Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reunion at Glastonbury

A happy Steel Pulse crew at Glastonbury. LtoR: Amlak Tafari, Selwyn Brown, Grizzly Nisbett, David Hinds, Donovan McKitty and Donna Sterling in front
Just a few days ago, Steel Pulse took part in the massive Glastonbury Festival in England. If I was still living in the UK I would've bust a gut to be there as I have been a Pulse fan for more than thirty years. However I wasn't able to be there and so the next best thing is to take a peek at some photos from the day, taken by Millie Brown, the wife of keyboard player and founding member of the band, Selwyn Brown. And I got a big surprise when I saw them, not only was veteran drummer Grizzly Nisbett on stage, assisting with percussion, but dynamite backing singer Donna Sterling was also in the line-up alongside the two regular backing vocalists, Juris Prosper and Keysha McTaggart. It was quite a shock as I don't think Donna has been on stage with Steel Pulse since she left the band to have a baby in 2004, whilst Grizzly played his last gig in 2001 and had a heart by-pass operation three years ago. It's fantastic to see them back with the Steel Pulse family, and thanks to Millie for her thumbs up to post the pictures here.
Grizzly and the girls. LtoR: Keysha McTaggart, Grizzly, Juris Prosper, Donna Sterling
Steel Pulse's backing vocalists. LtoR: Juris, Keysha and Donna on her comeback
Grizzly roles back the years as he plays percussion on stage at GlastonburySteel Pulse's lead singer David Hinds with Amlak Tafari in support on bass


At last, the chance to speak

Vann Nath peers through the bars of S-21
I still haven't got out to the Khmer Rouge Trials at Kambol though this week would've been a particularly interesting time to go as the witnesses giving evidence are survivors from S-21 like Vann Nath, Chum Mey and most likely one or two of the prison guards as well. Vann Nath gave his evidence yesterday, some 30 years after his incarceration at Tuol Sleng for exactly 1 year. He survived because of his skills as a painter and his paintings have become inextricably linked with Tuol Sleng, where they hang on the walls of the former torture center. I've met Vann Nath a few times, including a filming session on the upper floor of Building B at S-21 and whilst he was a total professional when giving the interview on camera (which he has done so many times over the years), off camera he was quiet and melancholic. Today it was Chum Mey's turn to tell his story to the Tribunal judges of the torture he suffered during his imprisonment. You can often see Chum Mey at S-21, telling his story to visitors and re-enacting his incarceration in one of the brick-walled cells, it's a part of his life that he cannot forget even if he wanted to, so for his sake, and for Vann Nath, I really hope that their giving evidence and the outcome of the trial will allow some of their demons to rest. It's time some of the burden to tell the world about S-21 was lifted from the shoulders of these two men. I expect one of the prison guards, Him Houy, regarded as too lowly to be up for prosecution, to give his evidence later this week too.
A couple of disappointing briefs from the KR Tribunal: 15 people have been removed from the list of testimony witnesses to save time, the judges have announced and these include journalist Nic Dunlop, the man who discovered Comrade Duch, the man currently in the dock, living under an assumed name ten years ago. The judges also dismissed possible questions to Vann Nath on film footage of Tuol Sleng shot by the Vietnamese soon after they entered the city in 1979 - the judges ruled it was unclear whether the footage was genuine or propaganda produced by Hanoi, as defence lawyers have claimed.
Vann Nath looking at a self-portrait painting of himself that hangs at S-21
A quiet moment for Vann Nath during film shooting at S-21 in March 2008

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New music from praCh

praCh's Dalama 3 album, soon to be released in English
Khmer-born rap star praCh releases the English version of his latest album, Dalama: Memoirs of the Invisible War, on 8 July having already released the Khmer version earlier this month. praCh resides in Long Beach, California and has built up a rock solid reputation with his first two albums, Dalama: The Ending is just the Beginning and Dalama: The Lost Chapter, and he says album number 3 will be even tougher, raw and more explicit, rapping about war, life, politics and his personal frustrations. You can read a new interview with praCh at KhmerCeleb online magazine here. praCh's own website is here.

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An unguarded moment

Hello Darling... at 4FACES gallery in Siem Reap. photo courtesy of ericdevries
I don't think I will be able to get up to Siem Reap in the next few weeks to see the latest photographic exhibition at 4FACES by the gallery owner himself, Eric de Vries. Damn. We've been pals for a while now and I'm pleased that things are are on the up with the opening of his cafe-bar-gallery, a block away from Pub Street in Siem Reap, whilst at the same time taking on the responsibilities of fatherhood with the arrival of C'moon. He's also showing part 1 of his Hello Darling... exhibition throughout July that focuses on the girlybars in and around 104 and 136 streets in Phnom Penh. One of the exhibition photos was taken in an unguarded moment during a visit to one of the bars we made together purely in the interests of researching the background to the story you understand. As it's the first time I've been in an exhibition to my knowledge, I will take a small crumb of comfort from that. You can read more about the forgettable incident here. There's also talk of Eric having an exhibition at Raffles' Grand Hotel d'Angkor in October, so even more good news. Link: 4FACES.
I drop my guard for a few seconds and look what happens. photo courtesy of ericdevries

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Cambodian premiere

Tonight's film, that we kept under wraps for safety reasons before the screening, seemed to go down well with the invited packed crowd at Meta House. Finding Face was given its Cambodian premiere having only had its first ever showing in Geneva in March. The safety aspect related to the family, who are still living in Cambodia, of the film's main subject, the singer Tat Marina, who was disfigured by an acid attack in 1999. The attack on Marina signalled a spate of copycat attacks which still continue today. As for Marina, she is rebuilding her life in America and that was the heart-warming part of an otherwise at times sombre film that highlights a culture of impunity and lack of justice for victims that shows no sign of dissipating. Directors Skye Fitzgerald and Patti Duncan did a good job of telling the Marina story without over-egging or sensationalizing it. Read more here.

For the month of July, Meta House will present its usual eclectic mix of film screenings, discussions and a brand new Global Hybrid exhibition from the 2nd, with works from Khmer and US-based artists, such as Ouer Sokuntevy, Leang Seckon and Stephane Janin. My pick of the film screenings start with the evening when I will present a double-bill of Belonging and New Year Baby on Friday 10th at 7pm, in which two women return to find their roots in Cambodia. It will be the first showing of the Tamara Gordon-directed documentary Belonging here in Cambodia, the story of Li-Da Kruger, who left Phnom Penh as a baby and who returns to find the truth about her past. More here. This Friday, 3rd, Out of the Poison Tree - the return of Thida Butt Mam to the country of her birth - gets another screening, alongwith Kampuchea Death & Rebirth, a film shot after the Khmer Rouge left the city in 1979. On Thursday 9th a night of poetry, music and film includes the female chapei player Ouch Savy, while Saturday 11th will host the first ever Cambodian movie featuring a taboo lesbian love story in Who Am I? Dengue Fever's Sleepwalking Through The Mekong gets another airing on Friday 17th and Rithy Panh's film, Burnt Theater, will be screened on Tuesday 21st. And there's lots more besides.

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Lots of hope

A visit to New Hope has been on my agenda for ages, this article spurs me on even more. I've heard so many good things about the work they do for the children that no-one else wants.

Killeen couple cares for Cambodian children
- by Jade Ortego (Killeen Daily Herald, USA)
The Tuckers say they feel happy. They're lucky. They're blessed. They have more than 1,000 Cambodian children infected with the human immunodeficiency virus who rely on them for medication, food and sometimes shelter, schooling and companionship. John and Kathy Tucker of Killeen went to Cambodia in the January 2000 as Catholic lay missionaries. They became involved with a hospice program for Cambodians infected with HIV, Seedlings of Hope. Cambodia has one of highest rates of HIV in Asia. It soon became clear that there were no programs to help children in Cambodia infected with HIV. Because of widespread ignorance about the nature of the virus, those children were frequently cast off, left to die in the street. None of the 200 orphanages in Cambodia at the time would accept any HIV-positive child. "Assume your sister died of AIDS and you take her children, and find out one of the kids has AIDS. You're afraid that child may infect your biological children … even though it's almost impossible to transmit from child to child," John said. "People don't know that and they want to protect their own children so out of ignorance they abandon these other children," he said.

Their own clinic
In 2006, the Tuckers began New Hope for Cambodian Children (NHCC), a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, which includes an outreach program, a transitional home for intensive care for infants and the very ill, a day care, and most recently, a village for abandoned children infected with the virus. Neither John nor Kathy has any medical background. "There was no (antiretroviral) medicine. The choice was to learn about the medicine or let the kids die," John said. The Tuckers got a manual about HIV and learned about the medicine and found out it was available in Thailand. They bought it, imported it and hired local doctors to help them start their own clinic.

The NHCC outreach program now covers five provinces and attends to the medical needs of 850 children still living with family members. NHCC provides antiretroviral medication, medical transportation expenses and food for these children. Antiretroviral medication suppresses the virus enough so that the immune system can reconstitute itself. After taking the medication, some children can be tested and come back with a negative result. The children will become sick again if they miss dosages, however, and can develop resistance to the drugs. The Clinton Foundation donates money for the medicine for all of these children involved with NHCC, and has gotten the cost down to $12 a month for one child. The same medicine is about $1,000 a month in the United States. NHCC now includes a village, an almost-sustainable commune of abandoned children on 20 acres about 45 minutes from capital city Phnom Penh.

Building a community
New children arrive every week, kicked out of orphanages or abandoned at hospitals, but the current number is 180. The kids, age 2 to 19, live in a family and community. NHCC pays a married man and woman $50 a month each to live with and raise eight children in the village. These households are in groups of three, and they eat together; these groups of homes are part of a close-knit larger community. The Tuckers are working to make the village sustainable. They use only three and half hours of electricity a day, and make their own bio-diesel out of waste vegetable oil from local restaurants. They make methane gas from pig waste, and use solar panels to power water pumps. The village has 250 pigs and 2,200 chickens. Many orphanages in Cambodia have children make postcards or other crafts to pay for the cost of running it. The NHCC village is funded entirely by private donations, many from the Killeen area, especially St. Paul Chong Hasang Catholic Church in Harker Heights. "These are children and they're going to be children and they're going to go to school, they're not going to work in the afternoon," John said.

No splitting families
The orphans all attend the local provincial school. Their studies are supplemented by tutoring in every class, largely to make up for a lack of education before their entrance into the program. The village also has art, music and dance classes, and a computer class and basketball court that non-infected children from the provincial schools are allowed to sometimes use. This year, a 19-year-old is graduating out of the village and will move to Phnom Penh to go attend a university there. The boy isn't infected with the virus; he is one of the 27 non-infected siblings of a child with HIV who lives on the village. "We don't split up families," Kathy said. Next year, the first HIV-positive child will graduate, and the year after, 12 will. The Tuckers want to rent a house in Phnom Penh for graduates to live in while they attend college or vocational school, where they can still receive care and medication, and remain a part of their family.

NHCC is a secular organization, and doesn't proselytize to the children. "Our kids are Buddhist and they stay Buddhist," John said. "But they do all wear rosaries because they glow in the dark," Kathy said. Kathy also started a daycare program for HIV positive children that provides their widowed mothers with local, living-wage jobs making quilts, which got media coverage by the BBC and the New York Times. Those quilts, which look like baby blankets decorated with elephants and other animals, can be purchased at St. Paul's. People can volunteer to work at the village or donate to NHCC online here. "We get to take care of sick kids and get them healthy. We found something at the end of our lives that gives us real meaning. We love what we're doing," John said. "We sleep very well," Kathy said.

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Looking radiant

Sokheng has been a wonderful friend to me for the last two years, I was honoured to be invited to her party
In a quiet family and close friends party on Sunday morning, it was great to see one of my very best friends Sokheng looking radiant in her traditional garb and extremely happy during her engagement ceremony to Warren. The party began early at Navy's home in Kien Svay and included a gifts-carrying procession to the house, before breakfast was quickly followed by the main ceremony itself. Lunch soon followed and Sokheng took to the microphone to sing, as the dancing began, and it was still only 12 noon. I returned to Phnom Penh with my companion Sophoin, having enjoyed six hours of a party that would go on late into the night.
LtoR: Warren, Sokheng, Sophoin and myself: Sophoin wore red as she said its the colour for Sunday
Sokheng gives Warren a garland of flowers after exchanging the engagement rings


Preah Khan are still top dogs

Keo Kosal scored direct from a corner to put Preah Khan Reach ahead against Kirivong
17 year old Prak Mony Udom wrapped up the scoring in PKR's 3-nil win on Sunday
Sunday was a bit of a hectic day and I managed to get back into Phnom Penh and sat in my plastic chair in the 'press box' (a loose term by comparison to other press boxes around the world) at the Olympic Stadium just as Cambodian Premier League leaders Preah Khan Reach kicked off against Kiriviong. True to form, Preah Khan ran out deserved winners, going ahead with a goal direct from a corner by Keo Kosal, before Nuth Sinoun added a second on the stroke of half-time and Prak Mony Udom completed the 3-0 scoreline just before the end. They now lead the table by six points and played better today than on recent showings. The second game of the afternoon was a walk-over for Naga Corp, who move into 3rd place. Their opponents, lowly Post Tel had no answer to Naga's relentless pressure and were mauled 5-1, though they did take the lead through Gafar Adefolarin. Normal service was resumed when Teab Vathanak equalised with a close range header and the floodgates opened after the interval with goals from Sun Sovannarith, Pech Sina, Kim Chanbunrith (complete with bandaged head) and Vathanak again. This was Naga at their most fluent and an indicator that they will be in the mix come the end of the season. However, that's still some way off as after this Wednesday's games, the CPL takes a one-week mid-season break where the teams are allowed a transfer window to refresh their squads. We might see some interesting moves. Notable from yesterday's games was that eight of the nine goals scored came from Khmer players and only one from a foreign player - more of the same please.
A man in form, national player Teab Vathanak netted twice for Naga Corp
Naga Corp strike a pose with national skipper Kim Chanbunrith on the back row with his head bandaged after a midweek injury. Not sure what Pok Chanthan (12) is doing with his teammate's leg!
Post Tel come under the photographer's spotlight
The referee looks pleased to have caught his coin at the toss-up between Post Tel's Kun Kuon and Naga's Oum Thavrak (blue)


