Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Movin' weekend

Not sure why or how, but a new dance performance coming up this weekend, had managed to elude me until today. Especially as it includes my favourite Cambodian dancer, Belle (right), and some of the great young dancing talent the country is blessed with. Movin' is a contemporary meets classical piece that will be hosted by Sovanna Phum this coming Saturday and Sunday at 7.30pm. Tickets for barang cost $6, $2 for Khmers. With choreography by Yon Davy and the dancers themselves, under the direction of Bob Ruijzendaal, it's another step forward in the cycle of new works by the group known as New Cambodian Artists. Find out more here. Belle performed in the Hong Kong Arts Festival earlier this month with Emmanuèle Phuon's piece, Khmeropedies II and will be in Singapore in late May. Then it's off to the United States in June to perform Khmeropedies I and II in New Haven and at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York, and back to Singapore in August. Joining Belle on stage for the Khmeropedies performance will be the absolute cream of Cambodia's dancers: Sam Sathya, Chey Chankethya and Phon Sopheap.
Tomorrow night, as I'm enjoying the luxury of a river cruise, the Children of the Bassac will present their final show at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, starting at 7pm and lasting an hour. Tickets are $18 from 012 650 229. They'll perform in eight separate sections of the show including classical Apsara and minority dances. Supported by Cambodian Living Arts, they hope this will lead to more regular performances beginning at the end of this year. This is definitely worth supporting, the dancers are extremely good and the cause is a great one too.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lap of luxury

One of the deluxe staterooms aboard The Jayavarman
Psst... don't tell anyone but I'm having a night in the lap of cruising luxury on Thursday. The generous folks at Heritage Line, who run the new luxury cruise boat, The Jayavarman, home to 27 staterooms, one of which will be mine for the night and next day later this week, have invited me aboard to experience it for myself. I've already paid a fleeting inspection visit (and was mightily impressed) but this will give me the opportunity to spend a night on board and the next day sailing up the Mekong River from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham (we have some shore visits lined up) and back again. Essentially it's a floating five-star hotel, a replica of the famous 1930s cruise liner Normandie and decked out in an Indochine style with Khmer artifacts. I don't often get asked to sample the finer things in life, so I grabbed this one with both hands, even if it's only for 1 day and night. Beggars can't be choosers. You can find out all about the boat here.


Last look

These dancing figures could be termed apsaras, though the one in the middle has a face that resembles someone chewing a wasp
Wrapping up my recent visit to the Terrace of the Leper King, which some believe was used for funeral functions when it was first sculpted in the 13th century, a few more pictures from inside the secret passageway - obviously no longer a secret after the EFEO renovators opened it to the public - and a section of the outer wall that's in good condition, at the northern end of the terrace. There's a replica statue sitting on top of the platform - the original sits in the courtyard of the national museum - and is either one the Khmer kings who suffered from leprosy and gave the terrace its name or, more likely, Yama, the god of death, and overseeing the cremations that took place there. You choose. Here's a tip, it's Yama.
Another royal figure surrounded by courtiers, and no, they are not paddling a canoe
A look at a section of the inner secret passageway. Note the massive naga at the base.
This part of the northern outer terrace is in good condition. Note the multi-coloured sections of the wall.
A King with identifying short sword, in regal pose
Attendants at the royal court in various poses
Don't try this at home. A sword swallower tries to impress the King whilst spearing the head of his little friend

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Falling over themsleves

Sean Flynn, covering the Vietnam conflict. Photo by Tim Page.
I can hear the gnashing of teeth from here. Headlines in the local press today and in the UK's Daily Mail on Saturday, suggest that two individuals have found some bone fragments, teeth and clothing that they hope are the remains of missing Vietnam War photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Hollywood actor Errol, who disappeared nearly 40 years ago, in April 1970. They've passed their findings onto the American POW-MIA team who collect such remains, after spending a month digging around in the dirt in Kompong Cham province, near the Vietnamese border, following a tip-off. Veteran photographer Tim Page has spent years trying to trace the facts and last whereabouts of his friend Sean Flynn, who went missing with his pal Dana Stone and was believed to have been in the custody of the Khmer Rouge, and with a book and film in the works, he has expressed reservations about the latest discovery. It was only last year that The Road to Freedom was filmed in Cambodia, which is a fictionalized story of the two photojournos. In addition, another biopic based on the Perry Deane Young book, Two of the Missing, Remembering Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, is also in the works. It seems everyone is falling over themselves to get to the bottom of the Sean Flynn story.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Get outta here

Most of you should already know that any football-related blog posts will no longer find their home here. Instead my new football-only blog at will be overflowing with footy news, especially after the new Metfone C-League kicked-off yesterday with fifteen goals in two matches. A great way to start the new season.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Secret friezes

A King sits in the royal court, identified by his short broadsword, fanned by attentive concubines
Most of you who've been to the Angkor temples near Siem Reap, will have visited the massive city of Angkor Thom and within its central area, the Terrace of the Leper King. Not as immediately obvious as its nextdoor neighbour, the Elephant Terrace, the outside wall of the Leper King version hasn't fared too well over the years and many of the sections of carvings are badly weathered and simply not photogenic. But step inside the 'secret' passageway just a couple of metres behind the outside wall, and you enter a zig-zag world of kings and concubines, heavenly dancers and giant naga snakes, where many of the sculptures are in pristine condition, having been hidden from view for hundreds of years. The height of the terrace wall is about seven metres which allows multi-tiered friezes, full of finely-etched figures, that were meticulously restored by the EFEO team under Christophe Pottier between 1993 and 1996. Previous attempts to renovate the terrace had been made before, the last was in 1972 but the civil war put an end to that and it was up to Pottier and his team to complete the work. And what a great job they've done too. The terrace was originally constructed in the 13th century under the watchful eye of the great Khmer king, Jayavarman 7th. The reference to the Leper King, well that's another story entirely.
These three registers of friezes at the Leper King Terrace show the royal court with the King surrounded by adoring female company
The secret passageway of the Leper King Terrace was hidden from view for centuries
The King and his attendants sit above a massive naga snake
A royal figure and short sword, with parasols in the background
The attendants or concubines have also been called devata or apsaras - take your pick
The King in all his regal glory is surrounded by well-dressed devata with elaborate headdresses

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Friday, March 26, 2010

From spider-country

Ah, that occasional series is back again. This is Navy from Kompong Cham. I have other friends called Navy and most of them come from the same province, it must be a popular name in those parts. This Navy comes from near Skun, spider-country to those that know and has lived in the city for about a year with her sister. Many Cambodians come to the city for their studies and live with their fellow family members, visiting parents back in their province on public holidays or when school allows and Navy is no exception. She's got a heart of gold, and perfect teeth, the latter quality making me very jealous.



A Dutch artist, Peter Klashorst, well known for painting and photographing young women, will have an exhibition of his work on show at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) in Phnom Penh sometime this year, supported by UNESCO. I've seen both April and August mentioned, so I can't confirm either way at the moment. He visited the museum, took photos on his mobile phone and put his paintings on canvas the next day in Bangkok. He's now added more to the collection, which has no name as yet, with some of them already for sale on ebay. More when I hear it.

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A Shattered Youth

The forthcoming English language edition of A Shattered Youth
My penchant for new books about Cambodia was well and truly whetted this week when one of my spies told me about a forthcoming paperback memoir, due out in September, by a member of the Cambodian Supreme Court since 2006, Sathavy Kim. It's called A Shattered Youth: Surviving the Khmer Rouge and tells the story of her life, in 240 pages, under the assumed name of Borgn Tha, throughout and after the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, where she was studying for her law degree at the time. The book was published in the French language a couple of years ago, as she had completed her law studies in France before returning to Cambodia. It will be published by Maverick House in Britain, Ireland, Asia and Australia.
The French edition, published in 2008

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Dance and stuff

The Khmer Arts Ensemble doing what they do best
Yesterday was so busy I didn't have time to fart let alone post anything on my blog. The introduction to classical dance by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and Toni Shapiro-Phim at Living Room last night was excellent. I learnt more about this art-form in two hours than I have in watching countless shows, as Sophiline demonstrated the hand movements and body postures in detail and spoke about her own involvement and thinking in maintaining and upgrading classical dance in Cambodia. She's been responsible for brand new works, which might upset some in the establishment, but after thirty years in the arts she rightly feels she deserves to be able to create and perform these mould-breaking dances. In answer to one of my questions, she felt that despite being intrinsically linked to Cambodia's cultural heritage, classical dance doesn't get the television coverage it should and the youth of Cambodia are not being helped to understand what they are seeing when a performance is shown. To that end, when her Khmer Arts Ensemble perform in Takhmau on 9 and 10 April, she will conduct a pre-performance workshop to explain what the audience are about to see, as well as a Q&A session after the show. This is exactly what's required in my view, to make classical dance more accessible to all. I recommend you put the dates in your diary and make the effort to get out and see her professional dance company perform one of the classics, Ream Eyso Moni Mekhala. The television companies should take note as well.

It rained very heavily during the night and early morning (with accompanying thunder and lightning), leaving many roads under water in the city when I came to work. The sun hasn't appeared and rain looks likely during the day as well. Do I make a good weatherman? Tomorrow and Sunday sees the start of the new Cambodian football season. So that'll keep me busy for the next few months with four games each weekend and a midweek match as well. Regular readers will be pleased to hear that all football reports will be relegated (football terminology) to my new football-only blog here. On Sunday night at 7pm at Meta House, the Tenth Dancer will get an airing and if you haven't seen this film that focuses on classical dance revival in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge regime, make it a date. The fabulous Em Theay is one of the featured artists.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Classical dance at its best

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro instructing one of her troupe from the Khmer Arts Ensemble
The Khmer Arts Ensemble is the only independent professional classical Cambodian dance and music troupe in the country. It develops and performs the original choreography of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, as well as rare works from the classical back catalogue, so to speak. They are based in Takhmau and are planning to perform for 2 nights just prior to the Khmer New Year, on their home territory. Ream Eyso Moni Mekhala will be the classical story they will perform on 9 and 10 April - more details to follow.
In the meantime, tomorrow night (Thursday 25 March), at the Cafe Living Room at 6.30pm, you can get an introduction to the history and cultural context of classical Khmer dance from Sophiline Cheam Shapiro herself, accompanied by author and dance ethnologist Toni Shapiro-Phim. It should be a very interesting presentation. Count me in.


