Sunday, May 31, 2009

World's top fixers

UK's Sunday Times Online today revealed their list of the travel world's top fixers and first on the list was Hanuman, the company I work for. Great publicity for us and recognition for the great job we do here in Cambodia and the Mekong Region.

The travel world's top fixers. It's not where you go, it's who you know when you get there. Our team reveal their top fixers guaranteed to give your trip wings.

When exploring the more exotic reaches of the planet, there is nothing like having an insider to guide you, to shepherd you away from the crowds. That’s where your local connections come in. We’re talking about those expert Mr Fix-Its who know their patch like the hairy side of their hand, and can whisk you off to camp in a “lost” jungle temple, party in an off-limits favela, or simply cook with Granny in her native village, somewhere deep in the bush. We’ve asked Travel’s team of writers to pick out their favourite grass-roots tour companies worldwide. All locally run outfits, they are well established, reputable and masters of their region. Some also work for UK tour operators, it’s true — and if you prefer a packaged option, we’ve given their details. But if you have decent insurance and are willing to book direct, it should save you money and offer more flexibility. For most of the destinations covered, direct flights operate from London only. For regional and Irish connections, ask the tour operator or travel company about routes via European or Gulf hubs. It may be cheaper and more cost efficient than flying via Heathrow


Kulikar Sotho’s first job in travel was organising passage for 7,500 UN peacekeepers. Then the Khmer Rouge collapsed, ancient Angkor was rediscovered by the west, and Kulikar’s company, Hanuman, was on hand to act as midwife to Cambodian tourism. A decade or so later, more than a million visitors pitch up each year — including Korean coach parties wielding megaphones. Not to worry: Hanuman’s impeccable guides know how to dodge the crowds. For example, they spirited me to Angkor Wat’s eastern gate, the “back door”, for an exclusive, all-to-myself view of Asia’s most humdinging archeological site.

Hanuman also fixed it for me to spend a few days in the remote, red-earthed Ratanakiri region, where I penetrated sacrificial rituals, shook hands with pipe-smoking toddlers, and found out exactly why you should never sup rice wine with the villagers. Best of all was my “temple safari” in the steaming, spidery Cambodian jungle — the brainchild of Kulikar’s husband, Nick Ray, who is also Lonely Planet’s writer in Cambodia and a self-styled temple-hunter. As the location scout for Tomb Raider, Ray unearthed virgin Angkorian citadels such as Ko Ker, where I scrambled up a rickety ladder to the top of a 120ft pyramid and found myself sole overlord of a 10th-century city, scores of its monuments still smothered in the undergrowth.

The plan: a 12-day trip with Hanuman, including three days at Angkor, a three-day temple safari and time in Phnom Penh and Ratanakiri, starts from £1,500pp, including transfers and accommodation in three-star hotels. Contact 00 85 523 218396; There are no direct flights to Cambodia from the UK or Ireland, but there are nonstop flights from Heathrow to Bangkok and good connections from there. Fares to Siem Reep or Phnom Penh, via Bangkok, start at £565 with Thai Airways (0870 606 0911, If you’d prefer a package option, Audley (01993 838000, uses Hanuman as its ground operator. Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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9 goals in 2 games

Livewire striker Sunday Patrick Okonkwo starred for Naga Corp
Okay I know its been a football dominated last few posts on my blog, but I promise this is the final one for this weekend. The two games at the Olympic Stadium this afternoon provided a few thrills and spills as Preah Khan Reach returned to the top spot in the Cambodia Premier League table, making heavy weather of beating Post Tel Club 2-0, whilst Naga Corp rattled in 5 goals against Phuchung Neak, who scored twice in reply. Sam El Nasa, with an early tap-in, and a Sotheavy own goal undid Post Tel, who failed to register with a last-minute penalty when Ouk Mic saved well at the foot of the post. But it was PKR striker Olisa Emeka Onyemerea who missed half a dozen guilt-edged chances to double and triple PKR's winning margin in an otherwise scrappy game. That said, PKR now sit at the head of the league table with 12 points, which will please their fans and their coach Prak Sovannara, who has just seen Scott O'Donell appointed as the national team coach in his place. He was philosophical about the change saying that Scott's experience will serve the team well and that he will now concentrate on PKR full-time, whilst also considering offers he's received to coach abroad in Holland and Germany.
In the opening game of the day, Naga rattled in the goals but still didn't look convincing, allowing their oppponents to score twice when the game should've been dead and buried. The star of the show was Sunday Patrick Okonkwo, who scored twice and looked constantly dangerous. Naga's other scorers were Friday Nwakuna (days of the week seem popular with Naga's overseas imports), Meas Channa and substitute defender Neang Chenla. Pointless Phuchung Neak's goals came from Ouk Thoun and Pov Samnang and they lost Oghenekevwe Auwara with a straight red card for a needless elbow on Channa in the dying moments of the game. Today's fare was certainly an improvement on yesterday's but one thing didn't change, the rolling around on the floor screaming in agony whenever a challenge came in was just as prevalent and something that the CPL should look to stamp out as quickly as they can. It's just a way to try and curry favourable refereeing decisions, whilst the poor lads who operate the stretcher are leaving the ground in an exhausted heap, having worked harder than anyone on the pitch!
Naga Corp ran out easy 5-2 winner against the league's whipping boys Phuchung Neak
Bottom of the table Phuchung Neak and still without a point
PKR's Olisa Emeka Onyemerea missed a hatful of chances in the game against Post Tel
Preah Khan Reach went back to the top of the table with their 2-0 success

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O'Donell's reign begins tomorrow

The new man in the hot seat, Scott O'Donell
Scott O'Donell is the new national team coach of the Cambodian senior and under-23 football teams. It's official, especially as I interviewed the man himself at half-time during one of this afternoon's games at the Olympic Stadium, and that interview will appear in Tuesday's Phnom Penh Post. So you'll have to wait for Tuesday to get the full low-down. What I can tell you is that Scott is very keen to get started, to assess the talent on offer and to run the rule over anyone that qualifies for the SEA Games in Laos in December - the football squad Cambodia will enter into the SEA Games will be an under-23 team. He'll be a regular face in the crowd for all future Cambodia Premier league fixtures, as he has been for the past two weeks. His contract is for 1 year and this will be the second time that the Aussie has managed the Cambodian national team, having had a two and half year spell previously, beginning in July 2005. He officially begins his new full-time job tomorrow. And it goes without saying, we wish him all the success in the world, though we must remain realistic that Cambodia still has a long way to go before it can compare favourably with its Asean neighbours.

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Saturday's soccer

A coolly taken goal by BBU's Prum Puth Sethy took his team to the top of the CPL
I don't hate the word soccer, as many do, but it's what football is known as around the American-accented globe, hence the catchy headline. Saturday's games in the Cambodia Premier League were anything but classics. For much of both matches, it was all pretty dreary, the teams cancelling each other out and goalmouth action was scarce. There was more rolling around on the ground and being carried off on a stretcher than actual playing time. A rainstorm heralded the start of the second half of the opening game and a whipping wind took down all the advertising hordings and pitchside umbrellas at one stage too. To be honest, the weather conditions were more interesting than the football, and its rare to be able to say that. I watched the games in the company of the national team coach Prak Sovannara, so it was good to get his tactical perspective on what we saw, with his team, Preah Khan Reach - who he has been helping coach this season - and who play today, due to meet Spark next week so he was running the rule over his future opponents. The first match was Defense Ministry against Spark, pitching Khim Borey, last season's Golden Boot winner, with the leading scorer this season, Justine Prince from Spark. However, the two strikers failed to live up to the hype and both had quiet, almost anonymous afternoons. The goals arrived after the rain and in the last 15 minutes. Thong Oudom poked in the opener for the Defense team with Spark's Chhordaravuth heading in the equalier ten minutes from time, to keep his team unbeaten this season. A 1-1 draw was a fair result for this drab encounter. In the second match, Build Bright would've expected a harder game from Kirivong, but the Takeo-based team lacked their usual killer touch and BBU's Prum Puth Sethy finished coolly just before half-time, with the game's only goal. It has put BBU at the top of the table, before this afternoon's two matches and no-one would've expected that at the start of the seaon. The CPL is very tight so far this term, there's no runaway leader as many expected Crown to be, which gives all the teams something to play for. Amen to that.
This Kirivong Sok Sen Chey team suffered a surprise 1-nil defeat to BBU
Spark's Meak Chhordaravuth headed an equaliser for his unbeaten team against Defense Ministry
Unbeaten Spark FC, with leading scorer Justine Prince, 3rd from left back row
The Defense Ministry team with Khim Borey, 2nd from left back row, but still without Samreth Seiha in goal, who was amongst the subs

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Cambodia's new coach?

The air was thick with rumour and intrigue at this afternoon's Cambodia Premier League matches at the Olympic Stadium. I'll bring you the results in another posting but the most important development is in the form of a new team coach for the senior Cambodia national team. It was no coincidence that Scott O'Donell (right: Getty Images) has been at the Olympic Stadium for the last two weekends and the word on the terraces is that he will be taking over the reins of a role he has held before. The 42 year old played his football in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore before spells in charge at Geylang United (Singapore) and as the Cambodia coach in 2005 for a couple of years, whilst also appearing on ESPN television as a football pundit. More recently he's been director of coaching education with the Asian Football Confederation in Kuala Lumpur, holds the AFC's A certificate and a national coaching license from Australia. His family live in Phnom Penh so that's a good reason to be seen here but there's a big desire at the Cambodian Football Federation to have a coach with overseas experience and O'Donell fits that bill. For the past year Cambodia's best coach Prak Sovannara has been in charge of the national team, taking them to the finals of the Suzuki Cup and just missing out on a place in next year's AFC finals. So far this season, he has been helping with the coaching at league leaders Preah Khan Reach as his contract with the national team wasn't renewed and he was working on a match by match basis. I must repeat that this has not been confirmed by the FFC but watch this space. Update: I've just had confirmation from Scott O'Donell himself - he's the new head coach of the Cambodia national team.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Look at them

The highlight of my weekend by a country mile, with Belle at Sovanna Phum
A busy day again today with work as usual this morning, followed by a few hours at the Olympic Stadium watching Cambodia Premier League football and then this evening, a front row seat at the premiere of Look At Us Now, a well-attended contemporary dance performance at Sovanna Phum, looking at the struggles faced by dancers in today's Cambodia. The performers were Yon Davy, Khieu Sovannarith, Phumtheara Chenda, Sang Porsda, Va Chamnan, Yim Savann, Phon Sopheap, Kay Sokchan and well-known classical dancer Vuth Chanmoly, who also appeared in Where Elephants Weep recently. The play allowed the artists to express themselves in a variety of vigorous and imaginative ways on stage, though the dialogue was in Khmer so it was difficult for the majority of the Western audience to understand. Contemporary dance in Cambodia is certainly progressing at a rapid pace with this and other recent performances, usually including the star of the scene at the moment, Belle. She wasn't one of the performers in this show as she's been working as artist-in-residence with the French Cultural Center for the last five months, but she was there to lend her support to the dancers and working behind the scenes.
On stage action from Look At Us Now
Vuth Chanmoly provided the closing sequence to Look At Us Now
Looking as proud as punch, and rightly so
Some of the performers take their bow at the end of the dance

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Dancing for the King

Busy boy as I am, I met Ravynn Karet-Coxen and Nick Wood for breakfast at Java to find out more about the Nginn Karet Foundation that is providing help to 14 villages in the Banteay Srei district of Siem Reap with health, education, agriculture and a dance school, which was recently named the NKFC Conservatoire Preah Ream Bopha Devi. Over 2,500 families are getting direct help from the foundation, though its not all one way help, as the families have to meet criteria to earn the help on offer. The dance school has nearly 150 students and they have recently performed for the King in Phnom Penh and then held a sacred ceremony at the temple of Banteay Srei in honour of the King's birthday. You can read more about the Nginn Karet Foundation here and here. Brit Nick Wood is the founder of Navigator Films and he's been living in Cambodia for the last eight years, working on various film and television projects including the popular At The Factory Gates which has been a regular on Khmer tv about the plight of garment workers. Nick's current project is much further from home, in Columbia to be precise and focuses on the severe landmine problem that country is facing.

At lunchtime, I met up with Cristiano who was in town for the day and he told me he is nearing the end of his exhaustive exploration of Kompong Thom province. Over the last few years Cristiano has visited every ancient site in the province, well over 400, and has logged all of his findings, both big and small. It was with Cristiano that I made the trip to Phnom Chi just over a year ago. In a recent expedition into the countryside west of Kompong Thom, he uncovered an early brick temple, still standing, that is not recorded on any map or document. It was ten kilometres from the nearest village and in a very remote location, and his driver for this trip was another great friend of mine, Sokhom. Its another example of the secrets that still lie within the confines of Cambodia, waiting to be uncovered. Cristiano's temple searches in Kompong Thom will provide invaluable information about the province's cultural history - it's just a pity there is not a Cristiano in every province in this country.