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Out of the picture

A busy day today, so much so that I haven't time to put you in the picture other than the morning was spent at Sokheng's engagement party in Kien Svay, the afternoon was spent at Olympic Stadium watching a couple of football matches and the evening, well that's private. I'll post the story and pictures tomorrow morning.
And don't forget, tomorrow at 7pm (that's Monday 29th) make sure you come along to the special film screening at Meta House, alongside Wat Botum, of .... sorry I still can't release the name of the film but I can assure you it will be worth watching the Cambodian premiere of a film that dissects key issues in Cambodian today.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Under a black cloud

Black storm clouds fill the sky above the Olympic Stadium, complete with lightning strikes aplenty
Akeeb Ayoyinka (left) and Oscar Mpoko, the 2nd half goalscorers for Phnom Penh Crown
The Cambodian Premier League games at Olympic Stadium today were played in very hot, humid and for a short while, rainy conditions with lightning strikes filling the air, as black clouds circled overhead. It reminded me that it was only a year ago that lightning killed three footballers in the city and has already claimed 100 lives this year. Taking a risk with nature can prove costly in Cambodia. As for the football itself, Phnom Penh Crown stuttered to a 2-1 success over Spark FC but had to thank their two African substitutes for the three points against plucky opponents. In two match-defining minutes of a see-saw game, Oscar Mpoko and Akeeb Ayoyinka turned the match on its head after the league's top scorer Justine Prince had netted again for Spark in the first half to give them the lead. Crown had started the game with an all-Khmer line-up, something of a rare occurrence in the CPL these days, but it was Spark who showed the killer touch with a well-taken headed goal from their Nigerian skipper. Then it was the turn of Mpoko and Ayoyinka, within a minute of each other, to strut their stuff and their baby cradle goal celebrations fifteen minutes from the end as Crown cemented second-place in the table. In the second game, a solitary strike from Sin Dalin early in the first half won the tie in favour of the National Defense Ministry against bottom club Phuchung Neak, but the game was a poor second to the afternoon's opener.
The team's enter the arena in scorching hot weather for the opening match
The all-Khmer starting eleven for Phnom Penh Crown today
The Spark FC line-up with top scorer Justine Prince wearing the captain's armband
The players keeping the bench warm for Phnom Penh Crown before today's game
Sin Dalin, the match-winner for National Defence Ministry against Phuchung Neak
Midway through the second match of this afternoon's football I had an enlightening 1-to-1 with the Cambodian national football coach Scott O'Donell (pictured right), who has just returned from running a coach instructor's course in Kuala Lumpur on behalf of FIFA, the world's governing body. Scott was filling me in on what's been happening since he returned as national coach at the start of this month. My interview with Scott should appear in the Phnom Penh Post sometime next week, when I will be able to fill you in on the details here at the same time. What has been notable is that he's been to watch every team in the Cambodian Premier League a couple of times already, he's spoken to the CPL team coaches as a group to get their buy-in and co-operation, he has assembled his own coaching team as well as identifying up to 40 eligible players at under-23 level who he wants to invite to trials, from which he will select a squad of 25 players to represent the country at the SEA Games in Laos in December. More next week.

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Back-breaking banter

Now, in a rare day off, enjoying the sunset at Phnom Bakheng
Now gave me a call today to tell me she's finally off into the fields to plant rice for the whole of next week. It's been held up a bit but tomorrow her whole family and other families in their village will take it in turns to plant their staple foodstuff in their rice fields, a couple of kilometres from their homes near Srah Srang, in the middle of the Angkor temple complex near Siem Reap. First it will be Now's field then the next day, everyone chips in with a neighbour's field, and so on, about thirty people in all. She's actually looking forward to it - not the back-breaking work in the scorching overhead sun - but the comraderie and banter that everyone enjoys that makes their 10-hour day go by quicker. As she just told me, she'll be there in her wide-brimmed hat, her krama covering her face and her long trousers tucked into her socks to avoid the leeches getting a grip. The weather is a bit changeable at the moment, so it could be either rice planting in hard earth or wet soil if it rains during their planting session. She prefers the latter. But what she likes the most is the break from her usual daily routine of selling souvenirs inside the east gate of Banteay Kdei and the opportunity to enjoy the company of her family and her neighbours. I've been to her village a couple of times and I can back-up that they are a happy bunch, who all help each other when the need arises. One of the books she sells on her stall is The Khmers by Ian Mabbett and David Chandler and she recalled that when she read about the importance of rice planting to the Khmer people in the book, she felt very proud that someone should write about one of the tasks that she and her family do together. I never thought about it like that before and I'm so glad that she uses the books she sells to improve her English as well as her understanding of her her own history and culture, in which she takes great pride.

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Panh's People

One of the Rithy Panh films that I still haven't see is The People of Angkor, or Le gens d'Angkor, as it was known on its release in 2003. Well I will get my first chance on Wednesday of next week, at the Reyum Gallery on Street 178 at 6pm, when the film will be screened in Khmer with English subtitles (which is a relief as I thought it might've been in French). Panh, who has dedicated his directorial career towards showing Cambodians in tough and tragic real-life situations, vulnerable but also with hope, humour and realism in films like Rice People, Land of Wandering Souls, S-21, The Burnt Theatre and Paper Cannot Wrap Embers, said of his 90-minute movie; "This film is about the people who live there. An inside view in the shadow of the temples and the great kapok trees, an inhabited shadow that the world’s tourists pass through unawares, wrapped up in contemplating the treasures of Khmer art. This is not just one more film about the monuments of Angkor, their history or their architecture....A story of pain and hope, where the past and present are intermingled, where the divine and human complement each other, and where humor enables people to express the anguish of survival, just as art transcends the contingencies of destiny."

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Life's a doddle

On the cards for tonight is a quiet night in with a good book, actually I have a pile of good books that I still haven't read, quite a number of which have been sent to me by publishers requesting a review of their latest publication, so I'd better get my finger out. That also includes the Dengue Fever DVD Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which I've watched a couple of times now and still haven't penned a review - although everyone and their dog seems to have already reviewed it. So I have a list of tasks already lined up for tonight. Tomorrow it's work and football in that order. Phnom Penh Crown take on Spark FC and bottom club Phuchung Neak face the Defense Ministry at Olympic Stadium from 2pm onwards. My weekly diet of football is adequately feeding my football fever at the moment although we are coming up to the mid-season break and and I'm not sure I'll be able to cope with the withdrawal symptoms. I won't be able to make the games on Sunday as I have an early start, 6.30am to be precise, to get to Kien Svay for the day-long engagement party for my friend Sokheng. And then on Monday night it's the 1st showing in Cambodia of a film that I can't tell you its name - as we're keeping it under wraps until the 7pm start at Meta House gets underway. Somewhere in between I've got to fit in eating and sleeping and the other daily routines of life though having a cleaner like Chrep, who comes round three mornings every week to do my washing, ironing and cleaning, does make my domestic life a doddle. Before I forget, an update on my medical condition - so far so good, pills and cream working well, my skin is looking healthy again and we seem to be on the right track. But I'm not counting my blessings just yet.

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Meet Srey Ka. I thought it was time to introduce a few of my friends to the outside world. If you read my blog regularly (is there such a person?) you'll already know about a few of them, like Sophoin, Sokheng, Now, Vy, yes there's a common thread, most of them are female. I've always gravitated towards female friends and living in Cambodia is no different. So who is Srey Ka you ask. Well, she originates from the province of Takeo and now lives in Phnom Penh, she's 26 years old and trying like all of us to make a life here in the capital, and to earn a daily crust. She used to work for the street cleaning company Cintri in her first job before moving into one of the more popular jobs for countryside girls around here, working for a garment manufacturer. When her factory closed a few months ago, another regular occurrence here too, she got a job cashiering and making drinks at a city bar, where she is today. It's not where she wants to be but needs must and in due time she hopes to find a new job that has more sociable hours. Then again, doesn't everyone? She has an adorable personality and an award-winning smile, like all my friends, and works hard to be able to support her family back in their home village. Her story is no different from thousands of others, but the difference is, she's one of my closest friends.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Under wraps

This coming Monday 29th Meta House will show a very special 'surprise' film that hasn't been seen in Cambodia before, yet it created quite a stir in the international press when it had its first showing in Europe recently and we hope that its screening in Cambodia will have the same effect. For the time being the title of the film is under wraps. All very cloak and dagger but it'll be worth it. Space on the night will be limited, so drop me a line if you want to reserve a seat or call Nico on 012 607 465. Meta House on Street 264 in Phnom Penh is the location and the film will begin at 7pm.
For cinema lovers in the capital, a new option is officially opening its doors for the first time tomorrow on Street 95. It's called The Flicks and can accommodate 24 people in its theatre, seated on futon mats. Its aim is to show mainstream English-language films as well as documentaries and art-house movies. The more the merrier in my view.
On the food front, I returned to my usual haunt, Cafe Fresco, at lunchtime today and enjoyed a soup and sandwich lunch that put my recent one-off defection to The Lunch Box into perspective. The choice at Fresco's is wider, the prices similar and the aircon and ambiance much more inviting. Stick to what you know and enjoy.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It's that man Sokumpheak again

Kouch Sokumpheak rescued a point for Khemara after Naga had led - he can't stop scoring goals
This afternoon was my first taste of midweek football and the verdict - way too hot and humid. So credit to all four teams who did their best to serve up some quality play and it was a definite improvement on last weekend's drudgery. Phnom Penh Crown moved into second place in the Cambodia Premier League with their 2-nil victory over Kirivong in the first match up. They just about deserved it with two second-half goals from Akeeb Ayoyinka and a penalty from Keo Sokngorn but it wasn't exactly edge of the seat stuff. I was looking forward to the second game, Naga versus Khemara and I wasn't disappointed. The two teams were led by the international pairing of Naga's Om Thavrak and Khemara's Kouch Sokumpheak and it was Thavrak who was smiling for much of the match as Naga went two goals ahead. Teab Vathanak finished with aplomb after half an hour and then Sunday Okonkwo added a second. It looked like the points were in the bag for Naga. But Khemara are a team that don't lie down easily and Alichigozie Anthony and then skipper Sokumpheak, with a sublime glancing header, rescued a point with two goals in the last twenty minutes. Honours even though Khemara felt it was a moral victory as their celebrations at the end showed.
A serious Phnom Penh Crown line-up before their 2-0 success over Kirivong this afternoon
Kirivong attempt one of the more unusual pre-match photo line-ups, but they need more practice
All eyes are on the referee and his coin before the Crown and Kirivong match
Great to see the two international teammates and club captains have time for a smile as they lead their teams onto the pitch in the Naga versus Khemara game
A final handshake between Sokumpheak (blue) and Thavrak (red) before battle commences
Naga Corp line up before the match begins, a match they probably should've won
The Khemara Keila starting eleven, who rescued a point in the last 20 minutes
Cutting-edge technology in the press box at this afternoon's feast of football - Phnom Penh Post journo Dene Mullen plays with his satellite link (joke)
And finally, our lovely peanut seller now has a number 2 who she is grooming to take over her peanut empire pending her upcoming marriage


Out of left field

I've just been hit by a rocket. Not really but the same sort of effect. My series editor at ThingsAsian Press, the adorable Kim Fay, for the unique guidebook I'm editing, To Cambodia With Love has just asked that I send her everything by this weekend. That's the whole book, in its finished state, or as near to it as possible. It's certainly the wake-up call I need to stop dallying around and get the book completed. I won't make this weekend but it'll be with the series editors at the beginning of next month and that will speed up the guidebook's arrival in bookshops/on Amazon/on the streets of Phnom Penh (in beautifully photocopied format no doubt) considerably. More news as I get it.
I am taking my lunch late this afternoon, so I get the opportunity to watch the midweek Cambodian Premier League matches at Olympic Stadium and both games are, on paper, well worth the effort and discomfort of sitting in the main stand, sweating profusely. Match reports later.
The main news coming out from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal today is that the chief international prosecutor, Robert Petit has announced he will quit the trials on 1 September, citing personal reasons. Petit has been with the ECCC for three years and has worked in four war crimes tribunals in the last twenty years. His knowledge and experience has been a vital driving force to the ongoing trials. It was Petit who was keen to get more suspects in the dock to join the five currently awaiting prosecution, though his desires didn't exactly curry favour with the Cambodian authorities. We are still awaiting a final decision on this. His departure, even before the Duch trial is complete, will create a void in the process until a suitable replacement is appointed.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A lesson well learnt

Learn from your mistakes my mum always told me. Take my decision to patronize a new sandwich shop - The Lunch Box - that has just opened in BBK1 on Street 282, just behind Wat Lanka. I read about it in yesterday's Phnom Penh Post and thought I'd compare it against my usual lunchtime venue, Cafe Fresco, which lies about 100 feet from my office. Remind me not to be so stupid next time. The 500 metre walk in the midday sun wasn't a good idea for starters and then the forty-five minute wait - yes, 45 minutes - for my takeaway sandwich to materialize was beyond a joke. I'd also ordered a takeaway fruit shake but they had no lid for my cup, so I drank it whilst I waited, and waited, and waited. I heard mutterings of no bread delivery today and more apologies than I could shake a stick at until finally my wait was over. Did I mention that their wall-fans were worse than useless and I was sweating like a navvy... the $1.5 reduction in my bill was small compensation. I walked back, right past the aircon haven of Fresco's to my office to open my plastic lunch box, only to be confronted with an inadequate excuse for a tuna sandwich and one which tasted even worse than it looked. They couldn't even redeem themselves with the quality of their food. Notes for my diary, never go to The Lunch Box again; Cafe Fresco has air-con; great sandwiches; very friendly staff like Smey, Dary, Sophoin and Kunthear; not to mention their gorgeous Snickers cheesecake. Thanks mum, a lesson well learnt.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Brother Number One

The only foreigner likely to take the stand to confront Comrade Duch at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal later this year will be Rob Hamill (pictured), an Olympic and Trans-Atlantic champion rower, whose brother Kerry was murdered by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng. A film, Brother Number One, is being made that follows Rob's journey to Cambodia to find out the truth of what happened to his beloved elder brother.

In the mid-70s, Kerry bought a yacht, Foxy Lady, and was running a charter business out of Darwin around South East Asia with a Canadian friend, Stuart Glass. Along with a Brit John Dewhirst, they were sailing towards Bangkok when they hit a storm. Mistakenly entering Cambodian waters, Foxy Lady was seized on Koh Tang, Stuart Glass shot and killed, while the other two men were taken to the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, overseen by Duch. The two friends were killed in the final days of the Khmer Rouge stranglehold on Phnom Penh before the Vietnamese invasion at the beginning of 1979.

