Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Everyday stuff

The author and Pisey, one of the staff from Cafe Fresco on Street 51 & 306
The website and Blog saga continues to trundle along. I haven't been able to post any photos for a couple of days, so my stories are stacking up! At the same time, its all been a bit frantic and looks set to remain so for the rest of the month with at least two trips into the Cambodian wilderness on the cards. In the meantime, last night I went to enjoy yet another wedding, between two employees of another expanding franchise, the FCC group. Nice to see all my friends from Cafe Fresco there, the sandwich & coffee shop I use for my lunch most days. During the day yesterday, I went on my moto tour of a few pagodas west of Phnom Penh as my story below explains - photos to follow.

The happy couple - oh, so young
On Saturday evening, I watched the John Pilger documentary, Cambodia - the Betrayal at Meta House after turning on the tv for the first time in months to watch the Khmer kick-boxing championships. Both the Phouthang brothers were fighting foreign opponents though it was sad to see the eldest brother, Ei Phouthang, looking a bit out of shape and losing his bout. He's 36 now, has been a national hero for a long time but perhaps its time for him to retire to coaching after completing over 200 bouts. His younger brother, Outh Phouthang won his bout and collected $1,000 prize money donated by the Prime Minister.
I'm interviewing most days this week at work as we try and get some good quality staff into our ever-expanding tour company. I'm also assisting a documentary film-shoot this week, which I'll tell you more about as it happens. Tonight, don't forget it's the fifth of the public forums on the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge, beginning at 7pm at Pannasastra University on Street 370 in BKK1. Oh, and last Friday I spent all day at an eco-tourism workshop, under the CCBEN umbrella, which I'll also tell you more about in a post this week. It's a hectic schedule, but fun.
News-wise, for the view of the well-respected researcher Sara Colm, on the current Khmer Rouge Tribunal, click here. Colm is from the United States and currently works in Cambodia for Human Rights Watch. She graduated in psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1979. Her post-graduate work at Cornell University included Southeast Asian studies and the Khmer language. She also speaks Mandarin and French. In 1992, she moved to Cambodia and helped launch The Phnom Penh Post, the first English-language newspaper published in Cambodia in 20 years. She served as managing editor, wrote stories and oversaw all aspects of newspaper production. Subsequently she worked for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cambodia as an information officer and human rights monitor during the 1993 electoral campaign.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Scot shot by Pol Pot

History is revisited with this report from Scotland's Sunday Herald newspaper.
Pol Pot murdered Scot in Cambodia : Report shows dictator ordered shooting of academic

