Monday, November 30, 2009

The journey

Coach Scott O'Donell leads the team to receive the welcome from the Laos delegation at the border
The whole squad file one by one into Laos and to meet the SEA Games delegation

I know it's a bit out of sync after my posts today but here's the meat of a piece I submitted to the PPP today, based on the two-day bus journey from Phnom Penh to Vientiane with the Cambodian football team.

Chalk and cheese is how I would describe the enthusiasm with which the Laotian authorities have embraced the SEA Games compared to their equivalent in Cambodia (the National Olympic Committee). Of course, Laos are the hosts and there’s a suggestion they’ve gone into national debt to pay for the Games, hence their almost fever-pitch desire to get it right, down to the most minor detail. But the differences have been dramatic.

I left Phnom Penh on Saturday with the Cambodian football team on a bus that should’ve been retired to the bus cemetery years ago. The plastic seats were of the sweat-inducing variety, far from ideal for the nine hour journey to the Dong Kralor border, north of Stung Treng. The on-board toilet was broken, the video screen was out of action and when the players got on, they entered what resembled a mosquito breeding ground. An hour into the trip, everyone was still killing mosquitoes despite a hastily-purchased can of Raid. A short cut via Chhlong gave the bus-driver problems negotiating some serious pot-holes, and all in, exactly the type of journey that professional athletes should not have to endure. The best part of the trip was the lunch stop at the Malop Dong restaurant in Kratie. I won't comment on the number of toilet stops but it was a coach full of Cambodians, so enough said.

As we reached the border, everything changed for the better. Despite having to wait ninety minutes to get the immigration formalities resolved (on both sides), the welcome from the Lao delegation was heartfelt, the television cameras were present and the coach they provided for the second leg of the journey, put its Cambodian cousin to shame. Okay, the hotel (Hotel Malila, out of town but we arrived in the dark anyway) chosen for the overnight stay in Pakse wasn't ideal but it was clean and serviceable and the food they laid on for dibner and breakfast the next day at the Cham Paxaise restaurant, was appreciated by all. For the next twelve hours, we swept through southern and central Laos in a police car convey, backed by an army wagon mounted by machine-gun wielding soldiers. They were taking security very seriously.

The Cambodian team were welcomed into the Games Village by a traditional Lao band at 7pm Sunday evening. The accommodation, on the National University campus 17 kms outside of Vientiane, is acceptable without being plush and they trained twice on Monday, to get the two-day bus journey out of their system. Aside from Nov Soseila, who is nursing a sprained ankle, everyone is in good shape and the 20-man squad will train twice a day until they open their Group A competition against the gold medal favourites Thailand on Friday 4 December in Vientiane’s Chao Anuvong Stadium.

My article in the Phnom Penh Post on the squad's selection and Scott O'Donell's views, can be read here.

All quiet on arrival at the Cambodian border of Dong Kralor - no fanfare send off
The players return from an early morning stretch and jog in Pakse
Some of the players take on the game of petanque at the border crossing
At one of our many road stops in Laos, the door was besieged by chicken on a stick sellers

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On the training pitch

Malaysian tv interview Scott O'Donell after this afternoon's training session
Rather than undertake a fruitless search for the television headquarters, I got a tuk-tuk (which I didn't want to as the drivers are greedier than Phnom Penh's riverside tuk-tuk drivers, yes I know, hard to believe, but true) and went out to the Games Village to hook up with the Cambodian squad as they boarded their bus bound for the tv stadium this afternoon. Actually stadium is a misnomer, a hard, bumpy pitch with the grass cut but left on top is a more accurate description, hardly conducive to an international football team training for an important regional competition. Nevertheless the team trained for about an hour, starting with a warm-up and then a game which coach Scott O'Donell stopped at regular intervals as incidents took place that he felt needed correcting. One of the important points he made to his team was to be positive in the final third, take players on, look to get the wide players in behind the opposition, whilst in defence, if in trouble, boot it out or up the field rather than try to play your way out. All straightforward stuff but important points that need to be rammed home time and again before they sink in. You have to remember that this is a team that has very limited time together, unlike a club side who work on these tactics day in, day out over a whole season.
Worryingly, the fans' favourite, Nov Soseila sat out most of the afternoon session - held in bright sunshine - with an ice-pack on a sprained ankle, a remnant of their last game in Vietnam against Can Tho. The morning session had been held at the army stadium, which I didn't attend as I was stuck in the media center getting my press pass. Scott reported the pitch was much better so its disappointing they had to swap this afternoon. They return to the bumpy pitch tomorrow morning before their first look at the Chao Anuvong stadium in central Vientiane (five minutes from my guesthouse) for their afternoon session. A request for access to a swimming pool was met with a blank stare but time in the water worked well in Vietnam, so I know Scott won't take no for an answer. Rather than an overpriced crappy tuk-tuk, I waved down a song thaw for the ride back to town, considerably quicker and cheaper. Whoops, nearly forgot to mention that captain Sun Sovannarith takes his international duties seriously. So seriously, he missed the birth of his first child, this morning, a baby girl. "My wife and baby are okay," he beamed with pride.
Session over, but still time to learn. The coach gives his squad the benefit of his knowledge.
On-field instruction from coach Scott O'Donell in red
On-field running repairs for Chan Dara from physio Hay Sakiry
A look at the accommodation block where Cambodia's football squad are housed in the Games Village

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As I thought, obtaining my press pass, despite having an email letter from the Laos authorities confirming approval of my accreditation, was a complete hassle. I'm afraid Laos has embraced officialdom and jobsworth mentality in earnest and after completing more forms, handing over more portrait photographs and deciding whether I was a journalist or photographer, as I couldn't be both, I was officially handed my press pass and media booklet about an hour and half after arriving. It took so long that I missed the Cambodian football team's first training session at the army stadium, but no-one knew where it was anyway, so I'll have to try and get to the afternoon session at the television stadium, though again, no-one at the media center could tell me its location! Yes it's going to be that type of two weeks. I must say that the people from the national sports committee were very friendly and helpful and took me to the media center, some 5kms out of town, before I met the official brick-wall. Anyhow, I have my press pass (they put photographer on the pass, after I asked to be classed as journalist), I need some lunch and then I need to uncover the whereabouts of the tv stadium. It's anyone's guess where it is. More later.


Lest you are mistaken

To regular readers please be aware that there will be a glut of football-related posts over the next two weeks. The reason is that I am in Vientiane, Laos to cover the 25th Southeast Asian Games - a massive event here in SE Asia - and more specifically, the fortunes of the Cambodian football team in their bid for SEA Games medals. I'm reporting for the Phnom Penh Post and will try and cover some of the other Cambodian participants in 18 other sports though football is my main focus.I arrived last night after a 2-day bus journey, with the team, via the overland Cambodian-Laos border at Dong Kralor. That was an ordeal in itself. In a few minutes I am off to seek my press accreditation, which should be interesting. Already I've worked out that nothing here is going to be straightforward. Wish me luck. If I have time I will catch up on some other posts from my recent travels, but I can't guarantee it.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Scott on his SEA Games selection

In an exclusive interview with Cambodia’s national football coach, Scott O’Donell, I sought his views on the high levels of expectation that have gripped the Cambodian public following their BIDC Cup success earlier this month, just before they set out for Laos to take on the rest of the region’s footballing giants in the 25th Southeast Asian Games. “I expect the players to go out and give 100% and try their very best. I think people have to be realistic and honest with themselves that it was great to win the BIDC Cup, the players did very well and it was great for their confidence but there’s a big difference in the BIDC Cup, where we played Laos and 2 professional Vietnamese clubs in the middle of their pre-season. There’s a big difference in these two teams and the Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysian U23 teams and I think people have to be aware of that. It was great to see the support at the Olympic Stadium in the final of the BIDC Cup, great to see so many people supporting the national team but we have got to be realistic and there’s a big difference playing in a friendly tournament at home to playing in the SEA Games. The players have worked hard over the past six weeks and we’re going to do the very best that we can, I can’t ask anymore than that."

How would you compare your current squad with the 2007 squad you took to Khorat in Thailand? “Five of the current squad, Seiha, Tiny, Sovannarith, Sokumpheak and Borey played for me in 2007. It will be an advantage for the players who’ve experienced SEA Games competition before, having those relatively senior players is a big help for the younger players, because we have got a lot of young boys in the team, and it’ll be their 1st trip to the SEA Games and their first real international tournament at a relatively senior level, so it’ll be a big help. I would say in what we’ve been doing for the last six weeks, I think they have grasped how I want them to play a lot better and they have a good understanding of what I want and expect from them. Its easy to do it in training, the question comes can they do it under pressure against better players and that’s the big test and that’s always going to be a question that’ll be asked when Cambodia plays, until we start playing regular international football and start pitting ourselves against better teams more regularly."

How will you approach the competition, against some of the region's best teams? "We’ll be approaching the games in the same way as we approached the BIDC Cup games and in training. How we played in the BIDC Cup is how we’re going to try and play, hopefully better, and in terms of our tactical approach and how we set ourselves up, formations and style, will be exactly the same. We haven’t trained for anything else, we don’t intend to get ten players defending the penalty area – we’re going out there to try and play good football. When we get the ball I want us to play, I want to enjoy watching my team, I want the players to enjoy playing and that’s what we are going to try and do."

"What we did in the BIDC Cup is what we’ll do in the SEA Games. No intention of doing anything different from my first training session until this morning – we want to play attacking football if we can, if the opposition allows us to do that, and we’ll be trying to score goals. What we’ve got to work on improving is conceding goals."

"We’ve got to play them [Thailand and Vietnam], it doesn’t matter if it’s the first game or whenever. The advantage we have, if you can call it that, is that we don’t play in the first round of games, so we get to watch all four teams. I’ve got some videos, a few match reports, scouting reports, and we‘ve got a fair idea of what we’re up against. We know that Thailand & Vietnam, if you ask the majority of the coaches at the SEA Games, are the two favourites to go through. Malaysia have got some good boys, they’ve been together for a long time, playing in the U21 team in the Malaysian Premier League and they’ve got some good results over the past year, playing a lot of friendly games, a lot of exposure and there are high expectations. The higher the expectation for the opposition, the better it is for us. I know nothing about East Timor at all apart from they’ve done well at U19 level."

Your preparation has gone well and are the players fit and well? "I said before the BIDC Cup it was an excellent tournament for us to participate in. The time we spent in Vietnam was great too. It was hard work, the boys did very well, they worked extremely hard and under the circumstances, for the six weeks we had to work with them, I couldn’t have asked for anymore. What I would’ve liked is a lot more time with the players, but circumstances didn’t allow that. Given that we only had six weeks to do what we did, I was happy with it."

"I wasn’t happy with their fitness when we tested them when we first arrived in Ho Chi Minh. But as I said the boys worked very hard and their aerobic and anerobic fitness levels all increased while we were there, as you’d expect it to do, I’m happy with it. Once again the problem we’ll have is in a high intensity game, being able to reproduce that over 90 minutes is a different thing. Fitness testing is a good indication but nothing replicates game situations of high intensity pressure – but I’m happy with the players fitness levels."

"The players are looking after themselves, looking after their injuries now and eating the right food and I’d like to think that when we train it’s a more professional approach. When we make a mistake in training, it’s just like making a mistake in a game, we don’t laugh and joke about it. The players are taking their responsibilities in training seriously because training is just as important as the games."

Why choose Sun Sovannarith as your captain? "He’s been in the national team for five years now, he's an experienced player, a very good player, sets a good example to the younger boys and he’s one of the players who should be playing overseas somewhere because he’s got a lot of ability. He’s a good boy and I trust him. He has the respect of the coaching staff and the players, which is important."

How important is the fans' darling, Nov Soseila, to your plans? "Sometimes he’s my darling and sometimes he’s not. When he does what he’s told, he’s a very good player, a very dangerous player as we saw in the BIDC Cup. He likes to take on players and has got that little bit of mongrel in him which I like. He’s got loads of ability, but he’s got to be switched on and concentrating all the time and use his brain. He’s a good outlet for us."

How strong is your squad and any injury concerns? "The boys who may not make the starting eleven have been given plenty of opportunities, they know how we’re going to play and I’ve got full confidence in the nine players who’ll be sitting on the bench. I’ll have no hesitation to put any of them on the field at anytime during the game. They will all go out to do a job."

“We had a thorough check on Sothearath. He’s got a few issues but nothing that will cause any more damage. He’s structurally sound and in the last ten days in Vietnam he trained full on. He’s got confidence from being told there’s nothing seriously wrong with his knee. He played nearly a full game the other day at Can Tho and he’s an important player in the team and we missed him in the BIDC Cup."

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12 hours on the road

The Cambodian squad get together for a group photo outside their hotel this morning
Okay I've calmed done now, after a meal at the Kop Chai Deu restaurant, and am back on the lobby internet at my guesthouse, the Mali Namphu, which has a good reputation, but crap in-room internet. I'll just briefly mention our 12 hours on the road today, after we left our Pakse hotel at 7am this morning and woolfed down a breakfast before we were back on the road, with a police car in front, horns blaring and lights flashing, and an army carrier in the back, with heavily armed troops including a machine-gun mounted on the back of their vehicle. The security has been very tight since we entered Laos and the organization, whilst a bit chaotic, has been pretty thorough. To ensure we made good time we had a packed lunch on board though the number of toilet breaks we took probably negated the saving gained by not stopping for lunch. More details in another more detailed post. We arrived at the SEA Games Village at 7pm, where the players and coaching staff lined up to be welcomed in by a band and a very loud public address system and I got a lift into Vientiane to my guesthouse. I haven't got my press accreditation yet, fingers crossed that goes smoothly in the morning. The team will train twice tomorrow and if I get my pass, I'll get out to the training venues to see how they shape up after their 2 days cramped up on a bus. Obviously not an ideal way to travel such a long disatnce but at least the players have a few days to recover before they face Thailand on the 4th.
The entrance to the SEA Games Athletes Village, just before the band struck up to welcome the Cambodian team

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I am going to explode in a minute. I finally arrived at my Vientiane guesthouse at 7.30pm - after 12 hours on the road - and we've just spent the last hour trying to connect my laptop to the in-house free internet in my room, which isn't working. When we get it working in the lobby, access to my yahoo emails is now unavailable. Hence the steam coming out of my ears and I haven't had any dinner yet either. I was going to post some interesting details from the last two days on the road with the Cambodian football team but I am so pissed off I need to go and lie down in a darkened room for an hour to cool off. I'll be back later, when I've also filled my stomach, which is making all sorts of weird noises.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Five minutes in Pakse

I'm in an internet cafe in Pakse but I have about five minute so can't post anything of much relevance. We left at 7.15am today and arrived in Pakse exactly 12 hours later after our overland journey alongside the Mekong River and across the border at Dong Kralor and onward to Pakse in Laos. The two countries couldn't have been more different. More on that when I have more than five minutes internet time. I'm in good nick, so are the Cambodian football team, with whom I've hitched a ride and who are looking after me like one of their own. We expect to reach Vientiane in the dark tomorrow night, so if I can get to an internet cafe I will post. If not, expect a flood of stuff on Monday. Bye for now.


Taking to the road

The Cambodian Under-23 football team, ready to leave for Laos in a few hours, pose for photographs at the Military Police HQ in Phnom Penh.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

No real surprises

Chhun Sothearath is included in the SEA games squad having shaken off a knee injury
Cambodia's Australian-born coach Scott O'Donell today announced his Cambodian U23 20-man squad for the forthcoming SEA Games in Laos, the day before the players and coaching staff leave Phnom Penh and head northwards overland to the Lao capital of Vientiane, a trip that will take a full two days of travelling by bus. There were no real surprises in the final 20, selected after more than a month of intensive training and practice matches in Vietnam as well as the round-robin BIDC Cup which the Cambodian team won in fine style in front of 30,000 home fans in the final. Midfield dynamo Chhun Sothearath missed the BIDC Cup matches with a knee injury but has recovered enough to make the final squad, playing most of the midweek practice game against Can Tho, and will travel to Laos at the expense of Phuong Narong and Keo Kosal, who both featured in the recent friendly tournament. Also not in the travelling party are goalkeeper Peng Bunchhay, Ieng Piseth and To Vann Thann.
The team leave the Olympic Stadium just after 7am tomorrow morning and will cross the Cambodian-Laos border at Dong Kralor before an overnight stop en route at Pakse. Day 2 will be the eight to ten hour bus ride to the Lao capital Vientiane, where the 25th SEA Games are being held. The players will be housed in the athletes village and will be assigned a training location on arrival. Their first match isn't until 4 December which will give them an opportunity to see all their four opponents in Group A in action before they meet Thailand in their opening game. It's a tough opener for Cambodia as Thailand have won the last eight SEA Games football gold medals and beat their Khmer opponents 8-0 in the last SEA encounter in Khorat in 2007.
At the press conference this afternoon, led by Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema and the national Military Police commander Sao Sokha, various sponsors raised the stakes with financial incentives of up to $56,000 if the Cambodian team carry off the gold medal. The sponsors also promised monetary rewards for silver and bronze medals too. The sponsors were BBWorld, Crown Casino & Resort and the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport. MetFone also promised individual incentives for the players and team as a whole, based on goals scored. A couple of days ago Thailand announced sums of over $150,000 if their team win the gold medal for the 9th consecutive time. The press conference attracted cameras from the numerous television channels including TV3, Bayon, Apsara, CTN, and more as well as the printed media as well.
I will be travelling with the team to Laos, to report on the SEA Games for the Phnom Penh Post, so this blog will be quiet for a couple of days as we hit the roads of Cambodia and our northern neighbour Laos. I'll bring you up to date with events on the road as soon as I can.