Rob Hamill will travel to Cambodia to retrace the steps taken by his brother and John Dewhirst, speaking to eyewitnesses, perpetrators and survivors. Rob’s journey will culminate in his giving a Victim’s Statement before the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia. The film will also explore the history of Cambodia in an attempt to comprehend the enormity of the genocide that occurred in Khmer Rouge years. Directing the film is award-winning Annie Goldson and filming has already taken place in the US and England. Historians Elizabeth Becker, Ben Kiernan and Peter Maguire alongwith John Dewhirst's sister Hilary have been interviewed. You can keep up to date with the documentary at their blog.

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Wash, shave...and date

The girls of Phnom Penh are getting bolder by the minute. One minute they were daring to sit on park benches holding hands with their boyfriends or hold on tightly whilst they whirled around the city on their mopeds. Now, as they have you at their mercy with a cut-throat razor hovering above your face they ask you out on a date. Well, that's what happened to me tonight when I popped into my usual beauty parlour for a hair-wash, shave... and a dinner date. And how could I refuse the adorable dark-haired beauty holding a very sharp razor an inch from my throat. I just hope she doesn't bring the razor on the date. With the proliferation of beauty shops across the city, I wonder if this is becoming a popular way for the stylists and assistants to select their next prey. I'll find out and let you know.

Time for a medical update. At 7am this morning I appeared at my doctor's surgery so he could take a blood sample. He needed to know the state of play before we tried a new course of treatment for my annoying skin problem (discoid dermatitis). By 5pm he had the results and whilst everything looked pretty normal, there was an exception. High fat levels in my blood and heart sent my triglycerides count sky-high and I've been told in no uncertain terms to avoid the following: absolutely no chicken skin, no beef or bacon, no eggs and only tiny amounts of butter and cheese, and alcohol. He also told me to down two litres of water each day, drink the juice from a large coconut daily and undertake more exercise. That, alongwith a dozen tablets each day that'll make me rattle, will aggressively attack the problem before we can adopt a more considered approach in two weeks from now. Fingers crossed this will do the trick as I want to exhaust every avenue before committing to the last resort, a trip back to England.

Hello Darling..

The latest exhibition at 4FACES Gallery in Siem Reap will be from the owner himself, Eric de Vries and part 1 of his Hello Darling.. on-going series of nightlife amongst the girlybars of Phnom Penh's 104 and 136 Streets. He has an excuse - Eric used to live on 136 Street before he moved to Siem Reap so he couldn't avoid the contact. Link; 4FACES.


More from the Jollymeister

I mentioned a while ago that offbeat journo Dom Joly (pictured) - he of Trigger-Happy TV fame - had been over in Cambodia, sampling its delights. He travelled with Hanuman. Yesterday, the TimesOnline - Sunday Times edition, posted his take on what he saw. I think you can safely say he enjoyed his visit. And it was only a couple of weeks ago that the Sunday Times Travel Team labelled Hanuman as one of the world's Top Ten Fixers. Ding dong.

Cambodia has it all, says Dom Joly.
Sizzling cuisine, ancient temples, wild jungle, buzzing cities... you might not even make the beach.

Growing up, as I did, in war-torn Lebanon, there was always only one serious rival for the news headlines: Cambodia. As with Lebanon, the latter half of the 1970s was an appalling time for Cambodia, with the Khmer Rouge presiding over an attempt to ­return the country to an ancient ­agrarian society — “Year Zero” in their terminology. Estimates of the death toll vary between one and three million people. How does a country ever recover from such trauma and then attract tourists? Somehow, like Lebanon (one of this year’s Rough Guide must-see recommendations), Cambodia has done just that and is a “hot” destination.

No trip here is complete without a visit to the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, Angkor Wat. My first goal, therefore, is Siem Reap, a small town that has exploded with hotels and bars in the past 10 years as the world rediscovers the temples that surround the place. My guide, Ohm, a wonderful former monk with a huge smile and a wicked sense of humour, is an expert in when to go to which temple. He treats it very much like a military operation. The temperature can rise to a staggering 50C in the middle of the day; open spaces such as the main complex become huge ovens and are virtually deserted at this time. We decide that, armed with my special Milletts anti­sweat T-shirt (a life-saver) and a wide-brimmed hat, I am okay with extreme heat. We opt to visit Angkor Wat at lunchtime, and make dawn raids on the less famous surrounding temples.

That night, I sit on the terrace of my hotel nursing a cool beer and watching a temporary downpour dislodge thousands of leaves from the surrounding gumtrees. The twin-blade leaves twirl down like clouds of tiny helicopters as locals dash for cover. I am in love with this country already. The following morning I watch the sun rise over the extraordinary Temple of Bayon. It’s straight out of The Jungle Book — monkeys dance from tower to tower as the 200 stone faces that adorn the temple stare impassively out at visitors. I am absolutely blown away. I keep expecting to see King Louis supporting one of the crumbling towers. I start humming “I’m the king of the swingers, oh, the jungle VIP...”. Ohm looks at me curiously. He’s like some proud conjuror revealing trick after trick. We drive to Ta Prohm, an unbelievably atmospheric temple almost buried by the jungle. The roots of huge trees have wrapped themselves around the stones to become an intricate part of the structure. It’s no wonder they filmed Tomb Raider here. Once again I am the only person among the old stones. I pad about the place in silence save for the chirruping of birds high in the misty trees above. After a glorious 15 minutes of solitude, I spot a Polish tourist taking a complicated photograph of the tree roots. We stare at each other with hostility, both annoyed by an intruder spoiling our solitary adventurer fantasy.

I am loath to leave my new jungle home, but Angkor Wat beckons. We enter the huge complex on the stroke of noon. Curiously, although by far the best known of the temples, it is my least favourite. This is, however, only due to the sublime beauty of the others. The pineapple-like domes dominate the landscape, the surrounding moat still keeping the hordes to a trickle. What a sight this must have been in the 13th century, when it was entirely covered in gold.

In the wetter season I would have taken the option of a fast boat to Phnom Penh up the huge inland sea — it takes five to six hours and is supposed to be very scenic. It being the dry season, I hop on a plane and land in the capital about 40 minutes later. It’s mind-boggling actually to be in Phnom Penh, a city that dominated the World Service airwaves of my childhood. When the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975, they proceeded to boot out almost the entire population to a hellish life of forced labour in the countryside. For four years the city had no more than 50,000 inhabitants — a ghost town in a land of ghosts. How things have changed. The capital today is a pulsating mass of humanity: the once-empty streets are packed with cars, tuk-tuks, mopeds, rickshaws, bicycles, trucks and elephants — all life is here.

I fall helplessly in love with the place from the moment I arrive. If I weren’t married with two children, I’d move here tomorrow. The city oozes life and vitality. I spend a couple of days just sauntering around, letting the place seep into my pores, and start to develop a routine. In the morning I have a swim at the hotel — Le Royal, one of the grand old hotels of Southeast Asia. I think about the great journalists who have worked and played here: Jon Swain, who wrote the wonderful River of Time; John Pilger, whose harrowing documentary Year Zero, The Silent Death of Cambodia alerted the world to the terrible things that had happened here. I sip a freshly squeezed lemon juice and pretend that I’m a great foreign correspondent about to drive out of the city to smell the cordite and earn my spurs.

I take a tuk-tuk down to the riverside, where the mighty Mekong and the Tonlé Sap meet. A cooling breeze makes the air bearable. I sit and watch the flow of human traffic pass by. Saffron-robed monks take photographs of each other, as little kids play what seems to be the national sport — a kind of Hacky Sack with an oversized shuttlecock. I think about trying to start this craze in the UK. I could source the shuttlecocks, fly over a display team: it would be the playground hit of next year... then I remember that I’m a rubbish businessman. An elephant trudges calmly past alongside an elderly mahout. Cars seem remarkably unaffected and weave around it. I try to find the hilarious little girl who hassles tourists as they leave the impressive Royal Palace. Her schtick is to find out what nationality the visitors are and then fire a couple of phrases at them in their native tongue. My favourite was when she found out that one couple were Australian: “Omigod, a dingo stole my baby!” she screamed in a broad Aussie accent.

I spend the afternoon wandering around the “Russian Market”. It acquired this name in the 1980s, when Russians were the only visitors to this city. Like all great markets, it’s a confusing maze of stalls and alleyways. I find a little teashop in the centre and sip the sweet liquid in a shady alley. It’s now devilishly hot and only mad dogs and Englishmen are out and about as most of the city sleeps. I find a large group of tuk-tuks under a tree. All the drivers are asleep along with most of the mad dogs. One driver eventually wakes up and groggily takes me to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. This is my home from home. I sit on the open terrace overlooking the river while nursing one of many cool Angkor beers to come. The Cambodians are obsessed with their world-beating temple. It is on both the national flag and their national beer. I spend the evening reading The Gate, a brilliant book by François Bizot. He is a Frenchman who was captured and then released by the Khmer Rouge (a rare thing) and then survived the fall of Phnom Penh, sheltering in the French Embassy before being evacuated to Thailand.

Sitting high above this pulsating city, watching the medley of boats make their graceful way down the river, I catch a glimpse of what made this place such a paradise to so many ­before the war. To me, the newcomer, it still is a paradise, although of a different kind. I haven’t even the time to visit the coast that is being hailed as the “new Thailand”. But who needs a new Thailand when you’ve got wonderful new Cambodia? If you visit one place this year, then let it be this beautiful, awe-inspiring, magnificent country. The credit crunch has delayed the deluge, but it won’t be long. Go now — you’ll never regret it.

Dom Joly was a guest of Audley. Travel details: Audley can tailor-make trips throughout Cambodia. A nine-day itinerary, staying at the FCC in Siem Reap, and Raffles, in Phnom Penh, starts at £1,650pp. The price includes flights from Heathrow or Manchester with Singapore Airlines (via Singapore), as well as domestic flights between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and a guide and driver throughout the trip. Contact Audley for details of connecting flights from other UK regional airports or Ireland. Other operators include Trips World­wide, Cox & Kings or Bales World­wide. Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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DFID depart

In the papers today, DFID, the UK's international development agency, is pulling out of Cambodia. They arrived eight years ago but now say that their money would be better spent where there are more poor people, less NGOs and less admin costs in providing the aid. The pull-out will be staggered and their successful public health program will be the final one to go in 2013. DFID provided about $30 million in funding last year and will do so this year as well. Link: British Embassy.
Another journo, this one from the Washington Post, has been busy reporting on Banteay Chhmar here - soon the place will be overrun with journos intent on telling everyone that you can still find a remote temple in Cambodia. Someone tell the world's press that there are thousands of them, not just Banteay Chhmar, though its a good one I grant you. Also while you are at it, tell them that the lighting up of Angkor Wat at night is not a new event, they've been doing it for a while now. And its official, the lights will not cause harm to the temple according to Deputy PM Sok An. The heat from the lamps is 50,000 times less than from the sun.

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Delight and despair

Delight for Defense Ministry's Um Kumpheak and his colleagues after his last minute equaliser against a despairing Kirivong. Nick Sells
Kirivong's Juliuos Chukwumeka tries an acrobatic overhead kick against the Defense Ministry. Nick Sells
Here are some photos from the weekend's football action at the Olympic Stadium. As always the photographer for the Phnom Penh Post, Nick Sells, was on hand to capture the best of the activity, though there wasn't too much to shout home about to be honest. This Wednesday the Khemara Keila v Naga match-up looks like an encounter that may well entice me away from the office for a couple of hours. Don't tell anyone. Link; Nick Sells.
Phnom Penh Crown's 17 yr old wonderkid Keo Sokngorn in action (blue shirt). Nick Sells
Preah Khan's Sok Rithy blocks this cross-shot from a BBU striker. Nick Sells

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

El Nasa is the man

PKR's captain & match-winner Sam El Nasa
CPL leaders Preah Khan Reach pose before their last gasp 1-nil win over Build Bright
Today's football can be summed up in one word, dire. The two games were the worst I've seen this season so far and so there isn't much to say about them. Cambodian Premier League leaders Preah Khan Reach won with a last minute penalty, coolly taken by their skipper Sam El Nasa, to triumph 1-nil over 3rd placed Build Bright. Considering they are top and putting some distance between them and the chasing pack, Preah Khan haven't really played well in any of their last half dozen matches, but they keep winning and that's an important yardstick. Nasa was on the bench today and came on to provide more impetus to the PKR push for the decider, especially after his colleague Khoun Laboravy had seen his earlier penalty saved by BBU's Chea Zena. The substitution worked a treat and the national team regular saved the day, not for the first time this season. In the opening game of another hothouse afternoon, Spark beat Post Tel 2-o but the match was largely forgettable. The Spark goals came from centre half Olajide Olawaseun with a header, and a penalty from the CPL's leading scorer Justine Prince, who had been surprisingly left on the bench for the first half. The mid-season transfer window is approaching when teams can take on fresh talent to bolster their CPL chances. However, there's some disquiet on the grapevine with some clubs not paying wages and others not fulfilling players' contracts. Sounds like there's trouble brewing if its not resolved very soon.
The toss up by the referee between BBU skipper Sothearath (white) and PKR's Ouk Mic
The CPL's leading marksman Justine Prince of Spark FC, now with 8 goals this season
Spark centre-half Olajide Olawaseun scored for the 2nd week running
The turgid fare offered up in both games today won't help in filling the empty Olympic Stadium, pictured before the start of the Spark v Post Tel game