Splashing out

Villa Romonea, still adding some finishing touches back in November, is now open for business
You might recall that I visited a lovely renovated villa when I was in Kep in November last year. Yes, I know there are lots of villas being renovated in and around Kep you will say, but this one is a bit special. At the time it wasn't quite ready, they were still adding some finishing touches, including a 6-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, and the name was Eskepe. Well, the name has changed, it's now called Villa Romonea, the renovations to this 1968 modernist-style villa are complete, and it's ready to rent. It isn't cheap, as you might imagine, but for your money you will get a full food and drink service, housekeeper, a saltwater infinity swimming pool and secluded large gardens overlooking the sea, a tennis court, it can house 12 people in 4 double rooms and 2 twins, individual rooms can be rented at weekends or the whole house can be yours if you so require. Fancy splashing out? Find out more here.

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Experimental arts and music

The first phase of a new new cultural development project in Cambodia, called Neak Ta, will be to work with Khmer artists to foster and develop a tradition of experimental music and civic-oriented art in Phnom Penh. With most funding these days almost entirely directed towards the recovery of endangered traditional artforms - dance, sculpture and classical music - there are very few opportunities to explore connections between traditional culture and more experimental approaches to art and creativity. The organizers behind Neak Ta believe there's a huge opportunity to expand musical experiences beyond traditional forms into improvisational and electronic musics. And to explore young Cambodian's notions of their past, present and future through participatory, community-based artworks and media.

Over a six week period they'll run a series of workshops with the Royal University of Fine Arts, Cambodian Living Arts and Java Arts Cafe here in Phnom Penh, working with local musicians and artists to develop a series of public arts events. The entire process will culminate in a series of performances and public art, which will be recorded and photographed. These materials will be used at the end of the project to create a series of documentary pieces - including a commercially available CD release and photographic exhibition. With resources in short supply, the project needs support to help purchase equipment vital for the project. A laptop and music software for the local musicians to use. A materials budget to help the students to realise their art projects. This money is crucial - even though the institutions they are dealing with are influential within the city, funds are stretched for basic university courses, let alone a project like this. You can find out more and contribute here.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Virtual refugees

The Wanderers was screened for the first time at the Bophana Center tonight with director Christine Bouteiller and some of the Battambang villagers who are featured in the 1-hour documentary in attendance. With an English-language commentary, the French and Khmer versions will be screened later this week, and a Q&A to follow, the audience was treated to an intriguing warts-and-all look at how former Thai border camp refugees, who were repatriated to Cambodia in 1992, are still virtual refugees in their own country. In the same village, those who stayed behind and those who returned from the camps, live separately and view each other with suspicion and distrust, even all these years later. There are some powerful messages for Cambodians who are still dealing with the trauma of the 70s and 80s, and whilst the need for reconciliation is clear, with so much water under the bridge, it will be for the next generation to be the ones to kiss and make up.
Director Christine Bouteiller (left) and two of the villagers from The Wanderers


Secrets uncovered

Female devata on the inside passageway of the Terrace of the Leper King
Now has lived in Angkor all her life. Our visit to the Terrace of the Leper King last week was her first time ever to see the fascinating carvings up close and to walk through the inner passageway. And she's not alone. I'll bring you a few pictures of the carvings later but it still surprises me that my Cambodia friends are always so busy just making ends meet that they don't have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to discover the world around them, or even their own wonderful heritage literally just around the corner.
Now in jovial mood after her visit to Angkor Thom

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I wandered lonely as a ...

I must admit that poetry has always manged to pass me by without making much of an impact. However, that's not to say that occasionally my attention is grabbed by a poem, but it's a rarity for sure. If on the other hand, you are into your poetry and would like to brush up on works that feature Cambodia, there are a handful of books you should be aware of. Expected out this month in Khmer and English is the poetry book O! Maha Mount Dangrek: Poetry of Cambodian Refugee Experiences by the late Venerable Ly Van. He died in Lowell, USA in 2008 but his poems live on and are now being published. The title of the book refers to his survival of the Dangrek Mountain incident of 1979 when around 45,000 Cambodians were forced down the mountainside by the Thai army at gunpoint; many of whom lost their lives. Other poetry books of note are Sacred Vows by U Sam Oeur, Fuchsia in Cambodia by Roy Jacobstein, Storytelling in Cambodia by Willa Schneberg and another recent publication, Thousand-Cricket Song by Catherine Strisik (above); a poetry collection inspired by her experiences in Cambodia and published last month by Plain View Press.


Full dress rehearsal

Sinat and Srey Peou after their performance
Next month, Sinat and Srey Peou will give American audiences a flavour of their personal brand of traditional Cambodian music and song, having last night earned plaudits from an appreciative crowd at the Cafe Living Room as a prelude to their trip overseas. With Sinat playing his beloved tro khmer and other instruments and Srey Peou providing the vocals with her smot and poetry renditions, the west coast of America and the Khmer communities in that region are in for a rare treat. Sponsored by Cambodian Living Arts, the pair will spend a month in the States, travelling over with CLA's founder Arn Chorn-Pond before an exhaustive tour of venues, schools and suchlike that will leave the two performers with barely a minute to breathe. Last night, their solos and duets were accompanied by a slideshow as well as two brief video biographies of the two youngsters, who hail from Siem Reap and Kompong Speu respectively, and who've been studying their specialized art-form for many years already, despite their tender years. It's clear that Srey Peou will do the on-stage narration as her English is pretty good though Sinat's mastery of his instruments will do his talking. CLA are also hosting their 2nd National Museum show with the youngsters from the Tonle Bassac Folk Group this coming Thursday. Though tickets are priced at a hefty $18 and primarily aimed at tourists, the organisers tell me that the lighting rig, sound stage and logistics will mean that even with a full house (its outdoor) they will still make a loss. But they are thinking long-term and the two shows they will perform, on Thursday and then again on 1 April, are to whet the appetite and gauge the interest pending more regular shows towards the end of the year. It's all designed to help CLA become more self-funded and less reliant on donations as they look to extend their programme of youth education and revival of the various art-forms under their watchful eye.
Sinat and Srey Peou deliver one of their duets at the Living Room
Sinat's story has been made into a comic book for children


Monday, March 22, 2010

A view from the west

The face of a dvarapala male guardian at the western gopura
This is my final posting on the Baphuon, pending my next visit. These pictures are taken from the western gopura, which has been reconstructed and is visitable even if the main pyramid is out of bounds. It has decorative panels, a couple of legible lintels and dvarapala male guardians in niches, either side of the doorway.
The western side of the western gopura, leading onto the Baphuon
A male guardian, dvarapala, in reasonable condition, apart from his face
Close up detail of the dvarapala's clothing, hands and club
Another male dvarapala, designed to ward off bad spirits from entering through the gopura
This dvarapala has fared far less better than the others and is in poor condition
A rishi or wise man at the foot of the doorway colonette, in meditating posture
A decorative lintel still in situ, with kala and floral designs
This lintel with kala figure eating a garland has a broken figure of Vishvakarma seated above


The sounds of the CLA

Sinat and his beloved tro khmer
Tonight at Phnom Penh's Living Room on Street 306 at 7pm, two of the Cambodian Living Arts troupe of performers, Sinat and Srey Peou, will give a preview performance of their artistic talents which they will be exhibiting on their Children of Angkor tour of the USA next month. Srey Peou will chant poetry and Sinat will accompany her on his favoured tro khmer, as well as demonstrating other unique Cambodian instruments. I remember seeing Sinat display his talents at Meta House in January 2008 and this boy is excellent. Also this week, the Children of the Khmer by the youngsters from the Tonle Bassac Folk Group, supported and funded by Cambodian Living Arts, will put on another show at the National Museum, on Thursday 25th at 7pm. It is open to the public, tickets are priced at $18 each and it's a great show as I had the pleasure of enjoying it a couple of weeks ago.

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Decorative panels

This panel at the Baphuon shows a large ox
My visit to the Baphuon didn't go to plan and as it was closed for the weekend, I didn't get to see the outstanding decorative panels and bas-reliefs that are on the pyramid itself. However, I did get to see some of the panels that are on the reconstructed western gopura and these give a flavour of the ones to be found on the main monument. They show scenes of individual animals or men fighting animals and suchlike. For a taste of what I hope to find on my next visit, though I expect much better quality and preservation, here are some of the panels from the gopura's walls, which can be visited even if the central pyramid is closed.
Man and beast, an ox I believe, in a duel
One animal kills another, though it looks like this ox has developed a taste for animal flesh
This warrior is either fighting or trying to control a horse
The bottom panel shows two horses rearing up against each other, or they could be just making friends
Another man versus beast decorative panel, this time a horse is being brought under control
This Baphuon panel shows a man engaged in a fight to the death with a lion


Neak Ta - it's official

A Neak Ta on the cliff-edge above Anlong Veng
I find Neak Ta fascinating. You only have to see some of my previous posts on the subject to understand why. Their diversity is intriguing. And now I've found what could pass for an official explanation for this important cultural heritage in Cambodia. Whilst leafing through the books on offer at Bohr's bookshop yesterday I came across a booklet entitled Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Cambodia, produced by UNESCO and the Fine Arts Ministry in 2004. Amongst its pages, which listed classical dance, folk and popular dance, music, circus, languages, oral literature and artisan skills, was a section on oral folklore. This is what it had to say about Neak Ta.