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The final 20

The players, coaching staff and VIP guests & sponsors at this afternoon's press conference
More later as I've just got back to the office after the chaotic football press conference at the Military Police HQ in Tuol Kork, to announce a series of financial incentives for the Cambodian U23s, who will leave for Laos to compete in the SEA Games first thing tomorrow morning. I'll bring you more on the 20-man squad and an interview with coach Scott O'Donell later tonight. As for the financial incentives, don't ask me, the whole conference was in Khmer without any translation. I have a paper list, also in Khmer, which I'll get translated later as well. The Governor of Phnom Penh, the Commander of the Military Police (who is also president of the football federation) and the head of MetFone were the distinquished guests though my view was almost permanently obscured by about a dozen television cameras from all the local tv stations. Catch me on the news later tonight.
For those who can't wait, the 20-man squad is:
Sou Yaty, Samreth Seiha (Ministry of National Defence)
Lay Raksmey, Sok Rithy (Preah Khan Reach)
Pheak Rady (MND)
Tieng Tiny, Touch Pancharong (Phnom Penh Crown)
Chan Dara (Khemara Keila)
Sun Sovannarith (Naga Corp)
Prak Mony Udom, San Narith, Khuon La Boravy
Nov Sokseila, Oum Kumpheak, Lorn Sotheara (MND)
Chhun Sothearath (Build Bright United)
Chan Chhaya, Keo Sokngorn (PP Crown)
Kuoch Sokumpheak
(Khemara Keila)
Khim Borey (MND)
Cambodia U23 skipper Sun Sovannarith accepts a gift from Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema
Sponsors and the players, and tv cameras, fill the conference hall at the Military Police HQ

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Laotian in origin

Prasat Muang Thi resides in the grounds of a pagoda in Surin province
En route during my few days in Isaan, Northeast Thailand, we came across a few prasats (ancient stone temples) that weren't specifically Khmer in origin. Take Prasat Muang Thi for example. Thirty minutes after we left Surin and just off the main road, in the grounds of a pagoda and next to a boisterous playground of schoolchildren, are the five stupa-like towers of Muang Thi, which are much more influenced by Laotian art than Khmer. There would've originally been five brick and mortar towers, now only three remain. The main tower in the center has been altered over time, most likely in the 18th century. Muang Thi isn't Khmer but made a pleasant diversion for a few minutes on our relentless hunt for Khmer prasats in Isaan.
The three remaining stupa towers of Prasat Muang Thi
The towers at Muang Thi stand right up against the vihara of the local wat

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Thursday, November 26, 2009


40 years is way too lenient for this harbinger of death
Is it me or does anyone else find the prosecution demands for a 40 year prison sentence for Comrade Duch as totally underwhelming and almost a slap in the face of the millions of Cambodians who have been patiently waiting, for 30 years, to see real justice served against the key perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge insanity. Okay, Duch is 67 and if he served the full 40 years, if the judges agree with the prosecution demands, he wouldn't see the light of day again but that's not really the point. This man presided over the deaths of at least 12,000 people, 99.9% of them were fellow Cambodians alongwith a handful of westerners who were also murdered. He made certain, with consumate precision, that many of them were interrogated and subjected to inhumane punishments before they were executed. Despite his protestations, he ran S-21 (Tuol Sleng) as his personal fiefdom and his word was law. This man is guilty, though butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, of managing and controlling one of the worst excesses of torture and murder in modern times. He has the blood of thousands on his hands. So I find the request from the prosecution for a 40-year term of imprisonment as missing the point for many Cambodians. It doesn't seem just or proportionate, and I think many people here will simply not understand why he won't be serving 12,000 life sentences (let alone facing a death sentence). I'm aware that in cases of this nature, the prosecution has to be realistic based on the sample evidence that can be presented in court, which is a fraction of what he's responsible for, but 40 years, with five years already taken off for being a good boy (and don't get me started on his ludicrous final statement), just doesn't cut the mustard with me, and many others.

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Gone but not forgotten

The folks at Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) in Battambang are busting a gut to get their name and their wide range of activities known throughout Cambodia and elsewhere. The thriving artistic community that makes up the PPS organization, and which provides schooling to hundreds of children in Cambodia's northwest city, are perhaps better known for their circus performances and have been in the capital this week, with a couple of shows. One of the PPS future exhibitions that caught my eye will take place at Le Lezard bleu cafe on St 240 from Friday 11 December (5pm) and will remain on display for the rest of the month. Ancient pagodas of Battambang Province is the title of the exhibition, which showcases the talents of artists Long Kosal and Leurm Lorn, who have captured, on canvas, some of the most remarkable examples of these older wats which populate their province of Battambang. There is a saying in Cambodia that new is better than old and that is applied across the board, often at the expense of beautiful ornate structures such as pagodas. This exhibition will give us a chance to see these wats before they disappear forever. Find out more at the PPS website. Interesting fact of the day: Across Cambodia there are 4,307 pagodas with 55,000 monks in attendance.
One of the Battambang pagodas that could soon disappear

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

All at SEA

SEA Games update. The Laos Embassy is busy so they won't issue my visa until just a few hours before I leave on Saturday, when I'm scheduled to join the Cambodian football team on their 2-day bus journey to Vientiane overland, crossing the border north of Stung Treng. A Khmer friend of mine, Phalla, who lives in Vientiane, has sorted me a nice guesthouse for the duration of my stay and its all systems go. My press accreditation has been agreed with the Lao authorities and that seems to have progrssed smoothly enough. I still have to have a final sit-down with my Phnom Penh Post colleague Chamroeun who will also be going to Vientiane to cover the sporting events. Meanwhile, the football team are still in Vietnam. They play their final warm-up practice match against Can Tho today, return to Phnom Penh tomorrow and then have a few hours with their families before they board the bus for Vientiane on Saturday morning. Coach Scott O'Donell will be announcing his SEA Games squad of 20 players sometime on Friday. I'm not a betting man but here's my final 20 for what it's worth: Seiha, Yaty; Rady, Tiny, Rithy, Dara, Raksmey, Sovannarith, Pancharong; Narong, Soseila, Mony Udom, Narith, Sothearath, Kumpheak, Laboravy; Borey, Sokumpheak, Chhaya, Sokngorn.
Newsflash: The Cambodian U23s lost their final warm-up game, 1-0 to Can Tho this afternoon. Coach O'Donell used it to give as many of his players their final run-out before he announces his final 20-man squad after training on Friday morning, and then at a press conference for the media. Well that's me, a couple of Khmer newspaper guys and the local tv cameras.

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The main reason

The bedroom in a bungalow at Nataya Coral Bay Resort, 17kms west of Kampot
The real focus of my whistle-stop trip to Kampot and Kep at the weekend was to pay a visit to a bunch of hotels, old and new. For some it was quite literally poke my head in the door then out again, others it was a more formal inspection. The latter included new resorts like Nataya in Kampot and Eskepe in Kep. Here's some pictures to show you a few places I visited.
A view of the Nataya bungalows, which houses two separate rooms
The 1km beach at Nataya is a big attraction. I think it used to be the Queen's favourite beach in bygone times.
The Magic Sponge GH in Kampot. Clean and comfortable, housed in a former building used by Acleda Bank.
Simplicity reigns in one of the bedrooms at Knai Bang Chatt in Kep
A view of Eskepe, a gorgeous house for rent in Kep, which is still to be completed
The pool and grounds looking out to sea at Eskepe in Kep
The eco-friendly Vine Retreat outside Kep has rooms on 2 floors and a relaxation area above that
Work in progress; the new swimming pool at the popular Veranda Resort in Kep

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

While I was there

The ruined Prasat Tani at Wat Tani in the village of the same name
Even though my trip to Kampot and Kep at the weekend was purely business, I took the opportunity to veer off the main track to poke my nose around for anything interesting, as I always do, and benefited from my explorations. On the way down to Kampot by car, we stopped at Wat Tani, on the edge of the town of the same name, as I had never previously seen the prasat that sits in front of the rebuilt vihara. It's ruined and there are no carvings, and the light was poor as it was getting dark, but I was happy to see the 11th century laterite temple nonetheless. On the way back from inspecting the new Nataya Resort and after my visit to the ghost-like railway station at Koh Touch, I called into a trio of pagodas in the hope of unearthing something interesting. At Wat Rokar, the attractive wat had a low ceiling with the usual colourful wall paintings. At Wat Roluos there was a hive of painting activity on-going, both inside and out, about fifty metres from where the foundations of the old vihara stood. And at Wat Kampot, which was another visually pleasing-on-the-eye pagoda, I spent 20 minutes playing volleyball with two schoolboys, Omar and Kien, before their teacher scolded them for missing the start of their class. I was in the dog-house. Also on my travels I noticed an interesting wall painting in the grounds of Wat Kompong Tralach, which also houses a genocide memorial. The final batch of photos from the hotels I visited will follow.
The blackened laterite walls of Prasat Tani is due to old age rather than fire
The photogenic Wat Rokar with its low ceiling
One of the popular scenes you can see on the ceiling of pagodas around the country. This is at Wat Rokar.
The smell of fresh paint was overwhelming at Wat Roluos
The large Buddha and the wall & ceiling paintings at Wat Roluos
The painters were practising their artistic skills on this wall; eyes being a problem for some
A lovely older pagoda at Wat Kampot
My volleyball colleagues, Kien and Omar, who were scolded for missing class
A giant and other naked people on a wall at Wat Kompong Tralach

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Monday, November 23, 2009

SEA Games countdown

The countdown to the SEA Games - big sports news if you live in Southeast Asia, but not even on the radar if you live elsewhere in the world - is definitely on. The Games, the 25th edition of this bi-annual event, officially begins on 9 December (and ends on 18) in Laos. However, the group stages of the football competition kicks off a week earlier and the Cambodian team's first match is on the 4th, with games coming thick and fast after that. The squad, who are concluding their final preparations in neighbouring Vietnam, and have their final friendly against Can Tho on Wednesday, are due to get the bus from Phnom Penh to Vientiane on Saturday. All being well, I will be with them. That's if I get my Lao visa in time and can find some accommodation in Vientiane to rest my weary bones after two days on the road. I'm covering the Games for the Phnom Penh Post and will be there before most of the media to report back on the football team's efforts. I anticipate being there for a couple of weeks but it all depends on the team's success or otherwise. In between time, I will also cover some of the other sports too, with Cambodia taking part in 19 separate competitions.

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Anorak wearers only

Kampot's main railway station in town
The main open-sided entrance to Kampot's railway station
Okay, so I was a train-spotter when I was a youth, and trains and railway lines still hold a minor attraction for me. Hence on my weekend jaunt to Kampot I couldn't resist pottering along to the main station in Kampot itself and a minor station at Koh Touch, some 16kms west of the town, and about a kilometre from Prek Ampil beach. The railway station at Kampot is a throwback to the 1960's when the southern railway line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville was created during that decade. The 167kms of single-gauge track from the capital to Kampot was completed in 1967 and the station looks pretty much like it did when it was built. The corrugated tin roof is a bit naff but the brickwork and style of the station is fairly typical of the period and quite low key by comparison to the station at Sihanoukville for example. Today, the only traffic the station sees is the movement of freight, namely cement, and sitting forlornly when I went to the station, were about fifteen brand-new freight wagons. Apart from a couple of boys playing the sandal-throwing game, the station was devoid of any human life, let alone any railway employees. Originally there were 28 railway stations between PP-S'ville, though 24 of them were destroyed during the civil war. And it was on the way to Kampot that three western tourists were captured and later killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1994. For a look at one of those destroyed stations, the shell of Koh Touch, some 16 kms west of Kampot, is worth a look if you are out that way. Some of the walls remain as do the floor tiles, but very little else, as the vegetation has a stranglehold on what's left. A group of female rice-workers in a nearby field looked at me as though I was a complete madman as I took pictures of this empty ghost of the bygone days of the southern line.
Get your tickets here please! These grills have seen better days.
Looking from the station buildings to the nearest line with yellow freight wagons
The railway offices under a corrugated tin roof, in keeping with the station's colour scheme
At Koh Touch, the rural railway station lies in a very ruined state
The line from Koh Touch station back towards Kampot
More of the ghost-like ruins at Koh Touch, near Prek Ampil

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Local treasure winners

First thing this morning was a working breakfast at the Cambodiana Hotel as part of the award ceremony organised by USAID/Cambodia MSME and others to identify 6 winners from 14 eco-tourism/cultural initiatives that submitted their applications in this inaugural Hidden Treasures contest. The local community-based projects were primarily from the south though there were two winners from the northwest as well. This is of course another good opportunity to promote sectors of Cambodia that don't normally see the limelight - as Angkor obviously captures the biggest chunk of PR in Cambodia - and this initiative by USAID is a good start, though lots more needs to be done to promote and improve not just the six winning projects. That'll be the next step. For now, the six winners were all present to receive their awards and they were: Chi Phat, Tataikrom, Peam Krasaop, Chambok, Banteay Chhmar and Phare Ponleu Selpak from Battambang.
There was a lot of talking from the man from the ministry but the important element is that the six projects were rewarded for the work they have done so far and the hope is that this will spur them onto greater things in the future. They are looking to capture the return visitor to Cambodia, who has seen Angkor and wants to get an experience that can be classed as being closer to the 'real' Cambodia. It goes without saying that this will require co-ordinated efforts from all sectors in the tourism industry to ensure the future success of these projects and others that will follow. The likelihood of that happening remains to be seen. It was interesting to me that two of the projects, Chi Phat and Tataikrom, used my own photos in their promotional material, which they obviously nicked from my blog. I have no problem with my pictures being used for non-profit purposes, but maybe next time they can ask.
This slide from Tataikrom, used one of my own photos from my recent trip to Tatai!


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Face to face with the past

The remains of Khmer Rouge victims at Wat Chumkriel, near Kampot
The simple, open-sided genocide memorial at Wat Chumkriel
I was able to visit another of the genocide memorials that are dotted around the Cambodian countryside as I made my way from Kampot to Kep yesterday. About five kilometres after leaving Kampot, the village of Chumkriel and its pagoda holds a secret I haven't yet got to the bottom of. Housed no more than ten metres from the vihara of Wat Chumkriel are the remains of about 100 unknown victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, which are kept in a new wooden memorial behind a seated Buddha. The head monk was asleep and couldn't be disturbed and the young monks I met had no idea of the history behind the skulls and bones contained within the wooden case. DC-Cam suggest in a report from the site in 1995 that the bones were brought from other burial sites in the Kampot district but that's where the trail runs cold. Two rows of skulls and one of bones lie in the case with old wooden Buddha statues next door to them. After leaving Wat Chumkriel, I made a return visit to Wat Kompong Tralach, a memorial I had visited before, just past the White Horse statue, on the way to Kep. This had been the site of two mass graves and the bodies of about 750 victims were believed to have been deposited in the memorial when it was constructed. Today, the shabby cement stupa contains two shelves of skulls, bones and a large termite mound and is in poor condition. These are two of the 80 or so genocide memorials in Cambodia, erected at the end of the Khmer Rouge regime as a permanent reminder of the atrocities they carried out. Many have fallen into disrepair through neglect.
Skulls inside the wooden display cabinet at Wat Chumkriel
The remains of about 100 victims can be found at Wat Chumkriel
The sign and painting at Wat Chumkriel, now no longer in use
The Wat Chumkriel display case with two rows of skulls and a row of bones underneath
Peering into the genocide memorial at Wat Kompong Tralach
The two shelves contain skulls and bones of over 750 victims
Leg and arm bones are piled high on one of the shelves at Wat Kompong Tralach
Over 750 victims of the Khmer Rouge atrocities are at Wat Kompong Tralach, near Kep
A large termite mound has consumed many of the remains
Many of the remains at Wat Kompong Tralach came from a killing field nearby
Two mass graves were found in the grounds of Wat Kompong Tralach itself

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Quick run down

The sun is setting off the coast of Kep - a view I never tire of
So where and what have I been doing? Left Phnom Penh on Friday afternoon in Dan's car and we made it to the town of Tani as it was getting dark, so we stopped for a quick look at the ruined laterite prasat that sits in front of the main pagoda there. It's 11th century but looks older, there was no carvings to speak of and a tree has made its home in the middle of the parasat. And the old wat which contained some wonderful wall paintings I'm told, has been demolished. We carried onto Kampot and I took a room at Dan's new comfortable guesthouse, The Magic Sponge, near the salt workers' roundabout. I had time for a meal at the Rusty Keyhole and then early to bed. Up at 7am I was out to the Nataya Roundhouse Resort, 17kms west of Kampot, just off the road to Sihanoukville, at Prek Ampil, next morning. This is a brand new resort, with some nicely finished bungalows, and best of all, a 1km long beach. A swimming pool is being constructed, another eight bungalows are also being built and it looks like a nice option for Kampot lovers. I stopped at a trio of pagodas on the way back, a couple of railway stations and then visited a few hotels to say hello.
After lunch, I directed my motodop towards Kep, stopping at a couple of genocide memorials en route, at Wat Chum Kriel and Wat Kompong Tralach. Once I hit Kep I made house-calls at Knai Bang Chatt, the Sailing Club, the new FCC-owned house called Eskepe, which is just being finished off, Veranda (who are building a pool), and the new pizza restaurant at the crab market, La Bakara, where I bumped into Jean-Michel Filippi, who invited me to a lecture he was giving that evening. We then headed off into the mountains at Phnom Voar to visit a new eco-friendly guesthouse called The Vine Retreat but didn't stay long as they were in the middle of their opening party. Before dinner at the Riel Bar, I went to Champey Inn for Jean-Michel's lecture on the pre-Angkorian era in Kampot region, where he mentioned the region's first museum he is hoping to build by the White Horse monument in the near future. What he doesn't know about Kampot and Kep you could write on a postage stamp. Another early night, at Kep Seaside GH, there's not much to do in Kep to be honest, and then it was back to town on the bus this morning. As I said, all work and no time for fun.
The beach at Nataya Roundhouse Coral Bay Resort, 17kms from Kampot
The old cinema in Kampot, now closed but a hive of activity during the golden years of Cambodian film in the 1960s
Two Khmer Rouge victims at the small memorial at Wat Chum Kriel, 5kms outside Kampot
Kep: Not yet open but already looking resplendent, Eskepe, related to the FCC chain
Another sunset picture taken from my guesthouse in Kep

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Back in the mode

Just got through the door after my very brief visit to the seaside. The Hua Lian ($5) bus took forever to get back from Kep this morning, stopping no less than 20 times to pick up passengers en route. Extremely annoying, but I wondered why the bus was so empty when I got on. Sat next to me and intent on making friends was a soldier from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, in his army gear. No ordinary soldier I found out but General Khieu Teng, part of the directorship of the Commander-in-Chief and nice guy to boot. He even bought me breakfast when the bus stopped in Ang Tasom. We exhausted the extent of his English and my Khmer as he explained that he was 'just one of the people' hence why he was taking the Hua Lian bus back to the city. He told me not to bother calling him 'His Excellency'. The General and the end of the Jeffery Deaver novel I was reading made the trip pass quickly enough, even if it did take five hours. More on my trip soon.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Off to the seaside

On a previous visit to Kep
I'm rushing out of the door soon as I have to make a whistle-stop visit to Kampot and Kep for the next two nights to check out a few hotels, new and old. Someone's got to do it. The blog will be a mite quiet as a result. Tonight I'm trying out a new guesthouse in Kampot, the Magic Sponge, 'cause its been opened by a friend. I'll let you know the verdict. Tomorrow I'll be rushing around like a blue-arsed fly visiting a bunch of places in both locations, no time for a holiday I'm sorry to say. Then I have to get back for an event at the Cambodiana Hotel first thing Monday morning, its called Hidden Treasures, and its identifying the best of the new community/eco-tourism sites in Cambodia. Again, more on that on Monday night.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Green light

I've just got the green light from my employer - thank you Hanuman - to take up the opportunity offered by the Phnom Penh Post to go to Vientiane in Laos and cover the 25th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in a couple of weeks time. My main focus will be on the Cambodian football team's efforts as they meet some of the strongest teams in the region in their group matches though I will be needed to cover some of the other 18 sports that Cambodia have entered teams for. I feel a little light-headed.
In the Laos SEA Games there will be 28 sport disciplines. Two years ago when the SEA Games were held in Khorat in NE Thailand, there were 44 sports competed for. Cambodia is sending competitors in 19 of the sports and they are archery, athletics, boxing, cycling, judo, karate-do, sepak takraw, wushu, wrestling, taekwondo, shuttlecock, petanque, beach volleyball, table tennis, badminton, tennis, swimming, golf and football. In order to beat their last medal total, Cambodia need to better their Khorat haul of 18 medals, which included two golds (in petanque), five silvers and 11 bronzes.

