Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rainy Days and Mondays - unplugged

Rainy Days and Mondays : LtoR: Leonie Moore and Indigo
Last night, the Java Lounge in Moseley, Birmingham witnessed the birth of an exciting new singing duo, Rainy Days and Mondays - and in years to come I can say, "I was there." Its the brainchild of established Birmingham-based vocalists Indigo and Leonie Moore, who first sang together with the reggae band Gabbidon and found they enjoyed working with one another so much they've teamed up. Now they're ready to launch their sweet harmonies and well-timed arrangements into the public arena and the intimate surroundings of the Java Lounge heralded their debut performance.
Their first set, lasting thirty minutes, began with Bob Marley's Waiting In Vain and was accompanied by Basil Gabbidon on acoustic guitar. The intimacy of the venue allowed the duo to sing without microphones and seven of their ten songs were backed by Basil and his guitar, the remainder were sung to a backing tape. Still The One, Saving All My Love, Feel Like Making Love, Walk On By and a brilliant rendition of Fleetwood Mac's Go Your Own Way concluded the opening set. The easy-listening love song themes continued after a short break with For The Love, Keep It Like It Is (Don't Know Why) and Killing Me Softly before a Leonie/Basil penned track called Sincerity closed the performance to well-deserved applause.
The girls sang beautifully, the harmonies were precise and they complemented each other perfectly - Leonie's voice has a rare quality indeed, while Indigo, who was struggling with the remnants of a heavy cold, is a versatile and talented vocalist - and they show exceptional promise as a duo that will develop and grow with more appearances under their belt. Watch out for Rainy Days and Mondays at a venue near you soon. You can also catch them as part of the Gabbidon/ReggaeRockz band, set to play a series of dates in and around Birmingham over the next few months.
Links: Indigo MySpace, Leonie Moore, Leonie MySpace.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Arrival & Pursat : 2006

Frog-hunting in Pursat

I've just completed penning my 2007 Cambodia Tales, so as I'm in the groove, I've decided to start, though long-overdue, on my 2006 travelogues. Here's the first, beginning with my arrival and a first visit to Pursat.

Arrival & Pursat

I left a snowstorm in the UK and arrived in high temperatures in Cambodia - does it get any better than this? The 6,000 miles and eleven hours of flight-time from Heathrow to Bangkok were uneventful, as was the one hour and fifteen minutes onward flight to Phnom Penh. The only excitement was the mad dash through transit to catch my connecting flight after a late arrival of an hour. I touched down at Pochentong at 9.10am, but my rucksack didn't! A mix-up at Bangkok deprived me, and a dozen other passengers, of our bags, so I filled in the copious paperwork to await its arrival. Now travelling lighter than usual, I collared a motodop to take me into town for $2, with a short stop at my friends' house in Tuol Kauk, and the usual glorious welcome by the two sisters who manage the Dara Reang Sey hotel, a couple of blocks from the riverfront, and around the corner from the old market, Psah Chas. Fed, watered and armed with a mobile phone, I got a motodop pal of mine, Vannak, to take me out to Kien Svay at 1pm to visit Vansy and her family. Mum and dad were home and pleased to see me, but Vansy and her sister Matey were in Phnom Penh and made a dash back home in time to get my armful of presents - clothes, jewellery and magazines donated by my step-daughter - and a quick hello before Vannak whisked me back to town at 4pm. A quick shower before Phalla and Sothea arrived at 5.30pm, closely followed by Sam and Bolin, and we all made our way to the Sweet Dreams restaurant near the Independence Monument, to celebrate my arrival with a boy's night out. The music was loud, beer girls aplenty and raucous stories were the order of the day as everyone, apart from me - I rarely drink alcohol - became quite merry. Sam and Phalla are great pals of mine and both have new jobs, Sam with a tour company and Phalla with an NGO, Peace Handicap. I was back at the hotel a little after 9pm to find Ara, Neang and Rina waiting to welcome me - they'd heard I'd arrived and drove from Tuol Kauk to invite me to a party at the end of my trip. And to send me off to sleep happy, my rucksack had arrived and been collected by one of the hotel drivers.

Next morning was a lazy one, following a fitful night's sleep. After breakfast, I walked to the riverfront, met Vannak in an internet cafe and played foot shuttlecock with Sareim and Janna, my two room-maids who I'd met a year before. I had a midday nap and then at 2pm, Ara arrived to take me back out to Kien Svay to see Vansy. Ara's boyfriend, Lee drove us in his car and Lina came along too - it was great to see Ara and Lina again, we've been friends for many years and I was keen for them to meet Vansy. Now 13 years old, Vansy's English is coming on really well and she took to Ara and Lina immediately. She showed us around her house and her animals (1 cow, 15 chickens, dogs and cats), who all live in a house of seven children and parents, with Ara translating when her English ran out. We visited a neighbour who wanted to practise her English and raided her fruit trees before leaving at 4.30pm, promising to return to see Vansy and her family on each of my future visits. We had to get Lina back in time for an English exam, while Ara, Lee and myself had a coffee in a cafe next to the central market. Back at the Dara, the hotel was chock-a-block so the sisters asked me to move into their own house just across the street, and into a large guest-bedroom, which was no problem for me. In the hotel restaurant, I met Soumya James, born in India but now studying for her PhD in the States and in Cambodia as part of her thesis study on Hindu influence on early Khmer temples. We took a moto for a bite to eat at one of my favourite places, the Rising Sun, a block from the river, and it also gave me the opportunity to see Samnang, the pub's bubbly barmaid.

In the morning, I moved back into a room in the hotel and after breakfast I went for a walk along the riverfront and used one of the internet cafe's there. Vannak took me to a few shops, including the central market where I bought my Ho Wah Genting coach ticket, $3, for my trip to Pursat in the morning. Back at the riverside I headed for the California 2 hotel for a chat about temples with Jim, the hotel owner, who likes to get on his bike in his spare time to 'discover' much like myself. At the Dara, Ara popped by for some presents I'd brought from home, as I was eating a late lunch with Reangsey at 3pm. I took a late afternoon nap before Sam came to collect me at 6pm for a small party at his brother Tima's home, near the Samaki market. I went to Tima and Theary's wedding in January 2003, so it was great to see them again, their one year old daughter Nakry, Theary's parents, as well as Sam and Phalla; and the food was excellent. I was in bed by 10pm, ready for my early start in the morning. Up at 5.30am, I was on the bus at 7am as we left the central market with just three foreigners on a full bus, for the three hour trip along Highway 5. At 10am we arrived on the outskirts of Pursat and I walked to the New Than Sour hotel - $10 for a clean air-con double with hot water. My first task was to find a motodop who spoke English and eventually settled on Kousal, who knew a few words but essentially, merely repeated what I said and then smiled - but there was little alternative choice. Our first visit was to the town's tourism office and then along Highway 5 to the village of Bakan and its main pagoda. In the grounds, a ruined laterite temple - Prasat Bakan - was on top of a small rise with some painted antefix's and a broken wall, while inside the pagoda, the wall paintings, a colonette, reclining buddhas and an array of orchestra instruments caught my eye.

We left Prasat Bakan at 1pm, stopping to talk to a group of small children who had been frog-hunting, successfully, in the nearby rice fields. The surrounding countryside was beautiful as we sought Wat Rumlich, the supposed site of a Khmer Rouge victims memorial, which we found out had been dismantled a few years previously. Kousal fixed a back-tyre puncture at the side of the railway line before we headed back to Bakan and the burial site of a national Khmer hero, Oknha Khleang Moeang. Gaudily-painted statues, a burial mound and a resident police guard were all we found to mark the memory of this much venerated character. We stopped at the deserted train station - 0ne train passes through every day - and then visited the Province's director of fine arts and culture at his palatial office to ask for the key to the museum in Pursat, only to be told he didn't know where it was! Outside the padlocked museum, located next to my hotel, sat two lintels and an inscribed stele stone, but the contents of the museum remained a mystery. Kousal and I visited one of the many marble shops, an island in the center of the Pursat river and then went on a ride along the riverbank for a few kilometres to Wat Soriya, with its large buddha, wooden ceiling and very old wall paintings. Crossing the river via a wooden bridge, at Wat Preah Sdei we encountered monkeys and lots of caged animals, next to the modern vihara. I was back in my hotel for 5pm and arranged for Kousal to return at 7am the next day. Communication with him was stilted, but at least he was very willing to learn more about his town and its surrounds, so I persevered. I had a chicken supper at the nearby Raksmei Angkor Phnom Pich restaurant for $1.5, but it was noisy, so I finished the day with a tikalok at a stall along the river - a full moon and four attractive girls serving the drinks were a bonus - but it was next to an electricity station and it gave me a headache, so I called it a night and was in bed by 9.30pm.

My sleep pattern was still all over the place, I hadn't slept well since I arrived, so I was still tired when Kousal arrived at 7am and we headed east along Highway 5, stopping an hour later at Krakor for some noodles and coffee. Our destination for today was the Vietnamese floating village of Kompong Luong - located on the southern edge of the Tonle Sap Lake - and the sign oppositie the food stall indicated the village was 5kms due north. We arrived at the boat dock at 8.30am and I paid $5 for an hour's ride, just the pilot and me, visible to all with my flourescent orange life-jacket. The floating village is a substantial community of up to 10,000 people and the number of water-borne homes and shops was larger than I'd ever seen before. I spotted a church, school, dentist, two gas stations and lots of floating stores. We squeezed between the houses and past other boats - I was splashed by one boat and got completely soaked - so I got to see everything at close quarters and elicited lots of waves and hello's from the children and adults alike. We also went out into the open expanse of the lake, which was quite choppy as the wind picked up. It was a very enjoyable hour and I rejoined Kousal onshore just before 10am. Returning towards Pursat along Highway 5, we took a left turn on the hunt for Phnom Baykhlor, encountering some more children hunting for frogs in a field before arriving at the 100 steps leading up the hill to the pagoda, Wat Damrei. It was a tiny vihara with very old lion statues and seima stones and a group of friendly monks, but no ancient temple amongst the trees, which I'd hoped for. I had lunch with Kousal at the Phnom Pich restaurant back in Pursat at 12.30pm and took a shine to my smiling waitress, Srey Mom. I also purchased my coach ticket for Battambang the next day, with Capitol Tours.

