Monday, December 31, 2007

Serene Buddha

This is one of the many serene images of Buddha to be found alongside exquisite wood carvings and more that decorate the rooms at Hanuman's head office in Phnom Penh. Having our own antiques and fine arts shops here in the capital and in Siem Reap certainly has its advantages.
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A two-part feature on the plight of refugees facing expulsion from America and an uncertain return to Cambodia began in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer and is well worth reading. Click here to read Troy Graham's article.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Action adventure aplenty

Book Review
The Judas Strain - By James Rollins (published by William Morrow/HarperCollins July 2007, 450 pages)
James Rollins' The Judas Strain is a fast-paced action-adventure thriller that utilises Cambodia and in particular The Bayon temple at Angkor in its climactic scenes. I love a well-written thriller being a Robert Ludlum fan and I enjoyed this novel, which mixed together historical and scientific intrigue aplenty in a race against time, roller-coaster, doomsday treasure-hunt. It linked Marco Polo to Angkor amid tales of pirates, cannibals, angelic script, a mutating bacterial virus and glowing bodies as the good guys of Sigma Force battled against the evil Guild. Okay, so I had to suspend my belief quite a few times but that's what good thrillers do, keep you intrigued with a storyline of believable and fictional adventure. The book would make good movie fodder, but the destruction of The Bayon in the closing scenes might present a headache for the Apsara authorities! Link: HarperCollins.

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UN official writes about his Cambodia experiences - by Scott Gargan The Advocate (Connecticut, USA)
"I was quite critical of him [Sihanouk], so I wasn't sure if he would like the book ... But he likes to have his name mentioned everywhere and my book revives him. He is even in the title" - says Benny Widyono, who was talking by phone with his wife, Francisca, who was at home in Stamford, when a UN soldier screamed "get down!" Siem Reap, where the Indonesian diplomat served as provincial governor for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia - the peacekeeping mission deployed in 1992 after decades of civil war in the country - was under attack by the Khmer Rouge. "They were fighting us with 900 people," says Widyono, who called his wife from a phone inside UNTAC's Australian communications unit. "She was up all night worrying about me."
Before their ouster by the Vietnamese-led People's Republic of Kampuchea in 1979, the KR starved or executed some 2 million of their own people in a four-year campaign to force Cambodia's population into agrarian labor communes. Now 14 years later, they were shelling Widyono's city in protest of UNTAC-coordinated elections. Widyono admits he could have waited to call his wife. But, he says UNTAC "timidity" toward the KR - born out of a UN mandate recognizing the group as a legitimate administrative faction in Cambodia - gave them the audacity to strike in the first place. "How can you recognize a genocidal regime? Without UN recognition, the KR wouldn't have been as confident," says Widyono, who discusses his experiences as part of UNTAC from 1992-1993 and later, as a UN special envoy to Cambodia from 1994-1997, in his memoir, "Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge and the United Nations in Cambodia."
As the title suggests, Widyono's narrative focuses on the role of what he calls the "unholy trinity" - King Norodom Sihanouk, the KR and the UN - in fomenting political chaos. Widyono writes how the UN refused to recognize the PRK, even though it freed Cambodia's citizens and worked to rehabilitate the country. Instead, it was slapped with economic sanctions (withholding aid for thousands) and denied representation at the UN. Those seats, Widyono says, were kept for representatives of the Sihanouk-led Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea - comprised of the KR and other anti-Vietnamese groups - at the behest of western nations like the United States. Rather than support Cambodia's de facto rulers or leave the UN seat open, Widyono explains, the West backed a powerless government in exile - all because the PRK was installed by Vietnam's communist government, a hated enemy of the United States in the Cold War.
"It's like letting Hitler represent Germany at the UN," Widyono said during a Dec. 11 lecture at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, where he teaches economics. "Did anyone ask the Cambodian people who they wanted to represent them?" On the ground, this meant Widyono and his UNTAC colleagues could not disarm Cambodia's warring factions (the KR was non-compliant) or protect civilians from the KR's pre-election violence. Widyono says his comments have "raised eyebrows" at the UN, which views UNTAC as an overall success for its organization of elections and repatriation of refugees. He still believes UNTAC's mission was fundamentally flawed. "The Paris Peace agreements (ending the civil war) were born with original sin because UNTAC had to recognize the KR," says Widyono, who wrote the book during a three-year stint as a visiting scholar at the Kahin Center for Advanced Research in Southeast Asia at Cornell University. "Our mandate was a joke."Oddly enough, Widyono didn't hear complaints from Cambodia's ostentatious King Sihanouk, whom he criticized for backing the KR. He was surprised to receive a thank-you note from Sihanouk for the copy of "Dancing..." he sent to the former king for his birthday. "I was quite critical of him, so I wasn't sure if he would like the book," says Widyono. "But he likes to have his name mentioned everywhere and my book revives him. He is even in the title." Widyono may be firm in his criticisms of UNTAC and pessimistic about the UN, but he still thinks there can be lessons for future missions, such as the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur. "The UN is constrained because they don't have their own troops," Widyono says. "But that doesn't mean they can't stand up to those who have committed atrocities."
Note: The publishers sent me a copy of the book to review but it was posted to my old UK address and hasn't managed to find its way over here yet!

Starved of Cry No More

Roy Hill at the Strawbs Party on 8 Dec. [Pic: Alison Brown]
Living on the other side of the world in Cambodia can be frustrating at times, particularly as I'm starved of news about the one-off annual Cry No More gig that took place in Twickenham on Friday night. Someone please put me out of my misery! There are certain things I miss back in Blighty, and Cry No More, especially the antics of Roy Hill, are one of them. Their Christmas 'Farewell' performance each year is fantastic fun for all the Cry No More diehards and newcomers like me. I didn't get into them until a couple of years ago but I knew Roy from way back when in the late 70s and his unique style and sense of timing is second-to-none. Believe me this man is a genius. I see they did a warm-up set during the Strawbs Christmas Party on 8 December in Teddington with four tracks - Landslide, Don't Leave Me Here, George's Bar and Holiday - but the main event, at the Turks Head on Friday night, was the one to be at. I should've flown back specially - call myself a real fan! For lots more info on Roy, click here.
Postscript: I'm out of my misery, as two gig reports from the Cry No More Farewell Christmas performance can now be found, with a link to photos, here. Keep your eyes peeled for a plethora of Cry No More and Roy Hill cd & dvd releases sometime in 2008. He has promised me it'll happen and I believe him!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bookshelf musings

I've just finished a really entertaining read, James Rollins' action thriller The Judas Strain, which climaxes deep within the bowels of The Bayon at Angkor, though I won't tell you the details, you'll have to find out for yourself. Essentially, the story is good versus evil and the headlong rush to doomsday that only the agents of Sigma Force can halt, or can they? William Morrow are the publishers and the hardback edition costs $25.95. A full review to follow.
Scheduled for publication at the turn of the year is the latest book from Ian Harris, Buddhism Under Pol Pot which explores the fate of Buddhism before, during and just after the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Harris, aided by DC-Cam's Prum Phalla, concludes there was no policy for the systematic liquidation of monks under the KR, though many were executed, defrocked and forced to marry. It will be available at Monument Books for $15.
Finally, award-winning poet, teacher and fiction writer, Anya Achtenberg's latest novel, History Artist, is all about Cambodia's recent history. The author says this about the novel: "A novel can assist in opening up memory, and with that, opening up questions of accountability, of our responsibility to work for the full recovery of the story, our responsibility for what is done in our name. As journalist and filmmaker John Pilger says, the bombing of Cambodia by American forces in 1970, equivalent to five Hiroshimas, killed an estimated 600,000 Cambodians, and unclassified CIA files leave little doubt that it opened up the country to genocide by the forces of Pol Pot. My dear main character, with whom I have more personal affinity than I can discuss here, has opened me back up to this knowledge/this memory, and will assist me in opening up others to it." Expect the novel sometime in 2008.

