Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bubble is burst

Cambodia's AFC Challenge Cup dreams are over for another two years as they lost to a solitary goal in the fourth minute of injury time against the Group A winners Myanmar in Dhaka late this afternoon. With Myanmar needing just a point to secure the automatic qualification place, they made sure of top spot with their 94th minute winner from Win Thein after Cambodia had more than held their own for the majority of the game. Cambodia national coach Prak Sovannara, needing a win to retain any hope of qualifying, tinkled with his offensive-looking team line-up and it appeared to be going to plan with Cambodia holding their much-fancied opponents, and creating a couple of guilt-edged chances before that cruel late winner in time added on. Sovannara said, "We played good football throughout the match but were unfortunate to miss some close chances. The free-kick which bounced off the bar post was unbelievable but things like this happen and we just need to pick the pieces from here and play better next time." A crowd of 2,500 watched the game at the Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka in cooler conditions than of late. The Cambodia line-up was: Seiha, Chanbunrith (61 Sokngorn), Raksmey, Tiny, Thavrak, Borey, Vathanak, Sokumpheak, Laboravy (46 El Nasa), Narith (73 Ravy), Sovannarith. subs (not used) Mic, Chanthan, Rady, Pichseyla. Cambodia return home tomorrow, having finished third in their group on three points after hosts Bangladesh defeated Macau 3-0 in their evening kick-off to clinch the runners up spot and the last place in next year's finals.

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Publicity shot 1976

Steel Pulse - November 1976 version [copyright Colin Gabbidon]
I've got the bug now as regards early photographs of Steel Pulse and here's one I haven't brought you before even though its been on my Steel Pulse website for about six years. Its a very early publicity shot of the band, a year before they signed for Island Records and really took off. It was in the collection of Colin Gabbidon, the band's drummer at the time of the photo, November 1976, and just before Colin decided to call it quits after being involved from the very beginning. As you can see they were already trying different angles to get themselves an identity so they stood out from the crowd of bands trying to break through. It looks like clothes were beginning to play a part too, the yellow Taffri gown on the right was popular around that time and this was the forerunner of the distinctive stage act which the band were to perfect a year or two later. The band line up at the time, just as they released their first single, Kibudu, Mansetta and Abuku, was: [back row LtoR] Selwyn Brown, David Hinds, Michael Riley, Basil Gabbidon. [front row] Ronnie McQueen, Colin Gabbidon. See more photos from 1976 here.


Mannox magic and more

Selwyn 'Bumbo' Brown of Steel Pulse in 1978
I am a glutton for early photos of Steel Pulse and Peter Mannox has a drawer full of them, having been born and brought-up in their backyard of Handsworth in Birmingham, and been around at the time the band were just kicking off their successful music career with Island Records. These are two more photos from Peter which he took in early 1978, showing what most reggae band members at that time did when they weren't playing their instruments. Peter, who now lives in the wilds of Scotland, is able to provide hard copies in higher resolution of these priceless early photographs, up to A2 if you so require. Contact him through his blog here.
Steel Pulse's David Hinds contemplating life in 1978
You may recall that back in April 2008 I posted a slice of a self-portrait by Steel Pulse's lead man David Hinds. Well here is the full painting in all its glory. As you may be aware, the early history of reggae legends Steel Pulse has always intrigued me. They've been my band of choice since I saw them at Cheltenham Town Hall in 1978, some four years after their formation in the backstreets of Handsworth in Birmingham. The founding fathers of the band were David Hinds and Basil Gabbidon. They were best friends, both attending sixth form at Handsworth Wood and they both had Saturday jobs at the Co-Op supermarket in Winson Green. They loved music and they loved art. So much so that they left Handsworth Wood and went to the Bournville College of Art to continue their studies. Basil took a one year vocational course in graphics and David, who joined Basil in the supermarket on Saturday's only, took a foundation course in art studies and later moved onto the School of Art at Margaret Street, the Art Department of Birmingham Polytechnic. It was during his first year at Margaret Street in 1974 that David painted this self-portrait. It's oil paint on cotton duck canvas, 21"x20" and shows David at home - and is a unique piece of artwork by one of the world's leading reggae artists.
David Hinds' 1974 self-portrait in oils

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Ever the optimist, I've been trying to get my head around the rules and regulations of the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying games as Group A enters its final stage later today in sunny Dhaka. Myanmar lead the group on six points and to most observers look favourites to qualify, needing just 1 point against Cambodia in their 4.30pm kick-off. But if Cambodia can raise their game and win, that will put a completely different reflection on qualification. If Cambodia beat Myanmar, and score enough goals then it will all rest on the Bangladesh versus Macau match tonight and come down to goal difference, as the hosts will be expected to beat the minnows. And once Group A is decided, then the AFC will have to determine the best ranked of the runners up who'll join the following teams, already through to next year's finals; India, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka. And that's when it starts to get a bit tangled up in the various nuances of the competition's regulations.

Why you ask? Well, it's all to do with next year's eight-team finals in India (to be played in July 2010). The last of the qualifying spots will go to the best ranked runners up out of the four qualifying groups. That would've been easy to pick the best ranked based on points accrued or goal difference or even greater number of goals scored. However, the fly in the ointment is that the number of teams in the groups became lopsided when Afghanistan withdrew. That means the qualifiers will have played an unequal number of group matches so to ensure equality, a comparison mechanism needs to be adopted. The AFC version states that all teams must be compared across a similar number of matches, and their decision is that the result of matches between the runners up and the bottom-placed team in the group will be considered null and void. All points and goals will not be taken into account. And the best ranked runners up will then be based on the following criteria: greater number of points, goal difference, greater number of goals, fewer yellow/red cards or drawing lots.

Are you still with me? Lots of ifs and buts of course but that's always the way with qualifying group stages in major competitions. Qualification from Group A rests on the two matches being played in Bangladesh later today and they are both finely poised to bring us the thrills and spills of knock-out football. I wouldn't have it any other way.
You can read the AFC competition regulations here.

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Press clippings

My article in today's Phnom Penh Post - click to enlarge
Note: To read the Macau match report in the Phnom Penh Post, click here.

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May's Meta highlights

Well, for starters I will be hosting a couple of documentary nights at Meta House later next month, so I recommend you get along to both of those evenings. As part of Legacy Week, on Thursday 28th at 7pm, I am really pleased to present a double-bill of The Tenth Dancer and Samsara. These documentaries are from 1993 and 1989 respectively and are a time capsule of how Cambodia had survived the Khmer Rouge period and almost ten years of Vietnamese control. I'd asked Sally Ingleton for a copy of The Tenth Dancer before I heard about Em Theay's sad loss when her house burned down last month, so this showing will be particularly poignant. The following evening, Friday 29th, in 'Never Before Shown In Cambodia,' I will have two documentaries to screen, Isabelle Abric's 1993 Fear & Hope In Cambodia which chronicles Cambodia's recent history, and Anne Henderson's 1998 film The Road from Kampuchea, telling the story of the courageous Tun Channareth, co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
Meta House, on Street 264 in Phnom Penh, will also be screening Site 2 by Rithy Panh on the 30th, and earlier that week, on the 27th, a double-bill of John Pilger's The Betrayal and Tom Fawthrop's Dreams & Nightmares, both documentaries from 1989 and exposing the West's support of Pol Pot. It's a packed month to be honest, with the We Want You To Know! film - with scenes of the KR period recreated by villagers on Sunday 10th - and lots of other interesting films on show, as well as the usual exhibitions and a Pride 09 film festival that focuses on the LGBT community in Cambodia. Link: Meta House.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The word from Dhaka

Cambodia's national coach Prak Sovannara is not a happy man, despite his team beating Macau 2-1 yesterday to register their first win of the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying group matches being played in Dhaka in Bangladesh. In a match he had expected his team to win comfortably, his players failed to find their goal-scoring touch and I think in the dressing-room afterwards, they would've been left in no doubt as to his feelings. However, in the scramble for qualification places, Cambodia's shyness in front of goal in this game may not be as damaging as at first glance. With the group winners getting automatic qualification, the last qualifying place for next year's finals will go to the best-ranked of the runners-up in the four groups, and results against the lowest-placed team in the group may not count. It starts to get a bit complicated and there are a few variations according to the competition's rules, but the bottom-line is that qualification is still up for grabs by all three teams, Cambodia, Myanmar and Bangladesh and so tomorrow's final group games will settle the issue. Cambodia will meet group leaders Myanmar (kick-off 4.30pm), who already have six points after they defeated the hosts Bangladesh 2-1 yesterday. Myanmar need a point to secure the group title, whilst Cambodia need to win to keep alive their hopes of qualification. In the other game, Bangladesh take on bottom team Macau (kick-off 7pm) and they too need to win to push their claims for a place in the finals. It all adds up to an intriguing last day of Group A.

Back to the game against Macau. Team coach Sovannara rang the changes for this, their second game of the competition, including Om Thavrak, Khoun Laboravy and Keo Sokngorn from the start, with Pok Chanthan sidelined through injury and regular striker Kouch Sokumpheak amongst the substitutes. With the coach's instructions to attack their opponents from the first whistle, Cambodia began with a flourish and took a 12th minute lead when Teab Vathanak (pictured) controlled a pass from Khim Borey and scored with a low drive into the corner. So far so good. With Cambodia dominating possession, Sovannara made two first-half substitutions, bringing on San Narith and Sokumpheak to add to his attacking options, but it was his team's inability to convert a hatful of goal-scoring chances that left them with just a 1-goal half-time lead. The coach was not happy, as he explained to me. "We began well, with perfect tactics and strategy and had about 80% of the play, creating at least six golden opportunities to score. I also made two changes in my team to give us even more attacking options. But my players lost concentration at the vital moment and we lost the opportunity to add to our early goal," he said.

For the second half, and with Macau visibly tiring in the scorching 39C afternoon heat, Sovannara encouraged his team to apply even more pressure in the final third. This paid off when Keo Sokngorn rewarded the coach's decision to include him from the start, with a tap-in after a corner had struck the woodwork, on 66 minutes. It was all Cambodia again as they kept possession and pushed forward but with Macau getting players behind the ball and frustrating their opponents, it was the group underdogs who grabbed a surprise consolation goal with fifteen minutes remaining. In their only serious attack of the game, a free-kick into a crowded penalty area fell to Che Chi Man and he bundled the ball in past an otherwise redundant Samreth Seiha in the Cambodia goal.

Whilst celebrating their 2-1 success, Sovannara had expected more goals from his team. "Sometimes you need a bit of luck in front of goal and today we didn't have any. We created so many good chances but only took two of them. My team gave a good performance in terms of possession of the ball and taking the game to the opponents, they followed my instructions but we lost concentration at vital times and often, we were too hungry to score and missed the opportunity. In the second half, Macau defended in numbers and gave us fewer chances and their goal came from one silly mistake. We were definitely better than in our first game, but had there been more than a day's gap in between matches, I think we would've performed even better." Now all eyes turn towards tomorrow's final group matches. "I have no injuries so will choose from a full team against Myanmar. I hope we will win if my players keep doing the right things, show their fighting team spirit and have a strong mental approach. It will be a very tough game but I will encourage my players to believe in themselves that they can achieve a positive result," said the Cambodia coach by email this afternoon.

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Ponchaud's history

Francois Ponchaud (photo: Dana Langlois)
One of the most respected experts on Cambodian history and culture, Francois Ponchaud, the author of Cambodia Year Zero, will begin a series of lectures and discussions, in English, on the History of Cambodia tonight at the Catholic Social Communications Center on Street 242 in Phnom Penh at 6.30pm. Tonight's lecture will focus on Cambodia's earliest origins up to the French protectorate of 1953. There will be another five lectures on different historic periods over the next two months, and they are open to everyone. The dates are; 5, 20 & 28 May, and 3 & 9 June. Ponchaud has lived in Cambodia for more years than he cares to remember and having retired from his responsibilities within the Catholic Church, will return to live in France after this cycle of conferences. Sounds like it could be well worth popping along to any one of these lectures, especially as Ponchaud is credited with exposing the truth about the Khmer Rouge in his 1977 book, when many in the West refused to believe such fanciful stories.
Postscript: Francois Ponchaud gave his lecture about the origins of Cambodian history up til the time of the French protectorate in English, which is definitely not his favoured language. However, he soldiered on, taking excerpts from his own book he's written on the country's history. The audience was a small one, but the advertising of these events was pretty low-key and last-minute, so I expect the future sessions to be well attended. I will definitely try to get along to at least a couple more, especially his lecture on the Khmer Rouge period, on Thursday 28 May. Ponchaud just happened to be one of the foreigners cooped up in the French Embassy when the KR rolled into Phnom Penh in 1975 and two years later released his relevatory book.

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Out of the ashes, again

Em Theay adjusts the headdress of Sok Chea during The Tenth Dancer
I urge you to come along to a benefit fundraiser for a national icon in Cambodia, Em Theay, this coming Sunday, 3 May at 4pm at the Bophana Center on Street 200 in Phnom Penh. Here is the official press release for the benefit screening:

Out of the ashes, again
Screening of award-winning film, The Tenth Dancer, to be held as a benefit for renowned classical dancer and singer Em Theay and her family, whose house burned down last month.
On Sunday, May 3rd, the documentary film, The Tenth Dancer, focusing on Em Theay and one of her most accomplished classical dance students, will be shown as part of a fundraising event to help Em Theay and her family recovers from a fire that destroyed all their possessions, including a priceless 60-year-old handwritten book of song lyrics. Organized by Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim, director of Research and Archiving at Khmer Arts in Takhmao, Cambodia, and the staff of Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, the screening will take place at 4 PM, followed by a question and answer session with Em Theay and her daughter, Thoang Kim An, also a noted classical dancer.

In just under four years, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, an estimated 80-90% of Cambodia’s professional artists perished, including most of the members of the royal dance troupe. Perhaps only one in ten survived. The Tenth Dancer is the story of one of those who did. After Pol Pot was overthrown in 1979, dance teacher and singer Em Theay returned to Phnom Penh to help rebuild the troupe. The Tenth Dancer is an intimate portrait of the relationship between a teacher who works tirelessly to pass on her unique knowledge, and her devoted pupil, set against the backdrop of a devastated country. The film weaves the past and the present, memory and dream, to reveal a story of human dignity and survival.
In March, Em Theay’s house burned down. Her family was unable to save anything, as they were trying to help the neighbours, whose house went up in flames first, not imagining the fire would spread so quickly.

Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center will host the screening/fundraiser on Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 4 PM, #64, Street 200, Phnom Penh (behind the French Cultural Center). Admission is free. Donations are requested.

The Tenth Dancer was made by Australian filmmaker Sally Ingleton who has been producing and directing award-winning documentaries for 25 years. Khmer Arts is an international NGO dedicated to fostering the vitality of Cambodian dance across borders. Also see here.

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New season starts soon

Whilst the Cambodian national team are busting a gut in Bangladesh to qualify for the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup finals, the Football Federation of Cambodia have released the fixtures for the first half of the brand new Cambodia Premier League season, which Phnom Penh Crown won last year, and then added the Hun Sen Cup to their trophy cabinet a month or so ago. The first games will kick-off this Saturday at 2pm at the Olympic Stadium when Kirivong are due to meet Khemara Keila. At 3.45pm the champions Phnom Penh Crown will face last year's runners-up National Defense Ministry, who are still in dispute with 5 of their players. There will be five matches each week, on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, as there are 10 teams in the CPL this season, and the first half of the campaign will end on 1 July. The 2nd half will run from 11 July through to 9 September. The only new face in the CPL this season is Spark FC, while Phuchung Neak were saved from relegation as Kampot didn't want to be promoted. It's all pretty last minute as is normally the case in Cambodia and with the national squad players not returning home from Dhaka until Friday, we'll have to wait and see whether they'll line up in the season's first games.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A thriller at Monument

Thriller writer Tim Hallinan in signing-mode with the blog author
The reason I was late in the door tonight was because I attended a book-signing and reading at Monument Books by thriller writer Tim Hallinan, better known for his Bangkok-based books, though he resides in Phnom Penh for part of each year, as he says it's where he can write without distractions. Los Angeles and Bangkok are where he calls home but Phnom Penh has a special attraction for him as well. His latest book in the Poke Rafferty series, Breathing Water won't be released until August, so it was from his second book, The Fourth Watcher, that he read an extract to the audience at Monument. His first book, which I bought, is called A Nail Through The Heart and features a Khmer Rouge baddie. It was fascinating to hear about Thailand through Hallinan's eyes as he spoke about this particular series and was not joking when he said Breathing Water may signal his departure from the country if the authorities decide he's gone too close to the knuckle. A writer's workshop that Hallinan will hold at ACE in a couple of days should be a very interesting event as he certainly has a clear view of his own style and talent and an easy-going way of describing it. Roll on Thursday. Link: website.
Another signed copy by Tim Hallinan to a satisfied customer


Cambodia success

I've just walked in the door to be greeted with news that Cambodia beat Macau 2-1 this afternoon in their AFC Challenge Cup qualifying match, though I know the national coach was aiming to score a lot more goals. Nevertheless, a win was their target and that's what they achieved, with the goals coming from Teab Vathanak after 12 minutes and youngster Keo Sokngorn (pictured) on 66 minutes. Macau got their solitary goal fifteen minutes from time through Che Chi Man. A crowd of 6,000 watched the game played in the blistering afternoon heat, recorded at a roasting 39C. True to his word, Cambodian coach Prak Sovannara changed his line-up from the team that lost on the opening day, bringing in Om Thavrak, Khoun Laboravy and Sokngorn into the starting eleven, though two substitutions just after the half-hour mark, gave the team a different look in the first-half. The Cambodia line-up was: Seiha, Chanbunrith (62 Narith), Raksmey (33 Pichseyla), Tiny, Thavrak, Borey, Sokngorn, Vathanak, Laboravy, Sovannarith, El Nasa (36 Sokumpheak). subs (not used) Mic, Rady, Ravy. More on the game as I get it.
In the evening kick-off, Myanmar defeated the hosts Bangladesh 2-1 as well, with two second-half goals from Pai Soe after the booters had taken an early lead. That leaves Cambodia and the hosts Bangladesh on three points apiece with identical records, whilst Myanmar lead the table with six points. There is still everything to play for in the two final games that'll take place on Thursday, though Cambodia will have the more difficult task of defeating Myanmar and by enough of a margin to win the group or finish as the best ranked runners-up out of the four qualifying groups. This is where it starts to get mind-boggling.

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The Immortal Seeds

Sambath Meas arrived in Chicago in 1981 aged eight years old. Her family had just endured the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and had escaped and got their ticket to the United States. Her family's story of constant fear and hunger and more is told in the 204 pages of The Immortal Seeds: Life goes on for a Khmer family, and published by Wheatmark this month. Sambath holds a batchelor's degree in political science from Loyola University in Chicago and is already working on her next two books called Modern Conquest and Memories of the Golden Pagoda.

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Event highlights

There's a veritable bundle of exhibitions and stuff happening around Phnom Penh at the moment. Just in brief, here's the run-down on a few of the highlights. At Monument Books tonight there's a talk by thriller writer Tim Hallinan about his books at 6pm, and on Thursday at ACE he's giving tips on writing a novel. Count me in. Obviously there's a whole schedule of films, talks and whatever going on at Meta House. On Saturday they have
a double-bill from 7pm of Jim Gerrand’s film The Prince & The Prophecy and Norodom Sihanouk’s movie Shadow Over Angkor. The exhibition running there at the moment is called Intercities Phnom Penh-Lijiang and it features a range of artists including Ou Vanndy, Chhea Bunna, Ouk Chim Vichet and Sokuntevy Ouer. I should have a couple of documentary nights at Meta House in May so keep an eye out for them.
Over at Equinox (St 278) on Friday is an exhibition of drawings by Khmer artist Nasy Radet called Orphan Smiles which looks interesting, whilst I hear the Messenger Band are playing at Gasolina the same night. Reyum have got a Food in Khmer exhibition running at the moment, Paul Stewart's Ramsar Site 999 - The Flooded Forests of North Cambodia photo showcase began at FCC last night, and the Bophana Center still has its Still Water exhibits on show. Finally, please do not forget that Sunday 3 May will be the benefit screening of The Tenth Dancer at Bophana Center on behalf of Em Theay and her family. I should have this confirmed later today.

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Hamming it up

A strange guy I found hanging around in the forest
Some people will do anything for attention and my brother Tim is no exception. We were half way into our gruelling 11-hour 'ride from hell' marathon on the back of moto's as we travelled across country from Stung Treng to Preah Vihear province a few weeks ago. It was a tough day. Our moto drivers had stopped to fix yet another puncture so Tim and I walked ahead and found a vine, in the shape of a noose, hanging right across the track, hence Tim's impression in the picture above. Looks pretty scary doesn't it - actually, Tim looks scary most of the time! I hope this doesn't upset any young children, it was just for fun and Tim suffered no ill-effects after his stunt...but whatever you do, don't try this at home folks.