More than 1.5 million people died in the killing fields of Cambodia, but one of the most puzzling footnotes in the slaughter and destruction of that country is the unsolved murder of the only British victim - the first Westerner caught up in the violence. Gunmen burst into Scottish academic Malcolm Caldwell's Phnom Penh government guesthouse and shot him repeatedly in the chest and leg, killing him instantly. He was found with his apparent assassin slumped by his body and also riddled with bullet holes. At the time, the BBC reported he was killed by Vietnamese agents to discredit Pol Pot, but 30 years after the murder documents newly obtained by the Sunday Herald under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the genocidal dictator himself ordered the assassination, early in the morning of December 23, 1978. Just hours earlier, the 47-year-old father of four had met the despot, demanded to see deposed leader Prince Sihanouk and had asked about missing Cambodians and ministers, most of whom, it transpires, were already dead.
According to the classified documents, journalist Wilfred Burchett had seen an official Cambodian report a year later which said: "Caldwell was murdered by members of the National Security Force personnel on the instructions of the Pol Pot government." An unnamed British civil servant adds: "Caldwell told Burchett he had every intention of asking some pointed questions and that he was absolutely determined to see Sihanouk. It is likely, therefore, that he upset his hosts, who were probably concerned that a prominent supporter/apologist of the Pol Pot regime might report in a critical vein on his return home. Matters probably came to a head after a private interview which Caldwell had with Pol Pot." The papers also reveal a chilling account of the murder from eyewitness Richard Dudman, made five days later at the British embassy in Washington. The journalist for the St Louis Dispatch told officials of the moment a young gunman shot at him and Caldwell in the Khmer Rouge VIP guesthouse at 12.55am.
Born in Stirling into a middle-class Tory-voting household, Caldwell went on to get a double first at Edinburgh University by the time he was 21. He became a Marxist academic at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies and a left-wing activist, serving as head of CND in 1968-70. A supporter of the Khmer Rouge, he was one of the first Westerners allowed into the country after 1975, and travelled to Cambodia with Dudman and fellow American journalist Elizabeth Becker just as the true horror of the genocide was becoming apparent.
Caldwell had spent three weeks touring the country surrounded by Khmer Rouge minders but had seen and surreptitiously photographed the impoverished peasants. Dudman reported that in Phnom Penh he knocked on Caldwell's door as a young uniformed man appeared in the corridor with a machine gun on his shoulder and a pistol in his hand and fired at the two men. Dudman ran into his room and two shots were fired into the door. Then he heard more shots. 90 minutes later, a Cambodian security officer told Dudman that Caldwell was OK and he had to stay in his room. But, Dudman then said, "An hour later a high ranking foreign office official told me Malcolm Caldwell was dead and asked me to witness the scene."
Dudman went to look and saw the open door of Caldwell's room and saw his dead body "supine, eyes wide open and body soaked in blood". He estimated Caldwell had been hit at least three times. The official told Dudman that the dead gunman had shot Caldwell and then shot himself.
Becker's account indicates that the murder scene could have been staged. The Washington Post journalist found herself face to face with the killer and ran back into her room and hid in her bath. After the shots, she then heard bodies being dragged up and down stairs on three different occasions. Dudman and Becker later noticed that there were bloodstains on the stairs and corridor. The Foreign Office officials speculate that because of the time lapse and Becker's account, it was very possible that Caldwell's murder scene had been stage-managed.

More from Ampe Phnom

The sandbanks of the Prek Thnoat river, popular amongst the bathers at Ampe Phnom

One of two Neak Ta at the resort - this one looks very sporty
This is the last batch of photos from my visit to the Ampe Phnom resort a few kilometres outside Kompong Speu on Sunday. There were a few Khmer families enjoying the food and the fortune-tellers but it was pretty quiet, the noise intermittently broken by squealing monkeys as they fought over scraps. The water level of the Prek Thnoat river was low so not many people were bathing but splashing around in the water and eating snacks in small bamboo huts is a Khmer tradition, especially popular at festival time. The pagoda that crowns the island isn't much to look at, though a wat has occupied the site since 1632 and a large stupa in one corner was built in 1914. I counted no less than ten fortune-tellers dotted around the pagoda and though the Khmers I met didn't necessarily believe what they were told, they paid their money to receive the news anyway. To close, the sign at the front of the resort read Ompe Phnom, so I'm not really sure which spelling is correct - does it really matter? In future posts I will give the low-down on my prasat hunting in Kompong Speu province - not overly successful, but they are there if you look for them.

A family stupa built in 1914 next to the Wat Ampe Phnom

Ampy, the $2.50 a ride elephant that lives at the resort

The 500 riel per person suspension bridge over the river, looking out from the island

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Red Sense revealed

Tim Pek's directorial debut, The Red Sense, will get it's world premiere at a gala event in Australia at The Drum Theatre, Dandenong, Victoria, Melbourne on Saturday 8 March. Shot in Australia, the story centres around a young woman who discovers that the Khmer Rouge soldier who killed her father, is alive and well and living closeby. She is torn between wanting to take revenge or if in forgiving her father’s executioner, she could bring healing to herself and her people. The film features a Khmer cast, all of whom have their own connection to the Khmer Rouge genocide. Following the film's premiere in Melbourne, Tim Pek (right) will bring the film to Cambodia - very timely of course with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal currently occupying everyone's attention in Phnom Penh.

