Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Enduring symbol

The facade of the main Post Office at Place de la Poste
Whilst I'm talking about the Post Office area, how about some photos of the Post Office itself. Built in at the very end of the 19th century I believe under the supervision of Daniel Fabre, on some old postcards its shown as the Hotel des Postes though I haven't been able to find out if it was a hotel before becoming a Post Office or vice versa. I'm hoping the Heritage Mission can help me on that one. Over the years its been renovated, wings added and much of the original building altered though it's still a great example of colonial architecture in the former administrative center of the city and an enduring symbol. And you can still use it to send your postcards. I get some items sent to me via my company's PO Box number which comes via the post office though I reckon about half of my incoming post goes missing. The area in front of the post office would be a great place for a pedestrian zone and I'm kicking off a campaign to beautify the capital with its first real 'no cars' zone.
The post office seen from the 1st floor of the old Manolis Hotel
The post office in all its glory, including its wings which were added after its original construction
From the top floor of the old Manolis Hotel, a birds-eye view of the post office
The post office clock and facade
The post office has been renovated on a few occasions, the last time in 2004


Future pedestrian zone?

The former Central Police Station, now fallen into sad neglect
Tonight was the presentation of 150 Years of Urban Architecture at the French Cultural Centre and I stupidly thought it might be in English. How wrong was I. It was in Khmer and French, so I had to make do with the photos and maps on the big screen to get the gist of the hour-plus slideshow and talk. That'll teach me for thinking the CCF might've at last got the message that English is the second language of choice these days. The folks from The Heritage Mission, who took me on an architecture tour of the old French quarter a couple of weekends ago, were the presenters. Which reminds me, I still have many photos to post from that tour. So let's start now with a few views of the Central Police Station, which sits alongside the Post Office but these days, it's empty and surrounded by a green corrugated fence and large trees. I recall on my first few visits to Phnom Penh that the station was still functioning, or so it seemed. Today it appears to be waiting for the wrecking crew though it would be nice if the building itself could be saved and utilized. In fact how about making the whole Post Office area a pedestrian only zone and put some real effort into renovating the collection of old colonial buildings that line both sides of the street. It works in many other cities around the world, why can't it work here. Anyway, back to the police station. I'm told it was constructed in its colonial-art deco style in 1925 though an older building stood in its place beforehand. It has three levels and a terrace running alongside its roof. The current owner doesn't like visitors these days, so we had to view it from afar, well the top of the old Manolis Hotel across the street to be precise.
The door is open to the old station house but no one is at home
A ground floor view of the old police station on Streets 13 and 98, next to the post office
A side view of the old police station
The Heritage Mission presentation warned against the loss of colonial architecture like this building that has since disappeared from Norodom Boulevard in the past year


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Football shorts

The existing National Football Centre (above) will be replaced by new facilities in Takeo province
I did warn you that there would be a few football-related posts over the last few days. And there will be a couple more before they eventually dry up and we can revert to normal, everyday stuff like cultural events, architecture pictures, temples of course and anything else that takes my fancy.
  • I was interested to see that the weekend's football got the thumbs up from the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who reportedly said: "I watched the final between Naga Corp and Khemara Keila on TV. They played well. They showed their great performance. U-23 lost 6-nil to Singapore, but nothing to blame. Most players especially 4 from Naga and Khemara played already 120 minutes just one day before this friendly match." This man has his finger on the pulse. On Sunday evening he then banned an advert for condoms that appeared on tv when he was watching the kick-boxing. Forget matters of state, its wall-to-wall sport for our PM.
  • The Cambodian Premier league will fall into line next season, with a name change. In line with the V-League in Vietnam and the S-League in Singapore, the country's professional league will hence be known as the C-League under the new sponsorship agreement with MetFone.
  • Work has already started on the new National Football Centre on 15 hectares of land sandwiched between Phnom Tamao Zoo and Tonle Bati in Takeo province. The old football headquarters outside Phnom Penh is too small and often flooded, whilst the new HQ will boast four pitches - one for competition, three for training - dormitories and ample car parking space, at a cost of $1.2 million.

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International press talk

Today's Phnom Penh Post carries my report on the international football friendly between Cambodia and Singapore, played on Sunday. It's online here.


Positively speaking

Wide right midfielder Prak Mony Udom was 17 less than 2 months ago
Let's take a look at some of the positives from the Cambodian Under-23 squad that faced Singapore on Sunday and who were on the wrong end of a 6-nil drubbing. It was their first game together after just six training sessions as a 25-man squad, which was selected by national coach Scott O'Donell after trials a couple of months ago. He's already indicated that this team will form the backbone of the full national team in the future, as he regards this squad as the cream of the homegrown talent in the Cambodian Premier League. The age limit is 23, as that same limit will apply in the SEA Games in December, and the squad has four baby-faced players aged just 17, namely Peng Bunchhay, Prak Mony Udom - he was 17 in August and is the squad's youngest player - Oum Kumpheak and Keo Sokngorn, the Cambodian U-19 captain. All four appeared for the U-19 team in recent internationals, alongwith Lorn Sotheara. Four of the squad are 18 years old - Lorn Sotheara, Nov Soseila, Sok Rithy and Nhuon Chansothea, and four are 19 years old - Samreth Seiha, Lay Raksmey, Chhim Sambo and Phuong Narong. The twenty year olds number three in total, Khim Borey, Sou Yaty and Pheak Rady, whilst 21 is the age of the captain for the Singapore game, Sun Sovannarith and Khuon Laboravy. Four players are aged 22 - Kuoch Sokumpheak, Chan Chhaya, Chhun Sothearath and Peng Pancharong. The older members of the squad, at 23, are Tieng Tiny, San Narith, Keo Kosal and the squad's oldest player, Chan Dara. The five squad players who didn't get to see action against Singapore were Peng Bunchhay, Peng Pancharong, Chhim Sambo and the two injured players, Khim Borey and San Narith.
Defender Chan Dara is the oldest player in the Cambodia U23 squad at 23
17 of the players were involved with their club sides in the Super 4 championships the day before, and only 2 players stayed on the field for 90 minutes aginst Singapore, Sun Sovannarith and Tieng Tiny. It's a very young squad with lots of room for the players to grow into international football with the right coaching and support, which has been sadly lacking until recently. The players will be disappointed with the Singapore result but put into perspective, they were up against a well-drilled team, many of whom play for the Young Lions nursery club side, and who've had a series of friendly games in their long lead-in preparation time to the SEA Games. This was Cambodia's first game and they have a way to go to match their opponents, but that's exactly why matches against good calibre teams will identify areas of required improvement well ahead of the tournament.
Left back Sun Sovannarith started the Singapore game as captain and played throughout the match


Monday, September 28, 2009

Press talk

Today's Phnom Penh Post carries my match reports from the Cambodian Premier League Super 4 deciders on Saturday. Read them online here.

A closet Naga fan?

Naga celebrate reaching the CPL Super 4 final and I'm merely trying to get a good photo. Rumours that moments before I was sitting on the bench are untrue.
There is a nasty rumour circulating that I am not the neutral media person I pretend to be and that I am in fact a dyed-in-the-wool Naga Corp man, who was seen jumping for joy when both of their goals went in on Saturday. I refute that allegation. Yes I did stand up and for some unknown reasons my arms were raised but it was more out of relief that the deadlock had been broken, than for any bias towards one or other team. There are also some photos in the public domain that add weight to the suggestion that I favour Naga Corp. I've posted them here for your perusal but to suggest that I spend part of my time on said bench is a matter of pure coincidence. I will however concede that Naga skipper Om Thavrak is my favourite player in the CPL for his blood and guts performances and desire to win at all costs. My kinda player.
Okay, so I'm sitting on the bench but it was momentary whilst I congratulate Naga skipper Om Thavrak on another blood and guts performance by the CPL's hardman

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Seconds out...

A look at the ring and last night's boxing match at Olympic Stadium
Last night I joined a healthy crowd in the Olympic Stadium indoor arena for the first of the new TV3 televised boxing promotions. Sophoin had a couple of free tickets so we thought we'd pop along and suss out the action. We had a seat high in the stalls with a good view of proceedings though it was breezeless and humid and the wooden benches uncomfortable to sit on for too long - next time I'll take a cushion. As for the action below, it was a combination of kick-boxing and regular boxing on the bill, together with a couple of appearances in the ring of two of the country's favourite pop stars, Meas Soksophea and Khemarak Sereymun, though singing not fighting! The first three matches were kick-boxing fights, two of which pitched Khmer fighters against foreigners. There was no match really as the Khmers were much better in their ring-craft and dominated from start to finish. One of the fighters was Nuon Soriya, one of the crowd favourites though Sophoin has a different take on it. It was Soriya who crashed his moto into hers over a year ago and escaped quickly, leaving a paltry sum of money to cover the damage, which it didn't and left Sophoin off work for a month. He won his fight easily but we didn't clap out of principle. The main bout was a real boxing match between Vy Savuth and Filipino Pol Apolinario, which Savuth won with style. Did I enjoy it? Some air-con would've helped keep me awake but I've never been a boxing fan and this didn't convert me either. One person who did stay awake was the PM Hun Sen, who banned an advert by the OK condom sponsors after seeing it between rounds.
Meas Soksophea entered the ring a couple of times to sing two songs. She really does have a lovely voice. More Soksophea, less boxing please!

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A last look at the U23s

The Cambodian U23 starting line-up for the Singapore friendly. LtoR (back row): Sovannarith, Tiny, Yaty, Narong, Rady, Rithy. (front row): Kumpheak, Sokngorn, Soseila, Sokumpheak, Sothearath.
Sun Sovannarith (blue) captains the national team against Singapore (red). The referee was Thong Chankethya.
The Cambodian bench with with substitutes and coaches before the game begins
A view from the main grandstand as the game unfolds
The respective national managers after the game, Scott O'Donell (left) and Raddy Avramovic
Goalkeeper Sou Yaty made his Cambodian international debut from the start
The Singapore squad celebrate their 6-0 success


The build-up

A downpour greeted the teams arrival on the pitch before the national anthems and presentation to the VIP guests
The friendly international at the Olympic Stadium yesterday was the first real test for the new Cambodian Under-23 squad and they now know the standard they must achieve to be able to challenge teams like Singapore and the better teams in the Asian region, especially with the SEA Games coming up in a couple of months. But they always knew it was a tough game to open with, and so it proved. Singapore were clinical in disposing of Cambodia, once their heads dropped after a bright opening 35 minutes. Lots of valuable lessons to be learnt from such games and lots of areas to work on in their training camp in Vietnam next month. Here are some photos from the build up to yesterday's match.
The rest of the Cambodian U23 starting line-up enter the playing arena
Sun Sovannarith leads out the Cambodian U23 team against Singapore
Some of the Cambodia substitutes take their place on the bench
Ngoun Chansothea leads out the Cambodian U23 substitutes
The Cambodian team warm up before their opening game
Singapore's experienced national team manager Raddy Avramovic, in charge since 2003


Encouraging drubbing

The Cambodia U23 starting line-up on Sunday
Let's kick off with the Cambodia U23 result against Singapore Sunday afternoon. 6-0 looks bad and yes the second half was poor but there were encouraging signs as well as extenuating circumstances. For much of the 1st half Cambodia more than held their own and looked the team most likely until Singapore scored on 35 minutes and never looked back. Give international teams too much space and they will punish you. The Cambodian youngsters will learn this the hard way and once Singapore got their noses in front they made sure they coasted to victory. Two goals down at half-time was unfair, with skipper for the day Sun Sovannarith just failing to stop Khairul Nizam from tapping in the opener and then a lack of concentration at a quickly-taken free-kick allowed Gabriel Quak acres of space to score. After the break, the flow of the game was ruined with 16 substitutions but it didn't deter Singapore with Fadhil Noh getting a hat-trick in sixteen minutes and Fairoz Hasan netting a late sixth. It was a disappointing result for all concerned, especially the big crowd who'd hoped for a better showing by the home side.
It was Scott O'Donell's first game in charge of his second spell as national coach. He was understandably unhappy but also realistic. "We didn't deserve the half-time scoreline, but we certainly deserved to lose by six in the 2nd half. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, but we stopped doing in the second half what we did so well in the first. Its very early days, but we've got to show more character and I've told the players that the game is 90 minutes long not 35. I take responsibility for the result, I pick the team. Though we lost badly, its beneficial to play teams like Singapore as it shows how far we have to go. I hate losing and so do the players. They're all disappointed back there in the dressing room. But we'll get better," he said immediately after the game. Over half of the Cambodian squad played in Saturday's Super 4 play-off finals and with few training sessions together the result shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Meanwhile, Singapore's squad contained a dozen players from Young Lions, the club side in the S-League who act as a nursery team for the national squad.
O'Donell sprung a mini-surpise by putting Sou Yaty in goal from the start though the rest of his line-up was pretty predictable. Nov Soseila caused Singapore a few problems on the right and Sok Rithy and Tieng Tiny looked comfortable on the ball for much of the 1st half. Kuoch Sokumpheak had a couple of half chances but Cambodia did look toothless in front of goal and that area will need working on. The 25-man squad now travel to Vietnam for nearly a month to hone their team work and play some games against V-League opposition.
The Cambodian U23 team against Singapore (with subs in brackets):
Yaty (Seiha), Rady (Raksmey), Sovannarith, Tiny, Rithy (Dara), Narong (Kosal), Sothearath (Sotheara), Kumpheak (Laboravy), Soseila (Mony Udom), Sokngorn (Chansothea), Sokumpheak (Chhaya).

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Just through the door

I'm just back through the door after spending most of the day at the Olympic Stadium. First there was the friendly international between Cambodia Under-23 and their counterparts from Singapore. Eagerly anticipated, it all unraveled in spectacular fashion as Singapore netted six times without reply and you could literally see the steam coming out of coach Scott O'Donell's ears, he was that hopping mad. More on the game later. I then stayed at the stadium to watch a card of three kick-boxing bouts and one regular boxing match in the indoor volleyball area. It attracted a good crowd, as did the afternoon's football and we even had an appearance by Meas Soksophea, my favourite Khmer singer, who sang a couple of songs. Again more later.

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Crown are sore losers

Phnom Penh Crown (red) have already left the pitch and Preah Khan (blue) are not allowed to play on by the referee
The Preah Khan management and players argue with the match officials that the 3rd goal should've stood
There was another game on Saturday and thankfully Preah Khan Reach won and took the 3rd place spot away from Phnom Penh Crown, who really are the spoilt brats of the CPL. After their loss to Naga in the semi-final, they were vocal with their displeasure in the Super 4 format even though they were well aware of it from the season's start. They'd finished top during the regular season by a clear 6 points from PKR, represented the league in the cup competitions abroad and wanted everyone to know it. However their antics during the game on Saturday were a disgrace. In my view they should've forfeited the game at half-time after they had walked off the pitch before the end of the 1st half. The referee, Khoun Vireak and the FFC officials bottled it in my opinion and let Crown get away with it. I hope the FFC review the circumstances and censure the Crown managment team after the event.
Crown began well and when Chan Rithy's inswinging corner was pushed into his own net by PKR keeper Ouk Mic, they took a deserved lead. PKR recovered and Sam El Nasa slotted home just after half an hour before sub Khuon Laboravy headed a spectacular effort to turn the game around. With 1 minute extra to be played, Crown reacted to the referee's decision to book Keo Sokngorn by walking off the pitch, encouraged by their manager Makara Be. In the ensuing confusion, PKR took the free kick but the referee blew for half-time before they rolled the ball into an empty net. Tempers flared in the grandstand and the inept security did little to quell the disturbances. It was a complete shambles.
After half an hour, the referee returned after his safety was guaranteed. Crown also agreed to play on, "for their fans" was the suggestion. What a joke. Crown had left the field before the end of the allotted time. I don't see how they were allowed to start the 2nd half. They had forfeited the right to continue, in my opinion and the referee, instead of thinking about himself, should've concentrated more on the laws of the game. Once underway, the second half was one-way traffic with Laboravy guilty of missing at least three guilt-edged chances. And he knew it. Nevertheless, PKR ran out 2-1 winners and collected the 3rd place prize, whilst Crown trooped off in a strop and sent two backroom staff to collect their 4th place cheque during the presentations. Sore losers doesn't begin to cover it. No wonder they are the team everyone loves to hate.
The referee and his assistants with their security detail as they come out for the 2nd half, at last
Preah Khan Reach before the game, which they won 2-1
Phnom Penh Crown - all round sore losers
Preah Khan's no 11, Khuon Laboravy knows he could've scored a hat-trick at least


More from the final

The plucky Khemara Keila line-up before the final against Naga, led by Kuoch Sokumpheak
Here's a few more photos from Saturday's CPL Super 4 final between Naga Corp and Khemara Keila. It wasn't a classic but it was hard-fought and the two evenly-matched teams put on a good show for their noisy fans. Most weekends the CPL games are deathly quiet affairs, so it was great to hear the fans get behind their teams with chanting, drums and a trumpet player who brought the house down every time he played. More of the same each week please, and especially for the international game against Singapore later today.
I did have a gripe about the final on Saturday. All seats in the VIP area were allocated to sponsors, or johnny-come-latelys as I call them, so I had to sit on the concrete steps with the Khemara fans to watch the game. I didn't even bother with the 'press steps' as the view was at the back of the stand and restricted. Effectively, the press were brushed aside and ignored in favour of the VIP guests, who turn up once a year and oust the people who turn up week in, week out. Why am I not surprised. In addition, the heavy-handed security, or heavy-footed in my case, kicked my drink under the step and stood directly in my line of sight for part of the game, despite my plea for him to move. A word to the FFC, if you want good press, look after your press corps better.
The Naga Corp bench just before the final kicks off
The golden boot winner with 21 goals, Uche Prince Justine from Spark FC, winner of a 2 million riel reward
This is the Naga version of the victory slide, which wasn't too successful
A look behind the scenes as Khemara receive their runners-up medals
The bright, shiny CPL Championship Cup ready and waiting
The top VIP was the Minister of Tourism HE Thong Khon (in white), who's also head of the Cambodian Olympic Committee
The Naga supporters in the main stand certainly made themselves heard


Sunday's Saturday joy

Naga's leading marksman and 2-goal hero, Sunday Okonkwo
With a name like Sunday Okonkwo, the Naga matchwinner has a name that headline writers love, except that his double-strike to win the CPL Super 4 decider was scored on a Saturday. But he won't mind as the 22 year old Nigerian striker who has impressed this season with 17 goals and a bagful of tricks and blistering pace, held aloft not only the trophy and his medal but the Nigerian flag as well. His confidence before the game was borne out. "I am sure of breaking their defence with my pace and technique," stated the dimuative striker. In fact it was a stooped header on 107 minutes and a simple tap into an empty net three minutes before the end of extra-time that clinched the title for his club. Sunday's Saturday double was enough to kick off the celebrations.
The Nigerian trio of Yemi Oyewole, Friday Nwakuna and Sunday Okonkwo celebrate their CPL Super 4 success