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Fake regulations

The S-21 interrogation regulations in 1994, in Khmer and English
An interesting but not surprising admission from Comrade Duch at the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal yesterday was that the rules of interrogation that have been posted at Tuol Sleng, or S-21 to give it its official name, and read by thousands of visitors over the years, are, in his words, a fabrication. In testimony about his role at S-21, Duch said that the 10 security regulations, which were originally on the wall of Block A when I first visited Tuol Sleng in 1994 and are now on a billboard in front of the building, were "fabricated by the Vietnamese when they came in." It was the Vietnamese liberators who helped set up the genocide museum about a year after the Khmer Rouge were expelled from the capital. Duch also testified that his daily interrogation reports to Son Sen and Nuon Chea were also circulated around the Khmer Rouge's Standing Committee, effectively implicating the other defendants who are now on trial. On dissenting voice against Duch and the fabricated rules is former S-21 guard Him Huy, who said; "During the KR regime, all guards were obliged to know all disciplines, and the 10 disciplines at S-21 were written by Duch." The rules included; 'While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all,' and 'If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.'
The S-21 regulations as they are today at Tuol Sleng, in Khmer, French and English

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Press talk

In today's Phnom Penh Post, inside back page - click to enlarge
The Bangladesh game is now history as far as Cambodia are concerned. They now have to concentrate on winning their two remaining matches in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying competition in Dhaka and will be gunning for goals in this afternoon's match against the minnows of the group, Macau. With Dhaka recording temperatures of over 38.7C, the highest in fourteen years, both teams will have to take account of the scorching afternoon heat but for Cambodia it's literally do or die in this match, a win, and a win by a good margin is essential to have any chance of going into their final match with Myanmar on Thursday with qualification still a possibility. They'll kick off at 4.30pm Cambodia-time, with the two winners from the first round of games, Bangladesh and Myanmar beginning their game at 7pm tonight. Cambodia beat Macau 3-1 in May last year at the last meeting of the two teams though will be seeking an even better result this time around, with coach Prak Sovannara promising a formation that will get at the Macau 5-man defence from the start.
Note: To read the Bangladesh match report in the Phnom Penh Post, click here.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Laos to host SEA Games

Maintaining the sports theme, I thought I'd quickly mention the Southeast Asian Games which are due to be played in Laos in December this year. That's if Laos manage to complete the building of the various arenas, including their new national stadium, some 20kms outside Vientiane, which is still under construction. Laos has already come in for criticism for reducing the number of sports down from 40-odd to 26 and leaving out some of the most obvious Olympic sports like gymnastics, hockey and sailing. What they have included is football, of course, which will be the second main competition for Cambodia this year after the current AFC Challenge Cup qualifying games are completed. Laos have also included a couple of sports that might be new to you, but are typically asian in nature, foot shuttlecock (or jianzi, dacau or tot-sey) which is both a team game and an artistic display, and kick volleyball (or sepak-takraw), which is played with a rattan ball. If you haven't seen the former, get along to Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh any early evening and watch the guys there who are masters at the artistic display version. Eleven nations will compete in the 25th SEA Games in Laos and are as follows: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.


Defeated but not down

If you believe the Bangladeshi press reports then their team fully deserved their success over Cambodia in last night's AFC Challenge Cup qualifying encounter, played in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka. As I didn't see the game myself, I can't agree or disagree, though the Cambodia national coach, Prak Sovannara (pictured), has given me his version of events by email, and they paint a somewhat different picture than the syndicated press reports. Bangladesh scored the game's only goal in the 73rd minute, a header from close range following a free kick. That one-goal separated the two teams, who are neck and neck in the FIFA world rankings, but it may not signal the end of Cambodia's hopes if they can win their next two games. The group winners will automatically go through to next year's finals, but so will the best ranked of the runners up from the four qualifying groups, so its important that Cambodia keep their sights firmly on winning their remaining two matches. And that's certainly what coach Sovannara is looking to do. "I was pleased with my players attitude and I am confident that if we keep doing all the right things, and can be more creative, we can win the next two games. We will need to score more goals against Macau and if we win the next 2 games, we still hope to qualify, depending on the other results."

As for the match against Bangladesh, Sovannara expressed his disappointment with the final result but was pleased with how his players performed. "My players put on a good performance from start to finish. They showed a good team spirit, good discipline and a great attitude against the hosts. We kept our focus, even when we went 1-0 down and if we had taken our chances the result could've been different. If we keep doing that, we will succeed. The players followed my instructions, but they showed too much respect to Bangladesh and I want them to be more creative in the next games. I will change the team against Macau for tactical reasons as we need to play more offensively with three strikers and two supporting from midfield and on the flanks from full-back as well. Pok Chanthan suffered an injury in the first game and the other changes I made in the game were tactical. I believe we can still win the next two games."

How did he view the Bangladesh game? "The Cambodia team played well according to our game plan and strategy. My starting eleven were selected since the training camp in Vietnam, though I changed it after half an hour and took off Vathanak, to give more cover to the defense and to create more options down the flanks. We allowed Bangladesh to have the ball, so we sat back and then counter-attacked as soon as we got the ball, especially down the flanks where the opponents were weaker. We were unlucky when Laboravy missed a great 1-on-1 situation with the goalkeeper just before half-time. The 0-0 score at half-time was a good platform for us." The second-half showing from Cambodia was much stronger as the coach explains. "After assessing our opponents, we changed our tactics and attacked more, again along the flanks and we put more pressure on them when we lost the ball. This improved our play and we got two good chances through Sokumpheak and El Nasa, but didn't score. I also made a switch with Sokngorn replacing Borey. But we lost a goal on 73 minutes when we made a mistake in a dangerous area and they scored from the free-kick. I immediately replaced Narith with Ravy and despite being a goal down, we stayed focused and fought well but we couldn't recover the goal." The result has left Cambodia needing two wins to have any hope of qualifying, and their first test will be against the minnows of Macau on Tuesday afternoon in a must-win game for Sovannara and his Cambodia squad.

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Jolly on a jolly

In Phnom Penh at the moment is the award-winning British television comedian and journalist Dom Joly (pictured), as he reveals in his column today in the UK-newspaper The Independent. Known for his edgy off-beat television shows like Trigger Happy TV, he's also written several books and is a regular columnist for The Independent, Sunday Times and Mail On Sunday in the UK. He's currently in Cambodia doing research for a new book he's writing called The Dark Tourist, which may also become a television series in due course. In his column today, which you can read here, he takes an irreverent look at Cambodian sport. Here's a taster:

I am in Cambodia doing "research" for a book I'm writing about my passion for travel to dodgy places. I'm visiting "The Killing Fields" tomorrow and today, I'm bizarrely off to see a man who is selling Pol Pot's shoes and loo. I've had my fill of dark depressing subjects in the last week or so and I decided to have a little look at the world of Cambodian sport.

The truth is it's a pretty minimalist area. They do play football here but they are spectacularly bad - so bad that most people support foreign teams. Their national football team was supposed to go to the Beijing Olympics but, according to rumours, the powers that be used the tickets to send their families there on a jolly. The only real sport of any consequence here is kick-boxing. I know this sport as Thai kick-boxing but call it that here only if you want to lose your teeth. Here it's Cambodian kic-boxing, but it is exactly the same. Bouts are shown regularly on TV and the gambling is intense.

He also might need to watch his dentures when he talks so disparagingly about Cambodian football too! But that's the risk you take when you set yourself up for edgy, off-beat journalism.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cambodia beaten

I don't have many details aside from the bare match facts but the final score in Cambodia's opening AFC Challenge Cup qualifying game against the host nation Bangladesh this evening, was a frustrating 1-nil reverse, with Enamul Haque scoring on 73 minutes for the home country. It was their first win in three years. I'm gutted as you might expect, we needed a draw at least, especially as expected, Myanmar beat Macau 4-0 in the opening game with two goals in each half, and that gives the two winning teams a great start with three points apiece. The starting line-up for Cambodia for tonight's game was, on paper, a very offensive-looking unit: Seiha, Chanbunrith, Raksmey, Tiny, Chanthan, Borey (66 Sokngorn), Vathanak (30 Laboravy), Sokumpheak, Narith (77 Ravy), Sovannarith, El Nasa. subs (not used); Mic, Thavrak, Rady, Pichseyla. Attendance: 8,060.
A sight we didn't want to see, as Bangladesh celebrate their 1 goal success against Cambodia [The Daily Star, Bangladesh]

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Mekong Blue

Silkworms doing what they do best at Mekong Blue in Stung Treng
With football taking a front seat in recent days, the topic to suffer has been the review of my recent trip along the Mekong River and into the northern reaches of Cambodia. I have already brought you my adventures in and around Kratie and then we continued north, by minibus to Stung Treng. I don't know if its something to do with border towns, but I didn't really warm to the town or its people as readily as I do elsewhere, but that was probably due to the motodop mafia that we encountered and who certainly left a bitter taste in our mouths, but more of that later. One visit we made, where we were warmly welcomed, was to the Mekong Blue center a few kilometres outside of town. I'd been aware of this Stung Treng Women's Development NGO for a few years but this was my first chance to visit them in person and though it was lunchtime when we arrived, and nearly everyone was asleep or resting, we had a quick tour with their latest volunteer, Mike Cussen, where we saw the process from silkworm feeding to production of a very high quality silk product, which they sell online and in their Phnom Penh showroom. Over 50 women are employed making Mekong Blue products, giving these otherwise vulnerable women a skill, confidence and development and a safe haven for them and their children. They are a thriving enterprise with big plans for the future to carry on and expand the wonderful humanitarian work they have completed so far. Long may they continue. Link: Mekong Blue.
These are cocoons of naturally produced yellow silk collected from the silkworms and ready for boiling
In a specially sealed room, the silkworms are fed on mulberry bush leaves
These are the spinning wheels that produce the long silk threads ready for dyeing
These silk threads are left to dry - they look like long yellow hair extensions to me
Two girls from the natural dye shed hold the silk that has been 'washed clean' of all imperfections
At Mekong Blue they have over 30 looms to make their quality silk products. Here Srey Mao takes time off her lunchbreak to show us how they work.

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AFC press talk

If you thought football was off the agenda until after tonight's opening AFC Challenge Cup qualifier between the host nation Bangladesh and Cambodia, then think again. The 4 participating teams spoke at the official press conference yesterday amidst a heat wave that has gripped Bangladesh and the capital Dhaka in temperatures that topped 38.5C, as well as forcing acute electricity and water shortages on the city's inhabitants. The Brazilian coach of Bangladesh, Dido, has said that his team's best form of defense will be to attack Cambodia from the start of their evening match, after Myanmar face Macau in the opener earlier this afternoon. He said he knew nothing about the Cambodian team and had problems in attack as his two main strikers have been carrying injuries. Meanwhile, Cambodia's national coach Prak Sovannara said; "We are here to win against Bangladesh as well as against Myanmar and Macau and wins against all of them will take us to the finals if we don't squander the opportunities." He felt he was 70% confident of a win over the hosts and that the scorching heat would not affect his players. "I see no difference compared to our country and I don't think it will hamper our performance."
As for Macau and Myanmar, they begin the qualifying tournament in the mid-afternoon heat and that will be a tough ask in anyone's book. Macau are the underdogs of the competition but have been together for a year and a half according to their coach, so aren't afraid of anyone. Myanmar have brought a young team to the qualifiers, comprising of under-23 players as their coach searches for the next generation of senior players. All of the games will be shown live on Bangladesh television and will be played at the 36,ooo-capacity Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka.

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4Faces opens for business

Inside 4Faces, with the exhibition wall on the right
Although I wasn't able to be there, I hear the opening of the 4Faces gallery in Siem Reap on Friday went very well for my pal Eric de Vries and his wife Lida, and the gallery's opening weekend continued yesterday and today, with photographer Tim Page being the first exhibition on display and the man himself being in residence all weekend. I hope to get up to see the gallery as soon as possible and wish Eric, Lida and everyone involved the best of luck with their exciting new venture. Make sure you have a look when you are in Siem Reap.
The outside of 4Faces with customers enjoying a drink on Friday evening

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Breathing new life into dance

Belle, with flowers, and Chankethya take the plaudits from the audience
Contemporary dance, so popular in the West but practically unheard of in Cambodia, is beginning to make its mark slowly but surely, through the energy and vision of dancers like Belle (Chumvan Sodhachivy) and Chey Chankethya, who brought their new style of dance to the stage tonight at the Chenla Theatre in a performance titled Dansez Roam! With both dancers schooled in classical Khmer dance, they included elements of what they know best but much of the performance would've been the first time many Cambodians in the packed auditorium had seen such freedom and unrestrained movement on a stage before. Chankethya began the evening seemingly locked within a mosquito net before bursting out to glide and skip her way around the stage with three fellow dancers. They were followed by Hang Borin who used a chair to center his dance movements, all the while accompanied by both classical style and loud, westernised music. After a short break, the extraordinary Belle, who is carrying the banner of the new contemporary style almost single-handedly if you believe the press, almost brought the audience to its feet with her opening segment, again producing an array of dazzling movements and ingenious variations of the accepted norm. Joined by a group of her peers, they told the story of her mother's life under the Khmer Rouge, combining expressive dance moves, music, singing and story-telling all rolled into one. All in all, a fantastically successful show, leaving the Khmer audience with plenty of food for thought about what they had just witnessed.
A segment from the opening part of Dansez Roam!
Belle opens her half of the show by putting on her dress
Belle uses classical postures in her dance
The cast of Dansez Roam! take their bows

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Another gem

Steel Pulse on Soho Road, Handsworth [copyright Peter Mannox - click to enlarge]
Here's another gem of a photo of the 1978 line-up of reggae legends Steel Pulse, taken by Birmingham-born Peter Mannox and posted on his blog here. It was snapped at the entrance to a snooker hall on Soho Road, Handsworth and most likely was taken at the beginning of 1978. The line-up for the photo is (LtoR): Ronnie McQueen, Selwyn Brown, David Hinds, Basil Gabbidon, Michael Riley, Grizzly Nisbett and Phonso Martin. Peter was born in Handsworth, the band's backyard, and his photo-shoot was used by Island Records, who signed the band in October 1977 and released their first single and album the following year to unheralded success.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Fantastic effort all round

The early monsoon rains that flooded the streets of Phnom Penh this afternoon and continued into the evening put paid to a full house at the Meta House screening of The Red Sense tonight but the crowd was still a good one, and an appreciative one with enthusiastic applause at the end of the film's screening reflecting their enjoyment of the movie. One of the lead actors and screenwriter Rithy Dourng was on hand to introduce the film and to answer questions afterwards and inbetween, we watched a stylish movie, excellent camera work, nice locations, great soundtrack and a story to cater to both a Khmer and western audience. When you consider that the cast had never acted before and it was Tim Pek's debut as a feature film director, this was a fantastic effort by all concerned to handle a subject close to the heart of the Khmer community in Australia, where much of the film was shot, many of whom had fled to the country from Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed. A member of the audience felt the film should be shown on local television in Cambodia and I couldn't agree more, both to show what a capable filmmaker Tim Pek is and especially as the subject matter is a hot topic right now.
Rithy Dourng and the MC for the evening (it's me if you didn't know)
Rithy answers questions about the film following the screening

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London calling

One of the victims of the Khmer Rouge at S-21
London will soon host an exhibition of photographs and a series of events that will focus on S-21, aka Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh. A screening of his famous documentary Year Zero and a Q&A with journalist John Pilger has been lined-up and in June, a new play under the title S-27 will be performed for the first time. The photographic exhibition, called Facing Death: Portraits of Cambodia's Killing Fields, will be held at the Photofusion Gallery in Electric Lane, London SW9 from 1 May until 26 June and will be composed of one hundred ID portraits loaned from The Photo Archive Group, a Los Angeles based non-profit organisation founded by photojournalists Chris Riley and Doug Niven who discovered, cleaned, catalogued and saved the negatives found at S-21. These extraordinary images, of people arriving at S-21 and who would never be allowed to leave, will be shown in the UK for the first time. The John Pilger screening and Q&A will take place at the same venue on Saturday 30 May at 3pm with a £10 entrance fee. The brand new play, inspired by the work of the Khmer Rouge photographer Nhem En, who was the man responsible for most of the S-21 face images, S-27 was the inaugural winner of Amnesty International’s Protect The Human Playwriting Competition. The play is by Sarah Grochala and is about a woman who takes photographs of people before they’re executed and how her encounters with the victims of the regime under which she lives change her life. It begins on 9 June and will run until 4 July at the Finborough Theatre, SW10. If you are in the UK, make sure you get along and visit the exhibition, join JP or get your ticket to watch the play.

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Carrying the nation's hopes

The Cambodia football squad and officials getting ready for the off
The players and officials of the Cambodia national football team are pictured early this morning at the departures area of Phnom Penh's international airport as they prepare to leave for their three-match AFC Challenge Cup Qualifying Group competition in Bangladesh. Team coach Prak Sovannara confirmed that the squad is fit, healthy and ready to do battle, with the only injury doubt, striker Kouch Sokumpheak, reporting fit for duty. The players had to miss out on their recent Khmer New Year celebrations as they were in a training camp in Vietnam, so their preparation has been strict and focused on qualifying for the 2010 finals to be played in India. Team Manager Tola May was also upbeat about their chances as the 18-strong squad and party of seven officials left for Dhaka. They will have a light training session this afternoon once they arrive, will train again at the national stadium in Dhaka on Saturday and then begin their competition in earnest against the host nation on Sunday evening. I know Bangladesh television are carrying the games live but doubt whether they will be viewable here in Cambodia.
Coach Prak Sovannara talks to a TVK reporter about the nation's chances in Bangladesh
A light-hearted moment during an interview with striker Khim Borey

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

"We can do it" - Prak Sovannara

Cambodia national football coach, Prak Sovannara
I interviewed the Cambodia national football coach Prak Sovannara at the National Football Center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh this week and much of the interview appeared in today's Phnom Penh Post. However, there is more to add, so here's the full interview, so you get the views of the national team coach ahead of the country's important matches that begin on Sunday:

Cambodian national football coach Prak Sovannara will lead his squad of 18 players into the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying group matches in Bangladesh this weekend with the belief that his unfancied team can qualify for next year's finals in India. "We have a real chance to qualify, and I believe we can do it," said the softly-spoken 36-year-old at the team's training headquarters at the National Football Center Tuesday. "We don't know too much about Bangladesh, though they are the home team so we know they will want to win. We know how to play against the other two teams, Myanmar and Macau, and I feel we can beat both of them if we play to our ability. My target is two wins and a draw. That should see us through."

Sovannara, who is working without a contract after his original agreement ended following the AFF Suzuki Cup finals in Indonesia in December last year, has just returned with his squad from a two-week training getaway in Vietnam where they honed their fitness with three practice matches against local opposition. The three matches they played were against Vietnam's best club, The Cong from Hanoi, which Cambodia lost 6-2, against a team of Cameroonian professionals, with a 5-2 scoreline in Cambodia's favour, and a final 2-2 draw against HCMC Club (formerly Saigon Port). Sovannara was particularly pleased with the outcome. "The results don't matter so much as my main priority was that we bonded together as a team, as a unit, with one mind. That's so important. I try to get the players to understand how to cope with hard training, to change their attitudes and their lifestyle, their surroundings, everything really. It was a good test for the players and very successful in my view. I was able to keep the squad together for nearly two weeks and to work with them very closely. They can see the benefit especially when they get the chance to travel abroad to Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh."

Time away together like the Vietnam trip is a godsend to a squad like Cambodia, particularly as the players have recently been involved in Hun Sen Cup action and their time with the national coach has been disrupted and piecemeal. Sovannara took the opportunity to reinforce one of his favourite coaching tools, video-replay. He's used this before especially with the Suzuki Cup games, as well as videoing some of his own training sessions, and then the practice matches in Vietnam. "It's something I'm very keen to use to get the players thinking on the same lines. It's been very successful - they can see exactly what I mean and I have seen them change and improve as a result. We sit down in the evenings as a group to watch the video and discuss everything, not only the football itself and tactics, but also lifestyle and attitude on and off the football field."

One of the problems he faces is the quality of the Cambodia Premier League. "I would like the teams to improve the quality, raise their standards and become more professional. Phnom Penh Crown are a good example of a club who are definitely heading in the right direction. It can sometimes be very hard to change the attitudes of the players when they join the national team. But I feel I have a good relationship with the clubs, I have worked hard to build the link as when I started there was nothing." One hot topic under discussion recently has involved Cambodians in countries like France and America coming back home to play for the national team. Sovannara is in favour. "I will welcome them if they come here for a long period of time, to get used to the conditions and the style of play, and if they are better than the players we already have. There's a lot of talk about it right now." He is also very much in favour of current Cambodia Premier League players seeking fame and fortune abroad. "I would love some Cambodian players to play abroad. I try to motivate them and instil confidence in them that they are good enough to compete with the likes of the best players in Vietnam and Thailand," he said. He identified three key players in his squad for the forthcoming matches in Bangladesh. "I believe these players will be very important for us in the coming games, Tieng Tiny in defence, San Narith in midfield and in attack, Kouch Sokumpheak."

Cambodia begin their qualification attempt on Sunday with their opening match of three against the group hosts, Bangladesh, at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka. They then have two days to prepare for a game against Macau Tuesday, before facing Myanmar Thursday in their remaining fixture. A look at the latest FIFA Coca-Cola world rankings reveal that Cambodia have jumped above Bangladesh to 175th spot, with the hosts at 178th while Myanmar are the best-ranked in the tournament at 159th. The minnows of Macau, who beat Mongolia in a pre-qualification decider last week, are ranked at 195th. However, rankings can count for nothing when the teams face each other on the pitch and in the heat of battle. Sovannara said, "Cambodian players have very good mental strength and toughness. In the Suzuki Cup, even though we conceded goals, we never gave up, we kept focused and that pleased me very much. The players still need to improve their self confidence when they have the ball, but they are physically strong enough, and I was very happy with the players attitude at the last tournament. They believed in what we are trying to achieve and had a belief in me and the football federation."