Arts updates

There's a whole host of photographic exhibitions, film-shows and so on taking place around Phnom Penh at the moment and I can't hope to mention them all, so I'll be selective. I popped into the Two Fish Gallery for the opening night of Elyse Lightman's photo exhibition entitled Glimpse of Cham : The Changing Face of an Imam San Village, which runs til 17 January. Nice photos and a rare look at the lifestyle of the Cham Muslim community. I had dinner with my old pal Eric de Vries last night and he has an exhibition coming up at the McDermott Gallery in Siem Reap sometime soon. He's also opened up a new website here.
Over at the Meta House on Street 264 (near Wat Botum), next month will see a series of films, performances and exhibitions that are definitely worth a visit. Films such as The Killing Fields, The Flute Player, Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers and To Touch The Soul are all on my list to attend if I have time, whilst live performances from students of Cambodia Living Arts and child prodigy bosbaPanh (on 23 Jan) will take place each Wednesday. Opening on 24 Jan will be a new exhibition, Art of Survival, by over 20 Cambodian artists who will reflect on the Khmer Rouge genocide, confront the past and shape the future. Artists of the calibre of Chhim Sothy, Hen Sophal, Vandy Rattana, Sou Mey and Sokuntevy Oeur will all be involved. Currently on display at Meta until 20 Jan, are the results of a workshop by Swiss photographer Beat Presser, who also has an exhibition at the National Museum called Oasis of Silence.

Postscript: I've just returned home from watching David Brisbin's Nice Hat! documentary at Meta House in which he looks at Cambodia through the medium of hats and does it very successfully in my view. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, it gave a different perspective on Cambodia and that gets a tick in my result card. I found myself nodding as Rithy Panh explained on film how the krama - so important in everyday Khmer life as a head-covering amongst its many other uses - also became intrinsically linked to the Khmer Rouge regime and became tainted as a result. I had often wondered about this association but never voiced it to any of my Khmer friends. A pleasant surprise for the audience was the introduction of 'James Bond', the cute temple guide, who was in Phnom Penh to watch the film for the first time himself, even though it was filmed five years ago. Vern Ven is a switched-on guy, speaks four languages and hopes to become an official tour guide, rather than the endearing kid that made everyone smile on the film.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Jimi makes a splash at Hanuman

Jimi with some of his new Hanuman fanbase
Cambodian-born singer-songwriter Jimi Lundy paid a visit to the Hanuman offices in Phnom Penh this lunchtime and found himself a new army of fans amongst our female staff. They all took away a signed copy of his new CD single and are eagerly awaiting his first public appearance in the capital in the next couple of weeks. Jimi is in Cambodia, from his home in Melbourne, Australia, to raise his profile in his homeland and to promote his new single, When We Were Young, and When Tomorrow Comes, a track sung in Khmer and written specifically for the Cambodian market. He's expecting to firm-up a series of public appearances over the next few days, as well as slots on radio and television before he returns to Australia at the end of January. His second independent album will be out later in 2008, the tracks are written but need refining and recording. Jimi, who can play guitar and piano, has just formed his own company in Australia, phm entertainment and has plans to try his fortune in America in the not too distant future. However, for the next month he's concentrating solely on Cambodia and bringing his own brand of sentimental love ballads, heartfelt lyrics and catchy melodies to a Cambodian and expat audience.
Two coincidences worth a mention are that Jimi was born in the year of the monkey and has a large tattoo of Hanuman, the monkey god, on his left shoulder. And a charity that he's supported in the past with benefit gigs and is looking to do much more for in 2008 is none other than the Schools for Children of Cambodia organization, a charity that Hanuman is also a keen supporter of. To find out more about Jimi, click here.

Jimi rubbing shoulders with the author

Project Enlighten

Project Enlighten was developed by two passionate individuals who were inspired by a chance encounter with a young landmine survivor, begging on the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Originally formed as the Landmine College Fund in 2006, the Founders recognized the need for a professional non-profit organization to facilitate educational opportunities in Southeast Asia, or wherever the call may come from. In this way, Project Enlighten aims to provide self-sustainable educational and humanitarian assistance to those who need it most, the children of the world. Asad Rahman and Olivia Lorge are in Cambodia as I type, reviewing their current projects, The Greater Knowledge Fund and Ronnie Yimsut's Cow Bank Project and seeking other ways in which they can help. Find out more about Asad's and Olivia's dream here and read about their current trip here.

With education and particularly schools in mind, there's been a veritable flood of stories in the international press recently of schools being built in Cambodia thanks to generous donations from abroad, whether it be in the States, Europe or elsewhere. Here's two such articles: New School in Kompong Thom, courtesy of The Hartford Courant here, and a story by AP of another school in Banteay Srei, with funds raised by one 17 year old American teenager here.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Camera angles

The film premiere of the feature documentary, Rain Falls from Earth: Surviving Cambodia's Darkest Hour is set to take place in Denver, Colorado in the inaugural Festivus Film Festival on 13 January. Director Steve McClure has been working on this project for quite some time and is ready to share the fruits of his labors for the first time. Rain Falls from Earth is a story of courage, a story of survival and a story of eventual triumph over the Khmer Rouge regime that was responsible for the deaths of over 1.7 million people. The voices of many survivors are heard as they convey their thoughts, ideas and emotions—the very things they were forced to abandon in the killing fields of Cambodia. Narrated by Academy Award nominated actor, Sam Waterston, this film gives a voice to those whose lives were senselessly lost. Find out more here.
Meanwhile, showing at the Meta House in Phnom Penh this Saturday is David Brisbin's brilliant documentary Nice Hat! Five Enigmas in the Life of Cambodia. The spiel says...What does it mean when the royal crown has gone missing, when a single scarf serves both torture and joy, when peasant palm hats speak of ethnic division, when a cloth cap from another country defines a revolution, or when a dancer’s headdress survives 800 years? These are among the hats that frame the Cambodian face, and offer an intimate window on how the Khmer have withstood the worst and embodied the best of humanity for a thousand years. For a deeper insight into Brisbin's documentary, visit the film's website.

Sharing Talents Abroad

This article appeared in the Lincoln County News yesterday and its a look at a local Maine and Lincoln Country couple in the US who are doing their utmost to protect wildlife and promote education about habitat and endangered species preservation in Cambodia. I met Karen when I visited the Sam Veasna Center in Siem Reap and she and her husband are doing great work.

