Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cambodia through to semi's

As expected, Cambodia took just three sets to dispose of India in this afternoon's quarter-final clash of the WOVD Standing Volleyball World Cup at the Olympic Stadium, here in Phnom Penh. Cambodia, who finished 3rd in the round-robin series of matches, will now face Slovakia in a very tough semi-final tomorrow (Friday) at 6pm, and will need their supporters to turn out in force to help make the difference. Slovakia and Germany are the two countries to inflict Cambodia's only defeats so far in this competition. India proved to be plucky opponents after easily losing the first set 26-6, with Mean Veasna (right) in top form for the home team. They led the second set 13-11 before Cambodia stormed back to win it 25-20. The third set saw Cambodia coasting a little, making substitutions to give squad members a taste of the action, before finally winning 25-14. Not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but a job well done and time to relax before tomorrow's all-important semi-final. Stand Up Cambodia #1.

Cambodia at peace

This travel article from the UK press gives The Times' Travel Editor's view of the changing face of Cambodia and mentions my new company, Hanuman Tourism. Read on.

Exciting, exotic, romantic – even if the restaurants now offer cutlery – by Cath Urquhart, Travel Editor [May 19, 2007]

Perhaps a travel editor shouldn’t admit to having favourites, but, if pressed, I must say that South-East Asia always comes top of my places I love. I spent several happy and exciting months exploring the exotic destinations of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the early Nineties.
Those were the days before the region hit mainstream travel brochures, and it felt largely unexplored. In Laos, grass grew down the main streets of the capital, Vientiane, and you needed permits to travel everywhere (although the fine for being caught without a permit cost less than the permit).
In Vietnam we had to register at the police station in every town we visited – or pay someone to queue up and do it for us. And in Cambodia – which was still recovering from the brutal Khmer Rouge period – tourists were so scarce that whenever you met another Westerner, you would fall on each other like long-lost friends. Needless to say, this meant I hooked up with some wildly inappropriate travel companions, several of whom still write to me from prison. (Mum: just kidding.)
So, on a return visit to Cambodia this spring, I wondered how I’d feel about other tourists visiting my special places. I soon realised that I was going to have to guard against an outbreak of Travel Snobbishness, and its companion offence, Boring the Pants off Everyone about How it Was in the Old Days.
Yes, I had some exciting times in the early nineties, but do I miss restaurants with no cutlery? Flying on Wing and a Prayer airlines? Not a bit. Tourists are visiting this region in ever greater numbers, because now it’s safe to travel, and locals are making good money from tourism businesses: this is terrific news for a region that has suffered much in recent decades. Take Sotho Kulikar, for example, Kulikar (surnames are given first in Cambodia) and her mother set up Hanuman Tourism, a Phnom Penh-based travel agency, 16 years ago in their back room. They now have 154 staff and offices in Siem Reap and Laos. Kulikar’s father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. That her family has not only survived but flourished shows how far the country has come, and how much tourism is playing a part in that recovery.

To read Cath Urquhart’s travel article on her visit to Cambodia, click here. She travelled with one of Hanuman's top partners in the UK, Audley Travel.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cambodia defeat world champions

The Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, scene of Cambodia' s win over the world champions Canada
The Cambodia team listen proudly to the Cambodian National Anthem before the game
Wow, what an incredible afternoon. Cambodia faced the World Champions Canada in the final WOVD Standing Volleyball World Cup round-robin match looking for a victory to give themselves the best possible chance of getting a medal at the championships. With wins over India and Poland and defeats against Slovakia and Germany, Cambodia faced the toughest possible opponents in Canada, the #1 ranked team in the world....and won!
In the first set, spurred on by a noisy crowd who made good use of wooden sticks on the plastic seats to generate a high volume throughout the game, Cambodia took the lead and never gave the opposition a glimmer of a chance, winning 25-16. However, Canada sensed it might be their day when they raced to a 25-17 win in the second set, led by their man-mountain centre Stewart, who at 6ft 7ins dwarfed every other player on the court.
Not to be outshone on this special occasion, Cambodia had their own star player, Mean Veasna in top form and his volleys helped them to a 25-17 third set victory and the crowd suddenly had thoughts of the impossible, a Cambodia win. In the thrilling 4th and final set, Cambodia took the lead and never relinquished it, closing out the game 25-19 for a memorable 3 sets to 1 win over the tournament favourites. The players went beserk and carried their coach Christian Zepp aloft while captain Chhum Chhandy ran around the court waving the Cambodia flag with sheer delight. You could see how much it meant to each of the players, they were ecstatic, as were the crowd. It gave me goosebumps. And I'm proud to say, I was there!
The Cambodian team line-up before the victory over Canada
Not everybody was as ecstatic as me! How she slept through the noise I will never know
Cambodia meet India in a quarter-final clash Thursday, whom they beat earlier in the week, and will face Slovakia if they progress, in the semi-final on Friday. The final will be held on Saturday.

A temple all to ourselves

Safari tent at Preah Vihear
As you may've gathered from my website, I love Cambodian temples and getting out into the countryside and 're-discovering' ruined Angkorean temples whenever I get the chance. This travel article in the UK's Telegraph Travel newspaper from 28 April this year, is on the same theme and gives you the sort of 'goosebump' feelings I've been lucky enough to experience on thirteen trips to Cambodia in as many years, before recently moving out here to live.

A temple all to ourselves
Tired of the crowds of Angkor Wat, Francisca Kellett follows in the footsteps if Indiana Jones to explore the little-known ruins of Cambodia – and finds them well worth a bone-crunching drive or two.

In a country famous for its appalling roads, the one to Preah Vihear must be its worst. Barely wide enough for our 4x4, it cut into the 500m high cliff face at a vertiginous 45 degree angle. Shoulder-high grass pushed against the windows and rusty skull-and-crossbones signs loomed out (“Danger! Mines!”). This, I thought, clinging white-knuckled to the door handle, had better be worth it.
Our goal was one of Cambodia’s most isolated and dramatic temples, carved into a sandstone plateau in the far north-west of the country. We had spent two days on tortuous roads to get here – two days that proved to be an effective way to leave other tourists behind.
In Cambodia, you quickly adapt to your fellow visitors. You don’t have a choice. More than a million of them flood into Siem Reap each year to see the country’s famous site, Angkor Wat. There, my boyfriend and I had queued to join the swarm over Angkor’s lofty towers, been pushed aside by a crocodile-line of tour groups below Bayon’s stone heads, and raced through Ta Prohm’s chambers, fleeing the screeching megaphones of Korean tour guides.
We escaped Siem Reap on what they call a temple safari, a promise of a three-day adventure into the wild north-west. Here, we would take in some of the least-visited ruins in the country and camp-out, alone, in their shadows.
We set off in a dusty 4x4 with a guide, Servert, a cook and a driver. Trussed to the roof were three plastic water tanks; the boot bulged with boxes of food, ropes, tarpaulins and tools. It was like being rescued by the A-team – although this squad included a live chicken, clucking quietly in a box in the boot.
As we raced through Siem Reap’s outskirts, gleaming five-star hotels gave way to wooden huts on stilts, and tour buses were replaced by mopeds, swaying under the weight of entire families and baskets of live piglets. The Tarmac roads narrowed and crumbled into red dust, edged by emerald pools where water buffaloes wallowed amid lotus flowers. Mopeds gave way to bicycles, and bicycles to buffalo carts.
After two hours we arrived at Beng Mealea, our first stop. I braced myself for a queue of tour buses, but as we slowed to a halt the road stretched ahead, empty and shimmering hot. A small boy in ragged shorts wobbled past on an adult bicycle. A stray dog dozed outside a roadside café. Finally, no other tourists. We left the car and walked into the forest.
Hidden at the end of a dusty track stood the silent 12th century ruins, their collapsed, mottle grey stones smothered by foliage. Strangler figs snaked over stones and straddled walls, dropping their roots to the ground like thick plaits of hair. Vines wrapped around lintels and traced intricate patterns over carvings of demons and dancers.
Whilst we scrabbled around the ruins, the chaos of the forest pressed together over our heads, blocking out sunlight and dampening sound. We saw just two other people: a pair of guards slumped on some steps sharing a cigarette. It felt like an expensive, deserted, Hollywood set: Indiana Jones or Lara Croft might suddenly leap from a doorway, clutching a relic.
We drove on through the forest, a brief shower patting the dust back on the raised red scar of rod. Houses became smaller and villages farther apart. Children gleamed in the afternoon sun as they fished in the waist-high ponds and stared open-mouthed as we passed.
We saw only one other vehicle; a rusty blue van from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, bumping over the potholes that seemed to increase with every mile. The signs warning of mines began to multiply, too: skulls and crossbones scattered ominously between the trees. Cambodia has one of the highest incidences of landmines in the world, a legacy of years of civil war, but Servert assured us that 98 per cent of the devices had been removed.
That night, we camped outside the walls of Koh Ker. Three centuries older than Beng Mealea and once capital of the Angkor empire. A hundred temples are hidden in the silver-grey forest, from dark stone structures sheltering giant stone phalluses to large red-brick temples smothered by strangler figs.
Despite first impressions, nowhere was quite deserted. At each site a handful of workers would emerge from the trees and temples, armed with brooms and earnest smiles. The youngest would follow us around, pointing at an engraved column here, a hidden garuda statue there. Servert said we were the first visitors in a week.
The true scale of the site was revealed beyond the leaning structures at our last stop. Behind the rusty-red temples, the forest abruptly opened up to disclose a seven-tiered pyramid, towering above the trees in a field the size of two football pitches. As our tem went to set up camp, we clambered alone up the steep, worn steps and sat looking out over the forest, the light sliding into a dusty pink and a cloud of egrets passing soundlessly overhead.
Dinner was a noisier affair. Arriving at the camp – a fireplace, a couple of tents and a bucket shower just outside the temple walls – we found that our cook had created a feast of ginger chicken, fried fish and spicy soup. The hen that had been boxed up in the boot was nowhere to be seen. We ate under the trees, listening to the background thump of the generator and the blare of Cambodian pop from the cook’s radio.
At 9.30pm sharp our team dispersed into tents, the radio and generator were silenced and a hush fell over the camp. Eerie forest crackles drifted through the thin canvas of our tent, and in the distance a baby cried into the night.
Next day, we spent five bone-crunching hours juddering across rice-paddy plains and through forest villages, before our final cold-sweat climb up to Preah Vihear. And here, after two isolated adventurous days, we saw our first tourists. We hadn’t seen or passed any on the way up. Where had they come from? I was utterly unprepared, and glared resentfully at their Bermuda shorts and baseball caps. My grumblings were halted an hour later, though, when they headed towards the gate and vanished. At 4pm we had the ruins to ourselves.
The temple climbed up over a series of avenues, stone steps and gopuras (entrance pavilions), which followed to the very top where we sat, cross-legged, on the edge of the plateau. With the hot stones of the temple behind us and the countryside rolling out below, we watched the sun set in a milky, tropical haze. It felt as though we could see the curve of the planet.
That night, after another feast below the ruins, we climbed, giggling, back up with a torch. It felt brave and audacious and when we reached the first temple I dared my boyfriend to turn off his light. As we stood beneath the dark, silent stones – still radiating warmth from the day’s sun – it felt suddenly menacing. Pinpricks of starlight shone between the looming ruins and the centuries-old stones seemed to weigh down around us. We clambered back down to the reassuring light of the camp.
Next morning, the quiet was broken as a small trickle of tourists arrived and, by the time we had broken camp, two dozen or so were straggling up to the top. Where on earth had they come from now? Nonplussed, we walked past them to the main entrance and, from this new, low vantage point, saw what was bringing them in. On the far side of the plateau was a gleaming, beautifully laid three-lane highway. This, Servert explained, was the road on the Thai side of the border. Half a dozen air-conditioned buses arrived every day, dropping off their charges and whisked them back to the comfortable hotels on the Thai side before sundown.
As we clambered back into our dusty 4x4, I braced myself for the wrecked roads, landmine warnings and empty plains on the Cambodian side. I preferred it our way.