Straight after lunch, we took another ride along the river, past the large Cham community, stopping at Wat Po Sovan Reangsey with its old wall paintings and then at Wat Kompong Krasang, at the end of a large suspension bridge spanning the river. We chatted to a couple of friendly monks, Vuth and Chon, who spoke good English and after I made them laugh by riding a rickety bicycle, they proudly showed me their wooden pagoda with its peeling wall paintings. Through the village of Kandieng, we called in at the Kumar Ney Kdey Sangkheum Center to watch the varied activities on offer to support youths from problem families in the area. With Japanese funding, teacher Sok Sambath showed us classes where the shy youngsters were making kramas, sarongs, bags and wooden furniture. The ride along both sides of the river was very pleasant, the people extremely friendly and its a definite must-do if you come to Pursat. I was back at the hotel by 5pm, thanked Kousal for his help and returned to the Phnom Pich for a barely-edible supper of fried chicken. Under a full moon I stopped for another tikalok fruit-shake but was back at the hotel by 8pm to watch football on the tv. I was nearly at the end of the Pursat leg of my trip - I found the town less than fascinating and when i return, I will use it as a launching pad for visits deeper into the countryside, and I may even be lucky enough to find the key to the museum! Link: Cambodia Tales.

UNESCO delay Preah Vihear listing

Sokhom and the author at Preah Vihear, January 2005.
I was disappointed to hear that UNESCO, at their recent meeting in New Zealand, have delayed a decision on whether to add the Preah Vihear temple to the World Heritage list for another year. The Cambodian government had applied for the second time to have the temple classified as a World Heritage site, after first applying three years ago. I gather that UNESCO have given into Thai lobbying and suggest that a future application be a joint one with Thailand, as the main entrance to the site is on Thai soil, which will upset a lot of people. Historically, the temple was the cause of a long-standing dispute over its ownership until 1962, when the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia. For me, I take a simplistic approach; Preah Vihear is a Cambodian temple, recognised by an international court, and now that access has opened up from the Cambodian side of the border, I don't agree that Thailand should be involved in any such application. There's one entrance to the temple via Thailand but that's it as far as any Thai leverage is concerned. I've visited the temple and whilst its overrun with Thai tourists on a daily basis, it is, and will always be, a Cambodian temple.

Whilst I'm on the subject, I'm currently reading a book called Climbing Back Up by Kim Chou Oeng, which contains his personal experiences during the Khmer Rouge years as well as a shocking description of a decision by the Thai authorities in 1979, to forcibly repatriate around 45,000 Cambodians. They were forced by Thai soldiers to climb down the steep slopes of the Dangrek mountainside at Preah Vihear through unmarked minefields as well as being shot at by both Thai and Khmer Rouge soldiers. Thousands died. This Associated Press article from 18 November 1999 recalls the period:

On a cliff in Cambodia old Preah Vihear temple has tragic recent past - by Grant Peck AP
Perched on a cliff top in northern Cambodia, Preah Vihear temple is a sacred 10th-century place dotted with profane reminders of the country's more recent tragic history. As tourists climb the 2,805 feet of crumbling stairs to the temple's four levels, they pass the wreckage of an army helicopter. At the summit, they share a spectacular view with two artillery pieces. The military hardware is left over from barely a year and a half ago, when the final 60 Khmer Rouge rebels occupying the location surrendered to government forces. Now, at a place where not that long ago the fate of uninvited visitors was death, tourists are coming again. Most of them - overwhelmingly Thai, many of them Buddhist monks - say they come to see the temple and the view, not the detritus of war. "When I see Preah Vihear and appreciate its beauty, my tiredness from climbing from bottom to top disappears," says Thanat Phukovareenukul, a Thai on his first visit. Cambodia was plunged into chaos and civil war after American bombings in 1970, and only in the past year or so has peace returned. An estimated 1.7 million people died. During the ensuing brief and brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands were killed in its attempt to create a peasant communist state.

Preah Vihear is a footnote to that terrible war, just as it is an archaeological footnote to the glory of the incomparable Angkor Wat temple complex that is Cambodia's proudest heritage.
It's even a footnote in international law - the object of a controversial 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that awarded it to Cambodia, even though topography suggested it should go to Thailand. The ruling accounts for the oddity of Preah Vihear being a Cambodian national landmark that is, for all practical purposes, accessible only from Thailand. The guerrillas who held the temple since 1993 rarely had to fire a shot in anger, because any attempt to dislodge them would have required a suicide attack up the steep, heavily mined Cambodian side.
But this little crag of Cambodia witnessed other horrors. The supposed remains of two Belgian tourists widely believed to have been abducted and killed by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in 1994 have been turning up over the past year, some of their bones offered for sale by traders hoping to collect a bounty. Investigators believe that other foolhardy tourists were similarly waylaid.

The Khmer Rouge don't hold a monopoly on cruelty, however. In 1979, Thailand was being flooded by refugees from Cambodia who fled as the Vietnamese army drove the Khmer Rouge from power. On June 8, 1979, the Thai army gathered thousands of desperate Cambodians from all over eastern Thailand and trucked them to the border at Preah Vihear. They were forced to march down the steep slopes back to their country. "The path down the mountains became steeper, the jungle thicker," British journalist William Shawcross wrote in describing the scene in his book "The Quality of Mercy." "Dozens, scores of people fell onto mines. Those with possessions had to abandon them to carry their children down. One group of refugees desperately pooled whatever valuables they had left, filled two buckets with them, and walked back up toward the Thai soldiers, carrying a white flag. The soldiers took the buckets and then shot the refugees." About 45,000 refugees were compelled to make the risky trek down the slope, Shawcross estimates. There are no definitive figures on casualties, but they are thought to have numbered in the thousands.

Visitors today are not so interested in such recent history, says Kraipon Royto, a lieutenant in a Thai paratrooper unit stationed near the temple. In his uniform, he serves as a volunteer tour guide. "The most popular question from tourists is if this temple was built at the same time as Angkor Wat," he says. Many historians think it predates its famous cousin. Supachai, a visiting Buddhist monk, is impressed that people so long ago could make such a beautiful structure. "We should be proud of the ancient wisdom which was so creative and powerful," he says. A handful of Cambodian soldiers, with their wives, are bivouacked at the temple, shyly selling cans of soda to visitors and collecting empties to sell as scrap. About 200 of their countrymen live and work at a market at the foot of the temple. Eng Tangheng sells exotic knickknacks and traditional medicines. "Whoever pays his respects to this temple will be lucky and be able to sell things better than his competitors," he says.

Footnote: I've visited Preah Vihear on two occasions, the first in March 2002, when I climbed to the temple, not by a road, but by crawling up the side of the mountain, hanging onto tree branches for leverage and hoping my footing didn't give way. It was a tough climb but I didn't have the fear of landmines or of soldiers shooting at me like the Khmer refugees did in 1979. Read about my visits in 2002 and 2005. Two other websites that you might find interesting are here and here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Notes from Siem Reap : Part 2

LtoR: Rieng, Heang, the author and Phalla, Siem Reap, January 2007.
Here's part 2 of the final travelogue from my 2007 Cambodia Tales. Now I have to post lots more photos onto my website to accompany the travelogues.

Notes from Siem Reap : Part 2

Morning began with tearful goodbyes over breakfast to Kim, who was due to fly to Australia around midday. I, on the other hand, headed west along Highway 6 to enjoy a varied day of sightseeing with Rieng and Heng in their 4WD Pajero. Its a good road these days, busy and flat until you get to Sarsadam, where the tarmac ends and a very bumpy and dusty rode begins. Our first stop was in Prey Chrouk village – which is Rieng’s home village – where we visited the primary and secondary schools, side by side, to look in on the new school building (five classrooms) donated by a joint venture between ADB and the Sage Insights travel company in Siem Reap. With over 1,000 students at both schools, another brand new two-storey building, donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen no less, was locked and empty as there were not enough teachers to use the classrooms! I stood in front of two grade 9 classes, ages ranging from 16-20, to say hello and spotted Rieng’s younger brother, Ratha, in the second row. When Rieng lived in the village there was no secondary school, so he had to cycle to Sarsadam for his education.

Continuing on, just after 11am we reached the roundabout in Preah Net Preah village - 88kms from Siem Reap said Heng – and then headed west for three kilometres on the lookout for Phnom Arayacontra (or Prasat Preah Net Preah). It’s the biggest hill there so you can’t miss it. 200 steps later we were enjoying a wonderful view from the summit. Its an interesting site with old and new mingling together – old, in the form of broken colonettes and an unusually large pedestal, three undecorated lintels and a blue corrugated tin stupa housing two more pedestals and a small inscription on a doorpost. Alongside were the remains of two demolished brick towers with sandstone door frames. A friendly nun, Tre Chantha, told us the four resident monks and two nuns were off at a celebration and took us to a locked room to show us an inscribed boundary stone and some other sculpted pieces, as well as some carved figures on large sandstone boulders.

Retracing our route along Highway 6, we stopped briefly at the pagoda at Prasat Romduol village on the hunt for Prasat Tayrin, but were assured that the colonette we found was all that remained and the thigh-deep river that barred our path dissuaded us from checking ourselves. By 2pm we’d stopped at Kralanh for lunch – fried chicken and vegetables, chicken soup and dried fish plus drinks, all for $5, before we headed east towards Tek Chou. The village pagoda had some friendly children but nothing else of note, though Wat Char Leu was a different story, housing a laterite tower with red sandstone doors though minus its lintels, situated next to the old vihara. It was a site I’d visited before. Returning towards Siem Reap, we stopped at Prey Chrouk again to visit Rieng’s family home for an hour where I met his mum, dad, granddad, two sisters and two brothers and a souvenir photo for my album. Like Rieng, they are lovely people. Back at Siem Reap by 6pm, I joined up with Rachel Wildblood - a VSO fisheries worker I’d previously met in Kompong Thom – for dinner at the very popular Khmer Kitchen. I enjoyed an excellent chicken curry and a chat with the owner Sophal about her successful business which now employs forty staff. Back at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse, we were joined for a drink by David Musa, an Israeli archaeologist-cum-tour leader, who I knew by email contact before my trip began.