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Kumpheak to the rescue

Defense Ministry's 2-goal hero Um Kumpheak, who equalised well into injury time
The Ministry of National Defense, with Samreth Seiha restored in goal, drew 2-2 with 2nd placed Kirivong Sok Sen Chey
My pal Eric from Siem Reap made a surprise appearance at today's Cambodian Premier League football at Olympic, his first visit to the Stadium and I think he was impressed. Not with the football, but with the Stadium. As for the football, kicking off at 2pm is not good for anyone, let alone 22 players hoping to show off their skills. It was even too hot for the crowd to turn up. Anyway, the two teams did their best in the sweltering conditions and fought out a creditable 2-2 draw. 2nd placed Kirivong were leading well into injury time when Defense Ministry's Um Kumpheak popped up to get on the end of a long hopeful ball and lob the keeper to tie the game. It was Kumpheak who'd opened the scoring from the penalty spot after 10 minutes, only for the African contingent of Eromoselle and Chukwumeka to put the team from Takeo in front. It was good to see Samreth Seiha back between the sticks for the Defense team though striker Khim Borey is still absent with an ankle injury. Also nice to see my favourite peanut seller in figure-hugging black. Right...back to the football.
Sprinting up the stairs of the main stand, my favourite peanut seller in full flow
Chan Chhaya scored a well-taken opener for Phnom Penh Crown
Heng Sokly gave bottom club Phuchung Neak some hope with an equaliser
In the second game of the afternoon, Phnom Penh Crown returned to league action after their unsuccessful sojourn to Kyrgystan in the AFC Presidents Cup (where they lost 2 and won 1) and without Lappe Lappe up front they looked a shadow of the team that won the Hun Sen Cup at the start of the season. Their slick passing was still there but their finishing was woeful and Ayoyinka is no Lappe Lappe. They led through a well-executed goal from Chan Chhaya but were pegged back with the last kick of the 1st half by Phuchung Neak's Heng Sokly and his intelligent lob. Crown improved with the introduction of Chan Rithy and Keo Sokngorn and it was the 17 year old wonderkid who scored the winner from the penalty spot, just a few minutes after arriving on the pitch. Phuchung battled away bravely til the end but couldn't rescue the points and stay rooted to the foot of the table with 1 point from 8 games. Tomorrow the leaders Preah Khan take on 3rd placed Build Bright.
Thul Sothearith leads out Phnom Penh Crown on their return to league action
The starting line-up for Phnom Penh Crown, who made heavy weather of beating Phuchung Neak 2-1
A birds-eye view of the TVK commentary team at today's game
Eric made me take this photo of the clouds soaring above the Stadium's floodlights

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Looking back

Pont de Vernéville in Phnom Penh 1904
Le Pont Fabre in Phnom Penh 1904
History fascinates me. It always has and I hope it always will. So I was disappointed when I had to miss last Sunday's Khmer Ephemera at Meta House. Joel Montague was presenting examples from his French colonial paper collection that included old postcards and posters of Cambodia. If you want your own taste of old Cambodia seen through early photographic postcards, then look no further than here which has scanned copies of some wonderful images. I've included a couple here, both of them bridges in Phnom Penh that are sadly no longer with us, but what amazing structures they were.
To give you a bit more info about one of the bridges, Pont de Vernéville, here's an extract from a Ministry of Culture website:
The development of modern Phnom Penh began during the 1890s under the direction of architect-town planner Daniel Fabré (1850-1904). During this period the colonial administration made various attempts to resolve the recurrent problem of flooding by filling in several small natural lakes and digging a series of interlinked canals to provide better drainage. The most important of these was the canal completed in 1894, which effectively encircled the quartier Européen. This canal entered from the Tonle Sap, ran east to west along quai Vernéville (now Street 106) and south to north adjacent to boulevard Monsignor Miche (now Monivong Boulevard), before swinging eastwards again to exit into the Tonle Sap at the end of boulevard Charles Thomson (now France Street 47) at the site of a former bridge, the Pont de Vernéville.
Canal de Vernéville 1904 that ran through Phnom Penh
Talking of old photos, I remembered that my mug shot appeared in the Phnom Penh Post at the back end of last year whilst attending a movie preview at Meta House. Here it is but I don't exactly look like a happy bunny do I, and neither does my date for the night, Ameas. A much more happier looking photo was taken at Tuol Sleng of all places a few weeks earlier. It was the first time that Ameas and her sister had been to Tuol Sleng and like many Khmers before her, she had no idea it even existed, let alone what took place there.
A glum-looking Ameas and myself at Meta House (from the PPP)
A much happier pose at Tuol Sleng; same people as above!

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Friday, June 19, 2009

It's no room 101

Inside one of the river-facing rooms at River 108
Have you heard of Room 101, well how about River 108? It's a new boutique hotel that's just opened its doors in Phnom Penh and I went for a visit yesterday. And it's pretty swish I must say. 12 rooms in total, 6 with river-facing views and big balconies, it's located on St 108 overlooking the Night Market and is a few steps from Sisowath Quay. It offers a nicely-designed silver Art Deco style throughout, the room sizes are generous, as are the bathrooms (with bath and rain shower), complete with large flat screen tv and free wif-fi. The hotel's three floors have generous natural light, with a reception, seating and intimate bar on the ground floor. Italian coffee and continental breakfast is included in the room rate. Definitely one of the better boutique offerings in the city to-date. There's no swimming pool but next door is being turned into a seafood restaurant, all part of the same chain. Boss Duncan Tong used to work at FCC and knows his stuff.
On the balcony of a river-facing room at River 108


On the wires

As a rule, I don't cover too much of the 'news' coming out of Cambodia as most of it is negative and consistently fails to expose the things about this country that I love. I generally leave the bad news to the newswires and newspapers who seem to revel in negative Cambodia stories. However, I can't be ultra positive all the time, especially now, as my own medical problems are weighing heavily on my every waking moment. So, here's a few stories that caught my eye yesterday and today.
  • The King-Father, Norodom Sihanouk, has had his own website up and running for a while now and some of the stuff he posts on it is frankly, weird. However I feel for him today when I heard that his website has been hijacked, his content removed and is being sold online for $4,350. I was gutted when my own blog was hijacked and my sympathies are with him on this occasion, normally they are not.
  • The Phnom Penh Post today reveals that 17 Nigerians have been arrested by police in the city in a drugs bust. Apparently its the tip of an iceberg. Living in Phnom Penh I hear many fanciful tales about the large African community that is here, from internet/email/telephone scamming to drug dealing and more. I have no idea whether the rumours are true or not but the police obviously think there's something in it. Anyway, it's about time we heard some positive stories from the African community here.
  • New Zealand Olympic rower Rob Hamill, whose brother Kerry was murdered by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng, has said he will confront the former S-21 head Duch at the Khmer Rouge Trial before November. "I'm one of only a dozen people taking the stand and possibly the only foreigner. The process of grieving hasn't taken its course and this is a part of that. I feel hatred. I want to try and forgive but I'm finding that hard at the moment,' says Hamill. Duch this week confirmed that four foreigners including Kerry were tortured and then burned after their execution.
  • Other stories include; from WWF that the dophin population is in severe danger of pollution, which was immediately rebuked by the government; the eviction of HIV-positive residents in Borei Keila to a site outside the city unfit for human habitation; more Preah Vihear rhetoric from the Thai PM now that he's back in Bangkok; the murder of a news reporter and his neice in the army-infested area at the base of Preah Vihear; and finally, more than 100 people have died already this year from lightning strikes.
Also in today's Phnom Penh Post is a Sports Brief by yours truly.
O'Donell shares vision
Cambodian national football coach Scott O'Donell called together head coaches of Cambodian Premier league (CPL) clubs Monday at the National Sports Centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh with the aim of seeking their cooperation and support for his plans to improve the country's standing in world football. Cambodia are currently placed 179th in the FIFA rankings, sandwiched between Samoa and Seychelles. The meeting was deemed a success by the Australian-born coach, with nine out of the ten CPL clubs represented. O'Donell views the buy-in from the CPL coaches as an important step on the road to improvement, especially with the upcoming SEA Games in Laos in December. The national coach has now run the rule over each of the CPL teams in order to identify the pool of talented Khmer players at his disposal for the national team. With the SEA Games age limit set at 23, O'Donell feels that the U23 squad will form the nucleus of the Cambodia team for the forseeable future. Link: PPP.

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Freedom in Kampot

I recently mentioned that the film The Road to Freedom is being shot in Cambodia at the moment and the film's publicity team have generously invited me to attend their shooting schedule in Kampot next week. I'm snowed under at work so won't be able to make it, but I appreciate the gesture. The film, made under the direction of Brendan Moriarty (pictured), is based on real events that took place in the early 1970s as the Khmer Rouge began their domination over the Cambodian countryside. Whilst the towns and cities remained under Lon Nol control until 1975, much of the rural landscape was under KR rule long before then. In the movie, the fictional characters of Sean and Dana are drawn from the stories of many photojournalists who went missing in the early 70s, while the fictional character of Francais is a composite of French photojournalists of the time period. Brendan Moriarty has already spent eleven years living in Cambodia, including living in Kampot and has previously worked on films like City of Ghosts, Middle Men, Man Eater, Lioness and more. He's obtained first-hand accounts from many survivors of Khmer Rouge prison camps, and has built a set to re-enact one of those experiences. More info on the film as I get it though you can keep up to date yourself at their website, blog and on Facebook.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

It's a secret

I've been busy obtaining dvd's of films and documentaries that haven't seen the light of day in Cambodia before, to show at Meta House over the last couple of months. For no other reason that I wanted to see them myself and to give others the chance to view them too. Its been pretty successful and Nico at Meta has been his usual generous self in providing space in his screening programme for them. The feedback I got from showing The Tenth Dancer, The Red Sense, Out of the Poison Tree and other films has made the effort well worth it. On Monday 29th of this month, we'll host another screening at 7pm but for the time being the title of the film is under wraps. It recently created quite a stir in the international press when it had its first showing in Europe and I hope that its screening in Cambodia will have the same effect. Space on the night will be limited, so drop me a line if you want to reserve a seat. Sorry for the cloak and dagger stuff but it's safer to keep it under wraps until the last minute. Intrigued... good.


Dance explained

Sam Sathya in the classical dance Pamina Devi (pic Getty Images)
Last night's screening of Pamina Devi at Meta House was a great insight into classical Khmer dance. Not only for the 90 minute film of the performance of the Cambodian version of Mozart's Magic Flute but for the in-depth descriptions offered by the dance drama's choreographer Sophiline Cham Shapiro, before and after the showing. To understand the nuances and gestures of classical dance, you need someone like Sophiline to explain it. Even Khmers who know the historical stories behind the dances as they learnt them at school in most cases, don't know what all the hand movements mean. But Sophiline, who trained as a dancer for nearly a decade before moving to the US, and who has now returned to bring new and old dances to life with her touring company Khmer Arts Ensemble, is one of the most knowledgeable masters of classical dance and is able to express herself well to a western audience. It was enlightening to hear her discuss Pamina Devi in detail, explaining that her original idea of making the cast mostly male, almost the complete reverse of normal dance dramas, was opposed by the Ministry of Culture and she had to revert instead to an all female cast. It was great to see Sam Sathya, looking as regal as ever, in her role as Sayon Reachny - she is rightly regarded as the leading dancer of her generation and she oozes class in every move she makes. The idea of making classical dance much more accessible and opening a window into this cultural art form that was once the sole realm of the Khmer god-kings is a welcome development by Sophiline and her team at Khmer Arts. More of the same please. There has been a dearth of classical dance performances in the first six months of this year and I find it disappointing that the dancers at the university of fine arts are not given regular opportunities to display their talents in the public arena. They have a large body of classical work to select from and yet no regular performances are staged at venues like the Chaktomuk Theatre. Rant over.

In my google wanderings, I found a 1997 interview with Sam Sathya, which I have posted extracts from below:
Sam Sathya is 28 years old, she's a ballet dancer at the Royal Academy of Cambodia and she interprets dances of Rama and Princess Sita in the epic of Rama for a monthly salary of 20 US dollars. She was born in Phnom Penh, is 1.58 metres in height and 48 kg in weight. She has no special diet. She has been married for two years. "When I was little, I saw Madam Voan Savay interpret the role of Apsara at the National Theater. I knew I would be a dancer." She entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1981, obtained a masters degree in dance in 1989 and joined the ballet. "The situation is not good for all Cambodians. Living conditions are harsh. Efforts to raise the level by learning technologies that are not ours as much as possible. We must also maintain our directory and refine it. We cannot be distracted by the political context, the tensions of the outside, otherwise we stop. Technically, I control my role. The question is how to interpret, making it grow from the inherited form. Until the end of my career, I will work on the combination of technology, which gives the exterior form, and interpretation, which comes from within, ie. the combination of body and heart. To interpret Sita, it should be technical, but I also need to dance with fidelity." As a little girl it was her task to light the lamps that would illuminate the performance area of the troupes that danced and sang of the glory of the Khmer Rouge revolution. Since those early days she has toured throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America, and today teaches at the National School of Fine Arts.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The death of Angkor

A re-enactment of the canal building process for the film Secrets of Angkor (Image courtesy Anna Pfluger/Spiegel TV media)
In a story that pops up on the international newswires every month it seems, National Geographic have gone to town on the 'Angkor fell due to water shortages and climate change' theme in the July edition of the Nat Geo Magazine. Read the full story, Divining Angkor, by Richard Stone here. At the same time, the Nat Geo tv channel is showing the documentary Secrets of Angkor. This was shot in 2008 with the help of Hanuman Films, who were selected as the local production company for the National Geographic and ZDF (German television) drama-documentary on the history of Angkor. This was the story of the incredible hydraulic system of Angkor and how it ultimately contributed to both the rise and the fall of this great civilization. Several actors flew in from Germany for the drama scenes, which included the recreation of an Angkor-era market and the opening of an ancient canal, complete with dozens of labourers in ancient costume. Locations included many of the leading temples at Angkor such as Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Beng Mealea, Kbal Spean and Phnom Kulen.