If you are looking to experience this unique adventure for yourself, click here for more info.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The ancient secret unleashed

The Trailer for the first ever Bokator movie has been released - by Dante Scott
“Before there was Muay Thai, there was Bokator”

The trailer for the new film about Khmer Bokator has just been released and is available here.

The ancient Cambodians didn’t leave many written records to tell us how they lived. Fortunately the history was somewhat preserved in the stone carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat and in the arts, handed down from generation to generation. Grand Master San Kim Saen is the man credited with surviving the Khmer Rouge genocide, and then returning to Cambodia to revive the dying Khmer Martial Art of Bokator. Today, he works closely with writers and film makers in an effort to document his country’s art and share it with the world. Film producer, Tim Pek, of Transparent Pictures, whose family endured the hardship of the Pol Pot Regime, was a child refugee to Australia. Now, as an adult, he has returned to his home country to make films, giving a voice to a people in a desperate need to tell their story. The release date of the Bokator film was delayed because Tim was working on another Khmer film, called 'The Red Sense.' Shot in Australia, the story revolves around a young woman who discovers that the Khmer Rouge soldier who killed her father, is alive and well in Australia. She is torn between wanting to take revenge or if in forgiving her father’s executioner, she could bring healing to herself and her people. Both films show the deep cultural and religious roots of the Khmer society.

Bokator is about martial art, but it tells so much more. The first half of the Bokator film is a documentary, telling the origin and nature of the martial art. The second half is a mini-film, starring martial arts and adventure writer Antonio Graceffo, called 'Brooklyn Bokator.' Always the baddie in Asian action cinema, Antonio plays a boxer from Brooklyn , with a bad attitude and a fat belly who gets beat up by an old man. Seeking revenge, he returns to boxing trainer, played by his real-life coach Paddy Carson, asking his coach to get him in shape so he can beat up the old man. “If an old man beats you, then you must not fight him, you must learn from him.” Says Paddy. “As always, I was honored to play in a Khmer movie. I am so grateful for all of the email and support that has come to me from Khmer people around the globe.” Says Graceffo, who receives countless emails, daily. “The actual acting was pretty funny. I play a big out of shape boxer from Brooklyn. It wasn’t much of a stretch. The story is in a lot of ways, based on my own experience of coming to Cambodia to train. For example, in the beginning of the film, my character doesn’t speak Khmer. And he gets a little sick when his training brothers ask him to eat spiders. By the end, he gets used to all of that and he learns to respect the spirit of Angkorian warrior.”

Volleyball mania

The Cambodian team prepare for the game to begin
Despite shouting myself hoarse, I couldn’t change the outcome of the WOVD Standing Volleyball World Cup tie as the world’s 2nd ranked team Germany defeated the gallant and plucky underdogs, the Cambodian national team at the Olympic Stadium last night. Though the Germans won three sets to nil, the Cambodians never gave in and took their opponents to a third set 25-23 score before finally succumbing. The last set told the story of the whole match in that the Cambodians built a lead in each of the sets only for the Germans to rally and overtake their diminutive opponents to close out the sets, 25-21, 25-17 and 25-23. The sizeable crowd warmed to the task of cheering on the home side, waving small flags and increasing the vocal support as it looked as though the Cambodians would win the third set, but two crucial fouls called by the referees turned the set in Germany’s favour and they closed out the match.
Of the six teams taking part in the finals Cambodia have beaten India and lost to Slovakia and Germany. They face Poland today and world champions Canada tomorrow. The standard of volleyball on display was very high with most of the athletes overcoming severe disability to reach this level of competition, though the Cambodian audience needs to be even more vocal if they want to carry their team through to the final stages of the world cup on a tidal wave of enthusiasm. I’m sure it was a case of mixed emotions last night for the Cambodian national team coach Christian Zepp, who is German.
The two teams are presented to the German Ambassador after the match
Earlier in the day I paid a brief visit to the National Library (Bibliotheque) and the National Archives, but both were closed, the library for lunch even though it was just past 11am, and the other for a stock audit til 1 December. I've yet to step foot in either, so this was the purpose of my visit as well as an archaeological exhibition by EFEO at the library, which I'll have to visit another day.

The National Library (Bibliotheque)

The National Archives

Monday, November 26, 2007

News snippets

The Volleyball World Cup for disabled athletes began at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on Saturday and a crowd of over 7,000 watched the opening ceremony and a Cambodian win over India in the first international sporting event in more than four decades to be held in Cambodia. I'm going along to watch the Cambodian team, who have a real chance of a medal, take on #2 ranked Germany at 6pm this evening at the stadium. And as I was eating my lunch at the Khmer Kitchen restaurant today, who should walk past, but the whole of the Cambodian national volleyball squad. Where sport and music are two of the country's most popular diversions, Stand Up Cambodia #1 is the the World Cup Anthem, recorded by Cambodian superstar singer Preap Sovath. Link: WOVD website.
This Thursday, golf will be in the spotlight when we will see the inaugural Johnnie Walker Cambodian Open tee off at at the Phokeethra Country Club near Siem Reap. The US$300,000 Asian Tour event will be the first professional golf tournament to take place in Cambodia.
Last week the Cambodian government signed an agreement with two Indonesian companies to establish a national airline, six years after its former national carrier went bankrupt. The new carrier is scheduled to begin operations in six months, with the Cambodian government holding a 51% stake and receiving 30% of the profits. Cambodia has been without a national carrier since Royal Air Cambodge went bankrupt in 2001 and negotiations with private airlines to set up a joint deal managed under government auspices have dragged on since 2002.
On the newswires today, there's the possibility that Phnom Penh and Siem Reap could have its own tramway if the French company, Alstom get their way. Sounds romantic but a co-ordinated transport policy is a long way off from materialising, so at this stage its just wishful thinking. One small item that made me smile today as I drove around town, was the sheer volume of broken sandals lying in every road I passed after three days of mass crowds converging on the city.
Finally... it was a shocking weekend for me personally, as far as the UK footy results went. I never thought I'd ever see Leeds United playing at Cheltenham Town's Whaddon Road ground in a league match, especially as a boy I supported both of the teams with a consuming passion: back then Leeds were winning the First Division Championship and Cheltenham were in the lower reaches of the Southern League. Oh, how times change! Well, Leeds visited Whaddon Road on Sunday and had their noses blooded by the bottom club, 1-0. At the same time my other team, Kidderminster Harriers went down 2-0 at home to Oxford. But the award for the biggest plonker of the weekend goes to Mike Slasher (name changed for identity reasons). He's been a great pal of mine for many years and he celebrated his 50th birthday this weekend. However, he was frog-marched out of the Whaddon Road ground before the Leeds match for taking a leak in a public place. Mike is renowned for this - obviously in Cambodia no one bats an eyelid - but in Cheltenham its rightly frowned upon and he was ejected and banned from future matches. Happy birthday Mike!