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Resting at Ban Bu

Prasat Ban Bu lies in the grounds of a school by the same name
If you visit Phnom Rung and Muang Tam, in Northeast Thailand, you will also find yourself in the vicinity of another of the 'dharmasalas', or rest-houses, that are dotted along the Angkor to Phimai Royal Road. Located 6kms from Muang Tam and en route as we made our way towards the Thai-Cambodia border to visit the Ta Muen group of temples, is Prasat Ban Bu. Today its only worth a quick stop as the laterite tower has disappeared and just the shell of the chapel remains, within the grounds of a school. I couldn't find any carving aside from a solitary pedestal and the ruined nature of the site, constructed under Jayavarman VII's rule in the late 12th century, means its only for real temple anoraks, like me.
The sandstone windows line the southern wall of the chapel
The shell of the dharmasala is all that remains today
Signs in Thai and English like this, can be found at all of the temples we visited

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Up my street

By accident, I recently realized that the street where I live in Phnom Penh not only has a number but a name as well. Rue Samdech Louis Em No 282. So the next question is - who was Louis Em? A quick google search reveals that he was a much revered Buddhist monk and scholar, who passed away in the 1950s, having attained the third highest ranking in the Buddhist hierarchy in Cambodia and attaining such names as Ven Preah Krou Vimolpanna Louis Em, Preah Nhean Bavar Vichea Louis Em, Preah Serei Sammatevong Louis Em and HE Samdech Preah Dhammalikhet Louis Em. Quite a mouthful. I gather that his name changes coincided with the higher he moved up the Buddhist ranking. Originally the head of Wat Sithor, he later became head of Wat Lanka, and the road itself begins behind the wat, running from Norodom Boulevard through to Monivong Boulevard. A visit to the Buddhist Centre near the Council of Ministers would surely throw more light on this particular gentleman, but for now, this is the origin of the name of the street I live on.
The street sign, on the corner of St 51, opposite Wat Lanka, with spirit house underneath


A last look

This French-colonial inspired exhibit can be found in the costume museum in the annex. The main figure is King Sisowath I believe but if you know more, please tell me.
I will conclude the posts from my recent visit to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, with a few snaps from the grounds of the latter. I have already covered the Silver Pagoda itself and the wall frescoes in some detail. Now for some of the other sights to be found. The main building to visit is of course the Silver Pagoda itself, with its silver tiles, countless statues and cultural treasures. No pictures inside and take your shoes off. Surrounding it are a number of stupas in memory of members of the royal family, other shrines, a small hill called Phnom Mondop and a collection of small museums and exhibitions in the courtyard that runs along Street 240.
Two of the royal stupas, closest is that of King Ang Duong, farthest away is his son, King Norodom
A model of Angkor Wat, that sits behind the Silver Pagoda building
An equestrian statue of King Norodom, completed in 1875 and unveiled in 1892. Believed to have actually began life as a statue of French Emperor Napoleon III.
This giant footprint of Buddha can be found in Keong Preah Bath, a shrine which contains other footprints and statues
Here's a few of the other statues to be found in the Keong Preah Bath shrine
There are at least two Neak Ta inhabiting small shrines cut into the sacred small hill of Phnom Mondop
This is the Banteay Srei-inspired stupa of Princess Kantha Bopha who passed away in 1952 at the tender age of four
These are the statues and wall panel at the rear of the Dhammasala, which monks use on special occasionsA silver-plated exhibit you can see in the White Elephant hall, which houses items used in the coronation


Somaly's story pt 2

This is the second part of Somaly Lun's story that appeared in The Observer magazine in the UK last weekend. You can find it online here. The article is by Andrew Anthony.
Somaly Lun today (pic Harry Page)
Part 2:

Until very recently, Somaly had not spoken to anyone about her experiences in Cambodia. Even with her husband, Borithy, who is also a Cambodian, she left the past buried in silence. She met Borithy in Phnom Penh, where she headed after the reunion with her remaining family. With her schoolgirl English, she found work in a hotel, liaising with the foreign aid workers who had begun to arrive. Among them was Marcus Thompson, a 34-year-old Englishman working for Oxfam, who would later extend another vital helping hand to lift her clear of a human swamp. The onetime privileged son of magistrates, Borithy fell immediately in love with the 20-year-old Somaly. But she was not easily wooed. Thinking him a playboy, she was suspicious of his intentions. "I wasn't in love with him," she says now, sounding at once proud and coy. "He tried to court me all the time and I was never interested. Because he's good-looking, so intelligent, and because of his background, he had so many girls after him. I thought, he'd never keep me. Why me? There are much more pretty girls than me. And I certainly do not want to be one of his conquests!" It was only after Borithy told Somaly his own terrible story that she lowered her defences. She learned that he had lost both his parents to the Khmer Rouge, as well as his youngest brother. One sister died of starvation in his arms and the other was tied to a pole and left to die in the heat of the sun. "He had to cut her down at night. It was her last breath." When Borithy discovered that his life was in jeopardy in Phnom Penh, he told Somaly that he had to leave, but he wouldn't go without her. So in March 1980 they married inside a wrecked pagoda and fled the next day to the Thai border. Once more they both faced enormous risk. "There were Khmer Rouge," Somaly explains, "Khmer bandits, Thai bandits, Thai soldiers, who would shoot at anyone trying to cross, and minefields."

Nevertheless, they got through and stayed at a refugee camp with thousands of other Cambodians. It was there that she ran into Marcus Thompson again. The aid worker was so astounded by the conditions in which they were living, trapped near the border, unable to go on or go back, that, with the backing of Oxfam, he applied for asylum on their behalf. Much to everyone's surprise, the British authorities granted entry to Somaly and Borithy, and shortly afterwards, her mother, brother and sister. When they arrived in England, in May 1981, they made a commitment never to look back on what had happened. Instead they would put all their energy into building a new life, not least because they had created a new life. Somaly was pregnant with her first child, Mary Thida. "For the first 10 years I was here," she says, "I was just blocking it out. Not mentioning it. Both of us. We both had nightmares. We both woke up in sweat sometimes. But we never talked about it. We didn't want to."

They lived in a convent in Brighton initially, and then moved to Witney, where Somaly, who had learned English as a schoolgirl, found it hard to comprehend the language. "I thought, my goodness why can't I understand my neighbours? Because they were all Scottish and Irish! It was so surreal. I just kept saying, 'Pardon? Pardon?' But my neighbours were wonderful." She also had to adjust to a cool climate. Yet as much as she missed the tropical heat, she found cold, damp England to be a kind of bliss. "Because you don't go to bed at night and worry about whether you're still going to be here in the morning," she says.

In 1986, she had a second daughter, Bophanie. "Best of all were the girls," she says, flushed with motherly love. "They were our future. We would make sure they'd never go through what we went through. They were born free. All I had since the age of 10 was war, hatred, killing. To come here and see peace and tranquillity and people just getting on with their life…" she trails off, as if there were nothing more that needed to be said. In the current debate on asylum seekers, the extraordinary efforts some people make to improve their circumstances are often underestimated or overlooked. But Somaly and Borithy were never simply economic migrants in search of a better standard of living – they wanted a better life. And they laboured hard to get it. While Borithy studied English at Oxford Brookes University, Somaly did whatever work she could find, taking in sewing at home, and working part-time in shops. Then in 1994, Borithy returned to Cambodia to work with landmine victims. He has remained there, working to reconstruct the country, ever since. He now heads up a consortium of Cambodian NGOs. The family have had to make do with annual visits, but effectively Somaly has brought up the two girls on her own. She deliberately concealed her story from her children, hiding books about Cambodia and keeping her history safely out of sight. She and her mother, who died eight years ago, never told the girls what had happened to their family. "I didn't want them to be burdened by their past," she says.

What she wanted for her children was a normal childhood, the very thing that she was so cruelly denied. "It's almost as if I lived through them," she says. "It's very important to me that they enjoy their lives." As it turned out, Mary went on to study PPE at Oxford, while Bophanie read English at Bristol. A bright, sensitive and self-possessed 27-year-old, Mary is now assistant private secretary to Gareth Thomas, minister of state at the Department for International Development. When I meet her at the ministry, she admits that she's long been curious about her family background. But she's never asked her parents directly, "because," she says, "it just seems too painful and it never seems to be the right time to sit down and say, 'So what happened to you?'"

Mary has spent a lot of time reading about what took place in Cambodia and also about other atrocities around the globe. In fact, it's become her professional area of interest. As part of her work with International Development, she has spent nine months in Iraq, helping with its first democratic election, and extended periods in Sudan. Somaly had told me those nine months that Mary was in Iraq were the longest of her life, which, considering some of the months she has lived through, is a testament to the depths of maternal anxiety. "When I got back from Iraq," says Mary, "Mum said that I'd aged her 10 years."

That begs the question: how much must Somaly's own mother have aged from maternal anxiety, quite apart from her own physical hardship? "My grandmother lost six children and her husband," says Mary, "and yet, in a similar way to my mum, she was always very gentle and generous, and so good-natured that you'd never have any sense of what she'd gone through. She was very positive about her life in the UK. She learnt English through talking to her grandchildren and watching television." It's this attitude that has proved an inspiration for Mary. She could have simply enjoyed the fruits of the comfortable life that a gifted student might expect. Yet instead she has chosen to seek out the world's troubled spots and attempt to provide constructive help.

"I wanted to give something back because my sister and I have been very lucky," she says. "I think you get that a lot with second-generation refugee children: they feel they owe something." Mary is not without reservations about foreign intervention, but, perhaps informed by her knowledge of what happened in Cambodia when the world looked away, she doesn't think that inaction is the answer. "I realise that the involvement of the international community is flawed and there's an awful lot of politicking around it," she explains, with the careful phrasing of a civil servant, "but what if there was no involvement at all? When I was in Iraq, I certainly felt that on balance it was better that we were there than not there." I ask her what effect her parents' lives have had on her own choices. She thinks carefully for a while before responding. "A lot of what I do is not necessarily to seek approval or make them proud but to show them that I'm making the most of the opportunities they've given me, and that I don't take for granted that they made it and we're all here alive. My mum always says that everything else is a bonus. All she wanted was us to be safe and healthy."

The story of the Luns is a global story, and a historical one. It stretches from the jungles of Cambodia to the deserts of Sudan, and from the chaos of Baghdad to the tranquil order of Oxfordshire. It also descends generations, gradually revealing itself as the trauma subsides, providing the catharsis, if not closure, of disclosure. Thirty years on and Cambodia continues to be a country with enormous problems, though nothing to compare with the Pol Pot era. All manner of injustices remain neglected or covered up, and its continuing poverty has recently led to Oxfam returning to the country, to provide emergency relief to combat flooding. The Luns' plight cannot address those issues. Instead it articulates something deeper and more uplifting in the human spirit. The Luns are a family of survivors. To appreciate the full richness of life, and everything they so nearly lost, is the survivor's reward. But to want to contribute so much themselves, that's a very rare personal gift.


Somaly's story

I posted an article on Somaly Lun a short while ago and now another story about Somaly and her family has appeared in The Observer magazine at the weekend. It's a long article so I'll upload it in two posts. Somaly lives in the UK and I met her husband Borithy many years ago on a visit to The Cambodia Trust whilst in Phnom Penh.

We'd walk to the fields to work and see the bodies. They left them there to scare us
She was only 15 when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. Now, 30 years after she fled, Somaly Lun recalls the horror of Pol Pot's regime, and how she found a new life in Oxfordshire - by Andrew Anthony (
Somaly Lun (center) with her daughters, Bophanie (left) and Mary Thida. Photo - Antonio Olmos
A suburban-style house in the quiet Oxfordshire village of Witney is not the place you'd expect to encounter an epic drama. Yet here, in this unassuming setting, lives a supermarket cashier whose life has involved unimaginable suffering, mass murder, gut-wrenching suspense, heroic determination, war-torn love and, ultimately, a future endowed with hope. It's a story that Somaly Lun has kept secret for 30 years. Back in January 1979, Vietnam invaded its neighbour Camboodia and the communist Khmer Rouge regime collapsed, retreating back into the jungles from which it had originally emerged. Thus ended a four-year reign of homicidal terror that, even in a century featuring such butchers as Stalin, Hitler and Mao, was almost too shocking to believe. Estimates of those killed are usually placed at between 1 and 2 million from a total population of just 8 million. Before the Vietnamese intervened, it was almost impossible to escape from the country, but once the Khmer Rouge fled into the jungle, thousands of refugees poured over the border into Thailand. One of those was 20-year-old Somaly. At that time the only thing she knew about Britain was Big Ben. She couldn't imagine that a sleepy corner of Oxfordshire would become her home. But then in terms of unlikely events, moving halfway round the world was dwarfed by the miracle of her still being alive.

Somaly's childhood was shaped by the war in neighbouring Vietnam. When she was 10, her hometown of Kratie, which was close to the Vietnamese border, was illegally bombed by American B-52s. The Americans were trying to cut off Vietnamese supply lines, and on one occasion a US F-11 fighter plane flew so low in an attack that Somaly could see the pilot. Her hearing was left permanently impaired. The family fled to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where Somaly's father was a doctor at one of the main hospitals. She was 15 when the Khmer Rouge first entered her life, in 1975, when they subjected Phnom Penh to relentless artillery bombardment. It was the last stage of a civil war between the corrupt Lon Nol government, supported by the Americans, and the Chinese-backed insurgents of the Khmer Rouge. Trapped and terrified, the battle-weary inhabitants were so relieved when the shelling finally ended that crowds came out to greet the victorious communist troops when they entered Phnom Penh, on 17 April 1975. "We were thinking it was going to be really peaceful," recalls Somaly.

The Khmer Rouge had other ideas. They responded to the welcome by announcing that everyone had to leave the city immediately. Hospitals were emptied of the sick and injured. The severely wounded were left to die on the streets. It was the first sign of the terror that was about to engulf Somaly, her family and millions of Cambodians. An estimated 20,000 people lost their lives in the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh. People were shot or beaten to death for offering the smallest sign of resistance, or even, in many cases, daring to question why they had to leave their homes. Overnight, money was banned, towns and cities abandoned, and all forms of commerce ended. Year Zero, a dark, pre-industrial age of universal enslavement, had begun. All the stunned and baffled Cambodians were told was that a mysterious authority called Angkar now oversaw every aspect of life and, as it would frequently turn out, death. Scarcely anyone within Cambodia realised that Angkar's presiding force was a failed electronics student named Saloth Sar, otherwise known as Brother Number One and, most notoriously, Pol Pot.

A small woman with finely attractive features animated by a large, easy smile, Somaly betrays nothing in her lively demeanour of the nightmare in which she was to spend the remainder of her teenage years. "My father tried to keep us calm," she says, remembering those first few days of uncertainty. "There were nine children. I had an elder brother, elder sister and then six younger brothers." Of the 11 family members, only four survived the killing fields. Democratic Kampuchea, as it was called, promised liberation, but in reality it was an enormous prison in which hunger, torture, forced labour and the ever-present threat of death formed the parameters of existence. At first, the family walked to Somaly's grandparent's village, where, under the command of the Khmer Rouge, they were put to work in the fields. "They treated us quite bad because they said we were soft," she says. "You know, we had soft hands and soft feet. So they made us work hard and they criticised us every day after work." Family members were forced to accuse and inform on one another. At night, spies would listen to any whispers of dissent. "We had to learn very quickly," says Somaly, "because there were people being taken away because of what they'd been saying." "Taken away", as Somaly soon learned, was a euphemism for murdered. Those killed, usually beaten with spades and clubs, were left in open graves for everyone to see. "You walked to the field to do your work and you'd see the mass collection of bodies. They were doing it to scare us."

As food became increasingly scarce, the family was moved to Pursat, deep in the countryside, in what amounted to a concentration camp. Her father was soon taken away, first to treat a senior party official and then, inevitably, to be murdered. Although all the senior members of the Khmer Rouge were educated abroad in France, anyone else with an education, including much-needed doctors, was seen as a dangerous class enemy that had to be eliminated. Later, Somaly's eldest brother was caught hoarding food rations. "He was accused of being a spy for the CIA and the KGB," she says, now speaking very quietly. "He would not admit it, but whether you admit it or not didn't make any difference. He was beaten to death." Malaria and typhoid were a constant threat and food rations hovered around starvation level – thousands died from malnutrition, and many more were killed for attempting to find food. "My little brother was 10," says Somaly. "When you're 10, you're hungry. He saw a sweet potato and he dug it up and took it. And the punishment was death. He was led away and put into…" she stops, struggling to articulate the appalling image in her mind "…it was like a hut. They got about 50 or 100 people in there. He was led into it and they burned them alive. I heard the screams. Because it's too exhausting for them to kill them by beating them to death, so burning them was easier. They just hated us, even though we are the same people. That's what I couldn't understand. Every day I'd think, why doesn't anyone get up and fight?"