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Road to Freedom

'Camera, lights, quiet on the set please. Action.' You may be hearing this somewhere near you just about now as the film, The Road to Freedom, is currently being shot in Cambodia. Where exactly, I don't know. What's it about? Well its the fictionalized story of Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, two photojournalists who were covering the American conflict in SEAsia and who disappeared one day in 1970, captured by the Khmer Rouge. Filming is due to finish at the end of next month with an anticipated release date of January next year. Playing the lead roles are Joshua Fredric Smith (pictured right) as Flynn and Scott Maguire as Stone. The movie-makers in their PR blurb tell us a prison camp has been built and members of the Cambodian Army are playing themselves. Not sure that is something to shout about. Film director Brendan Moriarty is calling the shots so to speak, for a film that was originally known as 12:02. Not sure how this ties in with another proposed Flynn & Stone story being developed by veteran photographer and Flynn expert, Tim Page. We shall see. And there's another Flynn biopic in the works too based on the book, Two of the Missing. Follow The Road to Freedom's progress at their website.
A Tim Page portrait of Sean Fynn from the Meta House exhibition earlier this year

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Into the fields

The young monks at Wat Khtom. Eh Da is the smallest, on the far left.
The author next to a ruined doorway at Prasat Lbeuk Smaoch
Normally when I go in search of an ancient Khmer temple site amongst the dried rice fields in the middle of nowhere, I'm usually either on foot or bobbing around on the back of a moto. I've never bounced around the fields in a 4WD before, so that was a new experience during my recent visit to the northern reaches of Cambodia. We were making our way from Anlong Veng to Banteay Chhmar and I noticed on a map, the presence of a potentially large ruin, Prasat Lbeuk Smaoch, about ten kilometres north of Samraong. So we called into the village of Khtom and spoke to the head monk at the village pagoda. He pointed us off into the distance and said it was about three kilometres from the main road and into the fields. One of the young monks, Eh Da, said he knew the way, so he jumped in our 4WD and we were off. Navigating our way across the dried fields was like an assault course for our vehicle, there was no path for much of the way and after ten minutes of being tossed around in the rear of the 4WD, Eh Da announced that we'd arrived. Apart from a clump of trees and thick bushes there was nothing to see. Undeterred, he led us through a break in the undergrowth and into the belly of the temple, a laterite and sandstone ruin, impossible to make out its design though we did locate some false doors with pretty carving, as well as the odd naga head and colonette. The thick spiny undergrowth made it very hard to find our way through the badly ruined site and even standing on top of a ruined doorway made it no easier to identify the outline of the prasat, though I could see the presence of a dried-up moat circling our location. Eh Da led us out again, telling us that he was sixteen years old and had become a monk three months earlier when his grandmother died. He also said he enjoyed it and planned to carry on when his initial period expired. He had also been told a story about the temple by his grandmother and it involved a King, Damrei Sar, who got so angry when he lost his son that he ripped the temple apart with his bare hands. Eh Da himself believed a more modern theory that temple robbers had destroyed the prasat in the last few years. We thanked him, gave him some money for the pagoda fund and carried onto Samraong, for a refreshment stop at a restaurant run by Annie and her sisters from Pursat. By 5.30pm we'd reached Banteay Chhmar.
A strangler fig tree takes root on the ruined temple wall
This false sandstone door is buried nearly to the top in earth and rocks
A part of the floral design of a broken lintel at Prasat Lbeuk Smaoch
The temple's main construction is with laterite blocks and sandstone doorways
A carving of naga heads buried in the earth floor of the temple
The dry moat surrounding the ruined prasat
Annie and the author at our Samraong refreshment stop

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All change

A very quiet start to the week as far as I'm concerned - though my skin problem is already returning as I reduce the volume of my medication - though lots going on for some of my friends. Vy, who lives and works in Sihanoukville, is off to see friends and former work colleagues in France at the start of next week for three weeks. It's taken a while to get her visa processed, even though she's been abroad before when she went to India as a representative of Cambodia's youth a few years ago. It'll be a great experience for her I'm sure. Last night she went out with Sophoin, to celebrate the latter's birthday at a disco in S'ville - they both have hangovers this morning they tell me. As for Sophoin, she has recently got involved with an NGO to provide schooling and help for young girls in Phnom Penh as part of her tie-in with the Soroptimist group in Australia that provide the funds for her own university studies. On the domestic front, Sokheng (pictured right), who has been a godsend to me since I moved here to live a couple of years ago, helping me with a myriad of things and generally making my life easier, is getting engaged on the 28th of this month and will have a party in Kien Svay. It's a bit of a surprise and as I'm having lunch with her today, I will find out more. Sokheng works with Wildlife Conservation here in the city. In Kompong Thom, my best pal Sokhom is moving house. He's lived in a small wooden shack on the side of National Highway 6 for many years and after a court battle with a neighbour claiming his land, he and his family will move to a new house next to his in-laws, just around the corner. At Angkor, Now (pictured left) has recently changed her location for selling souvenirs. For a long while she's been selling from her pitch amongst the gaggle of stalls that line the walkway on the north side next to the pond at the front of Angkor Wat. However, as she doesn't work for herself, she has to go where the need is, and as a result she has switched to a much quieter pitch at the eastern entrance of Banteay Kdei. On the plus side it's not far from her home. In the next week or so she will leave her stall for a few days to help her family with rice planting, which she says is back-breaking work in the scorching heat of the day, but is also a good time for the family to work together and enjoy each other's company. And in Cambodia that is very important.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Caught on camera

This is the moment before each game when the competing teams line up for a team photo - I'm the one in the middle with the stylish shorts. Nick Sells
Here are some photos from Saturday's action at the Olympic Stadium. My thanks to photographer Nick Sells who is the resident snapper at the Cambodia Premier League games played at the stadium every weekend. His pictures regularly appear in the Phnom Penh Post newspaper as well as the popular Pocket Guides. Link; Nick Sells
A titanic tussle between Preah Khan Reach's Saidu and Naga's Sunday Patrick Okonkwo (11) Nick Sells
The Naga players are sent away by the referee as he discusses a disputed goal in Saturday's match. The protests worked as the goal was given. Nick Sells

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Inspired by Sokumpheak

Kouch Sokumpheak is on red-hot form just now for Khemara Keila
Last week it was a hat-trick of goals, this weekend it was a hat-trick of assists, and a goal for Khemara Keila's wonder striker Kouch Sokumpheak, without doubt the hottest property of Cambodian origin in the Cambodia Premier League right now. He was on fire again today as Khemara piled on the pressure and they'd netted five goals at half-time against a hapless Spark FC. It was a much less frantic affair after the interval and Spark pulled a goal back to make the final score 5-2. They had in fact opened the scoring through the league's joint top scorer Justine Prince after 3 minutes. Sokumpheak, who is the other joint top scorer in the CPL, was the pivotal figure around which Khemara dominated the first 45 minutes, working in tandem with his Nigerian forward partner Ali Anthony to run the Spark defense ragged. Anthony bagged a couple of goals, Bunvicheth and Olatunde got the others and they could even afford defender Chan Dara getting sent off late on. I checked with national coach Scott O'Donell that Sokumpheak is still eligible for the under-23 team that will play in the SEA Games and we reckon he is - what a relief!
Sokumpheak (back row, far right) is the proud captain of the Khemara Keila team
2 goals for Khemara Keila's Nigerian striker Alichigozie Anthony
By comparison, the first game on Sunday afternoon - Build Bright v Ministry of National Defense - was of a far more sedate pace and the goalless scoreline is a perfect reflection of a match without any serious goalmouth action to get excited about. The only note I made during the game was the last-minute sending off of Defense Ministry's defender Pheak Rady. For the record, the Defense Ministry were without the injured Khim Borey whilst goalkeeper Samreth Seiha came on a few seconds before half-time for the injured Sou Yaty. I can't fathom the team selections of the Defense's coach, so I won't even begin to try.
Samreth Seiha, Cambodia's No 1 was on the Defense Ministry bench at the start of today's game - no wonder he's not looking best pleased
Build Bright in white and Defense Ministry take to the pitch in front of an empty stadium - I think they knew what the next 90 mins was going to bring

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Sophoin's day

Myself and birthday girl Sophoin (in pink) with Nadia and Shekhar
I'm just home from a birthday party and I didn't realise until I got there that it was for my best friend Sophoin. She mentioned a party at her sister's house without telling me it was for her. Silly girl, it meant I didn't take her a present so a cash gift had to suffice. It was a typical house party, lots of food, lots of drinking, lots of karaoke singing, lots more drinking and so on. It finished at 10pm, which is quite late by Khmer standards and the ride home by tuk tuk, with a very tipsy driver was a bit hair-raising. Her birthday is actually tomorrow, I will act the gentleman and not reveal her age, but she goes to the provinces once a month to sell her medical products and she's leaving for Sihanoukville first thing tomorrow. I love to see her enjoying herself as she works so hard most of the time leaving precious moments for fun and frivolity, so tonight was a lovely occasion for her, surrounded by family and friends.
One of my favourites, Sophoin's niece Thary, whose English is getting better every time I see her
Sophoin, surrounded by friends and family


Scott seeks help

Cambodia's national football coach, Scott O'Donell
On Monday morning the new Cambodian national football coach Scott O'Donell will gather together the head coaches from all ten of the Cambodia Premier League teams at the National Sports Center outside the capital to lay before them his vision of how the country's national team can improve under him and with their support. He views the buy-in from the CPL's coaches as an important necessity to ensure the release of players selected, notification of injuries, availability for squad training sessions, the whole gamut of situations where the national coach will need their co-operation. It's a sensible and necessary development as Scott begins the build-up to the next tournament, the SEA Games in Laos in December. He can be found sitting in the stands at each of the CPL games, running his expert eye over all of the available Cambodian talent in each of the ten CPL teams. And no doubt his conversations with the head coaches will identify the players he already has in mind, and elicit their suggestions of a few more. The naming of his backroom coaching team is imminent and work is also going on to secure friendly matches and practice games ahead of the SEA tournament at the end of the year.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Way too hot for football

Meas Channa's inswinging goal direct from a corner gave Naga a share of the points
Preah Khan Reach remain top of the CPL pile, despite a 2-2 draw with Naga
Points were shared as Cambodia Premier League leaders Preah Khan Reach drew 2-2 with 3rd-placed Naga Corp, though both teams felt aggrieved with two second-half goals. Olisa Emeka Onyemerea netted twice for PKR, his second was a tap-in on the line, looking offside to everyone in the Olympic Stadium except the linesman. For Naga, Om Thavrak scored with a bullet header to make it 1-1 at the interval, and on 70 minutes, Meas Channa's corner went straight in to make it all square. Initially the linesman waved his flag but after being surrounded and hounded by Naga players, changed his mind and put his flag down. Honours even. In the second game of a scorching afternoon, Kirivong looked unimpressive in beating bottom club Phuchung Neak, who made a good fist of it. In fact Pov Samnang gave them the lead only for Kirivong's Juliuos Chukwumeka to score both sides of the interval to give his side a 2-1 success. My peanut fantasy seller was there again, but I'm under doctor's orders to resist nuts. It's like holding a glass of cold water in front of a man dying of thirst.
Naga Corp shaded the 1st half but had to settle for a 2-2 draw against Preah Khan Reach
Kirivong's 2-goal hero Juliuos Chukwumeka
Spare a thought for bottom club Phuchung Neak, with just 1 point from 7 games
Two of the younger spectators - I think she's being friendly!


I'm a real twit

Well actually I've been called far worse but it seems to be all the rage this week - next week it'll be something else - but before I get accused of being left way back in the Stone Age again, I've gone and done it, I've signed up to Twitter. Not that I imagine anyone will be interested, but you can catch me here. I'm also on MySpace and Facebook - isn't everyone?
On my recent visit to Siem Reap I was told that the newest 5-star hotel in town, The Sothea, was closing down, just a matter of months after opening. It was a false rumour. The hotel's GM, Sarah Moya (right), came to see me yesterday to make sure we knew that it was false and whilst the hotel, like everyone else in the tourism industry over here right now, is finding it hard to get customers through the door, the hotel is alive and well and busy making new plans to attract more clientele. Sarah and her team have worked damn hard to get The Sothea's name out into the marketplace and this kind of vicious and false rumour reflects badly on us in the industry, as it had to start somewhere. One hotel that is closing for the forseeable future though is Le Relais de Chhlong, the already-restored colonial villa along the banks of the Mekong River at Chhlong, south of Kratie. They tell me that its for renovations but a year seems a heck of a long time to close your doors and lose business. But hey, I'm not a hotelier so what do I know.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Welcome back

Photographers get a glimpse of three of the returning sandstone heads. Pic: Reuters/Chor Sokunthea
The Thai prime minister was in town today and he came loaded with goodies. Ancient Khmer goodies, in the form of six large sandstone heads which were stolen from temples in Cambodia and have at last been returned to their rightful home. The heads were handed over at the Foreign Ministry today, a seventh was returned during a recent Asean meeting. The Thais have 43 items in total which have been identified as being of Khmer origin but Cambodia has to prove it before they get them back - which isn't as easy as it sounds. Thailand will keep them until they are convinced, in triplicate, probably in blood too, that Cambodia can provide indisputable provenance for the mainly stone pieces. The treasures were seized by the Thai authorities in 1999 and are from the 12th century. Examples of these demon and god heads can be found at the South Gate to Angkor Thom where most of the heads in residence today are copies.


Feeling the Pulse

Our man on the bass, Amlak Tafari
I'm missing seeing Steel Pulse play live, especially as they were gigging in London recently and will be back in the UK at the Glastonbury Festival on 26 June. Their concerts in the UK are pretty few and far between these days. Grrrrrrr... Live music of that quality is one of the pleasures that I really miss here in Cambodia but we all have to make sacrifices. Steel Pulse then have shows in Italy and France before heading back out for a tour over the other side of the world in the Caribbean and USA. Here's some photos from a gig they did at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas on 9 May. Pictures © 2009 944 Media. www.944.com
The Steel Pulse set list for the Las Vegas gig
All lined up and ready for the off - Steel Pulse's guitars


Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Building at Bophana

A picture taken of the Cambodian Living Arts performers that live or rehearse in The White Building, lots are still there today but others have been moved on
As no invite to the Promesses party was forthcoming - though the traffic jammed my road from 6.30pm onwards as the ladies in cocktail dresses began to arrive - I went for a shave and shampoo after work and then hopped on a moto to Bophana for The Building photographic exhibition. It was packed solid with more expats that I thought were in the city and a horde of Khmers too. Why do I never get crowds like this when I put something on? Which reminds me, Monday 29th June at Meta House, a film you really do not want to miss. I can't tell you the title just yet but it's been all over the newswires in recent weeks when it had its world premiere in Europe. More on that later. The Building - an urban story of Cambodia exhibition was okay, nothing to shout too loudly about but at least through a combination of photos and information displays boards I found out more than I knew before. So that's a good sign. There's a few film screenings linked to the exhibition, which is on Street 200, and the two short documentaries on 20 June catch the eye as they will depict the lives of the Cambodian Living Arts performers who are residents. A week later on 27 June, Rithy Panh's film Paper Cannot Wrap Embers will be screened. It was filmed at The Building. The exhibition is on until 4 July, get along if you can.
An exhibition information board at Bophana explaining the White Building that was originally apartment blocks

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Lingerie arrival

The inside of Promesses - not that I've been in there as yet!
Tonight, an exclusive event is being held opposite my apartment on 282 Street. 101 female guests are invited to the official opening of the Promesses Lingerie Boutique, the first of its kind in Cambodia offering regular and exclusive new lingerie collections from Europe and beyond. It's not cheap with prices starting at $50 per item so the clientele won't be from the garment factories for sure. Anyway, how the hell can I get an invite - surely they want to keep on the good side of their neighbours?