Later this afternoon, a surprise visitor to my office was the young woman who seems to single-handedly carry the expectation of a nation on her graceful shoulders as far as the future of contemporary dance is concerned. Belle (Chumvan Sodhachivy) is a lady in demand, her name is rarely out of the newspapers and that's quite a heavy burden on a young Khmer woman in my view. For her part, Belle (pictured right) is focused on her art, she felt from an early age of her dance training that she wanted to express herself and to find new ways to do that outside the strict confines of traditional classical dance. With the support of her mother she has done exactly that, and is leading from the front as contemporary dance begins to take a foothold amongst the artistic community and audience in Phnom Penh. Working with the French Cultural Center for the last six months has broadened her horizons even further and she won't stop there. She is open to any artform, recently working with hip-hop artists for example, has plans to travel abroad to seek more influences and to incorporate those into her choreography in the future. Belle is on a mission to take dance to another level and with an incredible track record so far, I'll bet she will definitely succeed.

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Arrested and deported

As it wasn't on my Cambodia radar, I missed this story from my good friends Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern, who were both deported from Myanmar a couple of weeks ago. Karen (pictured) is the author of the excellent book Cambodia Now and Jerry is a well-respected photographer. Here is their own press release issued on 11 May from Bangkok, when they became the center of attention on the media wires:

Arrested & Deported: The two of us were detained in Mandalay on the evening of Wednesday, May 6, and deported to Bangkok the following night. The arrest came within hours after we had finished a series of feature writing and photography workshops, organized by the American Center in Yangon and approved by the country’s Scrutiny Board (censors). All of the 20+ government authorities we encountered during the ordeal said they were acting on orders from Naypyidaw. They did not give a reason for the arrest. Many said they did not know why we were arrested. They asked us nothing, told us nothing, searched nothing, took nothing. We were not mistreated or manhandled.

We were arrested at our hotel after dinner on May 6. Immigration authorities came to the hotel lobby and ordered us to pack for an evening train to Yangon. They said they had received the arrest order from Naypyidaw half an hour after our last class and lecture had ended. We spent the following 16 hours under the escort of two officials who shared our cabin. When we arrived in Yangon, we were taken to the airport, then Immigration offices downtown, then back to the airport for several hours before an evening flight to Bangkok. We had been in Burma to teach and lecture about creative nonfiction feature writing and photography. The programs were follow-ups to similar work we did in January, all of which had been approved and acknowledged by the Scrutiny Board and the Special Branch (police). In fact, Special Branch officers briefly visited Jerry on the first day of his class in Yangon, on April 27. All of our classes and lectures proceeded without incident or further visits from the authorities.

We have no idea why we were arrested, though we have since heard many rumors. Perhaps it was fallout after another American – whom we do not know nor have any connection to – allegedly swam across a lake to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. We have heard people say we are CIA agents in disguise as teachers – that is not true. We have heard people say we met with monks in monasteries and other politically sensitive sources – that is not true. We have heard rumors that we met with the Moustache Brothers comedy troupe in Mandalay – that is not true. In fact, we met very few people outside of the classroom, mostly because we wanted to avoid any run-ins with the government for just this reason.

Other rumors allege that we were working on sensitive stories. That is not true. The only story we had in mind was a small piece on laphet thote, (pickled tea leaf salad) explaining the flavors, history and cultural significance of the dish. This would have run on the food page of a travel magazine. In Mandalay, a colleague introduced us to the owner of a longstanding laphet thote business. That man invited us to see his place, which we did. He then invited us to visit a trade center where people buy and sell beans and pulses, key ingredients for laphet thote. He was very excited about the invitation; we thought little of it. We accepted and planned to meet on Thursday morning – but we never had that chance. This might be all, or part, of the reason we were deported.

What happened to us does not compare to what happens to Burmese who run afoul of their own government. We were spooked, and the train trip was uncomfortable and unnecessary (we already had plane tickets back to Yangon that could have been switched to Thursday morning). But we were fairly certain we were not going to jail for years – or decades. We are heartbroken to think we might not be able to return to Burma. But that is trivial to how we worry about the safety of the people who helped us on these trips. We worked hard to avoid government scrutiny, or any “journalistic” appearance. In the end, we cannot say why we were arrested. That mystery rests with the Burmese government. [end]

On an entirely separate note, I presented The Tenth Dancer and Samsara at Meta House Thursday evening to a small, but nicely-rounded audience. In taking a few questions from the assembled throng afterwards, one comment came from a lady who said she was excited to see Em Theay on The Tenth Dancer as Theay had briefly been her dance teacher in 1979 in Pursat. As Theay made her way back from Battambang to Phnom Penh, she spent time en route teaching dance and the audience member had been in her dance class for about two months in 1979. I didn't manage to speak to the lady involved after the session, but what a lovely addendum to the screening of the film.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Palace views

They are not joking when they claim to have a great view of the Royal Palace
I popped out of the office to have a quick look at the FCC's latest addition to their accommodation stable, namely the one-roomed Palace View they have just opened, which fronts onto the popular Royal Garden spread out at the foot of the Chan Chhaya Pavilion and the Royal Palace behind that. Great views from the room and the private terrace up above though its a popular area at all times of the day and the room is more what I would call intimate than spacious. The FCC already has nine rooms at their original location and another 16 rooms at The Quay, with plans to turn the run-down colonial building known as The Mansion into another hotel outlet. I also stopped off at Sorya Market for a whizz up to the top of the building and a look at the views from the balcony over the under-renovation Central Market and across the rooftops of the city. It's now just started raining cats and dogs and fingers crossed it'll clear up before tonight's double-bill screening at Meta House of the documentaries, The Tenth Dancer and Samsara. They are certainly two films that deserve a big audience but you can never really judge how many people will turn up until it starts. Get along if you can, it begins at 7pm.
The one-room Palace View, part of the FCC stable
The frontage of Palace View, on the 1st floor. A coffee shop is opening on the ground floor, next to Pacharan
A look over the Central Market, taken from the top of the Sorya Market building

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Winds of Angkor

Western-style musicals based on Cambodia are few and far between as far as I can make out. They are a bit like double-decker buses, none for ages then two come along at once. Phnom Penh recently revelled in the glory of Where Elephants Weep and now it looks as though another musical maybe about to steal the headlines. Winds of Angkor has been written by British composer Sarah O'Brien who visited Cambodia in 1999 and 2006 and says; "The piece evolved musically from the initial concept of an intimate love duet to a full-scale theatrical production involving soloists, orchestra, Cambodian musicians and dancers, rhythm section and a state-of-the-art set that features spectacular 3D projections and video content. The challenge was to balance the tenderness of the original letters with the enormity of one of the worst human catastrophes of the 20th Century. Angkor Wat and the surviving temples that rise from the jungle stand witness to the resilience of the Cambodian people and their culture, which ultimately prevailed. Although the story is inspired by tragedy, the musical celebrates the unique, exotic beauty of Cambodia and carries a message of hope to those affected by genocide today." The composer is a classically-trained cellist who has worked with artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Russell Watson, Celine Dion and is a regular member of Yanni's touring company as well as recording a host of TV and movie soundtracks. I'm not sure of the current status of the project as a world premiere was slated to take place in California sometime this year. When I hear more, you'll be the first to know. Visit the website.

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Confusion over helmets

I'd fine this guy whether he was wearing a helmet or not!
Whatever you do, don't fall asleep in your tuk tuk (aka remork) or else you might be impounded. This has been the latest fad by police in Phnom Penh as a high level meeting of Asean and EU ministers kicks off today. Drivers of tuk tuks and cyclos found sleeping in their vehicles after 10pm along some of the city's main streets have been woken up and their livelihoods taken from them. Personally I use motos to get about town but I will be affected by a new ruling from the city's governor, if he gets his way. Up until now, only moto drivers have been required to wear helmets but now Kep Chuktema has said he wants all passengers to wear helmets as well, despite it not being in the current traffic provisions. Just to confuse the matter, his traffic police chief says he's not heard of it either. It's clearly the right way to go - I bought my helmet a while ago but use it infrequently - but the cost implications on poorly-paid Cambodian passengers will be a real concern. The police occasionally crack down on helmet-less drivers, or if they spot a moto without mirrors, or any other infraction they can dream up on the spot, to supplement their own meagre wages. If Kep Chuktema gets his way, this will be another reason for the groups of police standing at junctions and traffic lights to waive their batons and pull over hordes of moto-drivers and their charges.

Bridge-building fever is taking hold in Cambodia. Unless you are in remote areas, long gone are those quaint bridges made of tree trunks or the Bailey bridges made of steel that arrived with the advent of UNTAC. Instead, we are getting a plethora of brand spanking new concrete bridges like the Monivong Bridge that opened yesterday, at a cost of $10 million. That makes two Monivong Bridges, sat next to each other, and designed to reduce traffic congestion in the southern part of the city. The PM said at yesterday's opening that five more bridges were in his plans, two of which will be for a new railway line that will cross the Bassac and Mekong Rivers. And thank goodness that another bridge, sat alongside the Japanese Friendship bridge is in the plans too, as the congestion there, at any time of day, is a nightmare.
One of those tree trunk bridges I was talking about, in Preah Vihear province

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pulse in the press

Steel Pulse's David Hinds
Steel Pulse play one of their rare UK live dates tomorrow night (Wednesday 27 May) at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire as part of the Island Records 50th Anniversary, having just completed a short tour of the United States. Steel Pulse will be back playing live in the UK at the Glastonbury Festival on 26 June. Lead singer and songwriter David Hinds has been in the press recently to coincide with the US tour dates and here's a couple of on-line interviews with the man himself.

Lend Him an Ear - written by Damian Orion (Good Times Weekly)

Joni Mitchell once flung a memorable quip at some audience members who were shouting out requests for her hits: “You know, a painter does a painting, and that’s it. He’s had the joy of creating it ... No one ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint another “Starry Night” again, man!’” David Hinds, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter for the veteran reggae outfit Steel Pulse, would surely be able to relate to Mitchell’s lament. Having been making the rounds with Steel Pulse for more than three decades, Hinds can’t be faulted for wanting to explore new musical terrain with his bandmates, but he finds himself somewhat held back by his obligation to slake his fans’ thirst for classics like Ku Klux Klan, Worth His Weight in Gold and Bodyguard. “When we go to places like France and certain parts of the Caribbean where our market’s pretty strong, and certain parts of Europe as well as the U.S., we find that no matter what we play, they still want to hear the traditional reggae stuff from us,” the Birmingham-born musician explains. “When we’ve dabbled in dancehall and featured acts like Capleton and Damian Marley, the general complaint of the fans is that they want to hear us in the way they were introduced to us in the first place.”

Hinds readily acknowledges that his predicament is not a unique one. “I’m sure it plagued Hendrix; I’m sure it plagued Vincent Van Gogh; I’m sure it plagued Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” he states. “You want to move on and do other things, but how you’ve been introduced to the world in the first place is the way they want to see you. And then when you’ve died, and the word ‘R.I.P.’ is on your tombstone a hundred years later, people say, ‘Wow! That was far out! Is this what he was trying to do?’”Though Hinds’ quest for musical expansion has led him to flirt with everything from R&B to pop over the years, his lyrical content has remained fairly consistent since Steel Pulse’s inception in 1975: This is, in essence, a protest band, with racism right at the top of the list of sociopolitical issues being addressed. Hinds points to various visa, passport and immigration complications as well as to the discovery of nooses on a tree in Jena, Lousiana in 2007 as examples of the lingering presence of racism in the world. Nonetheless, anthems like “Ku Klux Klan are happily a tad less relevant today than in 1975. “We’ve still got a long way to go, but I do see a progression,” Hinds offers. “I didn’t think Nelson Mandela would have been released or a black president in the United States would have happened in my lifetime. But having said that, George Bush played a remarkable role in making that happen. He had to be so bad a president that they had to look in the direction of a black man!”

The singer, who notes that this year marks the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King, adds that all throughout his childhood in England, he observed hostility between people who came from the Caribbean and people who came from India or Pakistan. “Now, when you see an Asian person in a BMW with the windows down, and reggae music is blazing at 200 decibels, it’ll show you that there is an understanding of cultures,” he says. Hinds feels that reggae music has been instrumental in helping break down cultural barriers. “When I go to rock concerts, I see white folks,” he states. “I go to an R&B concert, I see mostly black folks. You go to a reggae concert, and you see all kinds of people there from all kinds of walks of life, whether it’s someone with a tie pushing a pen in his office or someone who’s got his pants half around his ankles, doing the bop. They’re all there, chuggin’ around to reggae music.”

Steel in The Game - by Curtis Cartier (MetroActive)

It's tour time for Steel Pulse. Plane tickets have been booked, backup singers hired and hotel reservations made. David Hinds is in Birmingham, England. In less than two weeks, he'll be in San Francisco, kicking off the latest leg of the tour. But after 35 years as frontman for the iconic roots-reggae set, he's got the process down to a science and is a sea of calm amid the last-minute preparations. "I'm really looking forward to coming to Santa Cruz again," he says of his May 6 gig at the Catalyst. "I've been there a million times, and I always love coming back." Hinds' excitement seems genuine; his cultured Birmingham British accent only slightly marred by occasional dips into the London cockney. The giddiness is refreshing, given the sour outlook many musicians possess after decades of records, gigs and interviews. For Hinds, despite watching 12 members, including four founders, quit, wash out or move on, and despite bitter fallouts with three major record labels, touring is still a time when it's all about the music. "It's always been a struggle," he says. "A lot of people still don't get what we're trying to do, you know. But on the road we can just concentrate on the music."