Whitefield Couple Shares Talents Abroad - by Lucy L. Martin (The Lincoln County News, USA)
How about a bowl of salted crickets? You'd eat this popular Cambodian snack if you were in league with ardent conservationists and bird lovers Karen and Paul "Howie" Nielsen of Whitefield, trying to save precious habitat in that southeast Asian country. The Nielsens have been living and traveling in Thailand and Cambodia since 2006 and became involved with the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, located in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Both are helping the international Wildlife Conservation Society protect wildlife and promote education about habitat and endangered species preservation in this corner of the world. On the path to this goal is learning the customs and sharing the food locals eat, including simply prepared fish and those afore-mentioned crickets. The route itself is ecotourism.
Howie, a passionate bird watcher, traveled the world even before retiring from his Augusta dental practice several years ago. Occasionally volunteering to remove tartar from the teeth of bears and primates, he specializes in bird walks. This activity is linked to training Cambodians about the wealth that surrounds them and how they can both protect and benefit from it. He is teaching them about the variety of habitats so they and their fellow villages can become guides, leading international tourists into those areas themselves and generating an income. Part of this deal for building a new economy is that villagers stop an age-old practice: killing the birds around them. Last spring Karen (pictured above) agreed to be temporary director at the Veasna Center. The center was founded in 2003 by the former head of the provincial wildlife office who initiated conservation efforts being carried out today.
During a visit home in October, Karen showed a video presentation about ecotourism opportunities in Cambodia. After 30 years of war and revolution, she said, the country has become a peaceful and attractive place to live, visit and invest. Though there has been habitat loss through development, there are "still opportunities for preserving parts of their national heritage. They're trying to get a roof on it." Seeing the value of what they have and teaching them to take charge of developing ecotourism are key goals. She showed pictures of the Angkor Wat complex with temples dating from the year 800. Friezes of birds and other animals adorn these ancient structures, which draw as many as two million tourists a year. There are so many temples "you couldn't see them all in a month," she said. The birds are "incredible," both in number and appearance, she added.
Koreans make up the vast majority of temple visitors. Most of the birders, however, are Europeans and Canadians. For the most part, Americans still aren't comfortable traveling in southeast Asia, Karen said. Among the endangered and rare bird species are the Sarus Crane, the Giant Ibis, Milky Stork, Spot-billed Pelican and White-rumped Vulture. One of Sam Veasna's big achievements was having an area populated by the Sarus Crane protected by royal decree. The type of forest where Howie trains local guides used to cover both Cambodia and Vietnam. Home to an endangered species of leopard, the so-called dry diptocarp forest is disappearing. There is a lot of illegal timber harvesting, Karen said, and a population explosion is taking place. There are plans to convert a forested national park into a golf course and resort. Time is critical. According to the Sam Veasnu website, part of rapidly changing Cambodia contains "the largest remaining intact block of a unique landscape that once covered much of Indochina," comparable to the African savannas. Karen said birders can arrange trips to these special places by contacting the center here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dhamma Aid

Buddhist Monks at Wat Sleng, Kompong Thom
As you may know, I have very serious concerns regarding the unchecked epidemic of Christian missionaries doing untold damage throughout Cambodia. Armed with gifts and promises, I’m sure some have noble and genuine intentions but nonetheless, they are weakening and eroding Cambodian culture that is underpinned by Buddhism. To this end, I have been asked to spread a different message by the folks who organize Dhamma Aid Cambodia. They’ve printed a series of books such as ‘Buddhist Ethics in Daily Life’, which will be freely distributed to students, monks, youth groups, businessmen, village elders and so on, to help reclaim their religious heritage and to re-discover the Dhamma or Dharma (the teachings of Buddha that lead to enlightenment). Firstly, I am not a Buddhist, I am an atheist, but I am a lover of Cambodia and much of the gentle nature and purity of spirit that I have loved so much since my first visit to Cambodia 13 years ago, I believe, lies in the Khmers upbringing and in their past. That past was principally Buddhist and it’s one I feel they should hold onto in the future, as they face the onslaught of the modern world, especially the onward march of the righteous Christian hordes. To find out more about Dhamma Aid Cambodia, click here.

Christmas surprise

An unexpected visit from my god-daughter was my best Christmas gift (actually my only gift!). Since I've moved to live in Phnom Penh, I've only seen Vansy on a handful of occasions. And yesterday she arrived, unannounced, with her sister Malis, to wish me compliments of the season and to give me a keyring she'd bought. Since my last tourist visit in January, Vansy has moved from her family home in a small village in Kien Svay district to live with her sister in the rabbit-warrens of Phnom Penh. This is primarily to improve her schooling, which was quite limited in the countryside, but also to help her sister as well as to alleviate the number of mouths to feed at home. Since my return, I've been on a shopping trip with her, she's visited me at my office with her friends and on another occasion a few weeks ago, we took a tuk-tuk to visit her parents and siblings. That was a fun day out as we had a gorgeous feast at her family home and then went on a tour of her neighbourhood. She is a gorgeous kid, growing up very fast like all teenage girls, has a heart of gold and wants to make something of herself. Living in the capital is a different animal from living in the sticks and I have my worries like any concerned parent but she seems to be thriving in her new environment and I hope that continues.
After fielding a flood of sms messages yesterday - my Khmer friends may not celebrate Christmas but they sure weren't going to let me forget which day of the year it was! - I must've still been dog-tired after a week of feeling under the weather and fell sound asleep just after 8pm. Even a late flurry of messages failed to stir me until I awoke at 7.30am this morning. And I feel much better for it.

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My pal Phanna is making headlines as he gets a quote in today's The Cambodia Daily newspaper in a story that describes the filling-in of one of Phnom Penh's largest lakes, Boeung Kak, is now underway. A pipeline is being built to pump sand from the Tonle Sap river into the lake, and the filling-in process is expected to take just over a year. However, the effect on residents and the numerous backpacker guesthouses and businesses that are located along the edge of the lake are as yet unknown. As usual, communication, participation and negotiation is noticeably absent.
Here's the quote: Chheang Phanna, 25, owner of Number 10 guesthouse, said he and other business owners around the lake are also worried by the lack of information from City Hall. "We do worry, but we have no choice. The government does what the government does," Chheang Phanna said. "It's better if the government lets us know what they plan to do , so we can know what to do," he said.
I know Phanna is concerned as to how events will unfold at the lake, he has a lot riding on the guesthouse, which is incredibly popular with the backpacker fraternity, but he's a savvy individual and I know he has a few irons in a few fires to ensure that he has options should the guesthouse business go belly-up.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Cambodian Smiles

There's nothing quite like a Cambodian smile
It's December 25th and I'm at work. As someone who has had little time for Christmas in the past, its only right that I should haul my ass into work today while the rest of the western world is taking a holiday. Put your money where your mouth is I say. So I have. Christmas Day is just another day on the calendar in Cambodia, and long may it continue. I received a bunch of sms messages and phone calls this morning but the best news came from Sokhom, my long-time sidekick from Kompong Thom. I could hear the pride in his voice as he told me that he's started laying the foundations of his new home. I am so pleased for him and his family. He's lived in a tin shack at the side of National Highway 6 for a long time now and after a dispute with a neighbour, he sold his postage-stamp plot of land a while back. The new 'Im family home' will be on a larger plot of land next to his wife's parents house a few blocks away and for Sokhom, Sroy and Kunthea, it will signify more permanence and stability. I can't wait for the house-warming about a year's time! I was up late last night reading the latest James Rollins novel, The Judas Strain. It's one of those thrillers that you begin and don't want to put down, but the clock struck 2am and I decided on a few hours of shut-eye before work, however it's a cracking read and I haven't even reached the section that involves Angkor yet. Photos: Tim Brouwer

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Whoops, forgot this shot

As a photo, its not one of my best by any stretch of the imagination, but it represents the first picture taken with my new Sony camera and it also shows part of the changing face of Phnom Penh. Just behind the grass island in the shot, used to be a wonderful old broken-down yellow-painted colonial building that belonged to the tourism department. Now a solitary 4WD sits on its foundations. This intersection, immediately in front of Wat Ounalom, is still one of the most tricky to cross on foot especially after dark, as traffic flies at you from all directions. In the bottom left hand-corner, that 2 metre high green aluminium fence has recently been erected and has destroyed the street-level view of the river from Wat Ounalom all the way north to Psar Chas. Its expected to be there for more than a year as work takes place to get the drainage and flood systems sorted out, but hats off to the capital's works' department - they waited until high season was in full swing before they erected it without a moment's notice for the bars & restaurants who trade off the river view. Priceless.
Below is a photo taken as you pan to the right of the shot above. These are the spires and roof-top buildings of Wat Ounalom, which hosts no less than 44 structures. The home of the country's Buddhist hierarchy, Wat Ounalom was founded in 1443 but didn't fair particularly well during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Sunset blues

Feeling a bit sorry for myself - well I am a bloke afterall and its one of the few things we can do really well - I went for a haircut at Parkway ($4 and a nice job too) and then out to No 10 Guesthouse at Boeung Kak Lake for a relaxing sunset. The guesthouse is run by my pal Phanna and he arrived soon after with 25 tiny children, all part of an orphanage he helps out, by taking the kids on a trip each week. They are orphans because their parents have died or are suffering from HIV and they soon put an end to my relaxing sunset. The lake itself was strangulated by lines of 'trol khoun' a water-plant that can be fried and eaten with meat, and canoes paddled by small boys were busying themselves with camera-totting tourists at $1 a go for a quick paddle around the lake. Afterwards, I headed for some British grub at the Rising Sun pub near the riverside in order to line my stomach with something substantial after my failure to keep anything inside over the last few days.