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Thavrak's moment of joy

The man, his medal and the cup - a proud moment for Om Thavrak
Om Thavrak is a player's player. Wholly committed to the cause, he's the Naga skipper and was understandably ecstatic at their CPL Super 4 championship success, even though he had to sit out the nail-biting extra-time excitement after limping off on 75 minutes. You could see his desire to stay on despite his injury, but he had to watch from the bench as Sunday Okonkwo tucked in the goals that gave Naga their 3rd title in six years. Bubbly off the pitch and a motivator on it, his leadership qualities have been vital to Naga's cause this season and though they finished the regular season in 4th place, their 2-nil win over Phnom Penh Crown in the semi-final and today's success against Khemara will make up for the disappointment of losing in the Hun Sen cup final at the beginning of the campaign. He's an uncompromising centre-half and plays with his heart on his sleeve in every game. Thavrak was recalled to the Cambodian national squad last season for the Suzuki Cup but won't feature in the forthcoming SEA Games squad as he's over the age limit. Not that he's complaining, as he joins his colleagues in celebrating their CPL championship success.
As usual, Om Thavrak has time for a smile as he leads Naga into today's final
Thavrak, no 6, is celebrating even before the final whistle
All smiles as the camera crews make a beeline for the Naga skipper
Amid the mayhem all around him, Thavrak is calmness personified for the tv cameras

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Super 4 Saturday

Naga collect the cup, the cheque and their medals as they pose with FFC President Sao Sokha
Whatever your opinion about the Super 4 finals, today was a great climax to the season with thrills, spills, a walk-off and an extra-time winner to clinch the Cambodian Premier league championship for Naga Corp. Their final success wasn't pretty but it was effective as they played the better football and deservedly pipped plucky Khemara 2-1 in the Super 4 decider. With so much at stake, the feast of football we were hoping for was replaced by nerves and a game of cat and mouse for the first 90 minutes. Naga were the more measured of the teams, playing some neat football without really threatening whilst Khemara relied on the long ball to their two strikers without any success. After the lights came on in extra-time, Sunday Okonkwo stooped to head Naga in front on 107 minutes though before the game could restart, they were down to 10-men when Tiet Chandara Sokha was sent off for lifting his shirt over his head and dismissed for a 2nd bookable offence. More pedantic crap from referee Tuy Vichheka as usual. Khemara couldn't press home their numerical advantage and when Okonkwo profited from a lack of communication at the back and rolled the ball into an empty net on 114 minutes, it was all over bar the shouting. In fact, no-one told Khemara centre-half Joel Omoraka and he blasted in a 30-yarder with a minute to go to set Naga nerves jangling, but they held out and went wild with joy at the final whistle, and rightly so. It was their 3rd title win in six years, as they collected the trophy from the Minister of Tourism Thong Khon and a cheque for 40 million riel. Though I'm neutral, I was chuffed for my favourite player, Naga skipper Om Thavrak, who had to watch from the bench after limping off with an injury on 75 minutes. He was ecstatic and will take days to calm down. The crowd played their part too, the thousands that came to watch upped the noise level for once and the friendly banter between the teams' fans was a pleasure to witness.
Naga mean business as they pose before the game begins
Naga manager Michael Thachnen wins the CPL title for the 2nd time in 3 years
Michael Thachnen lifts the CPL trophy aloft to everyone's delight
Minister Thong Khon presents a cheque for 40 million riel to the winners
The best left back in the CPL, national team player Sun Sovannarith

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Follow the Mekong

I haven't done it myself yet, but its something I'm keen to do in the not too distant future, though there's already not enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do. Graham Reilly take a trip up the Mekong River for the Brisbane Times in Australia.

Follow the Mekong - with time to watch the ebb and flow of a river's life, Graham Reilly floats from Vietnam to Cambodia (Brisbane Times, Australia).

I stare from the riverbank at this astonishingly vast and lively world of water. Here, in the charming provincial city of Can Tho in the heart of southern Vietnam's Mekong Delta, it is as if the land is merely an afterthought. Everything is about the river and the way of life it sustains. It is a world of colour and movement, of a comforting spray of cool water on your face as you are rowed back to your hotel at night in a slim stick of a boat, of the sleepy glint of dusk as you trail your finger across the river's surface, of the cough and splutter of a small passenger ferry as it crosses the river to Vinh Long, of the throaty gurgle of a rice boat as it slowly motors to Ho Chi Minh City or Cambodia.

The Mekong begins its 4500-kilometre journey to the sea in Tibet and winds its way through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally into the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese call the river Cuu Long, or nine dragons, and it is easy to see why, for here the Mekong spreads in great tentacles into nine exits to the sea. Can Tho sits on the banks of one of these tributaries, the Hang Giang river, also known as the Bassac, an impossibly broad, bustling expanse of brown water. It is a pleasant capital of 300,000 people, with tree-lined boulevards, cool grassy squares and 19th-century buildings that are remnants of French colonial days. One of the great pleasures of Vietnamese provincial towns such as Hoi An or Nha Trang is the local markets and Can Tho is no exception.

Selling vegetables, fruit and seafood, its large market spreads over an entire city block on one side and follows the curve of the river on the other. There is much to do here and it is a good place to organise a home stay with a farming family. It is also a good place to do nothing much at all. Gazing out from the pleasant promenade, I see boats of all shapes and sizes, one of which takes my friends and I early next morning to the famous Cai Rang floating market. Boats from all over the region – from Bac Lieu, Vinh Long and Camau – come here to sell what seems like every fruit and vegetable ever imagined: jackfruit, oranges, rambutan, bananas, longans, pineapples and sweet potatoes.

An, 30, is our guide. It is her father's boat and her husband navigates it safely through the shifting mass of craft on the river. "He is a good husband," she says, smiling. "He is happy to cooking and washing with me at night." We nod in agreement. A good husband can be hard to find. I explain to her that we want to travel to Cambodia by boat, from Can Tho to Chau Doc, across the border and up to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and then on to Siem Reap, home of one of the great wonders of the world, the temple complex of Angkor Wat. We've got six days for the journey of more than 400 kilometres. An offers to arrange the journey and a few phone calls later we agree to meet at the Can Tho dock at 2pm the next day. I tell her I have visited these places before but always by road or air. This time I want a gentler, more romantic mode of transport along the mighty Mekong and its tributaries. I want to hear the gentle slap of the water against the boat, feel the tropical breeze on my skin and watch people go about their lives on the riverbanks. I want to be part of the landscape. I want to make the journey as important as the arrival.

Can Tho has several restaurants along the waterfront and that night we decide on the Thien Hoa. We settle happily at a pavement table in the evening balm, show no restraint and order a feast – fried snake with onions, sea bass soup with tamarind, prawns steamed in beer, catfish hotpot and coconut ice-cream. It is a meal to remember and a harbinger of culinary experiences to come. Loaded up with fruit and sandwiches we've borrowed from the sumptuous breakfast buffet at the Victoria Hotel, we board the "fast boat" to Chau Doc, a journey An tells us will take about three hours. She says the slow boat, which leaves at 6.30am, takes about eight hours.

The fast boat is a long, relatively sleek, metal-hulled craft that does not go particularly fast, which turns out to be a blessing, given the pleasure of being on the water and lounging on the deck and watching the world go by. Most of the passengers are part of a package run by Delta Adventure Tours that includes a night at the company's floating hotel in Chau Doc. As we are travelling independently, we each pay $US20 ($23) for the trip. The boat seats about 30 people in something more or less resembling comfort. Sitting on the deck munching on a bag of rambutan, it becomes immediately clear to me that this is a working river. Large boats, washing fluttering in the breeze and overloaded with bananas, take their produce to market. Other boats dredge silt from the riverbed to be used in the construction industry. The weight of their cargo lays them so low in the water it is as if just one more grain could tip them into the muddy depths.

The riverbanks jump with activity. A line of brick kilns several kilometres long puffs smoke as families stack freshly baked bricks or load them on to waiting boats, the children straining under the burden. The smell of fermenting fish sauce wafts from factories onshore. Much of the riverbank is lined with sandbags to protect stilted houses from the river, which swells dramatically during the wet season. There is so much of interest to observe on the water and the riverbanks that the journey passes quickly and before I know it we are approaching Chau Doc, a journey of 5 hours. The river seems to settle in the dusk and takes on a kind of dreamy indolence, as if it has done enough work for the day. Meanwhile, I have been lulled into a sense of well-being I've never experienced when travelling by road or air.

Impressed with our stay at the Victoria Hotel in Can Tho, we decide to spend a few nights at the Victoria in Chau Doc. It is another elegant, splendidly positioned, colonial-style building perched on the banks of the Bassac. The view from our room across the spreading river takes my breath away. Chau Doc shuts down early and we are lucky to get to the Bay Bong restaurant while it is still serving dinner. The restaurant forgoes interesting decor for delicious Mekong cuisine. It's another feast. We start with canh chua, the local sweet-and-sour fish soup, and follow this with steamed fish and prawns, including ca kho, stewed fish in a clay pot. It's so good we return the next night. Chau Doc is another attractive and welcoming provincial town of about 100,000 people with an enormous market that snakes along the riverfront. The fish section alone – which has not just fresh fish but dried, spiced, marinated and salted – is wondrous.

We're close to the Cambodian border here and the people are more obviously Khmer, with their fuller features, darker skin and a preference for a chequered scarf over the ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hat. It is also home to a sizeable community of Chams, a Muslim minority of Malaysian appearance who live on the other side of the Bassac river. We hire a boat and motor across to the Cham village. On the main street, dotted with stalls selling fruit and vegetables and snacks, women chat in the shade of the verandas of their wooden houses. Little girls sell waffles and simple cakes to visitors. I meet the caretaker of one of the two mosques. He shows us a short film about the history of the Cham but it is in Vietnamese so we leave none the wiser. This part of the Bassac river, where it meets the Mekong, is home to an extraordinary concentration of floating houses, each of which is a self-contained fish farm. In the centre of each house is a large cage submerged in the river, in which families raise local bassa catfish, thousands of tonnes of which are exported to Australia every year. The fish are fed a kind of meal made from cereal, fish and vegetable scraps in cauldrons that rumble and roil. The smell is challenging.

At eight the next morning, we board another fast boat for the journey to the Cambodian capital. On another steamy, insanely hot day, we are looking forward to spending the trip on the deck, savouring the breeze. But a gaggle of young American backpackers with newsreader voices storm the boat and secure the outdoor area as their headquarters. It is their world. We just live in it. As we travel towards Cambodia, the river begins to change. Gone is the frenetic boat activity and on the riverbank life takes on a less industrial, more bucolic demeanour. As we rejoin the Mekong, the river widens and soon the factories on the shore are replaced by cornfields, banana trees that shift and flap in the breeze and ragged, palm-thatched huts. Families bathe in the shallows and children scrub and splash their wallowing buffaloes. One-and-a-half hours later, when we reach the border at Vinh Xuong, Vietnam, and Kaam Samnor, Cambodia, we're in a different, more lush, more languid world.

We disembark at the border post and after an hour or so filling in various forms and questionnaires, we say goodbye to the Vietnamese boat and board the altogether less salubrious Cambodian craft for the rest of the journey. But in the end the boat's state of rugged disrepair matters little and most people spend the afternoon sitting on the rear deck or lounging on the bow and impairing the vision of the driver. It is all too idyllic and, as it turn out, too good to last. Low water levels in the Tonle Sap river mean we have to complete the final leg of the journey by bus. But even this is fascinating, if cramped, as we hurl through the countryside and the sedate outskirts of Phnom Penh. As we arrive in the busy heart of the capital, I check my watch. It was just over seven hours ago that we boarded the boat in Chau Doc.

At our hotel, the owner tells us the water levels in the Tonle Sap are too low for us to go by boat to Siem Reap and that we'll have to take the bus or fly. He dismisses our disappointment, saying the boat has a karaoke machine on board. "Very noisy." But we won't decide what to do until after dinner – perhaps some steamed fish in coconut milk or fried squid with green peppers. As we hop into a tuk-tuk to take us to the waterfront, a young girl, brown as a nut and cute as a button, implores us to buy some bottled water. "What's your name?" I ask. "Cosmic," she replies, beaming. "Where are you from?" "Australia." "Do you know Kevin Rudd?" she asks. "Of course." "Well, he is my father." I look puzzled and she giggles. We are smitten and it's bottled water all round. As we putter away, she yells to us: "Tell Kevin his daughter says hello." I wave and promise I will.


Hop on a norry

Work colleagues on norries in April 2008 near Battambang
If you haven't been on a bamboo train (also known as norries) in Cambodia, Stephen Kurczy takes you on a trip in this story from UAE's newspaper The National.

Hop on Cambodia's (very) light rail -
by Stephen Kurczy, Abu Dhabi, UAE
As we hurtle down Cambodia’s decrepit train tracks on a bamboo platform the size of a billiards table, another car rushes in our direction, crammed with 17 passengers returning from marshy rice fields after a day of labour. Their trouser legs are still wet. Green rice fields stretch out on either side. This is public transportation in parts of Cambodia, and it has become one of the the biggest tourism draw in Battambang, a town a few hours south-west of the temples of Angkor Wat.

Decades of slow and unreliable train service prompted Cambodians to make their own use of the tracks and hundreds of illegal “bamboo trains” now run along the single-lane, 596km-line, that begins near the Thai border in north-west Cambodia, extends east through Battambang to Phnom Penh, then runs south to the coastal port of Sihanoukville. “There’s only one in the whole world,” a Battambang tour guide, known as Tap Tin Tin says, while escorting a Dutch family of five along the bamboo railway. “You see it transporting tourists, but it’s very useful for the Cambodians to carry rice or bring a cow or pig to slaughter in town.” In Battambang about 100 tourists ride the cars daily, and hotels and tour guides all advertise rides on the renegade railway. Soon, however, their voyages along Cambodia’s makeshift railroad will end. An ongoing, five-year, US$148 million railway project aims to reclaim Cambodia’s tracks from disrepair and connect them to Singapore. De-mining and emergency repair work began in early 2008, and new tracks are expected to go down in November, according to Nida Ouk, an official with the Asian Development Bank, the project’s primary donor. In July, an Australian company, Toll Group, signed a concession to manage Cambodia’s rails. In addition to increasing freight traffic and quadrupling current train speeds, Ouk says that the project’s funders plan to enforce the ban on the illegal bamboo cars, citing safety concerns and promising to provide alternative skills training to those who operate them. “You can imagine, it could cause a major traffic accident,” he says.

As we speed toward the opposing car, my 19-year-old driver, Soung Vy, and his co-conductor, Vat Vy, 16, sit calmly atop the platform’s rear railing. Each has a pierced ear – Vat also has nose, lip and tongue piercings. Soung lifts his leg off our five-horsepower engine and pushes his foot down on a piece of wood suspended above the wheels to stop us from running into the car loaded with rice farmers. Five people sit on our cart, compared to 17 on the opposing cart, so we are obligated to disassemble and allow the other to pass. When opposing cars hold equal loads, drivers decide who disembarks with a game of rock, paper, scissors. We deboard. Soung and Vat grudgingly walk to either side of our platform. They easily pick it up and set it in the brush. Each then lifts a set of wheels, hoisting the axle like a barbell, and sets it aside.

On the other car, Duk Kun, 40, is waiting to go home after a long day planting rice seeds on his one-hectare plot of land. He wears a cowboy hat and smokes a cigarette. Because his field is 15km from the nearest paved road, he rides the bamboo train every day during planting and harvesting season. Without it, he says, he would walk two hours to work. Beside him sits 10-year-old Ho Makara, riding home after visiting relatives down the line. Their driver winds a rope tightly around the motor and pull-starts the engine. As they accelerate away, Soung and Vat reassemble our car. Soung climbs aboard the rear railing and wraps a fan belt over a motor gear – the other end of the belt is already looped around the axle through a hole in the bamboo platform. He pull-starts the engine and we’re off. The breeze cuts the humidity and clouds of multicoloured butterflies flutter past.

I had wanted to ride a real train, but when I arrived at the stately old colonial station in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, I found the gates locked. The landmark building last filled its atrium corridors when a nightclub hosted a dance party there earlier this year. The afternoon I visited, a few squatters slept on the floor. Ouk Ourk, an official with the Royal Railways of Cambodia, told me that passenger services stopped last year because of the poor state of the tracks. Freight trains derail occasionally, he said, and petrol cars have tipped and spilt. “We were worried about derailment, about someone dying – we haven’t had this, but we wanted to prevent accidents,” he said. Behind his office at the Phnom Penh station sat dozens of abandoned freight cars and several abandoned passenger cars. Holes dotted the floors and ceiling, broken seats rested in piles, and mounds of human faeces were scattered on the floor, vestiges from the poor who now live in the cars. Freight trains leave for Battambang about once a week and eke along the tracks at 10 to 20km-per-hour, said Ouk Ourk, creeping at a pace that gives bamboo operators adequate time to get out of the way or attempt to outrun it.

Ouk Ourk said the only way civilians ride the tracks is on a bamboo cart, and the best place to do it is in Battambang. Five days later, I arrived at the main train station in Battambang, another decaying colonial building and reminder of Cambodia’s history as a protectorate from 1863 to 1954 of the French, who built these tracks and buildings in the 1930s. Once again, the doors were locked. A dozen children, aged two to 12, sat on the station’s windowsills and slid their flip-flops along the floor in a rudimentary game of marbles. Cows grazed beside the rails. Two volleyball nets were strung on grassy patches between the tracks. As I waited for a bamboo train to pick me up, my guide and translator, Thy Racky, 36, got a call from our driver saying police would not let him enter town. Operators are forbidden from entering inner-city stations, although we’d convinced our driver to attempt to sneak in. Instead, a tourist’s trip along the rail starts about four kilometres outside Battambang town, at the end of a winding dirt road in O Dambong village. Bamboo platforms are stacked on the ground outside another abandoned train station. A young man sells bubble tea for $0.25 from a mobile cart out front.

There is no ticket counter. Taped to the back of the building’s door is a piece of paper listing the names of train operators who share business on a rotating schedule. Cambodians pay about 25 cents for a one-way ride while foreigners pay about $10 for a trip 10km up the line to O Sra Lav village and back. One traveller, 60-year-old Vive Armstrong from New Zealand, boarded a bamboo train without hesitation. “It looks smoother than the roads,” she said, referring to Cambodia’s notoriously bumpy streets. After we let the horde of day labourers pass, I am seated cross-legged with two other passengers as we thump over the warped tracks. An emaciated cow occasionally meanders over the tracks. Looking down as we cross a river I see pieces of cement missing from the 80-year-old bridge. I clench my jaw as we jump gaps in the tracks that are six centimetres long. I ask my guide, Thy Racky, if anyone is ever injured. He says six tourists were hospitalised last year when their bamboo train hit a bump and flipped off its wheels.