Steel Pulse, however, has never been only about the music. From the group's first record, Handsworth Revolution, in 1978 to its latest, African Holocaust, in 2004, a rebellious political spirit and a fundamental Rastafarian message have permeated the substance of both music and musicians. And though the group now sits comfortably as the most successful reggae act to come out of the U.K., it's been a long fight to get here. "Reggae music came to the U.K. from people like us - children of immigrants who migrated after the war," says Hinds. "Back then, our music was never taken seriously. We were black Britons and we were used to getting the racial slurs in school. Venues didn't want to play us because we had a protest message." Hinds describes the mid-'70s as one of the most trying times for his young band. A strange thing happened in the late '70s and '80s in London, however, and reggae music soon found itself championed by unlikely supporters. "Punk rock came along around then. The punk rockers were interested in supporting anything that the system was opposing. And at that time, the system was definitely opposing reggae music," Hinds explains. "We were never really into punk but we started to realize the similarities between reggae and punk and started playing with a lot of the bands."

Fast-forward to the present and punk rock is all but dead. Reggae, with the passing of its prince Bob Marley in 1981, might have died also, but thanks to acts like Steel Pulse, Buju Banton, Junior Reid and the Wailing Souls, roots reggae can be now heard everywhere from head shops to supermarkets. Hinds says he's thankful for the longevity of his music and the increasing demand, but at times, he's still surprised by it. "As far as the media was concerned, when Marley died the music was over. That wasn't so," says hinds, his voice quickening. "People tried all kinds of new subject matters and styles to keep up the popularity. They started drifting away from the spirituality. But we've always been about deeper things, you know." It's these "deeper things" that Hinds says Elektra, MCA and Atlantic record companies could never understand. Those companies "turned their backs on us, so we turned our backs on them," according to Hinds, and today Steel Pulse is represented by the small, reggae-only, RAS label. "Every time reggae bands were signed to a major label they were thrown into the black category or R&B. We never saw any of the money they promised," he says. "Now with the Internet and pirate radio stations, we get more exposure than we did with the major labels."

In Santa Cruz, Steel Pulse has had plenty of exposure. Hinds says the town is always a must-stop on any American tour, and with tickets expected to sell out, it's clear that local fans feel the same way. "The people in Santa Cruz have been wonderful to us over the years," He says. "We feel deeply indebted to everyone there. Thanks for all the love."


Never seen before

Never seen before in Cambodia is the title for Friday night's (29 May) screening of two films at Meta House in Phnom Penh, as part of their Legacy Film week. I have a list of films and documentaries that have never been shown here, or not seen for a very long time, and where I am contacting the film directors to ask permission to screen the films at Meta House. The response so far has been fantastic, my personal thanks to all of the directors involved, and Friday will see two more films that will be making their public debut. Fear and Hope in Cambodia was made in 1993 by Isabelle Abric and written and narrated by author and journalist William Shawcross. It contains lots of previously unseen footage as it chronicles the before, during and after of the history-making elections under the supervision of the United Nations. The second documentary is The Road From Kampuchea, made by Anne Henderson in 1998. It tells the story of Tun Channareth, a landmine survivor and ex-resistance fighter who became a disability outreach worker. He traveled to hospitals and remote villages to deliver custom-made wheelchairs to fellow survivors. He then became a spokesperson for the anti-landmine campaign, traveling to Japan and Europe to promote the cause. Eventually, he made it to Canada, where the first international treaty to ban landmines was signed by 125 countries and to Oslo, where he received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. We are also treated to the music of chapei master Kong Nai.
UNTAC's special representative in Cambodia Yasushi Akashi being interviewed
Tun Channareth receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997

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Legacy film shows

Em Theay adjusts the headdress of her principal student Sok Chea
This week Meta House is screening a selection of rare documentaries that deal with Cambodia's troubled past, it's legacy of the last 40 years. I will be presenting two films on Thursday of this week (28th May) and two more on Friday night, both screenings begin at 7pm at Meta House, next to Wat Botum on Street 264. If you haven't seen The Tenth Dancer then you must come on Thursday. It is a extraordinary film shot in 1993 that tells the story of the re-emergence of classical Khmer court dance in the wake of the Khmer Rouge's attempts to annihilate the country's cultural heritage. Told through interviews with the incredible Em Theay and her principal dancer Sok Chea, it is a wonderful time-capsule of the early 90s and a tribute to a true icon of Cambodian culture, Em Theay. The recent benefit screening of The Tenth Dancer at Bophana was dedicated to her after a house fire destroyed her family's possessions including a tattered song and dance book that she managed to keep hidden throughout the Khmer Rouge regime. You will see how much that book meant to her in the film. I saw Em Theay out of the corner of my eye at the Bophana screening and she wept as she watched that segment of the film. If that doesn't get to you, nothing will. To meet the lady in person is to be absorbed by her spirited personality and natural grace and zest for life and dance. The film by Sally Ingleton is a wonderful tribute to her and her fellow dancers and teachers. Visit the website of The Tenth Dancer to find out more about this incredible story of survival. The second screening on Thursday will be the dreamlike Samsara: Death & Rebirth in Cambodia, produced in 1989 by Ellen Bruno, documenting the struggle of Cambodians to rebuild a shattered society, interspersed with ancient prophecies and folklore.
The opening sequence of The Tenth Dancer with Em Theay and Sok Chea at the Royal Palace
Em Theay proudly shows some of the books she kept hidden during Pol Pot time
Em Theay and her principal dancer Sok Chea
Samsara: Death & Rebirth in Cambodia

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Facing eviction

A mid-day heat haze covers the desolate Stung Meanchey dumpsite
Various communities in Phnom Penh face eviction on an almost daily basis but there's one group with a difference. They are the families who rely on the city's main garbage dump site at Stung Meanchey for their meagre living and who face eviction when the site is closed sometime soon (estimates range from next month to the end of the year). The location of the city's garbage is being moved out to the Choeung Ek district, further out of town, and the current site will be redeveloped, necessitating the eviction of the families who live there today. It will also present a problem of what to do next for the dozen or so organizations who have set up shop near the current site to help the families who live there, and particularly the children of the dump.

Here's a report on the situation by Claire Truscott for AFP:
Cambodia's dump dwellers face eviction

Scavenging for bits of plastic, metal and glass that earn them an average 10 dollars a month, the children of Phnom Penh's municipal rubbish dump are among Cambodia's poorest. Hundreds of families live on and around the 100-acre (40.5-hectare) site, making their meagre living from the materials they collect on the steaming rubbish heap, replenished daily with 900 tonnes of the capital's refuse. "We don't go to school. I'd like to but I need to pick the litter and earn money. I have nine siblings and they all work the same job as me," said 13-year-old Mek. Dump trucks rumble in and out of Stung Meanchey landfill site throughout the day, while the toxic waste that covers sink holes burns in the sun. "I really worry about the children working on the dump especially because of the rubbish trucks that sometimes hit the children, because it's hard to see them up there," said 26-year-old father-of-two Chan Samon. His fears are not unfounded - in February a 16-year-old girl was killed when a bin fell on her head. There have been numerous victims like her since the site opened more than 45 years ago.

Chan Samon told AFP he earns a pittance selling mostly bottles and cans to Vietnamese buyers. Middlemen come to nine storage depots at the dump's entrance, before selling it on to recycling companies for profit. One kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of plastic fetches 10 cents, while one kilogramme of iron or a glass bottle goes for 2.5 cents. But these slim pickings are all these families have. Many of them arrived in Phnom Penh from the rural provinces in the hope of finding better work, only to discover their only option was to join those foraging for rubbish. Now Cambodia's authorities are closing down the site and moving the dump several miles outside the capital. None of the residents are clear who is evicting them, only that they have been told to expect to move at any time. "I heard something about the dump moving but I don't know what's going to happen," said Mek, who has worked at the site since he was three years old.

The move has been discussed locally since 2003, residents said, but a recent letter sent out by municipal authorities to all Phnom Penh residents confirmed the closure would take place in the "second quarter" of the year. It said rubbish collection prices would need to rise because of the move, which it said was necessary because of the "environmental impact" of the site, citing the noise, smell, smoke and poor underground water quality. Until the proposed eviction a few lucky children had escaped the grimy work thanks to about a dozen charities set up around the landfill site. The organisations pay parents for lost income while they provide their offspring with schooling, clothes, food and a clean place to sleep. "When I was up on the dump I met (charity outreach worker) Theary and he was interested in helping me and he brought me here," said 10-year-old Srey Neat, one of 96 children being looked after by Theary, who goes by only one name, and the charity "A New Day Cambodia". The centre pays parents 10 dollars a month to keep their children away from the scavenging work.

But with the dump's closure, that helping hand may not be able to stretch far enough if the dump dwellers move further afield. "We have some concern about whether some of the parents will need to move away and would like to take their children with them," said the centre's director Annette Jensen. The landfill site is expected to be rebuilt next to Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields, where thousands of people were killed and buried by the communist Khmer Rouge regime during its 1975-1979 rule. Chan Samon said he will have no choice but to take his wife and two children and move over to the new site. "If the dump moves we will have to move with it. I have no choice because I don't have any other job," he said.
A small makeshift dwelling on the Stung Meanchey dumpsite


Monday, May 25, 2009

Gongs across borders

Cambodian Living Arts have put together three short videos on YouTube about tribal (indigenous) people in Cambodia and Vietnam and the similarity of their performing arts and struggles to maintain their cultural identity. Titled Gongs Across Borders, the videos are each about eight or nine minutes long. Well worth checking out. YouTube

Today's Phnom Penh Post carried the results of the weekend's Cambodia Premier League matches with a joint report from Dan Riley and myself. Dan did the majority of it for Saturday's games, whilst I covered the two Sunday matches. Read the match report here.

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Two Barang

A newcomer to the Cambodia bookshelves is Anthony Maturin's Two Barang to Cambodia, published by Spider Press in the last month or so, 240 pages telling the story of his two years in the country. Maturin and his wife Sandra Jones spent a couple of years in Cambodia with Volunteer Service Abroad New Zealand, she as a research advisor to the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, and he producing his photographic work, A Certain Grace, in which he set out to portray the dignity and essential human spirit found in the midst of poverty. The couple travelled widely around Cambodia with the members of small Cambodian NGOs who work with street children and drug addicts, give AIDS education on the streets, support people living with HIV, the blind and mine amputees, remove land mines, try to avert land grabbing by the rich and powerful, and just plain alleviate some of the direst poverty. This is the story of those travels. The author also provides his own line drawings in the book. Anthony Maturin began his working life at age eighteen when he worked as a shepherd on Erewhon Station in the high-country of New Zealand's South Island. His varied working life included occupations such as farming, building, writing and documentary making about human rights issues. Photography became a passion of Anthony's when his mother gave him a Woolworths' camera at the age of seven. A Certain Grace, published in 2006, is a coffee table book of sepia pictures and notes by Maturin that is available from Monument Books in Phnom Penh. The diverse photographs are arranged according to five themes: hands; machines; death; daily life; and generations.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Borey is back with a bang

Khim Borey doesn't look like a man that has just scored twice and won the game for his team does he?
Cambodia's star striker and last season's Golden Boot winner Khim Borey was the difference between the two teams in this afternoon's opening game. Ministry of Defence stupidly sidelined him and keeper Samreth Seiha at the start of the Cambodia Premier League season and he reminded them why that wasn't such a good idea with both goals in their 2-nil win over Post Tel Club. A wickedly curling free-kick and a safe-as-houses penalty was his telling contribution, though his national teammate Seiha only made it to the bench on his return to the fold. The Defence management had accused five players of throwing a cup tie before the league season began but thought better of it and reinstated them, but without any explanation. In the second game, Kirivong maintained their great start to the season with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Naga thanks to a goal by one of their Muslim contingent, Him Salam, in first-half injury time. And if In Vicheaka had his shooting boots on, it could've been a larger winning margin. Naga, with half a dozen national team players, failed to shine.
The only goal of the Kirivong v Naga game was a scrambled affair claimed by Kirivong's Him Salam
Storm clouds gathering during the latter stages of the 2nd game; a regular occurrence each weekend

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reaching for the top

National star Sam El Nasa came off the bench to score Preah Khan Reach's winner and send them to the top of the CPL
Whilst Preah Khan Reach took top honours in the Cambodia Premier League this afternoon, with a 2-1 win over Khemara Keila, the much-fancied Phnom Penh Crown took another nosedive, this time losing 3-2 against Build Bright. One of two Muslim players in the national team, Sam El Nasa came off the bench to score Preah Khan's second-half winner in today's first game after Kouch Sokumpheak had equalised from the penalty spot and looked set to give Khemara a share of the points. In the second game, Crown were 3 goals down before they got their act together but it was too little too late as Hem Simay, the BBU goalkeeper covered himself in second-half glory with brave saves and point-blank stops to help his side record a shock victory. With Crown suffering yet another defeat its thrown the whole CPL wide open even at this early stage of the season. Crown have also been rocked by the sale of their ace Cameroonian striker Jean-Roger Lappe Lappe to one of the Samut teams in the Thai Premier League, either Samut Songkhram or Samut Sakhon, not sure which one as no-one seems to know. He was sold a couple of weeks ago but Crown forgot to tell the press. And young French goalkeeper Simon Tracol has also returned home after a couple of matches for Crown.
Now sitting proudly at the top of the CPL - Preah Khan Reach
Phnom Penh Crown and Build Bright enter the Olympic Stadium for the 2nd match of the day
Has the Phnom Penh Crown bubble burst, with their 2nd consecutive defeat?
Build Bright's 2nd half hero, goalkeeper Hem Simay

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Another 'must have' book

Buddhist Painting in Cambodia - I saw this tome in Monument Books recently and I'm currently saving up for it, as it ain't cheap. But it's a 'must have' book if like me, you have an interest in pagodas and Cambodian culture. It's also a product of author Vittorio Roveda, whose work has opened many doors for me to understand what I am seeing during my travels throughout Cambodia, in collaboration with Sothon Yem, and published by River Books. In its 328 pages, complete with lavish illustrations and 630 color photos, Roveda and Yem introduce us to the mural paintings found throughout the country, their meanings, the painting techniques and the architectural styles of the pagodas in which they are found. They also include descriptions of 100+ wats with murals that the authors visited themselves over a period of five years. This is an immensely important record of Cambodia's Buddhist paintings and one which every self-respecting book collector should own, once they've saved enough cash.