Seiha back in the groove

Samreth Seiha (in black) in action yesterday against his national teammate Sun Sovannarith (18): Pic courtesy of Nick Sells
Although his team lost 3-nil to Naga in yesterday afternoon's midweek Cambodia Premier League fixture at the Olympic Stadium, I was relieved to see goalkeeper Samreth Seiha back between the posts for the National Defense Ministry team. Seiha (right) is a brilliant young goalkeeper, brave, agile, a great shop stopper, in my opinion the best I've seen in the whole of the CPL and his absence from the league campaign until yesterday has been a scandal. We need the country's best players playing regularly to give the new national coach Scott O'Donell the chance to select his best under-23 team for the SEA Games later this year, as that team will form the basis of the national team going forwards. And Seiha is the best. He's still only 19 years old, has been a national team regular for a while now and O'Donell rates him as highly as I do. I hope the stupidity that saw him sidelined for the first few games this season is now forgotten and he, and his fellow Defense Ministry striker Khim Borey, can be left to get on with doing what they do best, stopping and scoring goals. I wrote about Seiha during last year's Suzuki Cup games and here's my article. I would still love him to get some top-notch professional coaching under his belt, and my choice would be in the UK. It would be immensely valuable to him and the national team if he could spend a whole pre-season with a top club in the Premiership, and if I had the cash I'd send him there. I want us to think outside the box about how we can raise the standard of the national football team and if that means seeking a sponsor from the rich land-owning classes here, then so be it. I'm not proud.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009


One of the photos from the NGO Daughters exhibition at Meta House
I watched the feature film Holly for the first time tonight at Meta House. I wasn't blown away by it I must admit, it was pretty lame stuff focusing on the trafficking of a young girl through Svay Pak, the former notorious K-11 area outside of Phnom Penh. It wasn't a film that I would particularly recommend or watch again, aside from spotting Dang Kosal as a young garbage-collector who later spits in the face of the lead man. Kosal more recently played one of the tough guys in the musical Where Elephants Weep and used to work at Meta House. Nice guy. As for the film, it didn't really punch as hard as I was expecting and was pretty predictable and cliched. I hear on the grapevine that it cost an absolute mint to make and from a personal point of view, disappointed me to the level that City of Ghosts did. I don't need to keep seeing the seedier side of this country portrayed on the big screen, but if I do, it needs to grab me by the lapels and make me take notice. Holly didn't. As a precursor to Holly, Nico from Meta House screened his own work-in-progress Sold Out! documentary about trafficking. Whilst at Meta House I had a look at the Daughters photographic exhibition, where former victims of trafficking have turned their lives around and display their artistic talents in the Mezzanine Room. Tomorrow is the start of The Building exhibition at Bophana which will include photos and film screenings over the next few weeks. Well worth checking out by the look of it.
Members of one of the NGOs that help trafficked women have an exhibition of photos at Meta House right now

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Making me smile again

The author with the children of Prasat Ta Prohm at Banteay Chhmar
So to cheer myself up, here's some photos of the gorgeous children I met on a recent trip to Banteay Chhmar in northwest Cambodia. This is a great temple site, which is currently undergoing renovation. Outside of the magnificent main temple, there are at least nine satellite temples and it was at one of these that I encountered these kids. Prasat Ta Prohm is effectively in the middle of Banteay Chhmar village and its water-filled moat is used by the locals. The four-faced temple is on an island and on all previous visits was almost completely shrouded in tree cover and undergrowth. However on my latest visit a couple of months ago, most of the trees had disappeared and the temple is now exposed. A shame in my view but once we arrived, we were quickly surrounded by this group of young children, eager to joke around with the big-nosed barangs - I was with my brother Tim - and the oldest girl Srey Mak spoke pretty good English. They weren't in the least bit shy and we eventually had to tear ourselves away from them as we had to get back to Phnom Penh the same day. Children everywhere in Cambodia make me smile and those at Ta Prohm were no exception to that rule.
Srey Mak, gorgeous smile and a thirst for English
Two more of the children we encountered at Prasat Ta Prohm
These girls were pretty shy compared to the younger kids in the temple itselfOne final face from Prasat Ta Prohm at Banteay Chhmar


End of the road

I rarely feel down, it's not in my normal make-up but today I'm not in the best of moods. The skin irritation (discoid dermatitis) that I've been suffering on and off with over the last nine months has been going through a bad patch again and a visit to my dermatologist here in Phnom Penh had him scratching his head with what to do next. His answer was that I should return to England for treatment, as I've exhausted his knowledge and that British doctors will have a better chance of finding a remedy. I'm not convinced that's my only option but the fact that I can't get to the bottom of the problem is extremely frustrating. I'm on a short course of steroids again this week to clear the inflammations on my arms and legs - it isn't as bad as when I had to make an emergency trip to Singapore - but steroids are the 'clear it quick' option and I know it will slowly creep back again once I finish them. So I need to find a better solution, especially as I want to remain in Cambodia indefinitely, though living here is clearly not working for my skin at the moment. It's a pity we don't have skin shops where you can trade in your old skin and get a new, more up to date and reliable version. Snakes have the right idea. Answers on a postcard please.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In the middle of nowhere

A face has been dug out of this termite mound at Prasat Trapeang Prasat
The three towers of Prasat Trapeang Prasat in shade
Prasat Trapeang Prasat is a few kilometres from the town of the same name, Trapeang Prasat, in Oddar Meanchey province. Its a pretty neat ruin, three brick towers opening to the east in fairly reasonable condition, considering it's been located in landmine and Khmer Rouge territory for all of the last 35 years. Today access to the temple is safe but it's in an area devoid of other temple sites, the nearest one of any notoriety is Preah Vihear, where we had just come from, and about 30kms from our next destination, Anlong Veng. Trapeang Prasat is pretty much in the middle of nowhere though the improvement in the roads will soon make it a pass-through as the tourists flock from Siem Reap and on through Anlong Veng, and Trapeang Prasat, on their way to Preah Vihear. It's going to happen and pretty soon, once the troops end their stalemate on the mountaintop. We were going in the opposite direction, and stopped for a chicken and rice breakfast at a cafe near the town's main traffic circle, which turned out to be a replica prasat. We tracked down the actual temple, which is near a pagoda and surrounded by a laterite wall. There were a few carvings scattered around but everything of value had been taken away, probably by Ta Mok, who had a habit of collecting Angkorean sculpture. Nearby, and just past the dry pond, was a laterite ruin but completely covered in vegetation and impossible to get close to. It was already a hot morning as we climbed back into our 4WD for our next stop, Anlong Veng.
Modern-day graffiti on the doorway to one of the towers
A slab of sandstone, again with modern-day carving
The doorway entrance to the central tower
A kala lintel in the undergrowth
Slabs of sandstone lie on the ground including this defaced linga
A nicely decorated doorway column at Prasat Trapeang Prasat
The west face of the central tower with its false door
The three towers looking from the east
The three towers looking from the west
The main traffic circle in Trapeang Prasat is a replica prasat
Here's our breakfast stop in Trapeang Prasat
The main street in Trapeang Prasat, dusty and muddy

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Be quick before it's gone

The Building before the recent eviction of the Dey Krahom residents
This Thursday, 11 June, an exhibition will open at the Bophana Center on Street 200 in Phnom Penh. If you live here or visit regularly, you'll be fully aware that the city is changing rapidly. What you see today will change and will become history tomorrow. The Building - An urban story of Cambodia is a photographic exploration of Phnom Penh’s past, present and future through the juxtaposition of different photographic perspectives – historical, family album, participatory and professional – all of which focus on the Municipal Apartments near the Bassac river front. Get along and see the exhibition before it disappears forever.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Colonial heritage

A step back in time to the French colonial period in one of La Villa's bedrooms
Battambang's French colonial heritage is being spruced up and packaged for enjoyment by tourists visiting this laid-back city. As we drove through on our way back to Phnom Penh, we called in at a few hotels to have a gander and I also noticed a few of the riverside colonial buildings undergoing renovation. A great example of this is La Villa, Battambang's plushest boutique hotel, if you enjoy stepping back in time to enjoy the colonial splendour. Whilst the room rates aren't cheap, the accommodation is inspired by the French domination of Indochina and tiled floors, four-poster beds, wall maps and art deco accessories add up to an interesting 7-room accommodation, to which they've added a pool in recent months. We also popped into Ma Maison, the latest addition to the range of places to stay, but the owners of the 2-roomed restored colonial villa were out and a bee's nest on the front porch deterred me from investigating any further. The Rotanak resort looked as though it was in the process of changing hands, whilst the Stung Sangke hotel was pretty good value with a pool and 200 rooms.
The new pool at La Villa
The colonial restaurant at La Villa has a glass-topped roof
The recently restored colonial villa at Ma Maison, complete with bees
A colonial villa in disrepair, ripe for investment and restoration in Battambang

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Sopheap Ly's story

I mentioned the publication of a new book recently, called No Dream Beyond My Reach by Sopheap Ly. Here's an article about the doctor-cum-author from the University of California's website.

From Child Laborer to American Doctor - by Ioana Patringenaru @UCSD : UCSD physician strives to realize her dreams after a childhood in Cambodia’s Killing Fields

When she was just 5 five years old, Dr. Sopheap Ly was snatched, along with her family, from her home and taken to the Cambodian countryside, where she was forced to work as a child slave laborer. There she endured the loss of her father and her grandparents, and many other hardships. But fast-forward three decades: Ly has become a successful physician at UCSD and the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System and the mother of twin girls. She has now written a book about her experiences and her struggles to succeed, titled “No Dream Beyond My Reach.” She said she wanted to share her message of hope and inspire others. The book also is a tribute to her father, whom she describes as her role model. “My father told me every day that he loved me more than he could say,” Ly said. Ly’s father often said he hoped she would work in the medical field. The drive to realize that dream is what kept her going through all the trials she faced, she said. She also said she believes his legacy passed on to her through his genes, which gave her a strong constitution and the ability to withstand hardship. Ly’s father was a professor in Cambodia and always put an emphasis on education. The family’s life was full of visits with other family members and shopping trips. Ly remembers that her father was very affectionate with her. He always advised her to study and strive to reach her dreams, she writes.

Ly's happy childhood came to an end late one night in 1975, when she was five. Khmer Rouge soldiers forced her, her parents, her younger sister and her aunt to leave their home at gunpoint. They were herded onto a train that was headed to the countryside, its passengers stuck together like matchsticks. To this day, Ly said she can still hear the cries of hungry babies and scared children on that ride, which lasted one day and one night. “I was very scared,” she recalled. Her destination was Cambodia’s rice fields, where Ly said she entered the world of slave labor. She was made to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, while her parents worked 18 hours a day. The family lived in a crude hut made of coconut and bamboo. Every few months, the monsoon’s torrential rains would wash away their shelter and they would have to rebuild. Hunger also was a constant companion. The family received one meal a day, made of watery rice and rotten vegetables. They learned to trap and roast rats to get some protein in their diet. “As I lay on my bamboo bed late at night, I wondered why this awful nightmare was happening to me, to our family, to everyone I loved and cared about,” Ly writes in her book.

Losing loved ones

Her grandparents didn’t survive. They chose not to eat rats in accordance to their Buddhist faith, Ly said. After a while, they couldn’t stand up, couldn’t talk and couldn’t recognize their grandchildren. Looking back, Ly said her grandparents looked much like some of the patients she saw in hospitals’ intensive-care units. Their skin had shrunk and their eyes were sunken. One day, she came home to see her mother and aunt burying her grandparents in a shallow grave, because they didn’t have the strength to dig a deeper one. “My sister and I sat on the broken steps of our bamboo bed feeling helpless, confused and lost in our sadness,” she wrote in her book. She and her sister usually waited for their mother and father to come home. One day, their father didn’t return. They waited for him for several days—to no avail. The family later learned that Ly’s father had been beheaded. As a professor, he was an intellectual and the Khmer Rouge considered him an enemy to their regime. Ly was just 7 years old. “When I realized that I would never see him again, I cried for days,” she wrote. “All I had were memories of his love and his words.” From then on, Ly sustained herself through every challenge by remembering her father’s words: “Never give up on your dream,” he would say. “It is never beyond your reach.”

Life after the war

After four years in the killing fields, Ly and what remained of her family were finally allowed to leave, when Vietnamese troops defeated the Khmer Rouge. But their home and their livelihoods were gone. They lived in poverty. Ly, now 9, worked at a swap meet. She was able to go to school. But her relatives feared for their country’s stability and decided to leave Cambodia for Thailand. They hired a smuggler to take them to a Thai refugee camp. The walk through a lush, tropical rain forest made Ly’s heart ache. “I was really sad,” she said. “I really missed my country.” The group was soon stopped by soldiers, but they were let go. Over the next four years, between 1983 and 1987, Ly and her family lived in three different refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, sometimes in conditions that brought back to mind her time in Cambodia’s rice fields.

Coming to America

Finally, at age 16, she was able to come to the United States. Ly remembers being shocked by the sight of homeless men and women living on the streets. “I learned right away that in America I would have to work very hard to achieve my dreams, lest I too fall in a slump and find myself living curbside,” she wrote. Over the next two decades, Ly would juggle jobs and studies, working her way through high school, college, medical school and finally her residency. Every time money was short or she was tired, or both, Ly remembered her father’s encouraging words and soldiered on. “Every time I encountered hardship, I remembered I wanted my dad’s dream to come true,” she said. When she finally walked onto the stage at Howard University to collect her medical school diploma and shake the dean’s hand, she remembers thinking her father was watching her from above. She now jokes she hopes he didn’t get a bill in heaven for all her student loans.

Building a family and a career

Last year, Ly became an assistant professor of medicine at UCSD and a physician in San Diego’s VA system. She works with war veterans suffering from PTSD. “I’ve always loved education all my life,” she said. “This job is very important to me.” Ly credits support from her friends for her success. At Howard University’s College of Medicine, she met Dr. Aretha Makia, a fellow medical student and a former Miss Cameroon. The two struck a fast friendship that endures to this day. Ly says she considers Makia her best friend on the East Coast. On the West Coast, her best friend is Dr. Grace Lee, a dentist, who lost her mother as a teenager. Makia gave birth to two sons while in medical school; Lee gave birth to a son and a daughter while studying at UCLA’s School of Dentistry—and Ly said she admires both women for it. Ly herself became the mother of twin girls last year. As a parent, she said she hopes to be as good to her children as her father was to her. She has written a rhyme to summarize her hopes and dreams for her girls: "I have a dream for my twins to see bigger than their own vision, a much bigger horizon, set a higher bar and reach the stars,” it goes.