Neak Ta and Animist Beliefs (Local Guardian Spirits)
Along with a rich oral tradition are beliefs in the natural world. Supernatural tradition has deep historical roots in Cambodia, as primitive religious elements preceded both Brahminism and Buddhism in Cambodia. In this way, animistic spirits and Buddhist deities play a part in virtually every aspect of Khmer social life.
Neak Ta are primarily local guardian spirits. The cult of Neak Ta rests in nature. Local spirits inhabit mountains, rivers, trees, rice paddies, swamps and forests; even an odd shaped tree or rock can be inhabited by a local spirit. For Khmer, they are living, watching spirits of the land. Several types of supernatural entities are believed to exist, that make themselves known by means of inexplicable sounds or happenings. They are frequently asked for protection, as some are compliant, others are merciless against those who fail to show proper respect.
There is belief in spirits, those of the dead, who are to be found in any locality and who may be hostile. Among these phenomena are khmoch (ghosts), preay and besach (malevolent spirits who have died violently, untimely and unnatural deaths), arak (evil spirits, usually female), Neak Ta (local guardian spirits, usually male), mneang pteah (guardians of the house), Meba (maternal and paternal ancestral spirits) and mrinh kongveal (elf-like guardian of animals, mainly found in tigers and naga snakes).
Khmer people often have stories of personal encounters with these spirits. The wilderness or forest has always figured prominently in numerous legends and folktales warning them of these spirit powers and the potential dangers possible. It is for that reason, that all spirits must be shown proper respect. An important way to avoid misfortune is to show respect by numerous rituals and providing fruit, food and alcohol to appease them.
Respect for Neak Ta also includes famous people that were known for protecting their village. After their death, they became worshipped as a 'commander', in which offerings are made to respect and commemorate their special powers. Well-known Neak Ta that are worshipped today include Neak Ta Krahorm Kor, Neak Ta Mesa, Yeay Mao (Sihanoukville), Dambung Dek (Battambang), Khleang Moeurng (Pursat).


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Zoo time

Steve Goodman is better known as a photographer about town, Phnom Penh that is, but he was also the man who supplied the pictures for the recent To Myanmar With Love guidebook that came out a couple of months ago. Steve gave me a few essays for my own To Cambodia With Love and this one on Phnom Tamao Zoo is one that didn't actually make the final cut. However, its certainly worth posting here. You can see more of Steve's photographic work here.

Phnom Tamao Zoo - by Steve Goodman
Sometimes Phnom Penh seems like a zoo, but I was surprised to learn that Phnom Penh really has a zoo and that its primary mission is to rescue and rehabilitate animals in Cambodia that are illegally trapped, hunted, traded or otherwise abused, neglected or endangered.

The sprawling Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center is located on about 80 hectares in the middle of a 2,500 hectare protected wildlife region about 40km south of Phnom Penh. On the weekends and especially on national holidays the Zoo becomes quite crowded with Cambodian families coming from many miles around to hike, picnic and enjoy the fascinating variety of wildlife.

The 6km road leading to the zoo at the top of Tamao Mountain used to be quite treacherous on a motorcycle and every time I visit there I see riders and their passengers take a spill. On the roadside, at least on weekends and holidays, are dozens of elderly beggars who toss water on the road to keep the dust down, though it barely helps.

About 500 animals from more than seventy species make the zoo their home. The bear complex is the largest, but you can also see tigers, leopards, lions, elephants, various kinds of monkeys, snakes, crocodile, turtles, deer, otters, lizards, peacock, heron, parrots and a wide variety of other birds. The zoo is spread out over a vast expanse so we would motorcycle to one area, park and walk around and then motorcycle to the next area, and so on.

Every bit as good as the animal watching is the people watching. Cambodian families and groups of friends taking a break from their everyday life to enjoy nature are relaxed and friendly. Just being there with them makes for a wonderful experience, add to that the colourful and often amusing animal population and it puts the whole experience well worth the effort.

I first heard about the Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center from a friend who works for an NGO that helps to save and rehabilitate bear cubs. He told me that there is a substantial demand from Chinese and Korean tourists who consider bear cub paws to be a rare delicacy. They are willing to pay $300 to $500 per serving and, not surprisingly, at those prices there are Cambodians who are willing to break the law to satisfy this unusual demand, posing just one of many threats affecting Cambodia’s wildlife.

Bear cubs captured in the wild, as well as those raised clandestinely in captivity, are kept in very small cages that allow virtually no movement. When an “order” is received a small hole is cut in the cage, just big enough to allow one paw to stick out. Only after the paw is cooked (while still attached to the cub) is it then severed from the bear and the wound seared closed since the bear cub still has three more healthy paws that could potentially generate $1,000 or more. Such cruelty is truly shocking, but fortunately WildAid, Free the Bears and other organizations work to prevent terrible practices like this as well as to save and protect many other animals from all manner of threat.


Directions: Take National Highway 2 south from Phnom Penh and look for the sign for the zoo. Take a right turn and then travel about 6km up the side road. Tel 012-842-271. Hours: Open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm.Entrance Fee: $5.

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Closed at weekends

A look at the enormous pyramid at the Baphuon from the northern side
Blah, blah, biggest jigsaw in the world, blah, blah. How often is that quote wheeled out when talking about the Baphuon temple in Angkor. Damn, I did it too. Anyways, I had bided my time to revisit the Baphuon, knowing that lots of progress had been made in the last few years in piecing the temple back together again before taking the plunge to pay a visit last week. Of course, my plan shattered into tiny pieces when I read the sign at the eastern entrance that said access was closed at weekends; it was a Saturday. Bugger it. All I could do was walk around the outside of the central pyramid, though the reconstructed western gopura was accessible so it wasn't a complete wash-out. But I didn't get to see the reassembled reclining Buddha at close quarters (it's hard enough to make it out at a distance, impossible close-up) or more importantly, the panels and bas-reliefs that are the real jewels of the Baphuon. The panels display a range of animals, warrior duels and men fighting animals whilst the reliefs show scenes from the Ramayana. It was a disappointment of course, but there's always another day, preferably during the week. The Baphuon dates from the 11th century and hasn't really featured at the top of the roll-call of important Khmer temples due to its ruined state. But make no mistake, in its heyday it would've been an amazing sight. The 70-metre long Buddha was constructed around the 16th century using stones from other parts of the temple, when the temple was reconsecrated. The jigsaw analogy came during the 1960s when the French took it apart to put it back together again. The Khmer Rouge interrupted that plan and with 300,000 pieces of stone sat on the surrounding grass, the sounds of reconstruction began again in 1995. They are still going on today. But not on a Saturday.
The north and western sides of the Baphuon
Okay, you are looking at the reassembled reclining Buddha, believe me
In the middle of the picture is the head of the reclining Buddha
The elevated causeway that approaches the eastern entrance of the Baphuon
A closer look at the rounded and decorated columns that support the elevated causeway


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wat etiquette

Unless you are suffering from amnesia, you'll know that I have a book coming out in the middle of this year. It's called To Cambodia With Love and will contain 125+ essays from over 60 people who have a passion for this wonderful country. As part of the process for selecting suitable essays for the book, I had to discard quite a few for various reasons, even though they contain valuable information and merit publication in one form or another. So that some of those which didn't make the final cut get some exposure, I intend to post them here, starting off with the appropriate etiquette when visiting a wat/pagoda in Cambodia by Caroline Nixon.

What to do in a wat - by Caroline Nixon
While the Angkorian temples in Siem Reap are Cambodia’s main attraction, there is also much to be gained from a visit to any Buddhist temple or wat. The Khmer Rouge did their best to stamp out Buddhism, but after the Vietnamese occupation Buddhism began to revive, and now the majority of the population practice Theravada Buddhism. As you travel through the country you will see many wats, and you will be very welcome to take a look inside. You will be all the more welcome if you behave in a way that respects Khmer custom.

Firstly, Cambodians are modest dressers and particularly so when visiting the wat. It will be appreciated if visitors wear clothes that cover their shoulders, knees and midriffs. Strappy tops, shorts and plunging necklines are not appropriate. As they enter the temple compound, Cambodians will remove their hat, and you should do likewise. It’s okay to wear your shoes as you explore the compound, but they need to removed before entering the buildings, usually just at the door, occasionally at the bottom of the steps – a little pile of shoes will usually give you a clue as to where to leave yours.

Ahead of you will be a shrine with several Buddha images. Cambodians will always keep their head lower than that of religious images or respected persons, and will lower their heads on entering the temple, then kneel in front of the images to pray. You don’t need to kneel and pray, but when you are near the shrine it will be appreciated if you sit or kneel, rather than looming above the images and worshippers. You will notice that Cambodians kneel with their feet tucked behind them. This is because pointing the foot at something or someone is considered disrespectful, so try not to point your feet at Buddha images or monks.

The majority of the monks you meet at wats will be novices, there for a short period, often to get an education. You may also meet some more senior monks. Usually they will be keen to practice their English and explain the stories depicted in the paintings on the temple walls. Women should remember that monks are not allowed any physical contact with them. Unlike in many other southeast asian countries, in Cambodia it is permissible for women to hand directly to a monk, though older and more senior monks may ask them to hand it to a male who will then hand it to them. If you’d like to make a donation to a wat, there is usually a donation box in front of the shrine.

You will be welcome to wander around and look at the wall paintings and images, and to take photos, though it is polite to ask. Younger monks will be happy to pose for photos, but more senior ones may prefer not to, or will wish you to wait while they arrange their robes correctly and strike a dignified pose before you snap. Cambodians are far too polite to call attention to inappropriate behaviour, but your visit will be more welcome if you are sensitive to these customs.