Roy’s clicking into gear

Roy was in touch last week. Yes, I couldn’t believe it either. I think he hibernates for eleven months each year. The Roy in question is Roy Hill, the ultra-talented singer-songwriter who made a massive impression on me, musically, back in 1978. Then, for me, he completely disappeared off the radar, until 26 years later. In the intervening years, whilst I was busy listening to Steel Pulse, Ennio Morricone, Billy Bragg and so on, Roy had licked his wounds after a bloody nose from his unfulfilled solo career to rise again in the guise of Cry No More, who for a decade wowed audiences in stockbroker-belt SE England, and beyond. My re-introduction to seeing Roy in the flesh again, accompanied by his straightfaced sidekick Chas Cronk, in the form of Cry No More was a revelation. Roy has matured his boyish charm and comic monologues into the funniest music set I’ve ever seen. He is simply brilliant.
Anyway, back to last week’s correspondence. I’ll tell you what Roy’s plans are as hopefully that will be an additional prod to make him complete the mammoth task he’s set himself. He’s currently putting all six Cry No More albums onto cd’s with his own inspired artwork, as well as compiling a dvd to be called The Cry No More Story, which will include clips from old vcr tapes, videos from three recent compositions and narration from Roy himself. If that’s not enough to whet your tastebuds, he’s also clicking into gear with his own stuff too. He’s nearly completed the first two releases: Hello Sailor – very early tracks recorded before he signed to Arista in 1977 – and Fun With Dave – songs recorded with Dave Richards in Switzerland during the early ‘80s. The target he’s set himself is ten releases in all, fifteen if he includes “the real rubbish!”
If all that comes to fruition, I beseech everyone to buy the whole set. You will love it, I promise. My decision to relocate to Cambodia has some drawbacks to it, one of them is missing the annual Cry No More Christmas extravaganza. This year’s is on 28 December at the Turks Head in Twickenham. If you don’t attend, I want to know why. At least I can say I’m 6,300 miles away on the other side of the world, what’s your excuse?
Link: Roy Hill.

Festival update

I spent Saturday morning in the office and broke-off at lunchtime for a siesta and then out to the riverfront area with my good friend Sophoin to get some of the flavour of the second day of the Bon Om Tuk water festival and the continuing heats of the dragon boat racing. This was the first time I’d seen the crews in live race action and both sides of the river were crowded with spectators. It was fun to see different sections of the crowd burst into life as they recognised their boat from their particular village or province, as the crews gave it their all in the race from the Japanese bridge down to the finishing line in front of the Royal Palace. The crowd along the riverfront in front of FCC was about five deep, so getting a good spot to watch and take photos would’ve required an early start, so we merely peered over someone’s shoulder for half an hour as the heats came thick and fast, with at least two races almost coming to a premature watery end when the two boats were within inches of crashing into each other.
The crowds were heavy and in good spirits and those not content to watch the races, wandered slowly along Sisowath Quay, haggling with the food and trinket sellers or parked their bums on the grass in front of the National Museum and other stage areas near the riverside. There was a large police presence and with most of the traffic banned from the riverfront, the whole day took on a carnival atmosphere as the Quay and all roads leading to it were thick with family or village groups.
After a refreshing drink at one of the riverfront bars, it was back home for a quick shower and then out to Tuol Kauk by tuk-tuk to rendezvous with Davy, Seng Hour and their son David. The owners of the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse in Siem Reap, they were in Phnom Penh for a few days to attend a couple of weddings and Davy had called me earlier in the day to invite me to a house party with his friends in Pochentong. I asked Sophoin to come along, despite still being in recovery with her injured leg, and we had a great time. The food was excellent and plentiful, the drink flowed non-stop and the fifty or so people at the party were in high spirits. Sophoin, ever the trooper, did her best with the dancing as we went through the whole repertoire including saravan, cha cha cha, madizone and more. Most of the party-goers were in their fifties but they obviously enjoyed their dancing and Sophoin overheard that most of them belong to a dance club, and it showed, they were very accomplished. I got home in time to watch Bolton beat Man United on the tv, so all in all, a successful day!
Sunday was a lazy day and with the sun particularly hot, so I didn’t really venture out til it got a lot cooler in late afternoon. Sophoin popped round and we decided to take a look at what was going on around the Independence Monument and the new park near the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument. The roads near my house are usually quiet, but not today. In fact Sihanouk Boulevard was at a standstill with all motorized traffic bumper-to-bumper, so walking was the only option and that was an ordeal as we pushed and barged our way through the car park that this main highway through Phnom Penh had become. The police had lost all semblance of control, their whistles having absolutely no effect on the traffic and it was simply chaos as crowds streamed towards the river area. It took over an hour to fight, literally, our way to Independence, which would normally take me about fifteen minutes on foot. The roads, pavement and park areas were swamped with people, either sitting on mats and eating or aimlessly wandering around. Even Independence, normally off-limits to the public, was under a blanket of people.
We visited a couple of music stages but couldn’t really get very close as the crowds were huge though the singing and dancing on offer was pretty poor, so I don’t think we missed much. Sophoin gave me the low-down on the names of the singers and what the songs meant but it didn't rock my boat. I know the population of Cambodia has a high proportion of under-25 year olds and it seems all of them were in the city at once. It’s also one of the few opportunities where teenage girls can mix openly with young men and everyone seemed to be grabbing that chance with both hands. After a few hours we’d had enough and walked back to have dinner at the Garden Center Café 2, just around the corner from my apartment. The water festival had certainly been an eye-opening experience, specifically for the crowds that it attracts to Phnom Penh. I think I can see why long-stay expats make a point of leaving town for these few days, certainly if people-watching isn’t one of your hobbies.

Two dragon boats battle it out mid-stream at the half-way marker

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ratanakiri roads - don't ask!

My trip to Ratanakiri was at the end of the wet season, so I expected a bit of rain, and I wasn't disappointed. For the first few days I used motodups to get to various locations, tough-going but doable but for the longer trip to Andong Meas and the 7-step waterfall, we splurged and hired a Pajero 4WD. That was our first bad decision, the second was the driver's, for trying to go through rather than around this puddle! The road itself, the main highway from Ban Lung to the Vietnam border, was the worst road I have ever travelled on in all of my time in Cambodia. It was even worse than the old road up into Preah Vihear province, and that was bad. The rain made it almost impassable in places and along the route, trucks, 4WDs and cars were regularly falling victim to the conditions. The photo above was taken just over an hour into our trip, it took ten helpers to get up dislodged and if you think I was going to get dirty and help push, think again. We never made it to Andong Meas as we got stuck again and on our return trip, along the same stretch of highway, we broke down for four hours! All in all, not the best day I've had but it all adds to the 'Cambodia experience.' More from my Ratanakiri trip soon.

A new school - beware!

Whilst this photo of my brother Tim in a beat-up truck isn't significant in itself, it brings back memories of pain and anguish for me personally. We were in the wilds of Ratanakiri province and seeking out waterfalls and gem-mining villages near Bey Srok town when we came upon an elementary school being built near a pagoda called something like Wat Sayos Moniram. We hopped off our motos to investigate as we're both incredibly inquisitive and were enjoying our interaction with the builders and the children when I stepped on one of the numerous planks of wood, but this one was different - it had a nail protruding upwards and it went straight through my training shoe, sock and into my heel. As I hopped around for a few moments with the plank of wood nailed firmly into my foot, the kids, and Tim, thought it was hilarious. I on the other hand was in a lot of pain and carefully pulled the offending object out of my foot, once I'd recovered my composure. The builders' cook rushed over to offer her healing hands, and water, tigerbalm and bandages appeared from nowhere to administer first-aid and to wash away the blood. Fortunately, the nail was new and two hours later I was getting the wound properly cleaned and tended to by a medic in Ban Lung. No after-effects I'm happy to report but the picture reminded me that Tim showed no concern for my predicament whatsoever, preferring to carry on playing with the children. Thanks bro.