I spoke to the film's director Tim Pek by email today for an update:
Q. We spoke in Dec 2006 about your debut film The Red Sense, what's been happening to it, and you, since that time? A. Hi Andy, Nice to hear from you again. That was a long time since we spoke, yeah I did recall that since that Christmas time we’ve been really busy in post production, from editing, music composing, scene swapping and ADR (Audio Dialogue Replacement) which we weren't so happy about, and of course, heaps of fine tuning.
Q. What have you learnt about the film-making process in that time? A. It was the most eye-opening experience I ever had, its a mixture of fun and headaches. It was slow and very time consuming, if you really love your work and want to get it right. My principle in this nature is that the audience will give you one shot only when you are making your debut film, so you must follow the guidelines as close as possible. These are the experiences and knowledge I have adopted with my film and I will learn from them.
Q. Do you think the Khmer Rouge Tribunal taking place in Cambodia, will give the film a real currency for the audience? A. It’s hard to say, but I am sure for the western audiences this will be their cup of tea as well as Khmers living abroad.
Q. When's your target date for a Cambodian Premiere for the film? As 80% of the film's dialogue is in Khmer, do you believe this will encourage high audience interest in your homeland? A. I have lodged the paperwork for the film with the Cambodian Culture department for more than a month now, and am awaiting their approval. Once I have their approval then it shouldn't be too long and a month’s promotion will be enough. The dialogue in the film is still that figure, there will be English and Khmer subtitles, so everyone can understand it easily. As this film is classified as an Arthouse film, I hope this will prove popular.
Q. I see you have also produced two more films, Bokator & Annoyed, what are your future film plans? A. Well they are not yet released - Bokator is still in post production, while Annoyed will be out later this year. Talking about my future film plans, I have heaps in mind and already have a few film productions that have given me scripts though I haven't made any decisions yet, but I can assure you that Khmer history and heroes, legendary artists and singers are top of my priority list. Let’s see how The Red Sense goes first, and we take it from there.

Exciting opportunities

Today's Cambodia Daily, the popular English-language newspaper, carries this advert for new staff at Hanuman. We are finding it very difficult to recruit suitable people possessing the necessary qualities to flourish in a go-ahead company like ours. There's a wealth of people leaving the universities armed with degrees for this and that but few are able to convert those degrees and the knowledge they've amassed into convincing me at interview that they have what it takes. Working in our environment, written and spoken English is absolutely paramount but the absence of practicing their English with native English speakers leaves many of the applicants struggling at the interview and testing stage.

Remembering the victims

An all too common a sight in Cambodia at one of 70+ memorials across the country
The genocide memorial at Wat Ampe Phnom, next to the river
Wat Ampe Phnom is a holiday resort for Cambodians, usually resounding to the squeals of laughter, the patter of the fortune-tellers and the smell of cooked food, but it also has a dark history, as a killing zone of the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975-79, the KR used Wat Ampe Phnom as a prison and the area surrounding the pagoda as a mass gravesite, containing an estimated 4,000 victims. A lovely old nun, Reung, told me that many of the pits containing the bodies were dug up as desperate locals searched for gold in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion before the local authorities began exhuming the bodies properly in the early 80s. She said that a large number of pits remain untouched. The genocide memorial stands close to the riverbank and has skulls on the top level, with leg and arm bones, and clothing, on the lower level. Another witness was Un Hak, who showed me a tree where women were tied or nailed to the trunk and their stomachs slit open and their bodies buried at the base of the tree. Scratch the surface anywhere in Cambodia and these stories are common place. That's why a trial, even after all these years, is important for Cambodians to feel as though all that pain and suffering has not been forgotten, and those who gave the orders, are brought to justice.
Leg and arm bones, and clothing, on the lower level
The skulls are kept on the upper level of the memorial
The frail but lively nun named Reung