FactFile: There are wats to be found all over Cambodia. In fact at the last census there were over 3,700 wats with at least 50,000 resident monks. You will be hard pressed not to find a wat close at hand. Cambodian Buddhism exists side by side with animism, and spirits are believed to inhabit a variety of objects and you will see shrines to these spirits in the grounds of pagodas, houses, along roads and in forests. One of the most important people at a wat, beside the head monk of course, is the achar, a specialist in ritual, who functions as a kind of master of ceremonies at the wat. Below are some monks from Wat Sleng in Kompong Thom.

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Now on sale

It's now available to buy from Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh, priced at just $15.50. So there's no excuse not to go out and buy a copy of Match Fixer, the excellent novel by Neil Humphreys, which exposes the underbelly of football and life in Singapore. You can read a review of the book by Cambodia's national football coach Scott O'Donell here. You owe it to yourself to get a copy.

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Nat Geo highlights

Guidebooks. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay. Separate sections of some guidebooks can now be bought on the internet to save you having to carry around the whole book on your holiday. You can buy the Temples of Angkor section of the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia for example. Or if you are gadget savvy, which I definitely am not, then you can travel with your guidebook at your fingertips inside your iPod or iPhone.
The number of guidebooks that focus on Cambodia is increasing year on year and I'm still leafing through the new Nat Geo Traveler Cambodia edition which the publishers sent to me last week. The more I read, the more I like it. At the start of each of the geographical chapters, they offer their 'not to be missed' suggestions and in the book's opening introduction, they also offer their countrywide suggestions. These are:
  • A moving visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and killing fields, Phnom Penh
  • Experiencing floating village life on the Tonle Sap
  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat
  • Watching the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus perform
  • Seeing authentic apsara dance
  • A day trip to Banteay Srei temple, Kbal Spean, and surrounding attractions
  • Touring French colonial ruins and relaxing by the river in Kampot
They've split the chapters geographically and I've chosen one at random, Eastern Cambodia, to give you a flavour of their 'not to be missed' choices, which are as follows:
  • A Mission Aviation Fellowship flight over the Mekong*
  • Eating tarantulas in Skuon
  • Seeing Irrawaddy dolphins near Kratie
  • Swimming and tubing in Ratanakiri's Yak Laom Lake
  • Experiencing hill-tribe life in Ratanakiri or Mondulkiri
  • Mahout training with the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri
One of the ever-present problems with guidebooks is that information changes and can quickly become out of date. Take the *Mission Aviation Fellowship flight over the Mekong for example. MAF had been operating a small aircraft to northern and northeastern provinces in Cambodia since 1995 but because of the improved road conditions, this service ceased at the beginning of this year.

I was also pleased to see mention of my pal Eddie Smith and his microlite adventures. His company Dragonfly Cambodia gets a box with the following info:
Looking to get some serious air? With Dragonfly Cambodia (tel 855(0)92-533-269), you can take a microlight flight with one of the most experienced pilots in Cambodia. Eddie Smith has flown over all but two of Cambodia's provinces, shooting film and assisting with surveying and research projects. With a few weeks to spare and a serious commitment, he can even train you to fly an ultralight on your own, although there is no licensing procedure in the country to certify your accomplishment. Day trips are available at $200 per hour.
I can speak from personal experience of Eddie's flying skill and the amazing adrenalin rush to be had by flying with him and his microlite. For further evidence, click here.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

In solitude

Only one intact skull remains at the memorial at Wat Kesararam in Siem Reap
Whenever I am in the vicinity, I visit the remaining genocide memorials in Cambodia, usually constructed just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime at the end of the 1970s though many of these memorials have now virtually disappeared through neglect and disinterest amongst the local population. Only a handful are still cared for and remain the focus of annual ceremonies to remember the millions who died during the Pol Pot-led period. Often the memorials were erected after mass graves, which were to be found in nearly every district in the country, were dug up and the memorial stupas became the final resting place of the deceased. I have previously posted photographs from many of these memorials. Whilst I was in Siem Reap last week, I recalled a vague mention that Wat Kesararam, situated smack back in the middle of town on national road 6, had a small memorial. I was aware of the larger one at Wat Thmei, which I had visited many years before, but had not seen anything on a previous visit to Wat Kesararam. I posed the question to a couple of young monks on entering the pagoda compound and they pointed off into the distance, amongst a collection of burial stupas. A rickety wooden shrine was easy enough to find, though over time the collection of bones and skulls has obviously diminished and what remains today, is likely a fraction of what was in situ originally, judging by the fragments of skulls to be found. A group of workmen were sat next to the shrine, playing cards and looking at me quizzically, as I took some photos. The memorial doesn't even register on the original DC-Cam list of genocide memorials so I don't have any information as to where the deceased came from, numbers, and so on. I hope a future visit to the DC-Cam archives will enlighten me.
The simple wooden shrine amongst a collection of burial stupas at Wat Kesararam
The genocide memorial that remains today is likely a fraction of the original memorial
A wall painting at Wat Kesararam showing what happens to sinners

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Young ladies

The excellent young dancers from COFCO
Here's a team photo of the 5 young female dancers from COFCO as they were heading home after their excellent dance performance at the Shadow of Angkor II guesthouse in Siem Reap last week. Of course, the girls travelled in 1 tuk-tuk, whilst the boys packed into a separate one - as it should be. COFCO are keen to welcome volunteers to their orphanage and you can get in touch with them through their website. They are especially happy to hear from donors, as with all orphanages, money is tight and they rely on private donations and sponsorship rather than government funding. If you can help COFCO, get in touch with them direct. I know they will appreciate it.


Angkor mystery

A stupa-style construction, located in a remote part of the Angkor Park
On my trip to Isaan last October, I photographed a series of lotus crowns that I came across and posted them in this blog post. These are usually found at the very pinnacle of the massive sandstone towers that dominate many ancient Khmer temples. Occasionally, you can find them on the floor, usually if the temple has undergone renovation and the crown is simply too large or heavy to return to its original location. The two sandstone items shown here, that I spied in a remote area between the Bayon and the Baphuon in the Angkor Park, aren't lotus crowns in that sense, though one is a stupa-like construction with a lotus-crowned top whilst the other resembles a bell-shape; perhaps part of a similar object as its close neighbour. If you have an idea as to what they represent and why they are there, feel free to share it.
A bell or dome-shaped sandstone construction located between the Bayon and the Baphuon

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More from the Bakan

3 of the Angkor Wat devata minus their feet
I haven't quite finished posting pictures from my return visit to the Bakan, at the very top level of Angkor Wat. It reopened for business in January after more than two years with the doors firmly closed. I went up with Now, who proudly informed me that her father was responsible for creating the new wooden steps, the wooden walkway and the wooden window frames. He's worked for the Apsara authorities for many years but she really wants him to retire from his job as supervisor, as he's now getting on in years. I don't think there's such a thing as a national retirement age here in Cambodia. People just seem to go on until they can't go on any longer. It's a case of needs must I suppose. Now told me today that the eviction of the shop and restaurant owners just in front of the Bayon went ahead without any problems. There's a possibility that they might be allowed back after a couple of months.
A standing and a reclining Buddha inside the central tower of Angkor Wat
A rather strong, dominant looking devata, often referred to as an Apsara
A beautiful devata holding some flowers in her hand
Zooming in on the outer courtyard of Angkor Wat and the pool and northern library
The central tower of Angkor Wat, undergoing some minor repair work
Now admiring her father's handiwork at one of the windows
The only route open to the Bakan, on the southeast corner of Angkor Wat
One of the other steep stairways, no longer in operation

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

From the top

A look down the 50 steep steps leading to the Bakan at Angkor Wat
The top level of Angkor Wat, the Bakan, reopened in the middle of January. Last week was my first opportunity to go to the top since it closed back in October 2007. Regulations have been introduced to restrict numbers of tourists, as well as time limits and rules on dress, etc, so a visit is not like it was 'back in the day'. Nevertheless, it was pleasing to be able to look out once again across the treeline that surrounds the temple and then into the heat-haze on the western side, as you look back towards the entrance and the moat. The guards can be annoying, asking you to move along if you stand still for more than a couple of minutes, but with just 100 visitors allowed at the top at any one time, they are keen to whizz you through to get the next 100 up and out. Some of the devatas on the walls are in wonderful condition and it would be nice to think that any renovation that did take place during the years of closure included some delicate touches to these beautiful celestial beings rather than just the construction of a wooden walkway, stairs and window barriers. The fifty steps, on the southeast corner, that take you to the top, and back down again, are fairly steep and you need to keep your wits about you when walking along the wooden walkway, as there's a bit of drop either side. In addition, the top level is closed to tourists on Buddhist holy days, which are tied into the religious calendar but which change every week, all very confusing. The current reopening of the top level is a trial, so it's not a given that it will remain open indefinitely. Tip - if you visit the Bakan in the afternoon, and have to wait in the queue, those in the front of the queue will be in shade.
One of the beautiful devata on the walls of the Bakan. There are 1,780 of these celestial goddesses on the walls of Angkor Wat.
A look at the queue stretching around the northeast corner of Angkor Wat
Just beyond the northern section of the central sanctuary of Angkor Wat lies the treeline
The majestic central tower, topped by a lotus bud, rises 55 metres from ground level
A look into the heat-haze of the western entrance to Angkor Wat
A Buddha meditating under the protection of a naga in the Bakan
Renovation work is ongoing at Angkor Wat, next to one of the inner libraries
A look at the crowd of tourists taking a breather in the shade having just completed their visit to the Bakan
This is the only access point to the Bakan, on the southeast corner of the 2nd storey of Angkor Wat. 100 people are allowed up as 100 come down.