Water festival kicks-off

This is the illuminated boat from the Ministry of Tourism
Whoever said it gets very busy at the riverfront during water festival hit the nail on the head. It was pandemonium. Busy, noisy and a bit dangerous with so many people walking the streets but moto’s were still allowed to weave in and out of the pedestrians, which I thought was extremely stupid. A complete ban on motorized traffic should be enforced with that many people on the streets of Phnom Penh including lots of very small children. Anyway, I only went to the riverfront after dark for my evening meal at the Bopha Phnom Penh restaurant, my favourite chicken curry eating place so far. The chunks of chicken are stupendous and the curry sauce is spot-on. But the main feature of the Bopha is the view across the river and my 6.30pm booking was timed to perfection as I caught the last half of the fireworks show and the first and second parade of the illuminated flotilla of boats that included entrants from the Royal Palace and all the major government ministries - see my photos. They were pretty impressive and made a great spectacle as they sailed up and down the Tonle Sap River. In various locations around the capital, large stages have been set up for music and dance concerts and I watched the ones in front of the Bopha, the Post Office and Wat Phnom before making my way home. One sour note from the day's racing is that five Singaporean rowers are missing feared drowned when their boat capsized.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Kachon cemetery in Ratanakiri

So, in your view, which one is the wooden dummy? Being serious for a moment, this is a wooden effigy next to a grave in a chunchiet cemetery in the Tampoun village of Kachon Leu, on the banks of the Sesan River near Voen Sai in Ratanakiri province, in the northeast of Cambodia. There are about 100 graves there and the wooden and stone carvings are meant to represent the deceased when they were alive. Perhaps this gentleman was a police official in a former life. Little did I know that just inches from my ear was a poisonous spider which was taking a siesta on the side of the policeman's head! And yes, it was sweltering hot.

When We Were Young

Ahead of his forthcoming visit to Cambodia at the beginning of 2008, Battambang-born singer/songwriter Jimi Lundy will release a new single, When We Were Young, on 12 December. Jimi lives in Melbourne, Australia and his melodic debut album, Steal My Heart was recorded and released in 2004. Seek it out, you won't be disappointed. Link: myspace.

A Thanksgiving to Remember

I wanted to let you read this piece from Loung Ung's website blog. I know she won't mind me posting it here. Link:

A Thanksgiving to Remember
In my 27 years of living in America, Thanksgiving comes and goes in my life without much flare. But when I sit down to enjoy the holiday tradition tonight with family and friends, I know this year what my gratitude rests on—the commencement of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia.
On Monday, November 19, Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state was arrested and charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Samphan’s arrest makes him the fifth high ranking Khmer Rouge official detained by the UN backed tribunal, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) , along with Kaing Khek, Iev, also known as Duch, the notorious director of S-21 prison, Nuon Chea, former foreign minister and Ieng Sary, deputy prime minister, and his wife Ieng Thirith. Ten years in the making, and finally, the prospect of justice is drawing ever near. After I read this, I put my head down on my desk and cried.
I’m not big on tears. There are only a few times in my life when my emotions overtake me. The first time this happened was April 15, 1998—the day Pol Pot, aka Saloth Sar, aka Khmer Rouge’s Brother Number One died. I was in my office in Washington DC when I heard the news on NPR. With trembling hands I closed my door and locked myself in. I sat leaning against the wall, knees pulled closed to my chest. It was a beautiful blue sky. I stared at the green spring buds on the tree outside my window, heard the birds chirping, but I was numb.
On NPR, a reporter described Pol Pot as a charismatic, grandfatherly, and gentle leader to his followers. Someone mentioned he was a good father to his 12 year-old daughter Sitha. This was the man whose policies killed an estimate of 2 million Cambodians from 1975-1979, almost a third of the country’s population of 7 million. Among the victims were both my parents, two sisters, and many relatives. On the radio, Pol Pot’s victims were mentioned only in numbers. Their names, family, and humanity buried while this mass murderer will live on in infamy. In my mind, I was back in the war, the deaths, the starvation, the pain, the sadness, the horrors, the soldiers. The tunnel was deep and dark. I curled into a fetal position on the floor and sobbed. Pa, Ma, Keav, Geak. The world may forget but I never will. I don’t know how long I was on the floor before I was pulled out of the killing fields by a booming laugh. My friend Aaron’s voice echoed in the hall as he and several colleagues walked past my door. It saddened me that life went on as usual for others. My life had changed, time stopped, and I was frozen in it. I wondered how many people in the world this news even mattered to.
In 2001, I finally made my way to Anglong Veng, a place where Pol Pot was buried. At the site, I stood on the edge of the small dirt mound. Around it, the beautiful land—red patches of earth in the midst of lush, green trees and shrubs—breathed of new life and hope. Inside me, flames combusted in my stomach and sucked air out of my lungs. But instead of breaking down, I was fueled by anger. When I returned to the city, I contacted the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a group that headed up the movement to call for a Khmer Rouge tribunal. I asked what I could do. The director, Youk Channg said they would like to translate my memoir into Khmer. I gave them the rights to the book and helped with fundraising. Today, both my books are published in Khmer, and First They Killed My Father has even been serialized in two Khmer newspapers and on the radio.
Over the years, I continued to support the call for a tribunal. As the negotiations for the trial drag on, I returned to Cambodia another 20 times, and waited. Then in July, it happened. The ECCC formally charged its first defendant, Comrade Duch. A flurry of emails bounced back and forth between my friends and I. Could this really be happening? I was dizzy with joy. I reserved my tickets to travel to Cambodia in January. At the moment, due to lack of funding, the state of the tribunal is still far from certain. But we are nearer now to the end goal than we’ve ever been. So when I sit down for my Thanksgiving dinner, I will give thanks to everyone involved for bringing the ECCC to life, the Khmer Rouge criminals to trial, and giving the Khmer people our opportunity to tell the world our side of the story. And then I will tell my father, mother and sisters I have not forgotten them. Peace and good karma to all.
Loung Ung


Not only is it the first official day of the 3-day water festival but it's also the birthday of the Hanuman boss, Kulikar, and to celebrate the staff presented her with flowers, a birthday cake, bracelet and hair-pin, more flowers, oh and some flowers. By the way, birthdays aren't that popular as a celebration in Cambodia where for many people, their actual birthdate was never recorded. Kulikar is the one in the centre holding one of the bunches of flowers and is surrounded by some of the staff. The oldest member of staff was taking the picture, as everyone was keen to point out to me! As a gentleman I won't reveal Kulikar's age, which I also hope will earn me a small salary increase.

Cambodian volleyball

The Economist has a view on the changing face of Cambodian volleyball.

Sport returns to Phnom Penh - One area where Cambodia is ahead of the game
Monsoon season in Cambodia brings muddy roads, swollen lakes—and volleyball. The timing is not coincidental. The players are mostly farmers, who have a short respite from their fields then. The game's other distinguishing feature is that its high-flying athletes, who strut their stuff in front of adoring fans, are all disabled. Littered with landmines, Cambodia has no shortage of amputees. The volleyball league began in 2002 with eight teams. This year it expanded to 16, each supported by a sponsor—an aid agency, a private company or, in one case, an international school. By world standards, it is a bargain: the league's annual budget is around $130,000, for everything. That is less than a day's worth of David Beckham's time.

This year's excitement has not ended with the league play-offs (won by the Phnom Penh Koupreys). From November 24th Cambodia hosts the World Cup for disabled volleyball, its first international sporting event since the 1960s. Reigning champions Canada will compete with other national teams to lift a metal trophy sculpted from melted-down AK-47s. Ranked fourth in the world, Cambodia fancies its chances. On an overcast afternoon at a weather-beaten outdoor court in Phnom Penh, training is under way. Most players wear made-in-Cambodia prosthetic limbs, a far cry from the high-tech artificial limbs favoured by international athletes. Practice is frenetic. During one volley, the ball hovers above the net for a split second before an airborne player punches it down with his left arm. He turns to slap hands with his whooping teammates. His right arm, which tapers off below the elbow, hangs at his side. Money is changing the league. Teams lure away top players with sign-on bonuses, including plots of land. Chris Minko, an Australian who helps run the league, says transfer fees are a sign that the league is no longer just a handout. A bigger concern is persuading companies—not just foreign NGOs—to adopt teams. As more investors take a peek at Cambodia's economy—General Electric opened a branch office in July—that, too, may prove just a bounce away.

