple with its 300 ton, 15-metre tall state of Buddha in its main hall and opposite is the Leong San Buddhist temple with its statue of Confucius inside. The gates to the domed structures of the Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman temple were firmly closed so it was back to my hotel after a bite to eat.
The lovely shophouses of Petain Road are overshadowed by the high-storey buildings behind
The shophouses on Petain Road have been lovingly restored
Beautiful colours and gorgeous mouldings create a lovely home for the lucky owners
The decorated gopuram entrance way to the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple on Serangoon Road
The goddess Lakshmi on the wall of the temple
This 300 ton, 15-metre high Buddha adorns the Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya temple
One of the domed buildings at the Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman temple
More shophouse styles seen on Jalan Besar Road with the first floor used for retail
2nd floor shophouse styles on Jalan Besar Road

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Angkor ticket changes

1-day Angkor Park temple pass
Responding to requests from the tourism industry, Sokimex, who hold the concession for managing the Angkor temple complex and nudged by Hun Sen and the Ministry of Tourism, have made a couple of changes to the rules governing the use of entrance tickets to the Angkor Park. Whilst there is no change to the daily tickets (cost $20), the $40 tickets for 3 consecutive day visits can now be used to visit the site for up to 3 non-consecutive times, as long as the visits are made within the period of 1 week. This is particularly good flexibility as it allows visitors to have a day or so rest from the temples, get to see a bit more of Siem Reap and surrounding countryside and can avoid getting 'templed-out.' With regards to the $60 weekly visit tickets, these can now be used to access the temple for 7 days, but over a period of 1 month. I can see this causing some confusion for the ticket checkers, who will need some training sessions to get these new rules under their belts. And when do the new rules come into force - when the new tickets are printed!


Two of the best

Em Theay and Denise Heywood. Photo courtesy of William Bagley
Anyone who reads my blog will know that I was genuinely upset that I had to miss Denise Heywood's talk at Monument Books a couple of days ago - absolutely gutted is how I would phrase it. However, Denise has sent me a run-down on how it went - including who was amongst the audience and that the projector screen fell down whilst she was talking! - and best of all, I love the above picture of two of my favourite ladies, Denise and the legendary Em Theay, who came to the talk with her daughter. Em Theay is a national treasure and icon and deserves her place at the pinnacle of Cambodian dance today. Here's a link to a story in the Phnom Penh Post about Denise and her book: Phnom Penh Post. And here's a few more photos that Denise has just sent me.
Em Theay and in Denise's words: "she's my favourite person and someone whom I revere for her courage, strength, inner and outer beauty."
Denise couldn't get enough of her special guest, Em Theay
Denise with Prince Sisowath Tesso, the great-great-grandson of King Sisowath, and Secretary of State at the Tourism Ministry
Denise signs a copy of her book for Helen Jarvis

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Thanks Steel Pulse

A nice surprise on the official Steel Pulse website, click here - the band are in New Orleans right now and are donating proceeds from merchandise sales and raffling a guitar and more in aid of causes dedicated to those that suffered at the hands of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Steel Pulse sends out well wishes to
our good friend Andy Brouwer who without his love and support, much of the content on this site would not be here!
Get well soon!
Your Pulse Family!