More temple adventures were the order of the day as we set out next morning for Beng Mealea at 8.30am via the town of Damdek. The road toll for the 4WD was $5 and the temple pass another $5 as we arrived at a temple I’d first visited in 1999. In those days, it was a serious adventure and extremely hard work – nowadays the temple sees between 50-100 tourists each day and wooden walkways make exploration very straightforward. Not one to follow the crowd, Rieng and myself investigated the rarely-visited east gopura and its impressive array of naga heads and lanterns leading along the 400 metre long causeway, accompanied by beautiful bird song all around us. At the eastern entrance large stones blocked our way in so we had to climb up and over the massive gateway, perching precariously on top of the gopura before heading for the north library and taking an anti-clockwise route around and through the whole temple. Beng Mealea is an extraordinary size and deserves its new found popularity. There’s so much more to see than on my previous visits, though the prize you have to sacrifice is the real adventurous feeling I used to experience. During our exploration I met Shinto Asano, an English-speaking Japanese girl who was gushing in her praise for the temple. At midday, with Rieng translating, I renewed acquaintances with Chheng Chhun, the temple guide who showed me around in 1999 and at 72, he’s still very sprightly for his age. He told me he was born in the area and is proud to show people his temple. As an added bonus, he told us about a trio of smaller temples lying east of Beng Mealea along the ancient Royal Road and agreed to be our guide for our afternoon exploits. I’d been on the Royal Road before, around the village of Khvao, so this was an opportunity to see another part of the highway.

At 12.30pm, with Chhun in charge of directions, we joined the old royal highway that linked Angkor with the former capital of Jayavarman VII at Preah Khan at Kompong Svay, and the laterite base is still in use today, albeit with a sandy covering. We passed through an area under the control of CMAC de-mining teams, and onto the substantial village of Chantrea, and the waves and smiles of villagers not used to visitors. The sandy surface made driving tricky - though Heng is a magician when it comes to negotiating difficult tracks - past the so-called Japanese stream, one of three riverbeds we crossed, and lots of tree-felling before arriving at our first ancient laterite bridge, Spean Khmeng, complete with ruined sandstone balustrade. Ten minutes later we hit upon Spean Teap Chei – another laterite arched structure – and at 1.15pm arrived at our farthest target, Prasat Teap Chei, or more precisely the village of the same name, some 15 kilometres from our starting point. With Chhun leading the way, we ploughed through very thick undergrowth without much success for twenty-five minutes and almost gave up until we encountered a large laterite wall and the eastern gateway to the temple. With one central sandstone tower with a porch and four doors, two smaller libraries and one solitary eroded lintel, it was cloaked in the forest and impossible to photograph, not to mention the humidity and stinging sweat in my eyes. As for Chhun, he didn’t even break sweat. Back on the Royal Road, we turned for home, stopping at two more temples we’d bypassed earlier. Prasat Kongpluk has a central laterite pyramid tower, somewhat ruined, with four sandstone entrance gates in a surrounding laterite wall. Scattered amongst the debris were colonettes, a worn lintel, two broken lions and lots of red de-mining tape warning us to avoid certain areas. Closeby, another temple, Prasat Chrey, had already been de-mined. It’s a good size, a sandstone and laterite mix with a lantern causeway leading to one central tower opening to the east with a sandstone porch, two libraries and three gates in the laterite enclosing wall. It was a nice setting and a good temple, just five minutes from Beng Mealea, to end our expedition.

In a small café opposite the entrance to Beng Mealea, we stopped for noodles, rice and chicken and thanked Chhun, who pedalled off into the distance with a big grin. At 4pm, we took the road that leads to Banteay Srei on the hunt for our final temple site of the day. Turning south at the temporary home of a de-mining unit, the track was getting a bit tricky and the area remote and another forty-five minutes into our ride, the bumper fell off the 4WD. Rather than risk further damage, Rieng and I walked on and used two young men to guide us to Prasat Banteay Ampil. Another fifteen minute walk, along a flooded path and across rice fields near the village of Andong Pei, we arrived at the temple. And what an excellent find it was. Amongst the trees and sounds of cicadas, and with the 5pm golden light shining on it, the temple looked at its best. Inside a large laterite wall with sandstone gopuras, are two libraries and one substantial central tower with a porch, open to the east and west and housing some attractive carvings and lintels. It was tricky as the path through the temple is by picking your way around the rubble underfoot but its definitely a temple worth more time than we could allow. With the light fading fast we headed back to Heng and the 4WD, leaving us no time for a look at another ruin nearby, Prasat Lich. Prasat Banteay Ampil is about 8 kms from the main road to Damdek, but local help is essential to locate it. By 7pm, I was back at the Shadow for a long, hot shower and then out to Rieng’s home for a gorgeous home-cooked supper with Rieng, Sovann, her parents and three sisters, and lots of chatting and practising English with Phyrun, Kadka and Dary. At 11pm I climbed into bed for a well-earned sleep.

For my last full day in Siem Reap, I opted for an easier day, especially as the next leg of my trip with Sokhom would be the usual endurance test. A late breakfast, I had an hour at the internet café and then joined Phyrun, Rieng’s sister in law, at her vegetable pitch in the heart of the old market, much to the amusement of her fellow vendors and customers alike. An hour later, I met with another good friend of mine, Heang, for lunch at the Khmer Kitchen and continued my chat with Sophal, the owner, who took over the restaurant seven years before after being a cook for Medicins Sans Frontieres. As Phyrun had moved her pitch to a new location in the market, I repeated my retail apprenticeship in vegetable-selling, without much success but great fun nonetheless. I’d arranged for a 6.30pm meal with Socheata, Now and Plon at the Shadow restaurant but they were an hour late coming from their Angkor homes, so we had less time to chat and eat our amok, chicken curry and spaghetti before the 9pm arrival of some more friends. I said my goodbyes to Socheata and welcomed Rieng, Heang and Phalla – three great friends of mine – to celebrate my last night with some drinks and friendly banter at a couple of Khmer restaurant-bars, until midnight. We recalled lots of great memories from previous trips together and it was a suitable way to end my stay in Siem Reap.
Link: Cambodia Tales.

Musical titbits

Here's a quick round-up of musical matters for bands I'm keen on:
The debut performance of Rainy Days and Mondays will take place tomorrow (Friday 29 June) at The Java Lounge Coffee House on St Edward St in Moseley, Birmingham, starting at 7pm. If you can get along, all friendly faces are welcome. RD&M's are Leonie Moore and Indigo, a duo who'll sing a mix of covers and their own tunes with a folky-chillout vibe, and who already perform togther as part of the reggae group Gabbidon. Both girls are excellent vocalists with a strong and versatile range - so its definitely worth making the effort to see their new venture.

Talking of Gabbidon, fresh from their storming performance at the Glastonbury Festival last weekend, their next gig is at the Hereford Arms in Hereford on 14 July. They then appear at the Glade Festival in Lye on the 20th and follow that up at the The Cross in Moseley on the 28th.
My favourite reggae band of all-time, Steel Pulse, have just concluded an American and Caribbean tour and have a few days rest before embarking on a series of gigs in France and Holland before returning back to the States for more dates. Sunday 19 July, they're scheduled to join in the WOMAD festivities in Wiltshire. The Electric Strawbs line-up are currently rocking them in the States and make their next UK appearance in Putney on 7 August.

Hot off the press.... Jimi Lundy, the Cambodian-born singer, now living in Australia, is currently working on his second album, after the success of his first release, Steal My Heart. He has a single due for release on 1 September, called When We Were Young and the EP will include a track in the Khmer language - When Tomorrow Comes - and will also host his excellent tune Cambodia, as a bonus track specifically remastered for the single release. The Cambodia track will also be featured in the forthcoming film release, The Red Sense. There are also plans afoot for Jimi to play a concert in Cambodia in December.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Notes from Siem Reap : Part 1

LtoR: Lee, Kim, Seng Hour, Davy and the author, Siem Reap, January 2007.
Here's part 1 of the final travelogue from my Cambodia Tales from earlier this year. Part 2 will follow tomorrow.
Notes from Siem Reap : Part 1
Leaving Battambang was a wrench as it’s a part of Cambodia that I always enjoy but my next destination, Siem Reap, is the launching pad for lots of my past adventures and this year was no different. The Angkor Express boat left the Battambang dock at 7.15am, at the same time as two tour company boats and for the next four hours the boat pilots played a game of overtaking along the fairly narrow river channels leading to the Tonle Sap Lake. It looked to me as if the number of homes along the riverbank had increased in the last year as we sped along, leaving a heavy swell in our wake, that didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiastic waves and shouts from the shoreline. At 11am, we stopped for a bite to eat at a drink-shop in the substantial village of Bat Prei that was a part shore-based, part floating village. We took on some additional passengers including a woman with a high-pitched voice that pierced my eardrums, as she proceeded to talk loudly and breast-feed her baby at the same time. By 2pm, we took a twenty-minute rest-stop at Prek Toal village – better known for its bird-watching possibilities – and then darted across the open expanse of the lake to arrive at the Chong Khneas boat dock at 3.45pm, and the usual scrum of motodops desperately clawing at you and your bags.