Cambodia's best

As one of Cambodia’s first generation of international chefs, Luu Meng is hailed as the top Khmer chef, having spent eleven years learning and perfecting his trade, first at the Hotel Cambodiana and then at various hotels for the Sofitel and Sunway groups. His contemporary style is forged on the traditions of old but now brought up to date utilizing the full range of herbs and spices, meats and vegetables, creating his own culinary delights using specific Cambodian ingredients like prahok, a fermented fish paste, whilst striving to achieve and balance the four basic Cambodian flavour elements: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. He was brought up in the kitchen, his mother ran a Phnom Penh restaurant before 1975 and his grandmother was also a chef. Whilst his mother influenced his cooking, he was trained in the traditional French style and cut his teeth at the Cambodiana and in Malaysia with Sunway. He returned to become head chef at the Sunway in Phnom Penh before opening his own restaurant, the elegant Malis, in November 2005. Still only 34, he is the director of operations at Topaz, which offers sophisticated French cuisine, he heads the Terrace restaurant at the new Anise hotel and has just opened a new Thai eatery and a coffee shop called Cafe Sentiment as well. His plan is to open another half dozen coffee shops in the next twelve months. His reputation in Cambodia is growing quickly - if Luu Meng lived in the UK, he would have a string of his own cookery shows already under his belt and would be a household name. In Cambodia, the name of it’s best chef is still known to only a select band.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Practice makes perfect

This boat came out from behind a potted plant with the cox on his mobile!
I was at the riverfront at lunchtime today, with a gang of work colleagues at the Gold Fish restaurant, which was a perfect spot on the riverside for watching today's practice for the numerous boat crews in this year's dragon boat races, for many the highlight of the water festival, which begins on Friday. I'm told some 432 boats will participate this year. And at times the Tonle Sap river today was like Piccadilly Circus at rush-hour (ok, slight exaggeration). However, it was nice to see the crews limbering up, without the presence of the mass hordes expected on Friday through til Sunday. The funnest moment came when an all-female crew cut right across a much larger all-male boat and the air turned blue with expletives...and that was just from me! The majority of the boats were sheltering from the strong wind and current along the shore on the Chrouy Changvar peninsula until it came to their turn to do their practice laps.

The all-female boat is dwarfed by the larger all-male crewed boat

Team photo

Another picture from my recent Ratanakiri visit, that includes my brother Tim, who was over in Cambodia for a couple of weeks and joined me for my northeast adventure. Tim's in the back row of this group shot (no, he's not wearing the cap), I'm at the front, in case you couldn't tell us apart from the startled villagers we persuaded to join us for the photo. This is the road that leads south from Ban Lung towards the old provincial capital of Lumphat, now literally a ghost-town.

Trainee iceman

This 'iceman in training' was captured on film during my recent visit to Ratanakiri, which I will talk about a lot more in the next few days. He's a resident of Ban Lung, the provincial capital, which I used as a base to explore the northeast province on my first-ever visit. Stay tuned.

Business as usual

It’s all gone a bit quiet this week in the run up to the water festival – known locally as Bon Om Tuk - which officially starts on Friday. I plan to be at the riverfront in the early evening to see the fireworks and the illuminated large floats and then return on Saturday to watch some of the actual dragon boat races, where crews of up to seventy people from villages all over Cambodia take part in hotly-contested races along the Tonle Sap River, in front of the Royal Palace. If I’ve enjoyed it, I’ll return on Sunday. I’ve never been in Cambodia during the water festival celebrations, so I’m looking forward to the experience. Everyone has warned me about the crowds that flock into Phnom Penh and particularly along the waterfront, and to be wary of pickpockets, etc, so I will. The authorities here are expecting upwards of four million people to be in the capital for the festival and will close off parts of the city near to the river to motorized traffic. Bring it on.
The world’s media has focused on Cambodia again this week, with the first public hearing in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, albeit to hear a plea by the defence counsel for Comrade Duch, that he should be released on bail, having already spent more than eight years in custody. Duch was the commandant of the Khmer Rouge prison and execution centre called Tuol Sleng, or S-21 and quote of the week goes to his sister who said, ‘My brother was a gentle man.” For goodness sake the man has more blood on his hands than most. With five of the surviving top echelon of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy now in custody and awaiting trial, that in itself is a considerable achievement, nearly thirty years after they were ousted from their reign of terror by the invading Vietnamese in 1979.
On a lighter note, I was handed another wedding invitation this week, my third in as many weeks, but this one is a bit special. It’s an all-Hanuman affair with our top tour guide in Phnom Penh, Eak due to marry one of our finance team, Nearyrath on Monday 3 December. They make a lovely couple and it’ll be another chance for the youngsters in the office to let their hair down and enjoy themselves. They don’t need to be asked twice.
I spoke to a friend of mine in Siem Reap last night, who is working for the brand new Angkor National Museum and was told that for their opening month promotion, the cost of entry is $8 for foreigners and a dollar for Khmers, though the prices will go up in early December to the set price of $12 and $3 respectively. They told me that very few Khmers have been through the doors as yet and the $3 price-tag will act as a barrier to most Khmers I know from going. At the National Museum in Phnom Penh, and of course at places like the Angkor complex of temples, Khmers are allowed in free of charge and with $3 representing more than the normal daily income of most Cambodians, you can see why they will stay away in their droves.
Finally, I stayed awake til 5am this morning to watch the England international footy match on Star Sports. I really, really wish I hadn't bothered. They perpetually fail to deliver and their 3-2 home defeat by Croatia means they are out of the European Championships at the group stage. What a shambles.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Behind the headlines - Khem Nguon

Khem Nguon was charged last week by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with the kidnapping and murder in 1996 of Christopher Howes, a British de-mining expert from Bristol in Southwest England, working in Cambodia with the Mines Advisory Group. Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth were captured by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in a remote village in Siem Reap province in March 1996, transferred to the KR stronghold of Anlong Veng and murdered. Though Nguon denies his involvement, it’s alleged that he supervised the killing on the instructions of his commanding officer, the brutal one-legged Ta Mok. Arrested alongwith Nguon were Loch Mao, a CPP-affiliated district official in Anlong Veng, who is alleged to be the man who pulled the trigger, and Chep Cheat, believed to be their driver. Further suspects are also being sought.

I’ve peered into the murky world of the Khmer Rouge to try to find out more about Khem Nguon but as you might expect, permeating a guerrilla organization isn’t easy sat at a desk and hard-line fighters don’t as a rule issue detailed biographies. However, Nguon, 58, originally from Takeo province, joined the Khmer Rouge movement in the ‘60s and was a Ta Mok loyalist from the days when ‘The Butcher’ ran the Southwest Zone with an iron fist. After the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, Nguon served in the Military Division 502, an air-force unit. Later, he was sent to Shanghai in China for three years of military training specializing in radar, air-strikes and artillery. In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post in 1998, Nguon said he did not return to Cambodia until after the 1979 ousting of the Khmer Rouge by the invading Vietnamese when he joined Ta Mok’s forces at their Anlong Veng base in northwest Cambodia as the Chief of Military Division 980.

During 1997 and 1998, Nguon was a key player and very vocal in the internal drama within the Khmer Rouge leadership over the control of the movement. After Pol Pot had his Defense Minister Son Sen and his wife Yun Yat executed in June 1997 over their alleged secret negotiations with the Phnom Penh government, Ta Mok with Nguon, as his chief lieutenant, arrested Pol Pot alongwith senior cadre, Saroeun, San and Khan. The resultant show-trial of Brother Number One was held on 25 July 1997 and all four were convicted of betraying the movement; Pol Pot was placed under house arrest, the other three cadres were executed. At the time, Nguon courted the media and told reporters he had destroyed Pol Pot and rid the world of a tyrant. After Pol Pot’s death in April 1998, Nguon said he had hoped to hand over Pol Pot to a war crimes tribunal but he’d died of a heart attack. His quote at the time was; “What I can tell you is that he was quite old and he dropped his life like a ripe fruit.”

Just days later, he was again in the news when he announced he’d replaced his long-time mentor Ta Mok as commander of the Khmer Rouge, had changed their name to the National Solidarity Party and was making peace overtures to the Cambodian government, citing; “…to bring about national reconciliation where all parties announce an end to the war which no one has won, no one has lost.” With the Khmer Rouge in their final death throes, Nguon and half a dozen military generals finally surrendered to the Cambodian government on 6 December 1998 in exchange for amnesty and exemption from prosecution. He said he brought with him 5,000 troops and 15,000 civilians living under KR control. However, less than a month later he was threatening a resumption of hostilities if attempts were made to arrest other former Khmer Rouge leaders. It seems Khem Nguon had a quote for most occasions and a hot-line to the world’s press around that time. He’s been conspicuously silent in more recent years.

A part of Nguon’s amnesty was the award of a position as Brigadier-General in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, acting as an advisor to the defence ministry. One of his most recent responsibilities with the RCAF was to participate in the military commission tasked with resolving border issues with Thailand. He speaks Chinese, Thai and reasonable English and has been living in Phnom Penh until his arrest. In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post in 1998, Nguon claimed he was not present at the shooting of the British de-miner, though he had spoken to him before his death, the shooting was ordered by Pol Pot and supervised by Saroeun, one of the cadres tried and executed after the Pol Pot show-trial. However, eyewitness testimony provided to British police detectives tells a different story. It alleges that Howes was shot from behind on the order of Ta Mok and his deputy Khem Nguon, who supervised the killing and was the last one to speak to him. The Scotland Yard report named those responsible as Ta Mok, Khem Nguon, Colonel Kong, the cadre who pulled the trigger and three members of Nguon’s bodyguard unit, known only as Rim, Lim and San.

Until now, the Cambodian authorities have not had the appetite to arrest the men responsible, despite lobbying from the former British Ambassador Stephen Bridges that resulted in deputy prime minister Sar Kheng saying that any prosecution must wait until the time was right. That time arrived last week and Khem Nguon is now in custody awaiting trial, alongwith two Khmer Rouge cohorts. If found guilty, the men face sentences of between 10 and 20 years imprisonment.
For more on Christopher Howes, please visit my website here. Photo by PPP.