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Sophiline's rewards

Sophiline demonstrates the fan technique to her troupe of dancers
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has just been awarded a prestigious honour and a grant of $25,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts (in the US) for her contribution to folk and ethnic arts and as an acknowledgment of her outstanding work with classical Khmer dance. And in running Khmer Arts programs in both Long Beach, California and in Takhmau, just outside Phnom Penh, the money and the recognition will prove very useful. However, its one of numerous awards she has received for her determined efforts to keep alive classical ballet as well as adapt and enrich it with new influences and interpretations. She has choreographed many new works that have been seen on the international stage and these have introduced new audiences to Cambodian court dance around the world. At Takhmau, her Khmer Arts Ensemble has a permanent troupe of 19 dancers plus musicians, vocalists and teachers. Their pavilion-style theater is located on the grounds of her uncle's home, Chheng Phon, a visionary of Khmer artistic culture, who created the theatre celeste with a $300,000 grant from Japan, and who was Minister of Culture fron 1981-1989. Sophiline's troupe of female dancers, aged between 18 and 22, all graduates from the Royal University of Fine Arts, rehearse each day, morning and afternoon, from a program of rarely performed classical standards as well as new works designed by their master teacher. They also have classroom sessions where they study dance from other cultures and delve deeper into the relationship between dance and everyday life. The troupe is a professional touring company, having toured abroad extensively as well as performing regularly in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. They are taking classical dance to new levels, new locations and new audiences and deserve our unstinting support. My thanks to Toni Shapiro-Phim for giving me a guided tour of their Takhmau home and to Sophiline for allowing my intrusion into her rehearsals.
The orchestra and teachers look on as the dancers go through their moves
Rehearsals carry on whilst other dancers await their turn to join in
The surroundings provide a great deal of colour and rural sounds to rehearsals every day
More of the dramatic backdrop at the theater in Takhmau
A feast of hand fans from the Ensemble dancers
Practice makes perfect for this young dancer
An overview from the back of the pavilion-style Khmer Arts theater in Takhmau

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Roussey Dek

Pisey, the female acrobat, takes centre stage at Sovanna Phum
In a play that had many dark overtones and more than once had a young child crying in the audience, the artists of Sovanna Phum put on a fine show of mixed art-forms tonight in their rendition of Roussey Dek. The combination of shadow puppet theatre, classical dance, monkeys and circus-style performers, with a traditional Khmer orchestra in the background, worked well for me. It was well choreographed and told a series of small stories that showed good and evil, corruption, imprisonment and injustice mingled with celebration and smiles. I particularly liked Pisey, the 21 year old female acrobat, who was thrown around the stage by her male counterparts and performed her balancing feats with poise and consummate skill. She's been with the troupe for three years and made a telling contribution to this particular show. I haven't been to a Sovanna Phum show for a while and it was good to see they've maintained their high quality performances as well as featuring a story like Roussey Dek that is a diversion from the norm. Full marks to Sovanna Phum. In addition, the handing out of notes to help the audience understand the show's contents is a very good idea, though the hard wooden benches could do with extra padding.
The performance kicked off with shadow puppets fighting
A mix of dance, puppets and circus went down extremely well
Pisey and her acrobat team alongwith the two classical dancers
The silhouettes created by the candles was a mite scary for young children
Pisey demonstrating one of her many balancing acts
Members of the cast take their bows at the end of the show
The star of the show, Pisey with her latest admirer


Takhmau's finest

Sophiline puts her dancers through their paces at their rehearsal theater
More details later but I just wanted to quickly mention the Khmer Arts Ensemble, located at their own theater in Takhmau, where I paid a flying visit this morning, to watch the troupe rehearse and to find out more about the vision and development of dance that is being spearheaded by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, both here in Cambodia and in California. More later. Also visit their website.
A dramatic backdrop to the theater stage which is in shadow at the foot of the photo


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hold your horses

The sun begins to set to the west of Gopura III
The impressive southern entrance to Gopura III at Preah Vihear bathed in sunlight
The 3rd Gopura at Preah Vihear merits spending time exploring its doorways and the iconography that sits above them. I know you'll be dying to rush on to reach the central sanctuary and for a glimpse of the fantastic views from the edge of the cliff, but hold your horses and take your time to explore Gopura III. You won't be disappointed if identifying gods like Krishna, Yama, Uma, Shiva, Vishnu and Rama are on your lintel/pediment checklist. Again, this gopura was built primarily in the 11th century, though parts of the temple were built at earlier times and then rebuilt later too, under the watchful eye of at least five Khmer kings. At the southern doorway of Gopura III we met a soldier who proudly showed us his rocket launcher and where a troop of soldiers received instructions from their commander as the afternoon shadows grew longer. Leaving the 3rd Gopura, the causeway to Gopura II is considerably smaller than the last two and you will soon be in amongst the central sanctuary, the southeast corner of which literally overhangs the edge of the mountainside.
Over the southern door, the pediment shows Yama riding a buffalo and the lintel, Rama's return to Ayodhya
Supported by flying hamsas and a grinning kala, the scene shows Rama's return to Ayodhya accompanied by Lakshmana and Sita
The pediment shows Shiva and Uma on Nandi, with three rampant lions on the lintel underneath
This tree sprouting out of the small sandstone shrine makes a nice feature
Looking across to mountains in Laos through a doorway of Gopura III
The southern-facing corner of the elongated hall of Gopura III
We leave Gopura III through this southern doorway and head for Gopura II


A look at Gopura III

The causeway looking south towards Gopura III is 152 metres in length
The causeway you see above connects Gopura IV with the 3rd Gopura, is 152 metres in length and should have 35 pairs of boundary stones, but practically all are missing. Where are they? Its a mystery. To the left of the causeway is another small rectangular pond, where army families camped nearby take their water. As you approach Gopura III, you'll see that its the largest and widest part of Preah Vihear temple, with long lateral halls on both flanks. Inside the gopura, the lintels and pediments are amongst the temple's best preserved and well worth seeking out in the various nooks and crannies.
The deep rectangular pond next to the causeway and an army bunker
A look back down the causeway to Gopura IV in the distance
The northern entrance to Gopura III
The top pediment shows Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana, while Vishnu on Garuda above a kala head is the main feature of the lintel
An example of the baluster windows covered in white lichen
The lintel doesn't show a love scene as you may think, instead its Shiva in mortal combat with Arjuna
A collapsed hall on the right side of the southern face of Gopura III


Be inspired

I haven't mentioned Loung Ung for a while and then hey presto, has two articles about her, which you can read here and here. Loung is still hard at work on her 3rd book, but I'm not sure whether it's a fictional account based on Cambodians trying to return to the country from the US in the wake of events in 1975, or a book inspired by the life of her mother. I must find out more. Also read a conversation with Loung for World Pulse Magazine here.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Temple survivor

Steps leading to the entrance to Gopura IV at Preah Vihear
The stepped basin, a source of water for families at Preah Vihear
The temple of Preah Vihear has lived through tough times and come out the other end in pretty good nick. In recent years it was a pinball passing back and forth between Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the Cambodian government army forces and if it was up to near neighbours Thailand, it would be part of a new pinball game. Nevertheless, it has been awarded the status and recognised as a World Heritage site and in theory that means it's future is pretty much assured. I'm quite surprised so much of the temple and its iconography has managed to last this long. The Khmer Rouge and rogue elements of the government army have been known for their predeliction in selling ancient Khmer artifacts, much of it via a route through its nearest neighbour - Banteay Chhmar being a prime example - hence my amazement that it wasn't systematically violated whilst out of the public eye. Let's be thankful that we still have much to see today. On my recent visit, I walked from Gopura V along the causeway, recalling to my brother that the last time I was there, mine-clearers were at work on both sides of the walkway, removing landmines from under my nose. Now the temple grounds are clear of mines but not of soldiers, who form a ring around the temple, heavily-armed and ready for action, after recent infiltrations by the Thai army. It seems that even today, with World Heritage status acknowledged on signs around the temple site, the war for ownership doesn't look like ending anytime soon. Just before Gopura IV there is a large stepped basin off to the left where the families of the army personnel have sourced much of their water supply in recent months. The Gopura itself is from the 11th century in its style, has a wealth of pediments and lintels in good condition, though some of its doorways have fared less well. The most notable pediment is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, on the south side, with Vishnu reclining underneath, giving birth to Brahma - read more here.
Looking north, back towards Gopura V - note the circular holes in the causeway
A great view of the 270 metre long causeway between Gopura V and IV
Vishvakarma appears in both the pediment and lintel, holding court, carrying his mace
A creaking doorway with a lintel showing Vishvakarma above a grinning kala
This east-facing pediment and lintel with the popular scene showing Krishna dancing
The lintel detail shows Krishna subduing the snake Kaliya by appearing to dance
Devouring kalas and minor gods appear on this pediment and lintel
A side view of the northern entrance to the 11th century Gopura IV
Another triangular pediment and Vishvakarma lintel from Gopura IV
The southern entrance to Gopura IV with the Churning of the Ocean of Milk pediment
Below the Churning pediment is this carving of Vishnu reclining and the birth of Brahma with Lakshmi also present
The southern view of Gopura IV in all its glory


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

M-99 exposed

Nic Dunlop ponders another question at tonight's session
Nic Dunlop's Q&A session at Meta House tonight began with a recent filmed report he completed for Al Jazeera News when he delved into the history of one of the prisons that preceded S-21, hoping to find a connection to Comrade Duch, currently on trial here in Phnom Penh. It was Dunlop who unmasked Duch in the remote town of Samlot in 1999 and who, alongwith Nate Thayer, brought it to worldwide attention that the former chief of S-21 was alive and well and had converted to christianity. This led onto Duch's arrest by the government and his trial a decade later, and also to Dunlop's fine book, The Lost Executioner. This time Dunlop's investigations took him to the site of a prison known as M-99, located in the wilderness of Kompong Speu province and long forgotten by anyone, except those who had lost loved ones at the prison. His interviews revealed never-before heard testimony from survivors and emphasized the sad fact that few in the countryside knew that the Khmer Rouge Tribunals were even taking place. After the film, Dunlop took questions from the floor of tonight's packed-out session, that included Al Rockoff and Henri Locard, that ranged from who decides who will be tried by the Tribunal to did anything in Duch's past foretell his role as a mass murderer? It was clear from the audience's interest that more nights like this at Meta House would go down well. To find out more from Nic Dunlop, click here.