Crying was forbidden and brought extreme punishment, so Somaly would wait until night to allow herself silent tears. In the midst of this revolutionary dystopia, one of the most difficult ideas for the teenager to accept was the thought that the world had abandoned Cambodia. "I kept thinking all the time, 'Why does no one come and rescue us?' We'd look up in the sky for the sign of a plane. Any little sound of gunfire got us excited – Somebody must have come! But it was just them killing somebody who had escaped, otherwise they wouldn't waste their bullets." For most of her time living under the Khmer Rouge, she was separated from her family and transferred around the country on a work brigade. During the rainy season, she would plant rice, working up to 18 hours a day, and in the dry season she would take part in dam construction and maintenance. Four more of her brothers were to die from a mixture of exhaustion, starvation and sickness.

By August 1979, the Vietnamese were in control of most of Cambodia, but Somaly and her family were in a part of the country still ruled by the Khmer Rouge. Just weeks from liberation, one of her two surviving brothers came to her complaining of illness. "He was malnourished, his belly swollen. Then suddenly he got this bubble of water beneath his skin and he cried and said: 'Look what happened to me.' And I knew that he wouldn't last. A week later he died. You just see your brother die in front of you. Just like that." Facing outright defeat, the Khmer Rouge had begun a desperate campaign to kill as many Cambodians as possible rather than allow them to be taken by the Vietnamese. In Pursat, hundreds were forced off cliffs to their deaths. And where Somaly was stationed, a mass killing meant the only hope of staying alive was to escape. Along with 100 or so other captives, Somaly fled at night into the jungle. They were chased by the Khmer Rouge – "people lost their babies, people were shot" – as they were pursued through mangrove swamps. "I had no legs," she remembers. "When you haven't had much food to eat and you try to run and they're shooting at us… I said, 'Just go, leave me.'"

One of the things that Somaly learned during that period in Cambodia was that often in the darkest and most despairing moments, someone would offer a word of comfort or a hand of help. And so it was that one of the other escapees reached out and dragged her through the swamp, yanking her up from the fatalism of exhaustion. They still had to hide for four days in a boat on Tonle Sap lake without any food. One night they came within feet of a Khmer Rouge patrol, but managed to silently slip away. Finally, their nerves shattered, they reached the Vietnamese zone. By this time, Somaly had learned of the killings at Pursat and feared that the remainder of her family had perished. Even so, she decided to maintain a vigil by a road on which an endless tide of Cambodians was heading towards Phnom Penh. After almost four weeks of asking passersby if they'd heard anything of her family, she spotted her mother. Once again her legs failed her when she tried to run. So instead, she started shouting "Mum! Mum! Mum!" Her mother was with the two other surviving siblings, a younger brother and older sister. "We all just cried," Somaly recalls, beaming at the memory. "It was the happiest day of my life."

To be continued in Part 2.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Honda reward

The U23 players line up in formation
One of the rewards for the Cambodian Under-23 team and their coaching staff, for winning the inaugural BIDC Cup at the weekend, in addition to the $20,000 prize money, was the gift of 31 matching Honda Dream motorbikes (and helmets), courtesy of the Cambodian Football Federation. After the hullabaloo of the previous night, the U23 players gathered on Sunday afternoon at the scene of their triumph, the Olympic Stadium, to receive their gifts from the FFC president, HE Sao Sokha. I didn't get a call to join the party, so these pictures are courtesy of Tep Phany of the FFC. The U23 squad are now in Vietnam, returning to the Thanh Long facility just outside Saigon, where they will have another ten days of intensive training in final preparation before they depart for Vientiane and the SEA Games in Laos. They have one game scheduled, meeting Can Tho on the 25th, the day before they return to Phnom Penh.
A closer inspection of their brand new Honda Dream for some of the players
HE Sao Sokha (center) getting a closer look at the players' gifts

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In real danger

A giant Reahoo monster on the Reamker frescoes at the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh
A perfect illustration of the damage caused to the lower half of the frescoes at the Silver Pagoda
The frescoes of the Silver Pagoda remain in dire straits. Weather and water infiltration damage, as well as harmful paint spraying have taken their toll on the 642 metres of beautiful murals that cover the interior of the pagoda compound walls. Much of the lower section on all of the three-metre high murals has been lost and the damage is irreparable, despite efforts from a Polish restoration team between 1985-1993 that has at least saved what remains today, though the project ran out of money and ended prematurely. Further restoration is necessary but funding remains the key. Depicting stories from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the classic Indian epic known as the Ramayana, the frescoes were painted in 1903 and 1904 by a team of forty students under the tutelage of Vichite Chea and the architect of the Silver Pagoda, Oknha Tep Nimit Mak. The stories, which were modeled on the Thai Ramakien murals at the royal palace in Bangkok, which in turn were influenced by the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat, start at the east gate and include murals of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda itself. The story itself ends on a happy note when Rama and Sita are reunited, and differs from the original Indian epic.
Palace scenes abound on the murals at the Silver Pagoda
More Palace scenes from the Reamker story
Another example of the damage caused to the frescoes
Almost a third of the galleries containing the frescoes are used for temporary storage areas
The intricate murals were painted between 1903-1904
A battle to the death is part of the Reamker storyline
This royal palace scene remains untouched whilst all around is destruction
Careless paint spraying has ruined this section of the murals
Another beautiful scene partly scarred by the water and damp damage to the frescoes
Restoration work by a Polish team saved this section of the frescoes in the 1980s
A close-up of three courtesans shows the damage to the intricately-painted frescoes

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Monday, November 16, 2009

More from the Palace

A panorama of the Royal Palace grounds with the Throne Hall in the center
In rounding off my recent visit to the Royal Palace with Now, on one of her rare visits to the capital and her first time inside the Palace grounds, here are some more snaps for your viewing. Most visitors to the city take time to visit the RP so I'm probably not showing you anything that you haven't seen before. For those who've never been, this is what you can see. I'll round off my Silver Pagoda visit with a few more pictures very soon.
Now on the steps of the Throne Hall with the Chan Chhaya Pavilion in the background
The Chan Chhaya Pavilion, from where the monarch makes speeches on special occasions
The decorative pediment of the Throne Hall and the royal crest
Built in 1917 this was used for the King to mount his elephants - its called Hor Samran Phirun
The royal crest as seen on doors and windows throughout the Royal Palace
A display of royal regalia can be seen inside Hor Samrith Vimean, the Bronze Palace
The corner of the Napoleon III Pavilion and the Throne Hall behind
Now used for receptions, the Phochani Pavilion was originally a dance theater
Decorative frescoes are on the ceiling of the Phochani Pavilion, also home to many small birds
The Victory Gate is used by the monarch and important visitors only


Author online

Novelist Robert A Webster lives in Sihanoukville, after spending many years living in Thailand and for the last three years has been putting down some roots on the south coast of Cambodia. Originally from Cleethorpes in the UK, he has two books out already, Buddah's Tooth and Chalice, and both books detail the trials and tribulations of a group of friends as they travel around Cambodia and Thailand. His publishers are Willowbank in the UK. You can read his second book, Chalice - A Cambodian Adventure, here. A third book is in the offing.


Press Talk

My match report from the BIDC final in today's Phnom Penh Post. It's now online here.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

3rd place decider

The BIDC Cup, won by Cambodia with a thrilling 3-2 victory over HAGL on Sunday
You wouldn't have known it but there was also the third-place BIDC Cup play-off that took place yesterday before the main event. Vissai Ninh Binh met the Laos U23s and the V-League newcomers won 1-0 with a goal from Nigerian-born Dinh Hoang Max on 16 minutes, when he found space in the box to head in a whipped cross from Dang Van Thanh. Laos played the better football with Soukhavong Kaysone shining out on the left wing with his trickery, but they found Dinh Hoang La (aka Kytovka Mykola) in great form and he would've got the best keeper vote if Samreth Seiha hadn't done so well in the final. Laos will be disappointed with their showing at the BIDC ahead of the SEA Games, which they will host in a couple of weeks time. They had an unbeaten record coming into this tournament and ended up losing three out of four matches played. They have some work to do to boost their confidence after this showing.
Vissai Ninh Binh claimed 3rd place and a $5,000 prize
Laos will go back home and lick their wounds, ready for the SEA Games
Vissai Ninh Binh's matchwinner Dinh Hoang Max
Oh my god that bib is atrocious - I look pregnant. I get to shake the massive hands of Vissai Ninh Binh's talented goalkeeper Dinh Hoang La.



That magical winning feeling will spur on the Cambodian team. Skipper Sun Sovannarith raises the BIDC Cup in triumph.
You didn't think that was the end of the football-related blog posts did you? I've got a couple more before they subside in their monotonous regularity. It's not everyday you get an international football tournament in your backyard hence my over exuberance in covering the matches. Plus the fact I'm a football nut. Normal service will be resumed soon enough, so don't despair or switch to another blog. The BIDC Cup, sponsored by a Vietnamese bank, was a chance to embrace our near neighbours from Vietnam and Laos, but also an opportunity for the Cambodian Under-23 team to replicate the pressure of four games in a week, that they will experience in Laos in two weeks time, at the SEA Games. Folks take the Southeast Asian Games very seriously around here I've found out. To be realistic, Cambodia haven't got an earthly in winning a medal at the Games. If they qualify from the group stage that would be a miracle, considering they have three teams in the same group that are way above them in the rankings, and in their development. A potential negative from winning the BIDC Cup is that expectations will have been raised amongst the football fans in this country, including the 30,000 that crammed into the Olympic Stadium yesterday. But they have to understand that this is the start of a journey of improvement for the national team, not the finished product by any stretch of the imagination. Football seems to work in cycles and we're at the beginning of this one. Coach Scott O'Donell knows how much work is still to be done to bring our team up to a suitable standard, and he won't let the players get carried away with this success. However, I would argue that you must celebrate your victories in life and yesterday's success was a sweet one for all concerned. The players felt great about it and I know they'd love to get that feeling again, so they'll work their socks off in Laos, but don't expect miracles.
Cambodia celebrating their success with a squad team photo
The team and VIPs listen to the Cambodian national anthem
Samreth Seiha receives his award as the competition's best goalkeeper, as well as $1,000 prizemoney
Lining up to received their winners medals. LtoR: Lay Raksmey,Keo Sokngorn, Khim Borey, Samreth Seiha, Chan Chhaya and Nov Soseila.
A moment of contemplation before Sun Sovannarith and the coaching staff receive their medals
HE Sao Sokha explains that each member of the Cambodian squad will receive a moto as a gift from the football federation

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Last night's 2 goal hero - Chan Chhaya
Tricky decision. Most of the team played a blinder in the 3-2 win over HAGL last night to earn themselves the BIDC Cup, a share of the prize money and a new moto each, thanks to the football federation. Goalkeeper Samreth Seiha, whose handling last night was almost faultless, was voted best goalkeeper by the press to win a $1,000 prize. Kuoch Sokumpheak's beaming smile at the end of the game said it all after he claimed the winner in the closing minutes. Sun Sovannarith's forays down the left wing were a feature throughout the tournament and the U23s skipper was as proud as punch to lift the cup at the end of the game. But my vote goes to Chan Chhaya, who netted two first-half goals to give Cambodoa a 2-nil halftime advantage. Chhaya is one of the unsung heroes of the team, he missed a few chances in the other games but came good last night when it really mattered. He wouldn't be everyone's pick to partner Sokumpheak up front but his tireless running is a great foil to his partner's savvy and he showed last night that he knows where the goal is. At 22 he's one of the older players in the squad and plays for Phnom Penh Crown in the CPL, though finds it tough to hold down a regular spot with their preference for African strikers.
All the press attention is on Chan Chhaya at the end of the game
A composed and happy Kuoch Sokumpheak after the game
The Cambodian players on the podium. LtoR, Sun Sovannarith, Kuoch Sokumpheak (10), Nov Soseila (14) and Chan Chhaya (9).

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Talking to the press

Scott O'Donell talks to the press after the match. That's my head on the right. Pic: Tep Phany
Microphones were thrust under the chin of Cambodia's national coach Scott O'Donell immediately after his team's successful victory over HAGL in the BIDC Cup final and these are a few of his comments. "I am very happy to win the tournament. It's great, look at the crowd, everyone is very happy and it's great for the Cambodian team to get some success on home soil. The fans have been excellent in the way they've supported the boys tonight and throughout the competition. This has been a very important part of our preparations for the SEA Games. The whole tournament was aimed at that. Four games in six days is what we'll be up against in the SEA Games. We'll want to do as well as we can but as I said to the players to give me everything they've got - I can't ask for anymore than that."
Scott O'Donell answers questions from Apsara TV's Norodom Buddhapong
After the medal ceremony, I managed a couple of minutes with Scott for a more in-depth review of the game.
"This has been very important preparation, we're playing against good teams here and we've been making some mistakes in training and in games and we'll get punished when we play against good teams, and we got punished again tonight. We've got to start learning that we can't keep making the same mistakes, that's what was very frustrating tonight. Credit to the players, they worked hard but hard work is not enough, we've got to get smarter.
"(After leading 2-0) we made silly mistakes. We can't do that, we can't give the ball away, I said at halftime we were giving too many balls away, our plan was just to keep it simple. we scored a couple of good goals ourselves in the first-half, played some great attacking football and then we switched off; you lose concentration and you get punished for it. We expected their number 5 to start - for me he's their best player - and the tempo rose when he came onto the field in the second-half - he was one of the big differences in the second-half, they became more direct in their attack and caused us problems, and we didn't really cope.
"We made a couple of changes, I'm not taking credit for the comeback but fresh legs and a good cross into the box from Smey. I must say it 20 times a training session, if you get good, decent crosses into the box, you've got a good chance of scoring. We got a good cross in and a good finish from Pheak. I was very happy for Chhaya scoring his two goals, he works his backside off and I don't think he gets the credit he deserves. He's still got to work on his composure in the attacking third and keeping hold of the ball, but I'm very happy for him that he scored two goals today. He's a good boy, he works hard and he deserved it.
"The SEA Games are coming up quick. We're up against some tough teams and we've got to start learning from our mistakes. It's going to be difficult as it is and if we gift them possession and make it hard for ourselves, we're gonna be in big trouble. We still need to improve our anaerobic fitness - sprint, recover, sprint, recover. There's not much time but we've got to get sharper, make those runs and recover quickly. I'm very happy with some of the boys, whilst others we've still got to work on. There's still places up for grabs in the final 20 for the SEA Games and in the starting eleven. If boys come in and do well, they'll keep their positions in the team."
Caught on camera
Scott O'Donell receiving his winners medal at last night's ceremony
The FFC president & Commander of the Royal Gendarmerie Sao Sokha congratulates Scott on the team's success

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Who we face

Lots more to come on last night's BIDC Cup but let's take a break for a minute to digest the draw for the football competition in the SEA Games in Vientiane, Laos in a couple of weeks time. Cambodia are in Group A, the strongest of the groups and will open their competition involvement against the 8-times gold medalists Thailand on 4 December at 3pm at the Chao-Anu-Vong Stadium in central Vientiane. Nothing like starting with the toughest game first, though the Cambodian team will be bouyed by their BIDC Cup success this week and another two weeks of intensive warm-up in Vietnam before the kick-off. Their games come thick and fast and two days later, 6 December, they meet Timor Leste at 5.45pm at the brand new National Stadium, some 20kms outside of the city. On 8 December they are back at the Chao-Anu-Vong venue to meet Malaysia (5.45pm) and then complete their group matches with another tough task against Vietnam on 11 December at 3pm at the Chao Stadium. Scott O'Donell and his U23 squad are off to Vietnam again tomorrow for another ten days of intensive preparation at the Thanh Long facility just outside Saigon before they return to Phnom Penh in time to say goodbye to their loved ones and head for Laos.
The Chao-Anu-Vong Stadium in central Vientiane, Laos

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In more depth

Jubilant scenes as Cambodia's skipper Sun Sovannarith collects the BIDC Cup
Cambodia's U23 youngsters showed real grit and determination to pull off a great BIDC Cup victory against a very strong Vietnamese outfit in HAGL a few hours ago. This win on home soil will give the youngsters the right sort of confidence boost ahead of the SEA Games in a couple of weeks where they will face two of the best teams in Asian football in the group stages. At Olympic Stadium last night, coach Scott O'Donell sprang no surprises and named his strongest line-up for the tournament decider and it paid dividends on 12 minutes when Chan Chhaya raced onto a Kuoch Sokumpheak through ball and finished with aplomb inside the near post. Sokumpheak had a couple of half chances before the crowd were on their feet again on 37 minutes as Chhaya rose unchallenged in the box and headed in Khim Borey's inch-perfect corner. The massive crowd went beserk. In time added on at the end of the 1st half, HAGL's Brazilian striker Toledo made no friends when he failed to give the ball back after an injury stoppage, beat two defenders and blasted the ball against the crossbar. It was cleared to safety though the Brazilian claimed it had crossed the goal-line. In my view he should've been booked for unsporting behaviour.
Leading 2-nil at the break, Cambodia had to weather an onslaught from HAGL and were unable to stop a thunderbolt of a shot from HAGL's Le Van Truong that arrowed its way past Samreth Seiha from 25 yards, 9 minutes after the break. Four minutes later HAGL were level. Pheak Rady was caught in possession and Tran Minh Thien finished with a fierce shot inside the near post. The game was in the balance and both sides had half chances, with Pheak Rady redeeming himself with a last-ditch tackle on Vo Ut Cuong as he shaped to shoot, whilst Prak Mony Udom made space for a shot at the other end, but fired over. O'Donell threw on three pairs of fresh legs and three minutes from time, one of the subs, Lay Raksmey sent over a sublime cross that found Kuoch Sokumpheak in space ten yards out and his downward header bounced into the corner of the net. 3-2 to Cambodia. Queue wild celebrations around the stadium. Cambodia saw out 5 minutes of added time, with Seiha's safe handling a real feature of the game and confirmed his pick as the best goalkeeper in the competition, with a $1,000 reward for the stopper. The players celebrated the final whistle by throwing their shirts into the crowd and deservedly enjoyed their moment of glory.
In the award ceremonies that followed, skipper Sun Sovannarith held aloft the BIDC Cup as the players received $20,000 as a cash prize from the sponsors and another $5,000 from the FFC, in addition to a new moto for each of the playing squad and coaching staff. With Samreth Seiha collecting the $1,000 as best goalkeeper, the same prize money went to the Laos skipper Kitsada as the tournament's most valuable player (I voted for his teammate Soukhavong Kaysone) and HAGL's Evaldo Goncaves scooped the top goalscorer award with three goals. More importantly, it sent Cambodia off to the SEA Games in Laos with the ecstatic chants of their fans ringing in their ears and the determination and unity they showed in abundance in their locker.
The Cambodia U23 team: Samreth Seiha, Pheak Rady (Lay Raksmey), Sun Sovannarith, Tieng Tiny, Sok Rithy, San Narith, Khim Borey (Lorn Sotheara), Keo Sokngorn (Prak Mony Udom), Nov Soseila (Oum Kumpheak), Chan Chhaya (Khuon Laboravy), Kuoch Sokumpheak.
Sun Sovannarith leads out the team for the BIDC Cup final
Its hand-shake time again
Sun Sovannarith and the HAGL skipper Duuong Van Pho
Apprehensive youngsters on the Cambodian bench
A view of the game and the watching crowd at Olympic Stadium last night
The main stand at last night's game with part of the 30,000 crowd