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I'm back

Back in the Bakan after a few years break
I paid my first visit for a few years to the Bakan, or the top level of Angkor Wat to you and me, when I was in Siem Reap last week. I'll post some pictures from my visit later but in the meantime, here I am modeling the pass each person is given on their entry to the Bakan, as well as the conditions on the back of the pass. You are limited to a 30-minute wander around the top level, though the Apsara guards will move you along if you stay too long in one place. 100 people are allowed on the top level at any one time and they strictly monitor this. In addition, anyone wearing shorts above the knee will not be allowed to climb the steep steps to the top, and they don't open the top level on Buddha Days, which occur haphazardly on various days each month. There is no additional entry cost. Depending on the time of day, you could find yourself waiting in the queue, under the blazing hot sun, or as I did, arrive just at the right time, wait for five minutes in the shade before gaining entry. It's pot luck. If they've done any renovation, I couldn't see it except providing a wooden walkway which takes you around the upper level, and the wooden steps up and down, which my friend Now proudly announced was the handiwork of her father. More later.
The Bakan regulations, on the rear of the pass. Of course I had pass No. 001.


Jimi in Khmer

One of my favourite singers, Jimi Lundy, has just released a new music video directed by Red Sense filmmaker Tim Pek, called When Tomorrow Comes. Sung in the Khmer language, the video features karaoke star Chan Chakrya as well as Jimi of course. Keep your eyes peeled for a new album from Jimi sometime this year.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Entrepreneurial spirit

Okay, here's the last for a while, in the occasional 'friends' series, only because I need to take more pictures of my pals. This is Srey Thom, who hails from Battambang, and who I've known for more than a year. She is off to see her cousin in Thailand at the end of this week, having just got herself a passport, and will be looking for business opportunities whilst she's over there. She has plans to open her own clothing stall in Phnom Penh and like lots of my friends, they are always actively seeking a realistic opportunity to make extra money or start their own business. They possess an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to improve their lot. More power to their elbow I say.


A virtual visit

A virtual visit to Sambor Prei Kuk
I haven't mentioned it before, but you may be interested to visit this website which is putting together a virtual reconstruction project of the central temple at Sambor Prei Kuk, near Kompong Thom, essentially an attempt to apply 21st century technology to 7th century cultural heritage. This work is being undertaken by the University of California, who are aiming to make the history of Sambor Prei Kuk more accessible through a virtual visit. Similar efforts have been made by the Monash University team in Australia to provide a look at the life and times of Greater Angkor during its heyday in the 13th century. Visit Nat Geo for a look at their work.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ice cream to savour

Chhunly and me outside The American restaurant in Kompong Thom
I had 20 minutes to spare once the Mekong Express bus had stopped in Kompong Thom town center before it was due to leave again. Whilst everyone else piled into the Arunras restaurant, where I always find the food boring and the service worse, I headed a few doors down the side road to The American, where my friend Chhunly was working, for a catch-up and a milk shake and a banana split. They make their own tasty ice-cream as well as pizza and hamburgers and the restaurant is definitely worth trying next time you are in town. Steer well clear of the Arunras. Chhunly has been working at the restaurant for about a year now, studies English Literature for three hours every night and has little time for anything else, let alone the folk dancing that she was doing when I first met her a couple of years ago. That's a bit sad as she loved her dancing, but she views her studies and work as more important at this time.

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Absolutely adorable

The absolutely adorable Chamreun
Chamreun trains the audience in some of the hand gestures
How often do you hear, "absolutely adorable" when you watch a performance of classical and traditional Cambodian dance by youngsters from a dance school or orphanage. Well, I heard it again on Friday, but this time it was myself saying it. Simply because the youngsters from COFCO, or Cambodian Orphan Family Center Organization, to give them their full name, were so good and looked so cute. Especially Chamreun, who was the cutest of them all. And Samnang, who was the best monkey boy I've seen in a long while. As a group of nine dancers, the girls and boys of COFCO were invited by Kim, the daughter of the owners of the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse in Siem Reap, to perform in the first of a hoped-for monthly series of shows to spotlight their excellent dancing and to give the orphanage some much needed revenue. There was a good crowd at Shadow II, the small cover charge meant everyone could help themselves to copious food on offer and then on came the COFCO children to perform three separate dances, firstly classical and then traditional. And they were very good. I've seen a lot of these performances over the years and in Samnang in particular, COFCO has one of the best monkey dancers I've seen in a long time. He was simply brilliant. And he should be snapped up by Sovanna Phum or CLA immediately. Chamreun was adorable, she had a cheeky smile and was in her element at the end when she was showing some of the audience how to dance and make some of the gestures with their hands. I wanted to adopt her there and then. I didn't, obviously, but you get my drift. COFCO welcomes volunteers and their director Meas Pov, a former singer, is ultra keen that the children get extra lessons in English and Khmer arts like dancing and singing, and if their performance at Shadow is anything to go by, they are learning quickly and learning well. Link: COFCO.
Chamreun leads the dancers offstage after their final dance
A classical wishing dance by the children of COFCO
More tuition from Chamreun
Samnang, the best monkey boy I've seen for a long time
COFCO director Meas Pov helps one of her dancers with her costume


All new Now

Returning to my occasional series of pictures of my best pals, today it's the turn of Now. This picture was taken at the Khmer Kitchen restaurant last week when I spent a few days in Siem Reap. Now had turned up with a new hairstyle and news that her sister had just given birth to her third child, so she was in a very happy mood. If you've read my blog for a while you'll know that Now has worked all of her life at the temples of Angkor, selling souvenirs, particularly at Angkor Wat, until last year when she began work as the assistant to another friend of mine, professional photographer Eric de Vries. This has opened up a new world to Now and she's revelling in it. I'm so happy for her, long may it continue.
Now and me at 4Faces Gallery, her place of work


Monday, March 15, 2010

Calling time

These restaurants near the Bayon may soon be a thing of the past
On my whizz around Angkor Thom on Saturday with my pal Now, we parked her moto at the shop of a family she's known for many years. They are located in the area north of the Bayon and east of the entrance to the Baphuon. There are a row of souvenir shops selling all manner of items and behind them are a row of small restaurants, the kind you find all over the Angkor complex and beyond. Quite often the area in front of the shops is where buses and tuk-tuks park themselves. The family we spoke to have been there since just after UNTAC moved out in 1993 and they've just been told by the police that they must move out/vacate/clear off by the 20th of this month. That's in 5 days time. No alternate site to move to, no recompense, just take your shop and/or restaurant and move out. No reason has been given. After 17 years, Apsara have decided that the area will have another use. It remains to be seen whether the police enforce their order on the 20th with their normal bully-boy tactics and what Apsara will put in their place. Probably it'll be designated a car park, to cater for the ever-increasing number of vehicles visiting Angkor each day. However if you want a bite to eat or to to buy a krama, then you'll have to look elsewhere.
Update: The shop owners have been told that the Royal Ploughing Ceremony will be held on that spot in early May and that's why they have to move. No suggestion that they will be allowed to return later on.
This area, with shops in front, cafes behind, is scheduled to be cleared on the 20th of this month


The Traveler makes it, just

I received a package from the post office today, in a box from UPS, with a book inside. Actually the book was inside another two plastic envelopes, both of which had their seals broken, as did the box, so I was lucky to find anything inside it at all. The good folks at National Geographic have sent me their brand new Cambodia book from their Traveler series, fresh off the press, smells wonderful, and very glossy. I'll sit down and have a good look through it tonight. 320 pages, lots of maps, insider tips from principal author Trevor Ranges and others, as well as colour pics by Kris LeBoutillier. I did see that my website gets top billing in the Web section, though it's done alphabetically rather than on merit.
Andy Brouwer's Cambodia Tales, Brouwer's passion for Cambodian culture and history shine through insightful essays on his travels throughout the country and photographs of temples he has explored.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Back home

Now and myself, this morning, courtesy of Eric de Vries
Sunday night update: I'm back in Phnom Penh, caught the Mekong Express at midday from Siem Reap and it was comfortable, on-time and a much better option than Paramount. Believe me. Popped into 4Faces early this morning to say goodbye to Now and the rest of the de Vries' crew, namely Pheap, Lida, Srey Pich and Leak. Yesterday afternoon, following on from my last update, was spent with Now at Angkor including my first visit to the top level of Angkor Wat since it's been reopened to the public. I also went to see the work in progress at the Baphuon but just my luck, access to the temple is not possible at the weekend so I wasn't able to view, up close and personal, the work the restoration teams have so far accomplished. Now has lived at Angkor all her life but like most of her fellow villagers, she had never visited the Terrace of the Leper King, so we put that right. More later.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lunchtime update

It's lunchtime Saturday and with my pc having lots of problems connecting to wireless in various places I've popped into an internet cafe to fire off an update, whilst I'm in Siem Reap. I intended to get out to Kompong Phluk for the morning but a $16/per boat price and the local mafia who have taken over access to the village put me off (and pissed me off), so instead Now and myself just pottered around the countryside between Roluos and Siem Reap, stopping off where the fancy took us including a pagoda, which the locals called Wat Prin in Chreav district and where there was a mound of laterite building blocks that was obviously the site of an old temple/prasat. I uncovered a partial lintel from the rubble as well as a small pedestal, an antefix and other bits and pieces. Nothing earth-shattering but a nice unexpected find nonetheless. This afternoon I'm heading into Angkor for a few things that are on my to-do list. Yesterday was my hotel day, with visits to about ten hotels, meeting the sales managers and a couple of hotel inspections rolled into one. Those very nice people at Hotel de la Paix, Christian and Marpha, treated me to a very pleasant lunch. It's hot and humid, the cool spell of a few days ago has disappeared, and though I can see hordes of tourists around the place, everyone is telling me numbers are down and the high season isn't as high as everyone had hoped. Apologies for the paucity of posts but I always seem to have internet connection problems when I visit Siem Reap, and this trip is no different. Grrrr.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shaking all over

