Saturday, April 24, 2010

Shameless plug

With all these book launches taking place, I must insert a shameless plug for my own book, which with a fair wind and uninterrupted shipping (knowing my luck, the book's shipment will be impounded by customs), should be out and about in June. Well, that's the last publication date I heard but nothing is certain in the world of books, so stayed tuned. The book is titled To Cambodia With Love, published by ThingsAsian Press, and will contain over 125 essays from more than 60 people who have a passion for this wonderful country. I'm just the co-ordinator, editor, chapter introducer, general dogsbody for the book, the real meaty stuff will come from my fellow contributors who like me, share a deep love for Cambodia. If William at Monument Books can fit us into his busy book launch schedule, we might even get our five minutes in the spotlight, where I will encourage/threaten you to buy the book.
I had an interesting email recently that informed me that the dancer adjusting her crown on the front cover of the book is named Peow, and that she still dances for the Komar Angkor dance troupe in Siem Reap. The original photograph was taken by the Tewfic El-Sawy, who took all the pictures that will appear in the book. He's a freelance photographer who specializes in documenting endangered cultures and traditional life in Asia, Latin America and Africa.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Spotlight on Banteay Chhmar

The Banteay Chhmar Preservation Project
A face tower at Banteay Chhmar that could represent the tantric deity of Vajrasattva
Banteay Chhmar is a fascinating temple complex in northwest Cambodia. It's a temple built during the rule of King Jayavarman VII in the 13th century and unlike the temples constructed at Angkor around the same time, it didn't suffer the iconoclasm that engulfed temples such as the Bayon and Ta Prohm, where Mahayana Buddhism images were chiselled away and defaced after the King's reign came to an end. To that end, Banteay Chhmar can reveal a lot more about the time and beliefs of Jayavarman VII than other sites. That's if it was still in pristine condition. It's not. It too has suffered the ravages of time and temple thieves and only 25% of its bas-reliefs are still standing. The rest lie in pieces on the floor or have been stolen and lost forever.

The Global Heritage Fund and its many partners are now trying to piece the temple back together again. Stone by stone, carving by carving. Last year they held their 2nd conference about the temple in Sisophon and you can find out much more about the project to renovate and restore Banteay Chhmar from the video-papers presented by various speakers here. One of the speakers was Dr Peter Sharrock, a scholar from the University of London, who had his own view on the identity of the giant face that stares out from the face towers of Banteay Chhmar, the Bayon and elsewhere. He discounts the possibility that it is the face of Jayavarman VII himself or the Avalokiteshvara, which is often stated in guidebooks and the like and instead suggests the face belongs to the tantric deity of Vajrasattva. "I think its the supreme deity presiding over a tantric cult of Hevajra. I said Vajrasattva in my chapter in Joyce Clark's book Bayon, New Perspectives in 2007 and nobody has yet argued against this analysis. Let's wait and see. Hevajra is a fierce emanation of Vajrasattva, who is more of a primordial conception than a god you could picture or address," he told me by email today. If that's the case, and proving it will solve one of the key mysteries that still envelope Angkor, then every book on Angkor will need to be updated.

Sharrock also highlights a carving at Banteay Chhmar that he believes is the first representation of Hevajra in stone, rather than the more common statues of the deity in bronze. This is of massive importance to understanding more of the Buddhism promoted by Jayavarman VII and is one way in which Banteay Chhmar can tell scholars so much more about that period of Cambodian history, which fascinates so many. The secrets of Banteay Chhmar are still waiting to be discovered. I've written an essay on the temple for my book To Cambodia With Love, which should be out in June, as it's one of the ancient temples that I have a close affinity with, after my first visit there in November 2001.
Scholar Peter Sharrock believes this carving at Banteay Chhmar is of the deity Hevajra, with 20 arms and 9 heads. A smaller figure below has 5 heads.
The carving is above a doorway that is unstable and will be one of the tasks of Global Heritage Fund to ensure that this wall is safely preserved

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Wake up

Looking out across the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh at sunrise
Helen Ibbitson Jessup is a renowned scholar and author on the art and architecture of Southeast Asia and as President of the Friends of Khmer Culture, is a regular visitor to Phnom Penh. One of the essays she submitted for my To Cambodia With Love book talks about one of the many pleasures to be found in the city. It didn't make the final draft. Find out more about the author here.

Early morning in Phnom Penh - by Helen Ibbitson Jessup

Before the dawn light strengthens, a stroll along the riverbank in Phnom Penh is a time warp. The water is pewter, and ripples from the wake of fishing boats flash silver. Silhouetted against the paling sky you can see curving prows suggesting the profiles of the ships carved in the reliefs of the Bayon temple. Naga figureheads rise commandingly, invoking the serpent who rules the waters and the underworld, recalling the ancient Khmers’ fleets repelling the invading Chams on the waters of the Tonle Sap in the days of Jayavarman VII. No intruding engines sputter as nets are cast, these modern fishermen for a while embodying the reincarnation of their ancestors.