Amidst the mele, I spotted Rieng and his moto and his ever-present wide grin. His big hug said it all – it was great to be back in Siem Reap with my best friend and top guide. I’d forewarned him I was on my way, and his three hour wait hadn’t suppressed his usual enthusiasm, as we caught up with each other on the ride into town and straight to my home-from-home, the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse. Expecting another big welcome, it didn’t happen as the guesthouse owners, Seng Hour and Davy and their daughter Kim were in Phnom Penh, but it was good to be in familiar surroundings and I had a fruit-shake with Rieng and his wife Sovann, who arrived to join us, in the guesthouse’s excellent restaurant. After a shower, I walked along the busy pub street, flush with tourists of every nationality, and headed for a fish and chip supper at Molly Malone’s. I returned early to the guesthouse to catch up with Kim and her parents, and that postponed welcome, as well as meeting Juanita and Matthew, who I knew from email correspondence before I left home. I was all talked-out by 12.30am and retired to my comfortable room and slept soundly until 8am the next morning.

For my first full day in Siem Reap, I was on a mission. Rieng had told me a friend of mine who I’d not seen for six years was back living in her village inside the Angkor complex, so that’s where we were headed at 10am, after breakfast with Juanita and Kim. It was a very hot day already as I paid $20 for a 1-day temple pass and took the road to the temple of Banteay Kdei, entering through the east gate, opposite the Srah Srang lake. And there she was, at her stall selling souvenirs and beaming that huge grin as if she’d never been away. I first met Socheata in 1999, as she was the elder sister of Noung, another souvenir-seller I had met at Angkor Wat a year earlier. But Socheata had disappeared overnight six years ago when I was told she got married and moved to live in Japan – I thought I would never see her again – until today. Now 28, she returned five months ago after her husband had died prematurely. I was pleased to hear that their marriage had been a happy one and they’d spent a lot of their time together travelling the world, including a visit to Europe.

It was an emotional reunion, both for Socheata and myself, as well as Rieng who knew her well, and we were also joined by her brother Plon and her mother, as we chatted as old friends do, for a couple of hours. With a promise to meet at Angkor Wat a little later, Rieng and myself headed off, ignoring the no-entry signs to pay a visit the secluded temple of Ta Nei, one of my favourite minor temples, where I can almost guarantee to be alone amongst the ruins and the sounds of the surrounding forest. We had lunch with another friend, Shanti, at her food stall (no.9) at the west gate of Ta Prohm before rushing over to Angkor Wat and entering via the quieter eastern entrance and walking around the perimeter to the cluster of souvenir stalls situated alongside the pagoda on the northern side of the temple. There I spent the next three hours talking non-stop to Socheata, her sister Noung, her six month old baby and her husband, Mean Somnang and her best friend Now. The souvenir sellers are a close-knit bunch of people, many live in the same village next to Srah Srang and lots of them recognised me from many previous visits. I didn’t even manage to set foot inside Angkor Wat itself.

I returned to the Shadow and had a drink with Juanita and Matthew before a 7.30pm appointment with Dougald O’Reilly for dinner at the Soup Dragon restaurant. Dougald is the Director of the NGO HeritageWatch, which is busting a gut to stop the illegal trade in Cambodia’s cultural heritage and to protect and preserve it by way of educating the local populace and raising awareness by various initiatives including their new magazine, Touchstone, and Dougald is the brains behind it all. He was great company and the Vietnamese food we tucked into was excellent. Back at the Shadow I caught up with Seng Hour and her daughter, as we talked in detail about Kim’s impending departure in just three day’s time, to spend the next four years at university in Sydney, Australia. The following day, Heng drove Rieng and myself to the floating village of Kompong Khleang – which you can read about in a separate travelogue. It’s one of a handful of villages fairly easily accessible from Siem Reap and is a worthwhile alternative for anyone who’s keen on a break from temple visiting.

The morning of day three in Siem Reap was to be spent visiting school, more precisely schools receiving support from a UK charity, Schools for Children of Cambodia, who provide free schooling for kids aged 4-12 in and around Siem Reap. Rachel Palmer, SCC’s in-country organiser and her right-hand man Jay, arrived at the Shadow just as I finished breakfast at 8am. Accompanied by Rieng and Heng, we drove out to Khnar primary school, just three kilometres outside of town in the direction of Roluos and one of the six schools receiving SCC’s support. Five new classrooms costing $6K per room and had just been built thanks to sponsors like Andy Hill and will increase the school’s capacity to teach up to 800 children. Also onsite were brand new water filters that provide clean water for the school and I also spotted two sandstone pedestals under a tree, next to the garden which the kids were watering and weeding. At 10am we were back in town and heading for Wat Athvea, a laterite temple next to a pagoda, a couple of kilometres down the road leading to the Tonle Sap lake. Next to the ruined west gate of the ancient prasat is another SCC school, Krosang Roleng, with space for 230 children and class sizes of up to fifty per sitting. It was another well-presented primary school and a grateful head teacher, who praised the charity for their efforts at his school. Our final visit was to Sway Dongkum school, where volunteers Pete and Kat were teaching some of the school’s 500 children English for an hour from 11am, as part of SCC’s volunteer program. I thanked Rachel and Jay for showing us the work of SCC who are doing a fabulous job in providing education for free for so many children.

Back at the Shadow, I had lunch with the owner Davy and helped Kim with her leaving speech, which she would deliver at her ‘going-away’ party later that same night. In the meantime, Rieng collected me at 2.30pm for a visit to one of my favourite places to relax, the Angkor Conservation Office, where most of Angkor’s free-standing statuary is held for safe-keeping, some in the Conservation garden and the superior quality pieces, under lock and key in two large storage buildings. We chatted to Kleng Reach, who’d I’d met on previous visits and for a small tip, he took us into one of the large rooms where over 200 original sandstone heads of gods and demons from the Angkor Thom and Preah Khan gateways were arranged in rows on the floor. Also in the room are inscription stele stones, pedestals, linga and lintels of outstanding quality and undoubtedly of museum standard, whilst outside the door, line-up along a wall, is the bounty retrieved from the home of the former Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok including apsaras, nagas, lintels and lions, especially a stunning example from Wat Lovea. Another two-storey storage room nearby was off limits according to Reach and we had to be content with peering through the broken glass window at the sculptures earmarked for the new Siem Reap museum, when it opens in the middle of the year. On our way back we popped into the Jasmin Lodge guesthouse to say hello to the owner Khun, a former guiding colleague of Rieng’s and then it was back to the Shadow and Kim’s farewell party, organised by her parents. It began at 6.30pm and turned into a great send-off for the 17-year old, who in turn was excited and emotional by the turn-out as up to eighty of her friends and family ate and drank their fill and danced through til 12.30am. And the speech – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Part 2 to follow tomorrow. Link: Cambodia Tales.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Notes from Phnom Penh

LtoR: The author with Loung Ung, January 2007, Phnom Penh.

Here's today's 2007 Cambodia Tales travelogue piece - just one more to go.

Notes from Phnom Penh

OK, here goes…Cambodia Trip No. 13. My midday Thai International flight from Heathrow was delayed by an hour as we sat on the runway though we still arrived on time at Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi airport at 6am. My transfer time was under two hours as I caught the 7.50am flight to Phnom Penh, arriving at Pochentong on time at 9am. For the majority of my time in Phnom Penh, at the start and end of my four weeks in Cambodia, I spent it either whizzing around meeting friends and contacts or putting my feet up and resting. Passing through arrivals unscathed, I was met at the airport by Rith, aka Hing Channarith, the CEO of CCAF, an NGO helping kids in Kampot, who gave me a lift to my usual hotel in the city, the Dara Reang Sey, and discussed the work of his NGO over cold drinks. As ever, the welcome from the sisters who run the hotel was effervescent and they gave me their mobile phone to use for the next month. After a shower, I collared young Thearith on the reception desk to double-up as my motodop, and at 2.30pm we took off to visit Vansy and her family in Kien Svay. Another heartfelt welcome awaited me, and mum rushed off to fetch Vansy and her friend Sary from school. Vansy’s English is getting better all the time and after exchanging gifts, I attended her 5pm English class at the nearby school. Unfortunately, her teacher, Navin, was in hospital – she even called me to explain and apologised for her absence – so I improvised and took the class instead alongwith Sokhan, the substitute teacher. It was a delight to see Vansy amongst her peers and it was obvious she was more confident and fluent than everyone in the room.

I was back at the hotel at 7pm, ready for a visit to Sovanna Phum on Street 360 with another friend, Sophoin. The open-air performance was packed out with an audience mix of Khmers and foreigners for an hour of pure theatre with a show titled ‘Sokacha’ – an adaptation of the Reamker story with shadow puppets, classical dance, slapstick comedy and acrobats, all wearing traditional costumes and an orchestra – followed by a Q&A session and a quick chat with Delphine Kassem, the founder of the arts troupe. Shows are held every Friday and Saturday, there’s a $5 entrance fee and it was a really enjoyable experience for the hundred or so spectators; we followed it with drinks at the Boddhi Tree and the Rising Sun, where I caught up with Samnang, and a tikalok at Psar Chas to bring to a close my first day in Phnom Penh.

Day two began with breakfast at the hotel and a visit from two of my long-time friends from Tuol Kauk, Ara and Lina, who both gleefully announced they are getting married in 2008, and who both work for the NGO, World Vision. At 11am I walked to the riverfront and met with Vannak, one of my regular motodops, and checked my emails at an internet café. After lunch, I took Vannak’s tuk-tuk to Kien Svay to collect Vansy and headed for her auntie’s house, where I’d been invited to stay overnight. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening practising English with Vansy, who’s now 14, reading from some books I’d brought from home. I was very impressed with her thirst for learning and with her aim to become a teacher or tour guide in the future. Her younger siblings, Matey and Vibol were also there and we all ate our dinner inside the summer gazebo in the garden, despite the red ants that feasted on my ankle!