Let's talk Tribunal

Tonight's panel: LtoR: Tom Fawthrop, Peou Dara Vanthan, Ray Leos, Benny Widyono
Tom Fawthrop gives his usual incisive views
Tonight at Pannasastra University, the 4th in a series of half a dozen forums on the Khmer Rouge Legacy, hosted by Meta House and Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, covered the period after UNTAC's presence in Cambodia and the changing situation that eventually resulted in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal that we see taking place at the moment. On the panel were two men who saw it all happening, namely veteran journalist Tom Fawthrop, and a man at the centre of much of what took place with a UN badge on it in the 90s, Benny Widyono. Dr Benny gave us a history lesson in UN power-politics, having been a key UNTACist and then returned as the UN's envoy in Phnom Penh, whilst Tom gave his usual forthright views on events as he saw them. Joining them were the DC-Cam's deputy director Peou Dara Vanthan and moderator Ray Leos. As you might expect there were a few plugs for Benny's new book, Dancing in Shadows, available at Monument Books and which I'm currently half-way through in which he gives the inside story of what took place during much of that decade. I also grabbed the opportunity for a photo with the joint authors of the excellent Getting Away with Genocide?, the struggle to bring the KR to justice by Tom and the Tribunal's public affairs chief Helen Jarvis, who is a regular at these forums.
Benny Widyono spent much of the 1990s in Cambodia
Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis, co-authors of Getting Away with Genocide?

Ampe Phnom resort

The suspension bridge across the Prek Thnoat River
It costs 500 riel to cross to the island of Wat Ampe Phnom
The Ampe Phnom resort near Kompong Speu is a locals-only resort in the main, as its about 50kms from Phnom Penh and very few foreigners bother to spend any time in the city or its nearby attractions. That was my impression after spending a couple of hours at Ampe Phnom yesterday. For Cambodians it holds the usual fascination of a myriad number of bamboo huts and food-stalls, a river to bathe in, a swinging suspension bridge, elephant rides, feeding bananas to monkeys and more fortune-tellers than tourists! It gets incredibly busy at the new year holiday time so I was told, when traditional games and dances are held, though the music blaring out of the massive speakers was loud enough for me to avoid that corner altogether. The island housing the pagoda of Wat Ampe Phnom, where the fortune-readers do a roaring trade, is reached by the suspension bridge across the Prek Thnoat river which has a toll of 500 riels per person and has a few planks missing, so watch your step. There is a troop of monkeys present - isn't there always - and an elephant that will give you a tour of the island for $2.5 per person. There's also a quiet spot amongst the trees where a genocide memorial contains the remains of victims of the Pol Pot regime. Here's a few photos with more to follow.
This is what will happen if you commit a deadly sin of adultery, lying, etc
This monkey was guarding the bridge against toll dodgers!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Yes...even more Neak Ta

Neak Ta Ang Chey at Wat Salong
Ma, pa and sonny Neak Ta at Wat Kambol
Another trip, this time to Kompong Speu, means more photos of the Neak Ta - spirit images - that I found on my travels. Even though Neak Ta are essentially part of the animist beliefs of Cambodians, they are often found in Buddhist pagodas or located elsewhere in a village where the locals believe their powers and energy force will do most good. The shrines or huts of Neak Ta literally contain anything, natural or man-made. The objects represent the land, water and spirit elements and often house small figures, as seen in these photos. In many instances, I have seen sculpted items taken from ancient temples and statues and worshipped as Neak Ta. If you see a shrine on your travels, take a moment to look in and see what treasures you can find - but please, never ever disturb the contents or you might face the wrath of the all-powerful Neak Ta spirits.
The top Neak Ta can be seen at Wat Salong, in Samrong Tong town, where he's highly-regarded and is called Neak Ta Ang Chey. The two monks I spoke to at this pagoda said their Neak Ta was very popular amongst the local people. The second photo is from Wat Kambol, on the main highway between Phnom Penh and Kompong Speu, and I nicknamed it 'ma, pa and sonny' Neak Ta. It was in an overgrown corner of the pagoda, which is undergoing extensive renovation.
The well-tended Neak Ta at Wat Trapeang Kong
A hermit-like Neak Ta at Wat Ampe Phnom
The series of Neak Ta at Wat Mrom
The lower 3 photos were taken at: a well-attended Neak Ta at Wat Trapeang Kong, which has a wooden interior, having been built in the early 60s; this hermit-looking figure was one of two Neak Ta at the pagoda, Wat Ampe Phnom, at the resort of the same name, a few kilometres from Kompong Speu town itself; the final series of figures are to be found at Wat Mrom in Kompong Speu town.