Smiles and scars in Phnom Penh

Yesterday was not a good day health-wise, so today's visit to Tonle Bati has been shelved til I feel a lot better. I've spent more hours in bed than out of it over the last two days and I still feel like shit.
As I've nothing to report personally, here's a visit to Phnom Penh by Simon Marcus Gower of The Jakarta Post, Indonesia.

Phnom Penh, a city of scars and smiles
Brilliant blue skies are above. The occasional fluffy white cloud breaks the blue, and moves on, guided by a gentle breeze perfectly created to caress a weary traveler. It is a breeze that offers just some relief from a tropical heat that would see Phnom Penh become otherwise unbearably hot and dusty. This, though, is a relatively small city and its limits can be reached quickly. The surrounding Cambodian countryside can soon take over. The river that runs through the city seems largely untouched by the hand of man on one side. Ferries are occasional and riverboats few and far between. There is a level of tranquility and peace that runs through residential and office-bound areas, reflecting nothing of their traumatic and brutal past. Phnom Penh is sleepy and at ease - an uninformed visitor would not believe the devastation the city has known. New developments are spoken of and visible in the rise of ubiquitous glass and steel monolithic office blocks. But the city is still largely defined by its historical and French colonial grid-like city plan. Today, Phnom Penh may still be considered in recuperation from the horrors and brutalities that were visited upon its people and its buildings 30 years ago. The people of Cambodia have historically suffered under the excesses of human brutality and 30 years ago this brutality took the form of appalling atrocities and genocide. For most individuals, this history is incomprehensible. Phnom Penh can still show the world its scars from days gone by, and in so doing, it simultaneously horrifies, educates and warns us. The people of Phnom Penh today are, despite it all, remarkably welcoming, genuine, open and friendly.Getting around the city is made easy by ever-present tuk-tuks - motorbikes to which a carriage is attached. Their drivers are typically helpful and pleasant.A t a rate of 8,000 riel (or US$2) for a journey to pretty much anywhere in the city, this mode of transport is convenient, inexpensive and fun. Sitting in the carriage of a tuk-tuk, that can seat four easily; it's not hard to feel relaxed. The breeze offers some natural air-conditioning, while passengers and tourists move around the city. Tuk-tuk drivers are worldly-wise and tourist-savvy, but rarely pushy or annoying. They are ready and willing, and can be hired for the day, or even days consecutively.

Two of the most immediate and obvious sights on a tourist map are the Royal Palace and the National Museum. The Palace shines brilliantly in the sun with its golden and yellow décor. But again, there is a restfulness to be discerned here. The Palace complex is kept in immaculate condition. The trim hedges, cut grass and topiary all give clues to the esteem and reverence paid here. The grounds are relatively quiet and not flooded with tourists. Although the arrival of school children by the bus load can quickly change the atmosphere somewhat, teachers seem intent on their charges learning about Cambodian history. The students behave appropriately and are less of an intrusion than masses of tourists. The Palace does, though, clearly venerate the monarchy and like most others, the Cambodian monarchy has had a varied and rather checkered history. In the neighboring National Museum, veneration is paid to images of Buddha. Visitors here could be forgiven for mistaking the National Museum for a shrine or Buddhist monastery. Its central courtyard is an sanctuary of calm with still ponds, selected statues and miniature hedges. The oasis-like atmosphere is accentuated further by the presence of Buddhists monks. The collection of carved and cast images from around Cambodia is extensive, but is something more than a mere museum collection. Throughout the museum, simple mats are laid in front of images of Buddha, where offerings are made of flowers, fruit and incense sticks, whose delicate fragrances waft through the museum's open halls. Signs of Cambodia's antiquity and Buddhist roots are spread throughout the city with many, many temples (or wats). Pagodas glisten under a hot sun and are contrasted by the city's blue skies. Wat Phnom is built on a small hill toward the north of the city. It is here the city is reputed to have been founded by a wealthy widow, Daun Penh, who settled near the river in the 14th century.It is remarkable places like this survived the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. At that time, religious places were considered unnecessary. Religion was disregarded. It was thought to only take the Cambodian people to a Utopian notion of their existence - an apparent new beginning at the year zero. Remarkable also is that the Cambodian people survived such an onslaught. But they did, and today they quietly, powerfully, seek to remind visitors of their survival.

The people of Phnom Penh will suggest, but not insist, a visit to two sites that chillingly commemorate the happenings of the mid-to-late 1970s. They are referred to as The Killing Fields sit some 15 to 20 kilometers south of the city at Cheoung Ek. A monument, of sorts, has been raised to the thousands of people viciously killed here. It is a tall tower within which sit numerous shelves. And resting on each shelf are dozens and dozens of skulls. The tower's surroundings include pits and trenches where bodies were buried in mass graves. It is simultaneously gruesome, respectful and eerie. Local children busily offer to show visitors further sites of mass burials, while the joyful sounds of nearby school children make a stark contradiction to this place death. The stories attached to The Killing Fields of Cambodia are too many to relate here. Similarly, the experience of visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is harrowing and difficult to tell. It is near impossible to relate in words. The Genocide Museum was originally built as a school, but in 1975 it became a prison and a center for torture. It is estimated somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 people were killed between the walls of these buildings and during nearly three years of operation. Less than 10 people came out alive. Today, as a museum, this complex of buildings is retained in just about the same condition it was found at "liberation". Its rooms are stark and many of the crude cells remain. The most difficult and harrowing rooms to visit are those that contain hundreds of photographs of the prison's victims. The photos show humans who had clearly already suffered; some with cuts and bruises, many with looks of absolute fear. Others wear innocent smiles - and there are many children. But these images are a startling contrast to the people of Phnom Penh today. Today's residents are friendly, seemingly peaceful. It's difficult to conceive their history casts one of the world's longest and darkest shadows. It is a history however that should not blind visitors to everything the city has to offer.

Many people, it seems, stay a short time in Phnom Penh - or don't visit at all, favoring instead the vast wonder that is Angkor Wat, further north-west at Siem Reap. This is a shame and an omission that leaves a vital part of Cambodia neglected. Much of Cambodia's economy depends on tourism and Phnom Penh can be - and rightfully should be - a significant part of this trade. With its still-evident French colonial charm, its wonderfully welcoming and pleasant people, and abundant pagodas, Phnom Penh offers a different, if somewhat challenging and rewarding travel experience.

Saturday, December 22, 2007 updates

My website hasn't been updated for a few months as in the furore of moving to Cambodia I forgot some vital elements! The programs for my website editor, ftp uploading and passwords all went astray, hence the lack of updating, though I have worked a bundle on making this Blog my daily mouthpiece. Its taken me til now to get myself better sorted and I'm on the case. I can't promise any updates in the next few days but I'm aiming for a 2008 re-launch sometime soon. But don't hold me to it...
Visit the website here.