By 10.30am next morning, I was back in Phnom Penh, visiting John Weeks and Geoff Pyle at their SangSalapak offices on Street 184 to find out more about their work. Both have provided articles for my forthcoming book, To Cambodia With Love, so it was a thank you visit and to find out more about their work with comics and architectural tours respectively. At noon, I went to lunch with Sotha and Keang at the ChitChat restaurant on Sihanouk Boulevard, with Rattana also joining us. All three are well-educated twenty-somethings, with responsible attitudes and who’d recently done a stint of volunteer work - they were great company. Next on my list was Glyn Vaughan and his All Ears NGO on Street 240, though with Glyn out, I had a tour of the offices with audiologist Sin Chan Seyha and gained a better understanding of the great work they do with hearing impairment and deafness. Glyn, another contributor to my book, returned and we had a good chinwag before I returned to the Dara for a shower in time for my 5pm meet with Loung Ung at the Foreign Correspondents Club on the riverfront. I’d met Loung once before, six years earlier, and we’d kept in touch by email so it was great to meet up again, and true to form, she was delightful company. The next four hours passed in the blink of an eye as we talked about everything and anything over a delicious Vietnamese meal at An Nam. Loung is a gifted writer and lecturer and was in Cambodia visiting family and writing an outline for a new novel. We said our goodbyes at 9pm and I popped into an internet café before returning to the Dara.

In the morning over breakfast, the Dara sisters gave me the coach ticket for my next day trip to Battambang and I took a moto to meet Tom Clements, a technical advisor with the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Java Café to discuss some potential temple targets in Preah Vihear province, an area which he’d visited as part of his conservation role. At noon, I had lunch with Sophoin at the Boat Noodles restaurant on Street 249, enjoying plates of delicious Khmer food before meeting another motodop pal of mine, Tom, who like Vannak, has swapped his moto for a more tourist-friendly tuk-tuk. Tom gave me a lift to the Russian Market (Tuol Tompong) where I searched successfully amongst the book stalls for some old military maps of northern Cambodia, followed by a quick stop to see Glyn at All Ears. Back at the Dara, another old friend, Sopheap, was waiting to meet me. Sopheap is still at the Sports Ministry and proudly told me he’s building a house in the Stung Meanchey district of the city, which I will visit on my next trip. However, we couldn’t chat for long as I was picked up at 6.30pm by Sam, in preparation for my ritual Phnom Penh meal with a group of friends, who all live in the Tuol Kauk district. More than a dozen friends and I sat around a circular table in the main room of Vourch and Sarein’s home and tucked into a gorgeous meal – with my favourite chicken curry, the piece de resistance – and a long chat and drinks before I returned to the Dara at 10pm, and an early night, ready for my 8am coach trip to Battambang the next day. The first part of my Phnom Penh story was over as I headed for my adventures in the northern part of the country.

Part two in Phnom Penh was considerably more restful, after enjoying trips to Battambang, Siem Reap and Preah Vihear province and more besides. The Mekong Express coach dropped me off at Wat Phnom at 2pm and I had a quick shower at the Dara before I got a lift back out to Kien Svay to stop for three nights at the home of Vansy’s aunt. Awaiting my arrival was Vansy, her siblings and a group of children and friends as we all sat down to a big group dinner and our first session of karaoke but without the music, when everyone took a turn in singing their favourite song. This became a regular after-dinner event for the next two days. My contribution was Jimi Lundy’s song Cambodia, which they all appeared to love and requested time and time again. During the day, I spent time playing badminton or football with the children though mostly it was 1-to-1 with Vansy, reading through books in an informal intensive crash-course in English! I was conferred with the title of Vansy’s ‘god-father’ and it was going well until I developed stomach cramps late on day three and suffered a serious bout of vomiting and diarrhoea. Vansy and her aunt’s home-spun remedy was to rub ceramic spoons on my lower back, much akin to ‘coining’, which is believed to circulate the blood and draw the ‘badness’ out of the body. I can’t testify that it works, but I can say it was the most painful experience I’ve ever had in Cambodia - believe me, it was excruciating.

Now back in Phnom Penh, I had lunch at the Rising Sun with Sophoin and then met Steve Goodman, a photographer, at the Dara for a drink. We walked to the Popil gallery to see their exhibitions and met Stephane Janin the owner and Jerry Redfearn, another photographer, who had an exhibition starting in a few days’ time. At 4pm I met up for a chat with Derek Phatry Pan at the FCC; he writes for the Phnom Penh Post and is a fountain of knowledge, before a quick return to the Dara for a shower and then a 6pm meet at the Kandal House restaurant on the riverfront. This was in fact a surprise meeting with another of my former guides, Soum Sophal, arranged by his Australian wife Kathy, who works for the NGO, HeritageWatch. I pretended to arrive quite by chance and caught Sophal completely unawares. I’d not seen him since 2003 and we had a great reunion meal alongwith Kathy and their son Luke. Sophal has now put his dirt-bike away and instead is running a successful gardening and decorating business called BizyBeez. We promised to keep in touch and we will. Continuing my theme of meeting as many people as possible, at 8.30pm Karen Coates and her husband, Jerry Redfearn arrived for a two-hour chat. Karen is the author of the excellent book Cambodia Now and Jerry is the photographer I’d met a few hours earlier at the Popil. It was great to meet them both especially Karen, who will also contribute to my guidebook. By 10.30pm I was completely exhausted and retired to my bed at the Dara.

I spent my last day in Phnom Penh keeping myself pretty much to myself, I was still queasy from the bout of sickness I’d suffered and took it easy, chatting to people at the hotel and walked to the riverfront to watch the world go by, chat to Vannak and use the internet café. I rang round everyone to say my goodbyes, received some gifts from the Dara sisters and others and reflected on yet another successful visit to Cambodia. The next morning I was at the airport by 9am, an hour before departure and met Heng Sophea, on her way to a conference in Hong Kong. We had a coffee during transit in Bangkok before I took the final leg of my journey home, watching the Steve Coogan film, The Alibi between bouts of sleep. Back on home soil at 7.30pm, the freezing cold temperature was far removed from hot and humid Cambodia, as trip number thirteen came to an end. Link: Cambodia Tales.

Reggaerockz Glastonbury

LtoR: Leonie Moore, Colin and Basil Gabbidon - one third of Reggaerockz/Gabbidon.

The Roots tent at this year's Glastonbury Festival was rocking to the sounds of Reggaerockz featuring Basil Gabbidon on Saturday, as the band from Birmingham, who usually appear under the alias of Gabbidon, performed a 45 minute set of nine songs to an appreciative audience. Even the rain stopped for their performance, as they played a collection of Basil's own compositions and a tribute to his Steel Pulse roots with House, The Key, Who's That Girl?, Bun Dem, Rally Round, Bad Man, Handsworth Revolution, Soldiers and Journey To Addis. It was the usual Gabbidon line-up though Peter Reid replaced the holidaying Paul Beckford on bass, and Nivana joined Leonie and Indigo on vocals. The band have some more dates lined up in July, appearing in Hereford on the 14th, at the Glade Festival on the 20th and in Moseley on the 28th. Find out more and listen to some tracks from their Glastonbury set here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Kong Nay and The Flute Player UK Tour - press release

Sick of slick, soulless muzak numbing you from every direction? Well, get ready for something rugged, real and bizarrely exotic hitting the UK music scene this July. Every one seems to know about Cambodia’s gruesome tragedies, and nothing about its ancient arts. But now an old blind man from the Cambodian slums called Kong Nay is making music visionaries like Peter Gabriel turn their heads: could this be the next Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? Kong Nay’s Chapei music - the “Cambodian blues” - is about to strum and holler its gutsy way into your orbit. It’ll probably make you laugh (even if you don’t speak a word of Khmer) - it could make you cry - and you won’t have heard anything like this ancient, haunting yet foot-tappingly funky music before. Chapei doesn’t often wander so far from the rice fields of the Cambodian heartland or the slums of Phnom Penh, where rats dance lazily and dark-skinned children defy appalling poverty with beaming smiles. Yet, like Ali Khan’s music, it has a knack of speaking to people – bypassing cultures and languages.

Chapei music is special. You won’t find anything like it in neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam or Laos. Some say it’s like the Delta Blues. The lone impassioned Chapei singer belting out hard-hitting riffs and sliding blues-notes on his Chapei Dong Veng (“long-necked, two-stringed guitar”) is surely like the rugged Delta bluesman with his weeping slide guitar, roaming the poverty stricken Mississipi. And the heart of both is roguish, by-the-seat-of-your-pants improvisation. But Chapei is a more primordial blues - heard long before even the great Cambodian kingdom of Angkor. Legend has it that Chapei’s lamenting, laughing path winds back 25 centuries, when Buddha himself introduced it to the world as a symbol of the “middle path”. If Chapei is the “Cambodian blues” then let the “Cambodian Ray Charles” bring it to us this summer. Blind Chapei master Kong Nay not only seems to look and feel like Charles, with his trade mark gangster sunglasses and a smile that has been known to out-shine even the dazzling Cambodian sun. He is also a soulful genius, able to move people through the whole range of human emotions with his husky old voice – from raucous slapstick to Buddhist mysticism. He can recite an ancient religious epic word for word, or improvise a tall yarn on the spot. Part sage-part clown, Nay often has his audience dancing in the aisles overcome with laughter, or openly weeping at the sadness of his poetry. One of the two greatest living Chapei performers, 62-year-old Nay is a legend in his homeland. He is Cambodia’s most recognizable traditional musician, and is adored for his humanity as much as for his music.

“As a singer I’m very drawn to voices, and it was his voice that pulled me right in at the beginning,” says rock legend and international humanitarian Peter Gabriel about hearing Nay for the first time in the movie “The Flute Player”. “There’s a warmth that comes out, and you know there’s been some suffering there. You feel both the sun and the rain coming out of that voice.” Gabriel grew up on the Blues and although he had never met Nay, something resonated in him: “I’ve got absolutely no idea what he’s singing about. But it’s the gutsiness, simplicity, and heart-felt quality - along with the acoustic instrument and improvising.” Gabriel was hooked and last year he sent recording engineer Dickie Chappell to Cambodia to record Nay for an international solo release for Real World. Chappell was bowled over by both Nay’s music and humanity – and also saddened by the poverty that Nay lived in. He felt he had to do something for this man, and so he organised the UK tour off his own back.