Friday, March 6, 2009

Raised eyebrows

I was a mite surprised to hear of the commemorative monument unveiled in Kien Svay district yesterday in remembrance of the KPNLF fighters who died between 1979 and 1991. It flies in the face of the current CPP leadership and their close allegiance to Vietnam, hence my raised eyebrows. Thank goodness they didn't put it next to the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument! The KPNLF (The Khmer National Liberation Front) were dedicated to ousting the Vietnamese forces who took control of Cambodia after they expelled the Khmer Rouge in early 1979, as well as the People's Republic of Kampuchea government - who later became the CPP - that they installed. In forming a coalition with the royalist FUNCINPEC and the Khmer Rouge forces that were pushed to the Thai-Cambodian border area in 1979, the KPNLF kept alive a guerrilla war on and around the border areas that carried on through the 1980s and garnered support from Western countries like USA, Britain and others, including China, primarily because of their opposition to Vietnam. The aim of the KPNLF was to see a democratic Cambodia, though as their rather strange bed fellows in the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea they chose the Khmer Rouge, perhaps the least democratic group of murderers on the planet at that time, and the royalists led by the former king, Sihanouk. The KPNLF founder was a former prime minister, Son Sann (pictured, TIME Inc), who was held in high esteem as a statesman, vehemently anti-Vietnamese and who, alongwith Sihanouk, were the acceptable face of the coalition, so much so that they were allowed to hold the Cambodian seat at the United Nations. Much of the guerrilla war in the 1980s was fought from the border camps, with the KPNLF's largest source of supporters being in camp Site 2 which they controlled. The newly-unveiled monument holds the inscriptions of the names of KPNLF resistance fighters who died between 1979 and 1991. Next time I'm out that way, I'll pay a visit.


Just outside the door

Singapore's shophouses are often dwarfed by high-rise office blocks or living quarters
Now I am not in Singapore on a tourist jaunt, this is strictly medical tourism and to be frank, I'm not in the mood to wander around a very hot and humid city with people staring at my angry red face. Nevertheless, just outside my hotel there's some interesting architecture dating back to the time when this area of Singapore, Little India, was home to the remnants of Indian convicts brought here to work as construction labourers in the 1920s. Given land and buffaloes as well as their freedom they settled in this area and it continues to this day, as colourful, noisy and busy as any so-called Little India's around the globe. There is an eatery every second shop or so it seems and a lot of them are housed in Singapore's shophouses, quite similar in style to the colonial French ones found dotted around Cambodia provincial towns. Here's a selection, all within a block of my hotel, when I popped out to get some lunch. My doctor has suggested a rest from sun, heat, sweat and dust, so it was literally, out and back in a few minutes. I know Little India has a lot more sights to see but maybe I'll have time for that when I see some improvement in my condition.
Built in 1925 these shophouses have all received a lick of paint in recent years
More of the same row of shophouses in Sam Leong Road, Little India
A colourful home and shop complex in Sam Leong Road, with definite Indian influences
The beading on this property look almost Georgian in style. This can be found on Jalan Besar Road.
This is my home for the next few days, the ill-named Classique Hotel in Little India - finding reasonable accommodation at bargain prices was impossible.

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Medical bulletin

Primarily for family and friends, I saw the skin man this morning and he said I have a severe case of discoid dermatitis that is inflamed by bacterial and viral infections. Its very treatable and the course of tablets and creams I'm now on should control it and cure this flare-up in a matter of weeks. Then he would be keen to find out why and what caused this strong adverse reaction. My childhood of asthma suffering has come back to haunt me and my occasional hayfever sneezes are both linked to this problem but it will need a stint in hospital to get to the bottom of it with various tests. For the time being I will see how the treatment goes, will stay in Singapore for a few more days at least, re-visit the skin man on Monday and take it from there. A stint in a Singapore hospital will cost me a pretty penny - the consultation and medicine aren't exactly cheap - so whether I stay for tests to get to the root of the problem will need careful consideration. I could be allergic to a type of food (I hope its not chicken, that would be earth-shattering!) or something as obvious as a dislike of the sun, or it may've been brought on by stress. If anyone is interested, there's more about the condition here. Medical bulletin now over.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Medical stuff

Not sure how this is going to pan out, but I fly to Singapore tonight for medical treatment on my ever-worsening skin infection. I hope to continue my daily blogging but we'll have to see how things shape up. Keep your fingers crossed. I will have to miss Denise Heywood's talk at Monument Books tonight (bugger and damn) and also next Saturday's (14 March) film showing of Out of the Poison Tree at Meta House looks unlikely too. However, this infection has been going on too long, all tests have proved inconclusive and I need to get it sorted pronto as my face and body look like a train-wreck. It ain't a pretty sight. Wish me luck.