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Winning - the hard way

All smiles as Cambodia win the 1st-ever BIDC Cup, held aloft by capt Sun Sovannarith (18)
The Cambodia U23 starting line-up tonight; LtoR (back) Tiny, Sovannarith, Seiha, Rithy, Rady, Narith (front) Chhaya, Sokngorn, Soseila, Sokumpheak, Borey
To say Cambodia won the BIDC Cup the hard way is an understatement. In the final at Olympic Stadium tonight, Cambodia led 2-nil with Chan Chhaya netting twice, were then pulled back to 2-2 and looked to be suffering shell-shock, when Kuoch Sokumpheak joined the party and headed the winning goal just 3 minutes from the end of normal time that sent the 30,000 crowd into raptures, though they had to endure 5 minutes extra time before they could celebrate the success. More later, when I get my breath back but in the meantime, enjoy the pictures.
The players return to the bench after celebrating their win by throwing their shirts into the crowd
The Cambodian players wait to receive their winners medals
An impromptu team photo for the winning Cambodian team and coaching staff
Sao Sokha, the president of the football federation of Cambodia, promises each of the 31 members of the Cambodia squad a moto each as an extra prize for winning the BIDC Cup

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In the world

I'm not convinced that anyone really worries too much about the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings in football but they are always interesting to take a quick peeop at. In the current rankings, Cambodia lie in 171st place, one spot below Laos and one above Mongolia. The lack of national A team games means that we're treading water at the moment, the Under23 matches don't count. Regionally, Australia top the Asia Zone. Teams like Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar are well ahead of Cambodia. The five teams sitting immediately above us are Laos, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Chinese Taipei. The five teams immediately below us are Mongolia, Nepal, Palestine, Brunei Darussalam and Guam. Not exactly names to strike fear into the hearts of the countries who top the table. The top 3 in the world at the moment are Brazil, Spain and Netherlands. England are 7th behind Argentina and Germany. Grrrhh.

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Roy Hill promo

There is only 1 Roy Hill. Many of you will be thankful for that but he was a great performer in 1978 and he still is today. He's also one of the funniest people on the planet. Find out more here.

Roy Hill

Roy Hill | MySpace Video


The stars of tomorrow

Developing schoolboy and youth football in Cambodia is an absolute must if the stars of tomorrow are to be identified and nurtured properly from a young age. There are two organizations who are doing wonderful work in this area but Cambodia needs many more. It needs every major town in the country to have its own organized league competition with football teams at various age levels playing regularly, on well-maintained pitches. Only then will it find the Keo Sokngorn's (pictured right) and Nov Soseila's of the future. The SALT Academy in Battambang and the Indochina Starfish Foundation have programs that provide football as the centrepiece of their aims but also provide leadership and life skills training as part of the work they do, both for boys and girls. This type of grassroots work is absolutely vital and both organizations are to be commended for their wonderful efforts. The next stage is to widen the net of football at grassroots level to incorporate every corner of the country, so that football becomes a part of the culture, there are opportunities for everyone to take part and the best players are identified and fed into a system of trials and games for the national team at all age levels. This doesn't happen overnight and money, qualified coaches, suitabel playing surfaces and so on are needed to make this a reality of the future, but that must be the goal of the Football Federation of Cambodia, as the flagship for football in this country.
Find out more about the two organizations above at SALT and ISF.
Keo Sokngorn is still just 17 years old but has been a bright star in the Cambodian Premier League for the last couple of seasons. His success with Phnom Penh Crown has ensured he's a regular in the Cambodia national squad, was captain of the Under-17 team and is one of the country's best prospects. He was born in Kratie and played for his local team, Moha Garuda before switching to Crown. Interviewed for in September 2007, he said he'd love to play in Vietnam in the future, especially for HAGL. Well today he has the opportunity to play against HAGL for the Cambodian national team and to showcase his talents once more.
Last night was the official dinner of the BIDC Cup tournament with all teams and officials invited to TaTa restaurant in Preak Leap for food and drinks and song. Some of the Vietnamese attendees wasted no time in getting on stage and displaying their vocal dexterity, followed closely by the Brazilian contingent of HAGL, who added some South American flavour to the evening. It's back to the important stuff this afternoon as Vissai Ninh Binh meet the Laos U23s for the third place play-off at 3.30pm, followed by the Cambodia U23s v HAGL final at 6pm. A $20,000 cash prize, to be shared amongst the members of the winning squad, is up for grabs, with the runners-up getting $10,000. More importantly for the Cambodian team, its another chance to pit themselves against one of Vietnam's best club sides and to get another game under their belt in their preparation for the SEA Games in a couple of weeks time. Don't miss it.
Adding a touch of Brazilian flavour to last night's BIDC Cup official dinner

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Wat Preah Keo Morokat

The Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh from the southeast corner
As I'm not allowed to take photos inside the Silver Pagoda, here's a few from outside and from different angles. In a break from my football posts, this is one of the crown jewels in Phnom Penh, Wat Preah Keo Morokat, better known to all as the Silver Pagoda, in respect of the 5,329 silver tiles that cover its floor. Its also known for its Emerald Buddha, made of Baccarat crystal, a 90kg gold Buddha encrusted with thousands of diamonds and many other priceless statues and objects, though as with many things in Cambodia, the signage is pretty awful in explaining what you are looking at. The building itself was constructed in wood in 1892 and renovated in 1962. In the same compound are a number of stupas, shrines and wall paintings, or frescoes, that tell the story of the Reamker. More of that later, for now, enjoy the Silver Pagoda.
A view of the northwest corner of the Silver Pagoda
The western (back) entrance to the Silver Pagoda, together with the miniature replica of Angkor Wat
The Silver Pagoda from the southwest corner
The northeast view of the Silver Pagoda
Looking at the Silver Pagoda from the southeast, you can see the spires rising from the Royal Palace are behind

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Bums on seats

The crowd at a distance: Cam v HAGL
Attendances at the BIDC Cup games make for interesting reading and debate. Last night's Cambodia game against Vissai Ninh Binh was put at 12,000 spectators. Now is that paid spectators or just a guesstimate - almost certainly the latter as there are no turnstiles at the Olympic Stadium. Tickets are issued - $2 to sit under cover in the main stand, $1 to get fried by the scorching sun in the open-air concrete seats - but this is Cambodia so I would be very surprised if the attendance figures bore any resemblance to actual bums on seats. I used to be just as skeptical about the attendances at Kidderminster Harriers games as well. I believe the main stand at Olympic seats around 8,000 and up to 50,000 can sit in the open areas but 12,000 is still a generous figure in my book. There were 7,000 at the HAGL v Laos game that was played a few hours earlier.
The attendance for the Cambodia v Laos match on Tuesday was put at a healthy 17,000, so I can only imagine that will be blown out of the water by the figures for tomorrow's final at 6pm. Floodlit football is a rarity in Cambodia - to be honest the floodlights aren't that good - so it has novelty value and the fans should turn out in high numbers for the final, urged on by the Army band who will stir the crowd into a clapping frenzy. There isn't the obvious passion in Cambodia that you find in other countries around Asia just yet, as football is still very much in its embryonic stage, though the signs are encouraging. Fans' expectations will be tough to manage - no-one should expect Cambodia to win the SEA Games for example, but I'm sure many will - but that's the nature of the beast where football is concerned, so we'll have to live with it. The national team have just begun their journey and I hope the public will give them the time, and encouragement to grow together, players and fans alike.
The Army band at much closer range

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Press Talk

Match report for Cambodia v Laos
This is my match report from Tuesday's match and Cambodia's win over Laos, that appeared in yesterday's Phnom Penh Post. The match report from last night will appear on Monday, as will the report from Saturday's final. Confused? So am I. It's all about newspaper deadlines. The story is already online here.
I didn't pick a MOTM from last night's Cambodia game as to be honest not one player stood out as having a better game than anyone else. It was that sort of match for the home team. They never really got hold of the ball for more than a few minutes as Vissai NB kept it for long periods and when they did attack, over-eagerness and poor control gave possession away far too easily. It looked like the introduction of Chan Chhaya, Kuoch Sokumpheak and Nov Soseila in the closing minutes might make a difference but it didn't happen. I'm sure Scott will reintroduce all the players that sat on the bench last night for tomorrow's final against HAGL, who will be a different proposition from the team that caved-in on Sunday after leading 2-nil. It all adds up to a spicy encounter. Make sure you tell your friends and they tell their friends to get along to the Olympic Stadium tomorrow. And if you can't make it, watch the game live on the local TV5 channel. Tonight at the Tata restaurant over the Japanese Bridge, is the BIDC Cup's official dinner and I've been invited. At last I seem to made it onto the list of people to be invited to events, usually they forget to invite me. Tomorrow's match will no doubt attract a flood of VIPs, but the FFC have listened to our moans from a couple of months ago and designated a media area in the main stand, so a pat on the back to them for that. They've also upped their game in providing match information and we've been showered with a free bottle of cold water at each game. At this rate we'll have an internet connection in no time. Fat chance. They've even asked the media to select the competition's most valuable player and the best goalkeeper, who'll each get $1,000. It's nice to be asked.
At the post-match press conference last night, Cambodia's coach Scott O'Donell had this to say; "I wasn't happy with our first-half performance, we didn't play well and all credit to Ninh Binh they gave us a footballing lesson in how to keep possession. We played better in the second-half but still didn't have enough of a goal threat. Aside from one training session, this was the first time that team have played together and I cannot fault their effort or commitment. I was glad to be able to give all the players in the squad a run-out. I will sit down with my coaches tomorrow and select the team for Saturday. Everyone will be fit for the final except Chhun Sothearath, who has a knee injury. The supporters were great again and I think they understood what we were trying to do tonight in giving all the players the opportunity to play in front of their home fans. I hope they will turn out in their droves for the final on Saturday."

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HAGL go through

The HAGL team that eased past Laos U23 and into tomorrow's final
The earlier match yesterday afternoon saw HAGL sweep aside a tired looking Laos U23 team with some ease and in the process go top of the BIDC league table with a better goal difference over Cambodia. The two sides now meet in Saturday's 6pm final. HAGL have now won their last two games with considerable ease and look a much different proposition than when Cambodia beat them 3-2 in the first game. Saturday's clash is sure to be an interesting one. I think HAGL underestimated the Cambodian's ability to fight back after they took a 2-nil lead last Sunday, and I don't expect them to fall into that trap again. In Evaldo Goncaves, they have one of the tournament's best players and its top scorer and he scored again against Laos. Skipper Doan Van Sakada opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime from a free-kick, Goncaves netted five minutes into the 2nd period and Ho Van Thuan got the third. Laos were never really in the hunt.
HAGL are definitely aiming high in the next V-League season and want to win the title. It all starts again at the end of January. The squad they have brought to Cambodia for the BIDC is missing a few of its stars, including their coach. They have 2 players each in the Vietnam and Thailand national teams, 4 players in the Vietnam U23s, 1 player training in the USA, and two of their stars didn't register for this tournament but have been out kicking balls on the pitch throughout the warm-ups. They are spending a lot of money to ensure they get success next season. Vissai Ninh Binh, who beat Cambodia 1-0 last night, are also not afraid to get the chequebook out for new players, and have 4 players not here as they are with the Vietnam national team preparing for an Asian Cup qualifying game. For a newly-promoted team to have 4 players in the national squad says something about their ambitions too. Vissai will play-off against Laos for the 3rd place match (and $5,000) at 3.30pm on Saturday. The Final, with a $20,000 reward for the winners, will be at 6pm between Cambodia and HAGL. Tell your friends.
The Laos team looked tired and uninspiring against HAGL
The HAGL capt Doan Van Sakada scored the opening goal, and won himself $200
HAGL's third goal was scored by baby-faced assassin Ho Van Thuan
Laos' best player by a country mile has been left winger Soukhavong Kaysone
To complete the set, this is Nguyen Thanh Son who scored the Vissai goal against Cambodia and won $200

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Down but not out

The Cambodia U23s line up for tonight's match
Now for the bad news. The Cambodian U23s lost 1-0 to Vissai Ninh Binh in their final BIDC Cup group match tonight but of course are already through to the final on Saturday, where they will meet HAGL, who sent the Laos U23s packing with a 3-0 win earlier today. As expected coach Scott O'Donell took the opportunity to give his squad members who hadn't played in the previous games, a run out but they didn't step up to the mark as he would've hoped and they were definitely second-best against the V-League new boys. The only goal of the game came on 16 minutes when Nguyen Thanh Son ran through a big hole in the Cambodia back-line and fired a shot inside Sou Yaty's near post. To be honest VNB never really looked in trouble as the Cambodian team lacked real punch up front though VNB didn't really bust a gut either, doing just enough to claim the win. What they did do was keep possession of the ball and that was most frustrating as it didn't allow the Cambodian youngsters to get up a head of steam at any time. Aside from a couple of half-chances by Oum Kumpheak and Prak Mony Udom in the opening minutes, there was little else to get excited by and the game will give O'Donell a good indication of the strength in depth that he has to call on. It will be back to the full-strength team for the final on Saturday with no injury worries from the line-ups that beat HAGL first-time around and Laos.
O'Donell was realistic at the final whistle. "I wasn't happy with our first-half performance, we didn't play well and all credit to Ninh Binh they gave us a footballing lesson in how to keep possession. We played better in the second-half but still didn't have enough of a goal threat. This was the first time that team have played together and I cannot fault their effort or commitment. The supporters were great again and I think they understood what we were trying to do tonight in giving all the players the opportunity to play in front of their home fans. I hope they will turn out in their droves for the final on Saturday." I am sure they will, egged on by the impromptu band in the main stand and the Army orchestra and singers who provide the pre-match and halftime entertainment. The Cambodian line-up for the 6pm final against HAGL on Saturday will look very different from today's starting XI: Sou Yaty, Lay Raksmey,Chan Dara, Touch Pancharong, Tieng Tiny (capt) (Sok Rithy), Phuong Narong (Ieng Piseth), Lorn Sotheara (San Narith), Keo Kosal (Nov Soseila) Khuon Laboravy, Prak Mony Udom (Kouch Sokumpheak), Oum Kumpheak (Chan Chhaya).
The Cambodian team take a bow before their warm-up
The toss up by referee Sipaseuth from Laos with Tieng Tiny (blue) and VNB capt Luu Ngoc Hung
The Cambodian team waiting in line for the hand-shakes
The Cambodian bench before the match
Scott O'Donell, Cambodia's coach and his Ninh Binh counterpart at the after-match press conference

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Final group games

There's more football at the Olympic Stadium today as the final group games of the BIDC Cup are played and Cambodia will find out who they will meet in Saturday's Final. It's important as the winning team gets to share $20,000, which is pretty big prize money. The game at 3.30pm today will be a very interesting encounter between HAGL and the Laos U23 team. It will likely be a close game as both teams have shown enough to suggest they have sufficient quality in their ranks to cause the other team trouble. I think the Brazilian strikeforce for HAGL will give the Laos youngsters a few headaches, probably having to listen to Toledo moaning, whining and falling over all the time. In the 6pm kick-off, Cambodia's U23s will face Vissai Ninh Binh, who looked completely out of sorts in their last match against HAGL. I expect them to play better today, on pain of death. As Cambodia are already through to the final, expect a raft of changes from coach Scott O'Donell, who intends to give his squad members the opportunity to shine, especially after he expressed his acute disappointment in the 2nd half showing of his team against Laos. Plus a few players were showing signs of knocks and strains after the game on Tuesday, so they could do with some R&R.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

O'Donell on the SEA draw

Cambodia's national coach Scott O'Donell speaks about the SEA Games draw
Taking a break from the BIDC Cup for a moment, the draw for the SEA Games football competition was completed this week and threw up a very strong Group A that Cambodia will do exceptionally well to qualify from. There are five teams in the group and they include the 8 times gold medalists Thailand, much-fancied Vietnam, Malaysia, Timor-Leste and Cambodia. That will mean 4 games in a week for each of the teams. Two teams will qualify for the semi-finals to be played the following week. The first round of matches begin on 2 December.
I asked Cambodia's coach Scott O'Donell for his thoughts on the draw.
"I have to admit that it is a very difficult group, but we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that when we are competing in these regional tournaments, there are no easy games. I am looking forward to the SEA Games to see how my young players cope playing against such quality opposition. From the videos I have watched and the scouting reports that I have received so far, Vietnam and Thailand seem to be the two strongest sides going into the SEA Games.
"We have to be realistic, it is going to be very hard [to qualify]. But as I continually say to the boys, the most important thing is for them to go out and try to put into practice what we have been working so hard on in training and to give everything we have for the team. If we go out and give our best then I cannot ask for anymore.
"Yes it will be tough [4 games in a week] but it will be tough for the other teams as well. By the time the SEA Games commences we will have finalized the squad and will have 20 players who I have the confidence in to go out and do their best for Cambodia. In regards to my planning for the SEA Games, it will stay as planned. There was always going to be a chance that we would be playing four games. I see it as another international game where my players will get the opportunity to play against international opposition where they will gain invaluable experience."
In Group B, the hosts Laos will meet Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia. All of the countries will be playing their Under-23 teams.