Rathie on Lao links

My apologies, I must admit to forgetting to bring an article by Martin Rathie to your attention. It delves into the links between Laos and the Khmer Rouge and is fascinating. I know Martin is due to return to Cambodia in the next month or so on another research visit. He's a PhD scholar formerly with the Department of History at the University of Queensland, Australia and is currently based in the Lao capital, where he works as a teacher at Vientiane College. Read the article at New Mandala here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Under lock and key

This is former Khmer Rouge military chief of staff Khem Nguon, who was charged last week with the abduction and murder of British de-miner Christopher Howes in 1996. Though its eleven years since the death of Christopher and his interpreter Houn Hourth, the slowly-turning wheels of Cambodian justice have finally caught up with Nguon and two other former Khmer Rouge guerrillas - Loch Mao and Chep Cheat- who are now behind bars awaiting trial at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh. Arresting Khmer Rouge leaders is the flavour of the month in Phnom Penh right now and though the Cambodian authorities have suspected his involvement in the Howes murder for many years, its only now that the climate is ripe for his arrest, even though he's been living in Phnom Penh and on the payroll of the defence ministry as a Brigadier-General in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. I will post more background details on Khem Nguon, also identified in some sources as Ngun, tomorrow. Photo by Ou Neakry/PPP.
I won't give it too many column inches, but history was made today when Comrade Duch appeared in public in front of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Court in the full glare of tv, and hundreds of the world's press. Five of the top Khmer Rouge hierachy have now been arrested and charged with crimes against humanity, the latest being the former KR head of state, Khieu Samphan. The Tribunal is really clicking into gear now after so many delays and much feet-dragging, but it's happening and maybe, just maybe, some Cambodians will be able to take comfort that the surviving leaders are finally being brought to task for their horrendous crimes.

Knight in shining armour – take 2

Socheata and Plon
Coming to the rescue of waifs and strays can be habit-forming. Hot on the heels of my personal guided-tour for my two Bangkok friends at the weekend, I had open-house last night for two more pals, this time from Siem Reap, who were more than happy to accept the offer of my spare bedroom for a night – me and my big mouth! I’m only kidding, as Socheata and her brother Plon were more than welcome guests and we dined at the Vimeanangkor restaurant just around the corner before thumbing through some of my old photo albums, where they were in fits of giggles as they chanced upon pictures of themselves on a trip to Banteay Srei some eight years ago. I recalled in graphic detail as both of them were sick as parrots leaning out of the car window on the way there from their home near Srah Srang lake. Travel sickness and the Khmers go hand in hand I’ve found. They were in town again, firming up their visas to visit Japan in a few days time. For Socheata it will be a return to her Osaka home to see her deceased husband’s family, he passed away last year and Socheata returned to live with her own family at Angkor, while for Plon, it will be his first visit, achieving one of his ambitions, as he’s actually a Japanese-speaking tour guide at Angkor. Trips like these are not undertaken lightly, the air-fares alone will make a massive dent in the family’s income from selling souvenirs at Angkor Wat, Banteay Kdei and Neak Poan.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lightman's Dream & Sage Foundation

The Harpswell Foundation is on a mission to provide educational opportunities for disadvantaged children and young people. I met Alan Lightman, its founder, a few years ago and in recent years they've built a school and a dormitory for women in Phnom Penh attending college. Find out more about the foundation here.
The following story about Alan Lightman and Harpswell appeared in today's Boston Globe and is reproduced here with the author's permission. Thanks Tinker.

Lightman's Dream : MIT physicist and author empowers young Cambodian women by building a dormitory for them in Phnom Penh - by Tinker Ready, Globe Correspondent, Boston Globe (Mass., USA).

The new three-story Harpswell Foundation Dormitory for University Women is named for a town in Maine. But it's on an unpaved street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, populated with fried fish vendors, motorbike taxis, and roaming chickens. The name is a nod to the building's founder and chief supporter, Alan Lightman, the MIT physicist and celebrated author. Lightman, a soft-spoken, deep-thinking Southerner who summers on a quiet island near Harpswell, said he now spends about a third of his time running the dorm for rural women he built in Cambodia. While working on another aid project there in 2003, Lightman learned that a lack of secure housing prevents many village women from going to college. All the schools are in the gritty capital, and few offer dormitories. Lightman saw a clear solution. He raised money, bought a piece of land, hired contractors, and built a dorm. Now, he is "Dad" to more than 30 women. Until the dorm opened about a year ago, they faced lives as rice farmers, tour guides, or possibly brides in arranged marriages. Now they want to work for the government, earn PhDs, and study overseas. "As unexpected as it was to find myself on the other side of the planet in the culture I knew nothing about, I felt like I could make a difference," Lightman said. "It wasn't a lost cause. This is something that was not beyond my reach." Lightman's vision for the dorm goes beyond offering a safe haven and a leg up to young scholars. A brass plaque inside House 50 on Street 508 spells it out in both Khmer and English: "Our mission is to empower a new generation of Cambodian women." A similar bilingual plaque outside the building announced the name of the dorm, but it has disappeared twice. Local kids can get $5 for the brass, Lightman said. A Memphis native, Lightman is a theoretical physicist by trade. In the 1980s he taught astronomy at Harvard and moved on to MIT, where he is still part of the science writing program. He has two adult daughters, and he and his wife, painter Jean Lightman, split their time between Concord and Maine.

Change within reach
A phone call from a stranger started Lightman's journey to Cambodia. Frederick Lipp, a Unitarian minister in Portland, Maine, wanted to use Lightman's book "Einstein's Dreams" in a sermon. The two men became friends, and eventually Lightman joined Lipp's effort to help a small, Spartan Cambodian village about 50 hard miles from Phnom Penh. Lightman recalled the day he and his daughter Elyse first went to Tramung Chrum to meet the villagers. He was thinking he might want to join Lipp's effort, but he was unprepared for the emotions that hit him. "The women started coming up to us, holding their babies, and said, 'Please help us build a school,' " he said. "I was just amazed that in this remote village with no electricity, no plumbing, no toilets, they were talking about education. . . . I was overwhelmed by their courage and their ability to think in the long term."So Lightman - a serious and unflashy person - did something he finds extremely difficult. He asked family and friends for money. He talked about Cambodia's painful recent history, which remains defined by memories of the 1970s, when the United States bombed provinces at the Vietnam border and the Maoist Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and sent everyone to virtual prison farms. Almost four years later, the Vietnamese invaded, but not before about 1.7 million people were summarily executed or died of disease or starvation. In 1994, the Vietnamese left, and the United Nations sponsored elections, but the country still suffers from years of isolation, decay, poverty, and corruption. What this meant for Tramung Chrum is that no one ever remembers having a "concrete" school, Lightman told potential donors. Instead, they hold classes in a makeshift palm-leaf shelter. The 50 or so contributors who stepped up became the core supporters of the Harpswell Foundation. In the process, Lightman met Chea Veasna, a Cambodian lawyer working on the Tramung Chrum school project. She told him that she lived in an unfinished space underneath the law school building while studying there. There were no college dorms in the city then, and there are few now. Male students can bunk in the city's many temples, but Buddhist rules bar women, she explained. "Veasna convinced me that this was a critical problem, and she and I together hatched the idea of building the dormitory," Lightman said. The dollar goes a long way in Cambodia; they were able to do it for $150,000.Lightman travels to Cambodia several times a year. Even when the family retreats to the quiet of their purposely unwired house in Maine, Elyse Lightman said, her father often slips into town to check dorm-related e-mail. "It's like anything else in his life; he puts a lot of his own care and time into," she said. "He is very passionate about it."Lipp called the dorm project " 'Einstein's Dreams' live.""In Alan's book, you're captured by something that you have never thought before," Lipp said. "You dream yourself into a new reality where the world has changed. . . . That's what happened here."

The smartest and bravest
For So Dany, a smiley 20-year-old from a village in western Cambodia, "new reality" might be an understatement. So's parents are farmers, and both are Khmer Rouge survivors. She wanted to go to college, she said, but her parents were afraid to send her to the city.One day, dorm manager Peou Vanna appeared at her school, asking for the smartest, "bravest" girls in her class, she said. After a series of interviews and tests, So was chosen. "If I did not have the opportunity to get a college education, I would end up being a market seller in my village," she said in Khmer. Instead, she and the inaugural group of about 30 women - also plucked out of their villages - moved into the pinkish, cement building about 15 minutes from the city center. By habit, they head out to school on their bicycles wearing the traditional white shirt and pleated skirt uniforms. But unlike the generation before them, they tend toward jeans instead of sarongs.In the dry season, Street 508 is dusty; during the rains, it is flooded. The air smells of cooking fires, roasted fish, or whatever street-food vendors have to offer. The dorm is set back a bit but stands out among the vegetable shops and run-down villas for its newness and for the large, medallion-like facade vents on each floor sculpted into the shape of Cambodian dancers. Inside, some of the residents listen intently as an American volunteer teaches computer skills, in English. In addition to room and board, life in the dorm includes English classes, access to Internet-equipped computers, and weekly discussion of the news in The Cambodia Daily. They also have 24-hour security.Back home in leafy Concord, Lightman tries to manage problems like sleeping guards via e-mail. He has other things to worry about - like reviews of his new book, "Ghost." But the dorm is now a part of each day. When he talks of what drew him so deeply into the project, he always goes back to that first day at Tramung Chrum. The well-traveled Lightman said he is sure he wasn't reacting to the shock of seeing desperate poverty firsthand."I was reacting to something that rose above the poverty," he said. "I guess hope is what really got under my skin. I found there was hope there."