Postscript: I'm still kicking myself that I had to miss Denise Heywood's talk tonight at Monument. Someone please put me out of my misery and tell me it was wonderful... We'd been planning this event for months and on the day it happens I have to leave the country. Typical! As it was, I boarded my plane to Singapore as Denise began her slideshow and eventually got to my hotel in the Little India district of Singapore at 10.30pm, in the middle of a thunder shower. Everything went like clockwork including the MRT train ride from the airport to just around the corner from my hotel, so maybe that's an omen for the rest of my trip. I have an appointment with the skin man at 10am tomorrow morning. I am tempted to post a picture of myself I took this morning but I might lose the few people that actually read this blog, so I won't.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Stories of Cambodia

How many budding filmmakers come to Cambodia and put together their own documentary? I reckon there are quite a few out there, for instance I recall attending a screening in the UK a couple of years ago now by two young guys straight out of film school and here's another twentysomething film student who has produced his own independent documentary, filmed exclusively in Cambodia. 22 year old Charles Duncombe and his girlfriend Larissa Kalnins came here early last year to document the trials and tribulations at a volunteer school in Siem Reap in their film Stories of Cambodia. The film will get its premier screening in Australia on 16 March and you can find out more about it here.

Staying on the film front, I've just got a copy of the March program at Meta House and the highlight for me will be Saturday 14th March and the first-ever showing in Cambodia of Out of the Poison Tree. It starts at 6.30pm. Don't miss it, especially as I was the one who persuaded the filmmaker Beth Pielert to screen her film here. It gives Cambodians a voice about the Khmer Rouge period and the current trials, so its very relevant to today. What else catches my eye during the month? Well, there's a mix of Cambodia-linked films, with Burma, the rainforest of Borneo, Vietnam and much more. Of the former, Changing the World on Vacation, this Saturday looks promising, as does We Want You To Know!, a film project featuring rural Khmer Rouge survivors by Ella Pugliese (Sunday 22nd). The Dey Krahom evictions aren't forgotten and Erik Lofting's Red Earth Village film will be shown on Wednesday 25th, whilst Stanley Harper's evocative Cambodian Dreams gets a re-run on Saturday 28th. One of the exhibitions coming up soon that will capture Phnom Penh through the eyes and paintings of Chhim Sothy and Ian Whittaker is The Life of The Streets, which kicks off on 31 March. Meta House is next to Wat Botum on Street 264 and deserves your support.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Changing lives

I haven't seen the monthly listings for Meta House (next to Wat Botum in Phnom Penh) yet but this coming Saturday (7th March) at 6.30pm they are showing Changing the World on Vacation, an intimate portrayal of the grassroots organization PEPY (Protect the Earth Protect Yourself), their founder Daniela Papi and the NGOs efforts to support children's education in rural Cambodia with the aid of 'volun-tourism.' With over 1,500 charities working in Cambodia, this is a chance to take a first-hand look at what one such organization does and how it affects the people on the receiving end. It's 90-minutes long and the director is Daniela Kon. Should be fascinating. Find out more here.
Don't forget, on Saturday 14th March at Meta House, the first showing in Cambodia of the documentary Out of the Poison Tree will take place. Thida Buth Mam returns to Cambodia with her two sisters to discover what happened to their father during the murderous Pol Pot regime and how justice and reconcilliation is viewed in light of the current Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

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Not like the old days

I'm still disappointed about the tree-felling at Preah Palilay in Angkor Thom. Not to mention the monk who asked me for cash-for-photos. But I'm not surprised about either. The trees must be having a detrimental effect on the chimney-style shrine, though they've left the roots where they are which is a bit puzzling. As for the monk, life as a novice isn't a bed of roses and trying to cash in on a tourist's predilection for photos of orange-clad monks at temples is a good scam if you can get away with it, you just don't expect it from a monk. As for the atmosphere of Preah Palilay, yes it's not the same but it's still a nice temple in a quiet, pleasant corner of the city of Angkor Thom where just a few hundred metres away the hordes of asian tour groups are milling around the Terrace of the Leper King and the Bayon. Here's a then and now look at Preah Palilay.
Then...(courtesy of Nick Ray)
and now...(courtesy of me)