Still bad...and stuff

Not that anyone wants to hear about my bowel movements but I'm still suffering despite rattling with the number of pills I've stuffed down my throat and essential body water and salts I've replaced! Ho hum, such is life.
I met Andrea Messmer, the new general manager for the Schools for Children of Cambodia organization - who I've supported for a few years now - for a sandwich yesterday and was really pleased to hear the charity has now acquired three full-time permanent staff in their bid to strengthen their involvement in five schools in and around Siem Reap. They are doing great work in supporting educational efforts, building classrooms, supplementing teacher's salaries, etc, in communities that needed help. Have a look for yourself here.
In my fevered state (and post robbery recovery) I forgot to mention any details of the superb wedding party I attended last Sunday at the Intercontinental Hotel in Phnom Penh. Five star luxury, the best food I've tasted at a wedding do so far, and everyone looked a million dollars. Philip Set Kao, the General Manager of the Borei Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap was marrying his sweetheart and the guest-list was a mini who's-who including film actress Soeu Sotheara, who was a good sport and must've had her photo taken with everyone, including me! She sang quite a few songs and all in all, a very pleasant evening. Until I fell asleep when I arrived home. And no photos from the wedding as they went out the window!
Its obviously festive time in the UK but I've never been sold on the idea of Christmas, so I may even come into work on Tuesday the 25th - an anti-Christian statement if you like. I am gutted that I'll miss the Cry No More extravaganza on the 28th in Twickenham but we are having our own party on the 4th & 5th of January, when the whole office will close up shop and move, en masse, to Siem Reap for a Hanuman New Year's Party, and fam trip to Phnom Kulen.
I bumped into a photographer, Jean Loncle, at the recent WOVD Volleyball matches at the Olympic Stadium and he's now published his own website with examples of his work in Cambodia from 2005 and this year. Have a look here.
If I'm feeling better tomorrow, I might make an early start to visit Tonle Bati, an Angkorean temple site and Khmer picnic area that I've not been to for a few years. Weekends aren't a great time for solitude at these places as they attract car-loads of Khmer families like moths to a light-bulb.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Good and bad

Well, the week began well, turned ugly and is ending on a high.
Sunday was spent enjoying the delights of Phnom Tamao zoo and a very plush wedding at the 5-star Intercontinental Hotel. That night I was relieved of my new Sony digital camera and $150 in cash by a thief with long arms who took advantage of my nap to get rich quick. The last couple of days I've had an upset stomach that is refusing to go away, but the really positive news, is that if I'm at home in the evenings, its blissfully quiet. Why? The only downside of living in my neighbourhood (besides the monkey-like thief) was a beer garden with noisy karaoke that blasted out til about 11pm every evening, sometimes later. I'm a block away but I could still hear the high-pitched wailing from the 'Moon Club'. Maybe they were actually dogs barking at the full moon! Anyway, its closed down, through lack of patronage I believe and so the shutters are up at the Chan Amret restaurant and beer garden, and the neighbourhood is a far quieter place. Result!
Andy & Ming popped into see me in the office today. They've been working with supplying schools with computers in Phnom Penh and Battambang for at least a couple of years now and we've been e-mail buddies but never met face to face. That was remedied today. Tomorrow I have a bunch of other people to see too. And tonight, I splashed out $350 on a new digital camera, going up a notch to get the T200. Remind me to be careful where I leave the damn thing...

Protecting Cambodia's Treasures

The following short article about one of my favoured organizations, Heritage Watch, was posted by Brook Wilkinson on the website yesterday following her recent visit to Cambodia.

Heritage Watch: Protecting Cambodia's Treasures
While I was on assignment in Cambodia earlier this month, I learned about a great organization that is working to preserve that country's cultural treasures: Heritage Watch. Started by archaeologist Dougald O'Reilly, Heritage Watch has spent the past five years campaigning against antiquities looting - and, more recently, for responsible tourism. I was struck by the lack of guidance at Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples - there are few signs telling you where to go or not go, what to touch or not touch. But as Dr. O'Reilly told me, their unrestricted access is one of the charming things about the sites, and "the onus is on the people visiting to be responsible themselves."
How can you help preserve Cambodia's relics? Read on to find out.
Dr. O'Reilly reminds visitors to be respectful of the local culture, as well as the monuments' religious significance - this means covering knees and shoulders, speaking softly, and not using cell phones inside the temples. (I was none too impressed by the guy whose Shakira ring tone echoed throughout the complex). Visitors shouldn't touch the bas reliefs, should of course dispose of any litter properly (you'd be amazed at how many candy wrappers are scattered around the temples), and shouldn't buy any artifacts.
Heritage Watch also certifies businesses as being "heritage-friendly." Businesses that display the seal shown above have met at least three of Heritage Watch's criteria, which include contributing to and supporting NGOs and promoting clean environmental practices.
Finally, Heritage Watch is trying to ease the pressure on the most famous temples by encouraging visitors to explore lesser-known spots. Try watching the sun set from Phnom Krom, instead of with the swarming crowds at Phnom Bakheng. Or take the three-hour drive to the Koh Ker complex, a beautiful and secluded spot where Heritage Watch has trained locals to run their own tourism businesses. Link: Heritage Watch.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Half a dozen border gates with Vietnam

I'm a bit slow with this news as the most recent international border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam opened for business on 15 December, but here it is anyway. Cambodian visas are available (you'll have to get your Vietnamese one beforehand) at the new border checkpoint which is located in Ratanakiri province and is called the O'Yadaw - Le Tanh crossing, leading into Vietnam's Gia Lai province. To be honest, it's been an unofficial crossing for a while but has now been declared the official, and sixth, international border-crossing between the two countries. All they have to do now is get on with completing the 'road from hell', the 75kms stetch of highway (not!) between Ban Lung, the provincal capital, and the border itself. This follows on the heels of the opening of the border at Ha Tien in the southwest corner of Cambodia. There's also announcements this week that Cambodia and Thailand have agreed to initiate a single visa for entry into both countries. No details yet but if the existing visa cashflow dries up for some as a result of this breakthrough, there's going to be a lot of unhappy faces in the kingdom. Thailand sees 15 million visitors per year, Cambodia gets 2 million.

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I've had a bad day today with a stomach upset that won't disappear.
Last night, I attended the film show at the Two Fish Gallery, with photographer and conservationist Wayne McCallum introducing the 15-minute documentary, Cardamom Mountains - Cambodia's Last Wilderness. The film shows some of the conservation initiatives taking place in this beautiful part of the country but I'm still concerned that different groups like Wildlife Alliance and Conservation International each have their own pet projects in the Cardamoms but there doesn't seem to be a master-plan or top-level overview by the government to ensure these projects and others are entirely beneficial. Wayne answered a few questions from the audience, having shown the film in English and Khmer and then handed out free copies of the dvd. His own series of photographs of the area are on exhibition at the Two Fish.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Are you ready for Jimi?

It's ok Jimi, your trousers are still on!
Battambang-born singer-songwriter Jimi Lundy will arrive in Cambodia on Christmas Eve - are you ready? On the back of his new single, When We Were Young, Jimi will leave his home in Melbourne, Australia to bring his own brand of melodic pop to a Cambodian and expat audience with a series of gigs in Phnom Penh throughout January. His signature tune, Cambodia, will be featured on the soon-to-be-released film, The Red Sense and Jimi will begin production work on his second album on his return to Australia in February. Also next year, Jimi will begin a new project, a non-profit children's organisation called Children of Cambodia. Keep your eyes peeled for those dates around the capital. Link: myspace.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Memorial for 20,000

Whilst heading back towards Phnom Penh after my visit yesterday to the Phnom Tamao zoo and two next-door hills that both contain ruined Angkorean prasats, I detoured just a kilometre before hitting Route 2 again to visit a pagoda that my two young guides had told me about when I visited Wat Phnom Tamao and Wat Thma Doh. I had asked whether any Khmer Rouge Genocide Memorials were located nearby and they told me about Wat Ka Koh, also known as Wat Sauphy, about five kilometres away. Upon reaching the wat, I came across a couple of women fishing in a large pond with a net and inspected their suprisingly large catch of fish, eels, frogs and crabs. Part of the pagoda's boundary wall was under water and appeared to encourage a rich vein of edible goodies which the women were quick to harvest. They confirmed that Wat Ka Koh did indeed contain a memorial to the dead. Inside the pagoda grounds I asked Sokum, a wood carver at the pagoda, whether he knew any more details. He explained that he came to the pagoda after the Khmer Rouge soldiers had disappeared and it was obvious to all that the area had been used as a killing ground with blood stains on the floor of many outbuildings and Khmer Rouge slogans extolling the virtues of Angkar written on the walls. A nearby primary school had been used as a prison and a series of mass graves, believed to be in excess of a thousand, littered the surrounding area. Conservative estimates put the total number of dead in the immediate vicinity to be more than 20,000, when investigated by the DC-Cam team seven years ago.