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Man of the moment, Nov Soseila
If it was up to most Cambodian football fans at the moment, this man would be MOTM in every game. He has set the fans alight with his electrifying pace, his refusal to give up or be intimidated by bigger players, his obvious enjoyment of the game and last night, his match-winning goal. It's Nov Soseila of course, who else. His new nickname in the main stand is 'charlie' after the fast, but very small motorscooter and there's a definite rise in volume whenever he gets the ball. He's exactly the type of player that excites crowds and Scott O'Donell has chanelled his energy back into his game, rather than some of the temper tantrums he displayed at the start of last season's CPL campaign. By the end of the season, Soseila was the pick of the homegrown players and O'Donell had no choice but to select the diminutive wingman, who plays for the Ministry of National Defense. Last night wasn't one of his best games but he scored the all-important second goal and his fleet of foot style enabled him to stick the ball in the net after it rebounded off the post. He was hobbling after the match so I don't expect him to play on Thursday. And having just turned 19 years old he has a great future ahead of him.
Yesterday I also caught up with two of the players who joined the Cambodia U23 squad late in their month-long training camp in Vietnam, after getting the call-up. Both Ieng Piseth and To Vann Thann play for the Defense Ministry team and may get a look-in during Thursday's game though To Vann Thann has been nursing an ankle njury. You may've also noticed that the national team have a new physio, who was with the team in Vietnam and has been dealing with all the knocks and strains that the team have picked up in the BIDC competition. His name is Hay Sakiry and he works at the Teaching Hospital.
To Vann Thann has been nursing an ankle injury the past week
Ieng Piseth is another player with the Ministry of National Defense
Cambodia's new physio, Hay Sakiry

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One way traffic

HAGL (Hoang Anh Gia Lai) line-up in the hot and humid afternoon sun
You'd be mistaken if you thought Cambodia versus Laos was the only BIDC Cup match played yesterday. In fact it was the second match at 6pm under floodlights - which aren't great by the way, especially with my eyesight. The first game kicked off at 3.30pm in incredibly hot and humid conditions and it was so one-sided that I don't recall the HAGL keeper touching the ball until late in the 2nd half. So as you might assume from that comment, HAGL coasted to a 3-0 win over Vissai Ninh Binh, with the latter offering almost nothing in an attacking capacity, relying at times, on the massive frame of goalkeeper Ding Hoang La (aka Ukraine born, Lytovka Mykola) to keep the scoreline down, which he did, singlehandedly. Matches like this are not much fun to watch, but I do think the conditions played a part as well as VNB's ineptitude, who lost Ha Hoang Dam 2 minutes before halftime, sent off for squaring up to an opponent. HAGL's twin Brazilian strikeforce gave VNB the runaround with Evaldo Goncaves netting twice and Toledo moaning about everything as usual. Phung Van Nhien also scored for HAGL, who led 2-0 at halftime. If VNB play like this against Cambodia on Thursday, I might ask Scott O'Donell for a game. It also made me think that Cambodia caught the V-Leaguers off balance in their first encounter last Sunday and my money is on the two sides meeting again in the final on Saturday.
Vissai Ninh Binh turned up but hardly offered any resistance
HAGL's Evaldo Goncaves with his $200 bonus for scoring the first goal
HAGL's Phung Van Nhien doesn't look too pleased that he scored
A lovely sunny day but boy was it hot and humid at the Olympic Stadium, which was devoid of spectators when I took this photo. Thousands turned up for the Cambodia v Laos match later.

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I look almost human, even wearing the bib. I'm being interviewed by commentator Nguyen Khac Cuong for the 360 sports programme on VTV from Vietnam
I have more to post from the football last night, including details from the other match played, but in the meantime, here's two more shots of yours truly wearing the worst-ever bib you can imagine. Its sky blue, its about five sizes too big and I look like a complete ninny, but if I don't wear it and flash my press pass I wouldn't get past the tight security in situ on matchdays. I've been told I can keep my bib after the tournament is if I'm ever going to wear it again! The bibs were produced by the BIDC people, who have done a pretty good job on the PR side of things, as I see street signs everywhere advertising the BIDC Cup competition. The Olympic Stadium is awash with signs as well, emphasizing the spirit of the tournament: Unity, Friendship, Honesty, Fairplay. Now if only someone would tell the Lao striker Singto Lamnao to do likewise. Both photos were taken by Tep Phany, the media officer for the Cambodian football federation, who is at every game and can be found snapping away at anything that moves, hence these two pictures.
This is Phany getting all creative with his camera settings. This was taken during last night's action.


Learning from our mistakes

Cambodia coach Scott O'Donell (left) and the Laos team manager at last night's press conference
At the press conference following last night's BIDC Cup match where Cambodia beat Laos 2-1 in a nail-biting game, the Cambodia national coach, Scott O'Donell, gave his views on what had just taken place.
"I am happy we won but not happy with the performance at all. The first 20 minutes was good and then we started making some silly mistakes and you couldn't have known Laos had 10 men for the last 30 minutes because they dominated possession and created a few chances. Its a good lesson for us. We've got to start learning how to defend leads. As soon as we scored 2 goals we stopped playing. We've got to learn to do better. It was a very frustrating and disappointing 2nd half performance from us.
"When we are under pressure, we make mistakes and make wrong decisions and that's what tournaments like this are all about, learning from our mistakes. Once again we conceded a goal from an unnecessary free-kick, we've got to stop doing that and we've got to learn or we'll get punished.
"We knew they left space between their back-line and the keeper and Kumpheak made an excellent run to beat the offisde trap, and a good finish (for the 1st goal). Then Soseila did the same, timing the run, good delivery of the ball which is something we've been working on in training, but after that we stopped doing it. I don't think we got in behind them again after that. When we do go ahead we've got to keep playing, something we've got to learn or we make it difficult for ourselves, as we saw in the 2nd half. It was 45 minutes of misery for the bench because we stopped playing.
"Its always a killer (to concede just before halftime). An unnecessary free-kick, sloppy, slow to react to the 2nd ball, its obviously a psychological thing that we've got to work on. The Lao lads came out on a high and full credit to them. I thought they played very well, particularly in the 2nd half with 10 men. They made it very difficult for us. We didn't keep possession of the ball, we didn't keep things simple, we tried to run with the ball, we must keep it simple, move the ball, move yourself, create options for the player with the ball, we stopped doing that in the 2nd half and we got punished. We've got to learn from it.
"With 4 games in 6 days I'll give some of the boys who haven't played some exposure and an opportunity, as they've worked hard in Vietnam, to play in front of the home supporters and I'll expect them to go out to win the game as well (against Vissai Ninh Binh on Thursday). I expect high standards from everyone in the squad. I want competition for places, there's 25 players in the squad and I'll expect the players who take the field on Thursday to give 100% and try to force their way into the starting XI for the final. Positions are up for grabs, particularly after our 2nd half performance."

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On the night

The Cambodian U23 starting line-up against Laos. LtoR: (back row) Tiny, Rady, Sokngorn, Seiha, Sovannarith, Rithy; (front row) Narith, Soseila, Sokumpheak, Chhaya, Borey
The Cambodian U23s made heavy weather of their 2-1 BIDC Cup win over Laos last night after taking a two-goal lead on 27 minutes. Laos, unbeaten in 12 games, didn't cave in and nicked a goal back on the stroke of halftime. They came out fighting in the 2nd half and keeper Samreth Seiha had to be on his best form with three quality diving saves, though Cambodia had a couple of chances too. The Laos pin-up boy Singto Lamnao shot himself in the foot when he was sent off for a second bookable offence and embarrassed himself with a theatrical dive in the box with just 7 minutes played of the 2nd period. As we know from experience, teams down to 10-men raise their game and that's what happened with Laos. The Cambodians opened the scoring after 22 minutes when Kuoch Sokumpheak got behind the defence and rolled the ball across to Keo Sokngorn, who beat the keeper with the deftest of touches. Five minutes later they went two-up when Sun Sovannarith's 30-yard through ball split the defence and the crowd's favourite, Nov Soseila, touched it past the keeper, played a one-two off the post and knocked in the rebound. The large crowd loved it. Lamnao should've scored for Laos but blazed his shot over before they reduced the lead in the last minute of the half. A grubber of a free-kick by their best player, Soukhavong Kaysone, had Seiha scrambling and he could only palm it out to Sayavuthi Khampeng, who lashed it into the roof of the net. Cambodia are now through to the BIDC Cup Final, which will be played on Saturday night, having won their opening 2 matches. However, the Cambodian coach Scott O'Donell wasn't happy with his team's performance in the 2nd period. "Its a good lesson for us. We've got to start to learn how to defend leads. As soon as we scored two goals we stopped playing. We've got to learn to do better. It was a very frustrating and disappointing 2nd half performance from us....Full credit to them (Laos). I thought they played very well particularly in the 2nd half with 10 men. They made it very difficult for us...we've got to learn from it." He's absolutely right. Cambodia didn't make their numerical advantage tell but that's the beauty of this competition. It replicates next month's SEA Games and is a valuable learning experience for the Cambodian youngsters. They won without playing well, in direct contrast to their superb display against HAGL on Sunday. They won't get away with it too often in international games, but if you win when you don't play well, its a good base from which to build on.
The Cambodian U23 line-up: Samreth Seiha, Pheak Rady, Sun Sovannarith, Tieng Tiny (Chan Dara), Sok Rithy, San Narith (Phuong Narong), Khim Borey, Keo Sokngorn (Prak Mony Udom), Nov Soseila (Oum Kumpheak), Chan Chhaya (Khuon Laboravy), Kuoch Sokumpheak.
The Laos U23 starting line-up from last night
The two teams enter the field, Cambodia are in blue
The Cambodian team waiting for the pre-match handshakes
The two captains, Sun Sovannarith in the blue of Cambodia and Kitsada of Laos
Referee Duong Van Hien from Vietnam tosses his coin
The game under floodlights with an Apsara TV cameraman getting the same view
I know, the sky blue press bibs are a nightmare. With me is Ung Chamroeun, who writes the Khmer language reports for the Phnom Penh Post and also blogs about Cambodian football

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Go Cambodia

Scott O'Donell, right, watches his team just moments after tonight's final whistle
To put you out of your misery, the Cambodian U23s beat their Laos counterparts 2-1 tonight in their BIDC Cup match and go through to the two-team final to be played on Saturday with their second win of the competition. Goals from Keo Sokngorn and Nov Soseila sealed the result. It was a tough game as Laos played well in the 2nd half after being reduced to 10 men. However, competitions like this are all about winning and Cambodia are developing the right mentality. It wasn't pretty but sometimes you have to grind out results. More later.
The Cambodian U23 team catch their breath after their 2-1 win over Laos tonight
The after-match press conference with LtoR Cambodia's assistant coach Van Piseth, coach Scott O'Donell and Laos team manager Viphet Sihachakr

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Touristy snaps

The Throne Hall in all its glory on Sunday morning, the best time to photograph it
Although football is taking a front seat at the moment on my blog, I haven't forgotten my visit to the Royal Palace on Sunday morning. Here are some of the normal touristy photos you too would snap if you were visiting the Palace, which was originally built in 1866 though many of the buildings have been added over the years including the Throne Hall (or Preah Tineang Tevea Vinichhay) which was constructed in 1917. Photography inside the Throne Hall and the adjoining Silver Pagoda are not allowed.
A front view of the Throne Hall. I don't think the red carpet was especially for me!
The 4 faces on the tallest spire of the Throne Hall
A peek over the wall and inside the King's private quarters which are behind the Throne Hall
The well-maintained gardens leading to the Chanchhaya Pavilion, that fronts onto the riverside. It was built in 1917 and was fomerly used for classical dance performances.
The unusual iron built Napoleon III Pavilion, which was presented to Cambodia in 1876 by the French Emperor and is closed for renovation


Press Talk

Today's Phnom Penh Post carries my report from Sunday's opening BIDC Cup matches. The newspaper's print deadlines meant that the match report didn't make it into Monday's paper. It should be online later today. The second round of matches kick off this afternoon. HAGL, keen to erase their 3-2 defeat against Cambodia, will also want to show V-League new boys Vissai Ninh Binh a clean pair of heels when the two teams meet at 3.30pm in today's opening game. The two teams are currently preparing for the new V-League season, where HAGL finished 6th last time around and VNB won the 1st Division title, and both teams have been spending money like its going out of fashion. In the 2nd game tonight, at 6pm, Cambodia U23s will be looking to continue their great start to the competition against their Laos U23 counterparts. In the forthcoming SEA games, the two teams have been drawn in separate groups. Its a battle of the foreign coaches with Cambodia's Australian-born coach Scott O'Donell pitting his wits against Laos' Austrian coach Alfred Riedl. The latter has a long list of overseas coaching on his CV including Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait and the national teams of Austria, Liechtenstein, Palestine and Vietnam before taking over Laos in July. Link; PPP.

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Monday, November 9, 2009


Fit again striker Khim Borey, two-goal hero against HAGL
I selected Khim Borey as my man of the match for Cambodia against HAGL on Sunday night, not because of his two goals, both calmly-taken penalties under quite a bit of pressure, but because of his remarkable comeback and contribution to the game. It was at the back end of May that Khim Borey played his last competitive match for the Ministry of National Defense team in the Cambodian Premier League. A nagging ankle injury then sidelined him and it wasn't until he went to Vietnam for surgery a few months later, that the problem was finally diagnosed. His last game was more than five months ago and last Wednesday he saw action for the first time when he managed 80 minutes of a practice match against Can Tho. On Sunday he put in a full 90 minute shift, led the line for much of the time, kept his cool under pressure to level the scores at 2-2 with two penalties and then moved into a holding role in central midfield to see out the game. The extra training and fitness regime that he's been under the last couple of months certainly paid off against HAGL.
Khim Borey has been around for quite a while considering his 20th birthday was just a couple of months ago. He was the Golden Boot winner for the most goals in the 2008 CPL season with 18 goals as the Defense Ministry finished 2nd. Last season was a different story though as the club's management accused five players of throwing a cup tie before the league season began and suspended the players including Khim Borey and his national teammate, keeper Samreth Seiha. Nothing was proven and the club reinstated them a couple of months later. Borey has been a Cambodian national team regular for the last two years since his international debut in the Nehru Cup in India in 2007 and it was his goal that took Cambodia through to the Suzuki Cup Finals a year ago.

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A tough SEA Games draw

The 25th SEA Games in Laos are nearly upon us. My own focus will be on the football competition that begins a week before the rest of the various sports competitions. I'm even seriously contemplating making the trip to report on the success or otherwise of the Cambodian football team, though my presence is anything but guaranteed. Anyway, the draw for the group stages has been made and Cambodia find themselves in Group A alongside eight-times champions Thailand as well as Vietnam who will be very strong, Malaysia and Timor Leste - yes that's five teams in one group. The matches will begin on 2 December and progression from the group stages will mean a place in the semi-finals. Two teams from each group will make it to a second week at the finals. In Group B, the hosts Laos will meet Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia. It's a tough draw for Cambodia and they'll want to avenge an 8-0 drubbing handed to them by Thailand in the 2007 SEA Games in Khorat. Two teams aren't competing because Brunei have been banned by FIFA while the Philippines are not putting up a team at this year's SEA Games. The Cambodian Under-23 team will represent the country and they are currently involved in the BIDC Cup, whose format is meant to replicate the SEA Games format to provide them with much needed match practice and games within a couple of days of each other.

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Snippets from the footy

Welcome to the BIDC Cup
  • Scott O'Donell, the Cambodian coach, revealed that despite coaching the national team in two spells for over 2.5 years, this was only his 4th game to be played on home soil. He enthused about the support of the home crowd for the game against HAGL and said it was great for the players to win in front of their home fans and to receive such great support.
  • The two matches on Sunday were televised live by the TV5 television channel. There were also cameras there from CTN and Apsara TV. Actually, I'd love a copy of the tape from the Cambodia game - it could become a best-seller.
  • Talking of tv, I was interviewed by commentator Nguyen Khac Cuong of VTV, the national Vietnamese television broadcaster, who were covering the game and wanted to hear more about football in Cambodia. I think I was the only person around at the time.
  • All of the press were issued with sky blue 'press' bibs for the occasion. As a fashion statement they looked awful. Hence there's no photo of me wearing one. And the FFC even remembered to reserve some seats in the main stand for the press this time around. Unfortunately, the organization of the opening day of the tournament was a mite chaotic. The control of the tv cameramen and press photographers was non existent when the teams were presented to the VIPs and it looked more like a rugby scrum than an international event. In addition, the opening ceremony was held between the two matches and dragged on far too long. It meant the 2nd match kicked off 30 minutes late and the players were made to hang around much too long after their pre-match warm-up.
  • BIDC and the sponsors of the tournament have dug deep into their pockets to provide a series of monetary rewards. The winners of the cup get $20,000, 2nd place is half of that and 3rd place gets $5,000. There are $1,000 prizes for the most valuable player, top scorer and best goalkeeper. There's also a reward of $200 for the scorer of the first goal in each game. That was won by Sayavuthi Khampeng of Laos and Bui Xuan Hieu of HAGL in yesterday's games.
  • The 2 Vietnamese teams in the BIDC Cup have a sprinkling of foreign players in their ranks. Two of Vissai Ninh Binh's players received Vietnamese citizenship earlier this year and were called into the Vietnamese national team. They were goalkeeper Dinh Hoang La, who is Ukraine-born and was formerly called Lytovka Mykola, and Dinh Hoang Max, a Nigerian-born striker who used to be known as Maxwell Eyerakpo. VNB also have another Nigerian and an Ivory Coast player in their ranks. HAGL have 3 Brazilian players (Toledo, Goncaves and Barbieri), a Czech keeper in the massive frame of Michal Silhavy and another player from Ghana in their squad.