"For the Bangladesh game we will focus on our defence initially and look to counter-attack until we know how strong they are. We will need at least a draw against them. In the Suzuki Cup, I learnt that my players could adapt well to different situations. In the qualifying games we concentrated on attack and scoring goals, while in the finals we had to change tactics and become more aware of our defensive duties, as the [opposition] teams were so much stronger. The players didn't let me down," he said with obvious pride. It clearly means a lot to him to coach the country he represented for six years in the 1990s, which is why he is currently working on a month-to-month basis. "I understand the situation. I understand the stance of the federation who spent a lot of money last year, and I am happy to remain as national coach as I love to work with the team," he concluded, as he donned a shirt and joined his players for a practice session. With a man like Sovannara committed to improving Cambodia's international standing, the nation's footballers are in good hands.

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On the training ground

A training session line-up: [back row LtoR] Ravy, Seiha, Raksmey, El Nasa, Laboravy, Chanthan, Sokumpheak, Mic, Pichseyla, Vathanak, Sovannara. [front row LtoR] Rady, Tiny, Narith, Sovannarith, Chanbunrith, Borey, Sokngorn, Thavrak
This is a look behind the scenes with the Cambodia national football team during one of their afternoon training sessions earlier this week, as they make their final preparations for their Friday morning departure to Bangladesh and three important AFC Challenge Cup qualifying matches beginning Sunday. Coach Prak Sovannara was a genial host as always and after completing our interview about the nation's chances of qualifying for next year's finals, he spent the next couple of hours with his 18-man squad, practising game situations and explaining his requirements to his players. One point from the interview that he emphasized was how well the players respond and adapt to different situations and match conditions, which will be put to the test next week.
No 7 Sam El Nasa, 40 Sun Sovannarith and Khim Borey don the green bibs
Coach Prak Sovannara (centre) explains what he wants from his squad
Sovannara (orange bib) directs his players during a practice session
More instruction from Sovannara to his squad, with his coaching staff on their feet too
Sovannara making it clear to his players what he wants them to achieve
A last look at the national team's training session before I depart

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Man of many talents - Rithy Dourng

Rithy Dourng in character as Max in The Red Sense
On the eve of the first screening of The Red Sense in Phnom Penh, I interviewed one of the film's co-stars, Rithy Dourng, who is in the city for a few days and who will be at tomorrow night's film show at Meta House, next to Wat Botum on Street 264, which begins at 7pm. The Red Sense, directed by Tim Pek, is a story borne out of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and is Pek's feature debut, shot on location in Australia and Cambodia. Pek, like Dourng, is Cambodian born but moved with his family to live in Australia in the 1980s.

Q. Can you fill me in on your background? A. I was born in Cambodia in 1983, I grew up in a village called Praek Kdam as one of only two, maybe three Chinese-Khmer families there. One of my most vivid memories from my childhood is when the village came under attack, which happened a few times, from alleged Khmer Rouge rebels. I remember the terror on the night, jumping out of my bed, running for cover under the house, seeing flashes of flame and feeling the force whenever a rocket-propelled grenade was fired. My mother sought protection from the land itself, putting some dirt on her head and praying for our safety.

Q. How did you and your family end up in Australia?
A. My uncle facilitated the sponsorship of my family to relocate to Australia, so we went in 1994. I am now based in Victoria, in a suburb called Springvale.

Q. How did you get into acting and what have been your experiences to-date?
A. Would you believe me if I told you I used to have stage fright? It's true, I would always try and blend in and not standout from the crowd too much, so appearing on stage or in front of a camera would be the last thing you'd catch me doing. This went on until I got to Year 11, then a theatre director visited my school to recruit students to perform in a series of theatre productions known as Theatre of the Oppressed and guess what? I signed up and have loved acting ever since.
Acting-wise, I have appeared in two feature films; the first is The Red Sense with Tim Pek directing. My character is one of the lead roles and is called Max. I had a speaking part as Heng in the Michael James Rowland-directed film Lucky Miles, which won the best film award at the Sydney Film Festival in 2007. I also had a lead role as Kevin in a short film called Chhay, which was directed by Michael Blogg. Other appearances have included music videos like Who?, Why Is Love Like This?, Butterfly and I Miss You, on stage with fashion shows and student ceremonies, I was on Cambodia's TVK television very recently as a presenter of Cambodian New Year in Australia and I've also done voice-overs for Radio Australia.

Q. How did you get involved in The Red Sense?
A. By chance really. Tim Pek and I have always wanted to make a film together so it was just a matter of time before it happened. One November day, I'd just come out of my final exam when Tim texted me saying he was going to make a film. We then spent many nights staying up late to develop the story, create the characters and basically pull everything together. For The Red Sense, I played multiple roles, in front and behind the camera, as co-writer, screenwriter, actor, assistant director and subtitle editor.

Q. Any insights into your role as an actor in the film?
A. As one of the creators of this project, acting in the film was, to some extent, easier than if I was to act in a film written by someone else. This is because I created the character, I wrote the dialogues, everything was there in one package in front of me. I didn't have to spend time studying the film, putting two and two together, trying to understand the character.

Q. What do you want the audience to take from the film?
A. I just want to share one simple message with the audience; and that is to let bygones be bygones, it's not easy I know but more often than not, it's probably one of the best things to do in life.

Q. Will a Khmer audience view the film differently to a non-Khmer audience?
A. The message in the film is universal, I mean anyone, anywhere can relate to loss, suffering and trauma, so in that sense I don't see how views would differ much between a Khmer and a non-Khmer audience. However, it is important to acknowledge that this film portrays a piece of Cambodia's history and the lives of Cambodians abroad, so in that sense, a Khmer audience can feel that the story belongs to them. For them its personal, they may not have been directly affected by it, but they will know that 'this is what my parents, grand-parents, aunties, and uncles went through.'

Q. How do you see this film contributing to the genre of Cambodian filmmakers?
A. A film is a film regardless of its genre, what's important is how well it's made and that it works. Part of the aim of this film is to contribute the different aspects in the whole film-making process, the sound, the visual, the camera angle, the subtitles, etc. Bearing in mind that the film started roughly five years ago, we would have been the first Cambodian filmmakers to introduce these standard aspects to the Cambodian film industry.

Q. What does the future hold?
A. Since working on The Red Sense, I appeared in an Australian film called Lucky Miles, as I mentioned before, which was well received and for the time being, I will continue with my acting and see where that takes me.
Link: Find out more about The Red Sense here.

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National team news

What I didn't put in my article for the Phnom Penh Post was a few words about the player selection by Cambodia football coach Prak Sovannara. Initially he named a 22-man squad, which he took to the two-week training camp in Vietnam and has now reduced that to an 18-man squad who will fly out to Bangladesh tomorrow morning. The most obvious omission from the squad that will take on the host nation in the first game on Sunday evening is that of left-foot wizard Chan Rithy (pictured), who captained Phnom Penh Crown to the Cambodian Premier League championship last season and was in the team that won the Hun Sen Cup recently. On his day Rithy can be a match-winner, but I have seen a few of his games, for both club and country and it's his lack of consistency that leaves a question mark. Not for the first time, there has also been talk of him plying his footballing trade in Thailand in the near future, but in the meantime, he won't be travelling with the Cambodia team to the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying matches. The other players who didn't make the final squad are Phnom Penh Crown's young goalkeeper Peng Bunchhay, defender Sok Rithy and midfielder Ngoun Chansothea, both from Preah Khan Reach.

One feature of Sovannara's Bangladesh squad is the return to the national fold of three players, all from the Naga Corp team, who were regular squad members in 2007 but didn't feature in the Suzuki Cup games last year. They are the dominating presence of Naga Corp skipper and lynchpin Om Thavrak at the centre of defence, playmaker Pok Chanthan in the middle of the park and striker Teab Vathanak. These three individuals will add some grit, know-how and experience to an otherwise young squad, that is epitomised by the precocious talent of Keo Sokngorn, another member of the successful Crown club side, for whom he scored the winning goal in their recent Hun Sen Cup victory. The only injury concern I could detect from the training session I attended this week was an ice-pack on the left hip of striker Kouch Sokumpheak, but he assured me he would be fit for the games that begin on Sunday when Cambodia meet the host nation Bangladesh in the national stadium in Dhaka.

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Do I get a press pass?

This is the inside back page of today's Phnom Penh Post. My story didn't manage to get the back page exclusive, darn it, but my interview with Cambodia national football coach Prak Sovannara, ahead of the country's crucial AFC Challenge Cup qualifying matches next week, will provide some much-needed background to the forthcoming games for the English-speaking audience in Cambodia. The PPP posts its articles from today's paper online later tonight and you can read the full expose then. Here's the link. I will also post the full interview with Sovannara - the PPP article is a condensed version - tomorrow. Back in England I used to write regular football articles for the Western Daily Press, Gloucestershire Echo and other newspapers, as well as short match reports for the Sunday Mail, Sunday Mercury and others. This takes me back to those heady days. One of my photos also appeared yesterday in the online edition of the French-language newspaper Cambodge Soir Hebdo.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Shirt-tastic idea

I've noticed that Cambodia do not have a football shirt sponsorship deal, a very lucrative avenue of much-needed revenue for club teams and national sides the world over. I'm a little surprised that some of the cash-rich businesses or big movers and shakers haven't muscled in and got their logo emblazoned onto the Cambodia jersey for a bargain price - where are Sokha, CamboSix or Number One when you need them - especially as it is seen on the international stage, whether it be through television coverage of the asean competitions the country takes part in or in World Cup qualification, or on my blog! Whilst club teams in Cambodia like Phnom Penh Crown have a company logo on their shirts, the national team has nothing. I'm sure it's not for the want of trying by the football federation here. However, a recent shirt sponsorship deal announced by Vietnam for example, shows the value it can be worth. Nike are providing $5 million over 5 years whilst others like Boss Paint and Yamaha have paid around $120,000 each to have their name on the shirt for 1 year. I know Vietnam have just won the Suzuki Cup so they have some kudos but still, not sums to turn your nose up to by any national federation. In the upper strata of shirt deals, England for example have a $350 million deal with Umbro over ten years but I don't fancy Cambodia's chances of securing such a money-spinner. Nevertheless, it would be good for the federation if a shirt sponsor could be found and the money injected back into the international football team - but that's about as likely as me flying to the moon, on the back of a winged moto. It ain't going to happen. So in the meantime, I suggest the Cambodia - Kingdom of Wonder logo is emblazoned on the front of the national team's jerseys so that football and the country's tourism industry avail themselves of a marriage of convenience. I reckon that would be a neat combination. What say you?

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Can you sense its nearly Friday?

I was asking myself, have I given the screening of Tim Pek's The Red Sense this Friday at Meta House enough coverage on my blog. Of course I have, but it doesn't do any harm to give it some more. The screening starts at 7pm, Rithy Dourng, one of the main actors, the screenwriter and director of photography will be there to answer any questions you have and having listened to the movie soundtrack a million times already and caught a few glimpses of the film, I'm very very keen to see the whole movie in all its glory. Roll on Friday 7pm.
Here are some screen grabs from the film with Sarina Luy and Rithy Dourng in shot

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Even more footy news

Let me assure you that this blog is not turning into the football mouthpiece of Cambodia, well, maybe it is, but only because the Cambodian team have 3 international matches beginning this weekend, so it's hot news. An interview with the national team coach Prak Sovannara should appear here sometime tomorrow, once its appeared in the Phnom Penh Post, so stayed tuned. In the meantime, I have some more hot news about next year's 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup (which used to be called the Tiger Cup). It's the competition where Cambodia reached the final stages in December in Jakarta, but lost all three games that they played against superior strength opposition. The 2010 competition will be hosted between Vietnam - who surprised everyone by beating Thailand to win the Suzuki Cup last time around - and Indonesia and the finals will be played in December 2010. However, Cambodia's involvement will begin earlier, between 14-24 October 2010 when the qualifying competition will be held in Laos and will see two teams going through from a group of five participating countries - Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Brunei and East Timor. The countries already earmarked for the finals are Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar. Don't forget that Cambodia will be going to play in Laos for the SEA Games in December of this year as well.

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Away days in Saigon

The football players of the Cambodia national squad are currently making last-minute preparations for their forthcoming AFC Challenge Cup qualifying games that begin this Sunday. Part of their build-up to the three matches they will play in Bangladesh has been a two week training camp in Vietnam. Saigon to be precise. The squad of 22 players and the coaching team led by national coach Prak Sovannara (pictured) departed for their upmarket Thanh Long Centre HQ on 6 April and returned on the 19th, having played three practice matches and gelled together as a unit, with nine new faces in the squad from their previous serious competition in the Suzuki Cup last December. Thanh Long is a private sports centre in Ho Chi Minh City that boasts a swimming pool, medical centre, five pitches and accommodation, which is where the Cambodian team stayed. The three matches they played were against Vietnam's best club, The Cong from Hanoi, which Cambodia lost 6-2, against a team of Cameroonian professionals, with a 5-2 scoreline in Cambodia's favour, and a final 2-2 draw against HCMC Club (formerly Saigon Port). Sovannara was particularly pleased with the outcome. "The results don't matter so much as playing together as a team and a unit. It was a good test for the players and very successful in my view. I was able to keep the squad together for nearly two weeks and to work with them very closely."

Time away together like the Vietnam trip is a godsend to a squad like Cambodia, particularly as the players have recently been involved in Hun Sen Cup action and their time with the national coach has been disrupted and piecemeal. Sovannara took the opportunity to reinforce one of his favourite coaching tools, video-replay. He's used this before especially with the Suzuki Cup games, as well as videoing some of his own training sessions, and then the practice matches in Vietnam. "It's something I'm very keen to use to get the players thinking on the same lines. It's been very successful - they can see exactly what I mean and I have seen them change and improve as a result. We sit down in the evenings as a group to watch the video and discuss everything, not only the football itself and tactics, but also lifestyle and attitude on and off the football field."

The V-League in Vietnam now has more than 70 foreign players, with 40 from Brazil and 20 from Africa, including the Cameroon professionals who played against Cambodia. Indeed two Brazilians are now qualified to play for the Vietnam national team and this is something that has been mooted in Cambodia in recent months. There has also been lots of discussion about Cambodians in countries like France and America coming back home to play for the national team. Sovannara was in favour. "I will welcome them if they come here for a long period of time, to get used to the conditions and the style of play, and if they are better than the players we already have. There's a lot of talk about it right now." At the moment, 37 foreign players play in Cambodia, 14 from Nigeria, eight from Cameroon and four each from Thailand and Vietnam, with other countries like South Korea, Ghana, the Congo and Sierra Leone also represented. Mind you it was only two years ago that Cambodia banned expat players from the Hun Sen Cup for being 'too good.' Sovannara is also very much in favour of current Cambodia Premier League players seeking fame and fortune abroad. "I would love some Cambodian players to play abroad. I try to motivate them and instil confidence in them that they are good enough to compete with the likes of the best players in Vietnam and Thailand," he said.

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4Faces - opening this Friday

This Friday, 24th April, the brand new 4Faces Gallery-Cafe-bar-shop will open in Siem Reap. Make sure you pay a visit and speak to my pal Eric de Vries - he's a genial host and a top photographer.

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Cambodia Squad Photos #4

10. Striker Kouch Sokumpheak plays for Ranger FC
7. Khim Borey was the country's leading scorer last term with National Defense Ministry
9. Experienced striker Teab Vathanak plies his trade with Naga Corp
8. Talented youngster Keo Sokngorn is with champions Phnom Penh Crown
15. Preah Khan Reach attacking midfielder Sam El Nasa completes the 18-man squad


Cambodia Squad Photos #3

12. San Narith plays in midfield for Ranger FC
13. Midfielder Sun Sovannarith plays for Naga Corp
6. Experienced playmaker Pok Chanthan is with Naga Corp
18. Brand new addition to the squad Ly Ravy plays for Kirivong
11. Khoun Laboravy is another player with Preah Khan Reach


Cambodia Squad Photos #2

4. Central defender Tieng Tiny plays for Phnom Penh Crown, the league champions
16. Defender Lar Pichseyla also plays for Phnom Penh Crown
5. Experienced defender Om Thavrak is the captain of Naga Corp
14. Defender Pheak Rady performs for the National Defense Ministry


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cambodia Squad Photos #1

1. Cambodia's 1st-choice goalkeeper Samreth Seiha plays for National Defense Ministry
18. Ouk Mic is the custodian of Preah Khan Reach
2. National captain and Naga Corp defender Kim Chanbunrith
3. Defender Lay Raksmey from Preah Khan Reach
These are the players who will be representing Cambodia in the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifying Group matches in Bangladesh this weekend. It is an experienced squad and national coach Prak Sovannara is confident that his team will put on a strong showing as they strive to qualify for the 2010 Challenge Cup Finals.


Your nation expects

The Cambodia national football team take a break from training this afternoon
This is the Cambodia national football team who will run their hearts out for their country in their AFC Challenge Cup qualifying matches in Bangladesh, starting this coming Sunday. Under the supervision of national coach Prak Sovannara, Cambodia will play Bangladesh, Macau and Myanmar in the space of six days for the right to qualify for the 2010 finals.
I caught up with Sovannara and the 18-man squad at their training headquarters at the national football center outside Phnom Penh this afternoon. As the skies darkened above and rain clouds blew across the well-grassed pitch, the coach and his staff put the players through their paces in one of their final training sessions before the squad flies out to Bangladesh in three days time. An interview with coach Sovannara and more photos from my visit will be posted here over the next few days.
In the meantime, here is the 18-man squad that will represent Cambodia in the forthcoming matches:
1. Samreth Seiha; 2 Kim Chanbunrith (capt); 3. Lak Raksmey; 4. Tieng Tiny; 5. Om Thavrak; 6 Pok Chanthan; 7. Khim Borey; 8. Keo Sokngorn; 9. Teab Vathanak; 10. Kouch Sokumpheak; 12 Khoun Laboravy; 13. San Narith; 14. Sun Sovannarith; 15. Pheak Rady; 16. Sam El Nasa; 17. Lar Pichseyla; 18 Ouk Mic; 24. Ly Ravy.


Splashing around

Having fun in the hot mid-day sun
With the unseasonal rain we've been having in Phnom Penh for the last four days - the heavens open up, the lightning flashes, the thunder rolls and the rains fall - I thought I'd post a water picture, taken on my recent 'ride from hell' between Stung Treng and Tbeng Meanchey, when Tim and myself spent eleven hours on the backs of motos, making our way into Preah Vihear province, the hard way. At one village en route, we came across this group of children taking advantage of a river to cool down and have some fun.
The children manage to stop splashing around long enough for a group shot


Monday, April 20, 2009

Red Sense Soundtrack

I had the pleasure of listening to the complete film soundtrack to The Red Sense for the very first time this evening. Now I'm an old-hand at listening to film soundtracks, having been a connoisseur of Ennio Morricone's work for a long while, and the 13-track CD for the Australian-made film based on the fall-out from the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia that will get its Phnom Penh premiere at Meta House this coming Friday at 7pm (24th April) fits snugly into the thriller genre. Composed by Robert John Sedky, it has suspenseful music oozing from every pour, high-pitched vocals and tinkling of the sort that Morricone himself made famous in his spaghetti westerns. By the third listen I was hooked, especially with the main theme songs, Svaeng Rouk Pop Tmei (aka Walk to Freedom), sung by Khmer pop starlet Meas Soksophea and Phoeurk Chantha, and Jimi Lundy's plaintive Cambodia, both of which add a welcome, albeit wistful, break from the tension and anxiety imposed by the preceding tracks. It's Sedky's debut film score, which he composed in 2007, and sets a high bar for his future work to reach. It's also another feather in the cap for filmmaker Tim Pek and his debut film, which was premiered in Melbourne, Australia in March 2008.
The CD tracks are: My Father; Brother's Remorse; The Lost Son; Law of Nature; Memories of All Mothers; River of Two; Farewell My Daughter; Through My Heart; Train of Thought; Svaeng Rouk Pop Tmei, aka Walk to Freedom; Cambodia; Showdown; Final Solution. Where can you buy it? At the moment the CD soundtrack is not available as I was given a pre-release copy. Keep your eyes open for release information.

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On the way back - photos

A look at the Mekong River near Sambor
These photos are linked to my On the way back story from 16 April. Unfortunately at that time, the host company for my blog was not allowing uploading of photos. Now they are, and here they are. Read the story again below.
The low level of the Mekong River exposes small grassy islands
The low level Mekong River near Phnom Sambok
Do not sin, or the poor unfortunates in this painting could be you, at Phnom Sambok
Females are having a bad time of it, having sinned and been punished on this thorny tree in hell, on the 1st level of Phnom Sambok
A distinquished looking Neak Ta on the top level of Phnom Sambok
A rather unique styled building on the 1st level of Phnom Sambok
This half-lintel at Wat Thma Krae shows a large makara eating human figures
The rather elegant looking two-storey Wat Krakor, near Kratie
Leaving behind Sambor and the 116 pillar pagoda, we retraced our steps southwards along the east bank of the Mekong River, stopping often to interact with the locals, usually kids 'cause they're the easiest to get the big wide smiles from. The Mekong River water level was quite low so exposed a lot of small grass-tufted islands, as it had in Kratie town, where a virtual beach had appeared complete with temporary sun-shades just in front of Wat Roka Kandal. At the turn-off for Phnom Sambok, we stopped for sugar cane juice before tackling the three-levels of Sambok mountain, 360 steps and its varied pagodas. At the first level we stopped to have sticky rice (a local delicacy called krolan) with the nuns who were so welcoming we couldn't resist. Through actions rather than words, we had an enjoyable half hour, sharing their food and doing our bit for English-Khmer relations before facing the rest of the steps to the top. There are great views over the surrounding river plains, though the pagodas themselves weren't much to write home about and apart from a sandstone pedestal, there was little else I could find. Next stop was the pagoda at Wat Thma Krae where I spied another pedestal and after a bit of searching, a half lintel - with figures riding a massive makara - that had been cemented into part of a bridge construction. One way to avoid it being stolen I suppose. The young monk we spoke to told us that there used to be other carvings but they had been whisked away years ago, a similar story can be heard across the country. The village of Thma Krae is where it seems everyone is involved in selling krolan packed in bamboo. Our final port of call was the distinquished two-storey pagoda at Wat Krakor, before we rolled back into Kratie town itself, in time for a shave at the local beauty salon, an hour on the internet and a fruit-shake and chat with riverside vendor Leang, who'd come to Kratie a year before from her home in Kompong Cham as business was much better here. At 27 she was looking to stay one more year before returning to her home town with her earnings and to look for a husband. Spotting a glint in her eye, it was time to say goodbye, I wished her well and walked back to my hotel for an early night, in prep for the minibus ride to Stung Treng the next morning.