Sokum admitted there were simply too many bodies and skeletal remains to collect together, so it was decided to select 3,000 of the skulls still in good condition and to house them in a wooden memorial. The remainder of the bones were cremated. A few years later, a wealthy relative of one of the victim's donated enough money to build a concrete memorial building, which was erected facing out across the flooded fields and decorated with colourful Buddhist scenes on its walls. The stupa remains today, with 3,000 slowly-decaying skulls behind a dirty glass window and a few leg-irons that were retrieved from the death pits at the site. No-one comes to visit the site any more Sokum said, though it's still tidied up and the surrounding foliage pruned back from time to time. He felt it was important to remember the thousands that died at Wat Ka Koh but that today, people's thoughts had turned away from the Pol Pot time and onto other things, which he regretted, as he had lost many friends and family back then, who he would never see or speak to again. I felt a wave of sadness as he said this, a feeling that must sweep over many of the survivors when they recall that time, nearly three decades ago.
[I cannot post any photos of the memorial as my camera was stolen last night].

Wake-up call!

I had a wake-up call Sunday night. I arrived home from a wedding party at just before 9pm and fell asleep (no I wasn't intoxicated, I don't drink alcohol). When I woke up at 2am and went to turn off the lights, I couldn't find my brand new Sony digital camera or my wallet. Still a bit sleepy, I searched and searched again. I checked the lock on the front door and then realised...the window was slightly ajar (as it had been forced open) and some opportunist bastard had stuck their hand through the grille and grabbed them off the nearby table. A $250 camera, about $150 in my wallet and some precious memories (which I hadn't downloaded before I fell asleep) from today's trip to Phnom Tamao zoo and the evening's wedding - all lost because of my stupidity (leaving the valuables near a window). I am not surprised by much in Cambodia these days and this should kick-start my mind into realising that not everyone can be included in the list of kind, sweet and gentle people that I've become so used to over the last 13 years. I've been spoilt and I let my guard down - lesson learnt! The only reason by lap-top is still on my desk is because they wouldn't swipe it through the grille. Damn, damn, damn - there were some great photos from an exhausting moto-ride to Phnom Tamao zoo and wildlife rescue center, as well as pictures taken at the wedding party with the well-known Khmer actress Soeu Sotheara, but it's no use crying over spilt milk, I'm $400 down on a few hours ago, and will know better in future! Lying on the floor, presumably knocked off the table by the thief, was the certificate of 'good luck' given to me by the famous monk Som Sim last week. I've been asked a few times by Khmer friends, whether I believed his blessing or not - now they have their answer - an emphatic no!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

One monk and his pagoda

Head monk Koah Nin and myself in front of the main altar

Yesterday afternoon was spent buzzing along Highway 3 from Phnom Penh and out into the countryside without an obvious target, just stopping at a few pagodas and interacting with locals. One of my stops was at Wat Teuk Khla, also known as Wat Mony Kongkeah, where I met a very proud head monk who insisted he show me every building in his pagoda and that I meet all the workforce currently renovating parts of the complex. His name is Koah Nin and at 76, his frail body belies a steely determination to complete his pagoda's overhaul before he passes onto the next life. His words not mine. With the fifty year old main vihara ruined by flooding and now rebuilt, much of his work is done but the former nurse, who became a monk just sixteen years earlier, was supervising construction of a new building when he took time out to show me around. Born in the village nearby, his wat runs alongside the Tumnap Prek Thnal river and before showing me the vihara with its wall murals and insisting on a photo together in front of the altar, he told me how after the Pol Pot regime had ended, he helped collect the bones of KR victims and cremated them in the pagoda's cremation oven and placed them in a stupa with the remains of some of the older monks who'd died whilst at the wat. He was pleased that I'd taken the time to visit his pagoda as no foreigner had ever stopped to talk to him and he invited me to visit him again in the future, at the same time thanking me for telling people across the world about Cambodia. I was at the wat for just under an hour and in the company of Koah Nin, the time flew by without me realising it.

Koah Nin proudly poses in front of the main vihara at Wat Teuk Khla

The main altar at Wat Teuk Khla

This stupa contains the remains of Pol Pot victims and elder monks

This is the pagoda's cremation oven, which was built after the Khmer Rouge period ended

Film night at Meta House

The Meta House played host to a showing of two films by Phnom Penh-based film production company, Khmer Mekong Films last night, with executive producer Matthew Robinson doing the intro's. A short eight minute film called Three Days in Phnom Penh was followed by the feature-length Staying Single When, KMF's first movie. They're already well-versed in producing commercials and 100 episodes of a health series called Taste of Life for Cambodia’s most popular channel, TV5, and they're currently seeking funding for their second feature, Heart Talk. Staying Single When was directed by Tom Som and starred leading actors Meng Bunlo and Duch Sophea. It was a typical romantic comedy and opened to appreciative audiences in Phnom Penh's Kirirom Cinema, in March 2007, before a slot on prime-time CTN in October. Most of the scenes were filmed in Kep, Kampot and Phnom Penh and interestingly, the cost of production was around $40K. Robinson, who hopes to enter it into some international film festivals in 2008, was gushing in his praise for the Khmer actors and crew he's worked with to-date. Link: KMF.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The true spirit of giving

MUN grad experiences the true spirit of giving - by Heidi Wicks, Special to The Telegram, St Johns, NL, Canada

Memorial University graduate Gioia Montevecchi is not spending Christmas at home sipping Purity syrup this year. Instead, she’ll be trading the snow for sand, giving instead of receiving. Montevecchi is a participant of the CIDA/IYIP (Canadian International Development Agency/ International Youth Internship Program) in conjunction with MUN’s Marine Institute (MI). The program links a Canadian organization with one in a developing country on development projects in various sectors, funds the project and appoints teams within both organizations to work together towards completion. Most projects are based on aquaculture in rural communities and focus particularly on providing sustainable training to non-traditional learners. To date, MI has secured more than 85 funded projects in over 35 countries. “CIDA has been a dream of mine for several years now,” Montevecchi explains, “so when I was accepted for this competitive internship placement, I knew I would do all I could to fully embrace the experience.” And she’s not just saying that. Instead of travelling in her spare time, like many participants would do, Montevecchi (along with friends Fran Leigh and Alexa Ridgeway) has partnered with local non-profit organization Epic Arts Café, which promotes inclusion, social integration and community regeneration through the transformative power of creativity. Montevecchi’s team will produce educational enhancements in the form of a card game, designed to help deaf children in Cambodia learn to communicate and interact with their loved ones. The card came will incorporate Khmer Sign Language that children will find fun, accessible and easy to distribute.