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Looking forward

In just over an hour I'll be at Meta House listening to Nic Dunlop, the journalist who tracked down the S-21 commandant Comrade Duch to a small town in Cambodia's northwestern boondocks, and who is now the man at the center of the country's first Khmer Rouge Tribunal, which has been continuing this week. Dunlop exposed the full story of Duch in his excellent book The Lost Executioner and tonight's short film and Q&A will give Phnom Penhites the opportunity to find out more from the man himself. Tomorrow night, Francois Ponchaud is continuing his lectures in English at the Catholic Communications office on St 242 on the history of Cambodia, with his focus this week on the Lon Nol Regime and the years 1970-75 (start 6.30pm). The third event of interest for me this week will be a performance by the Sovanna Phum team on Friday and Saturday of Roussey Dek, a mixed creation of Shadow puppetry, dance, circus and live traditional Khmer orchestra, that first premiered in London of all places in 2003. It's pure Khmer and sounds like a winner to me. Performances begin at 7.30pm at the Sovanna Phum Theatre on St 360.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Stepping into Preah Vihear

The skeletal remnants of Gopura V at the entrance to Preah Vihear
The 5th Gopura of Preah Vihear is the entranceway to this magnificent temple, perched high on the cliff-edge of the Dangrek Mountains. For those arriving from the Cambodian side, the newly-laid access road brings you next to Gopura V and that's where you park your vehicle. If you are entering the temple from across the border with Thailand - obviously no-one is doing that at the moment as the border is covered in razor-sharp barbed-wire and is a no-man's land as the two countries continue their military standoff - then your entry to the temple will be via the great stairway of 162 steps that lead directly to Gopura V. Tim and I walked down to the foot of the stairway, passing temple cleaners and a host of off-duty soldiers sat on the steps, before we chatted to some of the families occupying the stalls at the now-deserted and closed-off market, just inside the border. The troops milling around the old border crossing seemed a little on edge and it wasn't surprising after we learnt of an attempt by heavily-armed Thai military to enter Cambodian territory just an hour before. We didn't hang around and made our way back up the stairs to the 5th Gopura. A few days later that whole market area was raised to the ground by shelling, which could've easily happened on the day we were there. I'm happy that it didn't. The top of the stairway is guarded by two powerful nagas and Gopura V is skeletal in appearance, its roof having disappeared long ago. There are distinct traces of red on the remaining gables and pillars, with the temple having been painted red for decoration in the past.
An uncrowned giant naga at the top of the stairway at Gopura V
Looking down the stairway towards the Thai border corssing with soldiers on the left
Looking up towards the two giant nagas of Gopura V, with cleaners in green on the right
Two of the lions guarding the 162 steps of the stairway
The two giant nagas at the top of the stairway
A wooden set of steps has been added to make access to Gopura V easier
A 30 metre platform at the top of the stairway
Despite notices like these, graffiti sadly stills finds its way onto the temple walls
A doorway on the southern side of Gopura V with its characteristic gabled ends
A boundary marker in the shape of a lotus bud on the causeway leading to Gopura IV
The 270 metre long causeway to Gopura IV was once flanked by 65 boundary markers on either side - today few remain


Footy reports

This article appeared in today's Phnom Penh Post sports section. Sports Editor Dan Riley commented on Saturday's CPL games and I did the Sunday stuff. Read it here. Just a quick word of thanks to Dan who gave me the space to write about the Cambodian national football team in the PPP recently. It was a pleasure getting to know the national coach Prak Sovannara and the team of players.

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Preah Vihear photo-fest

Yours truly at the 5th Gopura, the starting point for any visit to Preah Vihear
I have about 100 photos from my recent visit to Preah Vihear temple and another 280 from Banteay Chhmar. Now of course I won't be posting all of them here but I will be selecting the best ones, so be prepared for an avalanche. Don't say I didn't warn you. Here's a few just to kick them off. We spent 3 hours at the top of Preah Vihear, we were the only foreign tourists that afternoon and aside from one soldier who he was showing his family around the temple, that was about it. Oh, and of course, the periphery of the temple was swarming with military, especially after we were told that we missed, by an hour, a potential flare-up when 100 heavily-armed Thai troops made a beeline into no-man's land, before being forced back.
Flags fly above the 5th Gopura and you can see where we parked our 4WD on the right
This is the damaged 5th Gopura at Preah Vihear
A section of the smooth tarmacked road to Preah Vihear from the Thai side


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Olympic fun & games

PKR goal hero Khoun Laboravy who sent a 20 yard screamer into the net, after missing a sitter from a yard out - such is football - just behind him umbrellas are swirling across the pitch
It's pouring with rain and I've just returned home from this afternoon's fun and frolics at the Olympic Stadium. It should've been a straightforward couple of games in the Cambodia Premier League but the thunder and lightning storm, a mini-tornado on the pitch, and a shock upset in the first game made it anything but a normal day at the office. The black clouds were gathering as the 1st game reached its conclusion and as the final whistle went, a mini-tornado whipped up the advertising hordings, sending them crashing into the goalposts, umbrellas were sent spiralling across the pitch and the two portable dug-outs went on a slalom course as the rain came down in torrents. The 2nd game between National Defense and Khemara began but was quickly abandoned after just two minutes as the players couldn't see each other, let alone the ball. That was the end of the day's proceedings. Earlier, in the 1st game, Preah Khan Reach pulled off the shock result of the season so far, with a deserved 2-nil win over champions Phnom Penh Crown. Without Lappe Lappe up front, Crown were toothless and it showed as PKR upped their game after the interval and netted with goals from Khoun Laboravy and Olisa Emeka Onyemerea - way too many names for a footballer. They were ecstatic to beat the title favourites and it should be good for the league competition that Crown won't have it all their own way this season. National team coach Prak Sovannara is helping out at PKR this season and was delighted, saying the key was PKR's passing game, which worked a treat in this match. Watching the game from the stands was the 22-strong squad for the brand new Cambodia Under 16 girls football team, who fly to Laos on Tuesday for their first-ever friendly. The girls looked resplendent in their national colours and were pleased as punch when the announcer asked the crowd to give them a round of applause. Their smiles beamed from ear to ear.
The Preah Khan Reach starting 11 who inflicted Crown's 1st defeat of the season
Phnom Penh Crown, not looking as invicible as in recent seasons
The storm clouds approaching the almost deserted Olympic Stadium
Proud as punch: the 22-strong Cambodian U/16 national football team for girls
As seen on the way to the stadium: I know Khmer guys love their bouffant hair-do's but this is taking it to the extreme.

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En route to Preah Vihear

A section of the road that defeated us on the way to Preah Khan
I've now reached Preah Vihear in the recollections from my trip to northern Cambodia that took place in late March. We'd arrived in Tbeng Meanchey after the gruelling 11-hour moto ride from Stung Treng. In the Malop Dong restaurant we met up with Vutha and Seyha, who would accompany us on the remainder of our trip to Preah Vihear, Anlong Veng and Banteay Chhmar over the next couple of days. They work with me at Hanuman Tourism and came equipped with a 4WD to make life a little easier for my old bones. Early the next morning, during a thunderous storm, we headed south towards the temple site of Preah Khan for a quick inspection, however the rain of the last few days did us no favours. Preah Khan is hard to reach at the best of times, located a long way from any main roads and reachable on local dirt tracks which get very muddy after rain, and so it proved. Two hours into our trip and with Vutha, our best driver at the helm, we deemed it impossible to continue and get to Preah Vihear in the same day. So, reluctantly, we turned around, sloshed through the water-filled track we'd just navigated and returned to Tbeng Meanchey by 10am.
Our lunch stop at Sraem as Vutha cleans the wheels of our 4WD
The road to Preah Vihear was much easier, though diversions aplenty as they are laying lots of concrete culverts at various points especially the small bridges. At the turn off for Choam Khsan, the recent upsurge in interest in the province has cleared the heavily-forested area into a mini-housing centre with a new large market standing empty, whilst at Sraem, where we stopped for lunch, the small town was awash with military personnel. It took us 2 hours to reach Sraem. Our lunch of chicken and deer was quickly consumed and the final 45 minutes to Kor Muy, the village at the foot of Preah Vihear, was remarkable for the sheer volume of military troops and heavy guns and equipment that is visible from the main road. This area used to be a wilderness with nothing and no-one between the sleepy villages. The change is dramatic. We quickly confirmed our guesthouse booking then took the newly-laid road to the top of the mountain. It took about half an hour as the incline is very steep in places and not for the faint-hearted. At the beginning of the road we spoke to a few soldiers to check the situation which they said was quiet, and as we neared the top of the road we encountered a barrage of machine-gun posts dug in on both sides, with plenty of troops milling around, especially when we reached the summit and the area around the small pagoda. This had been the scene of one of the main disputes with the Thai soldiers in the preceding months. All the soldiers appeared at ease, though each carried their own arsenal of weapons and the gun posts facing Thailand were heavily-manned from what I could see. We had reached Preah Vihear and parked our 4WD next to the 5th Gopura.
Our first sight of the mountain with Preah Vihear on top
The rock formation at the top of the Preah Vihear mountain - I would be standing there a few hours later
The beginning of the newly-laid road to the top, built by the military
The incline is much steeper than it appears in these photos - ask anyone that's been
The only traffic besides us was military traffic - we were the only tourists that day
A rough section of the road that will need to be widened in the future
The village of Kor Muy as seen from the road to the top
The final leg of the mountain road, just around the corner are the machine-gun posts and the summit of Preah Vihear

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

One helluva ride

A young girl in the village of Mlu Prei with her kapok pods
For much of the time, the track we followed was actually better than I had expected. Admittedly it was the dry season and it was only the rain of a couple of nights before, that has left the surface water on top. The track was easy enough to follow, there were a handful of villages en route to ask directions and though it would be impossible to take a motorized vehicle along the same route as us, it was straightforward for motos. Yes it was a bit boring at times, 11 hours on the back of a moto isn't my ideal form of relaxation, but we saw a variety of birdlife, the villagers we met were ultra friendly, the children fun and playful and it is always interesting to push yourself to the limit of your endurance from time to time. After we left Stung Treng and Thala Borivat behind, the road remained good for ten minutes before it turned bad, lots of large puddles to navigate around or through and no people whatsoever. An hour into the ride we suffered our first puncture and then an attack by wasps and at 10am, our first village, Thmor Thmei. The children at Chhvang, where we paused for a water-break, were adorable and after initially running away screaming, they returned for a photoshoot and smiles all round. It was here that we flooded the exhaust and spark-plugs and had to wait a while for them to dry. The forested wilderness was punctuated by villages such as Veal Veng, Sralau, Chhaeb, Saem, Sgkear before we reached the district HQ of Mlu Prei. At Pou Teap I suffered an acute attack of diarrhea though my stomach had stood up well until that point, as well as both Tim and I falling off the motos. It was pitch black as we reached the Sen River and crossed the wooden bridge at the gateway to Tbeng Meanchey, our home for the night and the motodops had done well to navigate in the dark for a good half an hour, without lights and in a forested area. The end of the most difficult day of our trip but one that will remain with us for some time to come.
A muddy main road through the village of Saem
A community hall in the village of Saem
The police station in Mlu Prei
A rickety wooden bridge in Mlu Prei
This Mlu Prei girl looked great in her krama but took it off for the photo!
Leaving Pou Teap via a small wooden bridge over a temporary waterway
A tree trunk bridge across a river in the middle of nowhere
We're just about to see the last of the sun and we're still many kms from Tbeng Meanchey

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The ride from hell

Less than 10 minutes out of Thala Borivat and the previous night's rain began giving us problems
So how bad was the ride from hell? Well, for me it wasn't too bad as I've experienced worse during my Cambodia travels over the years, especially in the early days of no roads or tracks and we had to make it up, but for Tim, it was a nightmare. He's too tall to be a passenger on a moto anyway and he has a bad back too, but for 11 hours, on bumpy, uneven tracks through what is effectively wilderness except for a handful of villages, it was enough to try anyone's patience. He'd been well pissed-off when his motodop tried to accelerate through a wet patch, and there were many, and only succeeded in dropping the bike, himself and Tim onto the hard, and wet, floor. After we stopped for our 4th puncture repair in the gloom of the early evening, still some way off our eventual destination, he was ready to throw in the towel. He didn't, but it was close. We finally arrived at Tbeng Meanchey's Malop Dong restaurant at 7pm, exactly 11 hours after we'd left Stung Treng, and we rolled into town on a flat tyre. We stuffed our faces with food and cold drinks before retiring for a well-earned sleep at the Phnom Pic, aka Diamond, guesthouse. Paul and Dom were our motodops, two members of the Stung Treng moto-mafia, and to be fair, they were good drivers, mine in particular was older and had done the trip before so he was the safer of the two and he only sent me off the back of his Daelim once, which for such a long trip through poor road conditions, wasn't a bad effort. We never warmed to them because of the dealings we had with them, and their mafia buddies at the start, but they did the job we asked them to do and at least it gave Tim a taste of the adventures I've been enjoying for years in the Cambodian countryside.
A nice flat stretch of road and that's me in the distance
Its a downhill slalom of the muddy variety as we approach a dried-up riverbed
The view from my driver's perspective: Paul turned out to be a safety-first man
Not a rest-stop, its another puncture repair stop - fortunately they came prepared
Quite a bit of the track was underwater after some rain on the previous days
An adorable group of children at the village of Chhvang
The smoldering cut forest surrounding Veal Veng village, part of the extensive Prey Lang Forest region
This part of the forest disappeared a while ago, but much still remains untouched
The water-babies of Chhaeb village, enjoying a cooling dip in the afternoon heat
Tim again asking "why me?" as the going gets tough, and very wet and muddy

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The sacred bull

Thala Borivat's sacred bull at Prasat Preak Ko
It was time to leave Stung Treng and our negotiations with the local moto-mafia had given us two motodops who knew the way overland to Tbeng Meanchey though the price was considerably higher than I'd expected. But they had us over a barrel and they knew it. What I didn't like was when we found two motodops to take us at a more realistic price, the mafia descended on them and threatened them with violence if they took us. The two motodops disppeared immediately; the mafia had maintained their control over the moto-drivers and the local pricing strategy. It left a sour taste in my mouth about the mafia and about Stung Treng in general. At 8am we caught the ferry from Stung Treng across the Mekong to its west bank and the village of Thala Borivat. There are a few small sites to visit in the village but we only had time to look in on Prasat Preah Ko, the main site, dedicated to the scared bull, a sandstone statue of which sits in front of the temple. We only had a short time as the 'ride from hell' would take us all day, and I was desperate to go to toilet after enduring an upset stomach overnight. There was a Khmer family visiting the temple, which lies at the end of the village, and they had just given some banana offerings to Nandi, the bull. The 7th century rectangular brick temple is missing its roof, and has no carvings to speak of, but the walls are sturdy with some shelf-like indentations inside the main shrine, which faces east. A Neak Ta of a wise old man holding a teapot is nearby. With my need to find the nearest bush, we left Preah Ko to begin our 11-hour marathon to Tbeng Meanchey. More on that later.
Our local wooden ferry, 5,000 riel for the moto & me, from Stung Treng to Thala Borivat
A Khmer family at Prasat Preah Ko in Thala BorivatThe front entrance, facing east at Prasat Preah Ko
Inside the central shrine with its unusual shelf-like wall indentations
The central shrine of Prasat Preah Ko - you can see the corner of a pedestal buried under the ground
A Neak Ta of a wise old man holding his teapot is located nearby