* * * * *
My pal Andy Booth and Sage Insights have a new website for their Sage Foundation at Please pay a visit. The Sage Foundation helps Cambodian children gain a valuable education, providing them with opportunities and choices in life many of us might take for granted. They build and renovate schools, provide support in the form of native English speaking teachers, volunteer classroom assistants, vocational local teachers (farming, crafts and hairdressing) and the funding of additional materials not supplied by the Ministry of Education budget. The Sage Foundation requires volunteers to assist with teaching English, painting, decorating, gardening and other general maintenance of the school grounds. Contact Andy at the website for more details.

Cry No More Christmas Show

It's just been announced, this year's Christmas Show and Farewell Appearance for Roy Hill and Chas Cronk, aka Cry No More, will be at the Turks Head pub in Twickenham on Friday 28 December (8.30-12). As usual, it is guaranteed to be a fantastic night, so make sure you attend this 'event of the year.' The guys are also working on a DVD - The Cry No More Story -which should be out early next year.
For those of you who need a Cry No More fix before the big event... their video for their Tears on the Ballroom Floor single has found it's way onto youtube - here - and there's a myspace site which plays four tracks from their Love and Power album. For my own tribute to Roy Hill and Cry No More, click here.

India to help with Preah Vihear

The Preah Vihear temple area in the northern reaches of Cambodia has been in the local news recently with village protestors being fired at by local police, in which two villagers lost their lives, all over a potential land-grabbing problem, which is becoming so prevalent in Cambodia at the moment. I don't begin to know all the nuances behind the problems but the loss of lives is a really serious matter and stories are appearing in the local papers daily about villagers being chased off land by developers, without anything being done by the authorities to protect the rights of the villagers.

Talk of Preah Vihear brings me to this story that appeared in the Indian newsires today.
11th century Cambodian temple to be renovated by India - by Devirupa Mitra, Indo-Asian News Service
An 11th century temple in Cambodia, located near its border with Thailand and the subject of lingering tension between the two Southeast Asian countries, will now be renovated by India. The Preah Vihear temple has been in the limelight this year over Cambodia's bid to get a Unesco world heritage status for it, but was objected to by Thailand. A senior official in the external affairs ministry said Cambodia had approached India to take up the conservation of the Preah Vihear temple about six months ago. 'The request had been routed through our ambassador,' the official, who could not be identified as per service rules, told IANS. The government has already asked the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to start work on a conservation plan for the temple. It is expected that an announcement would be made to coincide with the visit of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to India next month. India has been conducting temple diplomacy across Southeast Asia, harnessing the ASI to renovate important medieval temples in the region built by dynasties that had links with India. An ASI team has been conserving the Ta Phrom temple in Cambodia's world-famous Angkor Wat complex since 2004, with the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai conducting the structural study. Similarly, ASI had also been asked to draw up a conservation plan for the ruins of Wat Phou temple in Southern Laos. In Indonesia, Indian archaeologists are helping to renovate the Hindu temples at Prambanan, Yogyakarta, that were damaged by the 2006 Java earthquake. Indian diplomats said the strategy is to stress the common cultural links between India and Southeast Asia as medieval trade links with south Indian kingdoms led to the spread of Indian religion, language and culture in the region. The Preah Vihear temple built during the Khmer empire is perched on a cliff in Dangrek Mountains, just across the Thai border. In fact, the easiest access to the temple is from the Thai side, while the Cambodian way is a ride through a mountain dirt road. With its grand causeway climbing up the hill, the temple is supposed to be a stylised representation of Mount Meru, the habitat of gods according to Hindu mythology. Among the sculptures carved on the walls is a depiction of the Hindu mythological story of 'churning of the ocean'. In 1962, the International Court of Justice had ruled that the temple was firmly in Cambodia. But with the country plunging into civil war soon after, the temple witnessed pitched battles between the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian army, with the former using it as a military camp.

Friends from Thailand

LtoR: Dolly, the author & Aon
LtoR: Sophoin, Dolly & Aon
In recent posts I mentioned a couple of friends, Dolly and Aon, who came to Cambodia for the weekend and who left for their Bangkok home yesterday afternoon. Above are two photos, one taken with some old guy who was wandering past (!) and the other in the grounds of the National Museum - I think you'll agree, four very attractive ladies, though the one at the back doesn't say much!
I was dismayed this morning to hear that the Cambodian Premier League football competition has just ended. Yesterday. I was planning to watch a couple of games in the next few weeks as I am seriously missing my fix of live football - it's simply not the same on the tv - but I'm too late. NagaCorp were the league winners of the eight-strong semi-professional league, with a 5-1 win over second-place Khemara. The season ended on a bum note when the game between RCAF (the Army team) and Build Bright University was abandoned after six red cards were issued by the referee. Wish I had been at that game!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Swain on To the End of Hell

Jon Swain writes in today's Sunday Times in the UK about the Denise Affonço book, To the End of Hell, having already penned a foreward to the book, alongside another name synonymous with Cambodia, David Chandler. I've just started reading the book myself and will give my own verdict in the near future. Go here to read Swain's account of the book. And whatever you do, get a copy of his own River of Time that looks back at his own time spent in Southeast Asia including his time in the French Embassy as one of the last foreigners out of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge takeover.

A busy day for yours truly today, shopping in the morning for mundane items like wicker bookshelves, wicker seats, tablecloths, material for cushions, pillows, kitchen utensils, etc, etc. The Russian Market was predictably hot under its tin roof and was as usual, awash with foreigners buying their cheap cd's and dvd's. My negotiator for the best prices was Sokheng who has been a revelation in helping me get the best deal for all manner of things, including my apartment. She's the auntie of my god-daughter Vansy and has been unstinting in her efforts to make my settling-in period, as easy as possible. Another great help since my arrival has been Sophoin, who I met in the early afternoon and accompanied me as we collected Dolly and Aon from their Siem Reap bus, for a whistle-stop visit to the National Museum and the Russian Market, a bite to eat at one of the foodstalls there and then out to Pochentong to catch their return flight to Bangkok. They had a great time in Siem Reap and bemoaned the fact that their 3-day trip was way too short. Sophoin is still smarting from the leg injury she sustained in a moto-accident last week and was a real trooper as she helped to show Dolly and Aon around. Afterwards, we watched the Killing Fields movie on dvd and had dinner at the Red Orchid restaurant, before I popped into the internet cafe to type this. Sophoin was never taught about the Khmer Rouge period at school, so watching dvd's like S-21 and the Killing Fields is helping her to better understand that period in her country's history. Her parents have also told her their stories, and she now understands them better in a wider context, though rightly feels aggrieved that information about the Khmer Rouge was completely absent from her schooling.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

More party photos

Daroeurn, Delice, Bong Lin and me
The Hanuman office team-photo
Two more photos from last night's wedding party, these are courtesy of Sophea. I wasn't in the team-photo, as I was taking pictures. For the record, the lineup is: Back Row (LtoR): Daroeurn, Nearyroath, Delice, Ponlork, Sophear, Nary. Front Row (LtoR): Seangdy, Pheap, Polonge, Leak, Pisey.

End of a busy day

Daroeurn (left) and Delice in typical wedding party style
I concluded a busy day yesterday with a wedding party at the popular group of Phkar Chhouk Tip restaurants near the Olympic Stadium, the area was awash with wedding parties and ours was as loud and frantic as all of them. It was the wedding of Buntha and Dina, I knew neither of them, but the bride’s father, Pheap is one of Hanuman’s drivers and he graciously invited all of the office staff to the big occasion, and we didn’t disappoint, with the majority turning up. Of course, the guys just don a clean shirt and trousers but for the ladies it’s a chance to get their hair coiffeured and their make-up done at the beauty salon and to wear their latest figure-hugging and colourful creations. The photo above is of two of our senior sales staff, Daroeurn (left) and Delice. I took other photos but I’m really not happy with my Sanyo digital camera, it has an aversion to taking pictures at night - or maybe it’s just the guy operating the camera!
We arrived at the party a little late as the traffic jams around the Olympic Stadium were horrendous. I imagine it’s going to be considerably worse in a week’s time when the water festival circus comes to town and the city swells to double its normal size. Everyone has told me to leave town but it’s my first water festival, so I’m going nowhere, except the riverside area to experience what all the fuss is about.
A brand new hardbook edition of Denise Affonco’s memoir, To The End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, arrived in the post yesterday, exactly on the day of its official publication by Reportage Press. They are a new London-based publishing house specializing in books on foreign affairs or set in foreign countries and they’ve sent me a copy of Denise’s book for review. Her testimony of life under the murderous Khmer Rouge sold 50,000 copies when published in 2005 in France as La Digue des Veuves and is now published for the first time in English. From the first few pages, I think it’s one of those books that when you begin reading it, it’s hard to put down.
As I was leaving the office for the day I took this photo of my desk which received some interesting comments when I posted a photo of it a few weeks ago, so here’s another, with some of the more interesting paper-weights on display. Next week a photo of my chair!! Only kidding..