Moving experiences
Montevecchi is moved by her experience abroad, emphasizing the value of world awareness. “We travel every few weeks to Kampot Province (south of Cambodia on the gulf of Thailand) to work with the kids at Epic Arts,” Montevecchi says. “My first experience there left me speechless. Epic Arts Cafe is a tiny little cafe in Kampot, below their dance studio, that exhibits art and crafts the kids have created. Many of the hearing impaired kids are talented break dancers. The staff at the cafe are five deaf individuals who are so inspiring and eager to teach anyone who walks through the door a little bit of Cambodian sign language. They gave us a sign name as soon as we arrived that first day and are so excited to see us back ever since. There is only one series of books on the Cambodian sign language, only available to those lucky enough to attend school. Our aim is to develop a children’s card game that will encourage learning among children and families that will be available to anyone interested. The money earned from the game will go back into the cafe. We have already developed the game and completed taking pictures of all the signs we would like to include with the kids from the centre. Now we need to start getting it together, but need to find some sponsors to help pay for the development of the game.” The CIDA has helped Montevecchi exercise her passion to work in the international development field, particularly with a focus on empowerment in women. Her goal is to leave something sustainable in the rice-fish integration project (on which she is working in her internship placement). “I’ve found that what I often see as the smallest of steps can be the biggest successes within this organization,” she says, “even just working with them on their budgets, organization, or time-management skills can be so important, especially when partnering with a Canadian organization that has such different cultural concepts — the concept of time is very different in Cambodia and was one of the biggest adjustments for me when I first arrived.”

Spring hope
As for her little-big pet project, Montevecchi’s hope is that she and her colleagues can get it off the ground and put some of the games into print before she returns home at the end of March. “Cambodia is so beautiful,” she continues, “and the spirit and resilience of these people in the face of such adversity inspires me every day. I cannot articulate what the experiences have meant to me, only that I have never felt so motivated to do everything I can for them.” As for the sand instead of snow this Christmas? “It’s going to be really hard for me to stay away from my family and friends this Christmas,” she says. “But what this experience has meant to me is the greatest Christmas gift I could ever ask for. These people … when you have the power to hold love above everything else, everything material, what else is it that you really need? They seem to see this so clearly, and it is likely due to the disasters and genocide they have faced. They see so vividly concepts that our societies do not grasp in our ever-so-structured world — work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. We need to stop and be healed, be humbled, be grateful, we need to live more like Cambodians.” Link: Epic Arts.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Old friends

Peter & Veasna (left), myself and Vy
It was great to see two old friends tonight, a blast from the past, with them having just returned to live in Cambodia after a couple of years working in Sri Lanka. Peter and Veasna Leth have been pals since 2000 and did some invaluable work with the Cambodian Arts & Scholarship Foundation (CASF) in the good old days. In fact they helped set up and kick-start the organisation and you can read more about Veasna's part in it here. She's a great role-model for young Cambodian women today in my view. And you couldn't wish to meet two nicer people - especially as Peter paid for my meal at the Green Mango, just around the corner from my apartment! Peter is back in Phnom Penh working with UNICEF as a monitoring and evaluations specialist - whatever that is - whilst Veasna is working for the British Government's
Department for International Development (DFID). We were joined by Vy, who was in town for one night attending a conference, from her home in Sihanoukville but the time passed all too quickly and we only scratched at the surface of what's been happening in the last few years, so another meal and chat will be required soon enough.
My thanks to publishers HaperCollins for sending me a hardback copy of the historical and scientific thriller The Judas Strain by James Rollins, which arrived by DHL courier this afternoon. I have a stack of books to read but this intriguing novel looks like it has moved to the top of my reading list.

Gem Miners of Bokheo

Sifting through the soil at the Bokheo gem mines
Mining gems, mostly zircon, has taken place for over fifty years in the area surrounding Bokheo, about 30kms east of Ratanakiri's provincial capital of Ban Lung, along that horrendous road I've referred to in previous posts. There's no big mining operation taking place though, its basically a series of deep holes dug into the fields surrounding the small town. Most remain open and unfilled long after the mining has stopped and moved onto another location, so present a danger to wandering tourists like me.
There were 10 miners at our location, taking it in turns to either squeeze into the 15 metre holes and work in cramped and dangerous conditions underground or to sift through the soil that's brought to the surface for the zircon gems that are in the seams below ground. Sometimes they are lucky and they find a big stone, most times they find smaller, worthless gems. A buyer makes regular trips to the miners to survey their finds. Prices depend on the quality of the stone. A good stone can be the equivalent of a month’s salary, so the miners work in teams of close friends and family as trust is an important factor when sifting through the soil. Foot holds are cut into the inside walls of the hole and below ground some of the more elaborate mines are connected by shafts and tunnels. The work is hard and risky, with only simple tools available, buckets and hand-turned winches to bring the soil to the surface. The buckets are then emptied and the search for the gems begins, aided by a regular swig of rice wine.

All hands to the deck to find the biggest and best zircon gems

Miner coming up for air...want a gem mister?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

To hell and back

Book Review

To The End Of Hell: One woman's struggle to survive the Khmer Rouge - by Denise Affonço (published by Reportage Press, November 2007, 170 pages)

Denise Affonço’s heart-wrenching story of her life during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia in the late 70s is a compelling and chilling account of her survival against overwhelming odds. A French citizen, born in Cambodia of a French father, her background was known to her captors but she was able to cling to life, just, to outlive the genocide, and to give evidence at the trial in absentia of Pol Pot and his cronies. For that she remains eternally grateful to the Vietnamese liberators who crushed the Khmer Rouge and their rule by murder, starvation, disease and hard labour, in which 1.7 million Cambodians perished. She escaped this living hell in January 1979 with only her son still alive. Her husband was arrested and never returned, her 9-year-old daughter died of starvation as well as five other members of her husband's family. Denise had the chance to leave before the Khmer Rouge took charge of Phnom Penh but remained with her husband and children, prompted by her husband’s blind faith in the communist ideals at the heart of the Khmer Rouge ideology. He effectively signed his own death warrant, and those of others with that misguided devotion, while Denise was left to watch her daughter fade away before her eyes, unable to supplement her meagre rations enough to keep her alive. The inhumane treatment dished out by the Khmer Rouge cadre is exposed in full as Denise miraculously managed to cheat death herself before her liberation by the invading Vietnamese.

To The End of Hell was in large part, penned some twenty-five years ago as evidence at the Khmer Rouge trial but remained locked away until 2005 when it was published in France. The English language edition was released by Reportage Press last month and her recollections serialized in the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine. Today, Denise has married again and lives in France. Her memoir, one of more than twenty-five detailing the struggle for survival during the Khmer Rouge regime in my collection, is amongst the most moving and vivid. I recommend you buy it without hesitation. Part of the profits from the sales of the book will go to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), where a scholarship has been set up in the name of Denise Affonço’s nine-year-old daughter Jeannie, who starved to death in 1976. DC-Cam is the independent research centre dedicated to recording the history of the Khmer Rouge period. Link: Reportagepress.


The Hanuman attendees: LtoR: Daroeurn, Delice and the author
A few days ago I attended the excellent Raffles Revelry that the Raffles group hosted as a thank you to their tour company and travel agent partners in Phnom Penh, at Le Royal Hotel. The evening was a great success and well attended. The Raffles team who hosted the event and the gorgeously lit reception area around the swimming pool area can be seen in the two photos below.
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A book I forgot to mention in my recent round-up was Autumn Cornwell's Carpe Diem, published by Random House in August and a tale of a teenager's misadventures around SE Asia including Cambodia and Laos. Find out more at the author's website. The author has spent the last couple of summers working with refugees and orphans in SEA and used the experiences to flesh out her first novel.