Direct action

On my way to Kompong Speu, I called into a few pagodas that are highlighted on the new Ministry of Culture/EFEO archaeological maps that I bought recently and at one such stop, at Wat Salong in the town of Samrong Tong, I met these two old monks, Preak Meah (on the left) and Vysuan. We chatted about the history of the pagoda and surrounding sites - more on that in future posts - but it also gave me the opportunity to hand them some copies of a book that I have begun distributing on my travels. It's called Buddhist Ethics in Daily Life and it's written by Ven Dr Dhammapiya. I was given a supply of the books by a monk at Wat Langka in Phnom Penh and in my small effort to try and keep Buddhism at the forefront of people's thoughts and in their daily lives, I have asked the older monks at some pagodas to read the book themselves and if they feel its suitable, to pass it onto the younger monks and others living at the pagoda. I've also handed out the book to other individuals I've met along the way. The book is written in the Khmer language and has been donated by a Buddhist society in Malaysia. You may've read my anti-Christian missionaries posts a while ago and this is my 'direct action' to counteract their influence. It's a drop in the ocean I know but it's better than simply moaning on my blog.

Benny Widyono and UNTAC

Tonight at Pannasastra University on Street 370 will be the next round of the panel discussions organised by Meta House and Konrad-Adenauer Foundation on the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge. It'll kick-off at 7pm, its titled 'Cambodia After UNTAC and a New Genocide Diplomacy' and the panel will include United Nations staffer Benny Widyono who has recently published his warts and all book on his time in Cambodia, called Dancing in The Shadows. Benny was the UNTAC Siem Reap shadow governor in the early 90s and returned later in the decade as the envoy for the UN secretary general, so he knows the inside-story of the UN and Cambodia at that time. I'm in the middle of reading his new book and I'm kicking myself that I haven't managed to finish it before tonight's forum. Joining him will be two more very well-informed individuals, Tom Fawthrop, author, filmmaker and journalist, who knows Cambodia extremely well, having written Getting Away with Genocide with Dr Helen Jarvis, and the DC-Cam deputy director, Peou Dara Vanthan. Moderation will come from Ray Leos.

Full of life

This weekend's Sunday outing was to Kompong Speu. In fact it was my first proper visit there, rather than just passing through en route from Sihanoukville. I'll post a lot more from my jaunt over the next few days. In the meantime, here's a photo of me with a lovely nun by the name of Reung, who was incredibly frail though came and sat with me to tell me what she knew about the genocide memorial at Wat Ampe Phnom, a few kilometres outside of Kompong Speu town and popular with the locals at weekends. Reung moved there to become a nun at the pagoda after the Khmer Rouge era from a neighbouring commune and gave me the background and history of the wat, which was used as a prison, while the riverbank area around the memorial had been the site of many burial pits, from which the remains in the stupa had been taken. She was 81 years old, her few teeth were stained red from chewing beetlenut and she was still full of life. If you visit the pagoda at the Ampe Phnom 'resort' make sure you seek out Reung for a chat.
In the bottom photo, I was joined at the Rising Sun for my Sunday dinner by my good friend Sophoin who was introducing her neice, 17 year old Phana and her nephew, 14 year old Phano to a whizz around the sights of Phnom Penh. Both of them were making their first-ever trip to the capital from their home in the rubber plantation center of Chup in Kompong Cham province and their auntie was doing the honours by moto. I was the first foreigner they'd ever spoken to and their extra English lessons came in handy, though like most Khmers in the sticks who learn English, their lack of practice is a real inhibitor. Nice kids though and I hope to see them again at a wedding in Kompong Cham in April.
LtoR: Phana, me, Phano, Sophoin