Railway officials have long utilised similar carts, but without engines, to inspect the tracks. Civilians began using the carts in the early 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist regime that killed some 1.5 million Cambodians and left the country’s economy and infrastructure in disrepair. Our bamboo train slows to a stop at O Sra Lav station, where I meet Pat Oun, 69. He owns a beverage shop catering to tourists, but he also says he built 200 engineless lorries before packing up his chisel and axe in 1983. Each took about four days’ labour, he says. In those days, the operator pushed the cars forward with two long oars – like a gondolier. In 1992, according to local lore, a man named Mr Rit, now deceased, strapped an irrigation pump engine on the cart, creating the first motor-powered bamboo car. “Everyone just thought a bamboo train would be very useful to transport things from here to there,” says Pat Oun. Today, a bamboo train sells for about $600, he says. The platform and engine each cost about $200, and the wheels, salvaged from the gears of old bulldozers and army tanks, cost about $180. About 200 bamboo train operators work the tracks near Battambang, with hundreds more toward Phnom Penh and near the coast. Operators tell me that bamboo cars can travel the 338km distance from Battambang to Phnom Penh in 13 hours, several hours faster than the journey by passenger train before service was discontinued. Back in Battambang town that night, while indulging in one of the famous fruit shakes at the White Rose restaurant, I meet Willem Bierens de Haan, a 25-year-old from the Netherlands. Earlier in the day, I saw him and his girlfriend whizz past me on a bamboo train, grinning wildly. “We wanted to experience how the locals make use of the unused rails,” Willem says. “It’s like a roller coaster through the countryside.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Now for something completely different

Roy Hill in action
Now for something completely different. A rest from the football-related posts and something which is completely divorced from Cambodia. An interview with one of my fave people on the planet, Roy Hill.

Hiding Under The Spotlight
An enlightening interview with Roy Hill by Lindsay Sorrell, c/0 StrawbsWeb

As anyone who has seen Roy Hill play live might expect, trying to work through a "set-list" of scripted questions in the name of an interview just wasn't going to work. From the second I met up with him at Waterloo station the conversation flowed wild and free, touching on almost every topic under the sun. This resulted in an extremely interesting afternoon and almost completely unintelligible notes which I have tried to put it into some kind of order. I have, I really have.

The chronology of Roy's musical career is well-documented on his Myspace and my intention was to try and find out more about Roy himself, both in and away from his involvement in music. After a little chit-chat and a lot of gossip we got down to the business of discussing Roy's childhood. He was one of three brothers born in the small market town of Ledbury, Herefordshire, and described the intense claustrophobia he felt growing up where everyone knew everyone else's business. (His mother was one of nine children, most of whom stayed in Ledbury).

Roy described his paternal grandfather as a hard-boozing bully, whose family had lived in fear of his drunken rages. Roy's own father was the exception amongst his brothers in being a gentle non-drinking man who considered some of the happiest days of his life to have been in WWII. The RAF had given him his first taste of life away from his cruel father (who incidentally ended his turbulent days by blasting his own brains out with a shotgun, whilst in an outside toilet). During Roy's growing years his dad earned well as a Jag-driving bricklayer in post-war Britain's building boom. The family home had previously been part of a Prisoner of War camp building, divided into two halves to become council houses. Roy laughed at the irony of the returning war heroes' reward. Despite less than palatial surroundings, Roy's family enjoyed a good standard of living and his dad seemed determined to give his own sons a happier start in life than he had known. His love of music including Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers rubbed off on young Roy, and when he first showed an interest in learning an instrument, aged nine, his dad bought his first guitar.

Grammar school years soon followed, which Roy detested for a variety of reasons, one being the painfully obvious class awareness which existed among both pupils and staff. He was the only child amongst his peers who had passed the 11+ exam so while his mates carried on kicking a football about together at the local comprehensive, he endured a stuffy grammar school life. Stifling rules (such as not being allowed to take his cap off on the way to and from school) led to his earliest memories of wanting to rebel. Roy described his continuing admiration for an older boy who defiantly wore winklepicker shoes to the school. His final school report noted he was 'far too interested in pop music to achieve satisfactory academic qualifications'.

Having had enough of formal eduation and with three whole "O" levels to his name (English Literature, English Language and Art) at fifteen he hit the big wide world with a running jump as an estimating clerk for a company which made envelopes in Ledbury. However, that occupation may well have provided the break which led to the Roy we know and love, for a day-trip to London arranged by the company had an enormous impact on the young lad. The trip had been arranged to watch a Miss World competition at the Lyceum Ballroom in The Strand, and having tired of watching beauty after beauty on parade he sneaked out of the building for his first ever taste of London. It was 1966, he saw streets full of hippies ("Ledbury didn't have one"), exciting places he had only read about such as The Marquee, prostitutes, and the full range of sights and sounds of swinging London. The experience ("and my first feeling of anonymity") had a profound effect on Roy.

One of Roy's earliest memories of attending a live gig stems from when he watched King Crimson supporting Black Sabbath in Malvern; the excitement of the occasion was obviously flooding back as he recalled Robert Fripp and the magic of "21sth Century Schizoid Man" live. However, Roy described THE defining moment in his desire to be part of the music industry to have occurred whilst watching The Who perform in 1966, also at Malvern Winter Gardens. Awestricken, he watched Pete Townsend, resplendent in his Union Jack jacket. To Roy his angry performance seemed to scream "London!", and he knew his Ledbury days were numbered.

His relocation to the bright lights came when he was 18, and had been studying at Hereford Art School. His girlfriend of the time (they married when he was 21) took up a teaching post in Charlton, and he moved in with her. Chrissie (now his ex, with whom he and his partner Celia are great friends), exposed Roy to greater musical variety than he had known previously. Whereas he had mainly collected records by mainstream artists such as The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and The Who, her collection included singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, the latter of whom struck a particular chord with Roy. After a while, and following a job offer in Cirencester (Roy was working in advertising agencies at the time), the couple moved to Cheltenham. Roy began writing his own songs and playing occasional gigs from around 1971-74 in local folk clubs. It wasn't that he played folk, but where else was a singer with an acoustic guitar to play? Roy found the clubs friendly places, where the majority of audiences were happy to hear something a little different. Whilst playing the clubs he became friendly with various local musicians including Dik Cadbury, Phil Beer, Bimbo Acock (later sax player in Roy's band) and Bimbo's brother John, who worked as a studio engineer at the De Lane Lea Studios, Wembley. This fortuitous friendship led Roy back to London for the occasional session of free studio time.

During this era Roy often put together bands which were as fluid as his performances, sometimes consisting of three, four or maybe five musicians. It all depended who was free at the time, and just as now, Roy revelled in spontaneity in his performances. He was writing songs prolifically ("George's Bar" was one creation of the time), and described how he would "bash out" song after song in a whirlwind of creativity. "Falling" was written, from start to finish, during a walk down Oxford Street. Roy's songs have often been characterised by lyrics which tell dark tales set to jaunty tunes which would generally be considered completely mismatched. That inability (or refusal) to "fit the mould" is part of Roy's unique fascination. His performances are often riotous, with his offbeat sense of humour having audiences doubled up with laughter and often wondering what will happen next. Roy told me his inclusion of humour (his own brand – be warned!) onstage happened in a very unplanned way. The Roy Hill Band was playing at Bradford University one night in 1978, it was dark, and Roy went flying as he tripped over an electricity cable while walking onstage. The audience laughed and Bimbo was close to hysterics. Roy realised instantly how humour had built good communication with those watching, and making people laugh was set to stay. Roy also recounted that when he later began playing as half of a duo with Chas Cronk he found noisy audiences in West London pubs very difficult to capture. By becoming "Mr. Pottymouth" with an inflated persona, Roy was able to grab punters' attention and get them to listen to the music. "The survival instinct", he mused.

Almost inevitably our conversation touched on how he had often managed quite spectacularly to be in the "wrong place at the wrong time" in his career. For instance, Roy's first album was produced by Gus Dudgeon, best-known for his work with Elton John. This "lucky break" unfortunately coincided with punk's overthrow of the existing music establishment, and Roy feels his songs would have better suited production in the style of Elvis Costello and his contemporaries rather than Gus's love affair with orchestration. Certainly, Roy's "handsome hunk" (my interpretation, not his!) album sleeve did not sit well in record racks next to covers adorned with scowling, emaciated punks with safety pins through their noses. Roy laughed about a time when he was working at Wessex Studios in North London and watched the Sex Pistols' publicity machine in action. The Pistols were to be photographed "gobbing" at kids going into the school opposite, and he laughed as he recalled how "set up" the whole episode had been, with the "gobbing" starting on cue as the cameras rolled. Roy recounted numerous interesting tales of his music business career, including the time he recorded a song called "When Love is Not Enough" with Roger Daltrey at Olympic Studios in Barnes. Daltrey had a couple of minders with him, but Daltrey was himself the "scary" figure at the time according to Roy.

Like most musicians, Roy has suffered his share of demoralising"bad press", and recalled one painful article which appeared in the music press headed "Hill Scores Nil". However, following subsequent good reviews written by highly credible journos Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, sheep-like music journalists changed their tune overnight to sing his praises. Roy is well aware of the fickle ways of the music industry; a week after parting ways with Jim Beach (simultaneous manager of himself and the mighty Queen) he found himself selling massage machines in Norwich. As you may have already guessed, Roy is refreshingly willing to talk about his life and career, warts and all. He readily admits that in the past he must have proved very difficult to work with, and only half-jokingly declared that he has walked out on himself several times while working on his current project.

That project is an as yet unfinished album entitled Switzerland. Roy told me that until now he'd had zero interest in the technical aspects of music-making, and in the past, such as when Cry No More recorded at their makeshift studio in Kingston, Chas was left with sole responsibility for all things technical. Roy simply went along, sang and played, and left Chas to it. The creation of Switzerland, where Roy has been responsible for entirely everything, has therefore proved an enormous learning curve. The recordings are not perfect, ("you can hear the fridge door shutting, Celia walking into the room and stuff like that") but Roy relishes being in complete control of everything that happens to the recordings from start to finish. He has felt dissatisfied with everything he has recorded in the past due mainly to overproduction. Happy to admit to having a perfectionist streak, Roy feels with Switzerland he hopes to create an album which 'within the limitations of doing everything myself' he is happy in all respects. However, Roy declared that he would never again attempt to create a CD from start to finish completely unaided, as the project has sometimes felt like an endless and exhausting task.

The album is very different from anything he has attempted previously. He explained that he had been physically ill whilst writing the songs in 2005, which lead to several hospitalisations. Candidly, he told me that in January 2006 "the lights went out", and the root of his health problems was finally diagnosed to be clinical depression. Roy described dark times, including a flashback to an occasion when he simply stood staring out of a window, paralysed with fear and unable to move. Fortunately a combination of antidepressants, counselling (a doctor once told him to view depression as "interesting"), and hard physical outdoor work helped immensely and gradually he returned to a better place.

Work on Switzerland continues. Having unknowingly been suffering from depression while writing the songs, he almost feels as though they seem to belong to someone else. Lyrically they have not been altered, but Roy has been fine-tuning them musically. For him, the adventure into instrumental pieces lasting up to four minutes ("not quite prog, but for me it is") is uncharted territory. He has taught himself to play piano pieces in a way which fit the music precisely as he wants. Roy feels that with Switzerland he has finally bared his soul rather than masking bleakness, and he is obviously uncertain how it will be received with its references to sombre topics such as death and mortality.

Lest anyone should reach the conclusion that my time with Roy was all doom and gloom, I would like to point out that it very definitely wasn't. Roy is engaging, amusing, very open, and someone I would be happy to chat with for hours. As I did! Remembering a list of questions which had been sent by members of the Witchwood discussion group, several of particular interest to Strawbs' fans, I finished up by firing the questions at Roy which he obligingly answered:

Q: How did you come to support Strawbs on their "Deadlines" tour? A: "I performed "George's Bar" acoustically on a tv programme called "So it Goes", which featured other artists including Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop. Dave Cousins saw the programme and invited me to support Strawbs on tour. That was a lot of fun. Dave was very supportive and I instantly hit it off with Chas Cronk and Tony Fernandez, both of whom later joined my band. The experience was very different from when my band toured as support to Styx, who refused to let us play one night just because there was a tiny buzz coming from one of their amps."

Roy elaborated that following "personnel issues" in his band which left him needing a bassist and drummer, John Cooper, General Manager of Arista Records, had suggested approaching Chas and Tony to join. Roy's reaction was to wonder why on earth they would want to join his band, but they did ("bringing 'good humour and professionalism' with them"). Two tours and numerous London gigs followed, after which they lost touch. Roy later rang Chas (whom he considers a "superb and highly intuitive bass player"), a duo gig was arranged at The Mulberry Tree pub in Twickenham, and they began writing songs together. Their writing generally consisted of Chas supplying the chords, to which Roy added a tune and lyrics.

Q: Were you a Strawbs fan before you toured with them? A: "I knew of them by reputation. I was a bit shocked when I heard them on the tour though. I had been expecting more of a folk group than a full-on rock band."

Q: How did you come to take over as Strawbs' lead singer for a couple of gigs? A: "I was asked to fill in after Dave had left to fulfil contractual obligations which Strawbs had. The gigs were a bit of a mish-mash where no-one (including the band) really knew what to expect, and we played a mixture of my own songs and Strawbs' songs. Strawbs without Dave Cousins doesn't really make much sense does it? Strawbs with me made even less."

Q: Where did the name "Cry no More" come from? A: "I wrote a song called "Cry no More" and we put it out as a single in a homemade cover with "Cry no More" printed on it using a lino cut. After I'd printed the song title I realised there was not enough room for a band name as well, so the band took on the name."

Q: What music do you listen to? A: "Loads! A lot of Dylan, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. I listen to classical music; Chopin, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Mahler, Bach. Some jazz; Miles Davies, Bill Evans, Django Reinhardt, Oscar Peterson. Sixties stuff. Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Dean Martin. My son Jamie keeps me up to date with the modern world. 'You've got to hear this dad …!'"

Q: What inspires you to write music? A: "I have a need to write things down. It's like keeping a diary but my diary is full of songs and stories. I have no idea where the tunes come from. The words are drawn from personal experiences and observations, chance remarks, a view from a train, a line in a film, rain, barking dogs, cuckoo clocks, murder …"

Q: Has anyone ever covered one of your songs? A: "Yes, Buck's Fizz covered "Tears on the Ballroom Floor". You have to hear it."

Q: Do you have any hobbies apart from music? A: "People-watching, travelling, reading (current book: "London: The Biography" by Peter Ackroyd) and art galleries. I like painters who use their own language; Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian." (Roy and I had initially intended to visit the Tate Modern, but never made it - I suspect we would have been thrown out for talking too much anyway.)

Q: Do you prefer working as a solo musician, as part of a duo, or with a band? A: "Solo. It's not that I don't enjoy playing as a duo or with a band, but working as a solo artist means I don't need to make any compromises or fit in with anyone else, either while writing or onstage. It is more scary to play solo as there is no-one else to exchange glances with if anything goes wrong, and everything is down to me. I often get very nervous before playing, even being sick, the feeling is similar to standing in line waiting to go on a giant roller-coaster, a mixture of wanting to do it and being terrified. Once you're strapped in though, 'Yahoo!' Playing solo is the ultimate adrenalin rush."

Q: Do you have any solo gigs lined up? A: "Yes, my 2009 World Tour takes place at The Open House Café, in Brentford on 25th September." After well over five hours and several cappucinos in various South Bank locations, Roy and I parted company. I am looking forward immensely to seeing him perform at The Open Café on 25th September. For more details, to check on the progress of Switzerland, or to venture into Roy's blog, visit his MySpace.


Captured on the news

The guy sat down and looking interested, is me at this morning's press conference, caught on camera on CTN
I just managed to catch the sports news on CTN tonight around 7pm and hey presto, their coverage of this morning's Cambodia Under-23 press conference at the Olympic Stadium came on before I was ready, so I only have a couple of screen-shots from their programme. Unlike the numerous army or political conferences we see on a daily basis, where the camera lingers for minutes on end on dead-pan faces in the audience, the CTN footage was short and whizzed by quickly, hence just a couple of pictures to show you...but i think you get the picture. I didn't have the time, nor the inclination, to wait for the sports programmes on the other channels that were present this morning.
A wider angle view of other members of the Khmer press
The camera lingered on the Cambodian players and coaching staff for most of the segment


Press talk

This is my article on Sunday's match between Cambodia Under-23s versus Singapore Under-23s at the Olympic Stadium that appeared in yesterday's Phnom Penh Post. You can read the article online here.