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Friday, May 15, 2009

The ravages of time

A makshift shrine at the site of Prasat Theat Ba Daeum with bricks and sandstone slabs
It's all been a bit hectic recently so my posts from my trip into northern Cambodia at the end of March have taken a back seat. Well now they are back. And today's helping are a few photos from three ancient temple sites that I visited in the day and 1 night I spent in Stung Treng, the largest settlement on the Mekong River before you hit the border with Laos. After the 2-hour minibus trip from Kratie, we hooked up with Nak, also known as Richie, who we'd met before, as soon as we arrived in Stung Treng. We booked a couple of rooms at the Sekong hotel and headed straight off to visit the Mekong Blue project, about 4kms out of town. Then we headed for a ruined temple site I'd seen on the EFEO map of the province, called Prasat Theat Ba Daeum. Some way off the main road and after scrambling over a series of very large sandstone boulders, we found a hole in the ground, with the inner brick walls still standing but the temple itself levelled to the ground and just a few sandstone slabs lying around a makshift shrine. It was like many temples sites I've seen scattered across the countryside that have literally been demolished either through the activities of temple robbers or by the ravages of time. Often a haphazard pile of old bricks is all there is left to show for the remains of the country's cultural heritage. The temple, believed to be one of a small group in the immediate vicinity, was sat about 500 metres from the Sesan River behind the village of Ba Daeum. Next stop was the more promising Prasat Phnom Theat, which is located in the town of Stung Treng but on a small hill directly behind the military base, so access is with the permission of the Army. We walked up the slight incline to an open-sided shrine that housed four very badly-eroded lintels, a damaged somasutra and a large pedestal and some other minor carved stones. The style on the lintels suggested 7th century. Not exactly the find I was hoping for. I did a quick recce of the surrounding bush to see if I could locate the remains of the temple itself, but without any success. Our final temple visit was to see Prasat Pros, sat on the edge of the corner where the Mekong and San Rivers meet, but some dispersed bricks were the only items of note. The rest of the afternoon was spent eating at Richie's Place, inspecting the next-door and new Golden River hotel, getting into a heated debate with the moto-mafia about our need for two motodops to transport us overland to Preah Vihear province the next morning at a sensible price and enjoying a tikalok on the riverbank before an early night. Early start the next day for our long, and potentially very difficult 'ride to hell' trek across to Tbeng Meanchey.
Nak stands above the brick-filled hole in the ground at Prasat Theat Ba Daeum
The petite pagoda at Wat Komphun, opposite the Sesan River
Boats on the Sesan River opposite Wat Komphun
A large yoni at Prasat Phnom Theat with other carved stones
A female figure inside a central medallion on one of the eroded lintels at Prasat Phnom Theat
The outline of a figure on the left and the lintel elements of the 7th century at Prasat Phnom Theat
A large but damaged somasutra-headed water channel at Prasat Phnom Theat
A view from Phnom Theat down to the military base and the San River beyond
Scattered bricks and a small wooden shrine are all that remain of Prasat Pros
A beautiful view of the Mekong and San Rivers where they join, just in front of Prasat Pros

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Dunlop on Duch

The freelance journalist who tracked down and exposed Comrade Duch, then wrote about his investigations in the excellent book, The Lost Executioner, and who I first heard about for his work on the 1994 book War of the Mines, Nic Dunlop (pictured), will be holding court at Meta House on Tuesday 19th May at 7pm. Dubbed a 'grown-up Harry Potter' by one fellow journo, Dunlop's expose on the man who oversaw thousands of interrogations and executions at Tuol Sleng is a fine book, well worth reading and will no doubt be covered as part of the Q&A that will take place at Meta House after a short documentary screening on the night. Bangkok-based, his current work is a photo-led project on Burma's dictatorship, though with the Duch trial taking place in Phnom Penh right now, you can appreciate he is more interested than most.
Link: website.

To refresh memories, here's my review of The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge:
Nic Dunlop's first-rate detective story on the trail of Pol Pot's chief executioner, the notorious Comrade Duch, is a fascinating journey into Cambodia's recent bloody history. Through a series of testimonies by Duch's family members and people who knew him, Dunlop builds up a compelling picture of this former teacher turned mass murderer, whilst also giving us a running commentary on the development of the Khmer Rouge organisation through the eyes of former cadre such as Sokheang, now a human rights investigator though formerly a Khmer Rouge sympathiser.
The Lost Executioner is Dunlop's first book; he's primarily a photographer who became obsessed with S-21, known to many as Tuol Sleng, and its commandant, Comrade Duch. He even kept a photo of Duch in his pocket. By an astonishing stroke of luck, Dunlop met the man responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 people, in Samlaut, a small town in northwest Cambodia in 1999 and exposed him with the help of Nate Thayer and the Far Eastern Economic Review, leading to his arrest and detention, awaiting trial. Dunlop's subsequent investigations and interviews now provide us with a great wealth of detail about Duch's life before, during and after the Khmer Rouge reign of terror though ultimately the reason for Duch's transformation into a brutal killer remains an unexplained puzzle. In a perverse twist, Duch converted to Christianity, had worked for an American charity, was living under a new identity and had returned to teaching before his unmasking. The book is written in an easy to follow though powerful narrative and I recommend The Lost Executioner to anyone seeking to delve into the morass that is Cambodia's recent past. It's a remarkable and revealing story. [pic Chor Sokunthea]

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Forthcoming at 4Faces

The next two exhibitions set for the 4Faces Gallery in Siem Reap, run by my pal Eric de Vries, will be a selection of city & buildings photographs by another friend, Steve Goodman, who has just had his solo work published in the new To Myanmar With Love guidebook. Steve's exhibition called Unnamed Undefined Unclear will open on 29 May. And then on June 26, Eric's own collection called Hello Darling will be on show. Don't miss them if you are in Siem Reap.


No Dream Beyond My Reach

A new book due out later this month is the biography of Dr Sopheap Ly (pictured) titled No Dream Beyond My Reach, which chronicles her young life during the Khmer Rouge years, when her family were relocated from the capital to Battambang province, the death of her father and other family members and her time in three refugee camps before admission to the United States at the age of sixteen. The name of the book was taken from the words of her father who instilled into his young daughter an unstoppable dream which she feels she has now fulfilled as a professor of medicine at UCSD and physician with the Veterans Association of San Diego. Ly is well qualified to help treat combat veterans with their trauma of war problems. She's also the mother of twin girls born last year.

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Pie in the sky

The proposed new Sokha city on top of Bokor mountain - I feel nauseous!
The Las Vegas-style Sokha Bokor Hotel & Casino - coming your way soon
Sorry to bring you two very depressing pictures, and I appreciate they are just artists' impressions of what the top of Bokor mountain will look like in the future, but anyone who has been there will know how sad this looks. I spotted the pictures on a Sokimex calendar in a Kep beach restaurant and had to show you what the Sokha Group are planning. That's if they don't run out of money first. They are still working on the road to the top - access is currently denied to tourists, unless you can bribe the workers to take you to the top or you fancy a 2-day hike negotiating landslides brought on by the early rains - and with other massive hotel projects also taking place at the same time in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, its not unfeasible that Sokha may have to tighten their belt at some stage and the Bokor project could be the one to suffer. How about they just complete the road and leave it at that! Who needs a golf course, shopping mall, humungous casinos and suchlike on the top of a mountain anyway? And to lighten the day, here's a couple of children photos taken at the wedding in Kompong Trach that I went to on Tuesday.
No such thing as stage fright for these Kompong Trach youngsters
The adorable Belle enjoying an 'ice moment' courtesy of daddy Nick


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Countryside wedding

Weddings are for kids too - these take to the stage before the evening party begins
It's just past 3pm and I'm back in Phnom Penh, at my desk no less, even though for many its the first of three public holidays to celebrate the King's birthday. So before I continue, happy birthday King Sihamoni, on your 56th birthday, tomorrow. Ok now that's sorted, the wedding in Kompong Trach was excellent, everyone had a great time, even the groom Richard from Perth in Australia, who has only spent a handful of days in Cambodia in total, so I imagine the countryside Cambodian wedding must've been a bit of a culture shock for him. The evening party carried on despite a torrential thunderstorm late last night which persisted well into the early hours. I ate crab on the beach at Kep yesterday and this morning had breakfast at Rikitikitavi in Kampot, whereupon we were hit by another bout of pouring rain, but no thunder and lightning this time. Popped into Epic Arts Cafe in Kampot for some of their gorgeous cakes and then we returned via Route 31 - which has to be one of the best roads in Cambodia - before retuning to normality of pot-holes and uneven surfaces on Routes 3 and 2. The wedding of Richard to Dany, the supervisor for the Kambuja fashion shop, owned by Kulikar who also runs Hanuman Tourism, has been a bit of a whirlwind romance and the couple aim to move to Perth and begin their own business anytime soon. They certainly had a great start to married life with a wonderful wedding ceremony and evening party, accompanied by a live band and half a dozen singers who belted out the crowd's favourites, as well as a few Meas Soksophea favourites of mine too.
I was a bit camera shy last night, except for this photo with Thida who'd also travelled up from Phnom Penh for her friend's wedding
It's been a long day but there's still moments to enjoy for the bride and groom
Part of the formal ceremony with the couple receiving blessings of good fortune
A quick step back at this point, as the stringy stuff explodes at the wedding party
4 of the female singers strut their stuff on stage at the evening party
A view of the Kep fishing fleet at anchor this morning
This is the lovely view of the sea and a part of Kep beach from the Star Inn, which I inspected this morning


Monday, May 11, 2009

I'm not laughing anymore

I am really cheesed off now. It has gone beyond funny. Having endured six months of discoid dermatitis which necessitated an emergency visit to Singapore as I looked worse than the Elephant Man, I now have a new skin inflammation to register. Two nights ago I woke up with a major swelling on my left elbow and a really uncomfortable pain. My friendly Khmer doctor has diagnosed cellulitis, usually caused by bacteria entering the lower layer of skin and having dermatitis means I am prone to getting it. This skin problem is common amongst the elderly and as I'm fifty later this year, that must include me. In rare cases, it can become what the media term 'flesh-eating disease' so I'm religiously applying the solution the doctor has prescribed as well as antibiotics. My legs and hands are still carrying the legacy of the original skin inflammation (discoid dermatitis usually affects adults in middle age) and as it can be triggered by heat, wind, dust, sweat, insects and so on, living in Cambodia is a sure way for it to recur. Hallelujah, not.

I'm off to Kep by the seaside tomorrow as a friend is getting married in her home town of Kompong Trach, and Kep has the nearest decent guesthouse. Just going for the ceremony and party, then will stay 1 night in Kep and return to Phnom Penh early Wednesday morning. Should be a good one as the weddings I've been to in the provinces before are a lot less formal and usually more fun. I'd better take my dancing shoes (and a sling for my arm).


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Outreach at its best

Across Cambodia there are thousands of villages filled with thousands of people who carry inside them the experiences of the Pol Pot time, as they call it. For the majority there is no opportunity to let it out but that's exactly what the filmmakers of We Want (u) to Know were able to do in a couple of villages in Kratie and Takeo provinces. They gave older villagers a voice to talk about and even act out their painful experiences and it worked for me. It also allowed the younger generation to find out first-hand about what really took place and which affected every family in Cambodia. This particular outreach program was a great success and that was epitomised when a grandmother who was able to supervise a re-enactment of her own husband's disappearance, said that she was happy she could tell her story at last, and that people listened. Italian filmmaker Ella Pugliese and her team did a great job in bringing these previously untold stories to life in a fresh and compelling way. I hope she is able to fulfil her wish for the film to be shown throughout Cambodia, as I think it will do a lot of good for a generation of people who have otherwise been tight-lipped about the horrific experiences they went through. It was a full-house at Meta House tonight as the filmmakers completed a successful 4-night screening run.