If you want to do the bus trip between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap then don't choose Paramount Angkor Express, as their bus that carried me between the two, leaving the capital at 6pm, was one of the most uncomfortable I've ever been on. And believe me I've been on some crap buses. I got into their Siem Reap bus park, in a sidestreet off the main bus depot at midnight after being shaken, stirred and whatever else for six hours. I thought the bus was going to fall apart with everything including seats, windows, tv, etc, shaking violently for the whole trip. We stopped for 30 minutes to pick up a group of twenty backpackers at Skun which provided some momentary relief but the bone-shaking soon continued as we raced through the countryside to our final destination. The fare was $10 (I got mine for $6) and it ain't worth the money. Spend a few dollars more and take the Mekong Express at a more acceptable departure time. Thanks to my pal Kim Rieng I had a lift to my hotel for the night, the Royal Bay Inn, which has a very pleasant breakfast setting around the pool and gardens. I'm in the office today with lots of people to meet. Tomorrow is hotel day with visits to about fifteen hotels on the cards. Saturday I hope to get out and visit a few other places of interest.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Stop press

I'm off to Siem Reap this afternoon on the late bus, so posts could be a bit sporadic over the next few days. I'll try my best but I don't get up to Siem Reap as much as I would like hence I have a full diary of people to see, and things to do. One of them will be to pop into Shadow of Angkor GH and see my pal Kim, who is over for a brief holiday with her family, before she returns to Australia to complete her studies. I'm scheduled to do some staff training, interviews, hotel visits and if I get the chance, I want to pay a return visit to the very top level of Angkor Wat, for the 1st time in quite a few years. I've missed climbing those stairs and hoping that I don't slip and break my neck.

Book review - Match Fixer

Yes I know its a football-related post but it's also a book-related post, so I've posted it here too. If you have any interest in Asian football at all, you must get a copy of Neil Humphreys' debut novel, Match Fixer. Even if you can't stand football - yes there are some people like that out there - but fancy a really good read immersed in the exotic Far East then Match Fixer will provide that too. Just treat the football as incidental. Humphreys has lived in Singapore, has worked in sports journalism and has put the two together to produce a riveting read, which will be on sale at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard next week.
I thought that the best person to review Match Fixer would be someone who has played football in Australia and Singapore (as the lead character in the book did), who's worked in the media and who knows Asian football inside out. Step forward Scott O'Donell, the national football team coach of Cambodia, who kindly penned the following review after reading through Humphreys' new novel:

Match Fixer by Neil Humphreys

Neil Humphreys has taken me back in time with his latest offering, Match Fixer.

Having played and coached in Singapore, Match Fixer was something that I could obviously relate to. Humphreys' intimate knowledge of Singapore and in particular the S-League, is an entertaining and somewhat disconcerting view of life as a professional footballer through the eyes of failed West Ham Reserve team player Chris Osborne.

Having failed to make the grade at West Ham, Osborne ended up in Singapore via Australia to ply his trade in one of South East Asia’s newest football leagues. While enjoying success and being the new superstar of the S-League, Osborne gets entwined in a complex web of drugs, karaoke lounges and bookies.

It was his presence at a party of a well known foreign publisher that he found himself caught in a situation that proved very difficult to get out of. As you will discover, his honesty and unwillingness to co-operate with the bookies very nearly cost him his career.

The characters in Match Fixer are people all of us who have been involved in football anywhere in the world can relate to: Danny Spearman, the failed ex-pro from UK, Billy Addis, the expat journalist and Yati, the beautiful Sarong Party Girl. All of whom contribute to this fascinating tale of football and Singapore’s underworld.

While this piece of fiction is a must read for anyone looking for an entertaining and fascinating novel, anyone who has been involved in football in South East Asia whether as a spectator, a player or a coach will be able to relate to it.

Scott O'Donell

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Frommer's faves

Guidebooks about Cambodia are on the increase. The latest version of the Lonely Planet guide has been sent off to the publishers so should be out in a few months. Brand new guides by National Geographic Traveler, Moon and Frommer's are already out according to the publisher's blurb, though so far my requests for review copies have fallen on rocky ground. Instead, all I can do is give you a taster from their own websites. Ah, there's a problem there as only Frommer's Cambodia and Laos, by Bangkok-based Daniel White, 352-pages and published this month, has anything worthy of mentioning. Frommer's have gone for the traditional 'best of' with 10 Favourite Cambodian Experiences to chew on, best small towns and best restaurants, amongst others. For the small towns they recommended Battambang, Kompong Chhnang and Kampot. For the best restaurants they've selected Frizz, Khmer Surin and Angkor Palm. Hmmm. Anyone who has spent time in Cambodia will have their own favourites of course, me included, but for the time being here are the top 10 fave experiences according to Frommer's author Daniel White:
  • Contemplating the Bayon
  • Dancing the Ramvong
  • Enjoying fresh coffee and baguettes by the Tonle Sap
  • Haggling in the market
  • Dolphin spotting on the Mekong
  • Savoring Kep crab in Kampot pepper
  • Biking the Cardamoms
  • Boating up the Sangker River after the rains
  • Taking in an Apsara dance show
  • Taking a spin through the rice paddies around Battambang.
Anyone want to throw their personal favourites into the ring?

and of course, coming to a bookstore near you soon, or get it online


Sambath doubles up in print

With his documentary, Enemies of the People, which he made with Rob Lemkin, earning itself a heap of press coverage around the globe in recent months, Thet Sambath (right), a reporter with the Phnom Penh Post, will also tell his story in a new book, Behind the Killing Fields: A Khmer Rouge Leader and One of His Victims, that will be published by Pennsylvania Press midway through this year. Co-authored with Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon, who also used to work for the Cambodia Daily, it will include the story of Nuon Chea, who Sambath interviewed for over 1,000 hours in the course of his film, and book. Plans are underway to show the film in Phnom Penh sometime in the near future. Link: Film.

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New entry fee

The new $5 entrance ticket for Preah Khan
I realise this information will be useful to a mere handful of adventurous travellers but be prepared to pay an official entry fee of $5 next time you go to the remote temple of Preah Khan of Kompong Svay (also known as Prasat Bakan). Instead of a few thousand riel to the policeman who was guaranteed to appear at some stage during your visit, he'll be on the main gate now, will give you a ticket (see above) in exchange for your five dollars. It's the same fee for Beng Mealea and Banteay Chhmar whilst Koh Ker will cost you a whopping $10. Preah Khan is still the 'hardest to get to' of the main Angkorean temple sites around the country and remains off-limits during the rainy season. There's no accommodation anywhere close by except in a villager's house in the village of Ta Seng. For a taste of the adventure that is Preah Khan, read about my trip there in January 2003 here.
The more popular Beng Mealea also costs $5 to get in

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Luxury cruising

In dock in Phnom Penh, The Jayavarman cruise ship
The Jayavarman luxury cruise ship was in port today so I decided on a visit to give it the once over in comparison to the other cruise ships on offer between Saigon and Phnom Penh and beyond. It compares very favourably with the larger RV La Marguerite, which plies the same route and which has 46 cabins compared to the Jayavarman's 26, which includes two state rooms. Named after the great Khmer king of the 12th century, each of its cabin has a balcony, good cabin space, nice sized bathrooms, air-con and all mod cons, except tv's. The public areas are equally spacious and breezy, with restaurants and bars and a spa. I've seen both boats up close and had a good feeling about the Jayavarman, I liked the decor though maybe its the name that resonates with me (yes, I'm easily pleased). Most of the staff are Khmer and the boat has been operational since the back end of last year. They plan to add a jacuzzi pool next season, the Marguerite already has a substantial whirlpool, which will be a welcome addition. Most of the clientele to-date have been Americans, Aussies or German/Swiss. Cruises are not a cheap way to see a country but for some, they are the only way to go.
The Bao Dai suite stateroom, one of two suites on-board
A view of the deluxe stateroom aboard the Jayavarman
Each room has its own balcony to enjoy the view and eat breakfast
The Henry Mouhot Lounge on-board The Jayavarman


Musing on a Monday morning

I've been a bit light on posts this weekend with the Cambodian football cup final taking precedence, more of which you can read about on my football-only blog here. I forgot to attend the book launch at FCC of Carrying Cambodia last night too, but that's unfortunately something that comes with the territory as I get older, I forget a lot of things. It's a public holiday today, to celebrate International Women's Day when the spotlight will be deservedly turned onto the women in Cambodia. That spotlight gets turned on all too infrequently in my opinion. It's the women of Cambodia who do all the work around here, lest we forget. This week may be extra busy as I'm planning on a few days in Siem Reap but nothing's confirmed as yet. More as it happens. I'm meeting a student from the UK at lunchtime who's over here working on her PhD on the arts scene in Cambodia. Not sure how much useful information I can provide but we'll see. I also want to get out this afternoon and visit the Jayavarman cruise ship which should be in dock, as its a new cruise boat operating the Saigon-Siem Reap route. On paper it looks like a tip-top cruiser. Update: Just back from a visit to the Jayavarman and it definitely is a very nice cruise ship. It's the best I've seen of the boats doing the Saigon to Phnom Penh/Siem Reap route. It's been operating since the back end of last year, bookings are in great shape and I can see why. It's a stylish vessel and the rooms are a good size, lovely decoration, big bathrooms and substantial deck and relaxation areas. It should have a jacuzzi pool next high season, which will just about round it off nicely.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Remembering Koh Ker

Okay, I look like a shaggy sheepdog but in my defense I'd just spent 8 hours on a moto
Reading about the project to turn Koh Ker into a world heritage site took me back in time to my first visit to the temple complex in November 2001 with my pal Sokhom and his trusty Daelim moto. It was a wonderful adventure, one of many I've had in the company of Sokhom, and although Koh Ker had yet to reveal many of its treasures that you can see today, I was chuffed to bits to be one of the first visitors to get to Koh Ker under our own steam, though it was a gruelling journey, there and back. Here's my story from that first-ever Koh Ker adventure:

The journey by moto along Route 12 from Kompong Thom to Tbeng Meanchey was gruelling and uncomfortable enough but paled by comparison to the 70 kms of road to Koh Ker. However, more of that soon enough. The tenth century royal capital of Koh Ker had been a magnet for me for a long while after Sok Thea, a Khmer friend of mine blazed the trail there just under two years earlier. In a remote and inhospitable corner of Preah Vihear province, for so long under the control of the feared Khmer Rouge and in an area awash with landmines, Sok Thea's stories had whetted my appetite for a similiar adventure and with Sokhom's help, it became a reality. Koh Ker became the centrepiece of the Khmer kingdom in 928 when Jayavarman IV built a series of colossal monuments in a twenty year period of frenzied temple construction. When the capital returned to Angkor, Koh Ker fell into disrepair and has remained isolated and inaccessible ever since. The Koh Ker period of Khmer history is renowned for its architecture and sculpture on a monumental scale and the museum in Phnom Penh has many key pieces on display that prove the point. Recently, the Cambodian government has earmarked the site as a key historical attraction which they plan to develop in a bid to attract foreign tourists, so I was desperately keen to visit the complex before that happens.