Goals win games

Cambodian striker Khim Borey scored 2 penalties in the win over HAGL on Sunday
Cambodia's match-winner was 17 year old substitute Prak Mony Udom
Goals win games and these are the faces of the goalscorers in Sunday's opening two matches in the BIDC Cup tournament being played at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh and involving two national U23 teams, Cambodia and Laos, and two Vietnam League club sides, HAGL and Vissai Ninh Binh. Cambodia fought back from a two-goal deficit to beat HAGL 3-2 thanks to 2 penalties from Khim Borey and a match-winner from teenager Prak Mony Udom. Khim Borey missed most of the recent CPL season with a nagging ankle injury and only played his first game in a parctice match on Wednesday during the team's training camp in Vietnam. His two calmly-taken penalties levelled the scores and set up the comeback, which the team's youngest player at 17, Prak Mony Udom, on as a substitute for Nov Soseila, finished off. The HAGL goals were scored by Bui Xuan Hieu and Khuat Huu Long. In the Cup's opening game, Sayavuthi Khampeng gave Laos a deserved lead, with VNB equalizing through Dang Van Thanh.
Sayavuthi Khampeng scored the 1st goal of the BIDC Cup after 10 minutes for Laos U23s
Dang Van Thanh equalized for Vissai Ninh Binh against the Laos U23s

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Never-say-die Cambodia

Cambodia's Under-23 team line up before they play HAGL
It's a few hours after the end of the game and I'm still catching my breath. The Cambodian national Under-23 team pulled off a dramatic 3-2 success against one of Vietnam's best club sides HAGL at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday night and sent a warning message to the other two teams in the BIDC Cup that they mean business. It was a classic counter-punch after HAGL took a two-goal lead in the 50th minute. Scott O'Donell's team dug into their reserves of grit and character that they've developed as a team in their month-long training camp in Saigon to get back in the game on 72 minutes with a Khim Borey penalty. It was that man Nov Soseila, who'd tormented the HAGL defence all night, who was floored by the full-back as he burst into the penalty box. It was all Cambodia at this point and more chances came and went before Chan Chhaya was tripped and Borey stepped up to lash in a 2nd penalty on 72 minutes to level the game. With the tide now firmly in Cambodia's favour, they pressed for a third and 4 minutes later, the HAGL goalkeeper dropped a cross onto the foot of substitute Prak Mony Udom and the teenager took off in wheels of delight as Cambodia nosed ahead 3-2. It was bedlam in the main stand as the Cambodian supporters went beserk, including yours truly. They had more opportunities to enhance the scoreline but 3-2 it stayed, leaving the national coach to enthuse: "I was very pleased with the character of the boys tonight, they can take great credit from that performance. We conceded two soft goals from set pieces and we have still got to improve on all aspects of our play, but they gave me everything they had and its a great morale boost for them. It was great to play and win in front of our own supporters and they were great too, even when we were 2-nil down." The Cambodian U23s line-up: Sou Yaty, Pheak Rady, Sun Sovannarith (capt), Tieng Tiny, Sok Rithy, San Narith, Phuong Narong (sub Oum Kumpheak), Nov Soseila (sub Prak Mony Udom), Keo Sokngorn, Chan Chhaya (sub Khuon Laboravy), Khim Borey.
In the opening game of the BIDC four-team tournament, the Laos U23s and Vissai Ninh Binh shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw that blossomed in the first-half and died off in the 2nd. Sayavuthi Khampeng gave Laos a deserved lead in the 10th minute, with VNB equalizing through Dang Van Thanh on 26 minutes. Both teams showed enough to suggest that all 4 teams in the BIDC Cup will be a tough nut to crack in the remaining round-robin games on Tuesday and Thursday.
Cambodia's national coach Scott ODonell makes a point at his after-match press conference
The Cambodian U23s await presentation to the match VIPs
HAGL, one of the V-League's best teams, lost 3-2 on the night after leading 2-0
Welcome to the BIDC Cup 2009 at the Olympic Stadium
The Laos U23 team earned themselves a 1-1 draw in their opening game
Vissai Ninh Binh came from behind to draw 1-1 against Laos U23s

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Welcome to the King's home

The iron gateway at the visitors entrance to the Royal Palace with the figure showing welcome and respect
This morning I took Now for her first-ever visit to the Royal Palace compound. The entrance fee was $6.25 for barang, free for Khmers, which I think is the type of dual-pricing system I like at national treasures like the home of the King. She enjoyed herself even though it was extremely hot and pretty crowded, and it was quite early, as we made it through the doors just after 8am. I won't post the most obvious photos just now, rather I'll concentrate on a few pictures I took that most people will ignore, especially of the wrought-iron gates into the Silver Pagoda area, which have the same design, showing a male figure with hands clasped together in a sampeah welcome. More photos to follow but I'm off to the football at Olympic Stadium very soon.
The wrought-iron gate at the visitors entrance, showing two figures
A small scale model of Angkor Wat sits behind the Silver Pagoda
Another sampeahing figure as you enter the Silver Pagoda compound from the Royal Palace
Much of the frescoes along the inner wall of the Silver Pagoda have been destroyed by time and weather. This is a scene depicting French landowners at court. The murals were originally painted in 1903.
This lady is wishing herself luck with water in the presence of the sacred Nandin bull. This is in the library next to the Silver Pagoda where fortune tellers read your fortune.
The welcome sampeah at the southern gate of the Silver Pagoda compound
Four reclining Buddhas in the Keong Preah Bath shrine which also houses a large Buddha footprint
The final welcome sampeah figure at the western entrance to the Silver Pagoda area

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A day of firsts

Now meets Ambassador Sichan Siv and his wife Martha for the first time at Monument Books
Saturday was a busy day and Sunday should be the same. Now has come to town for one of her rare visits and after spending time with her cousin in the morning, whilst I was at work, she joined me in hooking up with Ambassador Sichan Siv and his wife Martha at Monument Books for a book-signing of Sichan's Golden Bones memoir. Good to see William Bagley as always, the GM at Monument, who has further increased his excellent selection of books on Cambodia by stocking a few new releases, which I had to buy of course, including Kilong Ung's Golden Leaf and Sambath Meas' The Immortal Seeds. I also donated a copy of Golden Bones to the chief librarian at the National Library. After a quick bite to eat at the Red Orchid restaurant, Now and I then headed for the new premises of Sovanna Phum which wasn't too easy to find. However, the tuk-tuk driver got us there eventually, just in time for the start of their Hanuman and Giant Drum performance. And what a performance it was. If you like co-ordinated drumming and monkey antics, you'll love this. I did. The plan for Sunday is to take Now to see the Royal Palace for the first time and then in the afternoon, it's the start of the BIDC Cup at Olympic Stadium with two games scheduled to take place, including the Cambodian Under-23s and this will be her introduction to live football. The 'first's' keep on coming.
Another team photo, this time including Willam Bagley, the GM at Monument, alongwith Now, Sichan, Martha and myself
Some of the big-hitters at Monument: LtoR: Prince Sisowath Sirirath, Japanese Ambassador Shinohara, Sichan and Martha
Mann Kosal, the man responsible for Sovanna Phum, sings a traditional Khmer song
The Giants take the stage, the monkeys came later
The Giants supported by Sovanna Phum's fantastic drummers

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Quill on the Mekong

The Mekong River at Luang Prabang
Kate Quill in today's Times Online from London, penned this piece on her recent visit to Laos and spending time on the Mekong River.

A slow, ponderous journey up the Mekong - by Kate Quill (Times, UK)
With its haunting light and primeval landscapes, the Mother River in Laos takes you on a journey of dark dreams

I am standing in the grounds of an elegant French colonial building in the middle of Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s 1pm, the sun is pressing down heavily on my head and the tropical humidity is bringing an unladylike sweat to my upper lip. I’m exchanging pleasantries on the immaculate lawn, but struggling to maintain my composure. I drop like a stone suddenly, and come to moments later slumped on the grass as a line of white-jacketed staff come dashing across the lawn with water, iced towels and smelling salts. There is much commotion as a bottle is waved under my nose and my forehead delicately dabbed. A man takes my arm and escorts me back inside, mixes me a curing tonic and instructs me to go back to bed. The shutters are closed, soothing but firm words delivered, and I am left alone to convalesce in my cool white room.

I arrived here by boat two days previously; a slow, ponderous journey up the Mekong, during which I heard many stories from the boatmen about spirits. The Laotians are Buddhist, but their religion is infused with something much darker and older: animism — a belief that places and things have spirits that must be placated. I can’t help but think of this, lying on my sickbed in the latest top-notch hotel to open in Luang Prabang, because until recently this was the city hospital. Amantaka is like all its Aman brethren — lean, thoroughbred, with a monastic-style luxury, but beyond the expensive linen and fine French wines its medicinal “spirit” could not be more alive. It feels like a calm, benign asylum. People sit in its quiet gardens and whisper. Malaria wouldn’t dare show its face in here. So I lie in my room, cursing the poisoned meal I ate in town the night before, and read about the sadder fate of Henri Mouhot, the 19th-century French explorer who rediscovered the great Angkor Wat temples of Cambodia in 1860, and met a lonely, untimely death of jungle fever only a few kilometres from Luang Prabang a year later.

In Cambodia Mouhot had been indifferent to the Mekong, but by the time he had reached Luang Prabang he had fallen in love with it, describing it sentimentally as “an old friend” who possessed “an excess of grandeur”. I couldn’t agree more. Even though I’m in a bewitching city full of bicycles, temples, monks and flowers, part of me is still sitting on the careworn boat that brought me here. Less than an hour into the two-day journey from Huay Xai, by the Thai border, with the ink on my Laos visa scarcely dry, the Mekong began to work its stealthy magic on me. Its history has been eventful and violent, and its 21st-century fortunes may be equally momentous, as Laos, China and Thailand consider building more dams along it. The Thais know the Mekong as “mother river”. The author Colin Thubron, recalling the Vietnam War, referred to it as “this river of evil memory”. At 4,350km (2,700 miles), it is South-East Asia’s longest river, running from Tibet through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

As we chugged away from the border we filed through lush tropical countryside. The Thai side was busier and more prosperous, Laos noticeably less cultivated. This is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average wage of about $1 a day and, with only 7 million people, it is sparsely populated. At the end of the rainy season the Mekong is full and wide and trembling with treacherous currents. Our boat had a battered steel hull — there’s a good reason for that. Our captain, Thitnat, who has been navigating this part of the Mekong for 15 years, turned a cunning, snakelike path to avoid huge slabs of rock and sandbanks just beneath the surface. Every year he must carefully reconnoitre the same route to check how the sandbanks have shifted as the seasons change.

As we progressed, the landscape grew more dramatic and the atmosphere in the rugged terrain had an unsettling stillness. The river in Apocalypse Now was based on the Mekong and our course felt as though it might be plugged straight into Colonel Kurtz: the mountains were high and covered in impenetrable, tendril-strewn jungle; a mysterious mist settled on their upper reaches. The weather was like a moody teenager: one minute an oppressive cloud loomed above; an hour later we slid through a bright, hallucinatory light. Then, round a bend in a river, and everything appeared opaque and hazy. A rainstorm hit out of nowhere, lashed the boat furiously, and vanished.

Tourism up this part of the Mekong began to take off in 1995, but, even so, the river was quiet in mid-October. Time slowed; I couldn’t recall life ever being as unhurried as this. There was no mobile phone reception. We felt cut off from the world. I could see no roads or cars, only fishermen in their slender longtails casting their nets, water buffalo basking in the shallows, and the occasional passenger boat. The waterborne exile was broken by a stop at a typical Mekong village: a collection of wood and bamboo huts built on stilts, with semi-naked children splashing about at the river’s edge, smiling and waving. This one, Gon Dturn, is used to visitors. Our boat, the Pak Ou, stops here every week.

The women displayed their handwoven scarves and the children giggled as we photographed them. No one spoke any English, and it seemed, to our eyes, shockingly poor. But for a rural Laotian village it is relatively wealthy, Toua, our first mate, told us. It had electricity and the inevitable satellite dishes have followed. To our astonishment it even had a “corner shop”, run by Chinese, that sold cheap gadgets and plastic household items. “The Chinese are opening shops like this all over Laos,” Toua said. Laos’s dismal record on public healthcare (there is none) was evident in the badly deformed foot of a boy. Polio? Or unexploded ordnance? Laos is the most bombed country on Earth, thanks to America’s “secret war” in the Sixties and Seventies. Of the two million tonnes of bombs that fell, about a third failed to explode and are still sitting waiting to claim lives and limbs.

On we went, until the day began to fade. In the twilight, we stopped at Luang Say Lodge near Pak Beng, a riverside trading village. The electricity, which powered dim, yellow light, was turned off at 11pm. As night closed in, the darkness was a crescendo of cicadas, other insects and the occasional squawking bird. I sat outside my wood and bamboo hut and stared down at the river, but could see nothing. Everything was lost in a deep supernatural darkness. All around me the jungle throbbed. We were hardly far from civilisation — the village was 1km away — but how easy it was to believe in primeval spirits here.

The Mekong doesn’t permit cool, rational detachment, as Mouhot discovered. Its beauty can be intensely moving, its dense forests mysterious and foreboding, its clouds of mist and shifting light hypnotic and troubling. Your skin seems to get thinner and your emotions rise to the surface. In the sleepy hours after lunch, my mind settled on the past, on people I have lost, and I became aware that some painful knots I carry around with me were unravelling. By the time we reached Luang Prabang, I felt spaced out by it all. Laos does a lively, illegal trade in opium, but who needs it here? The humid, aromatic air is like an opiate, and so many things are not, at first, what they seem.

As we approached our mooring we didn’t even know that Luang Prabang was there — how often can you say that upon arriving at a new city? This beautiful place, bursting with flowers and greenery, is protected by Unesco and has no high-rises. It lies like a reclining Buddha, hidden by trees. We climbed a broad stone stairway cut into the steep riverbank, and found a road and gently humming city beyond. The journalist Jon Swain wrote in River of Time, his love letter to Indochina: “There is something about the Mekong which, even years later, makes me want to sit down beside it and watch my whole life go by.” You don’t need to give up five years of your life, or live through Indochina’s appalling wars and revolutions, as Swain did, to feel that. Two days on a boat and the Mekong will be under your skin for ever.

Friday, November 6, 2009

TMT worth a quick look

The main laterite chapel tower on a laterite platform at Prasat Ta Muen Toch
Lying 300 metres along the road from its smaller sister temple and on the road to the border is Prasat Ta Muen Toch, a 12th century temple site with a surrounding enclosure wall and in a similar style to the two Kuti Rishi sites near Phnom Rung. It too is a chapel which belonged to a nearby hospital (no longer in existence and most likely a building of wooden construction) on the Royal Road from Angkor to Phimai. Hard laterite stone was used for most of the construction including a platform leading up the eastern gopura, as well as lining the nearby pond. The gopura, the main chapel tower and a small library building are all in laterite too though sandstone was used for the doorways and windows as is the norm. There is no visible carving whatsoever. It warrants a quick look but that's about it as you head for the temple that quite literally straddles the Thai-Cambodian border, Ta Muen Thom. These temples are well-signposted and the roads in rural Isaan are very good.
A look at the eastern-facing gopura leading on to the temple itself
The laterite platform leading to the central tower of Prasat Ta Muen Toch
This monk at the site stood at the doorway to the chapel for at last ten minutes, saying prayers
The 20m-sqaure laterite lined pond just northeast of the temple site

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Press Talk

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My article on the Cambodia U23 team in today's Phnom Penh Post. It'll be online later today.
The U23s played their final practice match of their month long training stint in Vietnam on Wednesday night. Although they lost 2-1 to Can Tho, this was another good work-out for the team ahead of the BIDC Cup that will begin this coming Sunday. Keo Sokngorn scored for the U23s, who completed their sixth practice match. The full list of their friendly match results are: Ho Chi Minh City W1-0, Thu Duc Central Sports University L0-1, Dong Nai Bien Hoa W3-2, Ho Chi Minh City U21 D0-0, Can Tho L1-4, Can Tho L1-2. The U23 squad will train this afternoon at the Olympic Stadium and tomorrow at the National Sports Center before they begin their BIDC Cup campaign against HAGL at 6pm on Sunday at the Olympic Stadium. Get along and support the youngsters. Just so you know who will be representing Cambodia, here is the 25-man squad which will be reduced to 20 players tomorrow:
Sou Yaty, Samreth Seiha (Ministry of National Defence)
Peng Bunchhay (Phnom Penh Crown)
Lay Raksmey, Sok Rithy (Preah Khan Reach)
Pheak Rady (MND)
Tieng Tiny, Peng Panharong (Phnom Penh Crown)
Chan Dara (Khemara Keila)
Sun Sovannarith (Naga Corp)
Prak Mony Udom, San Narith, Khuon La Boravy, Keo Kosal
Nov Sokseila, Oum Kumpheak, Lorn Sotheara, To Vann Thann, Ieng Piseth (MND)
Chhun Sothearath (Build Bright United)
Phuong Narong (PP Crown)
Chan Chhaya, Keo Sokngorn (PP Crown)
Kuoch Sokumpheak
(Khemara Keila)
Khim Borey (MND)

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dharmasala at Ta Muen

A view of Prasat Ta Muen from the road
A close up look at Prasat Ta Muen, from the south side, with its five windows
I've been neglecting my blog posts on Isaan (NE Thailand) in recent days, so let's put that right with a look at one of the three Ta Muen temples very close to the border with Cambodia. What was a 'dharmasala' or rest house when it was constructed in the late 12th century under the stewardship of Jayavarman VII, Prasat Ta Muen is a great example of that ilk and even has a lintel still in situ. It would've been located next to the Royal Road that led to Phimai, which explains why it only has windows on the south side, the one facing the roadway. The solitary temple is made of laterite blocks, about a kilometre from its sister temple on the border, Ta Muen Thom. It has a 13 metre high tower with an adjoining long porch, five square windows bordered in sandstone and is very similar in style to the rest houses to be found at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. In fact ther's at least 17 of them between Angkor and Phimai. The sole carving is a lintel of Buddha in meditation above a grinning kala face. Like all the Khmer temples in Thailand, the grass had been cut and the place looked very neat and tidy.
The east-facing doorway with its Buddha in meditation lintel and partial colonettes
Looking west along the porch and into the tower
The return view, looking east along the porch with the windows on the right side
Prasat Ta Muen with its well-cut grass and neat surroundings

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BIDC comes to town

The Cambodian Under-23s line-up against Singapore at the end of Sept
The BIDC Cup rolls into Phnom Penh beginning Sunday. Here's my preview of the Cambodian U23s for the PPP.