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Off to see the birds

When you see this silk-weaving statue, turn right and head for Phnom Srok
A last minute decision to return to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap via Battambang gave my work colleague Nick and myself an opportunity to take a diversion to see the bird sanctuary at Ang Trapeang Thmor. I must quickly mention National Highway No 6 by the way, which is now fully renovated and in fantastic condition. It's smooth tarmac all the way from Siem Reap to Sisophon and this will cut down travelling time immeasurably. Try it now and if you put your foot down it can take 1 hr 45 minutes to get to Battambang I'm told. Anyway, we took a right turn off Route 6 after 70-odd kms - look out for the woman and her silk-spinning wheel - and bumped along a dirt road for another 20 kms before arriving at Phnom Srok. We'd already seen a field full of very large long-necked storks en route, though the Khmer Silk Villages project we paused at in the village, seemingly has now come to an end and their silk-weaving center was closed. However, that hasn't stopped silk-weaving in the villages, we saw many looms under wooden houses - the area is famous for its golden silk. About 8kms out of the village we found the laterite bridge of Spean Dach and then soon after arrived at Ang Trapeang Thmor. Its effectively a massive reservoir created by forced labour during the Khmer Rouge period. And this water resource and the surrounding wetlands attracts hundreds of different types of birds, many of them endangered especially the red-headed Sarus Crane, who sadly were residing in Vietnam during our visit. Nevertheless, we got to see a variety of birds including large pelicans floating on the water but as the bird reserve office was closed, we had to rely on a local farmer for our information. The southeast corner of the lake also acts as a resort for locals where boats, rubber-rings and food are available. We took a different route through numerous villages back to Route 6, rejoining it at Preah Net Preah and stopped in Sisophon for some lunch. If you are planning on seeing the birds at Ang Trapeang Thmor, take binoculars and a bird guide with you to ensure you make the most of your time there. The improvement in Route 6 now makes this protected area much more accessible for a day visit.
A view of National Highway No 6 - now in fantastic condition between Siem Reap and Sisophon
A billboard advising you of the delights to be found at Ang Trapeang Thmor
The deserted headquarters of Khmer Silk Villages in Phnom Srok
A boat waiting to take you out on the lake at Ang Trapeang Thmor
The lake at Ang Trapeang Thmor, created by forced labour, now home to endangered birds
A view of the wetlands, behind the lake, allowing farmers to grow at least two harvests of rice each year

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Spean Dach

The half naga at the eastern end of Spean Dach
Just a hop, skip and a jump from the bird reserve of Ang Trapeang Thmor, lies the remains of an Angkorean bridge called Spean Dach, located along the ancient laterite highway that used to link Angkor to the Khmer temple sites in Thailand, as it passed through the Phnom Srok district. Nowadays, you have to keep your eyes peeled as you travel along the bumpy dirt road, which passes directly over the bridge. The laterite blocks protruding from the undergrowth give the game away, as does the small Neak Ta shrine to the side of the road. Spean Dach is one of a handful of ancient bridges built along this highway in Banteay Meanchey province. It measures 89 metres long, is nine metres wide and must've had more than 20 arches in its heyday. Only a couple are visible today as the road and earthen embankment has hidden much of the bridge from view. A quick restoration project would return to bridge to its former glories, though the sandstone naga balustrade that usually sits on top of the laterite blocks is missing from this example, and is replaced by laterite. It may've been that sandstone was in short supply in the area. Indeed the eastern end of the bridge has its naga rearing up and in the undergrowth lies the top half with naga heads. A nice find and the CISARK map shows a few other bridges and temples in the vicinity, though we were pressed for time and were unable to go searching.
The half naga looks like the body of a giant, minus the head
This is the top half of the naga with small heads carved into the laterite stone
The eastern end of Spean Dach and the roadside Neak TaOne of the few arches visible amidst the undergrowth
Laterite blocks form the bridge and the balustrade at Spean Dach
The roadside Neak Ta at Spean Dach

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sokumpheak on fire

Kouch Sokumpheak, deadly as usual, this time with a hat-trick
Preah Khan Reach kept their noses in front at the top of the Cambodia Premier League with a 2-1 victory over previously unbeaten Spark FC. An early goal from Saidu was cancelled out by Spark's top scorer Justine Prince a minute later. In a tight affair, sub Tum Saray netted the winner for PKR, who did just enough to maintain top spot. In the opening game on Sunday, Khemara Keila's national team striker Kouch Sokumpheak took the honours with a second half hat-trick, his first a penalty to cancel out Post Tel's first half lead through Chamroeun. KK teammate Olatunde tapped in a fourth as Khemara ran out easy 4-1 winners in the end. In the crowd today, new national coach Scott O'Donell, who has decided on his backroom team and will announce them shortly, is currently running the rule over each CPL team to identify the cream of Cambodia's under-23 talent, ready for the SEA Games in Laos in December. Also in the crowd was my favourite peanut seller, who today carried one of the widest trays on her head that I've seen at the footy stadium. I must find out her name.
The Khemara team who ran out easy 4-1 winners over Post Tel
Tum Saray's goal earned Preah Khan Reach another win, 2-1 over Spark
The Preah Khan Reach team who stay at the top of the CPL with 15 points
This is my favourite peanut seller at Olympic, who turned to selling fruit in the second match
The peanuts have gone, here comes the fruit: have stool, will carry

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Pursat - out of service

The main platform at Pursat railway station, looking north towards Battambang
Ticket office and waiting room at Pursat railway station - all locked up
On the way back to Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon, I paid my second visit to Pursat railway station, and a step-back in time. The only thing that was missing were the trains. The station and surrounding buildings are in pretty much the same condition as when they were being used regularly in bygone times. A few wooden norries - the wooden platforms that are placed on wheels and used by the locals in place of a regular train service - were sitting forlornly in the shade and the whole area rang to the sound of children who'd just finished school for the day. The station itself is closed and not in use. The one train that comes from the capital each week chugs through Pursat at a snail's pace. I was hoping that two railway engines that were housed at Pursat a few years ago were still in the engine sheds, but alas they have disappeared. The sheds themselves are in poor condition. Nearby were two swan-necked water pumps, used to fill the water tanks on the engines, seemingly bought from Germany many moons ago. I'm told that the families who live along the side of the tracks will be relocated once the grand plans to restore the railway to its past glories take shape, as part of an Asian rail system that will stretch from China to Singapore. Big plans, big costs and some way off into the distance. The yellowing buildings surrounding the barred ticket windows would've included a waiting room and accommodation for the station master and railway employees in the past. Today some buildings are padlocked shut whilst others house families who will be part of that relocation proposal. The real heyday of the Cambodian railways was in the 1930s and then again under the reign of Sihanouk in the 1950s and '60s before it fell into disrepair. I've always had a soft spot for railways, having been a train-spotter in my youth back in England, and my nostalgic visit to Pursat was a half-hour well spent.
Looking south towards the engine sheds and Phnom Penh
A swan-necked water pump from Germany in front of the engine sheds
The engine sheds sadly devoid of any railway engines
The second water pump acts as a seating area for those watching a volleyball game
A smaller engine repair shed next to the main station buildings
The barred ticket windows remain closed
A passenger-less railway platform at Pursat
The sign above this shuttered window reads '2eme Section Exploitation'
The former home of the Pursat railway station master


Saturday, June 6, 2009

En route birding

Today was a 'making my way back home' day, from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh via Battambang. It included a diversion via Ang Trapeang Thmor, a bird reserve based around a massive reservoir created by forced Khmer Rouge labour. It is home to the extremely rare, red-headed sarus crane, which remained rare and elusive to me today too. However, it's not the season (which is Jan-Apr) to see them and they are mostly likely residing in Vietnam, the 2nd of only two places on the globe that they live. I also found an ancient Angkorean bridge nearby, we popped into Sisophon, did a few hotel inspections in Battambang and a railway station stop in Pursat. More on the trip later.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Chhmar in focus

The unsafe Hall of Dancers at Banteay Chhmar, which I re-visited a couple of months ago
Restoration efforts are well underway at Banteay Chhmar
The New York Times via reporter Robert Turnbull has recently taken a look at Banteay Chhmar, one of my favourite temples, which I last visited a couple of months ago and will post more of my pictures soon.

Coaxing a Khmer Temple from the Jungle's Embrace - by Robert Turnbull (New York Times)
To reach the temple of Banteay Chhmar from the Cambodian town of Sisophon in the dry season involves a two-hour drive through parched forests coated with brown dust. The temple is breathtaking. Bas-reliefs depict naval battles between ancient Khmers and their Cham rivals in remarkable detail. Giant sandstone faces loom over thick vegetation strewn with collapsed lintels and broken naga heads. Visitors to Angkor Wat will have seen something like this. But the glory of Banteay Chhmar is its raw, unadulterated state. Sitting 100 kilometers, or about 60 miles, northwest of Siem Reap, this is Cambodia’s “forgotten” temple. You will probably find yourself alone, able to rekindle the experience of colonial French explorers as they first stumbled upon Khmer antiquity. But the same isolation was not lost on those who vandalized Banteay Chhmar in the late 1990s. The Cambodian military not only mined the complex but made off with large sections of bas-relief destined for private homes in Bangkok and beyond. Local guides like Seng Samnang remembers the oxcarts loaded with artifacts being wheeled out of the temple. “There was nothing we could do,” he said. “If we had challenged these men we would have been killed.” About 115 pieces, a truckload, have been recovered and they are sitting in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Of the rest — there is allegedly much more — reports of Buddha heads appearing in Thai generals’ gardens have done little to ease longstanding tensions over Thai claims to Cambodia’s patrimony, an issue that resurfaced last year, and remains unresolved, at the northern temple of Preah Vihear.
Banteay Chhmar is returning to the spotlight, but now the news is good. In 2008 the Culture Ministry handed control of the temple to Global Heritage Fund, an organization in California that tries to safeguard the world’s most endangered sites. Established in 2002, the fund has a budget of $6 million and 44 employees to rehabilitate the temple, the eventual aim being its inclusion on Unesco’s World Heritage List. John Sanday is leading the project. He is a British architect who first set foot in Cambodia in 1992 to work on the 12th-century Preah Khan, a temple famous for its outer wall of garudas, the mythic birds of Hindu legend. To help attract financing, the savvy Mr. Sanday, a former employee of the World Monument Fund, managed to persuade a number of private individuals to “adopt” a garuda for $30,000. Like Preah Khan, Banteay Chhmar was built as a monastic complex by Jayavarman VII, the king who converted Cambodia to Buddhism. But the paucity of surviving inscriptions make it unclear exactly when and why. Writing in 1949, the historian Lawrence Palmer Briggs claimed the temple “rivaled Angkor Wat in size and magnificence.” It has four enclosures surrounded by a moat, a vast artificial lake, or baray, and could sustain a population of at least 100,000. Romantic it may be, but much of Banteay Chhmar today consists of piles of lichen-stained rubble. Of 400 meters (1,300 feet) of bas-relief wall, only 25 percent still stands. Faced with collapsed or collapsing structure, Mr. Sanday and his team must decide what should be rebuilt or merely stabilized. Whether to replace the missing stones with newly quarried or recycled stone is another question.

A simple paradox lies at the heart of the restoration process: The less you notice, the better the job. Mr. Sanday sees overzealous rebuilding as compromising of a monument’s natural history, and much of its beauty. On the other hand, donors to projects such as these usually want to see tangible results, if not the revelation of some architectural marvel. Mr. Sanday’s solution is to opt for a “presentation” of key areas of the temple, which in the future can serve as a model. Visitors will enter — as did the ancients — past the eastern gopura, along a causeway largely destroyed by 600 hundreds years of monsoons. Once that is rebuilt, they will advance toward the southeastern gallery of bas-reliefs and access the temple’s central areas along suspended wooden boards. Under Predrag Gavrilovich, a Macedonian architect and colleague of Mr. Sanday’s, the fund is working on the southeastern gallery. Mr. Gavrilovich was responsible for rebuilding Preah Khan’s beautiful Dharamsala and Hall of Dancers almost entirely from scratch. His achievement was to completely disguise that fact by presenting something that seems utterly natural in its decay.

Can he do the same with Banteay Chhmar? His team has already reassembled the gallery’s square pillars and corbel vaulting. But the foundations need reinforcing before those parts can be lifted to their original position. “The building was not well constructed,” Mr. Gavrilovich said. “Maybe it was built in a hurry.” For the “face towers,” Mr. Gavrilovich will have the benefit of new software developed by Hans Georg Bock at Heidelberg University in Germany. By scanning all the rubble and carefully analyzing each stone, it is possible to create a 3-D database for a virtual reconstruction of the entire monument. The temple is only one part of Mr. Sanday’s project. His greater challenge is to turn a heavily mined former war zone with “finite” water supplies and massive scars on the landscape into a fertile and “zoned” area for responsible development as well as tourism. So water has to come from somewhere. The reservoir the ancient Khmers built just north of the temple is heavily silted. Damming by villagers of the temple’s ornamental moat has resulted in flooding and wastage at monsoon time. With no evidence of an underground water table or any deep interventions, Mr. Sanday has invited James Goodman, a hydrologist in Geneva to research and map the course of the old waterways. Mr. Goodman has been looking both at images taken by the colonial École Française d’Extrême-Orient in 1945 and aerial photos used by the United States during the Indochinese war. The idea would be to rationalize water supplies and to create a well-drilling program.

For the project to work requires the support of the 12,000 or so villagers who might wonder what’s in it for them. Community Based Tourism, a French-inspired organization, aims at rewarding local people with 100 percent of tourist revenue. In 2007 and 2008, 512 visitors showed up. For $7 a night they were offered a tour, a room in a house with hot water and several hours of electricity. Mr. Sanday is determined to prevent the kind of commercial pressures on temple sites that has dogged Angkor over many years. He said he thinks the authorities are behind him. “The ministry has set out clear zoning rules which dictate the position and size of new building and plans to create a new road that bypasses the temple,” he said. The Culture Ministry’s heritage police will soon take charge of security. Only then might the return of the original bas-reliefs be possible under an agreement between the culture minister, the Global Heritage Fund and Unesco. That agency’s Teruo Jinnai, for one, welcomed the idea, provided “the security situation meets international requirements.” It should happen. The return of these priceless bas-reliefs would demonstrate a new spirit of cooperation among those concerned with safeguarding Cambodian heritage. It could also send a clear message to those of ill intent to keep their hands off Banteay Chhmar.