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A look at the booters

In trying to drum up a bit more interest in the forthcoming football international matches that Cambodia will be involved in at the end of this week, I've been searching the internet about the preparations of the host nation for the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying matches, Bangladesh. In fact the booters of Bangladesh as they are known, have just won a friendly match in Nepal against a club side in the lead up to the games, under their new Brazilian coach Dido, and an Argentine trainer. Meanwhile, the nation's football federation are trying to generate home support by selling the Bangladesh football jersey to fans, releasing tens of thousands of leaflets and putting up five billboards in the city of Dhaka, as well as two large television screens. All six games will be played at the 36,000 capacity Bangabandhu National Stadium in the city, but I've no idea whether they will be televised and available for viewing in Cambodia. All of the visiting teams will be staying at the 5-star Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel. And of course, it's the hot season right now in Bangladesh, so the Cambodian team can expect red-hot temperatures for their afternoon kick-offs (isn't it strange that all the host nation games start at the later time of 6pm).

The Qualifying group matches are as follows:
April 26: Myanmar vs Macau 3.30pm
Cambodia vs Bangladesh 6pm
April 28: Macau vs Cambodia 3.30pm
Bangladesh vs Myanmar 6pm
April 30: Myanmar vs Cambodia 3.30pm
Bangladesh vs Macau 6pm.

The AFC Challenge Cup group matches being played now, will provide the final qualifiers for the 2010 Cup competition proper. Four group winners and the best runners-up will join 2008 defending champions India, runners-up Tajikistan and North Korea in the tournament that is played every two years. Already joining them are group winners Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka and Turkmenistan.


Cloud cuckoo land

I hear that my least-favourite former Khmer Rouge cadre, Nhem En, has made the national press again today. His public relations office works as hard as that of Dengue Fever! This time he's offering a pair of Pol Pot's shoes and two of his own cameras, that he used to take pictures of the prisoners upon entry to Tuol Sleng, for no less than a cool 1/2 million dollars. Yes, US$500,000. He really does live in cloud cuckoo land. He's trying to raise funds for his own museum in the northern outpost of Anlong Veng, where he's the deputy governor. His museum will house his pictures of course, as well as a walking stick owned by Ta Mok, Pol Pot's toilet and the tyres used on his funeral pyre and a rice field - so far I'm not busting a gut to get to the musem. I think he needs to jazz that bit of the story up a bit more. His for-sale items will more than likely end up on eBay soon enough, and for a knockdown price, or for free, which is what usually happens when he attempts to sell anything, whether it be a photo or information. I was told once upon a time that a certain Khmer Rouge photographer could give me the inside story on the Christopher Howes murder (a British deminer killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1996) for the right price - I steered well clear.

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Test posting for images

This is a test. I haven't been able to upload any photos for a few days now, hence the test. And what better way to test than with a small group of adorable Cambodian children, who I met by the side of the Mekong River north of Kratie at the village of Phnom Sambok. If this works, I'll post my remaining Kratie photos. Fingers crossed.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cambodia footy update

Just a quick update on the Cambodia national football team, who are due to fly out to Bangladesh on Friday 24 April to play three games in search of qualification from their AFC Challenge Cup Group matches. None of this getting there early to acclimatize rubbish for the Cambodians. They will arrive, have time to unpack and then play their opening game against their hosts, Bangladesh, at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka, on Sunday 26th April. They will then meet Macau - who defeated Mongolia on away goals in a 3-3 two-legged delayed pre-qualifying decider - on the 28th and another couple of days later, they face Myanmar. Three games in six days. A tall order for anyone and Bangladesh and Myanmar lie above Cambodia in the FIFA rankings league, so qualification would be a big feather in coach Prak Sovannara's cap. He's already taken then to the AFF Suzuki Cup Finals at the back end of last year and has been getting his 22-man squad in shape before they depart. I called him this afternoon and interupted him talking to his squad of players - I don't think Fabio Capello would've been so understanding! He graciously called me back ten minutes later to tell me the squad have been training hard at the national football centre just outside the city and will fly to Bangladesh a couple of days ahead of their first match. I hope to visit the team and chat to the coach before they depart to bring you more from the national football camp before the tournament. And I've just heard that the Cambodia Premier League will begin their season on Saturday 2 May, with a 10-team top division. All games will be played at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh and the league will be wrapped up by late September.

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Benefit screening on 3 May

Keep a space in your diary for Sunday 3 May. That looks the likely date for a benefit screening at Bophana Center here in Phnom Penh of The Tenth Dancer, and it's featured classical dance teacher Em Theay. This wonderful lady and her daughter suffered a disastrous house fire a few weeks ago and lost everything. It would be a wonderful gesture if we can show our support and gratitude to Em Theay and her family for the unselfish work they have put in over the years to get classical Khmer dance back on its feet. Em Theay is an icon of exceptional dignity, serenity and grace and deserves our support. More on the benefit screening as I get it. Also read here.

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You cannot be serious

I am open-mouthed at the naivety displayed by Sihanouk in this interview from the archives. Surely he didn't actually believe a word of what he was saying. He could not have been serious. Of course, its essentially all about him. Isn't it always. On the other hand, to undermine the Khmer Rouge may've signed his death warrant, as befell so many of his own children, grandchildren and other close relatives. Read it for yourselves. Published in today's Sunday Times in the UK.

From the archive: Problem prince in uneasy alliance with Pol Pot
12 October 1975: the symbolic head of state tells our correspondent, William Shawcross, of life in 'year zero' of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Prince Sihanouk talked in the presence of a Khmer Rouge companion. He was sitting beneath a picture of himself accepting an AK-47 automatic rifle – the universal symbol of revolution – from the Khmer Rouge. Since returning to Phnom Penh he has lived with his wife Monique in one of their old houses: “Food is brought to us every morning by the food service of the army. I have three little revolutionary cooks working for me and my aunt is teaching them cuisine. I sleep in the bed I once had made for my hero General de Gaulle. As I am very small, I am very comfortable. I just tell you this little detail for lady readers.” Last month the Khmer Rouge agreed to let him back to Phnom Penh only after lengthy negotiations with his Chinese hosts and sponsors. Sihanouk was in Moscow in March 1970 when Marshal Lon Nol took over in a coup and he spent the next five years living in Peking.

He is something of a problem for Cambodia’s new communist rulers. His popularity in the countryside might be unsettling for them and he did once sentence them to death and secretly allow President Nixon to bomb the communist camps. His talk gave some of the first clues about conditions in Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge marched into this city of 3m and emptied it of people. “The Khmer Rouge had to move them out because there was no meat, vegetables or rice,” he explains. “They had to be taken to the provinces the Khmer Rouge had liberated, where there was food for them.” The dangers of epidemics and starvation on the forced march into the countryside he does not describe, but he believes Phnom Penh is now adjusting to its new reality.

Sihanouk confesses to an admiration for the speed with which the Khmer Rouge have radicalised the country and their plans for the capital: “Phnom Penh was a Sodom and Gomorrah under Lon Nol. Now it is spartan. No nightclubs, no bars, no taxi girls. Much calmer than before. There are no cars. Everyone walks on foot. We are creating a new society with one class, not one where some people die of overeating and others die of hunger.” Asked if Cambodia, like North Vietnam, would demand US aid as reparations, he shouts: “We will never do so. Our blood is not to be commercialised. The US will have to pay for its crimes in the pages of history.”

“Before 1970 the free world used to call Sihanouk a dictator,” he says. “Now they are quite surprised. They don’t understand my role. Well, I’m like the Queen of England. I inspect schools and will receive ambassadors, etc, etc. That keeps me quite busy, you know. The ministers come and see me to ask my advice and give reports on their work.” He was allowed to make one brief visit to the countryside. Asked about massacres, he says: “I was not there, but I do not think so. Fighting exists only in the minds of some ugly Cambodians in Thailand and Paris. They fight from their nightclubs.” He still speaks, as when he was what he now calls “a playboy prince”, with wit, charm and enthusiasm that is often passion. Through his revolutionary ardour, loyally learnt in five courageous years in exile, the old jazz-playing film buff Sihanouk sometimes glitters a little sadly. Infuriated by a question about the fate of Lon Nol’s former cabinet ministers, he shouts again: “Why do you worry about these scum when so many good Cambodians have died? It’s not as if they were Marilyn Monroe or Rock Hudson.”

The impression Sihanouk conveys of his life in Phnom Penh, as the Khmer Rouge leaders wonder what to do with their old enemy, is a lonely one. A sad-eyed discontinued prince rattling around an empty palace in a scarred and empty capital. But he is extraordinarily resilient and persuasive and hopes his loyal, passionate nationalism alone may in time persuade his hosts that he can be used more effectively. He wants to work for them so long as they need him: “I think they need me now. But I have told them that if the day comes when they no longer do so, I’ll be very happy to be quite free and live in my little house in France. I like the movies, you know. I shall be able to go to the movies.”

Prince Sihanouk was deposed six months after this interview [but remained in Phnom Penh until a day before the Vietnamese forces overran the city]. Pol Pot’s genocidal regime led to the death of more than 20% of Cambodia’s population. Sihanouk, now 86, returned as king in 1993 until his abdication in 2004. Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Welcome home

Wow, at 4pm today a tropical storm hit Phnom Penh like a whirlwind and 10 minutes later its still going strong, the skies have darkened, the wind is bending the trees and ripping off any corrugated metal that isn't secure and the streets are flooding quickly with the deluge. Welcome back to Phnom Penh after the holdays! I'd post a picture of it but is still playing silly beggars with picture posting, so no can do. Take my word for it that in the hottest month of the year, Phnom Penh has been hit with a sucker punch of a storm. I wouldn't be surprised if it's done quite a bit of damage, as it lasted nearly an hour.

With Phnom Penh doing a great impersonation of a ghost-town for the last few days, I remained locked in my flat, slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean, with my head firmly in guidebook editing mode. It's something I should've done a while ago but it always got pushed to the end of the 'to-do' list. Well, procrastination time is over and I've finally broken the back of the task. It's now full-steam ahead and get yourself primed for the release of To Cambodia With Love in early 2010.... I hope. I have more than enough articles but am open to latecomers if you know Cambodia like the back of your hand and you have something you want to share with the travel connoisseurs around the world. Drop me a line and I'll tell you what I'm looking for. But be quick about it.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Red Sense screening - a week away

A week tonight, on Friday 24 April at 7pm, The Red Sense will get its first screening in Phnom Penh at Meta House, near Wat Botum. Everyone is welcome. You can see the poster for the film here. The film is a Khmer story, played by Khmer actors with dialogue in the Khmer language, with English subtitles. It is set in Australia and Cambodia and deals with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, so it's very timely, with the KR Tribunals currently taking place here in Phnom Penh. The film's Battambang-born director Tim Pek can't make the screening in person, so I asked him a few questions by email in order to provide more of an insight into his debut feature film and filmmaking in general.

Q. As the director, what do you want the audience to feel and take away, from your debut film? A. As the director, I really want to give the audience something to think about when they leave their seats and share my knowledge. Many directors do a short horror as their debut film as I guess it's a good way to explore their passion and show the audience an array of creativity. That crossed my mind also, but I wanted to extend myself and use my abilities, so I decided to go with a drama-thriller genre film, with a sense that everyone can relate to this universal theme.

Q. How do you think a Khmer audience will view the film differently from a non-Khmer audience, and has that been evident so far? A. So far we have had a lot of positive testimonials and feedback from Australian audiences, but I think it's going to be very different from a Khmer audience in Cambodia. Our work will be different for them, we use real voices, no dubbing, we have written an original soundtrack and theme songs, and used dolby surround sound, etc. And the story is quite fresh and unique as well. I hope they will follow the same path in making their films in the future.

Q. How do you see your film contributing to the genre of Cambodian filmmakers, old and news? A. We know what sort of genre Khmer audiences expect to see, ie. ghost or period pieces, which is the reason we are taking a different approach, hoping they will be interested in our vision and begin to move away from the genre they are stuck in. We really want to bring our film industry back on track like they used to produce in the early 1960s and '70s.

Q. Is it important to make a feature film on the life and times, and impact on Cambodian history, by King Jayavarman VII? Is it important to concentrate on history, or to produce films that focus on today and provide a current dialogue? A. Due to the reconciliation issues we are facing currently and plus the Khmer Rouge Tribunal which is happening in Phnom Penh right now, I am hoping to pass a message through my film and help to heal some wounds suffered by the Khmer survivors as well as bring it to the fore of the younger generation. To follow in the footsteps of our greatest King, Jayavarman VII is the ideal task for a filmmaker, and which I would love to bring to the screen. Most importantly, it is about awakening the Khmer spirit to love each other and to protect our territory, as we are doing currently with the Preah Vihear situation.

Q. What is your next film project? A. I have two projects at the post production stage right now: Bokator, The Great Angkorian Martial Art and Annoyed, Dead Messenger. I must admit that both projects have been in post production for a while now, I haven't forgotten them though, and hope people will be a little more patient and hang in with me, as I need a bit more time for research and finding resources. They will be released this year.

Q. Finally, what are the frustrations, and joys of being a filmmaker? A. That's a good question. To balance it out, not much frustration for me, I view it more like joy, which helps keep my momentum going and inspire me to produce the best quality work I can. Perhaps the downside of filmmaking is choosing the right talents and mundane stuff like getting permissions for locations, and not to mention editing, etc. The joys are one word - Result - that's when we know our limits and can learn from it as a filmmaker, but also we can make people happy with our work, as well as make them think.

My thanks to Tim for his replies. His co-screenwriter, director of photography and co-star Rithy Dourng will be at next Friday's screening and will introduce the film, as well as be available to answer any questions afterwards. Make sure you come and meet Rithy in person. Find out more about The Red Sense here.

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Time for change

In case you didn't know, I'm a guy, a fella, a bloke. However, in my own small way I'm a great believer in women's rights and especially in Cambodia, where generally speaking, women get a bum wrap. It's a male-dominated society even though women seem to do all the hard work. Okay I'm generalizing but you get the picture. Women are the backbone of Cambodia, much the same as elsewhere around the globe of course, but in Cambodia they do all the graft but get little or no reward. In February a group called World Pulse came for a tour over here and have just published their April eMagazine with Cambodia as their main focus for the month. Read it here. World Pulse give women around the world a platform to network and a voice. They are a community of strong women determined to make a positive change, and that includes in Cambodia. And they have my support, for what it's worth.

Another coalition that is looking to make a difference are the acclaimed rock band Dengue Fever - who must have the best PR office of any band I know as they are never out of the press - and the NGO Wildlife Alliance, who are teaming up to preserve Cambodia's unique natural heritage. Whilst Dengue Fever have almost single-handedly resuscitated interest in the 60s and 70s style psychedelic pop, Wildlife Alliance are doing their bit to preserve threatened animals and forests in Asia. The partnership kicks off tonight when a booth by the NGO will be set up at the band's gig in Falls Church. Future co-operation will include benefit concerts, charity remixes, online commercials, and cross marketing on social networking sites and websites. A blatant marketing ploy by both parties - who said that?

Finally, whilst I'm online and still moaning about and their failure to sort out the uploading photos problem... today is the 34th anniversary of the surrender of Phnom Penh to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces, who promptly turned the capital into a virtual ghost-city by sending the inhabitants into the countryside. A terrible chapter in Cambodia's history. On a more upbeat note, over the last three days, during Khmer New Year, the city once again fell silent when approximately 70% of the population returned to their loved ones in the provinces and the streets around my home were virtually empty, save for the odd scavenging dog and myself, looking for somewhere or something to eat. It made a pleasant change from the usual frenetic, madcap streets that I see around me every other day of the year.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the way back

Leaving behind Sambor and the 116 pillar pagoda, we retraced our steps southwards along the east bank of the Mekong River, stopping often to interact with the locals, usually kids 'cause they're the easiest to get the big wide smiles from. The Mekong River water level was quite low so exposed a lot of small grass-tufted islands, as it had in Kratie town, where a virtual beach had appeared complete with temporary sun-shades just in front of Wat Roka Kandal. At the turn-off for Phnom Sambok, we stopped for sugar cane juice before tackling the three-levels of Sambok mountain, 360 steps and its varied pagodas. At the first level we stopped to have sticky rice (a local delicacy called krolan) with the nuns who were so welcoming we couldn't resist. Through actions rather than words, we had an enjoyable half hour, sharing their food and doing our bit for English-Khmer relations before facing the rest of the steps to the top. There are great views over the surrounding river plains, though the pagodas themselves weren't much to write home about and apart from a sandstone pedestal, there was little else I could find. Next stop was the pagoda at Wat Thma Krae where I spied another pedestal and after a bit of searching, a half lintel - with figures riding a massive makara - that had been cemented into part of a bridge construction. One way to avoid it being stolen I suppose. The young monk we spoke to told us that there used to be other carvings but they had been whisked away years ago, a similar story can be heard across the country. The village of Thma Krae is where it seems everyone is involved in selling krolan packed in bamboo. Our final port of call was the distinquished two-storey pagoda at Wat Krakor, before we rolled back into Kratie town itself, in time for a shave at the local beauty salon, an hour on the internet and a fruit-shake and chat with riverside vendor Leang, who'd come to Kratie a year before from her home in Kompong Cham as business was much better here. At 27 she was looking to stay one more year before returning to her home town with her earnings and to look for a husband. Spotting a glint in her eye, it was time to say goodbye, I wished her well and walked back to my hotel for an early night, in prep for the minibus ride to Stung Treng the next morning.
Note: Photos to follow - is having a hissy fit and won't let me upload any photos. I hope it's just a temporary problem.

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In spirit

Two reggae gigs that I would've attended, if I was still living in Blighty, will take place soon enough. Up first is my favourite songstress Yaz Alexander, who will support the legendary Wailers in concert at the Birmingham Academy on Wednesday 22 April. The Wailers, Bob Marley's backing band, will perform the Exodus album in full as part of a 6-date tour they are kicking off in London tonight. Yaz will be accompanied by her two backing vocalists Anne-Marie and Emmah B. By the way Yaz will also support The Mighty Diamonds in concert at The Drum in Birminghm on 6 June.
The second gig where I will be there in spirit only, will be at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire on Wednesday 27 May, when the best band on the globe, Steel Pulse will perform as part of the Island Life concert festival, celebrating 50 years of Island Records. It was with Island that Steel Pulse released their first single, Ku Klux Klan and their debut album, Handsworth Revolution, in 1978, a watershed year in my music-listening history. Pulse went onto release another two albums whilst with Island, not to mention touring with the legend himself Bob Marley, another Island regular. Link: Steel Pulse.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wat watching on the Mekong

A thick-set stone lion, a relic from its 7th century beginnings, at Wat Sasar Muoy Roy
Buoyed by our successful early morning dolphin-watching activities at Kampi, about 15kms north of Kratie, Tim and I and our respective motodops, headed further north and called into Wat Sandan on our way to Sambor and Wat Sasar Muoy Roy, the 100-pillar pagoda, that's actually 116 pillars but who's counting. The ride along the road hugging the east bank of the Mekong River was a very pleasant journey as we passed through villages, returning waves and hello's before pulling into the grounds of our target destination, some 35kms north of Kratie. Now for a history lesson. Wat Sasar Muoy Roy was built on the site of an 7th century former royal palace called Sambhupura and was one of four temples, each facing a different direction; Sasar Muoy Roy faces north and was built in the 16th century, when King Chan Reachea II dedicated it to the goddess of the temple, who he asked to care for the soul of his daughter, Preah Neang Varakak, who'd be swallowed by a crocodile. About 100 years into its life, the temple was struck by lightning which burnt 22 columns and turned the face of the main Buddha statue black. Now reduced to 78 colums, the pagoda was renovated again at the end of the 1990s and is now wider, longer and has 116 colums for good measure. Of the other three temples, one has disappeared, another, the wooden Preah Vihear Kuk (and faces east), stands 300 metres east and is currently being renovated, whilst Preah Vihear Laos (faces west) is in town and lies unattended and abandoned. Back at Sasar Muoy Roy, I found a stone lion and an inscribed stone with eight lines of Sanskrit writing being attended by a couple of laymen, next to the gold and pink stupa of the deceased princess, before we visited Preah Vihear Kuk, which was a decaying ruin the last time I visited it nine years earlier, and a quick chat with some young monks. Restoration efforts were in full flow at Vihear Kuk, with the ceiling paintings being retouched and the wooden columns and roof having already received expert attention. A couple of kilometres north of Sambor are the villages of Don Meas and Baay Samnom and closeby are a series of five sites where groups of brick temples once stood, but where little remains and even the residents had no idea where the piles of bricks were located. So instead of spending hours scouring the undergrowth, much of which was underwater, we sat down with a group of women and children to practice our limited Khmer and their non-existent English, which is always fun, before starting our ride back.
A ceiling painting in need of a spring-clean at Wat Sandan
Wat Sasar Muoy Roy, a stone's throw from the Mekong River and its 116 pillars
The re-painted stupa of Preah Neang Varakak, eaten by a crocodile
An unusual Neak Ta at Wat Sasar Muoy Roy is well-armed!
Preah Vihear Kuk is undergoing extensive renovation
The re-painted pediment above the east-facing entrance at Preah Vihear Kuk
Preah Vihear Kuk's ceiling paintings getting touched up, complete with wooden scaffolding
The central shrine and wooden columns at Preah Vihear Kuk
The attractive and pretty location of Preah Vihear Kuk, as well as stairs that go nowhere!
The unattended and abandoned Preah Vihear Laos, in the town of Sambor

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Relaxing by the Mekong

The vihara at Wat Roka Kandal, restored to its former glory in 2002
A couple of weeks ago, I spent two nights in the provincial town of Kratie, on my way into northern Cambodia, enjoying the dolphin activity at Kampi and the laid-back atmosphere of this colonial-infused Mekong riverside location. It was my first overnight visit to Kratie in nine years and little had changed. I stayed at the Oudom Sambath hotel on the riverfront, which was about as good as it gets in the provinces, ie. air-con and hot water, at $15/night, ate at the Red Sun Falling - where I had the best chips I've tasted since moving to Cambodia to live - and also sampled the fare at the U-Hong restaurant next to the market and a cooked breakfast at the Star guesthouse. As you can expect at any town in any province, the market was a hive of activity and the colonial buildings ringing the marketplace add a touch of faded elegance to the area, even though the smell doesn't quite add spice to the scene. The restored early 19th century wooden pagoda at Wat Roka Kandal (its original name is Wat Botumny Vannaram) lies a couple of kilometres south of the center and I remember it as a broken and dilapidated vihara when I was last in Kratie, until it received its makeover in early 2002 with financial help from the German Federation, and is now a handicraft center. It lies next to the Mekong riverbank and adjacent to a couple of decaying wooden bungalows that can be rented. Tim and I popped our heads into a couple of the locals wats, played football with a group of men at Wat Serey Santhor Vong and took the opportunity to enjoy the setting sun across the river with a fruit-shake in one hand and camera in the other. A relaxing start to our adventures.
I remember this female figure from my last visit to Roka Kandal 9 years ago
A rare wooden pediment on Wat Roka Kandal showing a sitting Buddha
A nicely decorated door panel at Wat Roka Kandal
The west-facing wooden pediment at Wat Roka Kandal
A wooden post inside the vihara which has been hand-painted with naga motifs
Did you think I wouldn't bring you a Neak Ta? This one is from Roka Kandal.
Sunset on our 1st night and the birds fly home to nest
A temporary beach near Roka Kandal, where the water level of the Mekong has dropped
The gorgeous dusk sky as the sun sets on our 2nd night in Kratie

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The Churning

The Churning scene at Preah Vihear
I will post photos from my recent visit to Preah Vihear temple soon enough. In the meantime, this picture of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at the temple, reminded me of a note that author and Angkor expert Dawn Rooney sent me a while ago when we were discussing this particular narrative scene.