Sad stories are never far from the people of Cambodia – recent home to the Killing Fields of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge: Kong Nay, blinded by small pox at four, was seen as dangerous by the Khmer Rouge, who systematically murdered or forced into exile around 90 percent of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals. Chapei singers, famed for their satirical political comment, were doubly dangerous. In 1979 the Khmer Rouge marched Nay, his wife, and five of their eventual 11 children into the killing fields to be murdered. Miraculously they were rescued - literally at the last minute - by Vietnamese soldiers fighting the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge are no more, but is Pol Pot’s dream of eradicating Cambodian arts still a reality? Resourceless, uncaring and corrupt government officials do almost nothing to support their unique but highly endangered artistic heritage - preferring to work on their private bank accounts instead. In the early nineties many top traditional Cambodian musicians, dancers and artists were given land by the Ministry of Culture in the Dey Krahorm slum in central Phnom Penh – including Nay and his family. This was near the Royal Palace, University of Fine Arts and cultural centre of the city. Over the years the slum became one of Cambodia’s most cultured communities, even if still poor.

However corrupt government officials are now selling off inner city land to foreign investors, pocketing the money for themselves and then forcibly evicting the residents – often with violence - to squalid settlements miles away from the city with its hospitals, schools and other amenities. Dey Krahorm is one of the last remaining pockets of “slum” in the inner city river area, and is gradually being evicted. Around Nay’s little house are properties now evicted and covered in razor wire to prevent people reestablishing. Even as Nay gains in fame and stature, his rights seem to be disappearing - any day now Nay is expecting to be evicted. “They say they’re going to send us 32kms away,” said Nay. “It’s too far away, especially coming back from performances at night time.” Everyone in this close-knit community is worried about arson, which has often been an unofficial method of clearing valuable land of squatters in Cambodia. This is frightening for a blind man. After recording Nay, Chappell visited him in his shack in Dey Krahorm and was shocked at the war-zone atmosphere and the government’s systematic clearance of this treasured community. “If these evictions were going on in England, there’d be riots and people setting fire to parliament,” says Chappell, amazed at how the Cambodian government seems to give no value to its cultural heroes.

Enter the knights in shining armour: foreign NGOs like Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). CLA gives Master Nay and 16 other masters of endangered Cambodian arts a small salary to make ends meet, and promotes and organises their performances. Cambodian performance fees are meager, even for legendary artists like Nay. The CLA masters in turn all teach promising young students in an effort to save their arts from extinction. CLA was the brainchild of Arn Chorn-Pond, who was nine when Pol Pot took over Cambodia. “My whole family were slaughtered because they were all musicians,” Arn says. “I started playing khlouay [Khmer flute] in the KR - they said ‘Play or die’. They killed off the old masters and brainwashed the kids to play revolutionary songs.” The KR murdered Arn’s first flute teacher before his eyes after he had taught Arn for five days. But when the KR tried to make Arn personally kill his second teacher, master musician Yeoun Mek, he courageously outwitted them. Arn saved Mek’s life, and nearly lost his own as a result. Arn’s life was spared because the Vietnamese invaded – the boy was sent off to fight at the front line. After living as a refugee in the US Arn returned to Cambodia years later. He managed to find Mek – an alcoholic wandering the city streets with no work. Mek became one of the first masters in Arn’s CLA.

Nay’s UK performances will be preceded by “The Flute Player”, a deeply moving one-hour film about Arn’s battle to save Cambodia’s traditional music from extinction. The documentary was nominated for an Emmy and features Cambodian master musicians, including the charming and unassuming Nay. It also offers a poignant glimpse into the contradictory world of modern Cambodia – full of wrenching tragedy and childlike laughter, just like Nay’s Chapei music. Of course it was Arn who sent Gabriel a copy of “The Flute Player”, introducing him to Nay’s Chapei in the first place, which is where this whole story begins… UK audiences will be able to check out Chapei’s new blood, as Nay is also bringing his most talented female protégé, 21-year-old Ouch Savy. Although a male-dominated art-form these days, there has a been a strong female Chapei tradition. Members of the King’s harem included competent Chapei players. Woman singers these days tend to be more lyrical and lilting, shying away from the rapping, sliding blues notes and general monkeying about of the men. However Savy may have to do her share of dueling and sparring if Master Nay calls her up to duet with him – an important and exciting part of the Chapei tradition, which calls for much rapping, rhyming and a lightening wit. Savy is an exceptionally talented young musician, who has made over 20 television appearances and performed with Khmer-American band Dengue Fever. Even more amazing is that Savy is also a leading singer in two other very different Cambodian traditional genres: Ayai and Mohori. Nay and Savy are playing 14 concerts throughout the UK, starting on 19 July in Norwich and finishing 6 August in Oxford. The highlight is two appearances at the Charlton Park WOMAD festival in Wiltshire. As well as Nay’s solo CD due out with Real World, he will be broadcasting on BBC’s Radio 4.
Link: Cambodianlivingarts.

Kompong Khleang

Here's today's 2007 Cambodia Tales instalment. Enjoy...

Kompong Khleang

The floating villages of the Tonle Sap Lake are an enticing alternative attraction for visitors and each of them has its own unique characteristics. 99% of tourists who visit a floating village go to Chong Khneas at the northeast corner of the lake – its just a stone’s throw from Siem Reap and is a real floating village, moving its location depending on the water level - but it gets a lot of negative press because of the mafia who run its tour boats, its drinkshops with tame snakes, pelicans and monkeys, and its plethora of Korean tour groups. Further south from Siem Reap are two more floating villages that are fairly easily accessible, namely Kompong Phluk and Kompong Khleang. I visited Kompong Phluk in 2005, so this time I headed for Kompong Khleang. But don’t think that’s it as far as large settlements on the banks of the lake are concerned – I’ve already paid a visit to Kompong Luong in the south and passed through Prek Toal in the north; and future visits to other villages like Moat Khla are on my must-see list. In all, there are 170 floating villages on the lake itself.

Our visit to Kompong Khleang – 51 kms from Siem Reap – began at 8am with the arrival of Rieng and Heng at my guesthouse in their Pajero 4WD. I’d already been up for an hour, showered and enjoyed a chat over breakfast with new friends Juanita and Matthew. Taking Highway 6 through Roluos, it took us half an hour to reach Damdek. Heng told me it was 37 kms to our turn-off point to Kompong Khleang, opposite a small group of stalls a kilometre after the central market in Damdek. The road was sealed for another couple of kilometres then became less so as we took another twenty-five minutes of careful driving to reach the village. As it was the dry season, we were able to drive into the centre of the settlement, but at the height of the wet season, when the Tonle Sap expands to five times its normal size, its more likely you’ll need to enter by boat, as you do with Kompong Phluk. Rieng and I got out to walk along the ‘high street’ as we entered the village – something of a misnomer as upwards of 30,000 people live there – as Heng drove to the market area to wait for us. Tourists are still something of a novelty in Kompong Khleang, so my presence elicited lots of hello’s and waves from the adults and squeals of delight from the children. We stopped at regular intervals to chat to groups of women, of all ages, gutting the day’s catch of freshwater fish or setting out trays of tiny fish or shrimp to dry in the overhead sun. Behind the houses to my left – all of which were on high wooden poles or stilts up to ten metres off the ground – was the river channel that led to the lake but for now the street was dry and dusty, though would look considerably different in six month’s time.

We reached the market area at the centre of the village which is on a small hillock, enabling the market itself, the health centre, the primary school and the pagoda to remain on dry land all year round. A wedding reception was in full flow – it was the wedding season in Cambodia afterall – as we walked around the market and called into the pagoda, which has colourful paintings on its outside walls and a weather-worn lintel, with Indra atop Airavata, by its front steps, the only relic from a long-disappeared Angkorean temple on the site. The school children were on exercise duty which consisted of running around the main school building ten times, so there were blue and white uniforms everywhere and a cloud of dust. Behind me I heard someone calling my name and turned around to find Rachel Wildblood – a VSO expert working with the fisheries office, who I’d met last year in Kompong Thom – in the middle of a meeting with the commune’s fishing hierarchy. As you can imagine, fishing is the lifeblood of the whole community – I was told there are more than 200 species of fish found in the lake - so we agreed to meet later in the week, and I beat a hasty retreat to a drinks stall in the market, where Heng was in deep conversation about daily life in the village.

The area that the settlement covers is enormous, it’s the largest community on the Tonle Sap and extends out onto the lake where there is a permanent group of floating houses. Next to the market is a pontoon bridge with a removable central section to allow boats to pass, that straddles the main river channel and leads onto a lot more houses and the secondary school. As we retraced our route back down the high street, we were invited to lunch by a group of women, who asked lots of questions and who made me blush with their compliments, and who also invited us to return in three days for a big ceremony in the village, which I had to decline. Our two-hour visit to Kompong Khleang had been an enjoyable one – I was the only tourist in sight – and it would be easy to spend at least the next few days getting to see more of village life but I had a full schedule, so we said our goodbyes to our new friends and headed back to Siem Reap. A couple of kilometres along the road back towards Highway 6, we stopped as a large crowd had gathered after a moto had struck a young girl, who was lying motionless at the roadside but our offer of help was waved away. I also spied a broken lintel in a spirit house next to a small bridge, where the taxi boats congregate in the wet season.