Friday, November 16, 2007

Doug and the Palace

Doug (left), a jacket and Mr Sarat from the Royal Palace
There I was this afternoon, waiting for a call from Doug Mendel to tell me what time I should arrive at the Royal Palace and what I should wear. The call came, but the venue for the ceremony - Doug handing over two boxes of fire-crew gear to someone from the Royal Palace - had been changed from the Palace itself, to the New York Hotel on Monivong Boulevard. Not really the same impact. However, Doug doesn't do this for the glamour, he does it because he cares and wants to help the Cambodian fire service as much as he humanly can. So we had the ceremony, Doug posed for the obligatory photo with Mr Sarat from the Palace, handed over the gear and that was that. I did manage to earwig that the Palace has two Korean-built fire trucks and ten fire fighters. They were picked from the royal household - transport division, and are currently undergoing training. The arrival of Doug's top quality gear from the States is timely indeed. Doug has one more ceremony at the Phnom Penh fire station tomorrow and then he's on his way back to the States on Sunday, armed with four boxes of Khmer crafts which he will sell to raise more money, and so the circle continues. Way to go Doug! Find out more here.

Knight in shining armour!

Aon (left) and Dolly - on the way into the city for the 1st time
My good deed for today was to collect my Thailand e-pal Dolly and Aon from the airport and escort them to the bus station next to the Central Market for their onward journey to Siem Reap. It was their first-ever visit to Cambodia and they wanted to meet a friendly face on arrival - so I volunteered. Someone had to do it. Dolly, an accountant, and Aon both live in Bangkok and have travelled quite widely, with Aon recently returning from a trip to London, Manchester and Leeds! They tucked into breakfast at a street stall near the market and I left them, bursting with enthusiam for their new adventure, with their bus seats booked - $4 apiece with Phnom Penh Sorya bus company - and a room confirmed at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse in Siem Reap. They will be back in Phnom Penh on Sunday for an hour or so before they get back on their plane and head home, having experienced Cambodia in the blink of an eye! I'm sure they'll have a great time.

The next big thing

A few people in the know will tell you that the Cardamom’s are the next ‘big thing’ in Cambodia for eco-tourism, adventure and unspoilt wilderness. From 30 November thru 20 December, an exhibition of images and narrative by Wayne McCallum entitled Faces of the Cardamoms: A Journey across an Asian Wilderness, will take place at the Two Fish gallery café on Street 278 in Phnom Penh.

To give you a flavour of Wayne McCallum’s adventures in the Cardamom’s in 2005, here’s his report that appeared in the Cambodian Scene Magazine in their Mar-Apr 2006 edition.

A Cardamom trail - by Wayne McCallum
The Cardamom Mountains, in southwest Cambodia, comprise one of the last great wilderness areas of Southeast Asia. Their mixture of forests, rivers, tropical animals and indigenous peoples mark them as an area of exceptional biological and cultural value. Yet the Cardamoms remain largely a mystery to the outside world, with few non-locals venturing into its evergreen valleys or along its cooler pine-clad uplands. In December 2005 a party of Khmer and ex-pat locals (author included) sort to redress this situation by undertaking a survey of a potential eco-tourism trail across the Cardamom Mountains. Dubbed the ‘Hornbill Trail’, this route took us across from the eastern side of the Cardamoms (Kompong Speu province), over and across the range to the southern portion of Koh Kong province; our journey ending at National Route 48 and a main ferry crossing. We started our trek across the Hornbill Trail at a small rural village tucked beneath the sandstone escarpment of the eastern Cardamoms. Our party of five ascended slowly through the hardwood forest, accompanied by two guides; one of whom carried a live chicken for the evening meal. Here, in this portion of forest, old logging tracks were slowly being reclaimed by the forest, while the whining of chainsaws has again given way to the whirling of woodpeckers through the upper canopy. At one point, as we climbed, our party disturbed a large flock of hornbills feeding on the ripe fruit of a tall fig tree. The lonely hoot of gibbons echoed around us and an occasional troop of long tail macaques crashed through the undergrowth. Our climb ended after six hours, on the top of a pine-clad phnom; a cool breeze revived our exhausted bodies. In this colder environment, spaced forest and grass dominate the vegetation, with small deer feeding in the open areas. From where we now stood we were miles from any other humans, 1000m up, with a spectacular view of Kompong Speu before us; the panorama swept all thoughts of tiredness away.

On our first night we camped on the edge of the forest, using over-sheets and hammocks. As the sun disappeared, the loud growl of a barking deer rang out across the grasslands in front of our camp site, sounding more like a mountain gorilla than a small browsing animal. As the last light disappeared, night-jars appeared out of the trees, flying like bats, capturing insects on their wings. The night passed without any disturbance, save for a shower that forced some of our team to stumble in the dark to find covers for their hammocks. By mid-afternoon on the second day, our party was at the location of one of several ‘jar sites’ scattered around the Cardamoms. The jars are a unique feature of the Mountains, being about 60cm high and containing the bones of various long-deceased Khmers. The origins of the bones themselves are unclear, but local legend suggests they are the remains of Cambodian royals. From the cultural to the natural, we then descended down a steep cliff face to the site of a large cave in the side of an escarpment. From the top, a small trickle of cooling water cascaded down over the front of the cave entrance. Inside, our tracks quickly mixed with those of past animal visitors, including snakes, civets and pangolins. A pile of desiccated dung near the front of the cave revealed that larger visitors, in the form of elephants, had previously sought sheltered here as well.

Two days into our trek across the Cardamoms, our party remained largely unscathed by insects or injury. The occasional mosquito or tick searched for a free meal, but their low numbers barely demanded attention. At one point, one of our guides walked into the web of a large elephant spider. I watched the guide skillfully unwind himself, while the spider hardly seemed to notice the intrusion, staying mid-web throughout the incursion. Evening found us camping on the edge of the forest. In what had now become a ritual, we each set-up our hammocks and rain covers, washed and prepared our dinner before turning in early, very tired. On the third day, on our way down through the valley in the morning, we passed evidence of extensive logging that has scarred the region, removing many tall trees. Now, in what is a legally protected area, new trees are growing, each competing to out-shade the other. We also passed through remnants of the Cardamoms’ dark past, when we wandered through a derelict village forcibly abandoned by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s; open sites in the forest where houses had once stood, and the eerie skeletal remains of an old wat surrounded by re-growth forest, were all that remained. Descending down through the moist evergreen forest into a low-lying valley, we reached the banks of a beautiful forest-edged river. Its cool and deep water demanded a swim and a wash from each of us, before we set about cooking a meal and taking a rest.

The walking part of our trip was now over, as were our nights in the forest. We spent the third evening of our trek in a small rural village, sleeping on the deck of the commune chief’s house. During our stay, various locals dropped by to say hello and to see the ‘strange barangs’ who had walked across the mountain. Some recounted, through our translator, how they had once traveled over the Cardamoms, using elephants to take goods to markets in Kompong Speu. One village elder described how there had once been 50 domestic elephants working in the valley; animals which had disappeared during the Khmer Rouge era and the ensuing post-conflict struggle. In this community, as in other parts of rural Cambodia, it was easy to see that the family and rice bowl remained the center of life, with the village elders who visited us being regarded with special respect. Younger generations of village children also ventured past our overnight home, a lack of confidence preventing all but the most daring from coming closer. As it darkened, we started to drift-off to sleep, the echoes of the village and quiet Khmer voices following us into sleep.

We woke early, on the final day of the trek, village roosters and the Khmer morning routine making any thought of a lie-in impossible. After breakfast, we said farewell and thanks to our guides, who left us to return back across the mountain to their village. None of the remaining team envied the walk before them. We then negotiated and departed on a short moto-trip to a village down the river, followed by a longer two-hour ride to the penultimate stop on our trip and a final jungle town, this time on the banks of one of the region’s largest rivers. Again, as the day before, evidence of the area’s logging history were easy to see, forest re-growth struggling to heal the wounds left by man and machine. But despite this disturbance, we noted fresh elephant signs on the road, while two rare giant hornbills flew across our path as we headed southwards. The moto-trip over, we ate a quick meal before negotiating passage downstream to National Route 48 and the end point of our trip. As our boat pulled away from the dock the remaining three of our party felt privileged for the experience of the trek and for the secrets the trail had revealed to us. Our journey proved what we already knew though: that the Cardamoms have much to offer to the traveler seeking something different in Cambodia, where effort and perseverance can repay with dividends. Link: Cambodian Scene.