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Bit of a shambles

23 of the 25-man Cambodia Under-23 squad line up with the coaching staff after this morning's press conference
The national team's coaching staff. LtoR: Bouy Dary, Van Piseth, Scott O'Donell (coach) and Prak Sovanny
At 9am this morning, a press conference at the Olympic Stadium gave the television and newspaper press corps the opportunity to find out more about the Cambodian Under-23 national team that will travel to Laos to challenge for the SEA Games football medals. It was pretty disorganized to be honest, the conference room was too small for the number of attendees (at least 20 news outlets were invited; they forgot to invite me), there was no translation into English so it was aimed strictly at the local press, the cameramen muscled in and stuck their cameras everywhere, the media boys didn't stop talking amongst themselves, mobile phones continually went off, just about everything that would never happen at a 'serious' press conference was allowed to happen at this one. I know it's only a press conference but being professional about these things doesn't take a genius to arrange. Anyway the cameras from Apsara, CTN, Bayon, etc were stuck in my face a few times when I asked questions so I should be on the news programmes tonight, especially as I was the only barang besides Scott O'Donell, the national team coach. Scott, the team manager Vann Ly and general secretary Ouk Sethycheat were the ones answering questions, though Vann is recently appointed and even though I attend nearly every one of the CPL games, I'd never clapped eyes on the federation's general secretary before. Scott repeated a fair bit of what he told me during our interview a couple of days ago, especially as I asked the same questions, just to give the press boys a bit more information. Their own questions were very limited and repetitive. The coach also promised, "I'll guarantee that each player will give 100% and do their country proud," when asked about their commitment. The general secretary responded to my question about incentives, saying that the government will pay each player 24 million riel ($6,000) if they win the gold medal, 16 million riel for silver and 8 million riel for bronze, in addition to their salary and daily expenses. The team will spend most of October and the latter half of November in training camp in Vietnam, where they will play five matches in the first spell and another two games in the second stint against club sides from the Vietnam League. They have a mini-tournament in Phnom Penh early in November and when they reach the SEA Games, they are guaranteed at least 3 games in the group stages. All in all, a very busy couple of months following their opening match against Singapore this Sunday. After an hour, the proceedings came to a close and the squad went onto the pitch for a team photograph before dispersing. At no stage during the press conference did anyone ask the players a question.
Van Piseth, left, assistant coach, translates a question to Scott O'Donell, the national coach
The top table at the press conference. LtoR: Van Piseth, Scott O'Donell, Ouk Sethycheat (gen sec), Vann Ly (team manager).
The players were squeezed into a corner of the small room for the hour-long press conference

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Under-23 gallery 5

Forward Kuoch Sokumpheak from Khemara Keila
The final set of face photos from this morning's training session for the Cambodian Under-23s ahead of their important game against Singapore this coming Sunday.
Forward Khim Borey from Ministry of National Defense
Forward Keo Sokngorn from Phnom Penh Crown
Forward Chan Chhaya from Phnom Penh Crown
Midfielder Prak Mony Udom from Preah Khan Reach


Under-23 gallery 4

Midfielder Keo Kosal from Preah Khan Reach
More face photos from the Cambodian Under-23 squad that will have their first stern test against Singapore U-23s on Sunday afternoon at the Olympic Stadium (3.30pm kick-off). I've just heard that the CPL play-off games on Saturday will now kick-off at 1pm and 3pm, the latter time being the final between Naga Corp and Khemara Keila.
Midfielder Chhim Sambo from Naga Corp
Midfielder Lorn Sotheara from Ministry of National Defense
Midfielder Nhuon Chansothea from Preah Khan Reach
Midfielder Phuong Narong from Phnom Penh Crown


Under-23 gallery 3

Midfielder Nov Soseila from Ministry of National Defense
Here is gallery number 3 from this morning's training session at the Old Stadium by the Cambodian Under-23 football squad, which was being used as the National Football Center has been under water in recent weeks. The squad take on Asian powerhouses Singapore U-23s on Sunday afternoon at the Olympic Stadium.
Midfielder San Narith from Preah Khan Reach
Midfielder Chhun Sothearath from Build Bright United
Midfielder Khuon Laboravy from Preah Khan Reach
Midfielder Oum Kumpheak from Ministry of National Defense


Under-23 gallery 2

Defender Tieng Tiny from Phnom Penh Crown
Another five players, all defenders, from the Cambodian Under-23 squad that will face Singapore on Sunday ahead of their month-long training camp in Vietnam.
Defender Sok Rithy from Preah Khan Reach
Defender Sun Sovannarith from Naga Corp
Defender Chan Dara from Khemara Keila
Defender Pheak Rady from Ministry of National Defense


Under-23 gallery 1

Goalkeeper Samreth Seiha from Ministry of National Defense
Now for a look at the Cambodian Under-23 squad, up close and personal, with photo's taken at this morning's training session at the Old Stadium. These are the best of the young talent in the Cambodian Premier League who will represent their country against Singapore on Sunday and who are aiming to be in the final 20-man squad for the SEA Games in December.
Goalkeeper Sou Yaty from Ministry of National Defense
Goalkeeper Penh Bunchhay from Phnom Penh Crown
Defender Lay Raksmey from Preah Khan Reach
Defender Peng Panharong from Phnom Penh Crown


On the training ground

National coach Scott O'Donell gets his point across at this morning's Under-23 training session
The Under-23 players take a breather and listen to the coaching staff
For those readers who ignore my football posts, get ready to ignore quite a few over the next few days as the football season reaches a climax here in Cambodia. On Saturday we have the finals of the Super 4 play-offs to decide the Cambodian Premier League champions, runners-up, as well as 3rd and 4th places. Then on Sunday we have the first real test for the new Cambodian Under-23 squad that national coach Scott O'Donell has put together. Tomorrow morning there's a press conference at the Olympic Stadium which I hope to attend to hear more, though I've already got a scoop with my interview with Scott at yesterday's training session, which also appeared in today's Phnom Penh Post, but in a reduced format. I also popped along to today's session where all of the 25-man squad appeared, though Khim Borey (who has gone to Vietnam today for a check-up after a recent operation on an ankle injury) and San Narith sat out through injury. With 15 of the 25-man squad involved with their club sides in the play-offs on Saturday, this morning was just a light work-out and O'Donell's young charges will begin their squad training in earnest after the Singapore friendly. Here's a few snapshots from this morning and photos of the Under-23 coaching team.
Cambodian national team coach Scott O'Donell
Assistant national coach Bouy Dary
Assistant national coach Van Piseth
National goalkeeping coach Prak Sovanny

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In conversation with Scott O'Donell

Scott O'Donell looking forwards
Ahead of this Sunday's first proper run-out for Scott O'Donell's Cambodian Under-23 team, I sat down with the national team coach to chat about the friendly fixture against the Singapore Under-23s as well as the preparation for the SEA Games in Laos in December. With a 25-man squad named after trials, which will be reduced to twenty come the start of the SEA Games, the game against Singapore will signal the start of full-time preparation now that the Cambodian Premier League season comes to a close with the finals on Saturday. Here's what he had to say.

On the game against Singapore:
I know their coach well, they wanted a game and could make the 27th. Not ideal as we've got the CPL final the day before but I'm looking forward to it. It'll be a big test and our first real game. You've got to play the better teams to become better yourself and it will be a good barometer to see where we are and what we've got to do to go further. I expect the Singapore players to be looking to impress to get into their final squad for the SEA Games.
They've been training since December last year, playing as a club side [Young Lions] in their professional league, and will have played 40-odd games already so they'll be more advanced than we are. It's a good gauge for us. We'll have a recovery session on Sunday morning to assess the players' fitness, as 15 of the 25 are involved in games on Saturday. Then I'll pick a starting eleven from there.

On future expectations:
I want to improve on the performance from the last SEA Games two years ago. We had a couple of half decent games and a very poor one against Thailand, and I'd like us to do better. It's still early days, I've only been able to work with the boys twice a week for the last six weeks, so it's too early to make predictions, but we aren't going to make up the numbers, we're going there to achieve something. I have some good young boys, some very good players and I'm looking forward to working closely with them.

On the style of play he's seeking:
I want the boys to play, I need contributions from everyone. I'm not interested in putting eleven men behind the ball, or defending on our 18-yard line, we're going to be smart, be disciplined, be well organized, but when we get the ball I want players getting forward, you can't score goals if you don't get players forward. I want contributions from our defence, I want our midfield players getting into the box and our forwards working hard. We're not a big team so we've got to keep the ball on the ground but I want to see the ball moving quickly, I want to see my players controlling the tempo of the game, we can't play at one pace all the time. I want to see football that I like to watch myself. It's very difficult to do that on the surfaces here, that's why we're going to Vietnam to take advantage of their training facilities and play against some strong opposition to get us properly prepared.

Throughout the whole team, my players have got to be strong, aggressive, be able to communicate, they've got to be smart, one of the things we'll be working hard on is playing as a team, for example the back-four has to work as a unit and if everyone works together we've got a good chance: we must reduce the space the opposition has to play in, we must be strong in the tackle, we clear the ball when we need to clear it and so on. When we haven't got the ball we are all defenders and when we have got the ball I want everyone to contribute to attack.

On changing old habits:
We've only had five full training sessions with all the squad members so far. They are good boys, they want to learn, they want to understand and I've been pleased by the positives I've seen so far and with them trying to do what we've been working on in training. The biggest problem is that it's new to them so when they're under pressure they forget and go back to their old ways, which is something I am trying to work on. How I want my players to play is different to how they play with their clubs. Next year we hope to run some workshops with the club coaches in terms of the modern trends in football, what teams are doing and how football is being played nowadays. The players get into bad habits and they are hard to get out of, that's why it's so important that we teach the young kids the right things at the right age. But every coach is different. In terms of the step up to international football, the intensity is much higher, every player has to defend, which doesn't always happen in the CPL, in international football you'll get punished so I will instill the need to maintain discipline in keeping the shape and balance of the team, it's one of the biggest things. We're looking at maintaining our shape, when we attack we all push up together and when we defend we get back together.

The fitness is better now than when I first came to Cambodia, but it's still not good enough for what I want and require for the SEA Games. After the finals on Saturday, for the next two months it's going to be a lot of hard work, with and without the ball. Their anaerobic fitness, the ability to recover from high intensity runs, is what we'll be working on to improve. When the SEA Games come around, everyone in the final 20 will be in tip-top shape, so fitness won't be used as an excuse.

On his favoured formation:
I'm very flexible with my team formations. I prefer old school 4-4-2 but at the moment we're looking at 4-2-3-1 but that can change as I want my players to be adaptable and be able to adapt to different situations in games. we'll be working hard in training to prepare ourselves for any type of formation. What I want is when I get back from Vietnam and after the tournament in November, I'll have most of my starting eleven in mind. I'll also be looking for a leader on and off the field to be my captain, who I've yet to decide on. I've got a group of five senior players and it'll be one of them.

On who has impressed so far:
I don't like to highlight individual players but if there was one player who impressed me in the last half of the CPL season then it would be Nov Soseila from the Army team. He's got everything I want in a player. I'd like a couple more inches 'cause he's a shorty, but he's got guts, determination, he's aggressive, he's got a good work-rate, he likes to take players on which is great that he's got the confidence to do that. His performance against Naga [in a recent friendly] was outstanding and I said to him in front of the whole team that if you play like that you'll play for me in every game, because you are doing everything I want you to do. He's still got to learn, he's got a short fuse sometimes, he's got to learn to simmer down a bit but he is one player who has really stood out. In fact all of the boys we've selected have done well in the CPL this season.

On squad selection:
I selected an initial 40 players and after the trials I selected 25 to form the training squad. The trials consisted of six training sessions, a couple of two-sided games, some technical stuff, some drills regarding technique, not ideal but the best we could do. I had my 25 in mind but a couple of the boys managed to force their way into the squad. If there are any serious injuries in the 25-man squad, I wouldn't hesitate to bring in one of the four players we've got on standby and who just missed out on selection after the trials. I don't have to officially give my final 20-man listing until the team manager's meeting 1 day before the SEA tournament begins but will likely do it earlier for administration purposes. I want to push the players until the last possible moment as I want competition for spots and I want everyone trying to get a seat on that plane for Laos.

On the schedule after the Singapore match:
As far as it stands, we'll have two more training sessions after the game and then we'll go to Vietnam on 3rd October, back on 31st, a couple of days off for the Water Festival, resume training again on 4th November, a tournament starts here on the 8th until the 14th, a day off then back to Vietnam from the 16th until the end of November. The tournament will be 4 teams; us, Laos and 2 Vietnam League teams, a round-robin tournament with play-offs for the winners. Good preparation for us at that time and it'll be great to be playing at home in front of our own supporters.

In Vietnam, we'll be looking at playing five friendly games against V-League clubs, training twice a day, lots of work including team building, psychological stuff, getting into good sleeping and eating habits, getting everything right so the players have the best possible preparation in the circumstances including relaxation time too as that's just as important. It's going to be an intensive month at the National Training Centre in Ho Chi Minh. Looking further ahead, we've got the Suzuki Cup in late 2010 and I'm looking for this Under-23 team to form the basis of the national team in the future.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Getting the low-down

RV La Marguerite in dock
Got up early doors this morning to get along to the Old Stadium to interview Cambodia's national football coach Scott O'Donell ahead of the Under-23 international against Singapore U-23s this coming Sunday. It'll be the team's first real test under O'Donell's leadership after he returned for a 2nd stint in charge in June. The preparations for the SEA Games in Laos in December begin in earnest with the Singapore friendly match and I'll go again tomorrow morning to get some photos of the 25-man squad. Scott is extremely approachable and a pleasure to interview. My match preview should appear in the Phnom Penh Post tomorrow morning. I'll post the full interview with Scott here tomorrow as well.

I also paid a visit to one of the brand new cruise ships that are plying the route between Saigon and Siem Reap via Phnom Penh. RV La Marguerite is on its maiden voyage just now and docked in the capital earlier today. That gave me an opportunity for a nose around after lunch and its pretty swish. It can accommodate just under 100 passengers in its 40-0dd rooms, has a big restaurant, large bar area, a whirlpool on deck and other amenities. The cruise takes up to 8 days/7 nights between Saigon and Siem Reap with lots of stops en route. Another new boat, The Jayavarman, should be in town next month too.
The RV La Marguerite and a local boat vie for docking space
One of the state cabins on the La Marguerite
This renovated former French colonial building will soon be selling Kentucky Fried Chicken

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Opening night

A rare and welcome visitor to Phnom Penh and one of my favourite people, Now, Eric's assistant
Here's a few photos from the opening night of Khmer Standoff, an exhibition of photographs taken at Preah Vihear temple near the border with Thailand, by Siem Reap-based Dutch photographer Eric de Vries. The exhibits were on show for the first time tonight and will hang in the Chinese House on Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh for the next 8 days. Get along and have a look at how de Vries captured the life of the Cambodian army soldiers on duty at Preah Vihear. Read an article on Eric and his exhibition in today's Phnom Penh Post here.
Eric (white) and Jim Mizerski get a lesson in Khmer tattoos from Sophoin
Sophoin points to her favourite de Vries photo, which she says shows the strength of the Cambodian soldiers defending Preah Vihear
Sophoin and yours truly at tonight's exhibition at the Chinese House
Two of the Preah Vihear soldiers pass the time. Now recognised the soldier getting his hair cut as coming from Siem Reap.

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eBay auction

The Vann Nath painting that's for sale on eBay
A Vann Nath painting called Mother & Child of the Genocide, which he painted around 1980, has gone on sale on eBay, in a private auction. All of his other works from that time hang on the walls of Tuol Sleng and are owned by the Cambodian government. There are 9 days of the auction left to go. Its acrylic on canvas and is 31 inches by 21 inches.

Photographs rather than paintings will be the focus of an exhibition opening tonight at the Chinese House on Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh. Eric de Vries' recent trip to meet the troops stationed on top of Preah Vihear mountain are the basis of the 20 pictures on show in the exhibition, which begins at 7pm tonight. It's called Khmer Standoff and will run for the next eight days before part of the exhibition will be moved to the Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap for another showing. His assistant and my good friend Now has just arrived in town on one of her very rare outings to the capital to be present at the opening night and a few of her own photos, taken on the same Preah Vihear trip, are on sale in Eric's 4Faces gallery shop in Siem Reap.

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Blazing a trail

3 of our interested spectators as we passed through countless villages
Starting out on a smooth road in the countryside
Looking for something a bit different during your stay in Phnom Penh? Look no further than the quad-bike adventures that Blazing Trails can offer, from a sunset tour to a village adventure to a two-day, overnight pagoda stay and trek. I have just got back to the office after a 3 and a half hour quad ride around the villages southwest of the city, beginning at the company's HQ just 200 metres before the Choeung Ek memorial site. And it was great fun. Fortunately most of the tracks and paths we used were fairly dry or else I would've looked like something resembling the 'swamp monster' though the owner, Pasqua, says that when its really wet the quads and the adventure steps up to another level. I was quite happy with just a small layer of dirt, not being a motorbike enthusiast in the slightest, whereas my colleague, Nick Ray, was born on a bike I reckon. Whilst he was thrashing his 150cc automatic Chinese-made ATV Quad-bike, I was following a more sedate path, stopping to take photos and interact with the locals. At most of the villages, on cue the younger children would run to the side of the track, waving wildly, shouting and jumping for joy as we passed by, which is always guaranteed to make my day. For much of the trip we rode alongside the Prek Thnot River as it meandered its way through the rice fields and acts as the border between Phnom Penh and Kandal provinces. We stopped at a few pagodas, as well as a sugar-cane juice break and got to see exactly what most tourists miss if they stick to the tried and tested routes. It really is a great way to experience life in the countryside and to see the Cambodia I love, where the majority of the population still live a rural lifestyle. Do yourself a favour and checkout the folks at Blazing Trails for your up close and personal experience. And to make it even better, the prices are good value too. Link: Blazing Trails.
The Prek Thnot River was our companion for much of the route
I'm trying to negotiate a wooden bridge and oncoming traffic
Nick looking mean and purposeful at our sugar-cane juice stop
Another pose against a backdrop that is typically CambodianNick, the biker, doing his best to splash as much mud on himself as possible
A pagoda pose of course, rather than some rank awful bad driving!
Catching the day's lunch in a pond en route
When will this muppet stop posing?
Advice on how not to conduct yourself at a party
It wouldn't be a trip in the countryside without the regulation Neak Ta


Monday, September 21, 2009

Testimony complete

Duch in the dock
We have reached an important stage in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and in particular the trial of Comrade Duch, the former commandant of S-21 (Tuol Sleng). After five and a half months of witness testimony and evidence, the court will now move into its closing stages of final written submissions and closing arguments in November. We have seen 33 witnesses and 22 civil parties in the trial to-date, 351 allegations and 72 trial days in all. I attended just once on the day that David Chandler gave his expert testimony. It was clear to me that Duch was enjoying his moment in the spotlight, and though he has freely acknowledged his role as the head of S-21, he is not telling the whole truth and only reveals what he wants us to know. His defense has focused on the premise that he acted out of fear for his life and whilst that may've been partly true, his capability as head of the interrogation and extermination center tells a very different story. This man is responsible for at least 12,000 deaths, and probably many more, and deserves whatever the Tribunal can throw at him. His remorse is a sham and his guilt is clear, even though his former S-21 colleagues were less than forthcoming in their time on the stand. Nevertheless, the paper trail left by the Khmer Rouge and his own admissions, have sealed his fate.
A new book on the Tribunal will be launched by DC-Cam at Monument Books on Saturday 3 October (6pm). It's called On Trial: The Khmer Rouge Accountability Process and is a collection of essays by seven authors on what the trial represents. The authors, John D Ciorciari and Anne Heindel, are both legal advisors with DC-Cam and the 352-page book has a foreword by Youk Chhang, its director. John Ciorciarai has already published a 200-page book, The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, back in 2006. And we are still awaiting the release of Bou Meng's A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21, written by Vannak Huy, which has been put on hold during the trial of Comrade Duch. Also in the works is a monograph history of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum by Yin Nean, which should be out sometime next year.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

A bygone era

The Treasury building in the early part of the 20th century
I'm on a roll. These old postcard pictures are fascinating and show a Phnom Penh that is rapidly disappearing. In an earlier post I showed photos of the Treasury and the Town Hall buildings as they are today. Above and below are postcards of the same buildings from the early part of the 20th century.
The Town Hall residence in 1908
Finally, below is another view of the Pont de Verneville and the entrance into the Tonle Sap River. This bridge must've been an incredible sight in its heyday before it was demolished in the 1930s.