I was back at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse by 1pm for lunch with Kim in their excellent restaurant that looks out onto the Siem Reap river, just a block away from the bustling old market area. Kim is such a bright spark and an amusing lunch companion with her corny jokes, as we discussed her impending move to study at an Australian university. We also went for a browse around the aisles and stalls at the old market before I took a moto to the office of Sage Insights, close to the Hotel De La Paix. Sage is the brainchild of a pal of mine, Andy Booth and his Khmer partner, Phalla Chan and is a travel company with a purpose, whose profits go to supporting educational and social projects in the community and who have kicked off a volunteer program to support the children at Prey Chrouk school. I spoke to Andy using the online skype connection – he was at home in Italy – and also met Pip, their resident volunteer organiser, before returning to the Shadow with Phalla for a drink and a meal, where we were joined by Kim and later, by Pip. I agreed to visit their school in a couple of day’s time to see the difference their work is making to the lives of the children, and by coincidence, it’s also the home village of my guide Rieng. I was in bed by 11.30pm and went out like a light. Link: Cambodia Tales.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Quick return to Prasat Khna

Toun Sokheng and the author at Prasat Khna, January 2007

Continuing a daily blog post of my 2007 Cambodia Tales, here's the latest, a return to the remote countryside of Preah Vihear province, the temple of Prasat Khna and one of my favourite people in Cambodia, Toun Sokheng.

Quick return to Prasat Khna

The 5am wake-up call was provided by a combination of wailing dogs (following last night's full moon) and loudspeaker announcements, as the village of Choam Khsan began early, like all other Cambodian villages. We left the guesthouse and stopped for a noddles and coffee breakfast at a busy foodstall next to the crowded early morning market. As the only foreigner in view, I could sense lots of eyes following my every move as I wandered around the market vendors to see what they had on offer. Our main destination for the day was a return to Prasat Khna - located midway between Choam Khsan and Tbeng Meanchey, along the unused back road - so we took the road east out of the village, turning right after 8 kms and headed along the forest track. We didn't see a soul for over an hour until we reached the Prokieb river and stopped to chat to a mother, grandmother and small children. Crossing another couple of dried riverbeds, we entered the village of Kalapia just before 10am, a little over two hours after leaving Choam Khsan. Kalapia is a quiet, spread-out village of 150 families, and we headed straight for the home of Toun Sokheng, who'd guided us on our first visit a year earlier.

We waited whilst she finished her breakfast, and embarrassed me by asking why I hadn't brought the photos I'd promised her. The three of us walked across the rice fields, updating each other on events of the past twelve months before arriving at the 1oth century temple of Prasat Khna, just beyond a large bamboo thicket. It had taken us 25 minutes to walk the 2 kms, with Sokheng decrying the government officials who'd promised to pay her to keep the temple clear of vegetation but had reneged on their promise. In fact, her hard work paid dividends for me, as the lay-out of the temple was now clearer, it was a little easier to clamber around the complex, although still tricky in places, and an additional laterite resthouse building, albeit in partial ruin, had been revealed just outside the main laterite wall. After an exhausting hour of discovery, we sat on the wall to continue our chat. Sokheng's husband was killed in the final flurry of civil war fighting in 1996, leaving her to bring up their three children alone. Now 46 herself - her daughters are Rany (24) and Silon (15) and her son, Mia (13) - Sokheng is a real down-to-earth, immensely likeable woman with a great sense of humour and well-respected by her neighbours, who'd asked her to stand at the forthcoming commune elections. However, she refused because she can't read or write, having been moved to the village by the Khmer Rouge many years ago from her home in Svay Rieng and missed out on her formal education. We arrived back at her house on stilts at midday and shared a meal of chicken, rice and sardines, washed down with Red Bull, before more chat, eventually saying our goodbyes a little after 1pm. I promised to return, and I will.

Between Kalapia and the village of Po, we encountered some ox-cart traffic and stopped for a breather at a newly-constructed wooden resthouse, where a team of female labourers were building a well. The resthouse is to be used by the inhabitants of Po, a very friendly village overflowing with waves, smiles and goodbyes. At 3.30pm we reached the new pontoon bridge over the Stung Sen river - it cost 1,000 riel to take the moto across - just outside Tbeng Meanchey. We called into the Bakan and Phnom Meas guesthouses but decided to try somewhere new, so booked into the Sopheak Meangkol GH, back towards the river crossing. It cost $6 for a double room with fan, tv and ensuite but the main selling point was the owner's friendly daughter, Soktheara, for whom nothing was too much trouble. A warm shower was the first priority, followed by watching the sun set, a meal of chicken soup, beef and fried vegetables at the Malop Dong restaurant and a tikalok fruit shake on the main drag. Returning to our guesthouse, we had a long chat with the owner, his daughter Soktheara (27) and her cousin Dahlin (15) before retiring at 10.30pm, though the karaoke parlour nearby made it difficult to fall asleep quickly.

Next morning, we were up and out for breakfast just after 7am, having thanked our hosts - I liked the hospitality and friendliness of our guesthouse but the noisy karaoke joint closeby is a turn-off - and enjoyed our noodles at the Malop Dong. On the restaurant's tv, it was good to see a program on Khmer culture, with a 15 minute feature devoted to the delights of Phnom Chisor. Back on the road, four hours later, we took a drinks-break at a roadside stall in the village of Salavisay, just under an hour from Kompong Thom. Dany, a shy 21 year old, youngest daughter of seven sisters, told us her rent for the stall is just $1 per month and she treated us to refreshing drinks and a selection of sweets during our thirty minute rest. As we entered Kompong Thom town at 1pm, Sokhom was pulled over at a police roadblock and fined 10,000 riel for not having any side mirrors on his moto, which displeased him greatly, having had his fill of officialdom recently. He explained that he was currently fighting a court battle with the Pharmacy next door, who were claiming his land even though he has title documents to prove his ownership. Land disputes are flavour of the month in Cambodia right now and in court, whoever pays the most, usually gets the verdict in their favour. Sokhom had taken his fight onto local radio and the Cambodia Daily newspaper - I sincerely hope he gets the decision overturned and quickly.

I booked into the Mittapheap hotel - air-con and hot water for $10 - nestled alongside the Stung Sen river, showered, used the internet ($1/hour) at the corner of the market, visited Cristiano Calcagno at the GTZ offices to catch-up with my fellow temple-hunter, who'd recently completed the Angkor Bike Race, and finished a creditable sixth. We had a drink at the Arunras cafe before I took Sokhom, his wife Sroy and Kunthea for our traditional 'goodbye' meal at the Bayon restaurant. $7 provided the four of us with a veritable feast and drinks, while Kunthea showed off her excellent English, proudly telling me she was top of her class in all subjects, confirming that this young girl is definitely an A-class student of the highest order. Back at Sokhom's home, we finished off with tikaloks and chatted with Keo Sambo, Kunthea's teacher who I'd met on previous occasions. An early night at 9.30pm, allowed me an early start at 6.30am next morning, my last in Kompong Thom. After breakfast with Sokhom at the Arunras, we paid a visit to Sroy's family home about a kilometre away. Sroy's father is called Thai, he's head of the commune with the Sam Rainsy Party and we spent a good hour chatting about politics, as well as taking photos with Sroy's three sisters, their children, Thai and his wife, Sun. Kunthea cycled off to the market, returning with three presents for me to take home before I said my goodbyes and caught the coach to Phnom Penh, outside the Arunras hotel, at 11am. My time with Sokhom is always a fantastic adventure and this trip again lived up to that billing. Have no fear, there will be many more in the future. The three-hour coach trip passed quickly as I chatted to the stewardess, Norn Sombo, a 23 year old former teacher from Kompong Thom, who'd joined the Mekong Express company a year earlier. I arrived at the coach company's headquarters near Wat Phnom at 2pm and headed straight for my home-from-home in the capital, the Dara Reang Sey hotel.
Link: Cambodia Tales.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Saving Siamese Crocodiles

As part of the BBC’s Saving Planet Earth series starting tomorrow, Radio One DJ Edith Bowman (pictured above) has made a one-off documentary in Cambodia on the plight of the Siamese crocodile. The documentary will be screened on UK BBC television at 7pm on Wednesday 27 June.

This particular crocodile’s history has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it plays a vital part in the natural ecological balance of the tropical environment in Cambodia. On the other, the crocodiles’ population was so depleted by the fashion industry’s demand for skins that it was declared extinct in 1992. Edith Bowman joins reptile expert Jenny Daltry, who re-discovered a small remnant of the wild population deep in the Cambodian jungle, to uncover the very human story behind the attitudes of the local people to the crocodile. She travels to the jungle marshes of the Cardomom Mountains in south west Cambodia to learn about the importance of the crocodiles to the local people and how a combination of community work and high-tech science, funded by Fauna & Flora International, is helping to save the species.
However, Edith is horrified when she visits one of the 1,000 crocodile farms cultivating the reptiles for the fashion industry. Huge concrete bunkers house a variety of hybrid crocodiles whose fine, soft skins are prized for handbags and are worth $1,000 each. “I never thought that I could feel sympathy for crocodiles,” says Edith. “It’s tragic to see any animal being treated like this. Even worse, it’s a trade purely driven by fashion. Its extinction is being driven by our own vanity.” After a two-hour pillion ride into the jungle, Edith receives a warm welcome from the O’Som community, who live near the last stronghold of 250 wild crocs, discovered by Jenny during an amazing expedition in 2001. “I can’t imagine turning up in any town in the UK and getting reception like this – and playing keepy-ups with locals,” marvels Edith. The crocodiles are sacred to the villagers because of their role as top river predators, helping to maintain the natural ecological balance. The community would be the first to suffer if that balance changed and they are determined to maintain their traditional lifestyle.
Australian biologist Boyd Simpson is Fauna & Flora International’s man in the forest, working with the Cambodian wardens trying to locate, radio track and study the crocs. It’s not easy, as the animals that have survived years of persecution are, by definition, very hard to find. Earlier in the season, the team found a crocodile nest with 25 eggs – a real hope for the future. But, they are devastated when the nest is raided by a monitor lizard. For an animal on the edge of extinction, it’s a cruel fate. But there’s a ray of hope. The team work so closely with the Cambodian villagers that they get to hear of crocodiles being taken for the skin trade. The big question is finding out if the croc is a pure Siamese or from the wild. Edith gets involved while Boyd takes some DNA, wrapping some tape round a crocodile’s snapping jaw. “This is slightly strange to be straddling a croc,” she muses. If it is found to be a pure Siamese croc it could be the start of a new breeding programme to build the wild population.
On her last night at the camp, Edith brings out the whisky and shortbread to return the community’s hospitality. “Seeing how they live and seeing how important the crocodile is to the way they live, you can see they’re the perfect guardians for this animal,” she says. Holding a small baby croc in her hand, Edith says: “There are so few of the Siamese crocodiles left in the world, and they’re kind of seen as the black sheep of the endangered species. People have complete misconceptions about this animal. “They’re 65 million years old and they’ve survived dinosaurs – yet it looks like they may not survive us. You have the power to give them a second chance.”