Rooney recalls: The myth of The Churning of the Ocean of Milk centres on two teams who are churning the ocean of milk in an effort to produce an elixir of immortality. The pivot, Mount Mandara, is in the centre of the scene with eighty-eight gods standing in a row on one side and ninety-two demons on the other side. They hold the huge, scaly body of a mighty serpent twisted like a rope. After 1,000 years of churning the mountain begins to sink creating many obstacles. Vishnu, reincarnated as a tortoise, comes to the rescue and supports the mountain on the back of his shell. Reinforced, the churning starts again, and, finally, after another 1,000 years the elixir bursts forth along with other treasures such as a three-headed elephant (Airavata), a goddess (Laksmi) , the moon god (Chanda), a milky-white horse, the cow of plenty, the conch of victory, and the beautiful apsaras or celestial nymphs. When the late William Willetts saw the churning scene he described them as ‘a bevy of capering apsaras [that] burst like champagne bubbles’.

The scene represented on the 4th Gopura at Preah Vihear is one of the temple's masterpieces. Mount Mandara is shown as a rather slender pole, around which Vishnu has entwined himself. A homely touch is the pot at the base, which represents the cosmic sea itself. Vishnu is also present as a turtle to prevent the pivot from boring into the ground as the gods and demons on either side (almost indistinquishable from each other) pull alternately on the body of the naga. Other gods and characters are present: Brahma above the pole with the sun and the moon on either side, Indra on his elephant at the far right, Lakshmi appearing behind the pot on its right side, Shiva's emaciated disciple Bringin on the far left, and next to him the garuda who tries to steal the elixir produced by the churning.

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Cambodian wetlands

The designated wetland regions of Cambodia are under threat from all directions. One of two key sites is located on the Mekong River between Stung Treng and the border with Laos, this is called Ramsar Site 999. The biodiversity of the area is rich in fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and vegetation. Along this stretch, the river is fast flowing with deep pools and numerous channels running between rocky and sandy islands; the seasonal variation in water height is 10 metres. It was designated as a Ramsar Site in 1999 because it contains a unique seasonally flooded riverine forest habitat, and is also home to the Irrawady Dolphin and the Mekong Giant. More than 10,000 people live in or close to the Ramsar Site, and most of them rely on the Mekong for their food and livelihoods. Fish is the major source of protein and is also harvested to be sold. Many other species are also used, such as snails, crabs and frogs for food, and various plants for fuel wood, building, crafts and medicine. The regular flooding of the river supports rice farming using paddies. An exhibition of fine art panoramic prints by Paul Stewart from Ramsar Site 999 will take place between 27 April thru til 31 May at the FCC in Phnom Penh. Take the time to see the endangered Cambodian wetlands for yourself.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Hallinan at Monument

Talking of books and authors, whilst thriller writer Tim Hallinan hasn't written a book set solely in Cambodia just yet, he does spend part of each year here and has been persuaded to talk about his latest series of books in an appearance at Monument Books on Tuesday 28 April (6pm), and two days later, at ACE, will give a master-class in how to finish your novel, which should be an intriguing lecture, which I want to attend. Here's the flyer for the two events.

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Smothering Burma in love

Cover of To Myanmar With Love
The second book in the To Asia With Love series is being published this month by ThingsAsian Press of San Francisco and it looks like it'll be a scorcher. Already To Vietnam With Love by the series editor Kim Fay is in the bookshops, and now a window into the often secret and murky world of Myanmar (or Burma to most of us) comes in the shape of To Myanmar With Love, its 275 pages edited by Morgan Edwardson and with photographs by Phnom Penh-based lensman Steve Goodman. Morgan, who lives in Bangkok and makes regular trips to Burma, has assembled a great team of local and expat writers to provide a unique insight into dining, shopping, sightseeing and culture in a country they know intimately. I'm firmly in the 'go and visit Burma' camp and so this book will be priceless when I get around to satisfying my Burma curiosity. And of course, To Cambodia With Love is still in oven, actually it's at the editing stage and looking likely for an early 2010 release.

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Kratie's colonial past

One of Kratie's most recognisable landmarks - a mushroom-topped colonial relic
This government office is one of the few buildings that has retained its former splendour
Staying in Kratie along the Mekong River for my next post, this time it's a quick whizz around Kratie's French colonial legacy and the buildings that remain, though like other provincial towns which host similar fine and sturdy structures - Battambang, Kampot and Kompong Cham for instance - few have so far been restored to their former glory. Fortunately, much of the massive bombardment from the US that rained down on eastern Cambodia missed Kratie and the French legacy lives on around the busy marketplace and along the riverfront, including the Governor's mansion complete with rutting stags and volleyball court. Information about Kratie's colonial heritage is impossible to find, so you'll have to make do with my photos, and a suggestion that someone somewhere takes the trouble to record all of these semi-neglected buildings before they disappear forever. A book on the French colonial legacy buildings dotted around the country would sit nicely on my bookshelf. As it is, the two-storey shophouses you see here are common in all of the former colonial centres, with their shuttered windows and thick columns, though few have been given the care and attention they deserve.
The Governor's mansion is all its faded elegance
Next to the Governor's mansion is this restored building and two rutting stags for company
This building along the riverfront used to be a guesthouse/restaurant, it's now closed
Another government office along the riverside, now in a state of neglect
Looking out over the central market, a typical shophouse
Shuttered doors and windows and a balcony are the main features of this 1st floor view
More faded colonial elegance in the center of Kratie
These two-storey shophouses are given the sunset treatment, on a road that joins the river with the market
All these buildings need is a lick of paint and it would brighten up the center of Kratie dramatically
Kratie's most easily identifiable building, just north of the marketplace

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Ripples on the river

Tim's shot of one of Kampi's ultra-friendly dolphins
When you see this sign, you know you have arrived at Kampi
Dolphins at Kratie, well Kampi to be precise. I hadn't forgotten that I was going to share with you a few more of our pictures from our dolphin encounter last month. Tim's photos were better than mine, I seemed to find the happy knack of clicking the shutter just as the dolphin disappeared from view, leaving the majority of my pics showing just ripples on the river. Nevertheless, we enjoyed considerable dolphin activity during the hour or so on the Mekong River and some of the unexpected full, body-out somersaults and vertical head-out manoeuvres were quite exciting. We persuaded our boatman to paddle to reduce the noise and in the quiet of our 6.30am start, we thoroughly enjoyed our brief flirtation with the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. The pod that lives at Kampi is about twenty strong I'm told, and I reckon we saw most of them, though without any way to formally identify them, its impossible to tell. However, with dolphins breaking the surface at the same time in at least four directions, often in a group of four, we had our fill. As we went further out into the middle of the river our group of four dolphins followed us, deliberately teasing me and my failure to capture their antics on film - well, that's my theory. As we returned to shore, both Tim and I deemed our dolphin-watching a major success.
The sun rises over the Mekong River
Two dolphins head out to deeper water in the middle of the river
Tim captures one of the day's first somersaults
Local traffic began to pick up around 7am
If I had managed to capture the picture before the dolphin disappeared, this may've been a nice shot!Dolphin in foreground, French-colonial river markers in background, on the right
Vertical head-out pose from this dolphin, quite close to the shore at Kampi
This was how the majority of my photos turned out, an indistinct shadow and some splashes
Welcome to Kampi and the Irrawaddy Mekong dolphins - the boat costs $9/hour/person
The stretch of the Mekong River at Kampi and the tourist boats lying in wait for customers

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Exchange programme

A new exhibition taking place in Long Beach, California gets the Greg Mellen treatment in the Long Beach Press Telegram. And it comes all the way from Meta House, who presented the first Transformations in Phnom Penh.

LB exhibit shares visions of Khmer Lives - by Greg Mellen

On the walls are multimedia, photographic and painted works. In a side room is a photo collage of transgender life in Cambodia along with several books by Cambodian-American authors, including Long Beach's Navy Phim and Oni Vitandham. In the center of the main room is a traditional-looking Cambodian figure with the Superman "S" on its chest.The 2nd City Council Arts and Performance Space is into all things Khmer with the debut of a new show called "Transformation II: Bringing Contemporary Khmer/American Art to Long Beach."

The show features Khmer and Khmer-inspired paintings, sculpture, photography, dance and performance art. There will also be documentary films and a writers' forum with published Cambodian-American writers. The event is being presented at the 2nd City Council space at 435 Alamitos Ave. The show builds upon a show that was presented in July, 2008, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the Meta House Gallery. That show paired the work of five California and five Cambodian artists, most of whom had never been in each other's countries. Lydia Parusol, the art manager of Meta House, described the shows as the "first dialogue in an artistic way" between artists from the two countries.

In Cambodia, where most of the population is under the age of 30, in the wake of the Killing Fields Genocide of the late 1970s, a new and vibrant artistic movement is under way and artistic expression is blooming from its ancient but often constrictive roots. "In Cambodia there are young artists who are trying to go from traditional sculpture to more critical thinking," Parusol said. "They are reflecting society and themselves in the present Cambodian culture." And on the walls of the gallery, the fusions of old and new Cambodia are represented in many ways, reflecting a "bridge between traditional and modern art," according to Parusol.

Denise Scott, who splits time between the United States and Cambodia, saw the original "Transformations" show and knew she had to bring something similar to the U.S. and specifically to Long Beach because of its large Cambodian-American population. Furthermore, she wanted to present the show over the Cambodian New Year which occurs in mid-April. "Transformation II" includes the work from the original show, but then builds on it with performance art and plans to show 12 documentary films that look at the vibrant emerging arts scene in Cambodia, including some major public arts projects and individual artists.

Scott says the two Transformation shows are just the beginning of what she hopes will be an ongoing exchange. Plans are already in the works for another show at Meta House, with five to seven American artists traveling to Cambodia to not only show work, but engage in artistic exchanges and possibly working with Cambodian artists to create new works. Scott also plans to have a return show in Long Beach next April. At this year's Long Beach show, only one of the Cambodian artists was able to obtain travel documents. The artists featured have studied at Cal State Long Beach, the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, the Chicago Art Institute and Brown University, among others.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Diverse story-telling

Em Theay (left) recounts her survival story on stage in The Continuum. Kulikar Sotho is the narrator on the right.
The remarkable survival story of Em Theay, and others including her daughter Preap, told in the filmed version of the extraordinary travelling theatre performance piece, The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, was screened at Bophana this afternoon. Filmed in 2001 by director Ong Keng Sen, it's an eclectic mix of spoken word, dance, song, shadow puppetry, video, memoir and music with septuagenarian Theay as the central figure around which the theatre piece, and documentary, revolves. The play premiered at Yale University in America and was seen in Berlin, Rotterdam, Vienna, Singapore, Phnom Penh, London and Gothenberg in Sweden, bringing the heart-rending survival story of Theay to new audiences in a unique, emotional and experimental fashion. Poignantly, the film begins with an offering to the teachers - kru - of the artists, a ritual that is done before any performance of the classical arts, as we see Theay doing what she does best, teaching and imparting her gift of knowledge to others. On a darkened stage, the film shows the performers telling their stories in Khmer, some with translation, some not though the audience were provided with printed scripts in English, whilst traditional giant shadow puppets and dance are also used against a background of modern acoustic music and lighting. It was such an experimental piece of theatre that I found myself wanting to know what Theay thought about exposing her sad story in this unusual fashion. Next time I meet her, I will certainly ask.
Nico from Meta House introduces Kulikar Sotho and Nick Ray of Hanuman Films
I was accompanied to The Continuum by my pal Sophoin and after the film finished we headed straight for Meta House and another bout of film screenings, this time as part of the Hanuman Film Night that I helped to arrange. Hanuman Films don't produce or direct films and documentaries, but they do everything else to make them happen and founders Nick Ray and Kulikar Sotho, who just happened to be the narrator for The Continuum performances, gave the audience a behind-the-scenes taste of the Hollywood blockbuster Tomb Raider from 2000, a BBC Timewatch documentary on Pol Pot (2005) and a Vietnam Special from the popular BBC programme Top Gear, filmed just a few months ago. Three very different productions but a good cross-section of the work Hanuman are involved in and I think the three-hour film and Q&A session worked rather well.
The BBC's Timewatch series documentary on Pol Pot from 2005
A scene from the Pol Pot documentary

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Returning home

LtoR: Hun Sen, demon head, Abhisit Vejjajiva (Thai PM): Pic Reuters.
The return of a Khmer treasure from Thailand - a mere drop in the ocean of Khmer artifacts held over the border either by the authorities or in antique shops - took place between the two leaders of Cambodia and Thailand yesterday, before the start of an Asean summit in Pattaya. It's the head of a demon from one of Angkor Thom's monumental gates most likely and is one of seven similar pieces that will be handed back to Cambodia next week, when the Thai PM visits Phnom Penh. The Thais have stacks more but they expect Cambodia to jump through hoops and provide irrefutable evidence that the items were stolen from Cambodia. I get very annoyed when I hear about Khmer artifacts held overseas, in foreign museums and elsewhere. They should be residing in museums in this country. Full stop. The only reason Khmer artifacts should be overseas is in the form of travelling exhibitions. One such exhibition, Bronzes from the National Museum, will take place in Washington DC from May next year, when 38 bronze sculptures - out of 6,800 held at the National Museum - will go on display as part of efforts to promote Asian art. Let's hope they all make it back home afterwards.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Great news from Reap

A Svay Ken still-life, Basket, from 2007
News just in from Siem Reap, my pal Eric de Vries and his wife Lida are the proud parents of a tiny female tot by the name of C'moon, who arrived this afternoon after a long labour. My heartiest congratulations to all and good to hear mum and baby are doing just fine. The new arrival and the opening of his new 4Faces gallery-cafe on the 24th of this month will keep the new dad busy for sure, especially as everything will stop for Khmer New Year next week. Eric has announced his list of monthly exhibitions until the end of the year, kicking off with the legendary Tim Page, a Sean Flynn solo, posthumously of course, in November and another friend of mine, Jerry Redfern in December. If you are in Siem Reap, please pop in and visit Eric's new venture, close to the old market.
Tonight was the second showing of Out of the Poison Tree at Meta House, which attracted a small but interested audience. The film generated quite a few questions, especially about the KR Tribunal but also a suggestion that the documentary should be made more widely available to Cambodians to watch. I couldn't agree more. Whilst I was at Meta I noticed a couple of paintings on the walls, on the same floor as the Tim Page exhibition, that I hadn't noticed before. Shame on me. They included offerings from the late Svay Ken and from traditional master painter Chhim Sothy.
A departure from the norm for Chhim Sothy, called Anarchic Construction from 2007

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Keeping with tradition

Performance over, the youngsters board their tuk tuk for the next show
Youngsters from the Cambodian Light Children's Association orphanage enter Hanuman HQ
Getting into the swing of the Khmer New Year early doors, Hanuman presented two ceremonies today for their staff, with a ritual prosperity and peace blessing by monks at the traditional arts shop this morning, and this afternoon, the youngsters from the Cambodian Light Children's Association orphanage made their annual appearance at the tourism offices to perform the Robam Trot. This involved dressing up in traditional garb, collecting small denomination riel notes, then symbolically chasing away bad spirits and bringing luck and prosperity for the new year by the hunting of a deer, played by a very small boy. The group of children then carried on their merry way, by tuk tuk, to their next performance. Elsewhere around town, you can see groups of youngsters and twentysomethings enjoying themselves by playing traditional games late into the night, often accompanied by loud music. The games usually involve boys chasing girls or vice versa and the games include Angkunh, Leak Kanseng, Chhoung and Dandoeum Sloek Chhoeu. In fact, the Khmer staff at the office this lunchtime, all joined in a game of 'catch the young chicken,' called Kleng Chab Kun Meann in Khmer.
Traditional costume is all part of this folk ritual
This sack on a pole is used to collect money from the audience
The youngsters this year were much smaller than last year, dressed as a deer, peacock and so on - the death of the deer is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity - seems a little harsh to me


Dangrek dallyings

I wondered whether someone was suggesting this as a memorial to Ta Mok, the one-legged KR Butcher
During my recent brief visit to Anlong Veng, en route from Preah Vihear to Banteay Chhmar, I took the opportunity to take the new paved road to the top of the Dangrek Mountain escarpment, and I've already bought you the latest photos of Pol Pot's cremation site. On the way to the top, the road is split by a massive boulder and some damaged statues hewn out of the solid rock stand as a reminder of the control that the Khmer Rouge guerrillas exercised over the area for so long. The heads have been chopped off and the statues are looking worse for wear after government soldiers apparently took a dislike to them. Shrines at the site allow locals to pay their respects to their departed comrades. At the top of the mountain, the track to Pol Pot is on the right and that in turn carries onto the squalid market and then onto the border crossing with Thailand, known as Choam Srawngam. Taking a badly rutted road parallel to the mountain's cliff-face, after about four kilometres we came to a lovely open spot with gorgeous views over the plains below. I'd stayed a night there half a dozen years before and nothing had changed, especially the stunning panorama. The six wooden bungalows there, costing $7.5 per night, now have en-suite bathrooms. Nearby, in the undergrowth, lie two more reminders of the Khmer Rouge regime, the overgrown walls of another of Ta Mok's homes, this one built for a quick getaway into Thailand when the going got too hot, and a building that doubled as both a radio station and a prison at different times. We returned to town to grab a bite to eat at the Phkay Preuk restaurant and to visit a couple of guesthouses, to see the best accommodation on offer at the Monorom and Sokharith, before heading further west and a night in tented accommodation at Banteay Chhmar.
Two more broken statues are a fading reminder of the Khmer Rouge control of the Anlong Veng area
This female soldier, hewn from the solid rock, is carrying rice stalks on her head
Two young attendants at the boulder shrine, half-way up the paved mountain road
The border crossing at Choam Srawngam, close to Pol Pot's cremation site and a squalid market
This building was used as a radio station and prison detention cell by the Khmer Rouge
The gorgeous views from the cliff-edge viewing spot that used to belong to Ta Mok
The drop from this rock ledge is not recommended
The heavily-wooded slopes of the Dangrek Mountains as they role into Cambodia
The plains of northern Cambodia stretch for many kilometres into the far distanceA visitor pays her respects to this Neak Ta spirit statue on the cliff-edge

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Postman's bag

Hey, wait a minute Mr Postman... where's the DVD of The Tenth Dancer that director Sally Ingleton has sent to me? Sally was kind enough to agree to her film being shown at Meta House sometime soon, in a double-bill with Ellen Bruno's Samsara. Ellen's 30-minute film, shot in 1989 and documenting the struggle of Cambodians to rebuild a shattered society, interspersed with ancient prophecies and which glides along at a dreamlike pace, has already arrived. The Tenth Dancer, which Sally produced in 1993 and which tells the story of the revival of classical dance in Cambodia through the lives of Em Theay and Sok Chea, has yet to turn up. Come on Mr Postman, don't let me down, especially as the recent events in Em Theay's life demand that this wonderful documentary gets another airing to a brand new audience. Both films opened a window into Cambodia for me when I was living in the UK without access to any other footage, and as such have remained in my consciousness ever since.
I've also been sent two other DVDs in the last week. Sleepwalking Through The Mekong is released on DVD on the 14th of this month and they've sent a copy, together with a CD of the film's music, to review in the next couple of days. Also winging its way to me yesterday was Michael R Morris' 85-minute 2006 independent feature film, Last Seen At Angkor. Morris stars in his own low-budget thriller set in Cambodia. More when I've had a chance to watch it.