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Gone but not forgotten

The glorious Pont de Verneville, constructed at the turn of the century, but demolished just 30 years later
Unfortunately, the de Verneville Bridge was not part of the tour of the old French quarter of Phnom Penh as it was demolished at the beginning of the 1930s. Why such a glorious structure was not kept for posterity we shall never know, except that it no doubt, stood in the way of progress. The city's grand canal was constructed in 1894 and marked the European (French) quarter of the city. The canal was 3,100 metres long with three different arms; it entered from the Tonle Sap, ran east to west along Quai Verneville (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 the Pont de Verneville. Built a little later than the canal itself, this enormous structure was also called the Dollars Bridge and housed a mobile footbridge. Today it would've stood at the entrance to the Japanese Friendship Bridge that crosses the river. The only reminder we have today are these images from old postcards, which show some of the unique features of the city that are sadly now long gone.
A 1930 ariel view of the de Verneville Bridge (white) and the Tonle Sap River, just before the bridge was demolished and the canal filled in

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More from the tour

The Treasury on St 106 was built in 1885
The Treasury was built at the behest of the Resident Superieur Huyn de Verneville. The Khmer wording says General Department of National Treasury.
The tour of the old French quarter with the Heritage Mission began with our group of 30 interested people collecting together at the clock on Wat Phnom for an introduction. We crossed the road and headed over to the gardens that stand between Streets 106 and 108. As we stood next to the bridge we were told we were standing on the site of the city's grand canal that was constructed in 1894 and which marked the European (French) quarter of the city. The canal was 3,100 metres long with three different arms; we were standing on the southern section called Quai de Verneville (now St 106) and Quai Piquet (St 108), next to the modern reconstruction of the Treasury Bridge (aka the Stone Bridge or Naga Bridge) which connected the European part of town to the Chinese and Cambodian quarters in the south. The original bridge was built in 1892 by the architect Daniel Fabre. The canal was later filled in in the 1930s and the wide boulevard it created became a park. Along Street 106 and facing the park are a number of important buildings remaining from the time of the French administration. The Treasury was built in 1885 by the , whilst the Town Hall was constructed 5 years later. The latter was sold to a private company and now houses commercial offices alongwith some additions from the 1950s. At the corner and facing some of the colonial shophouses on Street 13 and the Place de la Poste is the former Bank of Indochina that still looks resplendent today having been carefully restored and cared for and converted into insurance offices and the exquisite Van's Restaurant. The Bank was constructed in 1893 with additions in 1920. The old bank vaults are now being used as offices. Our tour then continued around the Post Office area.
The former Town Hall, now a commercial enterprise, was constructed in 1890
Though obstructed by trees, this is the former Bank of Indochina, built in 1893 and now housing Van's Restaurant
The facade of the former Bank of Indochina, now office premises and a restaurant
The former Bank of Indochina was later a Cambodian bank and its vaults are used as offices today


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Heritage saviours?

One of the delapidated buildings that the Heritage Mission would like to save on St 108
So who are the Heritage Mission? Apart from organizing the tour of the old French quarter a couple of weeks ago, the Heritage Mission are intent on carrying out an inventory, surveys and analysis on the urban and religious heritage of Phnom Penh before its lost forever. In the race to build new structures, many of the old buildings that are the essence of the city's history, are being lost, despite a 1996 law that should protect cultural heritage. Heritage Mission are focused on raising awareness about this issue by highlighting the historical aspects of the buildings as well as implementing emergency conservation measures where possible. Their team is made up of five architects and an archaeologist alongwith a group of willing helpers. It was created in 2005 as a joint venture between the Cambodian Ministry of Culture & Fine Arts and the French Embassy. They will hold a conference on the construction of Phnom Penh at the French Cultural Center on 30 September at 7pm, which is open to all.
Listening to one of the Heritage Mission's speakers during the tour of the old French quarter


Providence provides

The cross on the roof of the chapel of the Sisters of Providence stands above nearby housing
A doorway into the chapel has been converted into a dwelling
How many people have visited the Convent of the Sisters of Providence in Phnom Penh? Hands up please. Oh not so many. However you can put that right at pretty much anytime. It's one of the historical landmark sites that we recently visited on the Heritage Mission tour of the old French quarter a few weekends ago. It effectively marks the boundary of the old French (or European) quarter but if you don't know its there, you'll miss it. Today most of the old convent site is unrecognisable, with the chapel being used by about 18 squatter families, though you can walk inside and look at the gabling on the ceiling, and some of the old decoration especially the floor tiles and the concrete cross that crowns the roof. The convent and chapel were constructed in 1881 by the religious sect, The Sisters of Providence of Portieux and was the only one of six churches in the city to survive the Khmer Rouge period. The Catholic Cathedral of Phnom Penh didn't fare so well. As you might expect, the Providence of Portieux congregation started in France and is now present in Belgium, China, Italy, Switzerland, Taiwan and Vietnam, in addition to Cambodia. The Sisters are still going strong in Cambodia and the nuns run a hostel for poor girls and disabled children in the city.
The facade of the chapel amidst the narrow alleyways that have been built around the former convent
The windows of the chapel of the Sisters of Providence
The original floor tiles are still in place amongst the squatter homes that have been erected
The ceiling of the former chapel with its original decoration
Makeshift brick lodgings now occupy the insides of the chapel

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An invitation to Chinese House

click to enlarge
Eric de Vries has an exhibition arising from his recent visit to Preah Vihear at Chinese House in Phnom Penh, starting this Tuesday (22nd September) and lasting for 8 days before he has another exhibition at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap, which'll last for a month. He's a busy boy. See more at his website.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Churning behind closed doors

Angkor Wat from the eastern entrance with the Churning bas-reliefs on the left side
The only view of the Churning bas-relief story currently available
Visitors to Angkor Wat at the moment are unable to see one of its crown jewels. The best of the bas-reliefs that cover the 800 metres of the outer wall of the central complex - The Churning of the Sea of Milk - is currently behind scaffolding and tarpaulins and you have to be content with large-scale photos of the relief and a description. The gallery ceiling and roof is leaking so its being replaced and the work, being undertaken by the World Monuments Fund, will be completed sometime in 2010. Previous restoration attempts haven't solved the problem so this new venture, alongwith the Apsara Authority and the German Apsara Conservation Unit, is doing the job properly and which will include inserting a thin lead membrane into the ceiling to keep out further moisture from affecting the reliefs. In the 1950s the EFEO team at Angkor Wat worked on the reliefs, disassembling the whole structure, installing a drainage system and reinforcing the walls. When civil war broke out in the 1970s the roof had not been put back so the bas-reliefs were exposed to the elements. In 1988, an Indian archaeology team resumed restoration work including reassembling the gallery roof. The Churning story, as you must know unless you've lived under a rock all your life, involves gods and demons pulling on a serpent which in turn produces amritar, the elixir of immortality from the Sea of Milk. But you knew that already.
A noticeboard about the work of the WMF
A large-scale photo of the Churning bas-relief
The southern section of the eat gallery which is out-of-bounds until next year. You can see where the water seepage effects the lighter stonework.

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Nail-biting week ahead

Khemara striker Kuoch Sokumpheak - vital to both club and country
We're just over a week away from the climax of the Cambodian football season and what a finish we have in store. We have the play-off final a week tomorrow - Saturday 26th - between the two underdogs Naga Corp and Khemara Keila, who beat their more fancied opponents last Saturday in the semi-finals. The winners of this game will win the Super 4 play-off and be ranked in top spot of the Cambodian Premier League. The 3rd place play-off will be between the big-guns Phnom Penh Crown and Preah Khan Reach, so Saturday will be great way to pull the curtain down on the CPL campaign. I expect a big crowd. Following hot on the heels of these two games will be Sunday's match at the Olympic Stadium between the Cambodian U-23 national team and their Singapore U-23 counterparts, kick-off at 3.30pm and a good test for Scott O'Donell's youngsters before they begin their SEA Games preparation in earnest. Singapore are one of the best prepared countries in Asia, their U-23 team play as Singapore Lions in their national league, so will be a big challenge for O'Donell's fledgling squad. The Cambodian squad have played a couple of practise matches so far but this will be a severe test for them. A new appointment as national team manager is Vy Piseth, who will form the link between the team and the federation though he's not part of the technical team that will coach the U-23s before and in Laos for the SEA Games. I hope to get out to see the U-23s in their run-up to Sunday's clash.
Back to that Super 4 CPL play-off final. Let's have a look at the strong and weak points of the finalists, starting with Naga. As we saw in the semi-final last week, if Sunday Okonkwo plays as well as he did against Crown, then he could be a key factor in the game, alongwith his tireless fellow Nigerian midfielders Friday Nwakuna and Yemi Oyewole. These three could be the difference, though Khemara have their own African threesome who could do exactly the same. Meas Channa on the right wing will cause anyone problems on his day, as will attacking full-back Sun Sovannarith whilst skipper Om Thavrak is a commanding figure at the back. A weak link for me is diminuative goalkeeper Chhorm Veasna. In the Khemara line-up, they have the country's best home-grown talent in Kuoch Sokumpheak, and this man can win games single-handedly, and frequently does. If his partnership up front with Nelson Olatunde or is it Nelson Oladiji (I've never been sure) clicks into gear then Khemara will win. Joel Omoraka has been dominant alongside Chan Dara since he joined Keila a few months ago and if they can snuff out the Naga threat, that will be significant. Khemara have a soft midfield quartet for me but Sokumpheak more than makes up for it and if anyone can win this game, he can. Incidentally, he will also be a key figure for the Cambodian U-23s the following day, so lets hope he can shrug off his recent injury worries. His presence in both matches is vital.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009


Today was spent making my way back on the Mekong Express bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, which kept to the schedule but I must say the buses are looking a bit worse for wear these days. For quite a while now they've been regarded as the best of the local bus companies but I think they need to overhaul some of their stock before the other companies overtake them on the comfort front. However, their timings on my two trips this week have been immaculate. I got back in at 2.30pm and went straight to the office for a catch-up. I also popped into the Phnom Penh Post offices to chat with Dan the sports editor before a meal at the new Fish restaurant on Sisowath Quay and some of their red snapper in batter, which was simply divine. Thoroughly recommended. I've decided against going to Kompong Cham for Pchum Ben over the next 3 days as much of the area I want to visit has been under water due to recent flooding, so I'll have to leave it for another day. Instead I'll stay home in a likely-to-be deserted city. Yesterday, after my guests left, I visited a few friends including Thanet at Tara Angkor - thanks for the lunch Thanet - and Sarah at The Sothea before Now and I joined the owners of the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse for a gorgeous meal of Khmer chicken curry, my favourite. After a drink in the 4Faces it was back to the HanumanAlaya for an early night.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Press talk + tickets

CPL play-off reports in the PPPost
Above are my match reports in Monday's Phnom Penh Post following on from last Saturday's first round of Super 4 play-offs in the Cambodian Premier League. Click here to read them online.
Below is my 3-day Angkor pass which I obtained late on Sunday afternoon, so I could watch the sunset for free that day. I was offered a 3-day pass over a week period or for 3 consecutive days. I close the former, and I was happy that the ticket-sellers offered me both options.
The front of my 3-day US$40 Angkor pass, ignore the mugshot
The back of my 3 days in a week pass, with 3 days punched out on the right

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A few pics for starters

Now proudly displays her own photographs for sale at the 4Faces Gallery, where she works with my pal Eric de Vries
Now's photos of her trip to Preah Vihear under her full name of Chhong Nav
Above and below are a few pictures from the last few days to start us off. Many more to come.
We set up our Hanuman safari tent at the secluded Ta Nei temple and this is the dining table arrangement
This week is a very important time for Buddhists in Cambodia, so the shrines within The Bayon are very busy
Now and myself at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse last night where we had dinner with friendsThe location of our breakfast spot this morning, next to the Angkor Wat moat, with Sokheng in attendance


A morning at Angkor Wat

The final morning of my guests' visit took in a sunrise (though the clouds hid the sun) over Angkor Wat, a temple-tour, a cooked breakfast alongside the moat surrounding the temple and then a blessing from the head monk at a pagoda nestled alongside The Bayon. They are packing ready for their flight as I type. There were quite a few people at Angkor Wat this morning, though not nearly as many as in the high season. After looking at where the sunrise would've been, from the two royal pools, we went inside the temple to get the low-down from Omnoth our guide as he walked us through the most important areas of Angkor Wat. The top level is still closed to tourists but the word is that it may re-open again at the end of this year, though numbers will be limited. Listening to Omnoth, on my first guided tour of Angkor Wat for over a decade, reminded me how important a knowledgeable guide is to ensure you get the full value from your visit to the temple. Its important to have someone bring it alive, and fill in all the small details, as well as giving the bigger picture stuff. And Omnoth is one of the very best at that. I bumped into Kim Rieng during my tour, he was guiding a couple of American tourists, and hope to catch up with him later this afternoon.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Shower time

Just time for a shower before going out for dinner. Up early for a dawn visit to a completely empty Ta Prohm then onto Banteay Srei, which has changed dramatically since my last visit a few years ago. Now you cannot get near the central structure - before you could clamber anywhere you liked - and the road that passed by the front entrance has disappeared into a brand new car parking and refreshment area. We stopped by the Aki Ra landmine museum on the way back for my first visit there too before I got dropped off at the back entrance of Angkor Wat to visit Now, who was helping her sister sell souvenirs on her day off. After lunch we took our guests to Angkor Thom to visit the South Gate, Bayon and East Gate and then a hotel inspection at Hotel De La Paix before shower-time. They are off to a dance show at La Residence, I'm off for dinner with Now at Shadow of Angkor. More later.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Hot stuff

An early night is on the cards as I'm up at 5am tomorrow morning for a dawn visit to Ta Prohm. I must be mad. I've just has dinner at 4Faces with Now and Eric de Vries after spending all afternoon with them, firstly at Neak Pean and then at the closed temple of Ta Nei where Eric was called in to take some pro photos of Hanuman's safari tent, which we set up next to the temple itself. It was hot work as there was no wind around Angkor this afternoon. It went very well, though with Now and myself as people extras, I'm not sure how much damage I've done to the pictures. This morning I collected some guests from the airport and we made a bee-line for Preah Ko and Bakong at Roluos before an excellent lunch at FCC preceded our afternoon fun and frolics.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunset central

Today's peaceful sunset over Srah Srang at Angkor
Now popped over to see me and we took the opportunity to get out to Angkor to have a look at three sunset locations, now that Phnom Bakheng, the prime spot for sunsets over the Western Baray, is a virtual circus. I was pleased to hear Sokuntheary, the ticket-seller, offer me both a three consecutive day pass or a three days in a week pass when I arrived at the ticket counter, as I'd heard you had to ask. We headed for the quiet temple of Eastern Mebon and saw the buses lining up as we passed Pre Rup, which didn't augur well for that temple. Meanwhile, Eastern Mebon was empty but the high tree-line negated it as a sunset location so we quickly headed back to Pre Rup. Here the Japansese tourist buses had spilled out their contents and with such a small temple by comparison to Bakheng, every available vantage spot was taken well before sunset arrived and ruined any hope of watching the sunset in peace and tranquility. Pre Rup has become a mini-Phnom Bakheng and don't forget this is the low season, so it'll only get worse after November. I had one last option as the sky darkened. Srah Srang was close enough so we got the car driver to drop us at the eastern end of the royal pool and we settled down to watch the sunset in that peace and quiet I was looking for. And considering the inclement weather of recent weeks, it was a lovely sunset too as the sky took on a hue of blues and yellows. Recomendation; if you are looking for your own sunset location and don't mind the crowds, then Bakheng will suit you. If you want some peace then you'll likely be on your own at Srah Srang or even Phnom Krom, if you don't mind the drive out towards the lake and a tough climb up the hill. The latter isn't everyone's cup of tea.
The view from the top of Pre Rup
Now poses for a picture at the top level of Pre Rup
This was the scene at the top level of Pre Rup and there were virtually no more spaces to be had
Some lovely cloud formations at Srah Srang
With just a family for company, Srah Srang was completely devoid of anyone else

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Water everywhere

I've just arrived in Siem Reap thanks to the spot-on schedule of the Mekong Express bus company. We left at 8.30am and got in at 2.30pm, with a 30 minute stop at Kompong Thom, where I said hello to my friends Sokhom and Chhunly as I munched my way through some chicken friend rice. Very noticeable along the route was the amount of water virtually everywhere but particularly as we passed through Kompong Cham and Kompong Thom provinces. Parts of the main road were flooded at Kompong Thmor though we drove through it easy enough, showering the pedestrians closeby the roadside. Work has been slow for Sokhom though a contract with Waseda University for ferrying students to Sambor Prei Kuk has kept him ticking over during the low season. I didn't have time to visit his new house but I will try on my way back in a few days. Chhunly has just finished high school and has hopes to go to university in Phnom Penh but the age old problem of finances may prevent her doing that as her parents can't afford it. Meanwhile she has been continuing her dance practice and gave me a picture of her in her traditional dance costume, and tells me she has a part-time job at the American restaurant in town. I'm just typing this in my room at the HanumanAlaya then I'll be out the door and heading to Angkor to catch the sunset (though its unlikely to be much cop with the weather we've been having) at one of the outlying temples. I have some vip clients arriving tomorrow morning and I'll be spending the next three days with them. It'll be interesting as I reckon I haven't had a formal tour guide experience around Angkor for more than a decade. Also lots of people to catch up with whilst I'm here especially Now, who I've booked for dinner tonight. She even has some of her own photos from her recent Preah Vihear trip for sale at 4Faces - another first for this young lady who has a suitcase full of them over the last couple of months.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

On a mission

The old Police Station, now empty, dates from 1925 on St 13 in the Post Office district
The sun was out this morning as I spent more than 3 hours wandering the former French district of Phnom Penh with a group of like-minded architecture enthusiasts and the folks from The Heritage Mission, bent on giving us the low-down on the plethora of colonial-inspired buildings that still populate the area between Wat Phnom and the riverside. Once surrounded by a canal, the area's buildings take on a number of inspirations from France, the Greeks and the Romans, alongwith the shop houses of the Chinese amongst the apartments and administrative edifices that housed the colonial admin departments. The tour was conducted in French, English and Khmer by half a dozen architects as we walked from Wat Phnom to the Post Office district and then caught a bus to other locations. It was hot work and though it lost a bit in translation, it certainly opened my eyes to the sheer number of interesting buildings in the vicinity that I was previously unaware of. And I'm sure there's a lot more. I'll post some photos in due course, for the time being, here's a few tasters.
The facade and lettering of the former Hotel Manolis in the Post Office area
Inside the apartments now housed within the former Hotel Manolis, built in 1910
A look at the frontage of the Central Post Office, originally constructed in the 1890s


Day of the underdog

Friday Nwakuna, the scorer of Naga's 2nd goal in their 2-nil success
Naga Corp manager Michael Thachnen was well pleased with his team's performance
It was a day for the underdog in the first stage of the Cambodian Premier League play-offs at the Olympic Stadium this afternoon. Phnom Penh Crown and Preah Khan Reach (PKR) have been swapping places at the top of the CPL throughout the regular season and must've fancied their chances of progressing through and meeting each other in the play-off final on the 26th. Instead the final will be between Naga Corp and Khemara Keila after the two unfancied teams caught their opponents cold and deserved their victories on the day. For Naga boss Michael Thachnen; "It was a great victory for us. We played to the plan we set out and on our day we can beat anyone," and so it proved as they swept aside the title favourites Phnom Penh with a goal in each half from two of their three Nigerian players, Sunday Okonkwo and Friday Nwakuna but it was a team effort that brought down the more-fancied Crown. Naga swamped midfield and took the game to their opponents, which unsettled Crown and proved to be their undoing. They never really recovered from Okonkwo's opener after ten minutes but will no doubt point to a disallowed Tieng Tiny effort that went in Naga's favour. They also lost Peng Panharong to a red card just before the interval. Nwakuna capped a fine display with a 2nd for Naga five minutes from the end that sparked off celebrations that were richly deserved. In the second game, Khemara's threadbare squad took the game to PKR and went in front two minutes before half-time when Sok Rithy turned a cross into his own net. It was nip and tuck in the 2nd half before Nelson Olatunde whacked in a killer blow seven minutes from time to give the final an unlikely but deserved line-up. Roll on the 26th of this month.
The Naga line-up that took the club to this year's CPL play-off final
Phnom Penh Crown simply didn't live up to the hype against Naga
The two teams enter the fray at Olympic Stadium today, Naga led by Om Thavrak
It's celebration time for Naga at the final whistle
Nelson Olatunde scored one and also claimed the first as well for Khemara
The successful Khemara Keila coach Ung Kan Yanith
Khemara Keila line up in the pouring rain before their play-off clash
Preah Khan Reach once again didn't live up to expectations
Celebrations for Khemara at the final whistle
The Khemara bench is a hive of activity and congratulations