Monday, March 2, 2009

Return to Banteay Ampil

Nature and the man-made temple are vying for supremacy at Prasat Banteay Ampil
In January 2007 I visited Prasat Banteay Ampil for the first time. Here's what I wrote at the time about that visit: Another fifteen minute walk, along a flooded path and across rice fields near the village of Andong Pei, we arrived at the temple. And what an excellent find it was. Amongst the trees and sounds of cicadas, and with the 5pm golden light shining on it, the temple looked at its best. Inside a large laterite wall with sandstone gopuras, are two libraries and one substantial central tower with a porch, open to the east and west and housing some attractive carvings and lintels. It was tricky as the path through the temple is by picking your way around the rubble underfoot but its definitely a temple worth more time than we could allow. With the light fading fast we headed back to Heng and the 4WD, leaving us no time for a look at another ruin nearby, Prasat Lich. Prasat Banteay Ampil is about 8 kms from the main road to Damdek, but local help is essential to locate it.
One of the gopuras with a false door along the outside laterite wall of the temple
A few weeks ago I had the chance to return to Prasat Banteay Ampil with Rieng, this time on a moto as part of a nine-hour trip that also included visits to Phnom Bok and Chau Srei Vibol. More on all of those temples in due course. On my first look at Banteay Ampil I was rather taken with it. On my second visit it didn't seem as good as I'd first thought. It's a large site with some substantial sandstone buildings but the place is in a ruined state fighting for survival against the vegetation, lots of the carvings have been stolen or disfigured and it's not easy to find. Pending a full report from our day-long trip, here's a few photos of Prasat Banteay Ampil to give you a flavour of this remote temple site located in the wilderness on route to Beng Mealea. I asked the Apsara guard on duty (he arrived after us because he heard the engine of our moto) about other visitors and he said he recalled a helicopter visit a few months earlier - I later found out Amansara occasionally fly their high-class tourists out here for a picnic - but that was about it for the past year!
The main sanctuary has an unwelcome visitor dislodging its stonework
Trees have taken root on the top of some of the temple's buildings


The earliest Sea of Milk

Two schoolfriends getting ready for class at Wat Preah Einkosei
Vishnu hanging off the pole is the central character of this Sea of Milk lintel
Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva and an asura holding the naga are all shown on the Sea of Milk lintel
Opposite the Angkor Conservation compound in Siem Reap and just across the river is Wat Preah Einkosei. Over the years I've visited the grounds of this pagoda a few times to look at the two Angkorean brick towers that stand to the east of the main vihara. The main point of interest is the version of the Churning of the Sea of Milk that is in situ above the missing Indra on Airavata with two flanking lions lintel. The Churning here is narrow but nicely defined, simple yet detailed. From left to right you can see a four-armed Vishnu, Brahma sat on a lotus plinth and Shiva on Nandi; followed by one asura holding the naga's head opposed by seven devas on the far right, with Vishnu hanging off the pole that is pivoting on Kurma the tortoise. The scene was completed in the mid-10th century and is one of the earliest on record, and very unusual. Above the the two registers of the lintel, a stucco pediment of Krishna Govardhana is all but eroded. The colonettes are decorative and the doorjamb houses an inscription giving details of the temple site. These are all found on the east-facing doorway of the larger of the two towers. In front of them are the remains of a sandstone gopura with its doorways intact but little else. On my most recent visit the area was a children's playground before the bell sounded for the start of classes and became deserted in seconds. Well worth popping into see the lintel if you have time.
The larger of the two brick towers at Wat Preah Einkosei
The double lintel of the Sea of Milk and Indra's mount Airavata
A nicely decorative colonette
The doorjamb inscription from Preah Einkosei
The east doorway of the ruined sandstone gopura at Preah Einkosei
In a corner of the temple grounds was this posh-looking Neak Ta


Denise's celebration

This coming Thursday (5th March) at 6pm at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh, one of the most passionate and evocative speakers I've ever listened to, Denise Heywood, will give an illustrated talk about her latest book, Cambodian Dance - Celebration of the Gods. This 144-page coffee table book was published at the end of last year by River Books and is a lavishly illustrated celebration of this noble artform. Without reservation, I recommend you attend the talk and buy the book. Denise (pictured) is currently dipping her toes in the sea at Sihanoukville though found time to answer some of my questions to provide some background to both the book and herself.