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Forgotten victims at Wat Chy He

Wat Chy He, a stone's throw from the Mekong River in Koh Sotin district
A part of my recent excursion to Kompong Cham was to visit a couple of the genocide memorials that reside in the province, as identified by the Documentation Center of Cambodia - the organisation that is collating all material and information relating to the Khmer Rouge period of the country's recent history. What I have found from visiting memorial sites across the country including Kompong Cham, is that of the 80 memorials that DC-Cam have published as existing countrywide, some of these memorials have since been destroyed, removed or fallen into serious neglect. DC-Cam did a lot of their investigation work in the late 90s and things have changed and moved on in the intervening years. Take the genocide memorial at Wat Chy He as an example.
Above & below: A burial pit at Wat Chy He, where the four jars are buried
I crossed the Mekong River on the local boat ferry from Koh Sotin island and passed through the busy market area to locate the pagoda at Wat Chy He, close to the riverbank. The memorial that I expected to find was nowhere to be seen. I asked a couple of young monks but they looked at me with blank stares. Then an old man appeared and told me that the memorial stupa that stood in front of the wat had been demolished many years earlier. I asked what happened to the remains of the Khmer Rouge victims that had been held in the stupa and he took me to a cemetery just outside the grounds of the pagoda and pointed to a series of holes in the ground, where one large burial jar could be seen. He told me that there were four such jars, containing the bones of the victims, that were buried here at the beginning of the decade. The original killing sites in the area were at the prison at Wat Chumnik, which I blogged recently, and at Neak Ta Chen, where remains from the killing pits there had been kept at the Chinese school near Chy He market. However, in 1993 the Chinese comminity took back the site as a school and the four jars were brought to the pagoda as their final resting place, though the stupa they were originally housed in was later destroyed. Today, few people know of the jars' existence and the estimated 1,500 victims who perished at Neak Ta Chen (it means Chinese spirit altar).
The colourful vihara of the pagoda of Wat Chy He

Wat Moha Leap

The unique wooden pagoda at Wat Moha Leap
Wat Moha Leap is one of the last remaining wooden viharas in Kompong Cham province and attracts visitors from far and wide to its remote location in Koh Sotin district. We crossed the Tonle Touch river by boat and on the opposite bank of the river stood Wat Moha Leap, it's vihara was built more than 200 years ago with a complete wooden interior including giant teak supporting pillars, and wooden walls. The ceiling is painted with the usual assortment of Buddhist stories and in addition, other paintings could be seen in some of the vihara's nooks and crannys. Miraculously, it was not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, as many of the older viharas had been, as it was used by the genocidal regime's cadre as a hospital. Today, it's interior is home to roosting pigeons and sparrows and the floor was covered in bird droppings and feasting ants. Nearby the vihara is a sala that was used as the King's sleeping quarters when he stayed at the pagoda and on both the sala and the main temple, the intricate wooden pediments at the front and back remain intact.
The well-preserved pediment on the main vihara at Wat Moha Leap
The beautiful teak supporting columns
The well-preserved painted ceiling of Wat Moha Leap
Each of the teak supporting columns is gorgeously decorated

Earth in Flower

Timeless classical Cambodian dancers
An old friend and contributor to my own guidebook, To Cambodia With Love, Kent Davis, is the publishing force behind a forthcoming book that has been over thirty years in gestation. Paul Cravath first researched the royal ballet dancers of Cambodia during the turbulent early 70s and its taken his painstaking research and Davis' search for a book to act as the definitive analysis of Khmer dance that has produced Earth In Flower - The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama. It's due out in May, is 544 pages long and will cost you $128 to buy from DatASIA. Read all about the book here.