Sunrise, like sunset, is a hurried affair in the tropics, and the warming light quickly dispels the illusion. Soon the vendors gather along the road by the bank. Some hack open a coconut to tempt the buyer, some offer juicy pink pomelo segments. There are fresh baguettes, a relic of the French presence. The flags of many nations flap in the strengthening breeze on the brave show of poles lined up along the river near the Royal Palace, motos roar in a thickening stream, and shopkeepers remove the night shutters. You are back in modern Cambodia, in a real city, going about its business without a thought of the tourist.

The riverside park in front of the National Museum and Royal Palace, the park at Wat Botum and the National Olympic Stadium have become magnets for Phnom Penh citizens who want to exercise at the start of the day, and as dusk falls over the city. The exercise bug has firmly struck the citizens of Phnom Penh.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Alleyways of PP

Breakfast time © Steve Goodman
Photographer Steve Goodman loves taking pictures around the busy alleyways of Phnom Penh. And he does it bloody well I must say. Steve gave me a few essays for my own To Cambodia With Love book that's due out in a few months and this one on his alleyway pursuits is one that didn't actually make the final cut. However, it's worth posting here. You can see more of Steve's photographic work here.

Phnom Penh's Alleyways - by Steve Goodman

As a photographer I enjoy going where other travelers do not tread, not only to witness and photograph everyday life, but also to meet and interact with everyday people and enjoy the surprised and delighted reactions of Phnom Penh’s denizens when they see a foreigner not only intruding into their private lives but demonstrating interest and warmth. I have never failed to be amazed at the almost uniformly friendly and warm greetings that I receive in long winding alleys and hidden side-streets that aren’t depicted on most maps.

Of course Phnom Penh’s bustling markets are fantastic places to wander around, but they are generally crowded and can be sweltering, especially during the hot season. So aside from shooting photos in the beautiful light of the early morning and the golden light of sunset, I enjoy wandering through Phnom Penh’s alleyways, where even on the hottest of days it is shady and relatively cool. One time on an alley behind the busy Kampuchea Krom boulevard, an entire family invited me into their shophouse where they sold traditional Khmer herbal medicine, and treated me to a few candied fruit treats laced with traditional herbal remedies.

Often people who are eating on their stoops offer me some of their food. Me, a total stranger whose only calling card is a smile and a few words of greeting in Khmer. Sometimes I meet folks who speak a bit of English, but just as often I meet people who seem to speak fluent French and are sorely disappointed when I let them know that I don’t speak the language even a little bit. Of course the children that I meet are the most amazing people I encounter… playing, laughing, and sometimes showing off their blossoming English language skills by saying, “hello, what is your name”. Sometimes the younger ones will proudly count to ten in English in an always successful attempt to impress and surprise the foreigner.

Most people are happy to permit a few photos if asked with a smile. Often times when someone is initially reluctant, after I show them the photo they enthusiastically invite their friends and relatives to come and have me take their pictures too. The only time I get a negative reaction to a photo request is when I ask people who are gambling huddled around a card game, so I’ve learned simply not to ask most groups of street-side card players.

Along many alleys are small cafes and pushcart vendors offering a wide range of snacks and beverages and the people milling about trying to beat the heat always have time for a brief interchange with a smiling camera wielding stranger.You'll also find businesses of all sorts in these mostly residential sidestreets; noodle factories, tailors, herbal medicine shops, and much more.

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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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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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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sharing the love

Coming to a bookstore near you soon, or get it online


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Brothers Grimm

Hot and sweaty in a Ratanakiri cemetary. I'm the one without glasses.
I had to select a photo of myself to go into the book - you know the one I keep mentioning from time to time and which looks set to be out sometime in June or July, with a fair wind and no natural disasters. Don't tell me you've forgotten already. It's called To Cambodia With Love. I chose the photo above, taken on my first ever visit to Ratanakri province in October 2007. Hopefully readers won't confuse me with the wooden effigy next to me. That's the one wearing glasses if you're still not sure. It was taken in the chunchiet cemetery in the Tampoun village of Kachon Leu, on the banks of the Sesan River near Voen Sai in Ratanakiri. There are about 100 graves there and the wooden and stone carvings are meant to represent the deceased when they were alive. And yes, it was very hot and humid that day. I did think about the one below, but rejected the idea!
Recognise this face at The Bayon?