Q. Lets start with the book itself. What prompted you to write a book on dance in Cambodia?
A. I wanted to write the book because as soon as I first saw the dance in Cambodia I loved it. I've always loved dance and ballet, by the way, throughout my life. But I was so moved by the plight of the dancers during the Pol Pot regime when 90% of them were murdered. The courage and determination of survivors to recreate their lost heritage was inspiring. Although many articles have appeared on their work, I felt a book would do them justice and honour them. The book is dedicated to the dancers who survived the Pol Pot regime. Also the history of Cambodian dance is, in essence, the history of Cambodia, since it goes right back to Angkor and is a part of the spiritual and artistic recovery of the country today.

Q. How long did it take to write and did you have a sponsor for the book?

A. It took me three years to write, but has been in the making since I first came here in 1993 and I had written and lectured on it extensively before the book. Alas I had no sponsorship for the book and financed the work entirely myself. It was a labour of love! But I had the tremendous support and advice of the publisher, Narisa Chakrabongse of River Books. Without her belief in the project it could never have happened. She and all her colleagues at River Books, in particular Paisarn at the Bangkok office, and Chris in the London office, were marvellous. Narisa personally went through all the text and pictures meticulously, helping me with corrections and ideas, suggesting changes and improvements. Thanks to her it was a much better book. I was also indebted to various people who looked at the script for me and I have thanked them in the book.

Q. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?

A. My hope is that readers will gain an understanding of the rich heritage of living arts in Cambodia, of dance's profound connection to Angkor, of which more scholarship will emerge in the future I am sure, and of the spirit of the Cambodian people and in particular the dancers in working to recreate what was so brutally destroyed in the Pol Pot regime. The fact that Cambodian dance was deemed by UNESCO to be part of the intangible heritage of the world speaks volumes for their dedication. Dance is often described as the soul of Khmer culture and studying its history and symbolism is a great insight into Cambodia.

Q. You have written books on Luang Prabang and Cambodian dance, any more in the pipeline?

A. My book on Luang Prabang was equally hard work and is now out in French too. Once again, this was all thanks to Narisa Chakrabongse and River Books. She organised all the drawings and maps which accompany each of the sections on the temples and went through all the text and photos. Like all of the books she produces, it was beautifully designed and laid out. For the moment I am thinking around several other projects in the pipeline related to my focus on the art of Southeast Asia. To answer two questions at once, my focus has been Angkor in particular, but I lecture and write on Laos, Vietnam and now on Bali and Java. The dance of Bali is of great interest to me at the moment. In Britain I lecture for NADFAS, (the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies) and also now on the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) post-graduate Asian Art Course in conjunction with the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. I also lecture to many other travel, art and cultural organisations and to schools, to sixth forms, particularly on Cambodia.

Q. What sparked your interest in Southeast Asia in the first place? And especially Cambodia? What are your particular interests?

A. My interest in Cambodia, and Southeast Asia, was pure chance - perhaps destiny! I came here travelling in 1992 for six months and as soon as I arrived in Cambodia, in January 1993, fell in love with Angkor. I came for a week and stayed for three years. Angkor, dance and Luang Prabang are my specialist areas since I've written books on them, but as mentioned earlier I do lecture on other areas. The history of France in Vietnam is of particular interest to me as well.