Football is back in the spotlight as the BIDC Cup comes to town

The Cambodian national Under-23 football team’s sights are set firmly on the Southeast Asian Games in Laos next month and they will use the BIDC Cup, which begins on Sunday at the National Olympic Stadium, as a gauge of their fitness and match readiness against one of their possible opponents in the SEA Games, Laos, and two of Vietnam’s best club sides, HAGL and VBN. Cambodia’s last competitive match on home soil was a 6-0 defeat at the hands of the Singapore Under-23 team on 27 September before national coach Scott O’Donell took his 25-man squad off to Vietnam for a month-long training camp.

A strict training regime for the past four weeks at the Thanh Long training facility just outside Ho Chi Minh City , together with a series of five practice matches against local opposition, followed closely on the heels of the end of the regular Cambodian Premier League season. O’Donell views the time away as time well spent. “The benefits of our stay in Vietnam have been that I’ve got to know the players better, particularly the ones that I have never worked with before. I think the players have also got to know each other better having spent so much time together. But more importantly it has allowed me to use this past month to get the players fitter than what they were before we arrived in Vietnam , and to get them thinking on the same wavelength as me regarding how I want them to play.”

However, O’Donell issued a note of caution. “Having said that, anyone who thinks that a one month’s training camp in Vietnam can make up for the lack of coaching, training and regular international exposure these players have received in recent years is kidding themselves. Ideally, the coaching staff should have spent this past month fine tuning for the BIDC Cup and SEA Games but instead have spent half the time getting the players to fitness levels required to play international football, and the other half of the time getting the players to understand how we want them to play. However, given the circumstances, the one month in Vietnam was very beneficial.”

The practice matches they played against local teams such as Can Tho and Ho Chi Minh City were an important factor in coach O’Donell’s build-up for next month’s SEA Games, as will the four BIDC Cup matches beginning Sunday. “The practice matches have been vitally important in terms of seeing if the players have been able to put into practice what we have been working on in training. Obviously match fitness is a concern because the fitness levels required to play international football are much higher than that required to play in the Cambodian Premier League. And it is not just the aerobic fitness levels, but also the anaerobic fitness levels that need to be improved. The ability to run at high intensity repetitively over ninety minutes is something our players are not used to doing.”

The 25-man Cambodian squad that returned from Vietnam on Thursday will be reduced to 20 before they play their opening game on Sunday. They have a few niggling injury worries, though coach O’Donell’s goalscoring options have been boosted by the return to fitness of striker Khim Borey, the winner of the CPL’s Golden Boot award in 2008, but who missed most of last term with a niggling ankle injury. He played his first football for nearly six months in a practice match on Wednesday. O’Donell was full of praise for his squad of players on their return. “I have been very happy with the attitude and effort of the players over the last month. They have been working hard and have showed great character and commitment but it is going to take time for them to adjust to playing the way I want them to play.”

Whilst Laos U23s and Vissai Ninh Binh face each other in the opening match of the BIDC Cup competition at 3.30pm on Sunday, Cambodia will meet Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) under floodlights at 6pm the same day. HAGL, twice winners of the V-League and cup double in the last decade, finished sixth last season but are expected to push for honours next time around and have a smattering of foreign imports in their squad from Brazil , Thailand Czechoslovakia and Ghana . O’Donell was clear in his assessment of the task ahead on Sunday. “HAGL are going to be a huge test for the boys. Obviously they are one of the better teams in Vietnam ’s professional V-League and they have just finished a tournament in Phuket where they defeated the current Thailand league champions (Muang Thong United) and lost on penalties to the Thai national team. I think those results speak for themselves.”

And what does Cambodia ’s Australian-born coach expect from his team over the next week of competition? “My expectations are the same for every game that we play, whether it be a friendly game or a competitive game. I want the players to go out and try to play good football, and to do the best they can. If every player can come off the field knowing they have given their very best then I cannot ask for anymore. The BIDC Cup will be a good guide for me to see the players performing under pressure in a competitive environment against good quality teams.”

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Press talk

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My article in today's Phnom Penh Post previewing the BIDC Cup that begins on Sunday at the Olympic Stadium. To read it online, click here.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Looking ahead

The BIDC Cup begins on Sunday at the Olympic Stadium and the Cambodian Under-23 team will be up against Hoang Anh Gia Lai, better known as HAGL, from Vietnam in their first game at 6pm. HAGL will be a very tough nut to crack I can assure you. Though they can only play 3 foreigners at any one time, they have a very strong line-up in preparation for the new V-League season and are expected to win honours. Its actually the 2nd match after Vissai Ninh Binh play the opener against the Laos U23s at 3.30pm . All the games will be shown live on TV5. Here's a piece I did for the Phnom Penh Post, previewing the tournament.

The eagerly-awaited Bank for Investment and Development of Cambodia (BIDC) Cup 2009 tournament will kick-off on Sunday at the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh with four teams battling it out - the Cambodian and Laos Under-23 teams who will compete next month in the South East Asian Games in Laos, and two Vietnam League club sides, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and Vissai Ninh Binh. Each team will play one another with the two best placed teams meeting in the final a week on Saturday, 14 November for the cash prize of US$20,000 for the winners, and half that for the runners-up. Besides the prize money and much-needed match practice for the two national Under-23 teams prior to the all-important SEA Games, the tournament is being seen as a sign of friendship and solidarity between the three nations as well as a celebration of Cambodia’s 56 years of independence from France, with Independence Day on 9 November.

Cambodia’s squad have just returned from a month’s training camp in neighbouring Vietnam , where they enjoyed the hospitality of the Thanh Long training centre just outside Ho Chi Minh City . They took the opportunity to prepare for the forthcoming SEA Games without distractions and played a series of five practice matches against local opposition to test their match fitness. Their preparation continues with the BIDC Cup matches against what is regarded as very strong opposition, with the Laos Under-23s having recently triumphed on home soil in a pre-SEA games tournament. Their success against Malaysia , Thailand and Vietnam will give the Laos team, coached by former Austrian international Alfred Riedl, who also coached the Vietnam national team in three separate stints, bags of confidence coming into the BIDC Cup matches.

As for the two Vietnamese League club sides involved, HAGL will be the one to watch, having recently performed well in a tournament in Phuket, where they eventually lost 9-8 on penalties to the full Thailand national team in the final. HAGL are a nursery club for Arsenal and have a proud history in the V-League, having won the league and cup double on two occasions in 2003 and 2004 and like their British counterparts, are gunning for honours again this season, after finishing sixth last term. They have a smattering of foreign imports from Brazil , Thailand , Czechoslovakia and Ghana in their ranks as well as USA-born Lee Nguyen, who spent three weeks training at Arsenal recently, having arrived at HAGL last January after spells with Dutch side PSV Eindhoven and Randers in Denmark .

Fellow V-Leaguers Vissai Ninh Binh tasted success at the end of last season when they were crowned champions of the Vietnamese First Division and will play alongside the likes of HAGL for the first time this term. They mean business, having signed two current Vietnam internationals in Nguyen Viet Thang and Vu Nhu Thanh and are rumoured to be keen to bring another former Vietnamese national coach, Brazilian Edson Tavares, on board as their club coach. They have also announced ambitious plans to build a 30,000-seat sports stadium. Vietnamese football is on the up these days and after the national team won the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2008, defeating Thailand in the final, everyone in Asia sat up and took notice. These two representatives from the V-League will provide a stern test to both Cambodia and Laos as they concentrate on preparing for the SEA Games, less than a month away.

The draw for the BIDC Cup:
Sun 8 Nov: V Ninh Binh v Laos U23 (3.30pm): HAGL v Cambodia U23 (6pm)
Tue 10 Nov: V Ninh Binh v HAGL (3.30pm): Cambodia U23 v Laos U23 (6pm)
Thu 12 Nov: Laos U23 v HAGL (3.30pm): CambodiaU23 v V Ninh Binh (6pm)
Sat 14 Nov: 3rd place play-off (3.30pm): Final (6pm)

  • The matches will be shown live on channel TV5.
  • The BIDC Cup winners collect $20,000, 2nd place $10,000 and 3rd place $5,000. Player of the tournament, top goalscorer and best goalkeeper will also receive $1,000 each.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Demaz in print

Whilst I am on the theme of books, Cambodian author Demaz Tep Baker has written two books, one on Cambodian cuisine and the other on Khmer folktales, and both are available through Xlibris and Amazon respectively. Khmer Legends (right) is her most recent book, released in June 2009 through Outskirts Press, 130 pages of wonderful childhood stories, memorized over the past decade and now published in all their glory. Demaz is also a foodie, she's been teaching Cambodian cooking classes for a decade, latterly out of her home in Virginia, USA. Her cook-book, A Taste of Cambodian Cuisine, 110 pages of recipies and cooking instructions, is now back in print, updated and improved, having been originally published in 1999. Demaz was born in Cambodia but fled to France in 1975 and then to the USA a year later.


2 self-published books reviewed

Book Review
I have two books to review, both self-published using the facilities afforded by The first is Jayne Dunsmuir's Retreat from Humanity: Cambodian Death Camp S-21. It's in hardback and is 60-odd pages, half of which are the author's own photographs from Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek and the other half are quotations from various sources that she chose to illustrate her subject. Many of the photos are of victims at S-21 or the detention cells but there's enough variety in the chosen pictures to provide an insight into the prison as a whole, while a two-page preface from the author sets the scene at the beginning of the book. I viewed it as a very personal document by the author, a memory of her visit, a reminder of the cruelty of man with carefully chosen excerpts from people like Vann Nath, one of S-21's few survivors - actually, the sort of book that I'd love to publish myself as a permanent reminder of my visit. More formal than an album full of photos. The photos are clear and crisp and the ones I liked the most showed portraits of the victims lying forgotten and covered in dust in rooms not accessible by the public - the unseen face of S-21 if you like, which could've made an interesting document in itself.
Book Review
The second book to review, is James King's Khmer: Shadow in the Ruins, which I loved. Split into eight chapters, this is a photography book from James' two visits to Cambodia, in 1998 and 2007, with 228 pages and full to bursting with both black and white and colour photographs on every page. With 80% of the book dedicated to the temples of Angkor, there is perhaps an over-reliance on those amazing structures from the Khmer Empire of old that are so photogenic but he also graces his pages with snapshots of the locals he encounters en route. It's not clear which photos are from his first or second visit but that doesn't really matter as his book presents a stunning kaleidoscope of images from a country he obviously fell in love with, as do so many who visit Cambodia. I loved many of his his pictures, especially those from Prasat Kravann though his choice of an Andre Malraux quote seems incongruous, considering Malraux was arrested for stealing treasures at Banteay Srei. Besides that, it's a book well worth owning, though it doesn't come cheap.

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Appalling camerawork

King Norodom Sihamoni personally thanks Sam Savin after the performance of Ynav & Bosseba, shown tonight on Apsara tv
It's day two of the water festival and by choice, I stayed at home today, a public holiday, catching up on a few things and watched some of the races on television, including one of the boats sinking mid-way through a race and its rowers scrambling for safety. In fact the tv coverage was appalling, the cameras were simply too far away from the action (the filming was clearly from the waters edge) and the same camera shot was used on all four of the local tv channels covering the races, at the same time. Obviously the commentary was in Khmer so that didn't help me but nonetheless I was less than enthused. A couple of friends who were at the riverside rang me to tell me not to go as there were simply too many people there and they didn't feel safe. Quite a few Khmer friends often tell me they don't feel comfortable in big crowds. Tonight, Apsara tv showed the complete performance of Ynav & Bosseba, which I attended at the Chaktomuk Theatre last week. Thankfully I didn't see myself wearing my suit for the first time in two years. Again however, the tv coverage was pretty amateurish and the stage lighting was equally appalling. I think I have been spoiled for too long by the superb craftsmanship you see on British tv and simply take for granted. The coverage did give a much closer view of the action than I saw on the night itself so that was a bonus to see my friend Sam Savin in action. I did emerge earlier in the evening to take dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant, and the number of people on the streets, and the increase in traffic, was incredible. I'm back at work tomorrow but I might just brave a visit to one of the free concerts near Wat Botum or even walk down to the riverside to see the madness that usually accompanies the water festival. Appologies for the quality of the screen-shots taken from the television this evening. They are as bad as the television coverage itself.
The main figure is Princess Bosseba but her maiden on the right is Sam Savin
This time its Vuth Chanmoly, one of the country's best dancers, that gets applause from the King
All the performers in the show take their bow alongside the King and Princess, including Sam Savin, 2nd from left at the front

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All alone at Koh Yor

The deserted beach at Koh Yor, a few kms out of Koh Kong
All alone at Koh Yor beach, near Koh Kong
I've always loved beaches and the sound of the sea, especially locations where you find yourself virtually alone as Tim and I did on our recent trip to Koh Kong. A few kilometres over the main bridge out of Koh Kong town and then head south to Paklang commune and fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the deserted Koh Yor beach. Just how I like it. The wind was up, there was a slight drizzle in the air and the beach didn't look its best but it was devoid of people and the sound of the ocean, and the occasional seagull, was music to my ears. It's a long, narrow, secluded, white sandy beach with a couple of small seafood shacks including the family-run Crab Shack, though the recent rain had meant the locals would stay away until the weekend. And if I was a collector of sea-shells I would've had a field day, as the heavier seas had washed up literally thousands of shells of all shapes and sizes onto the beach, many of them I'd never seen before. The track behind the beach was waterlogged so the locals were using the beach as their pathway and a couple of families passed by on their way home. We didn't stop long, maybe half an hour, before we continued our exploration of Koh Kong and its surrounding area.
A secluded, narrow strip of sandy beach at Koh Yor
There was a hint of rain on the wind as we enjoyed the solitude at Koh YorAt the far end of the secluded and empty beach was the wooded headland
A couple of families walked by on bicycles as we rested in a hammock

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U23s come unstuck

The Cambodian Under-23s came unstuck in their 4th practice match of their month-long training camp just outside Saigon. Unbeaten in their previous three games, they went down 4-1 to Can Tho, who finished 3rd in the V-League 1st Division last season. They have a chance to put that right on Wednesday evening, when they will face the same team again.
In Sunday's match, the national coach Scott O'Donell commented; "we had a very positive first half which finished 1-1 at the break, with Kuoch Sokumpheak scoring after some good lead-up work by Chan Chhaya. I made seven changes throughout the second half and we conceded three very soft goals, which was extremely disappointing."
The U23s have also been blighted by injuries that have disrupted preparations in the past week, with O'Donell lamenting; "frustratingly, we have been unable to field what we think may be our first eleven at any time while we have been here. But having said that I think I have given every player the opportunity to show what they can do. The training tour has allowed me to see players in training and playing situations and how they respond/react to different situations."
The six players who were unavailable for the Can Tho match were: Pheak Rady - allergic reaction; Keo Sokngorn - hip/groin; Oum Kumpheak - ankle; Chhun Sothearath - knee; Sun Sovannarith - toe; To Vann Thann - ankle. The U23s have one more game before their training camp comes to an end and they return to Phnom Penh on 5 November. They then have 3 days before their 1st match in the BIDC Cup on 8 November against HAGL from Vietnam.

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Fixing ears

I came across this posting by Paige Stringer on the Seattle Post website today and couldn't agree more with her sentiments. I've met Glyn Vaughan and his team and you couldn't find a more dedicated bunch of people.

Fixing Ears in Cambodia

During my recent travels in SE Asia, I was fortunate to spend an evening with Director Glyn Vaughan of All Ears Cambodia in Phnom Penh. What an amazing place and individual - both left a lasting impact on me and I continue to dwell over the experience. Cambodia is an extremely poor country still recovering from years of war and strife from the Khmer Rouge regime. It does not allocate any government resources to its disabled people. As a result, thousands of hearing impaired children and adults are left without the education, hearing aids, or services they need to thrive and many end up destitute and/or reliant their entire lives on family for support.

An All Ears marketing piece indicates that "an estimated 2 million Cambodians suffer from disabling deafness...and over half of these cases could have been prevented." In fact, chronic ear infections are so common that, in many villages, it is considered normal. And, of the ones in need of hearing aids, less than 1% have them. Dr. Vaughan, a British audiologist, has made it his life's mission to reverse some of these trends. He left his UK practice to move to Phomh Penh in 2003 to establish and run All Ears Cambodia full-time. He is the only degreed audiologist in the entire country, and his clinic is the only one of its kind in Cambodia. He self-trained two women and an assistant on the practice of audiology and now the four of them work relentlessly to provide support treatment, hearing aids, and rehabilitation to those in need in Phnom Penh and in many rural villages stretching across four provinces. The clinic also partners with 30 other NGOs that work with AIDS and landmine victims (hearing loss is a common side effect of AIDS). The organization supports the sole government audiology clinic at the state hospital through contributions of personnel and through training programs. They do a lot of education and awareness around hearing loss - how to protect your ears, what to do when you have an ear infection (don't pour kerosene in your ear, for starters…). Glyn and his team also wrote the country's first audiology manual in the Khmer language. The amount of work and the tremendous impact that this small group of committed people is making is incredible to comprehend.

Dr. Vaughan's passion is inspiring and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing him share his experiences. If you are looking for a worthy cause to support, this would be a great one. For more information, click here.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Where's the sense in that?

The Red Sense will be shown next Saturday in Dandenong, Australia
A few months ago I hosted the feature film The Red Sense at Meta House for its first showing in Phnom Penh. Director Tim Pek's drama-thriller will now get another showing, next Saturday in Dandenong in Australia, for a charity event that will also include live performances from Jimi Lundy, who sang 'Cambodia' in the film, and the movie's composer Robert John Sedky. The music by the way is excellent and stands alone as a soundtrack worth getting. Amongst the projects on Tim Pek's future agenda is a film about the greatest king in Khmer history, Jayavarman VII, and strange as it may seem, posters (see below) for the film appeared recently in Sorya Market and other cd shops around Phnom Penh. The film is still very much on the drawing board and in Tim's head so to publicise it with an old poster that he made up a couple of years ago, is a bit weird. Nobody seems to know where the posters came from. Nevertheless, there's talk of a 10-minute promo film being made early next year, so watch this space.
The 7th Jayavarman film is still on the drawing board

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