Unspoilt Preah Vihear

Above: Sokhom inspects the east gate of Prasat Chean Sram
I am determined to finish writing up my travel tales from my January 2007 visit to Cambodia. So to put myself under some pressure, I will post a tale each day on my Blog until they are complete! Below is my travelogue from a trip into the countryside of Preah Vihear province.
Unspoilt Preah Vihear
I arrived in the centre of Kompong Thom just before 10am, having started early that day at 5.30am, to eat breakfast, say my goodbyes to the family and staff at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse and to Rieng, who stopped by to wish me well. The Mekong Express bus left the Siem Reap coach station at 7.40am and took just over two hours to deposit me in front of the Arunras Hotel, and to the beaming smile of my great friend Sokhom. Within an hour we'd left my backpack with Sokhom's wife and were on his trusty Daelim moto, for the 130 kms trip due north to Tbeng Meanchey (TBM), on the hunt for new adventures. It was an uneventful trek, though we stopped enroute for drinks at the village of Svay Phay where Kanya, the vendor, had a real thirst for learning English and didn't want us to leave. Our journey took us seven hours, as we reached TBM at 3.30pm and called into the Malop Dong restaurant for a bowl of chicken soup and a breather from the hot sun.
Our next destination was the village of Koulean, east of TBM and a ninety-minute ride away. We arrived just before 6pm, booked the last two fan rooms (for $2.50 each) at the Chey Chom Neas guesthouse and enjoyed a cold water shower, just what the doctor ordered after our hard day on the road. Hungry, we went in search of a food stall and found only one still open. Everywhere else had closed down as most of the village were attending a wedding, hence the loud music that enveloped the village, but our hosts had not been invited. Plates of chicken, vegetables and rice, washed down with drinks, came to just $2. Back at the guesthouse, I spied a group of twenty children watching a horror film on the television, so I crept up on them and jumped into the room to provide a double fright, from both the tension of the film and me - being the only foreigner they'd ever met. After recovering from the fright, everyone fell about giggling and laughing and I sat down with them to watch an unintelligible dvd dubbed into Khmer from Korean. I retired to my room at 9pm but the loud music from the wedding interrupted my attempts to sleep until it finished at 2.30am. From 5am the cacophony of sounds from animals, birds, kids, cooking pots, et al signalled another early start for us, so we paid the bill and returned to our food stall, now very busy with customers, for some breakfast noddles and a boxed lunch.
Our target was a series of ancient Angkorean temples I'd identified in the Preah Vihear countryside, as we set off at 7.30am, taking a northeast route, and heading for the village of Prey Veng. It was an hour before we had our next human contact - a family in an ox-cart - with the track through scrub and fields barely identifiable until we arrived at the Stung Rongea river crossing, amidst a massive bamboo forest. Most of the rice fields had been burned so my trousers were covered in soot marks and for the next hour we saw only three policemen on bikes, before we arrived at our first destination, Prey Veng village. Whilst a group of men played volleyball, a village meeting was taking place and it looked like most of the 300 inhabitants were present. Our objective was a nearby temple, Prasat Chean Sram and Tel offered to guide us, once the volleyball game had finished! At 10am, Tel led us by bicycle along a forest trail for 2 kms, to a large bamboo thicket and announced we'd arrived - I couldn't see a thing but I knew appearances can be deceptive. Just past the first line of trees was a laterite wall surrounding a deep pond and immediately beyond that was another larger laterite wall and a beautiful sandstone entrance gopura, with a lintel of Indra, a Gala pediment, colonettes and balustered windows. Tel told us that the temple had been demined a year before and had taken three months to clear. Immediately inside the gateway were two ruined laterite libraries with lintels and a collapsed gallery along the outer wall. In front of us, on a six-foot high sandstone platform, was the temple's centrepiece quincrux of five brick towers in varying degrees of ruin and surrounded by vegetation. Each tower was open to the east, had a lintel or two in situ, with nicely carved versions of Indra, Nandin, Gala and a small sanskrit inscription on one of the doorways. Beyond the central platform was the second gopura, the west gate, with lintels intact too. It was certainly the best example of a tenth century temple I'd seen for a while on my travels outside of Angkor.
I asked Tel about another site, Phnom Sandak, which he pointed to in the distance, approximately ten kilometres away and said he'd visited the three temples there - Prasats Kay, Konchen and Ter - but assured me all three were very badly ruined. I believed him. It was midday so we moved to the nearby baray to eat our lunch amongst the birds and butterflies in a beautifully peaceful spot. Tel shared our chicken and rice and told us about his ten years as a Khmer Rouge foot soldier, joining them when he was just thirteen. Now 4o years old, he makes a little money from selling resin oil from gum trees but life in the countryside is a perpetual struggle. We thanked Tel and rode off heading for Yeang village, where I believed there were two more temple sites to discover. Our route was an ox-cart track, across half a dozen dried riverbeds and most likely impossible during the rainy season. The 10 kms to the village of Choam Sre took us an hour and our arrival aroused great interest. A large village of 150 families, we stopped for drinks, petrol and a game of volleyball. It was another ten kilometres to Yeang village and despite a detour over and around the Stung Sen river, we arrived forty-five minutes later, at 3pm.
Yeang is a typical countryside village, neatly arranged in a grid-like fashion and full of friendly, smiling faces. We stopped for a Red Bull at a drinks stall manned by Sinourt and asked where we could stay overnight. She said, "follow me." I looked like the Pied Piper as I headed a line of small inquisitive children, who followed us to Sinourt's parent's house. To say we were made welcome is a massive understatement. Phearng and Sinoun, her parents, were effervescent in their greeting and Sinoun promptly selected her fattest chicken, broke its neck and preceded to pluck and cook it, while Phearng and a couple of his friends shared bottles of rice wine with Sokhom and myself. We climbed the steps of the family home to eat our chicken supper and were joined by our hosts' five children - Jana (20), Golap (16), Bonty (12), Vila (8) and then Sinourt (24), arrived with her two children, Sonida (7) and Sokthea (4). Phearng and Sinoun were wonderful hosts, as we spent the next four hours talking about our respective lives, interspersed with much laughter and compliments. Phearng, who was born in the village, told us there were 77 families living there and most were at one time or another allied to the Khmer Rouge. He himself spent a dozen years as a guerrilla soldier, calling that period of his life, "a nightmare". Despite my protestations, they gave me a mattress, blanket and mosquito net and we all retired around 9.30pm, after of course, a photo session that seemed to last for an hour at least!
Even with a blanket, it was a cold night as I woke up intermittently before getting up at 6.30am to the usual village noises. The daughters cooked our breakfast of dried fish and omelette with rice and I took a freezing cold shower with water from their own well. Another photo session preceded our 9am departure - as most of the village came around to take a look at the stranger in their midst. Phearng told me no foreigner had ever stayed in the village before, and it was an emotional goodbye to Sinoun and her children - our bond had grown quickly and I promised to see them on my next visit to the province, as well as bringing them the album of photos I'd taken! Jana was getting married in a month and told me my visit was a good omen for her wedding - I was very touched and it was a wrench to leave. It is people like Phearng and his family that leave such a lasting impression on me - they have so little and their life is a real struggle, but they're willing to share whatever they have with Sokhom and myself, who are complete strangers.
Leaving Yeang village with Phearng as our guide, we headed north, wading through the Stung Sen river, on the hunt for two more temple sites, Prasat Dap and Prasat Bei, and stopping at the village of Komping to collect Phearng's cousin, Norn, and a long knife. Another 8 kms due north, across five dried riverbeds, a bamboo forest that we had to cut our way through and a major mechanical problem with Phearng's moto, we reached Prasat Dap at 11am. With an outer laterite wall, the large central brick tower was still standing but without its roof, while at least four other brick towers were in ruins, as were two laterite libraries. The site was awash with thick vegetation, piles of bricks, broken colonettes, a pedestal but no lintels, and Norn told us all carvings had been stolen by thieves. For the next two hours, we spent most of the time making little headway due to Phearng's starter-motor problem, so in the end he decided to head home on foot and leave Sokhom, Norn and myself to carry onto Prasat Bei. Another emotional parting ensued. At 2pm we arrived at the temple - three towers, comprising large sandstone blocks but without any decorative carvings. A few colonettes and a large pedestal in one tower were all that remained, and a sandstone library and the east gopura and wall were in a particularly ruinous state. All vegetation had been burned off and my trousers were again covered in soot - I must remember to wear some darker trousers next time. The temple wasn't what I'd hoped for but its all about the experience. Norn was just 2 kms from Komping village so he pointed us in the direction of Choam Khsan, our next destination and walked off into the forest.
Half an hour later, tracing a track through the forest, and keeping our fingers crossed, we met the main TBM to Preah Vihear road. Just before 4pm we crossed the eleven iron bridges that announce you've entered the large settlement of Choam Khsan. With our regular guesthouse at Heng Heng by the market, now closed, we chose the Serypeap GH and a more than welcome cold shower. Just before 6pm we drove around looking for a food stall and found just one still open, in the market area, where we gulped down our chicken soup and moved next door for some refreshing tikalok fruit drinks. We were joined for a chat by Soveat, the former owner of the Heng Heng which he's now converted to an all-purpose store. With most of Choam Khsan already asleep, we retired to our rooms by 8.30pm for an early night, ready for a return to Prasat Khna bright and early the next morning - a temple we'd visited a year earlier and where the wonderful Toun Sokheng resided.