One of the lucky ones

One of the two Moni Mekhala's receives plaudits from her fans at the end of the show
Well, I was one of the lucky ones to get into watch the Khmer Arts Ensemble perform at Chenla Theatre Friday night, but many more went away very disappointed. The KAE troupe did a marvellous job onstage with a stunning classical performance but offstage, especially the scenes in front of the theatre, were embarrasing for the organisers, the French Cultural Center (CCF). Intent on giving everyone a chance to see the Lakhaon Festival, free of charge at Chenla all week, they adopted a first come, first served policy, which was quite simply disastrous. Khmers don't know how to queue at the best of times, but as soon as there was a whiff of the doors opening, bodies just piled forward leaving those in the queue, having patiently waited their turn for up to 2 hours, without a hope in hell of getting into see the show. The same had happened last Monday, when I was one of those standing in the queue, so clearly the organisers had not learnt their lesson or addressed the problem. The crowd-control security were an absolute joke and should never be employed by anyone ever again. In the theatre the organisers were proudly announcing how many people had been through the doors all week, conveniently forgetting to mention the hundreds who were turned away, fuming with how badly organised the events were. It's a great idea to provide these cultural activities free to all but to prevent the appalling scenes witnessed Monday and Friday (I didn't go any other night but heard it was a similar story all week) the CCF need to clearly re-think their ticketing policy. I suggest they take a leaf out of the Amrita way of organising their events where they make tickets available beforehand to interested parties and avoid the free-for-all that ensued Monday and Friday. Rant over.
Now back to the successful part of the evening, the wonderful performance from the KAE company. The story of Ream Eyso (the baddie) and Moni Mekhala (the goodytwoshoes) is one of the Khmer classics and with her own interpretation, KAE founder Sophiline Cheam Shapiro brought the stage to life with splashes of colour and outstanding co-ordination amongst her onstage team. It looked great in every respect, sounded wonderful as well and the audience responded accordingly with copious applause throughout. With Van Molyvann and Chheng Phon as the special guests it was a fitting spectacle and a reminder that hours of practice does indeed make perfect. If you get the opportunity to see the KAE in action, grab it with both hands. I was fortunate to see them rehearsing the piece on Saturday at their Takhmau headquarters but the onstage show was infinitely better. My grateful thanks to Veasna for arranging for my invite and seat - I was so glad I wasn't one of the many disappointed trudging their way home. And it was great to see so many well-known dance faces including Belle and Sam Sathya in the audience.
Moni Mekhala in a scene from the beginning of the performance
The Khmer Arts Ensemble cast take their bow at the end of the show
Flowers were handed to the main performers, 2 Moni Mekhala's and 2 Ream Eyso's
The whole stage cast receive the applause of the packed house at Chenla


Friday, September 11, 2009

An Englishman at S-21

The image of John Dewhirst after his capture and incarceration at Tuol Sleng
The only Englishman known to have been murdered at Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, in late 1978, John Dewhirst, is the focus of this article in The Daily Mail newspaper yesterday.

The Englishman butchered in Cambodia's killing fields: The terrifying tale of the British tourist who blundered into horror of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge - by Andrew Malone, The Daily Mail (UK)

At an old school building in Cambodia, the startled face of John Dewhirst stares down from the wall. A teacher from Newcastle, Dewhirst is the only British citizen with his official photograph on display. It's a distinction his sister, Hilary, will curse until the day she dies. Clean-shaven, his long hair neat for the cameras, Dewhirst's portrait is one of thousands pinned around the building. They were taken by the perpetrators of one of the darkest episodes in the history of the human race. Between 1975 and 1979, the school was renamed Tuol Sleng - Hill Of The Poisonous Trees. The sound of children playing and laughing was replaced by screams for mercy as horror stalked the classrooms and corridors.

The communist Khmer Rouge had seized control of Cambodia and transformed the school into a 're- education centre' to hold enemies of 'agrarian socialism' (a return to the Stone Age with peasants working by hand in the fields, and all modern aspects of life outlawed). Pol Pot, the French-educated Khmer Rouge leader, decreed a new Cambodian calendar to start again at Year Zero - a true beginning of the world in which all should live as they did at the dawn of time. Pot, who styled himself Brother Number One, ordered that the entire population should live off the land, with no medicine and starvation rations. Dissidents were eliminated. 'To keep you is no benefit - to destroy you no loss,' was his favoured mantra. After driving the entire Cambodian population out of towns and cities, the Khmer Rouge separated those who could read, write or wore glasses - anyone, in fact, who betrayed signs of being educated. They were taken to Tuol Sleng, where the classrooms were modified in anticipation of their arrival.

Desks and chairs were removed and replaced with iron bed frames, manacles and instruments of torture. In a chilling echo of the Nazi death camps, rooms were set aside for 'medical experiments'. With the borders sealed, inmates were sliced open and had organs removed with no anaesthetic. Some were drowned in tanks of water. Others were attached to intravenous pumps and every drop of blood was drained from their bodies to see how long they could survive. Electric shocks to the genitals were routine. The most difficult prisoners were skinned alive. Babies were held by the feet and swung headfirst against walls, smashing their skulls. Other inmates of Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, were taken to an infamous place that later became known as the Killing Fields, a beautiful orchard just a few miles away on the outskirts of the capital city, Phnom Penh. There, prisoners were ordered to dig their own graves. Then, to save on bullets, they were bludgeoned to death with iron bars and chunks of wood. Up to 17,000 perished in Tuol Sleng; across Cambodia, almost two million - a quarter of the population - died. Brother Number One brushed aside his blood-lust, saying: 'He who protests is an enemy, he who opposes is a corpse.'

So how did a Briton, on a sailing trip around the Far East with friends, become caught up in this horror? Only now can the full, awful truth about what really happened to John Dewhirst and his companions finally be told. Like much that took place during the years of Cambodia's genocide, there is no happy ending to the story of the Geordie captured by Pol Pot. Indeed, his fate may have been even worse than his friends and family feared at the time. Recently, at the historic trial of the camp commandant, Kaing Guek Eav, disturbing testimony emerged that the 26-year-old and his companions were not executed swiftly, as previously thought. The special UN court in Cambodia heard harrowing claims that the Western sailors were taken outside and burned alive in the streets of the capital, having first endured months of torture and being forced to sign lengthy confessions about their true identities as American spies. Cheam Soeu, 52, a guard at Tuol Sleng, told how he saw fellow Khmer Rouge torturers lead one of the foreign men out on the street at night and force him to sit on the ground. A car tyre was put over him and set alight. 'I saw the charred torso and black burned legs [afterwards],' he said.

Pol Pot had personally given instructions that all evidence of the existence of Dewhirst and his friends was to be destroyed. In a message to his 'fellow brothers' in the Khmer Rouge, their leader stated: 'It's better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.' Kaing Guek Eav, a former teacher, was in charge of Tuol Sleng. Also known as Duch, he is one of five former Khmer Rouge leaders to be tried for crimes against humanity. A cold-blooded killer, Duch used to 'mark' the confessions of his prisoners, sending the papers back to the cells with notes in the margins suggesting improvements to grammar and sentence structure. Every prisoner was forced to pose for photographs soon after capture. The Khmer Rouge leadership was determined to keep an accurate record of all the 'enemies of the revolution' - and even took photos of some of their victims being tortured. They included people caught speaking a foreign language, scavenging for food or crying for dead loved ones. Some Khmer Rouge loyalists were killed for failing to find enough 'counter-revolutionaries' to execute. Duch was a trusted confidant of Pol Pot, and has confirmed that the Westerners were doomed from the moment they were seized and taken to Tuol Sleng. 'I received an order from my superiors that the Westerners had to be smashed and burned to ashes,' he told the court. 'It was an absolute order from my superiors.' This is confirmed by secret Khmer Rouge documents. 'Every prisoner who arrived at S-21 was destined for execution. The policy at S-21 was that no prisoner could be released. Prisoners brought to S-21 by mistake were executed in order to ensure secrecy and security.'

Until the awful events of 1978, John Dewhirst had led an idyllic existence. Born in Newcastle, the family moved to Cumbria when John was 11. A sports enthusiast and climber, he relished outdoor life and spent his boyhood roaming the Cumbrian countryside. He was keen on shooting, fishing and canoeing - yet his older sister, Hilary, says he had a sensitive side, too. As he grew older, John developed a love of literature; he wrote poems and hoped to become a novelist. After finishing his A-levels, and much to the pride of his father, a retired headmaster and his mother, who ran an antiques shop, John won a place to study English at Loughborough University. After finishing his degree and his teacher training, he decided to explore the world - buying a one-way ticket to Tokyo, where he planned to work for a year teaching English, earning enough money to travel back overland to the UK. A popular, laid-back individual, John became good friends with other young westerners in Tokyo. New Zealander Kerry Hamill and Stuart Glass, a Canadian, were part of his circle of friends and the pair owned an old motorised junk called Foxy Lady. Seeking adventure, John quit his teaching post, along with his part-time job on the Japan Times newspaper, and joined Hamill and Glass on a trip sailing round the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand. They planned to sell Foxy Lady in Singapore and travel on overland. Days were spent fishing and sunbathing, between steering the boat to its next destination. Nights were spent eating fish, drinking beer and looking at the stars. He kept in touch regularly with Hilary, writing her letters once a month. 'He was very happy and very interested in what he was experiencing of a new and different part of the world,' she says.

Then, in early 1978, disaster struck. The Foxy Lady drifted into Cambodian waters. A Khmer Rouge military launch steamed towards them. Stuart Glass, the skipper, was shot dead immediately. Dewhirst and Hamill were seized and taken by military truck to Phnom Penh. At the time, the full scale of the horror inside Cambodia had yet to reach the outside world. Hilary heard that her brother had been captured only after a telephone call from the Foreign Office. A charming and pleasant young man, she still thought John might be able to talk his way to freedom. It was not to be. Duch, the camp commander, was determined to follow his orders to the letter. He instructed his Khmer Rouge underlings to get to work. The torture lasted a month. John Dewhirst and Kerry Hamill endured unimaginable terror. Both wrote lengthy 'confessions'. Under duress, the Englishman admitted that he was a CIA agent on a secret mission to sabotage the Khmer Rouge regime. He claimed that his father had also been a CIA agent, using the cover of 'headmaster of Benton Road Secondary School', and that he had been trained in modern spying techniques at Loughborough. Headed 'Details of my course at the Annexe CIA college in Loughborough, England,' Dewhirst writes that he was taught how to use weapons as part of his induction into the U.S foreign intelligence agency. Mixing elements of his own life story with fiction to satisfy his captors, the Briton also claimed that there were other CIA colleges in the UK - Cardiff, Aberdeen, Portsmouth, Bristol, Leicester and Doncaster. He said his 'handler' was a man called 'Colonel Peter Johnson', and that his university bursar was a CIA major. The confession is signed and dated 5.7.1978. Dewhirst's thumbprint is alongside his signature. Like thousands of other victims in the former school building, which is now a memorial to the dead, the 'confession' was dictated to him by Duch and his interrogators.

John's parents both died before he was captured. At home in Cumbria, 31 years on, Hilary Dewhirst did not attend Duch's trial - at which he initially pleaded guilty. Instead, Rob Hamill, the brother of John's sailing companion Kerry, spoke for both of them, having been handed a note from Hilary to present to the court about her feelings. Facing Duch for the first time, Hamill spoke of wanting to make his brother's killer suffer. 'I've imagined you shackled, starved and clubbed. I have imagined you being nearly drowned and having your throat cut.' But he added: 'It was you who should bear the burden, you to suffer, not the families of the people you killed. From this day forward, I feel nothing towards you. 'To me, what you did removed you from the ranks of being human.' That is a view shared by Hilary. Now a solicitor in Cumbria, she has not uttered John's name in more than three decades. 'I have experienced death and grief. This is different. It's everlasting,' she tells me. 'I can accept death completely. It's what happened to my brother that I can't accept. The fact that the torture was so extreme, lasting not half a day, but months, makes it an inhuman act. It takes the humanity of the person. The person my brother had been, was taken away during that torture. For a human being to do that to another human being - that's not a human act. I don't know how my brother died. I have heard reports of people bleeding to death and having their heads smashed from behind beside mass graves. I don' t know if knowing what really happened can make me feel any worse. If I feel like this after 31 years, a whole country must feel the same.' But she also hopes that some good will come from the trial of her brother's killers. 'What happened in Cambodia isn't generally known to today's generation,' she says. 'It should be part of history lessons. People should remember what happened there.'

The Khmer Rouge was finally driven from power in 1979 after neighbouring Vietnam invaded. What was discovered there shocked the world: the death rate was far higher than during the Nazi holocaust. Pol Pot remained a free man, however, living with the rump of his Khmer Rouge cadres near the border with Thailand until his death in 1998. 'We need to understand the person [Duch] standing there,' adds Hilary. 'He's supposed to be full of remorse. It's an opportunity for him to be held accountable. But, personally, I can't see how it can possibly make any difference.' Yet the trial will help ensure that what happened to John Dawson Dewhirst - proud Englishman, sports fanatic and man of letters - will never be forgotten, along with two million others slaughtered in Cambodia's Killing Fields.

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Quite serious flooding in the north of the country is threatening my proposed trip to Kompong Cham and Kratie in the latter part of next week during the Pchum Ben holidays. Yesterday, parts of Kratie and Kompong Thom for example were under 2 metres of water after rains in the past week. National Highway 7 was closed in two locations outside the provincial capital of Kratie. My plan was for a moto ride along the west bank of the Mekong River, across to Chhlong and up to Kratie for an overnight stop. Then back down and along the east bank of the river but with thousands of hectares of land and over 2,000 homes having been flooded, it looks like I'll have to leave that trip for another day.
Tonight at 7pm is the Khmer Arts Ensemble performance of Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala at the Chenla Theatre - the same show that I saw in rehearsal at their Takhmau home last Saturday. Fingers crossed I can get in to watch the show this time after my aborted attempt to watch the Royal Ballet on Monday evening.
I'm really looking forward to the architectural tour on Saturday morning with The Heritage Mission folks around the old French district of Phnom Penh. The tour party has been limited to about 30 I think and I know many other people have been unable to get a place. It's scheduled for 3 hours. The architectural heritage of Phnom Penh is unique and as much as possible needs to be done to raise awareness of what the city has today, so it's not lost tomorrow in case the Khmer preference for something new takes precedence amongst the city planners. This month has been designated Our City month and there are various events taking place to mark it, including this tour. One date to look out for is Wednesday 30th September at the CCF Cinema (7pm) when 150 years of Urban Architecture in the city will be discussed and dissected.
On Sunday I will be off up to Siem Reap for a few days but before I go, my concentration will be firmly fixed on the proceedings at the Olympic Stadium as the first leg of the Cambodian Premier League football play-offs take place. In the regular season, Phnom Penh Crown came out on top and will face Naga Corp, who finished fourth, at 2pm. Whilst I have a preference for Naga to win, I fear Phnom Penh Crown will be too strong for them. At 4pm, second-placed Preah Khan Reach take on Khemara Keila, who finished 3rd. If Kuoch Sokumpheak's ankle injury clears up and he plays for Khemara they will win, mark my words. The winners of the two games will meet to decide who will be crowned as the CPL league champions in two weeks time, 26th September.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Look before it's gone

The frontage of these shop houses on Street 108 have undergone only minor changes since their 1931 counstruction
I'll be taking my place this Saturday on an architectural tour of the old French district known as Le Quartier de la Poste of Phnom Penh provided by The Heritage Mission - a bilateral project between the Cambodian Ministry of Culture & Fine Arts and the French Embassy - which is part of a month long 'Our City' campaign to raise awareness about the what the city currently has and what it could lose in the face of reckless development. Today the Phnom Penh Post has an article on a row of six row houses at 73-78 on Street 108, built in 1931 in the Neo-Romanesque style favoured around that time. I took these photos of the houses towards the back end of last year. The row houses were popular from the early 1800s as colonialists built cities based on European styling, both in street and building design. These row houses were designed to work together and appear as one large structure, with arched windows, doors and columns all aimed at influencing the eye. As the houses were built around Asia, the new residents often converted the ground floor frontage into a small business and they became known as shop houses. This example of how the French influenced the look and feel of Phnom Penh will be the bread and butter of the tour on Saturday. On the first floor of each of the six houses on Street 108 there are two windows and a door, all arched, leading onto a small balcony. The top of the buildings have a railing bordering the tiled roofs and two of the facades are decorated with scrollwork, monograms and the year of construction, 1931. Examples of this type of building can be found in other major centres such as Kratie, Kompong Cham, Kampot, Siem Reap, Battambang and even sleepy Chhlong.
A tailor's shop now dominates the frontage of this shop house on Street 108

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

U-23 gossip

The Army's exciting winger Nov Soseila, definitely one to watch for the future
I should have confirmation of the Cambodia Under-23 football squad anytime soon, as they are currently preparing for the SEA Games in Laos in December under national coach Scott O'Donell. Whilst the Cambodian Premier League season has been underway, the squad have got together sporadically though once the Super 4 play-offs end, the squad will start full-time preparation for the tournament, which will include a training camp in Vietnam. There are other plans on the table to give the team the best possible chance of success and foremost amongst them is the friendly fixture against the Singapore U-23s at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday 27th September. This follows on immediately after the final play-off games the day before, not ideal but it was the only time such strong opposition as Singapore were available and the chance to pit our U-23s against them was too good an opportunity to miss. I want to get along to a training session at the Old Stadium (being used as the national football center is waterlogged) and have a look at the full squad as well as getting the thoughts of Scott O'Donell ahead of the important next couple of months of preparation. What I do know is that the majority of the squad is made up of players from Preah Khan Reach, the Ministry of National Defense and Phnom Penh Crown with Build Bright, Khemara and Naga also supplying members of the 25-strong squad, which will be reduced to 20 come the SEA Games. It doesn't take a genius to work out some of the names and it would be a major shock if the talents of keeper Samreth Seiha, centre-half Tieng Tiny, winger Prak Mony Udom and strikers Kuoch Sokumpheak, Keo Sokngorn and Khim Borey aren't in the 25, though Borey has been out of action for much of the CPL campaign. Having watched the majority of the CPL games this season, I would also stake the claims of the Army's exciting winger Nov Soseila, Phuchung Neak striker Heng Sokly, BBU skipper and midfield lynchpin Chhun Sothearath, Preah Khan's dominant defender Sok Rithy as well as the Army keeper Sou Yaty, who has swapped places with Samreth Seiha for much of the season. More as I get it.