Vann Nath meets Stein

Rick Stein (left) and Vann Nath
A few days ago, on my original Blog, I mentioned that Rick Stein, the celebrity seafood chef from the UK, had been in Cambodia recording his latest series of tv cooking specials from around Asia. Whilst in Phnom Penh, Stein hooked up with Vann Nath, the painter-survivor of Tuol Sleng, who happens to run a restaurant in the city, and here's the evidence to prove it. They filmed a segment for the new series in Vann Nath's restaurant, which my sources tell me he's just about to lease, so he can concentrate on his painting, and take life a bit easier because of his on-going health concerns. Thanks to G for the photo.
More on Stein: Rick owns and runs four restaurants in the small Cornish fishing village of Padstow with his ex-wife, Jill. He has written 11 cookery books, recorded several cookery series and a couple of one off documentaries. His passion is still for seafood; as he says, “nothing is more exhilarating than fresh fish simply cooked.” It is the daily bounty of local fishermen of perfectly fresh fish which is the reason for the success of The Seafood Restaurant. He has cooked for many famous people including the Queen and Prince Philip Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.

Personal and national identity

Still no progress on regaining access to my original blog, so for the time being it looks like this will be my Blog home. As you might imagine, there is steam coming out of my ears!

The Governor of Phnom Penh 'opened' two new statues in the city yesterday, both near the riverside and close to Hun Sen Park. Both are celebrated Cambodian scholars and display a sense of pride in their national identity that I like. If it means that more Khmers ask about their culture and history by asking 'who's that?' then I'm all for it. The statues are of the Buddhist Patriarch Chuon Nath, the foremost scholar of Khmer literature and Buddhism in the 20th century - and - famed 19th century Khmer poet Phirum Pheasa Ou, also known as Ngoy. The statue of Nath is on the roundabout opposite the Khmer Buddhist Institute building, whilst Ngoy is in the garden opposite the Cambodiana Hotel.
Also opening soon will be the first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, at the Asia Hotel on Monivong Boulevard. That's more of an international identity crisis.

More wooden pagodas

The main vihara at Wat Sunkumtear Ream pagoda (right)
Kompong Cham is known for its share of older-style pagodas including one of the country's best preserved examples of this serious slice of Cambodian cultural heritage at Wat Moha Leap. I will post more about Moha Leap soon but another of the wooden pagodas can be found nearby in the village of Pongro, at Wat Sunkumtear Ream, just across the Tonle Touch river. Used as a food stall by the Khmer Rouge, the main vihara was opened up by one of the caretakers and was delightfully cool though the floor was awash with bird droppings and hungry ants. The walls were made of concrete but the ceiling was wooden and tiled and the large teak uprights were beautifully painted with dragons and other patterns. In fact the whole of the inside of the pagoda was covered with paintings, with a series of chariots highlighted on the ceiling. Not quite the treasure that Moha Leap has become but well worth a visit if you are in that part of the province.
The brightly-painted interior wooden roof of the main vihara
Paintings adorn all surfaces inside the main vihara
Intricate patterns and dragons illuminate the teak structural supports
One of the many wall paintings inside the vihara