Soksophea in action

Last Saturday at the Olympic Stadium, thousands of music fans turned up to see the cream of Cambodia's singing talent take to the stage in an anti-corruption rally. I was already at the stadium and had to weave my way through the crowd to leave after watching football, not realising that my favourite female artist, Meas Soksophea was performing that night. Damn. However, photographer Nick Sells has sent me a photo of the young lady in action at the concert. Her What You Don't Know song remains my favourite tune over here - until the next one. The rally itself has caused a bit of a stir as the American Ambassador made some comments about corruption which has upset some people here. I'm just gutted I didn't get to see Meas Soksophea in the flesh so to speak. Link: Nick Sells.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tied up

The attendees at the Hanuman tour guide session in Siem Reap today
I arrived in Siem Reap last night, under cover of darkness and rain. Looked in on my pal Eric de Vries at his 4Faces gallery, which I can assure you is well worth a visit. Today I am spending the whole day with our top 15 Hanuman tour guides on a training day, so will be out of the blog loop until tomorrow.
Actually I'm still in the blog loop...we enjoyed a very successful day with fifteen of our top Siem Reap tour guides and two from Phnom Penh. The whole day was spent discussing and debating various facets of tour guiding, getting their buy-in and input on a range of topics and tonight, in about an hour we will go out and cement the bond with a social evening together at a local restaurant. Tomorrow I have some training to complete with our office team here in Siem Reap and then I should have some free-time in the afternoon to meet some friends. I don't get to Siem Reap all that often, so there's a queue of people I need to catch up with.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Heading for Siem Reap

I'm off to Siem Reap for the next three days/nights for work purposes and may not have the time to update my blog as usual. I'll try but can't promise. Looking forward to catching up with a few friends, to see Eric's 4Faces gallery for the first time and to pop into Angkor if I have time. Then I'll be back for football on Saturday and maybe a trip into the countryside on Sunday - I've missed my Sunday moto-rides into the beautiful rural landscape of the countryside and interacting with villagers who seldom see barang in their neck of the woods. It brings back in floods what I love about this country.

I've identified a few 'don't miss' events in Meta House's programme this month. This coming Friday will see the start of their Environmental Film Weekend with three nights of films looking at the struggles of wildlife, water and forests in Cambodia. Wednesday 10th has trafficking as its focus with the film Holly being shown. Sunday 14th has an unusual twist with Joel Montague presenting his postcards and posters from a bygone era in Khmer Ephemera. Wednesday 17th is a 'must see' with the Khmer Arts Ensemble recorded live in New York dancing the Magic Flute. Two days later on Friday 19th Cambodian Living Arts present two films, Gongs Across Borders and The Flute Player. On Wednesday 24th Nana Yuriko's Cambodia For Sale 1-hour documentary looks at forced evictions. Last but not least, Monday 29th will see the screening of a suprise film. I will let you know more details nearer the time but I urge you to get along anyway, even if you don't know what you'll be watching!


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

From the new Coach

Scott O'Donell, the new Cambodia football coach

So you hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak, here is my full interview with Scott O'Donell, the new Cambodia national football team coach. The interview took place on Sunday. His comments form the majority of this interview.

The Cambodian Football Federation (FFC) have turned to a man they already know well to elevate the national football team to new heights. Australian Scott O’Donell took over as the full time national coach yesterday, some seventeen months after relinquishing the same role. The homecoming of O’Donell is timely, he quit his job as Director of Coach Education for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in February and rejoined his family who were already living in Phnom Penh. “From Monday I am full time as the Cambodia national team coach and I have a 1 year contract. I’ve kept in touch with the Cambodian Football Federation whilst I was at the AFC and I have a lot of time and respect for the FFC President Sao Sokha. He called me up a couple of weeks ago and over dinner he asked me to become the full time coach again. It was good timing for me as I’d just moved back to live in Cambodia and I am ready for the challenge. There’s no formal targets set but we want to see an improvement on past performances. To get out of the group stages in the SEA Games will be real progress though it’s not going to be easy when we compare ourselves against neighbouring countries. Everyone must be realistic with their expectations. I want the players to have a belief in themselves and have a commitment to the national team,” said the former no-nonsense defender who played his football in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore before taking his first coaching role in charge of Singapore club side Geylang United in 2003.

O’Donell’s first spell in charge of the Cambodian national team began in July 2005. “I had 2 and a half years as the Cambodia coach, which was frustrating at times especially when two weeks before, and after six months of training, my team were pulled from the SEA Games in November 2005 and replaced by the Prince Ranarridh’s club side. But I really enjoyed my time here, I had a good bunch of lads, they were willing to learn and I enjoyed working with the players. It was very rewarding watching the players improve and to see that the young players I introduced go onto become regular fixtures in the national team. After the SEA Games incident I was re-designated as Technical Director but once things were sorted out I was reinstated as national coach until I left in December 2007,” he recalled. Since then he has worked as the Director of Coach Education for the AFC. “It was a great opportunity to travel and to make good contacts at conferences and meetings as well as being involved with coach development throughout the region, but I got tired of coming back every two or three weeks to see my family and I resigned,” he confided. The AFC’s loss will hopefully turn out to be Cambodia’s gain.

“My focus this year will be the SEA Games in Laos in December. It is up to me when I get the team together. I need to identify the players who are eligible for the SEA Games, which is at under-23 level, and then formulate a plan to work towards the games. Hopefully I can get a squad of 25 players, or more, depending on budgets. I will get them together a couple of times a week while the league season is still going and maybe play a couple of friendly matches before the season ends. Then we will get together full time. I will speak to some contacts I have about the possibility of arranging friendlies, but again budgets will be a factor. I will have a number 2, a number 3, a goalkeeping coach and I already have them in mind.” he said. O’Donell has kept in touch with developments in Cambodia since his initial spell in charge. “Since I was here before, I would come back every 2nd or 3rd week to see my family and if I had time I would watch some of the matches. Now I’m back I’ve already seen a few players I’m interested in but I need to know who is eligible for the under-23 team. One of the positive things I have seen is the league is a lot stronger now. I don’t see 20-0 victories anymore, it’s all very evenly contested and that’s only good for the league. This season has already thrown up a lot of upsets and that’s good to see too. I would love to see Cambodian coaches improving their skills and we can do that through the AFC, which I know the Federation here is keen to do. That will be a positive step forwards. More qualified coaches will improve the quality of Cambodia’s players.”

In looking to the future, O’Donell is optimistic. “I am a firm believer if players are good enough, they are old enough to play for the national team. I don’t care who they are, names or reputations, I will pick the best available players for my team. I see the way forward will be to make the under-23 team the nucleus of the Cambodian national team. I have full control over player selections and coach selections, I will have full say and that’s how it should be. If there are Khmer players overseas in France, Australia or America who are eligible and they are good enough, I will be happy to select them if they are better than the players we have here.” On his management style, O’Donell was quite clear. “I believe in discipline, both on and off the pitch, taking training seriously and a strong work ethic. Its no secret that a weakness with Cambodian players is that they haven’t been able to match the physical strength of Indonesia and Thailand in the past. It will be up to me to get them physically prepared to play as well as focusing on the tactical side as well. We have some great technical players here but they haven’t been coached enough – most of the countries we face have had qualified coaching from a young age, whilst our players have effectively taught themselves. The Cambodian public can expect my eleven players will go out and give 100% for their country and for each other.”

O’Donell’s presence on cable television as a football analyst will continue. “I have a contract with ESPN Star Sports and I’m also a FIFA instructor and will be conducting courses for FIFA in Kuala Lumpur in June and the Cayman Islands in July, which I will make sure doesn’t interfere with my national team duties.” As for his connections to Cambodia, they are already very strong. “I first came to Cambodia in 1998 to adopt our first child. I’ve lived here since I was appointed coach in the middle of 2005, and though I was away for 14 months in Malaysia, my family, wife Margaret and adopted daughters Emma and Ellie, have always remained here. It’s our home.”

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Spare a thought

Spare a thought for former Cambodian national football team coack Prak Sovannara as the spotlight now shifts to the country's new Australian coach Scott O'Donell, who began work yesterday. Softly-spoken Sovannara took over the national team in July of last year and is Cambodia's best home-grown coach by a country mile. Though his record in a dozen international matches under his control of three wins, 1 draw and eight defeats, goals for 14, goals against 37, doesn't look too rosy, he was building for the future with a very young team and included in that record was successful qualification for the finals of the Suzuki Cup. For the first quarter of this year he was working without a contract and it was pretty clear to me that the Federation were actively looking for a coach with overseas experience, which they have now got. As for Sovannara, he has been coaching the Premier League leaders Preah Khan Reach this season and has also received offers to go and coach in Europe. Such a move would be invaluable experience for him and one that would augur well for a return to coach the national team sometime in the future. He is afterall only 37 years old, he's been coaching full-time for the last decade and experience outside Cambodia would be great for his coaching CV. Added to which he is a real gentleman, went out of his way to co-operate with the press at all times and remains committed to helping Cambodian football in any way he can.

Prak Sovannara took over as Cambodia's national coach in July 2008 after a string of poor performances under the former South Korean coach and the forecast looked bleak when a three week stint of practice matches in South Korea, produced losses in six of eight games to university and domestic teams. Not easily deterred, Sovannara, who played for the national team in the 1990s and who has coached domestic side Phnom Penh Empire and the national youth team, also cast aside crushing friendly defeats, 7-1 to Myanmar and 7-0 to Indonesia, to put some fire into the belly of his players for the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifying tournament held in Phnom Penh last October. With wins over Laos (3-2) and Brunei (2-1), a draw with Timor Leste (2-2) and a loss to Philippines (2-3), his youthful Cambodian team, with an average age of 22, qualified as runners-up for the finals. This was a real success for the fans and players alike to rejoice in, exemplified by the whole squad running to throw their shirts into the 15,000 crowd at the end of the qualifiers. In the December finals Cambodia came unstuck against Singapore (0-5) and Indonesia (0-4) and narrowly lost to Laos 3-2 but could hold their heads high in competing at the senior level of Asean football. In April, he took his young squad to Bangladesh for the AFC Challenge Cup group stage and narrowly failed to qualify, beating Macau 2-1 but losing to Bangladesh and Myanmar, by a 1-nil scoreline on both occasions. He was looking to build the squad ahead of the SEA Games in Laos in December until he was told that his place was to be taken by Scott O'Donell at the weekend.

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View from the edge

The glorious view from the southeast outside corner of the central sanctuary
Preah Vihear has the most spectacular location of any of the Angkorean temples. Perched on the edge of the Dangrek mountains, it commands fantastic views across northern Cambodia and on a good clear day you can see all the way to Phnom Kulen. My first ever visit to Preah Vihear saw the temple covered in low-flying cloud and fog, which can occasionally happen, though the sunset and sunrise from this location is simply majestic and well worth the effort alone. As you leave the blind southern gopura and walk to the cliff-edge, there is a lower-level viewing point with barbed-wire protecting you from falling, though the rock-ledge above is not roped off and you can literally sit on the edge dangling your feet into northern Cambodia. Not for the faint-hearted. The families of a couple of soldiers stationed at Preah Vihear joined us as we sat on the edge enjoying the view and practised their English as we tried our hand at Khmer. It was a light-hearted end to our wander through this magnificent temple and one which I will never tire of visiting.
A false door in the southern gopura with lintel and pediment in situ
Tim takes his chance on the narrow ledge at the southeast corner with a sheer drop below him
The southwest corner of the blind southern gopura
The worn Vishvakarma lintel and pediment above the southwest corner doorway
A look at the village of Kor Muy from the cliff-edge; the village will soon be relocated 20kms away
The view from the cliff-edge is spectacular
A look across the northern plains of Cambodia into the hazy distance
I close my look at Preah Vihear with a death-defying balancing act on the cliff-edge; don't let your children copy this, especially wearing that hat!


PPP on O'Donell's return to Cambodia

My interview with the new Cambodia football coach Scott O'Donell in today's Phnom Penh Post
Note: The interview in the Phnom Penh Post can be read here.

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Monday, June 1, 2009

At the center

Above the main doorway to the central sanctuary is a pediment showing Shiva dancing on the head of an elephant
We've now reached Gopura I and the central sanctuary of Preah Vihear which is a slight anti-climax in my view. The sanctuary itself is partially collapsed though a place for worship is still attended by laymen, and surrounding it are two covered galleries with inward-facing windows, looking like the cloisters of an abbey. The southern end of the central sanctuary is false and is closed off and access to the cliff-edge is by doubling-back on yourself. To the southeast the corner of the temple is literally inches from the edge of the mountain and caution is required if you navigate that area. We are now at the end of our journey through the Preah Vihear temple, we have climbed up through the successive levels, stretching some 800 metres, and the last part of the walk is outside the central sanctuary and up to the cliff-edge and the sheer drop to the Cambodian plains below. This replication of entering Mount Meru is a journey I would recommend everyone completes at least once in their lifetime.
A false door to the central shrine with a large kala lintel
A re-assembled pediment with a large dancing lion
Vishvakarma and his mace on both the lintel and pediment
A doorway with lintel and part pediment behind the central sanctuary
Another lintel and pediment with Vishvakarma in the hot seat
Close-up detail of Vishvakarma holding his mace and sitting on the head of a munching kala
The main doorway to the central sanctuary shrine of Preah Vihear
A look at some of the rubble from the partially collapsed sanctuary
The cloister-style gallery surrounding the central sanctuary shrine at Preah Vihear


Preah Vihear continued

Looking back at the causeway and the southern entrance of Gopura III
Let me take you back to Preah Vihear, which I visited a couple of months ago with my brother Tim, where we popped into the temple on a day when 100 heavily-armed Thai troops tried to cross the border and we found ourselves as the only tourists at the site, accompanied by hundreds of Cambodian soldiers. In our wander through the temple, we have now reached Gopura II via a small causeway with just ten pairs of boundary posts, of which only a few survive. Gopura II contains a courtyard and two libraries, facing inwards. In the courtyard were a few re-assembled pediments and lintels which were on display in honour of a visiting UNESCO delegation later that same week. Gopura I is attached to the back of Gopura II without a causeway, that separates all of the other gopuras.
A boundary post between Gopura's III and II
Lions guard the steps leading to the northern entrance of Gopura II
The main entrance doorway to Gopura II with lintel intact
One of the two libraries inside the courtyard of Gopura II
A re-assembled Vishvakarma pediment in the courtyard
A four-armed Vishnu with three apsaras flying above
One of the re-assembled pediments reminds me of the courtyard at Phnom Chisor
A section of carving showing a series of animals in the lower register
A row of worshippers and a kala lintel with dancing figures below on display in the courtyard


Press jottings

My review of the weekend's CPL games in today's Phnom Penh Post
Note: To read the article in the Phnom Penh Post, click here.

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