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A buffet of news

All a bit hectic right now. Had a quick trip out to Kompong Speu yesterday afternoon for work reasons and followed that with a business dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel to launch the new national flag carrier, Cambodia Angkor Air, to selected tour operators from both Cambodia and Vietnam. Apsaras, folk dances, pinpeat orchestra, singers, the works, not to mention a gorgeous buffet from which I stuffed my face. There was also a presentation and a lucky draw as is the norm with these events. The Vietnamese presence was pretty overwhelming, with all of the carrier's executive committee coming from over the border, as well as a fam trip of Vietnam tour companies who'd made the trip over too. Nice people. It didn't leave me time to make another fruitless attempt at getting into the Lakhaon Festival at Chenla and I'll wait until Friday's Khmer Arts Ensemble performance, before risking another bout of frustration.
I don't tend to do much news reporting on here but worth a mention is the flooding around Kampot and Sihanoukville which has resulted in some lost lives. The heavy rain is expected for the rest of this week. I hope it calms down next week as I'm due to get up to Siem Reap for a few days, with some important work clients, and am planning on spending a few days in Kompong Cham and Kratie during the Pchum Ben festival in the latter part of next week. Not definite but it'll be nice to have a break and do some nosing around the countryside. This Saturday my schedule is a busy one, with the start of the football Super 4 play-offs at Olympic Stadium as well as a morning tour of the old French district of Phnom Penh with the Heritage Mission, who are promoting architecture month under the banner of Our City. Further ahead in October, my brother Tim is planning a visit and I've tentatively pencilled in my first-ever visit to Northeast Thailand to take in the Khmer temples in Isaan - something I've wanted to do for many years. Finally, on the news front, fresh investigations have been mooted at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal with the possibility of indicting another five suspects, despite a dire warning from the PM here, who is dead set against such moves. Five are already in the dock - the Duch trial is progressing and the other 4 are expected to be tried in the new year - and this would take the total up to ten if it goes ahead, though that IF word is a big one.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Final instalment

One of the Khmer Arts Ensemble's classical dancers
The hand fans add a splash of colour to this traditional dance
The final instalment of my photos from the rehearsal of the Khmer Arts Ensemble that I witnessed on Saturday morning at their Takhmau base. The company's version of the classic story Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala will be performed at Chenla Theatre this coming Friday as part of the Lakhaon Festival. Let's hope that its easier to get in than it was Monday evening. The Khmer Arts headquarters is an open-sided theatre in a traditional design, a little akin to the Chan Chhaya Pavilion that fronts the Royal Palace.
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro helping one of her leading dancers
The photo shows the sampots worn by the dancers - the different colours denote male and female characters
The company line-up for their end of rehearsal bow
Time for a rest before the girls introduced themselves individually
A Q&A after the performance allowed the dancers and the audience to speak
Sophiline introduces the company's master teacher Penh Yom
The pinpeat orchestra led by music teachers Meas Saem and Ros Sokun
Welcome to Khmer Arts Academy in Takhmau
The imposing background to the rehearsal venue at Takhmau


Monday, September 7, 2009

Cheesed off

Tonight was supposed to be one of those pleasant occasions where I watch the Royal Ballet of Cambodia perform, something they rarely do, at the Chenla Theatre as part of the Lakhaon Festival being hosted by the French Cultural Center. I had a bad feeling when I heard the performances were free to one and all and were on a first come, first served basis. The last time I went to the Chenla to watch a free show, no pre-booked seats, it was bedlam as what appeared to be half of the city turned up. And so it proved again tonight. I got to Chenla about 40 minutes before tonight's show was due to begin and took my place in one of about four queues that snaked back from the closed entrance, surrounded by the inept security staff. More people arrived and as Khmers are prone to do, pushed in at the front of the queue before a guy at the front announced in Khmer that the theatre was full. It was still half an hour until the show began and the couple of hundred people waiting outside were told they should come back tomorrow as there was no more seats left for tonight. The only people allowed to enter were those with an invitation, even though I'd been told that you couldn't pre-book a seat. To say I was cheesed off is an understatement. The CCF need to take a leaf out of the Amrita book of holding an event where tickets are issued to people interested enough to get one before the gig, rather than open the doors to all, until you can't fit anymore in. It doesn't give people who can't get to the venue a few hours beforehand, a hope in hell of seeing a rare performance by the country's leading classical dancers and that stinks. Nice idea to make it free for all but first come is a really crap way of organising such an important cultural event - especially if you're left on the outside like I was tonight!


2nd instalment

The character of Moni Mekhala and her magic jeweled ball
Here is the 2nd instalment of photos from the Khmer Arts Ensemble's rehearsal staged at Takhmau on Saturday morning, in prep for their Friday night performance at Chenla Theatre this week (which is free and starts at 7pm). Throughout the hour long rehearsal, the founder of the company Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was providing tips and gestures for the dancers to follow accompanied by her dance mistress Penh Yom, a former dancer and teacher herself.
Coloured fans play an important role in this revised story of Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro providing some vital pointers to improve the performance
The blue fans denote waves and clouds
More practice in preparation for Friday's first public showing of this work
Three of the company's dancers pass close by
The open-sided theatre rehearsal area at the Takhmau HQ of Khmer Arts Ensemble


Watching rehearsals

The Khmer Arts Ensemble dancers go through some warm-up routines
The rehearsal I viewed on Saturday morning took over an hour as the Khmer Arts Ensemble troupe of classical dancers were put through their paces by teacher Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, adding some final touches before the group perform at the Chenla Theatre this coming Friday as part of the Lakhaon Festival that's already underway at Chenla every night this week. The story is the well-known Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala, a standard amongst the classical performers who have all attended the Royal University of Fine Arts before joining the professional touring troupe at Khmer Arts, located in Takhmau. The company rehearse both old standards and new works created by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro every morning from Tuesday through til Saturday at their headquarters. This is the first group of photos from the rehearsal as the dancers were warming up the main performance, watched by about 30 or so interested visitors.
Practice makes perfect for one of the company
A classic pose for this dancer, note the knee supports underneath the sampot
Each dancer must develop great strength in their feet, legs and arms to be able to dance for long periods
The girls kept expert formation and timing throughout the practice, developed over many months of rehearsals
Sophiline was giving advice and support throughout the practice session


Press Talk

Saturday's football round-up made the back page of today's PPPost
Sunday's games on the inside back page of the PPP
A brief look at Uche Prince Justine, Spark's goal machine
Here are my match reports in today's Phnom Penh Post from the weekend's Cambodian Premier League games, as well as a brief on Spark's marksman Uche Prince Justine. They should be online sometime today.

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Miserable old bugger

Spot the miserable so & so in the shorts
Nick Sells captures a candid moment during Saturday's football as the television cameras and a miserable looking old bugger in shorts (that's me) await the arrival of the teams onto the pitch at Olympic Stadium. I claim that the sun was in my eyes hence my scrunched up face. Others claim I'm just a miserable old sod. You decide.

It seems that an administrator from a local expat forum has already made his choice in the matter. This was a post he put up a few days ago:
Some people have a fondness for Andy 'boring' Brouwer (if there was ever a Cambodian anorak-wearing trainspotting blog then Andy would run it and he'd probably have a packed lunch of processed cheese sandwiches lovingly made by his old mum) and say that he runs the best blog in town, but my own personal blogspot fave is...
I'm instructing my lawyers as I type. I have never worn an anorak in my life but I was a trainspotter in my youth.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Never mind the quality...

Kirivong's Juliuos Chukwumeka who netted a hat-trick against Preah Khan today
Today's Cambodian Premier League football at Olympic Stadium was a bit of a mixed bag with Naga narrowly beating Post Tel 1-0 and Kirivong outgunning Preah Khan (PKR) 5-4, though with Naga and PKR already qualified for the Super 4 play-offs, they both fielded very weakened teams and as a result, the quality of football suffered. There was also confusion regarding the 5th place finish between Ministry of National Defense (MND) and Kirivong that was only resolved by a look at the CPL rulebook by the executive committee. Everyone had presumed that if Kirivong won today, then as the two teams were level on points, the 5th spot - which gets a big cash prize - would be decided on goal difference. Wrong. The rules state that games between the two teams concerned will decide the ranking and in that respect MND get the nod, drawing 2-2 and winning 2-0 in their head to heads.
Naga had 5 players suspended today and another five regulars sat on the bench, so began with an inexperienced all-Khmer line-up and it showed. Post Tel should've beaten them if Durosinmi Gafar had taken his chances. Instead, a header from Sun Samprathna just after half-time was enough for the win.
Preah Khan were also shorn of 3 players on suspensions and another 7 regulars rested, and in their case, they paid the price. With 6 goals in the first 30 minutes, it was fun to watch the ball going in like a pinball but it wasn't pretty defending by any stretch of the imagination. PKR led 4-3 at the interval with goals from Olisa Onyemerea (2), Michael Ikenwa and Keo Kosal, with Kirivong's coming from Vin Nhek Troeung and two from the injury-returning Juliuos Chukwumeka including a penalty. Within 2 minutes of the restart, Kirivong were leading 5-4 and that's how it ended. Him Salam and a hat-trick goal from Chukwumeka turned it around and left PKR sunk. When they then took off their two African strikers it was clear they weren't interested in winning this particular match.
The play-offs, which will decide the final CPL rankings, begin next Saturday with Phnom Penh Crown (1st) facing Naga (4th), and Preah Khan (2nd) meeting Khemara Keila (3rd). The winners and losers will then meet again on the 26th.
A Preah Khan line-up that we won't see again in a hurry
Naga's central defensive lynchpin and scorer, Sun Samprathna
A makeshift Naga Corp line-up that scraped through 1-nil today
2 Post Tel players try to apprehend a runaway umbrella in the wind


Talking with The Prince

In conversation with The Prince after his hat-trick performance yesterday
Without doubt, the most exciting discovery of the current Cambodian Premier League season has been the prolific goalscorer and the CPL's leading marksman with 21 goals in 18 games, Uche Prince Justine of Spark FC. With his muscular physique, blistering pace over 20 yards and an ability to hit the ball hard, 'The Prince' has left many of his opponents trailing in his wake as he's taken the CPL by storm and all at the tender age of 18. He'll be 19 at the end of next month. His goals tally and his performances look even more impressive when you realise how young he still is. Justine arrived in Cambodia last November on a mission. "To play football in Nigeria you have to be very good and very strong. I was just a little boy and I needed to improve myself abroad before I return to play in my homeland. Many of my fellow countrymen do the same because its hard to get a contract with a professional Nigerian team. There are just so many players competing for a few places. Coming to Cambodia, signing my first professional contract, playing with Spark and scoring so many goals in my first season has been very good for me. I have learnt a lot and this will help me improve my game," he told me during our chat in the Olympic grandstand after he'd wrapped up his season with a hat-trick against Phnom Penh Crown.

"When I arrived last year, I joined the Samnang Development Academy team here in Phnom Penh, who help and guide young men like me who want to play their football abroad, especially here in Cambodia. A friend of mine, who played here, told me that I could succeed in Cambodia and that's why I came. Samnang shared the same training pitch as Spark and after a couple of trial games, I signed on for Spark." It was a marriage between two newcomers to the CPL, as Spark had just been promoted. "I joined Spark as they were new to the league and so was I, so I wanted us to grow and learn together. And that's what has happened. We've all learned so much, we are no longer boys in the league and our experience will make us better next year. My aim was to make sure we were not relegated and my goals have helped us do that, so I am happy for the team and my teammates. It's not just me, the whole team have improved so much and helped me score so many goals." With his 21 league goals out of Spark's tally of 30, it's clear to see how much of an impact he's had, as Spark finished their season one place above the relegation zone. There was talk mid-term of him joining Phnom Penh Crown during the transfer window, but that didn't materialize and instead, he simply got on with doing what he does best, scoring goals. With their final game against Crown just completed, I asked Justine about a couple of opportunities that he'd had in the game when he elected to pass and not shoot. "Football is a team game and I truly believe that. We play as a team at Spark and if I think I have a 40% chance to score but someone else has a 60% chance, then I will pass. As I did in today's game. Of course I love to score goals but I also want my team to succeed, and that's very important to me, because they are my friends as well as my teammates." I am absolutely convinced that with a more selfish streak in him then Justine would've scored many more goals this season, and I'm sure that will come as he gets older and more experienced.

So where did he learn to play his football? "I was born in Imo State in southeast Nigeria. Like every boy in my country their dream is to play football. I played for the Arugo FC Academy, which is a nursery club for youngsters, up until I was fifteen. I was lucky to then join the Orashi Academy and did well. I scored two goals that helped them win the play-off to get into the National Amateur league when I was seventeen and just before I came here. But I was just a little boy in Nigeria and I wanted to succeed, so decided to try and do that in a different country and environment. I have been happy to do that in Cambodia." He's certainly proved himself in the CPL this season and he puts that down to confidence in his own ability and as a devout Christian, he gives thanks to God as well. As an Imolite abroad, he'll hope to follow the lead taken by the most famous Imo State son, Kanu Nwankwo, who starred for Ajax and Arsenal, as well as won the Olympic football gold medal with Nigeria. For now, Justine is happy with his progress and with the season coming to a close, thoughts will now turn to the next stage of his development and career. With such a fantastic first season in Cambodia, I'm sure his exploits will have alerted clubs around the region and Spark will face an almighty challenge in holding onto their rising teenage star.

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The beautiful game

The CPL's leading scorer signed off the season with a hat-trick - Uche Prince Justine of Spark FC
There was no stopping Mohamadou Ousmanou Saturday, he scored a hat-trick too for Phnom Penh Crown
The Cambodian Premier League served up another veritable feast of football Saturday afternoon with 15 goals scored in the two games, two hat-tricks and plenty of goalmouth action to entertain the fans at Olympic Stadium. If there's one thing you can pretty much guarantee in every CPL game you watch, then it'll be goals, and usually, plenty of them. The opening match between Phnom Penh Crown and Spark literally ignited after half-time with Crown running out 6-3 winners, though for much of the game it was Spark who dominated and should've wrapped it up before allowing Crown back into it. In Uche Prince Justine, Spark have the CPL's top marksman and find of the season, and he again demonstrated why he's netted so many goals this season, despite playing for a team that will finish one place above the relegation zone. With a strong physique, a deadly shot and surging, power-packed runs, Justine has left most defences flat-footed this campaign and he illustrated that again in scoring his first hat-trick of his professional career. Still a teenager, his 21 goals this season will I'm sure prompt a flood of offers from more-fancied teams in the coming weeks, now that his season has come to a close. However, despite his one-man show for Spark, it was at the other end where his teammates couldn't stop a late surge by Crown, who scored five of their goals in the last 15 minutes and in Mohamadou Ousmanou, they had their own deadly marksman, who netted a hat-trick as well, all from close range. Chan Rithy swung in an unstoppable free-kick and Akeeb TJ Ayoyinka tapped in two more to complete the rout as Crown cemented their top spot finish.
Though the crowd at Olympic were left almost breathless by the flurry of goals in the first game, the second match started at a more sedate pace before hotting up after the half-time interval. Sin Dalin with two goals, a 35-yard screamer from Chhin Chhouern and a tap-in for Oum Kumpheak has given the Ministry of National Defense a great chance to claim the lucrative 5th spot in the CPL depending on how results go on Sunday. Their 4-2 victory was inspired again by the surging runs of tiny winger Nov Soseila, though leggy midfielder Olaoye Olatubosn finished the game with a flourish, netting twice for the relegated Phuchung Neak. All in all a great day for lovers of the ball hitting the back of the net, so it was only fitting that I had a chat with Uche Prince Justine to find out more about the CPL's most exciting discovery of the season. My interview with him will follow soon.
Phnom Penh Crown, the CPL's most colourful team, line-up in their bright red kit
The final Spark FC team pose of the season. They lost 6-3 to Crown but played well.
A very happy man, Phnom Penh Crown manager Makara Be
The Ministry of National Defense ended their season on a high note, winning 4-2
Olaoye Olatubosn netted twice for relegated club Phuchung Neak against MND

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ensemble magic

Some of the Hanuman team with Dany standing in center
Last night was a send-off party for Dany, who has married her sweetheart from Australia and will leave for a new life down under towards the end of this month. For the last five years she's worked as part of the Hanuman team, more recently as manager of the fashion boutique Kambuja. As has been the norm for most afternoons and evenings this week, the heavens opened and deposited large amounts of rainfall on the city.
This morning I was up and out early doors and off to Takhmau by moto. It was the open rehearsal by the Khmer Arts Ensemble at their grandiose headquarters, of the piece of classical dance that they will perform at Chenla Theatre next Friday as part of the Lakhaon Festival being run by the French Cultural Center. They won't perform the whole work, Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala, as its two hours long, but instead an abridged version of just under an hour will be staged by the Ensemble's dance troupe and musicians. I attended a closed rehearsal a few months ago and posted quite a few pictures as well as text about the Khmer Arts team so this time around I'll talk about the piece of work itself. Essentially a sacred dance asking the dieties for rain to water the land, its at the very core of traditional Khmer dance and tells the story of Moni Mekhala, the goddess of the seas and her struggles against Ream Eyso, a demon who is determined to steal her magic jeweled ball. The demonstration-cum-rehearsal today was performed by 18 of the touring company's troupe and 8 musicians and singers. Explanations of what was taking place to the assembled 30 or so dance fans who'd made the trip from the city, were provided by the founder of Khmer Arts, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who has been teaching this story to her troupe for the last two years, but adding her own special touches to the work, including colourful hand fans which represent clouds and which add a definite splash of colour, movement and vitality to the piece. There was a brief question and answer session with the dancers, who introduced themselves individually, and musicians afterwards before the rehearsal ended and we can now look forward to Friday's performance at Chenla. Photos of today's rehearsal will follow later as I'm just out the door to watch football at Olympic Stadium.
A scene from this morning's rehearsal in Takhmau


Friday, September 4, 2009

Glorious Devata

A Devata at the little-visited temple of Banteay Prei holds a mirror in her hand
I can't make it myself, but the good folks at The Sothea luxury hideaway resort in Siem Reap are launching an exhibition devoted to Devata, the heavenly goddesses of Angkor, from tomorrow until the end of November. The exhibits will showcase the work of a local artisan group formed under the tutelage of the late Ip Somol, the 'Dean of Khmer Arts.' Opening the event will be a lecture entitled Banteay Srei: A Citadel of Women, from Dr Olivier Cunin, a senior fellow at the Center for Khmer Studies and author of The Face Towers of Banteay Chhmar and Bayon, New Perspectives. The Sothea itself, is a quiet oasis in the midst of Siem Reap, with 39 suites, offering a highly-personalized service and focused on femininity.