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Burnt with the rubbish

Pol Pot's cremation site outside Anlong Veng
Whilst there's little tangible to see, the cremation site of the Khmer Rouge's evil leader Pol Pot remains a priority site on the 'KR tourist circuit' in the northern former guerrilla stronghold of Anlong Veng. Pol Pot's fiefdom was in Pailin and out of his comfort zone, his demise came quickly at the hands of his former military chief Ta Mok, who put him on trial and house arrest before his convenient death in April 1998. The shack where his lifeless body was photographed before it was burnt on a pile of tyres and rubbish has disappeared, so has the toilet bowl that was still there on my last visit six years ago. The pile of mud and ash resulting from Pol Pot's funeral pyre and which sits under a rusty corrugated tin roof, has also reduced in size since I was last there, I'm told because lottery-ticket buyers have sought his bone fragments as lucky charms. Nearby a bundle of incense sticks and a neatly carved spirit house suggest his shrine receives visitors willing to revere his memory. It's hard to understand why, when this one man presided over the worst period in Cambodia's history that cost around 1.7 million lives in less than four years of Khmer Rouge rule. The site is easy to find as you arrive at the top of the escarpment and head towards the border crossing with Thailand, lying behind a newly-constructed guesthouse called Lichen. There was nobody tending the cremation site which seemed apt that the man responsible for Cambodia's darkest hour should be all alone in death.
The path heads towards Pol Pot's gravesite
A sign announces Pol Pot's cremation area
A spirit house stands near to the cremation mound
Flowers and incense sticks suggest the gravesite is tended to by visitors
A rusting corrugated tin roof covers the rapidly-disappearing grave
The spirit house and cremation mound of Pol Pot
The unremarkable and nondescript gravesite of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot
Bottles demarcate the edge of the funeral mound with flowers sprouting nearbyThe funeral mound of mud and ash looks like a strong wind could carry it away forever
A blue Ministry of Tourism sign announces 'Pol Pot Was Cremated Here'
One last look at the funeral site of the evil Khmer Rouge dictator, Pol Pot

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More catch up

So much to mention, I'm sure I'll miss a few things out but here goes. It's Khmer New Year next week - when Phnom Penh will resemble a ghost-town as the city residents head out to the provinces to spend time with their families - and our office has given all staff a 4-day break starting Monday. I'll be spending my time locked in my apartment catching up on the guidebook I've been editing for far too long now. It's taken a bit of a back-seat and I need to get my finger out to get all of the content, layout, etc, etc to the publishers ready for publication early next year. I've found editing other people's work to be much harder than just penning a piece myself. Wish me luck, I'll need it. A recent directive from the capital's governor has informed residents here in the city to stop hanging their wet washing on balconies and along sidewalks as it makes the city untidy and "is jeopardizing the dignity and honour of Khmer citizens, who used to be highly civilized". From time to time we get these weird and wonderful instructions. The helmet law, for moto-drivers only whilst passengers are not required to wear them, remains in place but revenue from fines is down as the police decide standing on the side of the road to stop motos in the hot weather of April isn't such a good idea afterall. When the weather cools a bit, the police will be back out in force, also equipped with brand-new speed cameras and breathalyzers I hear. The Phnom Penh Post today revealed what everyone already knows, that bag-snatches and robbery is on the increase in Sihanoukville, whilst the head-in-the sand authorities insist their figures show an opposite trend. Who are they trying to kid? Too many people, including a friend of mine who had her very expensive camera snatched recently, say otherwise.

Meta House continues to be one of my regular venues. Last night I listened to Erin Gleeson talk about an art show, Forever Until Now, she is currently curating in Hong Kong, which is taking the work of 14 Cambodian artists to another country, and seems to be doing very well thank you. The artists include old schoolers like Svay Ken, Rithy Panh and Vann Nath and some of the up-and-coming new breed too. There's also an exhibition of Khmer artists just about to open in Long Beach, California. Cambodia still has a long way to go to get its traditional and contemporary art out into the world marketplace and it's best galleries but it's making steady progress, from very humble beginnings. Just before everyone disappears for the New Year, Meta House will re-screen the documentary Out of the Poison Tree this Friday and on Saturday (both events begin at 7pm), will host the first Hanuman Film Night with Nick Ray and Kulikar Sotho giving their personal take on making films and documentaries in the Mekong region. One documentary that will make its debut very soon is We Want (U) To Know, by filmmaker Ella Pugliese, who took cameras to a village in Takeo province and let the villagers tell their own stories about how they survived the Khmer Rouge. It will be shown at the Chenla Theatre on 7 May. Talking about the KR, the Tribunal this week has been hearing testimony from S-21 chief Duch, mainly about his previous role in another secret prison known as M-13, whilst the first witness, Francois Bizot, who wrote The Gate, about his encounters with Duch in 1971, took the stand on Wednesday. The trial is expected to continue for months to come. Whilst I'm keeping track of what is happening, I've decided not to report the Tribunal events in detail on my blog, as other websites are far better at dissecting what is being heard. Here's one.
For those interested, here's the draft cover of the guidebook I'm editing, called To Cambodia With Love - A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, to be published by ThingsAsian Press. Look out for an early 2010 publication date.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On my to-do list

Phimai, in Isaan, northeast Thailand
An area that has been on my 'must visit' list for a while now is northeast Thailand, particularly the area known as Isaan, with its own collection of Angkorean temples, left over from the days of the expanded Khmer Empire but now under Thai jurisdiction. Whilst co-operation between the two countries is at an all-time low right now, I hope to be able to take some time out later this year to bask in the temples at Phimai and Phnom Rung, and lots more besides. The reason I mention it now is this article which appeared in today's New Zealand Herald. Read on.

Thailand: Khmer chameleon - by Sharon Stephenson (New Zealand Herald)

Think Thailand, and the bustling mayhem of Bangkok comes to mind. However, an hour's flight north of the capital you find yourself in the calmer, more secluded enclave of Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand's Isan province. Isan is bordered by Laos and Cambodia on three sides, so if you were to do a foxtrot and step right, you'd be in Laos, backwards and you'd hit Cambodia. Not surprisingly, the food, language and silk weaving are heavily influenced by these close neighbours. But what wins me over is the temperature - a glorious 35C that wallops me in the face like a large hot towel as soon as I step out of the airport.

Being this close to Cambodia also means we're surrounded by some of the Khmer people's greatest legacies, and at times it feels as though we can barely move for tripping over Angkor-style temples hewn out of hunks of ancient rock. Perhaps the best example of this is the Phimai Historical Park, Thailand's largest Khmer historical site believed to have been built in the 12th century. It's striking that this sprawling temple combines both Hindu and Buddhist sensibilities and the ornately carved sandstone with its unusual pink hue keeps us mesmerised for hours. We're finally driven away by the midges - and this despite the industrial strength insecticide we almost marinate in before leaving the hotel.

Thankfully, the Phimai National Museum seems to be an insect-free zone. Set on the banks of the beautiful Mun River, the museum contains rooms of artefacts, including the rudimentary objects used to construct the Khmer temples. What catches my eye, though, is the bling: ornate shell, stone and glass beads from the Bronze and Iron Ages (3000-1500 years ago), which prove women from all cultures throughout history have had a love affair with shiny baubles. Save your ticket from the historical park because it'll guarantee you entry to the museum for a month. The next day is also filled with temples, but this time we're in the sticks. The first is Phanom Rung, a 1000-year-old Khmer site that sits on an extinct volcano. It began life as a Hindu religious site and the building's layout was determined by Hindu god Shiva's image of heaven. After a short drive though bush we arrive at Muang Tam, where an impressive collection of sandstone pagodas again reflects the temple's Hindu origins. I feel as though I've hit my temple limit for the day. It's time to turn our attention to the other star attractions of northern Thailand - elephants.

These graceful creatures have played an integral part in Siamese or Thai life - Siamese soldiers rode elephants into battle, and later the majestic beasts were used in the logging industry. But when that was banned in 1989, thousands of domestic elephants suddenly found themselves unemployed and unable to fend for themselves. Many, thankfully, now live at the Surin Elephant Centre, the world's largest elephant village. Here the Suai people, who've raised elephants the traditional way for generations, look after a seemingly endless number of this protected species. They also run elephant "talent shows", where their charges perform unnatural tasks as kneeling down and throwing darts. That's not going to appeal to everyone but you can have as much, probably more, fun by spending a few baht on a bunch of bananas and hand-feeding the rough-skinned giants.

If you have time, head up the road to the Ban Tha Sawang silk-weaving village where master craftsmen and women work traditional looms to produce exquisite woven cloth. Afterwards, we wander the many stalls picking up ridiculously cheap silk scarves, table cloths and handbags. Isan may not be on everyone's "places to visit before I die" list, but as an alternative to Bangkok - and for a genuine glimpse into how these gentle and welcoming people live - it ticks all the right boxes. Sharon Stephenson was a guest of The Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Devoid of life

A view of the man-made lake from the 1st floor of Ta Mok's house
The main building at Ta Mok's residence, which contains the wall-paintings, two upper floors and a basement
Ta Mok's townhouse and the eerie man-made lake that surrounds it are completely devoid of life. Perhaps fitting for a man believed to have the blood of thousands on his hands when he died in 2006, cheating justice as did the former leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot seven years earlier. Whatever the residents of Anlong Veng may say, Ta Mok will be recalled as a brutal KR commander, who perhaps mellowed in his later years whilst in the comfort zone of his northern Cambodia fiefdom, but the history books will paint a very different picture of The Butcher. If plans for a museum in the former KR stronghold take root, it's important that the image it creates of Ta Mok is a clear one, not fuzzied by time or apparent reverence. Today the dam and lake he created, by drowning the blackened tree trunks that jut skywards, is a constant reminder of the death wreaked by this man throughout his life. But speak to one of his former charges in the town and you'll hear a very different story. Ta Mok's house is a regular stop on the Anlong Veng 'KR tourist circuit' that is just about all that is going for the place, though with its close proximity to the border with Thailand, the town has certainly prospered in the six years since my last visit. Sturdy tree trunks form the inside struts for Ta Mok's house, there's a profusion of western-style toilets, ceramic floor tiles and a small shrine with a few dusty incense sticks and a badly-eroded sandstone lion are all that remain, surrounded by the amateurish wall-paintings on two floors. Outside, and on three sides, the lake is deadly quiet and a lasting legacy left by the military chief of the Khmer Rouge.
The errie lake, devoid of life, surrounding Ta Mok's townhouse
Dead and blackened tree trunks are a reminder of the forest that once covered this area
At this time of year, grass is on show, but in the wet season, the whole area is under water
A desolate and apocalyptic scene in Anlong Veng
The two upper floors of the larger, main building, used primarily as a meeting place
One of the western-style toilets favoured by the one-legged KR military chief Ta Mok - I imagine it's easier to sit than squat if you have one leg
A rusted and broken truck - it looks like a prison wagon - inside the Ta Mok residence

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Artwork of The Butcher

Ta Mok's former townhouse in Anlong Veng is a tourist stop for Khmers and foreigners alike
Some of the wall-paintings on the 1st floor of Ta Mok's main residence in Anlong Veng
With the Khmer Rouge trials underway in earnest, one of the Khmer Rouge leaders who won't be up for public scrutiny is Ta Mok, the infamous one-legged KR commander, known for good reason as The Butcher. He died in custody in 2006. His personal fiefdom in the final years of the Khmer Rouge movement was in and around Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia. He ruled it with an iron-fist (just ask Pol Pot, oh sorry, you can't) as well as a deft-touch, judging by the schools and a hospital he apparently set up. I was there a couple of weeks ago and visited his large house in the middle of town, which is one of the main sights on the Anlong Veng 'tourist circuit', as well as his tomb and his retreat on top of the nearby escarpment. At the townhouse, which he built in 1994, the now-bare rooms reveal little of the man or the movement except a series of almost primitive wall-paintings that remain, surprisingly unscathed by graffiti. When his stronghold was overrun by the army they collected over sixty pieces of ancient Angkorean sculpture and transferred them to the Angkor Conservation depot in Siem Reap. Large sandstone blocks stolen from various temple sites still litter the yard of the townhouse. The paintings on display show an elongated Preah Vihear on the ground floor, Angkor Wat, a map of the country and an idyllic view of the Cambodian countryside. These rooms once hosted the KR hierarchy in the death throes of a movement that finally came to grief in 1998, including the trial and death of their former feared ruler Pol Pot. You can find many people in Anlong Veng who recall Ta Mok's memory with reverence, you can find a lot more that wish he had survived to face justice at the current trials. But fate is sometimes not that kind or just.
The painter of ths 1st gopura at Preah Vihear was a little limited on providing perspective in his artwork
Presumably Preah Vihear was a favourite temple of Ta Mok - it was certainly a temple that was in KR hands for long periods
Ta Mok collected sculpture from various temple sites, most likely including Preah Vihear
The 5th gopura at Preah Vihear shown in its mountainous location in this wall-painting on the ground floor of Ta Mok's townhouse
Perhaps important strategy decisions were taken using this wall-painted country map on the 1st floor of Ta Mok's home
One of two Angkor Wat paintings, this one a little worse for wear on the ground floor
A second Angkor Wat impression - remind me not to employ this artist for my own room
An idyllic countryside scene that never existed under the Khmer Rouge - they would've killed all these animals for their meat

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On the river

The laid-back style of Paneman, which spends half the year in Siem Reap and the rest in Phnom Penh
Taking it easy on the polished wooden floors of Paneman, a 27-metre long vessel that runs on biodiesel made from discarded cooking oil
Floating vessels were on the agenda yesterday when I ventured out into the roasting afternoon sun to visit some boats that ply their trade on the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. It was an inspection visit on behalf of my company to see a range of different options for our clients. There are lots more to see - as any visit to the riverside in Phnom Penh will testify - but 4 boats in an hour and a half was enough for me as my shirt was drenched in sweat and I needed an ice-cold bottle of water to cool myself down. Most of the boats are foreign-owned, my personal preference is for the wooden-bodied boats and it was good to see that at least two of them were innovative enough to utilize solar-power, which is in plentiful supply in hot and humid Phnom Penh. The boats I visited were Paneman, Mystic, Satra and Regina. There were a stack of boats moored nearby including some of the biggest vessels that ply these waters, the Toum Teav and Pandaw.
The Mystic provides riverbound dining and a chance to unwind along the waterways in front of the capital
Inside the Mystic with its flat-screen tv and sound sytem and table-seating for evening dinner
The two decks of the wooden Satra which can be chartered for trips to Siem Reap and along the Mekong River
The galley and eating area of the Satra, which can accommodate a small group
The Regina is the bigger sister of the Satra with bunk-style bedrooms aboard and lots of space on top
Accommodation on Regina includes this bed as well as 3 other bunk-style bedrooms

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A look behind the scenes

This coming Saturday (11 April) at 7pm is the first-ever Hanuman Film Night and it will take place at Meta House (near Wat Botum) in Phnom Penh in order 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. Their initial claim to fame was doing all the donkey-work to get Tomb Raider filmed in Cambodia, which was no mean feat, though they'd worked on the Lonely Planet Cambodia tv programme before that. 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 the award-winning Timewatch: Pol Pot (BBC, 2005) and the Top Gear Vietnam Special (BBC, 2008) together with two shorts: selected parts 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.
Also showing at Meta House this coming Friday (10 April) will be the second screening of Beth Pielert's Out of the Poison Tree documentary that follows Thida Buth Mam and her sisters on their voyage of discovery to Cambodia. It's a 7pm start, so if you missed the first screening, make sure you attend this one.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

A satisfied customer

Another satisfied Hanuman customer, who travelled on a press trip throughout Cambodia, writes this very positive piece in the Daily Mail in England today.

Tomb raiding, fried tarantula and sunrise over the world's greatest wonders in Cambodia - by Richard Johnson (The Mail Online 6/4/09)
When I appeared in the film Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, I played against type. My role was a superrich, scheming, manipulative leader of a gang of miscreants bent on taking control of the world. (Yes, a banker - how did you guess?) Fortunately, Lara Croft, played by Angelina Jolie, saw through my evil plan and made sure it failed. In fact, she disposed of me before I even had a chance to reach pensionable age. Recollections of that period of my life flooded back as I stood at one of the vine-encrusted doorways that led to the interior of the ancient Temple of Ta Prohm, part of the Angkor Wat complex in northern Cambodia. The movie featured these doorways - and they supposedly led to a vast underground chamber housing a gigantic time machine. Alas, I never went to Cambodia during filming - the doorways were cleverly and expensively constructed at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. So it was a thrill to be given the chance to experience the real thing, especially as Angkor Wat is widely, and rightly, counted among the wonders of the ancient world. Mind you, we had to get up at 5am and miss the excellent buffet breakfast at our hotel, the Raffles Grand, in favour of a packed one in a knapsack in order to arrive at the Temple in the dark. Then we had to wait patiently for the sun to rise beyond the five dominating sandstone towers, the tallest of which is more than 200ft.

As I peeled the second of my hardboiled eggs, dawn began to arrive. It was astounding, turning the towers into dark sentinels of the secrets they guard. The waters of the lake that lay between us and them shimmered with red, pink, amber and gold. Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th Century - about the same time as Peterborough Cathedral - by King Suryavarman II to honour the Hindu god Vishnu. Peterborough may be proud of its cathedral but compared with Angkor - reputed to be the largest religious building in the world - it is as a fly to an eagle. The complex covers an area of more than 20 acres. There are thousands of exquisite bas-reliefs, some extending for hundreds of yards along covered galleries; others more intimate, depicting the king's handmaidens. Considering that it is in a tropical forest area, and has been fought over in several wars, the Wat is in good condition. Time has not dealt so kindly with many of the other temples scattered around the area. Among the buildings that have been effectively consumed by the jungle, with giant fig and silk-cottonwood trees spanning and gripping the delicate stonework with their roots, is the romantic and fascinating temple of Ta Prohm.

You could probably visit ten such places in a day if you had the energy, which is unlikely given the heat you will encounter during the dry season. Angkor Wat is one of the pinnacles of world tourism - glossy coffee-table books insist that we must see it before we die. The authors of such books are right. The place is unforgettable. It has such beauty, such atmosphere, such mysterious spirituality. I'm glad I've made my pilgrimage. The Raffles Grand is the oldest in Siem Reap, the dormitory for visitors to Angkor. Since the Nineties, the town has expanded massively to cater for the ever-increasing tourist trade. There were more than two million visitors last year. More hotels are in the planning stage, including one with 1,000 bedrooms. Obviously, all this places a huge strain on the resources of the area.

A few days earlier we had arrived in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, aboard Thai Airways' efficient overnight service from Heathrow, which landed us there spot on time after a stopover at Bangkok. Phnom Penh has four significant tourist attractions: the Royal Palace, the National Museum, S-21 prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Our first stop was the Killing Fields, a 12-mile drive from the city. We arrived, somewhat pale and jetlagged, and waited while our guide obtained the entry tickets for three American dollars - about £2. With our fee paid, we passed through the gate into a strangely quiet and peaceful place. Confronting us was a stupa - the most sacred Buddhist monument. Filled with relics and other holy objects, it is believed to emanate blessings and peace. The stupa - tall, circular and glasssided - also contains the bleached skulls and bones of some 8,000 of the 17,000 men, women and children who, naked, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, were shot or hacked to death in the killing fields before their bodies were shovelled into mass graves. As we walked the paths between the burial pits, our guide disturbed the whitened arm-bone of a small child. It was a shocking and terribly moving place - witness, if any were needed, to the monstrous inhumanity of man.

'We will now return to the city to visit S-21,' said our guide as we sat, silent and stunned, in the cool of our minibus. In the days before the Khmer Rouge took power, Security Prison 21 was a high school. The regime converted the classrooms into torture chambers, covered the windows with iron bars and enclosed the whole area in electrified barbed wire. Of the thousands of prisoners who passed through the site between 1975 and 1979, only seven survived - the rest were sent to the killing fields. Of the 1,729 staff at the prison, just one has been put on trial. Now S-21 is the Museum of Genocide. As we passed through the buildings we were confronted with the ghastly instruments of torture, such as the electrified metal bedsteads to which prisoners were shackled. Most moving of all were the thousands of images of the victims - men, women, even small children, their hands tied behind their backs, staring uncomprehendingly at the camera as they were meticulously photographed by their captors. Our Phnom Penh guide lost her uncle during the Khmer Rouge regime; our guide in Siem Reap lost his father. Both speak constantly, almost compulsively, of those times. Perhaps this ritual of conducting tourists to these terrible places somehow assuages the pain, and bears witness to their suffering. I hope so. That night there was certainly a sober mood among our group.