After our first night in Tbeng Meanchey at the 27 May guesthouse, Sokhom and I rose early and took the road heading west, after breakfast at a nearby cafe. It was just before 7am and little did I know our eventual destination was nearly eight hours away, although Sokhom had an idea as he'd made the trip once before. We immediately got a foretaste of what was to come as the road surface alternated between heavily rutted and sandy and quickly turned into little more than an ox-cart trail rather than a navigable road, once we'd taken a left turn at the village of Thbal Bek. Parts of the track were underwater and we had to detour into rice fields to avoid some of the flooded stretches. Apart from a couple of ox-carts, we saw very few people until we stopped a motorbike rider for directions. Remarkably, Sokhom knew him as an aid worker with Health Unlimited in Kompong Thom and he told us of the poor state of the road ahead. Three hours into our trek, we arrived at the village of Koulen, at the half-way point, and time for a well-earned rest, while Sokhom brought out his repair kit and tinkered with the engine and suspension. We ate some noodles and quizzed the local policemen about road conditions, safety and other ancient sites in the area. Suitably rested, the track continued in the same vein as before, with the sandy surface making it impossible to drive at anything more than a crawl. The route remained flooded in places and whilst crossing one stream, we lost control of the moto and had to pick it, and ourselves, out of the water. We stopped one of the few ox-carts we encountered, to buy a couple of bunches of bananas, whilst a noticeable feature of the flooded areas was the abundance of brightly-coloured butterflies.

As the trail wound its way through a heavily wooded area, I was relieved that Sokhom had made the trip before as I'm sure we would've got lost. At times, the route ahead was blocked but he somehow found a way forward and kept us on track. The sound of a helicopter overhead suggested some visitors to Koh Ker had decided on the more comfortable travelling option, and who could blame them. My back and bottom were aching and sore, my face was red from the sun and the rest of me covered in dust and dirt. Then, as if sensing my desire to curl up and go to sleep, Sokhom announced we had arrived. Imagine my surprise when he stopped the moto and pointed off to the right, where through the trees I spied a large laterite tower and wall. My tiredness evaporated and my sense of excitement took over as we walked through the light brush towards a hole in the laterite wall surrounding the tower. It was just under eight hours since we'd left Tbeng Meanchey and our arrival at Prasat Neang Khmau, the southernmost temple of the Koh Ker group, was a great relief. The temple itself faces west and is a tall, dark laterite tower inside a walled compound. Through the sandstone doorway with carved colonettes and below a cracked and defaced floral lintel propped up by a large wooden pole, a large pedestal and broken linga litter the inside of the sanctuary. Back on the moto, we covered a kilometre or so to the state temple of the whole Koh Ker complex, Prasat Thom. The eastern gopura entrance was blocked by fallen sandstone columns and vegetation had taken a firm hold around the other sanctuaries and galleries as I quickly made my way through the ruins to catch my first glimpse of the giant sandstone pyramid - the complex's crowning glory.

Keen to organise our overnight accommodation before the sun went down, Sokhom and I made the short hop to the nearby village of Koh Ker and quickly located the village chief, Yuon. He was only too happy to let us stay at his home for the night, so we dropped off our hammocks and water bottles, booked our chicken supper and returned to Prasat Thom to watch the sunset. While Sokhom took the opportunity to wash off the dust and dirt of our trip in one of the royal ponds, I carefully negotiated the rickety wooden ladders that straddled each of the terraced pyramid's seven tiers. The square pyramid is 36 metres high with the steep stairways on the east side ravaged by time and replaced by the wooden ladders to make access to the summit a little easier. From the top, the view over the surrounding forest canopy with the Kulen mountains in the far distance was simply breathtaking, enhanced by the glow of the setting sun in the west. There wasn't a great deal of room at the top, as I sat down next to some broken carvings of lions and elephants and enjoyed the peace and quiet, noticing a column of smoke rising from the village nearby. At the foot of the pyramid, I could just make out Sokhom in the deepening gloom as I cautiously made my way down the ladders to join him and we returned to the village.

At the top of a much smaller ladder, Yuon welcomed us into his two-roomed bamboo home on stilts and introduced us to his wife, five children and brother. As headman of the village, his home is one of the largest in the hamlet and under the slatted verandah, where we hung our hammocks and mozzie nets and an hour later ate supper, was his collection of family animals including two dogs, chickens, pigs and piglets and tied up closeby, two oxen. Yuon's wife served up our supper of chicken, rice and vegetables as we all sat cross-legged in a circle under the naked flame of a lighted torch, with Sokhom translating the conversation. It was just before 8pm when we thanked the family, the flame was extinquished and we climbed into our hammocks. Any thoughts I had of falling asleep were forgotten as the family continued with their chores in complete darkness, a Khmer language radio was switched on and under the house a fire was lit and neighbours stopped to chat. It was another two hours before everyone settled down for the night, leaving the occasional animal sound and the creaking of the bamboo structure as the final sounds I heard before I fell asleep.

Awakened first from my slumber by a crowing cockerel at 3am, two hours later the whole village erupted into a similar morning chorus that signalled the start of the day. Sokhom and I arose and in the glow of a lighted torch - the village had no electricity, or water-pump for that matter - we ate the remainder of the previous night's chicken with the family, thanked them for their hospitality with handshakes and a small payment in riel and paused for photographs. Sokhom's moto had aroused considerable interest as no-one in the village owned one and a farewell party had gathered to wave us off at 7.30am, as we returned to a deserted Prasat Thom for one final look. The early morning dew and fine mist gave the temple an eerie feel as we clambered across the broken entrance gopura and reached the large tower known as Prasat Kraham ('red temple'). Broken statues and pedestals littered the floor of this massive structure and the mist lifted as the rays of the sun pierced the tree cover and highlighted a headless apsara on a doorframe. Dense green vegetation throughout the complex restricted exploration to the main pathways as we ambled past a series of nine small identical brick towers with weather-worn lintels and colonettes in situ, and made our way to the giant terraced pyramid at the rear. The unsteady wooden ladders didn't fill me with sufficient confidence to attempt another ascent of the tower, so we retraced our steps, investigating a few broken lion statues, more lintels and carvings amongst the ruined structures.

Our final visit to Prasat Thom lasted an hour before we headed back out of the complex, past faded 'Danger Mines' signs on our left and the remains of a laterite wall in the wooded undergrowth on our right. I signalled to Sokhom that a wall usually meant a temple, so we parked the moto and went to investigate. The brush was waist-high but not too thick as we traversed the wall and headed for a clump of large trees. A ruined brick gopura with broken carved colonettes signalled the entrance to another temple but the vegetation was simply too dense for us to inspect the large laterite temple any closer without a machete or scythe. Frustrated, we returned to the moto as I checked my map and decided that this must be either Prasat Bak or Prasat Chen, most likely the latter. There are believed to be up to 35 major monuments in the Koh Ker group and we'd only just scratched the surface. Our village friends were unaware of the location of the other structures as much of the land surrounding their village was potentially mined and unsafe even to collect firewood. I'm sure the Koh Ker group has many more delights to offer the adventurous traveller once the mines have been cleared and the land has been made safe and with the government earmarking the site for development, that might be sooner than later. Koh Ker is already attracting a small trickle of visitors, as we were told a group of five motorcyclists had spent a night camping at the main temple the night before we arrived.

The route back to Srayang, where we stopped for running repairs, was as bad as I remembered it. The sandy track, tree roots and stumps posed as many problems as the waterlogged sections but it was a slippery slope that undid Sokhom as he ended up knee-deep in mud and his moto submerged underwater. Fortunately, I managed to jump off the back of the bike at the last moment. We eventually completed the first half of the trip back to Tbeng Meanchey in four hours, with a noodle and petrol stop at Koulen, accompanied by loud music bellowing out from loudspeakers, celebrating a wedding party next door. Three hours later and with my bottom and back in agony, we arrived back in town. Covered in dust, I was grateful for the cold shower I had after booking into the Mlop Trosek guesthouse and the beef and chicken meal at the Mlop Dong restaurant as I reflected with Sokhom, what a wonderful adventure the trip to Koh Ker had been. It was a tough test for the two of us on his moto, my aching bones were testimony to that, but Sokhom had once again come up with the goods when it mattered. I can't speak highly enough of my resourceful friend.