Q. You live in London now, how often do you come back to SEAsia? Tell me more about your lectures.

A. I do come back here at least once or twice a year, bringing cultural tours to Angkor and Laos, and lecturing on cruise-ships. It's really a great honour to do these. And it enables me to escape the terrible English winters! As for lecturing, I was originally a journalist, but when I went back to England in the mid 1990s people were so fascinated by Cambodia, which was less known at that time, that they asked me to give talks which I was able to illustrate with photos since I am also a photographer. These just escalated and I started giving more and more. I never had any training, but just watched other lecturers and decided how I would present my own. I did a lot of work on the content, studying in great depth in the SOAS library. Becoming a lecturer for NADFAS was a great honour as this gave me many wonderful opportunities to lecture all over the world, as they have organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France, Germany, Holland and elsewhere. Thank you for describing my lectures as passionate and evocative - perhaps that's because they come from the heart!
  • Click here to visit Denise Heywood's own website.

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Morricone magic

The incomparable Ennio Morricone
There's little to better a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon listening to the stirring music of Ennio Morricone. I've just watched his Arena Concerto dvd, filmed in 2002 and recorded live in Verona, Italy. Morricone is a genius, and his music will live on forever to accompany the images of the films he has scored or as individual pieces that will stand the test of time. He is the maestro but credit must also go to the soloists and musicians of the Rome Sinfonietta Orchestra who have been accompanying Morricone on stage and in recording studios for many years. His entourage include pianist Gilda Butta, singing sensations Susanna Rigacci and Dulce Pontes, as well as the key members of the orchestra such as Antonio Salvatore, Monica Berni, Carlo Romano, Fausto Anzelmo, Marco Serino and Paolo Zampini. With his advancing years, Morricone has set himself a challenging goal of delivering more live concerts around the globe whilst his film compositions have reduced in number, with just a few films like The Demons of St Petersburg, Resolution 819, Baaria and The Lady being given the Morricone treatment in the last two years. Here are some screen captures from the dvd which I recommend everyone should have in their collection. Link: Ennio Morricone
The soprano Susanna Rigacci
Monica Berni on the flute (right)
Carlo Romano (left) and his oboe have been with Morricone for 25 years
Dulce Pontes is an amazing vocalist and sings some of my favourite Morricone tracks
The youthful flutist Paolo Zampini
Piano soloist Gilda Butta
The lead violinist Antonio Salvatore, a Morricone man for many years


Ta Prohm Kel

The faces of two acolytes on the ground near Ta Prohm Kel
A couple of hundred metres from the western entrance to Angkor Wat, and ignored by almost everyone, is a small chapel-style ruin called Ta Prohm Kel, built in the late 12th century and supported today by wooden beams and struts. It's located in a quiet clearing and has devatas on its walls, some tapestry medallions on its doorjambs and a lintel and pediment where the main Buddhist dieties have been removed. There's a legend associated with the site that suggests Pona Krek, a paralysed beggar was cured by the mount of Indra, Airavata, who carried him away, but there's no carvings to that effect though lots of small stone carved figures reside on the ground around the shrine. It opens to the east with false doors on the other sides though the west side is badly eroded. Further along the road to the South Gate of Angkor Thom, where I was headed to begin my bike ride around the walls of the city, I stopped for a quick peek at the small brick shrine of Rong Lmong - restored in the late 1960s - sat high on a brick base with its worn lintel of the three-headed Airavata, minus Indra. Another small temple that gets overlooked by the masses.
Ta Prohm Kel as you approach from the main road
A kala lintel with vegetal scrolls and the small Buddhist figure removed. This pediment above has two rows of worshippers but with no central figure remaining. This is on the north side.
This cracked devata is holding a lotus blossom
At the foot of a column this dancing figure is badly eroded
This is a view of Ta Prohm Kel from the south side, showing some of the supporting woodedn beams
A crowned devata without her feet
Tapestry medallions on the doorjambs of Ta Prohm Kel
One last look at the east facing entrance of Ta Prohm Kel
The 3 heads of Airavata are visible but Indra is not, on this lintel at Rong LmongThe small brick shrine of Rong Lmong, a few hundred metres before the South Gate of Angkor Thom

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