The following day, we visited the Royal Palace, a creation that is beyond palatial. There are gilded buildings with graceful, curving roof-lines; the massive ceremonial Silver Pagoda; solid gold statues studded with thousands of diamonds; staircases made of Italian marble; gardens carefully tended and lush with tropical flowers and trees. It's spectacular. However, we were not permitted to view the royal apartments, which are at the back of the complex, away from the king's loyal subjects and tourists. You may think the $3 entry fee for the privilege of strolling around the grounds is a bargain when you remember it costs £14 to visit Buckingham Palace on open days. But when you consider that the average Cambodian earns about $300 (just over £200) a year, it's perhaps not such a good deal. I was beginning to feel the heat, so I passed up the opportunity to climb 300 steps to view a temple on the way to our next stop, the National Museum, preferring instead to laze under a tree and listen to the cicadas' shrill conversation in the palms. Not far away the temple's elephant munched his lunch placidly in the shade. The National Museum is really interesting. There are four galleries arranged around a central garden courtyard, where ornamental carp swirl among the water lilies of formal pools. Inside, there are some wonderful examples of sculptural art: giant wrestling monkeys carved from sandstone; a king of the 12th Century in meditative pose, his head bowed; serried ranks of Buddhas, some of them rescued from Khmer Rouge desecration by devotees, many of whom paid for their bravery with their lives. Again I was touched by the suffering these people have endured across the centuries.

In the evening we went for the last of our Phnom Penh excursions - a sunset cruise on the mighty Mekong River, on whose banks the city has evolved. The Mekong is the lifeblood of Cambodia, as the Nile is of Egypt. It has its source in the Tibetan Himalayas and winds its way 2,700 miles through China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before discharging into the South China Sea. In northern Cambodia, the Mekong flows into the huge freshwater Tonle Sap Lake, entering it near Siem Reap. About a quarter of Cambodia's 20million people gain their living directly from the lake or the Mekong, either from its huge and extraordinarily diverse fish population or from the flooding of the surrounding paddy fields. As we set off downriver, we passed massive dredgers scooping silt from the river to form whole new islands; on the right bank the sweeping roofs of the Royal Palace glistened in the evening light. Further on, we cruised past the floating village of Chong Kneas whose inhabitants trawl to satisfy the capital's ever-increasing demand for fish. That night we dined at the atmospheric Khmer Surin Restaurant in Phnom Penh, founded in 1996, which has an excellent menu of authentic Thai and Cambodian dishes. Try the fish amok served in little pots, each with a subtle difference of flavour.

The next day we left our hotel, the Raffles Le Royal, at 7am for the start of the long drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and our visit to the magnificent Angkor Wat complex. As we ploughed through the massed ranks of rush-hour motorcyclists, I discovered the best way to drive in Phnom Penh. Just point your vehicle in the direction you want to go, maintain a steady speed and somehow, miraculously, the motorcyclists get out of the way. Be warned, once clear of the environs of the city, the road gets rough and savagely pot-holed. We had a brief respite at a cafe in a small roadside market, where the boast of locals that ' Cambodians will eat anything' was borne out by the trays of fried tarantulas, crickets and ants on offer. One of the adventurous girls in our party even volunteered to try a tarantula leg. The expression on her face as she tried to swallow it was, however, enough to dissuade her friends from ordering the mixed insect platter.

Four bone-rattling hours later we stopped for a picnic lunch at the ruined temples of Sambor Prei Kuk. The area was blessedly devoid of other tourists so we were able to enjoy its crumbling sanctuaries, guarded by elaborate stone lions that looked marvellous in the dappled sunlight. We then rejoined the road - well, track is a more apt description - for another four-hour rollercoaster ride to remote Koh Ker. For a short period in the 10th Century this was the capital of Cambodia, but now it is another romantic ruin. We were spending the night in what our tour company called a 'luxury safari camp', with the promise of a 'traditional local dinner'. My immediate thought was of a tarantula starter, followed by civet cat, gently roasted after being shot out of a tree by a member of the kitchen staff armed with a catapult. The orange canvas tents of the camp were set up almost against the walls of an ancient temple, in a forest clearing. As darkness fell, oil-rag torches lit up the pathways to the dining area. A substantial table with matching chairs, crisp tablecloth and napkins had been set up for the traditional local meal. It also came with a printed, gold-embossed menu and waiters in uniform. Soon a long glass of gin and tonic was coursing into my pot hole-battered limbs, followed by a substantial goblet of Chardonnay. Boy, the locals around here really live well, I thought. The dinner itself was a slightly rustic version of a menu that might have come from the kitchens of a Raffles hotel.

Later, I settled down on my bed fully clothed - well, what's the point of getting undressed, especially after a bottle of excellent wine has been settled with a couple of fine post-prandial glasses of Cognac Napoleon? For a while I was disturbed by the thought that if one of the burning torches were to fall over, the whole tinder-dry area would go up in flames. But then I thrust the idea out of my mind and slept until dawn, when the breeze sighed through the sides of my canvas dwelling. It was as if our camp were being visited by the ghosts of Angkorians past, disturbed by our presence. After viewing the ruins at Koh Ker, we resumed our journey to Siem Reap, arriving at the Raffles in time for lunch by the pool. We enjoyed this spot of R&R after the rigours of the journey, and looked forward to the culmination of our trip - the visit to the Temples of Angkor Wat.

Cambodia has much that is strange to Western eyes. The juxtaposition of great wealth and the extreme poverty of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants; the almost blatant levels of corruption; the certainty of environmental disaster unless the world can prevent the destruction of the Tonle Sap Lake, eliminating pollution and outlawing water abstraction and damming upstream, especially in China. All these problems are obvious. So why go to Cambodia? Well, this small country's main source of foreign income comes from tourism. They need us. And the people's welcome is heart-warmingly open and generous. Cambodia is rich with extraordinary antiquities, while its tragic recent history is borne with courage and even humour. The people are truly wonderful. Go, enjoy them. You'll return with memories that will last a lifetime.

Travel facts: Cox & Kings has a nine-night tailor-made trip to Cambodia that combines three nights at Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh, four at Raffles Grand Hotel in Siem Reap and two in a tented temple camp from £3,195 per person. The price includes return flights with Thai Airways via Bangkok, breakfast and some meals, private transfers and all excursions. The trip was organized in Cambodia by who else? - Hanuman Tourism of course.


Feeling nostalgic

I'm feeling a bit nostalgic today with the news that the famed sweeper of Ta Prohm, Choun Nhiem has passed away. And therefore what better than to revel in even more nostalgia, this time a youtube video of Cambodia and Angkor Wat in the 1930s.

Death of an icon - the Sweeper of Ta Prohm

Choun Nhiem in 1998, a year after I first met him in Ta Prohm
I report with sadness the passing of Choun Nhiem, or Ta Nhiem for those who knew him. Choun Nhiem was the iconic stooping figure who swept leaves at Ta Prohm and appeared in thousands of photos taken by tourists to this popular temple. And of course he graced the cover of the 4th edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Cambodia in 2002. He has been missing from the corridors of Ta Prohm for a year or so now as he has been suffering from health deterioration due to his advanced years, and it was old age that finally caught up with him nearly three months ago. He died peacefully at home, aged 87, in the village of Rohal, watched over by his family.

By way of remembering Choun Nhiem, I repost here, a blog report from September 2006:
Do you recognise this living icon of Angkor? His name is Choun Nhiem, he's eighty-four years old and features in the photos of thousands of tourists that have visited the Angkorean temple of Ta Prohm. Many will recognise his face, his hunched stature, and like the white-robed nuns who tend the statues at Bayon and the sweet little girls who sell trinkets and souvenirs amongst the temples, he's become one of Angkor's living icons. A widow and nearly blind, Choun Nhiem spends his days sweeping leaves from the courtyards and corridors of Ta Prohm and is recognised by many from his appearance on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook. For the past fifteen years he's been as much a part of Ta Prohm as the roots and trees that clasp the temple walls in their vice-like grip. Choun Nhiem was a labourer at the Angkor site before the Khmer Rouge years, during which he lost two sons. He lives in a small village near the temple, has three surviving children and returns to Ta Prohm every day to carry out his duties, and to sell the occasional trinket to tourists - he offered me a small cowbell when I first met him in 1997. I've seen Choun Nhiem every time I've returned to the temple on my visits to Angkor, and I hope to see him for many years to come, Ta Prohm wouldn't be the same without him.

The latest LP Cambodia, published August 2008, focuses on him in their Angkor section.
Nhiem Chun by Nick Ray
Nhiem Chun is as much an icon of Angkor as the tangled roots that slowly choke the ancient stones of Ta Prohm. He will be forever known as the ‘sweeper of Ta Prohm,’ as Nhiem Chun has dedicated his life to stemming the tide of nature, bent double, stooping low over the stones to sweep away the falling leaves each day. I first met Nhiem back in 1995 when exploring Ta Prohm. He was more sprightly then, nimbly gliding over fallen pillars, tumbled stones and moss-clad lintels in search of his quarry, those ever-falling leaves. Nhiem’s face was every bit as chiselled and characterful as the beautiful devadas that still lined the galleries. Years later he was immortalised by Lonely Planet when his iconic image was selected as the cover shot for the fourth edition of this Cambodia guidebook. It is a definitive shot, Nhiem standing in front of the ‘Tomb Raider tree’. Nhiem soon became an A-list Angkor celebrity and crowds thronged around him wanting a photograph. At 86, Nhiem Chun is about the same age as King Sihanouk, although their lives could hardly be more different. He grew up tending buffalo and helping with the harvest, but thanks to a chance meeting with Angkor curator Henri Marchal in 1941 he began work as a labourer, helping with temple restoration at Angkor. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the temples and Nhiem was destined to spend the next 65 years of his life working amid the sacred stones. Nhiem’s world crumbled around him when the Khmer Rouge came to power. ‘In the 1970s, our lives were turned upside down. I could not do my job, I had to work the land,’ says Nhiem. ‘You had no choice. You would be killed.’ More precious than his beloved temples, his two sons disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime. ‘When the fighting was over, my two sons were still missing,’ he recalls. ‘I was told they had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, their throats slit with sharpened sugar palm fronds.’

In 2006 the BBC came to Cambodia to film for the documentary series Imagine….Who Cares About Art? And Nhiem Chun, the ever-loyal guardian of Ta Prohm, was our subject. We spent several days with him, learning about his life, his loves, and his loss. ‘The older I get the more I love this place. These temples are the spirit of the Cambodian nation,’ muses Nhiem, wandering about Ta Prohm. ‘I could have built this temple in a past life. If I did not have any connection, I would not be here to take care of it today.’ Nhiem is not getting any younger and frets about the future. ‘I am old now. I can’t take care of these temples any more,’ he opines wistfully. ‘But when I am gone, these stones will still be here. These temples are symbols of our soul. We will not survive if we don’t look after our temples.’ Like the ancient stones of Ta Prohm, like his beloved monarch Sihanouk, Nhiem Chun has experienced light and dark. A life lived among beauty and brilliance, he has also experienced the ugly side of mankind. But life goes on and the leaves continue to fall. ‘If I don’t sweep, the leaves will cover the temple. I must sweep,’ he mutters. Nhiem Chun is a man for all seasons. Nhiem Chun has finally hung up his brush to enjoy a well-earned retirement and lives with his grandchildren in a village near Ta Prohm. Some quotes taken from BBC film Imagine…Who cares About Art?

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Friend's weekend

Now, enjoying an iced-coffee at Corner 33 in her quick-fire visit to Phnom Penh
It's been a bit hectic, as usual, this weekend with a couple of friends coming to stay at Brouwer Towers, hot on the heels of my brother Tim who returned to England last week, and now finds himself in South Africa. That man has ants in his pants. First it was Vy from Sihanoukville, in town for a day to get her visa to visit France, who called in my good pal Sophoin as her room partner. Next it was Now, my souvenir seller friend from Angkor Wat who was making only her second-ever trip to Phnom Penh, and she secured the services of her cousin Han, as her room buddie. Both girls are single, so it was only right that they should maintain their honour by calling in chaperones. It was a case of firsts for Now, who enjoyed her first-ever Indian meal at Mount Everest, chomped on her first burger at Lucky Burger and made her debut playing pool at the Red Orchid. Although she's in her late twenties, she spends nearly 365 days a year selling at Angkor Wat, as tourists never take a break, hence her series of firsts. She's back to Siem Reap early Monday ready for the Khmer New Year onslaught.
And a photo of myself, looking almost human after recent health problems

Sad news

I am just checking my facts but I may have some sad news soon about one of Cambodia's most iconic figures whom many thousands of tourists have met in person over the years. It wouldn't take a genius to work out who I am referring to, but I won't give the name until I check my facts with the family. This news has been reported before, a year or two ago but was ill-informed at that time, however, now I believe its a reality. Check here for the sad news.


Seeds of friendship

With the two armies of Cambodia and Thailand facing each other at Preah Vihear, elsewhere the Living Angkor Road Project is planting the seeds of friendship between academics and students in both countries.

Project on Thai-Cambodian border bridges cultural ties through learning about a shared history
- by Napamon Roongwitoo (Bangkok Post)

The emphasis on wars and territorial conflicts in national histories has pitched neighbouring countries against one another and fuelled ultra-nationalism. Thailand and Cambodia are no exception. But a group of Thai-Cambodian academics believe they can help turn it around through a new kind of history classroom. A group of students from Thailand and Cambodia had a taste of it recently when they met at Buri Ram province to learn how to use the neutral tools of modern science and equipment to help them appreciate their common ancestral roots. Their two main classrooms were at Phanom Rung Historical Park and Ban Kruat. At Phanom Rung, the students learned together that the religious structures were built based on the sun's position, which originally penetrated its rays through all 15 doorways of the temple on equinox days, both at sunrise and sunset.

That had been the case for the temple's first 900 years. With the gradual shifting of the Earth's core, however, the alignment line changed and people can now observe sunlight going through all 15 doorways either at sunrise or sunset, but not on the same day. Then the on-site history class was filled with a flurry of activity when each student was given a compass to measure the angles of the temple to see for themselves the change in the structure's alignment. Another of their "history classrooms" was the archaeological excavation site at Chantobped village in Ban Kruat District, where two skeletons were recently uncovered. The skeletons are believed to have been buried according to ancient Khmer funeral rituals. The students were not only told how the excavation was done, but also got to experiment excavating by themselves. "The main objective was to show them, not just tell them, that we share the same ancestry," said team leader Col Surat Lertlum. "If we look at traditions in Thailand and Cambodia, we see a lot of similarities that still exist today. I hope the realisation of our shared culture and history will help patch the gap between us and minimise conflict in the future."

This alternative history classroom is an offshoot of the Living Angkor Road Project - a collaboration between Thai and Cambodian archaeologists to survey ancient sites along the route. Leading the Thai team is Colonel Surat Lertlum from Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. Through the use of modern technology in geo-informatics, geophysics, archaeology and remote sensing, the team has succeeded in plotting the whole ancient route built under the reign of King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer Empire. The project, sponsored by the Thailand Research Fund, aims to identify the historic road and community settlement established in the Khmer Empire era. Apart from using modern technology, the interdisciplinary project also involves historical and archaeological research as well as interviewing local communities. The 254km-long ancient route extends from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. The project is a collaboration between the Fine Arts Department of Silpakorn University, Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Prince of Songkla University and Cambodia's Apsara Authority.

The researchers have found much archeological evidence of ancient communities - roads, canals and irrigation systems as well as religious structures - along the whole route. After the completion of the first phase, phase two of this year involves additional village-level surveys being conducted to gain further cultural information. The Cambodian team is led by archaeologists Dr Ang Choulean and Im Sokrithy from Apsara Authority. According to Col Surat, the alternative history classroom provided youngsters from both countries an opportunity to learn first-hand about the history of this ancient route from the findings in the Living Angkor Road Project. Twelve of the students were from Oddar Meanchey, a border province in Cambodia. About 30 students were from different regions in Thailand, the youngest being a nine-year-old boy from Chulalongkorn University Demonstration Elementary School. When asked where the idea of a joint learning experience for children came from, Col Surat simply pointed to his head. "It all started here. I thought the research was invaluable and I should make use of these findings. I wanted to start with something local, and since the findings took place at the border, it was best to get people from both countries involved so that they would appreciate their shared hometowns together."

Using integrated learning methods, the project urged the children to consider the motives behind the construction of the ancient structures and the way of life in ancient times. "Such knowledge could be developed into so much more and the most tangible benefit is that it could help develop eco-tourism in this largely neglected area," said Col Surat. "I believe the knowledge about previous relationships can help form a mutual understanding and positive outlook for the two nationalities from a young age."

At the ancient burial site at Ban Kruat, the students learned that there is no point in arguing what nationalities and race the ancient skeletons were. And that it is more important to learn how they could shed light on lives beyond memories. According to Dr Naraset Pisitpanporn from the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development at Mahidol University, the deceased in ancient times in this region were buried with their heads facing east and their feet to the west. This is because they believed the living should sleep with their head facing south and feet facing north, so the dead should be buried in the opposite direction. He added that in Khmer language the word for south is the same for head and north can also mean foot. Also found next to the skeletons, one of which was wearing bronze bangles, were pottery, animal bones and numerous ancient iron smelters, which show that this area used to house a community where the metal industry was important. It is believed to date back to the pre-Angkor age.

Outside activity hours, students also had a chance to mingle among themselves and to learn some words and expressions in Thai and Khmer from their peers. Such joint border activities also benefit local communities, since they help to raise awareness in common cultural history and conservation, said Col Surat. Initially, Surat planned to invite both children and adults to join these activities, but he thought it would be more effective if the collaboration started with children. "Adults usually already have very set visions and ideas so it might be difficult to convince them otherwise. It is always easier to paint on an empty canvas."

Usanee Chinchaloendee, 17, said she greatly enjoyed learning how and why the Phanom Rung was constructed through scientific methods. "I had previously learned about the history of this place, but I had never measured the angles with my own hands before. It was even more fun to do this experiment with my new Cambodian friends. Although there was a language barrier, we used Thai, Khmer, English and even sign language to get the message across." Pouch So Cheth, a 16-year-old student from Oddar Meanchey, said he was fascinated by the road from Angkor to Phimai. "To learn about the communities in the ancient times and actually be in the place was very eye-opening." Ownership was never a topic of their discussions. "We do not think about which construction belongs to which country. It is not what we are interested in. We came here to learn about culture and make friends," said Pouch So Cheth.


Sour grapes

There's trouble afoot at the Ministry of National Defense club, last year's runners-up in the Cambodia Premier football league but surprisingly knocked out of the recent Hun Sen Cup quarter-finals by their rivals from the Navy, Phuchung Neak, on penalties. Sounds like it might be a case of sour grapes by the Ministry hierarchy, who've complained loudly of 'irregularities' by members of their team after the shock defeat, prompting five players to ask to leave the club on the eve of the new Premier League season. Two of the five are the Ministry's top players and national squad pin-up boys, striker Khim Borey and goalkeeper Samreth Seiha. Borey (pictured), who was the Golden Boot winner last season with 18 goals, is rumoured to be on the verge of joining Naga Corp, even though he was on the substitutes bench for the cup match in question. Meanwhile, stopper Seiha and the other three players could be moving across to join Ranger FC, though if the Ministry refuse to let them go, they might end up playing for no-one. To be frank, this is the last thing that Borey and Seiha need right now, as they are currently training with the national squad in preparation for the important AFC Challenge matches in Bangladesh at the end of this month. If someone suggested I was a cheat, I think I'd want to move teams as well.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

French indulgence

Talking of film directors, I just saw the most talked about Cambodian filmmaker, Rithy Panh at the Bophana Center when I popped along to see The Sea Wall for the first time. He was standing outside, talking quietly on his mobile (isn't everyone these days) as the audience filtered in. He didn't say anything, or introduce his film, he was just there and of course, no one recognised him at all. He doesn't know me from Adam, though we've emailed a few times, so I didn't bother him and joined the rest of the crowd in the small auditorium, to watch the near 2-hour film adaptation of a Marguerite Duras novel, set in 1920s southern Cambodia. Beautifully shot in and around Ream national park, with the lovely Cambodian countryside and waterways as its magnificent backdrop, it's a love story with the land, as one widow and her two adult children struggle to overcome the odds to make ends meet. They ultimately fail as the film takes us through a history lesson of French colonial indulgence whilst the Khmers are treated as servants and lackeys, as was the way of the French in Indochina. It didn't blow me away as a film but it was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, even though the bench-pew seats at Bophana were very uncomfortable.

Next Saturday, 11 April (4pm), the Bophana Center (on Street 200) is to screen The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, a mix of classical dance, music and shadow puppets centered around the story of survival, of a certain Em Theay and four other dancers. It was produced in 2001, directed by Ong Keng Sen from Singapore and toured extensively as a stage performance in the US, Europe, Singapore and in Phnom Penh. I've never seen it, so count me in.
Em Theay performing at Angkor Wat. Photo:

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Pek on Pek

In the run up to the first screening of The Red Sense in Phnom Penh - it will be screened at Meta House, next to Wat Botum, on Friday 24 April at 7pm - here's a brief interview with the film's director Tim Pek (pictured), a Cambodian now relocated to Melbourne in Australia, where he combined shooting his debut film with a number of scenes shot in Cambodia. Three years in the making, he employed Khmer actors, speaking in Khmer, with English subtitles. Find out more about the film here.