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Crown in charge as usual

The best players on show for Phnom Penh Crown, Simon Tracol (left) and Keo Sokngorn
Apologies to the non-football fans amongst my readership (do I have a readership?) but here's another post on footy after I watched the two best teams in the Cambodia Premier League slug out a hard-fought match yesterday afternoon at the Olympic Stadium. Phnom Penh Crown, everyone's favourite to regain their title this season, took a first minute lead through Jean-Roger Lappe Lappe and never looked back, until the last five minutes of the game. Two goals from teenage sensation Keo Sokngorn had helped to put Crown into an almost unassailable lead until Naga finally woke up with two late goals from Sunday and Sovannarith to show Crown they won't always have it their own way. We also had two players sent off and for Crown we saw the debut of French recruit Simon Tracol in goal. He looked very accomplished, with good safe handling throughout. He's just finished his French league 2 season with Boulogne sur Mer and was invited to come and try his luck with Crown for a few weeks. In the second match of the afternoon, National Defense caused a mini-shock when they beat Preah Khan Reach with a late goal in a 1-nil win. But by comparison with the opening game, it was a turgid affair.
At a deserted Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh Crown line up for their first league match of the new season
Their opponents are Naga Corp with my favourite player wearing the captain's armband, Om Thavrak
Preah Khan Reach take to the field with the fans in the main stand having paid $1 for the privilege of watching
My favourite team photo so far, the Preah Khan Reach team were fed up of waiting for the photographers to appear


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Intrigue at Olympic

This afternoon at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, the 2nd week series of games will be played in the new Cambodia Premier League, with 2 games that will give fans a good indication of how well their favorite teams will fare this season. At 2pm Phnom Penh Crown will begin the defense of their league title against Naga Corp, whom they beat in the Hun Sen Cup Final recently. On a high after their Singapore Cup win earlier this week, Crown are the favourites to recapture their title this season. At 3.45pm, the second game of the day will be between National Defense Ministry (who have suspended 5 of their best players for alleged irregularities including national players Khim Borey and Samreth Seiha) and Preah Khan Reach, who won 3-0 last weekend, and who have national coach Prak Sovannara in charge of coaching duties this season. Another intriguing game. All games in the CPL will be played at the Olympic Stadium this season. 9 out of the 10 teams are based in PPenh, so I'm not really sure how teams develop their fan base, that's if they have a fan base at all. Without a home ground, it must be hard for the fans to have a die-hard affinity to any team, as they do in say London where teams like Arsenal or Spurs developed their fan base from fans who came from the locality of their home ground. But hey what do I know. I was a die-hard fan of my hometown team Cheltenham Town before I switched allegiances to Kidderminster Harriers, and the rest, as they say, is history. Link: My football world.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Nine Circles of Hell

Nine Circles of Hell
In searching for films and documentaries to show at Meta House that haven't been seen, or very rarely, in Cambodia, I've heard about a film that was shot in Cambodia in 1987 and released a couple of years later. 130 minutes in length, it was made by Czech filmmaker Milan Muchna with the aid of the Cambodian Culture Ministry and called Nine Circles of Hell (Devet Kruhu Pekla). Set amidst the Khmer Rouge takeover, it tells the poignant story of a Czech doctor who falls in love with a Cambodian actress played by Oum Savanny and they have a child. Forced to leave the country, the doctor, played by Milan Knazko, returns after the KR regime is ousted to search for his child. As film making was still very much in its infancy in the 1980s, it may've been the only co-production movie set and filmed solely in Cambodia during that era, unless you know different.


Caves of Komnou

Sculpted bas-reliefs at Peung Komnou date from the 11th century (pics by Daniel)
One of the less well-known sites in the wider Angkor area are the caves that dot the northeast underbelly of the Kulen mountain range near the villages of Svay Leu and Ta Siem, with the cave sculptures of Peung Komnou leading the way. Peung Komnou is one of a series of cave shelters where 11th century sculptors carved religious bas-reliefs on giant boulders, which remained undetected until found again by the French some eight hundred years later. At Komnou there are large sculpted scenes involving a reclining Vishnu, an eight-armed Ganesh in meditation and the best of all, a portrait of Shiva flanked by wives and followers. There are other cave sites nearby including Peung Preah Thvear, Peung Preah Put Kraom and Peung Preah Put Loe, though all of them involve walking a few kilometres to reach them, as there are no roads that take you in. Komnou is about four kilometres north of Svau Leu itself. The whole area of Kulen mountain itself and the region north of Beng Mealea and in the northeast lee of the mountain range houses a vast array of archaeolgical sites including caves and many temples, but which have been inaccessible until the last few years when demining efforts have made the area relatively safe again. I've scratched the surface around that area with a couple of visits though Peung Komnou is one site that I have yet to experience myself.
The 8-armed Ganesh at Peung Komnou

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Passing the family baton

This painting, My Grandfather Teaching Me How, says it all, by Ouk Sochivy
It all started on Sunday when three generations of Em Theay's family performed together at the benefit screening at Bophana and carried on this evening with two more events that I attended. Again at Bophana, the first-ever solo exhibition of paintings called To Be Continued by Ouk Sochivy kicked-off tonight with a healthy crowd in support of the 25-year-old artist. Chivy is the granddaughter of the legendary self-taught painter Svay Ken who died at the end of last year, and who taught and encouraged Chivy to begin painting in the middle of last year. Adopting an almost identical style to her grandfather, she has more than 30 paintings in this exhibition ranging from still life to fashion trends to eight paintings documenting the end of Svay Ken's life. Whilst the painting style won't be everyone's cup of tea, she is certainly carrying the Svay Ken baton and continuing his unique artform and technique. I left the exhibition at 7pm to make my way to the riverfront and the Chinese House just in time to catch an hour of chapei legend Kong Nai and his son, Kong Boran, performing together as a family unit, for another big crowd. Despite his blindness, Kong Nai is teaching his son though it was noticeable that Kong Boran has a sweeter voice than his father and adopts a slightly different singing style too. It is always a pleasure to see Kong Nai perform as he gives his all and flashes his brilliant white teeth as his way of acknowledging his enjoyment in performing and bringing this improvised form of music to a wider audience.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ancestors of Angkor

The National Museum in Phnom Penh will tonight open a brand new exhibition called The Ancestors of Angkor, which will display the results of recent research into the prehistory of the Angkor region in the shape of a 3,000 year old skeleton, pottery shards and a recreation of an excavation site. The EFEO excavated two sites in the Angkor Park; a 2,000 year old village located next to the Western Baray and an older burial site, uncovered when the baray dried up during 2004 and 2005, and their findings form the exhibit, the first of its kind on the pre-Angkor period. The exhibition is located in the museum's north wing and will run through to the end of the year.
I had an unexpected but very welcome visitor to my office today in the form of my god-daughter Vansy (above), who I haven't seen for quite a few months. She's been kept busy with her school studies but she found time to pop in and update me on how she's doing at school and I updated her on my recent activities including my flying visit to Singapore for my medical emergency and my subsequent trip to Preah Vihear and beyond. It was great to see her again, she looked happy and healthy and obviously life in the big city is treating her well. She told me all about her Khmer New Year spent with her family in her village in Kien Svay district and we'll catch up again sometime soon.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The lovely Kim Fay

Kim Fay and yours truly at Frizz restaurant tonight
It was a real pleasure to meet Kim Fay in person for the first time this week. Kim is the editor of the original To Asia With Love guidebook that was published in 2004 and in which she included a few of my articles. When ThingsAsian Press decided to do a series of country-specific books, Kim asked me to edit the Cambodia version, which I am currently in the middle of. It is called To Cambodia With Love and is scheduled for publication in 2010. Kim, accompanied by fellow author Janet Brown whose book Deaf in Bangkok was recently published, was on a brief holiday visit after a stint working in Bangkok, before she returns home to Los Angeles. She's currently penning a book called In Yellow Babylon so a trip over the last few days to Kratie and along the Mekong River was part holiday/part research for her historical novel that is very close to completion. She edited the first of the country-specific books in the With Love series, on Vietnam, which recently became available online and in bookshops. She also happens to be a very lovely lady, with a great sense of humour and between her, Janet and myself, we sampled the Cambodian cuisine at Frizz restaurant, talking about books and just about everything else under the sun. A very pleasant evening indeed, and as any writer knows, it's a good thing to keep on the right side of your editor.

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Fake tickets cause a stir

One of the tickets issued for entry into Saturday's games
The Cambodia Premier League has just begun its season and the likelihood is that attendances at matches will decrease. Why? Because the country's football federation have introduced admission charges for the first time and if fans want to sit in the main stand, shaded from the scorching sun, then it will cost then $1 each, which in Cambodia is quite a hefty sum for many. Alternatively they can sit elsewhere in the Olympic Stadium, where all the games are played, but they will be at the mercy of the elements, which at this time of year can be either the hot sun or thunderstorms. The charges were in place for the first time last Saturday without any prior notice and many fans simply turned away and went home. The guys on the door, eager to collect their new bounty, even tried to charge the national team manager a fee to enter. I watched them for a few minutes as it was initially unclear whether it was officially sanctioned or some private money-making scheme and the gatemen were taking their duties very seriously indeed. All the money went into their pockets, so how much actually made it to the desk of the football federation is unclear, but the FFC is unrepentant. "We won't back down. We want to teach them [the spectators] to understand the price of watching," said the general secretary. The tickets actually issued at the game were leftovers from earlier cup competitions including the ticket above, from the Suzuki Cup games back in October of last year, which made some fans even more angry, as they classed them as fake tickets.


Lightning strikes

Thunderstorm in Phnom Penh
Lightning is a major concern in Cambodia. Already this year, 50 people have died as a result of being struck by lightning and we are only four months into the year. 10 people died this weekend alone. And with the monsoon rains coming early this season, Phnom Penh has been subjected to lightning on most days for the last couple of weeks. It's a real concern. Last year 95 people were killed by lightning in Cambodia. By comparison, 3 people die on average due to lightning strikes in Britain. Education is a key factor in reducing deaths in a country where lots of people work out in the open. Here are a few simple precautions to take during a thunderstorm:
  • Avoid wide, open spaces or exposed hilltops and don't shelter beneath tall or isolated trees. Seek shelter inside a large building or a motor vehicle. Check and take heed of weather forecasts of thunderstorms when planning a day outdoors.
  • If you are swimming or on a body of water, get to the shore as quickly as possible. Move away from wide, open beaches and seek shelter inside a large building or motor vehicle.
  • If caught out in the open during a thunderstorm, discontinue carrying umbrellas, fishing rods, golf clubs and other large metal objects. Keep away from metal objects such as motorcycles, tuk-tuks, bicycles, wire fences and rails.
  • If your hair stands on end or nearby objects begin to buzz, move quickly away as lightning may be about to strike. These effects happen because the positive electrical charges forming at the ground are streaming upwards to try to make contact with the advancing downward negatively-charged 'leader'. Lightning does not always follow, as not all of the upward discharges make contact with the leader, but it is best to move away as a precaution. Seek shelter in a large building or motor vehicle.
  • If caught out in the open with no shelter nearby, move to a place of lower elevation such as a hollow or dry ditch. Crouch down (to lower your height) with both feet close together. Do not place your feet wide apart or lie flat on the ground as this will increase the difference in voltage across your body, increasing the electrical charge you may receive from radial ground currents, if lightning strikes the ground nearby. Tuck your head in and place your hands on your knees.
  • If inside a motor vehicle stay there during the thunderstorm. It will protect you as long as you do not touch the metal of the car body. A lightning strike will normally be safely conducted over the metal bodywork of the vehicle before earthing to the ground over the wet tyres.
  • When indoors, keep away from windows, avoid touching metal pipes or radiators. If lightning strikes a television aerial, the cable may conduct the current into the building where it can jump to other wiring or metal piping circuits. Do not use a telephone except in an emergency.
  • Finally, give first-aid (and get professional medical attention immediately) to anyone struck by lightning to help them recover. You will not receive an electrical shock as they carry no electrical charge. Act promptly.


Monday, May 4, 2009

They want you to know

A brand new documentary film, written, filmed and involving villagers from Siem Reap, Takeo and Kratie provinces, who talk about and act out their experiences during the Khmer Rouge period, will get its debut screening at the Chenla Theatre on Thursday 7 May at 4pm. We Want (u) to Know is directed by Italian filmmaker Ella Pugliese (pictured), who has been in Cambodia before to shoot her 2002 film Playing Cambodia. Her new film has been made with the help of organizations keen to provide outreach to villages across Cambodia who are otherwise ignorant of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal currently taking place, with funding courtesy of the German Development Service. Following the screening, the filmmakers will answer questions about the film and its contents. Further screenings will then take place at Bophana on 8 May (7pm), Cafe Living Room on 9 May (7pm) and Meta House on Sunday 10 May (7pm).

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Sovannara's AFC epilogue

Prak Sovannara remains upbeat and positive as always
Cambodia returned home from the AFC Challenge Cup in Bangladesh without qualifying for next year's finals but gained valuable competition experience for their young squad and national team coach Prak Sovannara remained upbeat about his team's results when I spoke to him on Saturday. "I saw the players visibly grow in confidence as the tournament progressed and with such a young squad that gives me confidence for the future. Players like Samreth Seiha, Khim Borey and Keo Sokngorn, all teenagers, have many years to improve and grow in the national team. They played with a lot of freedom against Myanmar and that pleased me so much. The team spirit was there for all to see, our teamwork was good and we played confidently, they followed my instructions and we deserved better results against both Macau and Myanmar for the football we played. I am frustrated we didn't qualify, we were good enough as a team and with better finishing and a bit of luck, we could've gone to the finals."