Sokhom (left) and Yuon, holding his son, alongwith family and friends at their home in Koh Ker village

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Koh Ker's heritage

The temple pyramid known as the Prang of Prasat Thom at Koh Ker, when the top was still accessible in 2001
As promised, I've had a longer peek at the annual report of the JAYA Koh Ker Project and it makes very interesting reading. As I said a couple of days ago, the idea is to develop a master plan aimed at putting the Koh Ker complex of temples up for world heritage status. The Hungarians are working in tandem with Apsara on creating this master plan which will see more than just a few temples to visit, with sustainable tourism at the forefront of their thinking and the involvement of the local communities. First things first though, they have to properly demine the whole area, which will take a while. Then they have to consider any urgent steps that are needed to prop up some of the monuments that are currently falling down, complete an inventory of all the temples and other sites of interest in the area - they are still uncovering temples such as Prasat Trapeang Russei which came to light last year - appraise the 66 inscriptions they've found on temple walls and doors and lots more besides.

Koh Ker means 'island of glory' though it was formerly known by the name Chok Gar Gyar ('the koki-tree thicket') and even Lingapura when Jayavarman IV proclaimed himself 'supreme king of the Khmer kings' at Koh Ker in 928. Knowledge of this king's early days are scratchy, but what is known is that he commenced and completed an incredible array of over 40 temples during a frenzied twenty year period before his death in 940 and a return of the royal court to Angkor a few years later. The first man-made creation at Koh Ker was the baray, known as Rahal. The most memorable of the monuments is the Prang of Prasat Thom, a 32 metre high temple-pyramid, the largest ever built, rising over seven levels and originally crowned by a giant linga more than a metre in diameter. The linga disappeared long ago. The prang is no longer accessible by visitors for safety reasons. The five unique temples, some 750 metres east of Prasat Thom, each contained a massive linga on its yoni pedestal, each linga estimated to weigh some fifteen tons, some carved from a single rock. Inscriptions abound at Prasat Krachap, with over a thousand lines of script, a huge statue of Ganesha is known to have been stolen from Prasat Bak after the civil war, Prasat Chen produced the famous monkey brothers statue that is housed at the national museum, whilst Prasat Thom gave up the colossal garuda that stands at the entrance of the capital's museum. The rock carvings at Ang Khna, dotted around the pond known as Trapeang Khna, contain a variety of reliefs depicting deities and animal shapes, including a monitor lizard and a pair of freshwater dugongs. There's a suggestion that these sacred carvings were made by hermits at a later date. One other noteworthy monument is Prasat Andong Kuk, which is the last temple to be built and has been identified as one of the hospitals created by Jayavarman VII and shows that the city was still active as late as the 12th century. There is still so much to uncover about Koh Ker. It still holds many mysteries but the completion of a master plan will set the wheels in motion for those investigations to take place. We await the results with great interest.
This is a 2007 map of Koh Ker's temples from the EFEO
The green type and shapes surrounding the pond of Trapeang Khna denote carved rocks which include lingas and animals


Reggae on film

A diversion from the norm tonight with a visit to Meta House, soon to move to new premises I might add, to watch a film about reggae. I haven't mentioned the Meta House schedule for this month as there isn't much that grabs my attention (aside from The Tenth Dancer on Sunday 28th) except this 1977 hour-long documentary called Roots Rock Reggae, which begins at 7pm. I was a big reggae fan in the 70s and 80s (I still am), primarily in awe of Steel Pulse, who I saw at Cheltenham Town Hall in 1978 and I was hooked, but also of iconic figures such as Bob Marley, and of course British reggae bands like Aswad, Black Roots and The Natural-Ites. There are many more, too numerous to mention. Most of my reggae collection is on vinyl, housed in cardboard boxes in my spare bedroom. Does anyone have access to a spare vinyl record-player?
Tomorrow and Sunday, I'll be at Olympic Stadium to catch the football. Tomorrow is the 3rd place play-off in the Hun Sen Cup between Naga and Preah Khan, whilst the final will happen on Sunday at 3pm between Phnom Penh Crown and the Army. Come on the boys with the big boots and guns - hopefully not on the pitch of course. And on Sunday night at the FCC, is the book launch for Carrying Cambodia, a new photographic essay on the loads you find being transported along Cambodia's roads. I often see the most ridiculously overloaded motos, trucks and trailers but never seem to have my camera with me to record it. Obviously Conor Wall and Hans Kemp did.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Great gusto

The Tonle Bassac folk dancers strutting their stuff last night
Last night on an outdoor stage at the National Museum, the performance of Children of the Khmer by the youngsters from the Tonle Bassac Folk Group, supported and funded by the Cambodian Living Arts team, showed exactly why they went down a storm on their Womad and Edinburgh Festival appearances in 2008. Their combination of classical repertoire and engaging traditional folk dances, performed with great gusto and a guest spot from master musician Ieng Sithul, was lapped up by the appreciative audience in this premiere piece of a performance they will open to the public later this month. Towards the end of this year they are aiming to make the show a regular event. Ieng Sithul has trained his young group well, and their repertoire involved a variety of traditional and well-known folk style dances as well as comedy routines, all backed by their own excellent musicians and singers. You can read more about the group's performances in the UK here. You should definitely make the effort to see them perform, they are an inspiration and a great credit to the youth of their country.
Update: The two 'open to the public' upcoming performances from the Tonle Bassac team will take place on the atmospheric National Museum outdoor stage at 7pm on Thursday 25 March and Thursday 1 April. Tickets are priced at $18 per person, call 023 986 032 to book.
The show opened up with some classical Cambodian court dance
Master Ieng Sithul encourages a member of the audience to partake in some leaf whistling
The show was full of vitality and movement in last night's varied programme
The performers take their bow at the end of the National Museum premiere

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting your juices flowing

Two forthcoming books from Bangkok-based publishers River Books should get the juices flowing for certain members of the Cambodia-loving fraternity. If you are into ancient temples, then Beyond Angkor will grab you by the lapels and demand your attention, or if you are into the more delicate art of ceramics then a new tome from Dawn Rooney entitled Khmer Ceramics: Beauty and Meaning will be just up your street. Rooney is of course the author of the oft-seen, oft-photocopied guide to the Angkor temples but she is an art historian first and foremost with a particular bent towards ceramics, hence this latest offering. This book will explore in depth the largest and most complete collection of Khmer ceramics in the private collection of Yothin Tharahirunchot. Robert McLeod, an internationally renowned photographer, provides the pictures in this 262 page book due out anytime now. Beyond Angkor has been in gestation for a while. As the title suggests the book will primarily dig deep into the temple sites away from the main Angkor complex to include Preah Vihear, Sambor Prei Kuk, Phnom Da and pretty much everywhere else. Helen Ibbitson Jessup and Ang Choulean will share the author duties with the latter concentrating on ethnography and mythology to give the sites their true significance whilst John Gollings will provide the pictures. With a fair wind, this book should be out and about in the next month or two. But don't hold your breath, as I said it's been hanging about as long as my own To Cambodia With Love!

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The future of Koh Ker

Here I am at Prasat Pram (Koh Ker) a few years ago, just after it had been cleared of landmines
I'm just reading a very interesting report on Koh Ker that is essentially an end of 2009 progress update from the JAYA Koh Ker Project that is investigating all the aspects necessary to be able to get the site in a position to be able to apply for world heritage status. Apsara, who manage the main Angkor park and beyond, are working closely with the Royal Angkor Foundation from Hungary over a 3 year period and a budget of just under $1 million, to prepare a master plan for the complex of temples situated 60kms northeast of the Angkor temples, as the crow flies. Sections of the designated area are still believed to contain mines though the temples that tourists currently visit at Koh Ker are clear and safe. The temples date from the 10th century though the site is considerably larger than at first thought and the temples you see today are just a sample of what is to be found in the locality. Once I've read the report in full, I'll divulge more information though the longer term plan is to not only present visitors with the variety of temples but designate nature trails, boat trips, a botanical garden, a museum, cycling trails, elephant rides and so on. A similar type of sustainable project is also underway at Banteay Chhmar, in the northwest of the country, which will also be put forward for the world heritage stamp of approval sometime in the future.


Monday, March 1, 2010

In the ascendancy

Okay, so what was supposed to be an occasional series has taken on a life of its own but 'friends' deserve their place in the limelight, although this particular friend of mine, Belle, or Chumvan Sodhachivy or Abelle, as she's variously known, needs no introduction to the spotlight. Her incredible penchant for dance, of all forms and styles, has propelled her to the fore of the new wave of contemporary dance in Cambodia and her star is definitely in the ascendancy. There's no stopping her. I love this picture of her, taken by Anders Jiras during a performance of modern Cambodian theater and the story of Preah Kongkea. My appreciation to Anders for some superb photos of Cambodian dance which you can enjoy here. As for Belle, she'll be off to Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States over the next few months, showcasing her undoubted talents to international audiences far and wide.

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Cultural stuff

There are changes afoot at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Ms Ou Phalline has taken over as director of the museum from Hab Touch, who has been responsible for many positive changes and improvements at the museum during his long tenure. He has been appointed Director-General in charge of the Department General of Cultural Affairs, which oversees just about everything to do with Khmer art and culture. Find out more at
The team from Khmer Arts Ensemble, currently in Northern India
On the subject of culture, whilst the stage at Chaktomuk Theatre has been groaning under the weight of various performance groups during the last two weeks of the national performing arts festival, a small team from Khmer Arts Ensemble has been over in Northern India promoting classical Cambodian dance. 4 dancers and 2 musicians accompanied by manager Chanveasna Chum have been performing since 21 February and until 12 March alongwith 150 other artists from Thailand, Indonesia and the northeastern states of India, entertaining audiences in various cities with traditional dances to showcase the art and culture of each area.
This Thursday at 6.30pm, a music concert featuring the great and the good of Cambodia popular music will take place at Olympic Stadium. It's free, sponsored by Smart Mobile and will host such luminaries as Preap Sovath, Meas Soksophea, Sokun Nisa and a host of other local favourites. Don't say I didn't tell you.

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