Here's the interview:
'I was born in Battambang and raised in a decent family, we ran a mixed business back in Cambodia, but unfortunately I only lived there for 8 years. So not much in the way of good childhood memories, moreso I recall seeing those terrified survivors from the Khmer Rouge regime, literally a hell on earth. And still haunting me, which I have never forgot.
A few years after the civil war, my family decided to leave everything and escaped to Khao-I-Dang camp as refugees in Thailand for 4 years before settling in Australia, and now living in Melbourne, one of the best cities in the world in my opinion.
Before getting heavily involved in The Red Sense project, I got motivated and inspired by a few short films back in the early 2005, from friends in Melbourne. I'd been very interested in this medium and always had dreams to make films since I was in my teens, but back then it was quite impossible to do so, everything were so expensive and was simply too hard to achieve when I was at college. In early 2000 I got myself a job and gained an abundance of designing and video skills which then gave me the confidence to make a film in such scale, and ironically its my debut film.
I urge all Khmer people living everywhere to pay respect and support to those hard-working Cambodian film directors and producers to make more films, as you know our film production is in rapid decline. I believe they can make good films so please support them and lets get back to making films like we did in the golden era of the 60s and 70s.
Finally, I have other two projects in post production, Bokator and Annoyed, hopefully they will be available on DVD later this year and can be searched in'
Click to enlarge

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Market no more

The temporary stalls leading from the Preah Vihear gate sign down to the former border gate with Thailand
Whilst Cambodia and Thailand dispute the numbers of casualties and who fired first, one of the outcomes from yesterday's two gun-battles around Preah Vihear temple was the loss of the ramshackle market stalls at the foot of the temple's causeway stairs and close to the former border gate into Thailand. A military commander reported, ".. the market was burned down during the fighting," and a market vendor said, "all of my clothes have completely burned. Thai soldiers shelled this market with the intention of destroying the shelter of civilians." The original market at the site had been closed a while ago and was surrounded with corrugated metal sheeting when I was there last week though a series of temporary stalls had sprung up along the path towards the Thai border and a couple of vendors, who were family members of soldiers on duty, were selling catfish, meat and vegetables alongwith beer and soft drinks. I'm presuming their customers were the soldiers themselves as we were the only tourists we saw during more than three hours at the temple. If the stalls and the original market were hit by mortar shells then I can understand the whole place going up in flames pretty quickly and as such it would be an easy target to cause the most damage.
The stalls at the foot of the main causeway steps leading up to Preah Vihear temple
Posing at the foot of the causeway steps under the Preah Vihear sign last week. I'm glad I wasn't trying to get this picture taken yesterday.
The flattened market behind this Khmer soldier is all that remains


Friday, April 3, 2009

On the front line

A soldier at Preah Vihear temple poses for a photo
Today has ended with news on the international wires that two separate gun battles took place earlier today, Friday, between Cambodian and Thai troops at the disputed Preah Vihear border area. I can't say I'm surprised as the Thai's seem hell-bent on provoking incidents of this nature. The Cambodians are well dug-in on the mountainside in a series of heavily-fortified bunkers but both sides are in close proximity to each other, so casualties, as reported tonight, are inescapable. I was told when I visited the area last week that the front-line of Cambodian troops are battle-hardened ex-Khmer Rouge (the last of whom came over to the government side in 1998), whilst the parachute regiment and Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit are also amongst those facing the Thai army units at close quarters. Whilst we were at the temple, soldiers were happy to pose for photographs, grateful that we had visited the temple despite the tensions all around us, and we watched one unit in particular getting their instructions from their unit commander who wielded a long stick and berated his men about sloppiness in their behaviour and attitude. I hope that tomorrow he will thank his men for their willingness to defend their country and for their bravery under fire.
Rocket-launcher and thigh pistol are this soldiers main weapons
The setting sun casts a long shadow as this soldier prepares to join his unit
A unit commander on the right of 30 men providing his men with instructions and advice
As the sun falls behind Preah Vihear, this unit lines up for instructions in the shadow of the 1st gopura


Preah Vihear is our temple

The message is clear and unequivocal
A deserted entrance to Preah Vihear with just soldiers for company
Sunset over Preah Vihear with the Cambodian flag flying high
Although I'm a barang and should keep my nose out of it, I am getting increasingly annoyed by Thai attempts to force the Preah Vihear border dispute issue by repeated incursions onto what the Cambodians term is their territory, whilst of course, the Thais dispute this, and claim it as their own. Nevertheless, with another Thai soldier losing his leg to a landmine explosion yesterday, they are not doing themselves any favours and when I was at Preah Vihear myself last week, just an hour or so after 100 heavily-armed Thai troops made a bee-line for the border in another futile attempt to make a nuisance of themselves, I found myself nodding in agreement with the order that's been handed down to the front-line Khmer troops to open fire if Thai soldiers encroach any further. I don't want to see an escalation in the border dispute to the point where more lives are lost but somehow the message has got to get through to the Thais that both sides should stay where they are until the talks aimed at resolving the issue take place. The temple, the mountainside and the whole area at the base of the mountain is awash with Cambodian armed forces. I witnessed this for myself, they are heavily dug-in, their range of weaponry is permanently trained on the Thai forces camped on the other side of the gully that separates the two sides and it won't take much to kick it off. My belief is that the Khmer forces have remained very patient despite provocation by the Thai troops on quite a few occasions over the last few months. But I get the feeling their patience is wearing thin, as is the patience of the nation.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Week old memories

Sunset from the riverbank at Kratie
Happy group of girls in the village of Chhvang on the trip from hell between Stung Treng and Tbeng Meanchey
A reminder for any Thai visitors at Preah Vihear when/if the border re-opens

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Tenth Dancer

Em Theay adjusts the headdress of Sok Chea during The Tenth Dancer
The Tenth Dancer was a watershed film for me in many respects. There was so little television or film coming out of Cambodia in the early '90s that Sally Ingleton's 1993 documentary on the revival of classical dance in Cambodia through two of its shining stars, Em Theay and Sok Chea, was a godsend when it was screened by the BBC back in England. But I think it means even more to me today, having met Em Theay in person and having succumbed to her spirited personality and natural grace and zest for life and dance. The recent fire at her daughter's home where Theay lived that destroyed everything, including her precious memories, was a cruel twist for a family who have already endured more than most. I'm hoping that a benefit screening of The Tenth Dancer can take place at the Bophana Center in the near future, so people can see this beautifully-crafted film and at the same time, show their respect and admiration for Em Theay and her family. Please visit the website of The Tenth Dancer to find out more about this incredible story of survival of classical dance and the dancers themselves.

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Art explosion

Ian Whittaker's Wat Phnom - oil on canvas, selling for $360
Trying to keep up with the number of art exhibitions taking place in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is almost impossible these days. There seems to be a new exhibition opening on a daily basis and whilst some of it isn't anything I would write home about, it's all down to personal taste and preference, and the more the merrier as far as I am concerned. I would never wish to put a lid of the current explosion of art we are experiencing, especially art from local Cambodian painters, sculptors and photographers, which I feel is so important that they get their work shown and seen by a larger public. One of the most visible of Cambodian painters is Chhim Sothy, who recently had a solo exhibition in town which I visited and reported on here. He's got another set of paintings on show, this time alongside Australian artist Ian Whittaker at Meta House, under the banner of Life of the Streets which will run until 22 April. Over at Java Cafe today, David Harding opens a new exhibition of his paintings called Minerallos which will run until 2 May, whilst the Bophana Center welcomes 20 works from 16 Cambodian artists in its' Still Water exhibition that will open on Friday. And don't forget that Eric de Vries' new 4Faces Gallery-Cafe will be opening in Siem Reap on 24 April.
Chhim Sothy's Old Buildings in Phnom Penh - oil on canvas, sale price $1500
Another Ian Whittaker take on life - Salon, oil on canvas, selling at $380

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Poison Tree redux

The second screening of Beth Pielert's Out of the Poison Tree documentary that follows Thida Buth Mam and her sisters on their voyage of discovery to Cambodia, will take place at Meta House near Wat Botum on Friday 10 April at 7pm. If you missed the first screening, make sure you attend this one.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Meta House hosts Red Sense

Click poster to enlarge
Tim Pek's feature film The Red Sense will make its Phnom Penh debut at Meta House near Wat Botum on Friday 24 April at 7pm. I urge you all to attend if you can. More here.

Dreams and Nightmares

Journalist and filmmaker Tom Fawthrop (pictured) gave an in-depth analysis of both the existing Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the circumstances surrounding his 1989 documentary at Meta House tonight, as an interested audience watched his Dreams and Nightmares: Cambodia Ten Years After Pol Pot film, which he directed and produced for Channel 4's Bandung series a decade after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime. Fawthrop's first visit to Cambodia was in 1981 and he returned in late 1988 to film his 30-minute documentary with a film crew of just two others. The situation in Cambodia was on the change after the Vietnamese withdrawal and moves were afoot to agree some sort of peace accord between the warring factions. Hun Sen was the man in power within Cambodia but he was in no mood to surrender any ground to the Khmer Rouge or Norodom Sihanouk, who was still allied with the KR at the behest of China. The film includes interviews with Hun Sen and is clear in its message of displeasure at the international community who continued, at that time, to treat Cambodia as a pariah, favouring instead the Khmer Rouge coalition whilst conveniently ignoring the evidence of KR atrocities during the 70s. A shameful period in the history of the wider international community in my view. Screenshots from the documentary are shown here.
Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims exhumed from a mass grave
A youthful Hun Sen refuses to concede power to the Khmer Rouge
The rubbish-strewn streets of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge fall

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British victim at S-21

The case of 26-year-old British teacher John Dewhirst was in the news again today with a report in The Times newspaper and another by the BBC. Dewhirst (pictured) was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was captured by a Khmer Rouge naval patrol, tortured at Tuol Sleng and executed just weeks before the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979. He was the only known Briton to have been jailed in S-21 and with the trial of the prison's chief Duch underway in Phnom Penh, the stories appeared today. Also read other articles on John Dewhirst here. Dewhirst's fellow crew member Kerry Hamill also perished and filmmaker Annie Goldson is to make a documentary, Brother Number One, for New Zealand television charting the search for the truth about what happened to Hamill by his younger brother, champion rower and Olympian Rob Hamill.

Khmer Rouge Trial: the British victim John Dewhirst - by Anne Barrowclough, The Times

s hundreds of Cambodians crowded into a courtroom yesterday to see the chief torturer of the Khmer Rouge finally brought to trial, a country lawyer in Britain quietly got on with her work. Only those closest to her know how, 30 years ago, Comrade Duch destroyed Hilary Holland’s family. In 1978 Ms Holland’s brother, John Dewhirst, 26, was captured by the Khmer Rouge and tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng. He was the only Briton among 17,000 Cambodians to die at the regime’s infamous prison. Three decades on, as Cambodia watches the first trials of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous leaders, his fate continues to haunt his sister. “The horrific circumstances and the manner of how John was killed still makes it so difficult to cope with,” Ms Holland told The Times from her home in Cumbria.

The young Newcastle teacher had been sailing through the Gulf of Thailand with two friends in July 1978 when their vessel was intercepted by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat. The skipper, Stuart Glass, a Canadian, was killed instantly. Mr Dewhirst and the other crew member, Kerry Hamil, a New Zealander, were sent to Tuol Sleng, a school turned into a torture centre presided over by the brutal Kang Kek Ieu – better known as Duch. There, like thousands of others, they were tortured until they “confessed” to being CIA agents. Then they were taken to Cheong Ek, a pretty orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and bludgeoned to death with an iron bar.

Back in Britain, Ms Holland was concerned at her younger brother’s unusual silence but it was not until she switched on the news one evening that she learnt he had become a victim of a regime she had hardly heard of. Soon after, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told her that he had been captured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and was almost certainly dead. The pain of that moment has never left her. “It was indescribable,” she said. “I don’t think I have got the words to explain how I felt. I used to think that if you could die from emotions like this, I would have died. I have experienced death – the death of my husband when I had two young children – but this is completely different.”

Yesterday Duch identified himself quietly before the charges against him were read out to a UNbacked war crimes tribunal: crimes against humanity, war crimes, premeditated murder and torture. He is the first of five former leaders of the Khmer Rouge to be brought to trial. The others were members of Pol Pot’s inner circle: Nuom Chea, or “Brother Number Two”, who was in charge of security; Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, and his wife Ieng Thirith; and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state. Nearly two million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979 as Pol Pot pursued his vision of an agrarian Utopia. Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, was the most notorious jail: of 17,000 people sent there, only 15 survived. According to the thick file of charges read to the court: “Every prisoner who arrived at S-21 was destined for execution. The policy at S-21 was that no prisoner could be released. Prisoners brought to S-21 by mistake were executed in order to ensure secrecy and security.”
On the orders of Duch, a former maths teacher, victims were plunged headfirst into tanks of water, often drowning; they were given electric shocks to their genitals and eardrums. Some were hooked up to intravenous pumps and literally bled dry.

It was a cruel fate that delivered Mr Dewhirst into Duch’s hands. A care-free, adventurous young man, he had taken a break from his teaching job in Japan to go sailing with Mr Glass and Mr Hamil on their motorised junk Foxy Lady. It drifted into Cambodian waters and, to the paranoid Khmer Rouge, their presence had no innocent explanation. Even after she heard of his incarceration in S-21, his sister hoped that his friendly nature would help him to survive. “I thought if anyone could develop a personal relationship with his jailers it would be him,” she said. “I thought he would charm his way out of there.”

In fact, nothing could have saved him – although the meticulous Duch, who catalogued details of all his prisoners, described him as a polite young man. Before he died, Mr Dewhirst was forced to write a detailed confession saying that he had been trained as a CIA spy. The confession, in Cambodian and English, entitled “Details of my course at the Annexe CIA college in Loughborough, England”, claims that he was recruited into the CIA by his father and from 1972-76 was taught agency techniques, including weapons-handling, at his teacher training college in Leicestershire. A mixture of the dull and the ludicrous, it claims that Loughborough was one of six CIA colleges in Britain. Others, John wrote, were in Cardiff, Aberdeen, Portsmouth, Bristol and Doncaster. His college, he said, was run by “retired Colonel Peter Johnson” while the bursar was a CIA major. Among many bizarre “admissions” was a claim that his father was a CIA agent whose cover was “headmaster of Benton Road Secondary School”. The confession is signed and dated 5/7/1978. Mr Dewhirst’s thumbprint lies alongside his signature. As with thousands of inmates at S-21, it was probably dictated to him by his interrogators on Duch’s orders.

Duch’s trial is of great significance to Cambodia, with its former leaders going unpunished for 30 years. It is expected to be a catharsis for the victims, who still do not understand why their families were taken from them. Ms Holland also wants answers. She wants the Khmer Rouge leaders to admit their guilt and explain why they destroyed so many lives. “There must be a public accountability,” she said. “I would like it to be seen that they understand what they did.” It is too painful for Ms Holland to attend Duch’s trial but she is relieved that, after all this time, the leaders will finally be brought to justice. “It’s of such historical importance,” she said. “No one is going to undo the horrors but bringing these people to account is important. I don’t care what happens to them but I would like them to tell the truth, to explain their motivation."

Duch, 66, who was arrested in 1999 after being tracked down by a journalist, is alone among the defendants in expressing remorse and has agreed to cooperate with the tribunal. At a procedural hearing last month, he made it clear through his lawyer that he would use his trial to apologise to his victims, although he does not expect “immediate” forgiveness. His French lawyer, Francois Roux, said yesterday: “After ten years of prison, at last the day is coming where he can in public respond to the questions.” But Duch can expect no forgiveness from Ms Holland. “People like Duch, who ordered the atrocities, were the worst,” she said.

How the Khmer Rouge claimed a British victim - by Jonathan Greenwood (BBC)

Hilary Holland is unimpressed with the news that the Khmer Rouge leader who ordered her brother's execution 30 years ago has admitted responsibility for his crimes. Kaing Guek Eav - also known as Comrade Duch - expressed "regretfulness and heartfelt sorrow" for his actions at a long-awaited UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia. "I'm not a vindictive person" she says, "but personally it won't make me feel any different. What happened to my brother can't be undone. There has to be accountability, there has to be truth. But sorry is not enough. There's nothing he could say that would make me feel better about what happened."

Duch stands accused of torture, crimes against humanity and premeditated murder on a massive scale. It is alleged that he oversaw the deaths of more than 10,000 people. The Khmer Rouge killed up to two million people in less than four years. Ms Holland's brother, John Dewhirst, was among the victims. In 1978, the 26-year-old teacher was captured, tortured and killed at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. He was the only Briton among 17,000 Cambodians to die there. Taking a holiday from his job as a teacher, he had been sailing through the Gulf of Thailand with two friends, when their boat strayed into Cambodian waters. When it was intercepted by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat, one of the party, Canadian Stuart Glass was killed immediately.

John and the other crew member, New Zealander Kerry Hamil were taken to the now infamous Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21. There they were tortured until they confessed to being CIA agents, before being executed. John's sister Ms Holland, now a solicitor based in Cumbria, learned of his fate by listening to the news. Eventually the Foreign and Commonwealth office confirmed he had been captured by the Khmer Rouge, and that he was probably dead. More than 30 years on, she is still traumatised by what happened. Fighting back the tears she says: "I'm a strong person. I've had knocks over the years - I experienced the death of my husband at a young age. I imagine the effect it's had on me is similar to all those people in Cambodia - it's permanent. Where there's an ordinary death - you miss the person who was in your life, and it hurts but the pain reduces over the years. Time's a great healer. But this doesn't get any less." She recognises the impact that the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge must have had on the Cambodian national psyche: "There must be a whole country of traumatised people - because of how they were killed and tortured."

The horrors of what happened inside S-21 are almost unimaginable. Prisoners were tortured until they wrote detailed confessions - explaining how they'd been disloyal to the regime. Then they were taken to the "killing fields" at Choeung Ek, a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh. There they were executed, often bludgeoned to death with iron bars on the orders of Duch. Victims were frequently made to dig their own graves. Duch, who was meticulous in recording those who passed through S-21 described John as a polite young man - but that didn't save him.

His confession - signed and dated the 5th of July 1978 - is entitled "Details of my course at the Annexe CIA college in Loughborough England." Among the bizarre claims is that Loughborough was one of six CIA colleges in the UK. Hilary Holland says she had no idea how John was killed until recently. She decided not to attend the trial in person. "It would be too hard, and it wouldn't achieve anything," she says. But she recognises its importance: "If this trial can in any way help any of those people - then it should happen. It's of such historical importance and it's a matter of public record. The more information that can be made available, then the better historically speaking and it might stop these things happening again."

Another story ran a couple of days ago in the New Zealand press about the fate of Kerry Hamill.
NZ family seek justice at UN trial - by The Press (New Zealand)

It is 31 years since Kiwi Kerry Hamill was tortured and killed in a Cambodian school-turned-prison. On Monday, his brother, rowing great Rob Hamill, expects to see the first flickers of accountability as one of the largest criminal hearings of modern times opens. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, ran the most notorious torture centre during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. It was where Hamill was killed, along with two friends and thousands of Cambodians. Eav faces charges of crimes against humanity before the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which has New Zealand judge and former governor-general Dame Silvia Cartwright among its five members. "It's more accountability and to see that some sort of justice has been done. It's been over 30 years now and it's about time," Rob Hamill said.

Kerry Hamill, then 27, and friends were sailing from Singapore to Bangkok when their yacht strayed into Cambodian waters. Along with his mates, Canadian Stuart Glass and Briton John Dewhirst, Hamill was arrested, detained, tortured and killed at Security Prison 21 (S21), formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School. As many as 1.7 million Cambodians perished in the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, 14,000 of them "class enemies" of the Communist regime executed at the S21 torture centre and prison, along with Hamill. After his 1978 capture, Hamill was forced to write a 4000-word "confession" that claimed his father was a colonel in the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who had recruited him into the agency. Under torture, he described in detail CIA plans to subvert the Khmer Rouge regime. Then he and Dewhirst were killed. Glass had been shot earlier. Women, children and babies were also killed. Few inmates at the former school survived.

From August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, classrooms were converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire. Rob Hamill said Eav, 66, a former teacher, had caused "terrible pain". He spoke of "the complete loss and grief that was felt and the impact it had on our family. I often think about how things could have been better. Not that things are terrible, but you know having Kerry in our lives would have [been better]."

He provided the court with a statement, but the expense and timing made it impossible to attend the historic trial. "I am feeling a compelling sort of need to be out there now," Hamill said. Christchurch Cambodian Association president Rasy Sao said Cambodians viewed the trials with some scepticism because of Prime Minister Hun Sen's past involvement with the Khmer Rouge. "At this moment, the government in Cambodia does some things not very right. There is quite a lot of corruption," Sao said. "If they do it [a trial] for someone, they should do it for themselves." Sao said he visited his home country twice a year and had to stay quiet while he was there. "If I say something wrong, maybe they will kill me straight away."

Cartwright said whatever political problems there might be in Cambodia, there was no problem with the judiciary. "I have no hint of any corruption of any description amongst my Cambodian judge colleagues," she said. Cartwright has been living in Phnom Penh and preparing for the trials since last July. Once the trials begin, Cartwright will be allocated areas to focus on. "I might be asked to focus on how S21 or [the school] was actually established, or I might be asked to focus on methods of torture or focus on how many people died or something like that, and it will be my job to be totally on top of the evidence. The evidence goes to hundreds of thousands of pages," she said.

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9 lives

Norodom Sihanouk posing outside Angkor Wat
A new 52-minute documentary titled The Nine Lives of Norodom Sihanouk and produced and directed by Gilles Cayatte for French television has come in for criticism from the former King of Cambodia's official biographer Julio A Jeldres for its many inaccuracies and bias in painting a negative picture of Sihanouk's actions throughout his long and full life. The controversial film was shown on French tv a few days ago and covers the period of 1941 to 2004, explaining through interviews and rare footage of the King's incredible ability to survive and take on many roles, such as a prince, the king, the president, the non-aligned, the exiled, the prisoner, the man committed, the artist and the king-father, which help in turn to reveal the history of Cambodia itself during that same period. Jeldres also highlights that he spent six hours with the film director giving him detailed explanations of the King's actions at various times during the period under review but none of these made the final edit of the film, whilst chief amongst those whom Jeldres has a gripe against is none other than emminent historian David Chandler.