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wooden ceiling

The brightly-painted wooden ceiling at Wat Potiret on Koh Sotin
On my recent visit to Kompong Cham I came across a few of the older-style pagodas, with two of them having a quite rare internal wooden construction and another, Wat Potiret, also still boasting its wooden ceiling. Wat Moha Leap was perhaps the best example of this wooden construction and I'll post some photos from my visit there very soon. In the meantime, this painting in good condition of a chariot flying through the skies, can be found on the wooden ceiling at Wat Potiret, located on the island of Koh Sotin, stuck in the middle of the Mekong River, south of Kompong Cham city. This old vihara is now only used by birds and bats and was locked, so meant I had to get the key from one of the friendly monks. I doubt whether it will still be standing in a year or two and that's the problem with a lot of the older pagodas, they are being dismantled and newer concrete versions being built with donations from wealthy Cambodians, both home and abroad. This is effectively a loss of Cambodia's heritage and is a sad example of a 'new broom sweeping clean' regardless of the impact for the current and future generations. Maybe I should begin/join a campaign to preserve all of Cambodia's wooden viharas that are still standing in Kompong Cham, Battambang and Kratie provinces?
* * * * *
There's a lot going on, news-wise, in recent days so I'll leave the media bloggers to relay all of that detail, from the visit of the Queen of Spain, to the inauguration by Hun Sen and the ADB of the millions of dollars being spent on renovating the Cambodian railway system, a new law on sex trafficking to replace the ineffective one previously in place, the arrival of baseball in the country (in a newsprint version of the film, Field of Dreams), Cambodia (and me) laughing at the United States claims for $340 million worth of debts from the 70s, to the on-going saga of Thailand trying to get a piece of the Preah Vihear cake. Oh, and it's another public holiday today, yet another Buddhist holiday, this time it's Meak Bochea Day.
The local press report today that the road to the summit of Bokor Mountain could be open again this week - two years ahead of schedule! I wouldn't put my house on that news but if access to the top of Bokor is again possible then the authorities and the Sokha Group who are renovating the road and the mountain-top facilities need to be very clear about who, when and how the public can gain access. This is a gem amongst the attractions along the south coast of Cambodia so they need to be clear over accessibility - to-date they have been as clear as mud!

Anyone for a gong?

A debut solo performance on the Kong Vong Thom
Last night's Khmix It! traditional Cambodian music session at Meta House saw the solo debut of a petite sixteen year old Cambodian Livings Arts student who played a series of time-honoured tunes on the Kong Vong Thom, or large circle of gongs, usually heard at weddings or funerals and as part of a much-larger pinpeat orchestra. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask her name! She was naturally very nervous and keen to get home but did tell me that she has been playing the gongs for five years, knows about 100 tunes from her master teacher Tep Mari and lives in the Bassac community, where the majority of artists and performers reside. Currently in 8th grade at High School, she practices for two and a half hours every day and the Kong Vong Thom is one of five instruments that she can play to a good standard. She used a soft mallet to play the tuned instrument which had sixteen cymbal-like metal gongs arranged in a circle around her and suspended on a rattan frame. The gongs were in order of size with the smallest, highest-pitched on her right hand-side, and the largest, lowest-pitched on the left with the others in order between. The gongs are made of a copper and bronze and contain a mixture of lead and beeswax inside. I knew practically nothing about these traditional instruments, so these regular Meta House Wednesday night sessions have been a great way to find out more about Khmer music and whilst the Kong Vong Thom isn't my favourite, it's one of the many that go to make up the larger pinpeat ensemble that you can see at traditional performances, like the one I attended on Monday, accompanied by the Royal Ballet dancers.
Note: After my unforgiveable sin of not getting this young lady's name, I rang a couple of people and can reveal the dedicated gong debutant as Tum Chandy. Long may she gong.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Buddha's view

This is the serene face of the giant reclining Buddha and the view that he sees from his resting place near the top of Phnom Baset, some 30kms north of Phnom Penh. This Buddha is known locally as Roob Preah Chol Neapeau and just below him sits an 8th century brick sanctuary called Prasat Srei Krup Leak- temple of the perfect woman - complete with flying palaces carved on the outside walls, a natural cave grotto and a large tree that splits the temple in half. More to follow.
The view from Phnom Baset across the Kandal province plains below