His overall impression from the tournament was one of promise for the future. "I was very pleased to see such a big improvement with our defending, we have made great strides in restricting our opponents goal threat. We had to work hard in midfield and now we need to work on improving our attack, especially finishing and supporting our strikers. One of the few disappointing aspects of our play in Bangladesh, was our failure in front of goal. Against Macau we had a hatful of opportunities to score, and we didn't. And again against Myanmar we had perfect chances to score, so this is something we really need to work on, as a team unit, not just our strikers." The head coach was quick to shower praise on his players, picking out three players who really impressed him in Bangladesh. "I was really pleased with Teab Vathanak on the left side of midfield. He had a long injury lay-off last year and he came back so strongly in the games against Macau and Myanmar, he was excellent. Also centre-half Om Thavrak played so well, his commitment was very good. And Keo Sokngorn is a wonderful prospect at just 17 years old. He always gives 100% and has great talent. I have to be careful not to expose him too quickly but he is a player with a very big future ahead of him."

Prak Sovannara is now focused on the future. "The next task is to build the team up for the SEA Games at the end of the year and I hope I will be given the oppportunity to do that. I would like a series of friendly matches both home and away to strengthen our team as a unit, work on areas that need improving and to continue the progress I saw in Bangladesh. This team can only get better." He added, "I have a couple of players in mind who will add something extra to the squad and we will see what the new Cambodia League season will produce too. I have taken on the coaching duties at Preah Khan Reach for the coming season and that will see me involved on a regular basis with a club side again. We have three Khmer players coming over from abroad very soon so that will add some extra interest too." For now, the focus will be on the new Cambodia Premier League season which kicked-off on Saturday though the Football Federation must arrange a program of friendly matches and squad getogethers for the national team before they travel to Laos for the SEA Games competition in December.

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Kor Muy no more

It's 7am at Kor Muy market - soon to be a thing of the past
Take a look at these recent pictures of early morning tranquility in the village of Kor Muy at the foot of Preah Vihear. Next month the village, the market, the guesthouses and the homes of over 460 families will be relocated to a site 20kms away, near Sraem. It's all part of a plan to establish zones around the World Heritage site and the village of Kor Muy doesn't fit into that plan. So it has to move, lock, stock and barrel. In its place, apparently, will appear a large tourism park including a museum, a parking lot and a traditional market. The families who were part of the market on top of the mountain have already been relocated to the same spot near Sraem. Their homes and stalls went up in smoke last month when the Thai army decided to use the market for target practice. For the families at Kor Muy, they will be given a plot of land measuring 50 by 100 metres, $500 in cash, timber for construction and 50 sheets of corrugated iron for roofing. I can't imagine for one minute that any of the families will be happy about it, but like all relocations that appear in the newspapers on a daily basis at the moment, they have no choice.
On my first visit to Preah Vihear in March 2002, we'd left our moto with one of the shopkeepers, Kouch, and climbed to the top of the mountain for my first, memorable, Preah Vihear experience and one I will always cherish. On our return to the village with its then-newly built houses, we ate with Kouch and her family, played foot shuttlecock with some of the small children and had a lie down in a hammock before departing. Those will remain my abiding memories of Kor Muy.
The meat stall at the Kor Muy market
A look at the main road through Kor Muy as it heads towards Preah Vihear
The rising sun illuminates the rubbish-strewn land at the foot of Preah Vihear mountain
A reminder of March 2002, Kouch stands in front of her shop at Kor Muy

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Press clippings

My article in today's Phnom Penh Post
Note: To read the article in the Phnom Penh Post, click here.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dance family

A special moment, the author with Em Theay after today's performance
This afternoon's fundraising film screening for Em Theay and her family after they lost everything in a house fire in March, was well-attended at the Bophana Center and the audience were given an extra special treat with solo dances from Em Theay herself, now 76 years old, her daughter Kim Ann Thong, whose supple movements belied her 56 years, and her 27 year old granddaughter Nam Narim, who has just returned home after her university studies in Korea. Three generations of a family steeped in traditional Cambodian classical dance. And if that wasn't enough, Em Theay then answered questions from the knowledgeable crowd and delighted us with more dance and song. It could've gone on for hours, you could see she was loving every minute of it. The film everyone had watched was Sally Ingleton's 1993 documentary The Tenth Dancer and having not seen it for a few years, it was even better than I remembered it. On screen Theay is shown passing on her knowledge and her skills to a new generation of dancers as Cambodia recovers from the shadows left by the Khmer Rouge regime. The event was organized by Toni Shapiro-Phim of Khmer Arts and the audience included Fred Frumberg and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. If you want to donate to Em Theay and her family, contact Toni at
Three generations of a classical family; Nam Narim, Kim Ann Thong and Em Theay
Mother & daughter; Kim Ann Thong, also known as Preab and her daughter Nam Narim

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Today is Em Theay Day

Em Theay - a zest for life undiminished by time and fate
Em Theay and her daughter look through their family photographs - now lost in the fire that destroyed their home and possessions
Today is dedicated to the iconic Cambodian classical dancer and teacher Em Theay. At 4pm this afternoon a fundraising benefit screening of The Tenth Dancer will take place at the Bophana Center on St 200 in Phnom Penh in honour of Em Theay. In March, Theay and her daughter lost everything in a house fire. As she explained to The Cambodia Daily yesterday. "One of the most important things I've lost in the fire, and that still pains me, are my documents on dance, which cannot be replaced. I spent all my life collecting them and keeping them with great care only to have them destroyed in the fire." The Tenth Dancer is a film made in 1993 about Em Theay and her dedication to reviving the classical artform. I remember being captivated by it when I watched it many years ago. 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 that destroyed everything, including her precious memories, was a cruel twist for a family who have already endured more than most. Read more about Em Theay here and here.
The author and Em Theay - a precious moment for me, March 2008
Em Theay - always immaculate, getting ready for an interview on film
Em Theay photographed at a recent book party at Monument Books
Em Theay with author Denise Heywood in a recent photo
Em Theay adjusts the headdress of her pupil Sok Chea in a scene from The Tenth Dancer

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Youth has its chance

17 year old prodigy Keo Sokngorn
My discussion with the Cambodia national football coach Prak Sovannara at the Olympic Stadium yesterday revealed a remarkable statistic. I'd previously thought the average age of the Cambodian national team was somewhere in the twenties but as Sovannara went through the list of his 18-man squad that had just returned from Bangladesh, and reeled off each player's age, we quickly realized that his squad was even younger than I first thought. 22 is the average age with three teenagers in the team, the youngest being the 17 year old star of the future, Keo Sokngorn. Sovannara was effusive in his praise for the teenager, who is on the books of the current league champions Phnom Penh Crown. "Keo Sokngorn is a wonderful prospect at just 17 years old. He always gives 100% and has great talent. When I play him I give him the freedom of the park. I have to be careful not to expose him too quickly but he is a player with a very big future ahead of him." True to his word, the coach sat Sokngorn on the bench for the games against Bangladesh and Myanmar, introducing him in the second-half of each game, though he did start him against Macau and the youngster rewarded him with a goal. The two other teenagers are the 19 year old pairing of goalkeeper Samreth Seiha and talented sriker Khim Borey. Both have come through the youth ranks and have been regulars in the national squad for a while, belieing their tender years. Seiha is an exciting goalkeeper to watch, agile, brave and the best in the country, though a dispute with his team National Defense Ministry is casting a shadow over the start of his domestic league season. Borey has already proved his ability as a goalscorer, winning the golden boot award last season as the country's top marksman, but he too is in limbo after his club made serious allegations against the two players in a recent Hun Sen Cup game.

With the majority of the squad in their early twenties, the exceptions are national captain Kim Chanbunrith, who is the elder statesman of the team at 30, whilst number two goalkeeper Ouk Mic is close behind at 29. Pok Chanthan, recalled for duty after missing the international games in 2008, is 27 and Sam El Nasa is 25, though seems to have been playing for the national team forever, having made his debut as a teenager. Sovannara is upbeat about his squad. "With such a young squad that gives me confidence for the future. Players like Seiha, Borey and Sokngorn, all teenagers, have many years to improve and grow in the national team. I would like a series of friendly matches both home and away to strengthen our team as a unit, work on areas that need improving and to continue the progress I saw in Bangladesh. This team can only get better." Amen to that I say. With such a youthful national squad to work with, Prak Sovannara is carrying the nation's hopes forward and its his job to mould that youthful exuberance with the experience of seasoned players, into a force to be reckoned with in Southeast Asian football. It won't happen overnight but the signs are good that Cambodian football is set to end its spell in the doldrums.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

The big kick-off

Your reporter and Cambodia national team coach, Prak Sovannara
This afternoon, the Cambodia Premier league season kicked-off with two games at the Olympic Stadium. The season's opener turned out to be a surprise 4-2 win for Kirivong Sok Sen Chey against the more fancied Khemara Keila, whilst Build Bright were leading Post Tel, 1-nil, in the second game with 2 minutes to go as I left early to avoid the thunderstorm just around the corner. Khemara looked set to win comfortably against Kirivong after national team striker Kouch Sokumpheak put them into the lead after just four minutes. He then missed a penalty and that came back to haunt his side as Kirivong looked a different outfit after the interval and came back strongly in the latter stages to win, with In Vichheka inflicting most of the damage. The Build Bright game was far less interesting as I collared the national team coach Prak Sovannara for an in-depth chat about Cambodia's showing in the AFC Challenge Cup in Bangladesh earlier this week. As always Sovannara was a great interviewee, giving me his views on the AFC competition, the players in his squad, his hopes for the rest of this year and the heads-up that this season he will be acting as chief coach to CPL team Preah Khan Reach, who begin their campaign tomorrow. More revelations in my article for Monday's Phnom Penh Post. I watched the games with PPP journo's Dan and Robin, who cover most of the CPL matches, and also met Chamroeun for the first time, another football nut who writes for French newspaper Cambodge Soir Hebdo.
The team's enter a soul-less Olympic Stadium for the first match of the season
The surprise package of the opening game of the CPL, Kirivong Sok Sen Chey, pose for the camera

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Posting problems

I've gone quiet in the last day or so as are again having posting problems and have lots of aggravated customers. Though its a free service their lack of response to major problems like this is disappointing, as it was a week or so ago, and millions of people are sat at home, or in the office, twiddling their thumbs and getting more angry by the minute. Or is that just me.
It rained so heavily last night in Phnom Penh that I was forced to remain indoors and missed the Messenger Band in concert at Gasolina. I also managed to avoid the new Elsewhere Party. This is the monthly bash where lots of the city's expats gather together to drink, talk shite and smoke weed. Their old location closed down and now they've moved just around the corner from me. I will continue to avoid it like the plague until it moves again. Today I'll get along to the Olympic Stadium to watch the opening two matches of the new Cambodia Premier League season. I also need to interview the national coach for an article in Monday's Phnom Penh Post. He returned yesterday, with his squad, from Bangladesh, so I'll give him a day or so to gather his thoughts before sticking the microphone under his nose. And tomorrow at 4pm, it's the Em Theay fundraiser at Bophana Center, where the excellent The Tenth Dancer documentary will get an airing. I'm looking forward to that and I hope a great response from the community here to the recent losses suffered by Em Theay and her family.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Signed Pulse

Steel Pulse 1979. LtoR: Phonso Martin, Grizzly Nisbett, David Hinds, Ronnie McQueen, Selwyn Brown, Basil Gabbidon
This is a Steel Pulse publicity photo produced by Island Records in April 1979 and signed by each member of the band at the time. Michael Riley had left a few months earlier so the band was now down to six members. To many fans, this is the Steel Pulse line-up that produced some of the band's best work on their first and second albums. For me, the band have consistently produced fantastic music throughout their 30+ years in the business. This signed photo is one of my prized items of memorabilia. I heard from Selwyn this morning, alongwith David Hinds, he is one of two original members still with the band, that they are off to the United States this week to play a few shows and to record some tracks for their new album. No more gen on the album as yet, but when I hear, so will you.


Writing passions

Listening to a professional talk passionately about their craft is a real joy. And that's what I took away from Tim Hallinan's hour-long workshop on writing at ACE last night, as well as a list of top tips to enthuse and guide would-be authors. Hallinan is a thriller writer who lives in Los Angeles and Bangkok, is writing a series of books about both locations, and who also spends time in Phnom Penh, where he says he can write without distraction. He's written over twenty novels, so he knows what he's talking about. And he is not afraid of dissecting his craft and passing it onto others in a way that is easy to understand. He does this through workshops like last night, he also teaches and his website is a fantastic resource for any writer too. If you are writing a novel now, thinking about writing or, like me, dabbles in writing but have never considered penning your own novel, have a look at his website and catch the buzz, I know I have. His words of wisdom are not restricted to novels either, they can be applied across the range of writing. Hallinan is also a workoholic, he takes a year to write a novel on average of about 100,000 words in length, but will be working on two others at the same time. He targets himself to write 2,000 words each day and says that he has good days and bad days. His own style is not to outline the book beforehand but to fly by the seat of his pants and let his characters decide on where they want to go. He admits his latest novel is giving him sleepless nights, but will get there eventually. I found his lecture fascinating, it opened a series of small doors for me personally and is a brilliant idea by Monument Books' William Bagley to get writers of his calibre to pass on their skill and knowledge to the budding authors of Phnom Penh. To read more about Tim Hallinan and his writing resources, click here. The book jacket above is A Nail Through The Heart and the first in the series of Hallinan's Bangkok novels. I am reading it right now.

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