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Cultural calendar

Belle by Anders Jiras
Classical and contemporary dance are figuring heavily in the Phnom Penh's cultural calendar this month and next. Earlier this week I enjoyed the Cambodia-Japanese collaboration at Parkway under the banner of We're Gonna Go Dancing! and later tonight, the French Cultural Center begin their week-long Lakhaon Festival with nightly traditional performances at Chenla Theatre involving performances from Khmer Arts Ensemble, the School of Fine Arts and the Royal Ballet amongst others. The Khmer Arts Ensemble will hold an open rehearsal at their Takhmau headquarters tomorrow morning from 9am and will perform their work, Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala at 7pm on Friday 11 September. Next month, also at Chenla, will be the contemporary dance event, Dansez-Roam, on 16, 17, 24 & 25 October. One face who will not be taking part is Chumvan Sodhachivy, or Belle (pictured) as she's better known to all, who spent the first six months of this year as the associate artist with the French Cultural Center and has just returned from a workshop in Taiwan. In a couple of weeks, she will be off to Europe for two months, working with choreographer Emmanuelle Phuon in Brussels and then completing an internship at the unique National Choreographic Center in Montpellier, France. She simply never stops working.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Greater Mekong exposed

So hot-off-the-press, the ink is still wet!
Whilst the Cambodia section is just 89 pages in length, the hot-off-the-press Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & the Greater Mekong (including Northern Thailand and Yunnan in China) guidebook from Lonely Planet, which will be published in a couple of weeks time, will be the most up to date guide on the bookshelves for this region. Priced at $24.99, 564 pages and now in its second edition, Nick Ray is the co-ordinating author, helped out on the Cambodia section by Daniel Robinson. It's not as exhaustive as the country-specific books for obvious reasons but it does a good job of collecting all the important stuff together so you only have to buy 1 guidebook on your tour of the Mekong area. My website gets a mention (wink) in the Cambodia section.

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A beloved brother

Rob Hamill
I missed this news article when it was published last week, following on from the appearance of Rob Hamill at the Khmer Rouge tribunal as a witness. Worth re-posting here I think. You can read more about the Hamill brothers in the blog of the documentary Brother Number One here.

Justice for a beloved brother - Mark Servian, Waikato Times, New Zealand 29/8/09

This month Waikato man Rob Hamill went to Cambodia to face his brother's killer in a Phnom Pehn courtroom, testifying against Khmer Rouge commander Comrade Duch. Hamilton writer Mark Servian was there as his media support, and reports on Hamill's harrowing journey.

Rob Hamill looked at the judge and said "Limeworks Loop Road, Te Pahu", and on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Pehn my vision stretched and the background seemed to retreat at the mention of that familiar hamlet in the far-away green foothills of Pirongia. Such mundane opening questions – "what is your address?" – to establish his identity. No inquiry to his character, to what he has achieved. For winning a Trans-Atlantic rowing race and breaking world records, or polling highest for the energy trust and fundraising for the hospice, all count for naught in the eyes of this Cambodian court. Here he is just another victim giving testimony, made of the same fragile human flesh that the accused there in the dock rendered and tore asunder so many times. But when asked to identify his family, Rob gives a clue to the man within – he names Kerry and John in the present tense. They ARE his brothers even now, though their deaths three decades ago is what has bought him here, face to face in this room with Comrade Duch (‘Doik’), the Khmer Rouge monster responsible, a mathematician whose victims add up to the tens of thousands.

We had received word that Rob was to testify a day earlier than expected while visiting the scene of those terrible crimes. Rachel his wife, Ivan his two-year-old son and I were visiting Tuol Sleng or S21, the former high school down a Phnom Pehn back street that should be as infamous as Auschwitz. In this place, about the size of Garden Place [or Wgtn’s Civic Square or half of Chch’s The Square], Kerry Hamill landed up in 1978 with fellow lost sailor John Dewhirst. Here they were tortured and abused for months before the final release of death, along with some 15,000 to 20,000 other men, women and children.

Today just inside the gate, Rachel starts crying, sobbing, for she has been living Kerry’s story for years and now she stands in the place that has loomed so large in her and Rob’s imagination. The guide asks where we’re from and we say "New Zealand", he says "I took a New Zealander whose brother was here around the other day", Rachel says, "he’s my husband". Rob visited Tuol Sleng a few days earlier and found it very hard to take. He says he arrived in Cambodia wanting to find some way in his heart to forgive Duch. But experiencing this torture factory first hand banished any chance of that. In Rob’s words, Duch "no longer belongs to the human species". For this man, who as a young student won national mathematics prizes, designed the deliberate considered processes of this torture factory. Duch alone gave the order to "smash" each and every one of his victims.

As we see and have these horrors described, Rachel’s sobbing stops. As she says later, and is as true for me, "you just feel numb after a while". We see tiny brick cells with bloodstains on the floor, balconies barb-wired to prevent escape by suicide, makeshift but efficient torture devices and tools, hundreds of photos of faces both before and after death. And actually worse of all, the paintings by Vann Nath, one of only seven survivors, that document what he witnessed. Rob later asserts that the inmates were treated like animals, but really, if animals are ever treated like this, it is called what it is - cruelty.

Initially ‘Angkar’, or the ‘Khmer Rouge’ as we in the West know them, only targeted the ‘new people’- the city dwellers, wearers of glasses, the intellectuals, but also factory workers and mechanics, anyone involved in the modern economy (the ‘old people’ were the rural subsistence-living ‘peasants’). But as Pol Pot’s paranoia increased, Angkar turned on their own and started torturing and killing their own ranks. The foreigners that Duch got his hands on served to prove that the enemies were at the gate, tortured into falsely confessing they were CIA or KGB agents. Kerry Hamill was killed just two or so months before the Vietnamese overthrew Pol Pot in January 1979. Before Rob’s arrival, Duch’s trial at the Extraordinary Court Chambers of Cambodia has already established that Kerry and other foreigners were burnt with tyres around their necks in order to destroy the evidence.

The debate in court has been over whether or not they were alive when this was done. A few weeks back, an ex-guard had testified that they were, but Duch maintains that he ordered that they be killed first and that no one would have disobeyed him. This is typical of how Duch has tried to run the courtroom from the dock, in a different manner but with the same intellectual arrogance that we saw from Clayton Weatherston back in New Zealand a few weeks ago. Duch converted to Christianity in the mid-90s and, unlike the other senior Khmer Rouge yet to be tried, has pleaded guilty to all charges – the court case is to decide his sentence and to cross-examine him in the French inquisitorial style. But having been arrested in 1999, he has had ten years to prepare his defence. So while he has often said sorry and asked forgiveness, his aloof behaviour in court does not match his words and he splits such horrible hairs – death by tyre or machete? – to qualify what he did. ‘I was only following orders, they would have done it to me’ is his defence. But Duch was a senior leader in the regime and, as Rob has often said, it was those in positions of power who could have stopped the madness.

Rob arrived in Cambodia the week before to prepare his testimony with Alain Werner, the Swiss lawyer representing some of the ‘civil parties’. They have redrafted it numerous times, and on this Monday Rob farewelled us to go and complete it for his scheduled appearance the next day. But mid-morning I get the call that he is likely to be on that afternoon, interrupting my, Rachel and Ivan’s numbing tour of Tuol Sleng. By the time we arrive at the crowded courthouse, thunder rumbling in the tropical sky, Rob is already in the courtroom and we are told that Ivan, being under sixteen, is not allowed in. So we take up position in the media room next door and watch proceedings via closed-circuit TV. Rob’s appearance starts with the mundane identity questions, and then he embarks on the sad tale of his brother and family. As he begins, at Rachel’s request, I call Rob’s sister who is looking after Ivan’s older brothers back in Te Pahu, handing her the phone when she answers – "Rob is on now," she says, signalling this moment none of them ever thought they would see.

The first picture he puts up on the screen is of the Hamill brothers in a dinghy when they were kids. In this sticky warm corner of South-East Asia, the dated image of young Kiwis is jarring, prompting the Western reporters in the room to jump up and snap shots of it. As Rob then tells what happened to two of the boys on that boat, Rachel quietly cries, Ivan asleep on her lap. After half-an-hour of this gruelling testimony, the court takes a break, and suddenly Alain rushes into the room, as if he has jumped out of the screen, his lawyerly robe flapping, a bundle of energy suddenly exploding in the quiet room. He’s been sent by Rob to find Rachel, concerned that she isn’t in the courtroom with him. We explain that Ivan isn’t allowed in – "sort it out" I snap, sending Alain flying back out the door, only to return moments later to report they won’t budge. Rachel reluctantly hands me Ivan, waking the two-year-old. As she disappears the toddler objects, throwing his legs around, but eventually calming down.

When Rob resumes he starts by acknowledging his wife to the court and thanks her for her support. When he then puts up a picture of Kerry on the screen, Ivan calls out ‘Daddy!’, mistaking the uncle he’ll never know for his father. Rob continues to tell how the actions of Duch and co affected his family. As Ivan occasionally calls for his mum, it strikes me that his upset at her absence is yet one more tiny ripple of Duch’s cruelty all those years ago. Around us, the international and local media watch riveted, Rob clearly making the most intense appearance in the months-long trial. When he says to Duch "there have been times when, to use your word, I have wanted to smash you", the Cambodians in the room, some listening to translation on headphones, gasp and laugh to each other, shaking their heads in disbelief. This reaction continues as he describes how in the past he has imagined Duch suffering the tortures he has visited on so many others. It is stirring and disturbing stuff, delivered by a man who is renowned for his bravery, strength and endurance, but who today shows an emotional vulnerability that is painful to watch. Towards the end of his appearance, Rob gets the chance to ask Duch where his brother’s ashes are. Duch stands stiffly, and calmly claims that he simply doesn’t remember Kerry, though he does recall his British companion John Dewhirst .

And then it is over, and Rachel reappears to reclaim Ivan and we are all shown into a side room to see Rob. There is happiness of a sort, interspersed with a sombre realisation that while the family has finally had a chance to speak their minds to Duch, many questions still remain. Ivan jumps around on the couch behind his parents, happy to have his dad back. Rob looks numb, speaking softly, smiling occasionally, a feeling of unreality pervading the room. Alain the lawyer appears and expresses his huge thanks and, his arms swinging around in an almost comically typical Gallic fashion, declares that Rob has just made the most decisive testimony of the trial.

With the crowds of the day gone, Rob steps out into the cool shadow of the building to talk to the media. He is composed, the emotion of the testimony subsided, his usual confident soap-box self to the fore again, the same as when I saw him speak at the opening of the Farmers Market at Claudelands a fortnight earlier. The media session over, Sambath Reach, the court official who has ushered us around, steps forward to speak to the small clutch of Westerners. He expresses his deep thanks to Rob "on behalf of all Cambodians" for saying things that have not previously been said in the court and for standing up to Duch in a way no one has yet dared. Like every local over forty we meet, he lost several family members to the Khmer Rouge. As he speaks, we know we are standing at a point in history.

Sambath then invites Rob over to the court’s Buddhist shrine nearby. In the warm angled tropical sun, the tall late afternoon storm clouds stacked in the distance, the Kiwi and the Khmer stand before the canopied golden warrior statue and make an offering for Kerry and all the other poor souls who fell into the hands of that dreadful beast. The pair quietly discuss the shrine’s story, the calm of the moment a blessed relief. Rob bows to the statue and thanks Sambath, squeezing his hand and meeting his eye one last time. And then he puts an arm around Rachel, picks up Ivan, and together the family walk off. Perhaps, just perhaps, the lost soul of a sailor from Whakatane, a beloved brother, can now finally rest in peace.

  • Rob's search for justice for Kerry is the subject of Brother Number One, a documentary by Pan Pacific Films to be released next year.
  • Mark Servian is a Hamilton writer, artist and activist.

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John McDermott at The Bayon (reproduced with kind permission)
It's finally out, a book that has been bubbling in its gestation for a few years now. John McDermott's Elegy: Reflections on Angkor is a definitive collection of over 100 of McDermott's moody and dreamlike infrared photographs, taken over a period of 14 years and is in a fine arts large coffee-table format in keeping with the photographer's fine arts gallery in Siem Reap. It's 256 pages retail at a weighty $75 and you can read more about it here. If anyone wants to donate the book to me for a review, I'm available.

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Press Khmer

Match report in Khmer language - though I'm told they spelt my name, Andy Brouwee!
Match report as per usual, in English
Now for something a little different. Here's my match report from yesterday's Cambodian Premier League match in Khmer, in the Khmer language pull-out section of today's Phnom Penh Post. Oh, and the English version too. It should be online later today.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Goalkeeper misery

Every afternoon this week angry storm clouds have gathered, today was no exception
Well my upset stomach held out so I could get along to the Olympic Stadium for this afternoon's Cambodian Premier League match but I did miss a visit to the office by the artist Vann Nath, better known as the painter of torture images hanging at Tuol Sleng and one of a handful of survivors from the S-21 prison. A thunderstorm meant the pitch was slippery at the stadium as 2nd placed Preah Khan took on the team one place below them, Khemara Keila. Both have already qualified for the Super 4 play-offs, so fielded weaker teams than usual, though Khemara had good reason; two of their Africans were suspended and they have the smallest squad in the CPL. From the word go Preah Khan (PKR) missed the first of a veritable hatful of chances, whilst at the other end, their stand-in keeper, Sam Chamrouen, had a nightmare, conceding two goals that any keeper would be embarrassed about. Samuth Dalin and Loch Ratha benefitted from the keeper's two blunders and sub Oladiji Olatunde netted in the final moments after Kao Kiry had reduced the deficit. PKR will kick themsleves that they didn't win this game easily. Games this weekend and the following Tuesday will wrap up the regular league season before the Super 4 play-offs on the 12th and 26th. Finally, I was pleased to see an absence of play-acting today, with the stretcher only required on two occasions, though referee Thong Chanketya couldn't help himself, issuing six yellow cards in a game that didn't have any malice. I don't even remember a foul!
Khemara's opening goalscorer in their 3-1 win, Samuth Dalin
The victorious all-Khmer Khemara Keila line-up at the start of today's game
Preah Khan began the game without 6 regular faces in their starting XI
Khemara's stand-in skipper Chan Dara faces the press corps


Table of nations

If my dodgy tummy allows, I'll be at the Olympic Stadium this afternoon to watch the top 4 clash between Preah Khan and Khemara as the Cambodian Premier League reaches its final stages before the play-offs to decide the top 4 rankings. More later. I've just noticed that Cambodia, despite not playing any games, have moved up the FIFA World Rankings table in recent months and now lie in 173rd place, sandwiched between the might of Chinese Taipei and Samoa. 173rd out of FIFA's 207 national teams. Cambodia's best-ever FIFA ranking was 156th in July 1988. Our nearest neighbours, geographically-speaking, fare better: Thailand 117th, Vietnam 144th and Laos 171st. What does it all mean, bugger-all really as you can only beat the team in front of you, where they rank in a meaningless table of nations means jack.


Parkway success

Belle (in red) and her fellow Japanese performers take the audience applause at Parkway
The Parkway Center hosted its first dance show last night - We're Gonna Go Dancing!! - and judging by the long-lasting applause from the packed audience at its conclusion, it was a success. And rightly so as it featured the contemporary dance skills of Cambodia's leading performers including Belle (Chumvan Sodhachivy), Chey Chankethya and Vuth Chanmoly, perhaps better known for her classical repertoire and her part in Where Elephants Weep. The collaboration between Cambodia's finest and Japanese choreographer Takikio Iwabuchi, under the umbrella of Amrita Performing Arts and the Japan Contemporary Dance Network, gave the assembled throng two separate works and a dance time of 75 minutes. The opening work, with Yukari Ota and Keiichi Otsuka, was incredibly lively as the two performers threw themselves around the stage demonstrating their immaculate timing and cohesion, amidst what seemed to me a love story - but what do I know. The second work, involving 9 male and female Khmer dancers, was the result of a weeklong collaborative workshop with the choreographer, who gave his new students the opportunity to freely express themselves, as well as incorporating small elements of traditional dance. The piece was titled 'Hand, it withers when expanded' and included a variety of solo and group elements, as well as talking and singing sections too, a first for a contemporary dance piece here as far as I'm aware. I liked the inclusion and so did the audience. All in all a very enjoyable visit to Parkway and a big thumbs up to the collaboration which produced such entertaining work in such a small timeframe. Contemporary dance is still very new here in Cambodia and more shows like this, that exposes this accessible art form to everyone, will only serve to enhance its reputation.
Vuth Chanmoly and Belle (red) are presented with flowers
The 9 Khmer performers take their bow at the end of the show
The audience waiting in anticipation including my friends Sophal, Kathy and Sophoin

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Imposing but closed

The imposing facade of the boutique hotel in Chhlong, La Relais
La Relais de Chhlong hotel in all its glory
The most imposing building in the sleepy Mekong River town of Chhlong is undoubtedly the Le Relais de Chhlong Hotel, which is closing this month for upwards of a year in order to renovate the existing four rooms and add another half dozen suites in a yet-to-be built annex. With its old-world French-colonial charm, swimming pool and gorgeous location on the river, the Relais has been the most expensive accommodation along the Mekong north of Phnom Penh for the last few years since it was renovated and opened as a boutique hotel. Built in 1917 for a wealthy Khmer-Chinese family, it had a series of owners but was allowed to fall into a serious state of disrepair before being brought back to life in its current incarnation. Inside the rooms and public areas, Chinese furniture, silks and ornaments proliferate and whilst the rooms are pleasant enough, the decoration is quite minimalist.
The swimming pool and Mekong River (in background) seen from the first floor
One of the bedrooms with the sparse furniture
A public rest area on the ground floor
Another of the hotel's 4 rooms
The view from the balcony of one of the upstairs rooms

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135 and counting

As the number of deaths in Cambodia from lightning strikes reaches an unprecedented level of 135 so far this year, the government have at last decided to introduce an awareness campaign using banners to warn the population of the dangers. I presume they mean the ones that are strung across the road and usually welcome visiting heads of state. Why such a campaign wasn't initiated months ago is beyond me. There were 95 deaths last year, surely that should've prompted some reaction from the authorities for starters. Lightning strikes usually occur during the monsoon rainy season, which came early this year, and we're already fast approaching the end of that period. Erecting banners is a start but much more needs to be done to educate everyone, in schools and at village and commune level, on television and radio, in newspapers, everywhere really. My previous post here gives a few simple precautions on how to avoid injury. In addition to the deaths, another 151 people have been severely injured by lightning. I'm not sure why the authorities have been so slow to respond to this increasingly deadly threat, maybe they've been too busy doing the paperwork for all the moto drivers failing to have wing mirrors, or to stop tuk tuk drivers using the city streets as they get in the way of all the Lexus' being driven without number plates.