Thursday, February 4, 2010

In love with Cambodia

Don't believe everything you read in the press, or on the internet for that matter. Amazon and Barnes & Noble, two of the top on-line book sellers, are promoting the publication date of 1 March 2010 for the new guidebook To Cambodia With Love - A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, to be published by ThingsAsian Press. As I only finished the final manuscript at the weekend, there's not a cat in hells' chance of it being published in under a month. Now if I had got off my arse and got the book completed in its original timeline, it would've been ready by then, but it'll be at least 3-4 months before there's a possibility of smelling the first freshly-printed edition (I love the smell of new books).
The promo blurb provides the following synopsis of the book, just to give you an idea of what to expect: From a tarantula brunch in the remote Cambodian countryside to a spiritual encounter with the god Vishnu in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, To Cambodia With Love is a true collaboration, containing personal essays by more than fifty writers [Ed. actually it's more than 60]. Among them you will find Angkor Wat expert Dawn Rooney, acclaimed memoirist Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father), and Lonely Planet’s in-the-know Nick Ray. Each essay is paired with a practical fact file so that travelers can follow in the writer’s footsteps. In addition, the book is illustrated with vibrant, full-color photographs. With its unique insights into dining, shopping, sightseeing, and culture, To Cambodia With Love is a one-of-a-kind guide for the passionate traveler.
Can't agree more. The photographs in the book will come from the camera of acclaimed photographer Tewfic El-Sawy, who is based in New York and regularly leads photography tours to India, Sikkim, Indochina, Indonesia, and the Himalayan Kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan. You can see his work here. Also read the publisher's latest.
I will expect all of my blog readers to buy a copy - yes, both of you, including the one who only reads the football posts. This is not a definitive guidebook in the Lonely Planet sense of the word, it is a book by people who are truly passionate about this country and who want to share their passion with you. Something I've been doing for more than a decade already. Fortunately you don't have to suffer my inept writing too much in the book, as it's the contributors who grab the limelight, and rightly so.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sweaty palms

In the courtyard of Tuol Sleng with Chum Mey
I'm reading through the final manuscript of To Cambodia With Love and my palms are sweating. Kim, the series editor, has just sent it to me and told me I have a day to read it through as the final deadline has arrived like a runaway train and my desire for perfection is just about to pass its sell-by date. I've procrastinated long enough, now it's time to face the music and produce what I promised to ThingsAsian, the publishers, what seems like a lifetime ago. Kim has done a fabulous job in picking up the pieces I sent her and I'm very proud of everyone's combined efforts. Nothing is certain in publishing though it looks like TCWL might be out in a few months - but keep it under your hat for the moment.

This morning I took my friend Ting, she's visiting Cambodia for the first time from her home in Taiwan, to Tuol Sleng. She's already seen the city's other major tourist sights on her own but wanted me to explain about Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge, et al. During our visit we met with Chum Mey, one of the three remaining survivors of Tuol Sleng, and who has been in the international press a lot in recent months due to the trial of Comrade Duch, the former director of the detention center where Chum Mey was incarcerated in the final months of the Khmer Rouge control over Phnon Penh. He talked to a small group of British visitors, who were overawed to meet him, completely unexpectedly, with translations provided by their guide, explaining briefly about his detention and torture and thanked them for coming to Cambodia. By the look on their faces, I think he made their Tuol Sleng visit one they'll never forget.
This afternoon I inflicted two games of Cambodian football onto Ting. I don't think she will ever forgive me. She doesn't even like football. They were the opening pair of Hun Sen Cup last 16 games and whilst Phnom Penh Crown just scraped a 1-nil win over Phuchung Neak, Wat Phnom (formerly Spark) went goal-crazy with a 10-1 win over Mekong University. I get the feeling Ting can't wait to get out of town and up to Siem Reap. Little does she know there's two more games for her to endure tomorrow afternoon, before she gets the bus! More on the footy results later.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Snowed in

I'm snowed under. Not literally, obviously, as I live in Cambodia, but metaphorically speaking. An email pal of a few years, Ting, arrives from Taiwan today for her first visit to Cambodia and our first face to face meeting to boot. I know she is dying to see Cambodia at long last. Another email friend, Cat from France, will be arriving in a couple of weeks as well. In addition, I am under severe pressure to finish the manuscript for To Cambodia With Love by the weekend so its all hands on deck if I want to see my book finally published, in the not too distant future. Not enough hours in the day? - tell me about it! Sorry, can't hang around, I've got stuff to do.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Out of left field

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

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The lovely Kim Fay

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

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Welcome home

Wow, at 4pm today a tropical storm hit Phnom Penh like a whirlwind and 10 minutes later its still going strong, the skies have darkened, the wind is bending the trees and ripping off any corrugated metal that isn't secure and the streets are flooding quickly with the deluge. Welcome back to Phnom Penh after the holdays! I'd post a picture of it but is still playing silly beggars with picture posting, so no can do. Take my word for it that in the hottest month of the year, Phnom Penh has been hit with a sucker punch of a storm. I wouldn't be surprised if it's done quite a bit of damage, as it lasted nearly an hour.

With Phnom Penh doing a great impersonation of a ghost-town for the last few days, I remained locked in my flat, slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean, with my head firmly in guidebook editing mode. It's something I should've done a while ago but it always got pushed to the end of the 'to-do' list. Well, procrastination time is over and I've finally broken the back of the task. It's now full-steam ahead and get yourself primed for the release of To Cambodia With Love in early 2010.... I hope. I have more than enough articles but am open to latecomers if you know Cambodia like the back of your hand and you have something you want to share with the travel connoisseurs around the world. Drop me a line and I'll tell you what I'm looking for. But be quick about it.