The Green Gecko Project

The Wall Street Journal gives an insight into an organization dedicated to improving the lives of street children in Siem Reap: The Green Gecko Project.
It was the chance sighting of an article on Cambodian street kids in a Virgin in-flight magazine that led 41-year-old Australian Tania Palmer to Siem Reap. There she runs Green Gecko, a sanctuary where kids who used to beg barefoot along Siem Reap's bar street receive shelter, nourishment and education. Founded in July 2005, Green Gecko isn't an orphanage. Most of the 60 or so kids here still have parents or other adult relatives living in nearby slums, and occasionally visit their home. Some of the parents are land-mine victims, and many are addicted to alcohol, gambling or drugs. Few of them are in a position to send their children to school. Before starting Green Gecko, Ms. Palmer was living comfortably in Byron Bay in Australia, where she still co-owns Hug-a-Bub, a company selling baby slings. Soon after being touched by the article, she found herself living in the tourist town near Angkor Wat, and looking for a way to help.
It was impulsive behavior, to be sure, but she found an unexpected ally in the tuk-tuk driver she'd hired to get around Siem Reap. Rem Poum, 27, is now Ms. Palmer's husband and also a manager at Green Gecko, where he feels he's doing more good than he could have as a monk, a path he almost chose. The straddling of Western and Khmer culture makes Green Gecko an innovative organization. Most Khmers don't use kitchens, preferring to chop ingredients on the tile floor outside and cook on little burners. And rather than shower indoors, they bathe outside in the sun, wearing their undies or a sarong, and sleep on thin mats instead of Western-style beds. And so it is at Green Gecko for the kids. "It's so easy to impose unnecessary Western values," says Ms. Palmer.
There are some things Green Gecko insists on, including that the kids wear shoes and practice good hygiene. There are other precautions: In a country plagued by pedophiles, Green Gecko has a policy barring any one adult (staff, volunteer or visitor) from being alone with a child. Parents pose another challenge. About once every three months the parents are gathered at Green Gecko to raise awareness about the problems of domestic violence, gambling and alcoholism. The shelter also offers parents a chance to have a push-cart business so they can sell books, postcards, T-shirts and other knickknacks supplied by Green Gecko to tourists. The carts belong to Green Gecko, but the parents can keep the income. "We give them the business," says Ms. Palmer, "and then they sign a contract that they will allow their children to be educated." Link: website.

Happy birthday Malis

Cambodia's top chef and entrepreneur, Luu Meng
Any excuse for a party and good food and I'm all yours, so I was more than happy to accept an invitation earlier this evening from Cambodia's best chef and entrepreneur Luu Meng, to celebrate the opening of a new wing at his Malis restaurant on Norodom Boulevard as well as it being the restaurant's 2nd birthday. Meng was on hand to greet all the invited guests from tour companies in Phnom Penh and joined us for a long chat after a gorgeous and filling five-course meal that majored on the flavours of river fish and pumpkin. Meng is a workaholic, he and his business partners have fingers in many pies including Malis, Topaz, Anise Hotel, Cafe Sentiment and so on. As if that's not enough, they're building two branches of the Almond Hotel in the capital and in Siem Reap and that's just for starters. I'm sure I saw the words, global domination, on his to-do list! He's just 34 years old and the elegant and classy Malis was his first foray into the restaurant business at the end of 2005 after spending eleven years learning and perfecting his trade as a top chef, first at the Cambodiana Hotel and then at various hotels for the Sofitel and Sunway groups.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Just in...

The postman has just delivered a package - living in Cambodia I'm not convinced that half the stuff sent to me actually arrives. However, the folks at Makasound, a French re-issue label dedicated to re-acquainting the public with outstanding roots reggae albums, have sent me a CD of their new release, Black Roots In Session. Thanks Makasound.

This new In Session release revisits this amazingly good Bristol-based reggae combo, with tracks from two live studio sessions recorded at BBC Radio One by famous broadcaster John Peel and his partners David 'Kid' Jensen and Peter Powell. The first recording dates back to April 1982 and was broadcast on May 27. The other was broadcast on November 14, the same year. Both were put together on the 1986 Black Roots album In Session, and now reissued for the first time. Makasound have complemented the 10 original tracks with the band's first singles (Bristol Rock/The System), and some alternative versions of other tracks (Chanting for Freedom/Confusion/The Father/Tribal War). All on CD for the first time. Bravo Makasound and double bravo for including my website address in the booklet that accompanied the CD. Links: Makasound; my website.


Save the Otter is the battle cry of Furget-Me-Not and Cambodia is its target country. I've loved otters since I was a kid and so this campaign that has just kicked-off is close to my heart. The International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) spokesman, Dr Paul Yoxon explains; "The campaign is called 'Furget-me-not' as the otter is the forgotten animal of the fur trade. Everyone always thinks about tigers and leopards or elephant ivory but the trade in otter furs is huge. Recently, there was a massive haul of 778 otter skins in Tibet and we are regularly receiving reports of more and more skins found. Two days ago, we had an email from Cambodia saying a research team at the Tonle Sap Lake had just found 10 skins of smooth-coated otters and six skins of hairy-nosed otters at four different village houses. And this is just the tip of the iceberg - just one small area and one find. It is even more worrying that many of the skins being traded are from the hairy-nosed otter, which was believed to be extinct in 1998 - but small populations have been found in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. At this rate of hunting, the hairy nosed otter will soon be really extinct and, this time round, there will be no great discovery of remnant populations." The main market for the furs is Tibet, where otter fur forms part of the national dress, the chupa: one chupa may contain skins from as many as six otters. These highly decorated costumes are worn at festivals and official state functions and are seen seen as a means of demonstrating the wealth and status of Tibetan culture.

The 'Furget-me-not' campaign will raise funds to start immediate work in Cambodia using a team of already present researchers. The team will train local rangers and government staff to ensure the legal protection of otters is enforced, and will also encourage the local communities to take part in the otter conservation programme. Dr Yoxon said: "Combating the illegal otter fur trade is a matter of urgency because, without doubt, it is threatening the otters’ future existence. Most otters are captured by fishermen who are very poor and simply seek to earn additional money. By engaging these fishermen in the research and conservation of the otters instead of shunning them as hunters and problematic villagers, we can give these people an otter-friendly alternative to their destructive activities and provide real protection for the species."

I appreciate that otters aren't high on Cambodia's agenda, but they're high on mine. Find out a lot more about the campaign and its work in Cambodia here.

Comics come good

The cover art for Flower of Battambang by Em Satya
Em Satya signs a copy of his book for a fan
Two contestants in the 'comic art battle.' Yes that's John Weeks in the dark shirt!
Thumbs up for the comic book launch at Meta House tonight, when illustrator Em Satya gave an insight into his Flower of Battambang graphic comic book that has been 17 years in gestation before its publication this week with the help of Our Books and Valease. Satya has worked for decades in various fields of illustration, for newspapers, covers for novels and in children's books. A stroke has left him partially paralysed but more determined than ever to bring his fine artwork to a wider audience. Flower of Battambang is a graphic novel set in Battambang and Phnom Penh, shelved when the market for local comics experienced a downturn. Nearly two decades later, Satya has taken up his pen and finished the story, which has been assembled into one volume. The Khmer edition, at just a $1, was on sale at the event - which included intro's by John Weeks and Elizabeth Anne Moore, a Q&A session with the artist and a 'comic art battle' where the audience suggested subjects and two teams of artists drew their own interpretation against the clock, which Satya judged. Great fun and very impressive art by all involved. Link: Our Books.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ratanakiri recall

Grandmother and grandchildren bemused by the foreigners in their midst
It never fails to deliver at least a smile: "soksabai - saisabok"
If you've been wondering where my Ratanakiri trip report is, I'm still writing it. Yes, I know, I'm a disappointment to my mother too. In the meantime, so you don't suffer any withdrawal side-effects, here's a couple of photos to keep you interested. The top photo is of a grandmother and her charges, taken when our car broke down yet again! I've spent most of my time travelling around Cambodia over the years by moto and one of the few times I splurged on a 4WD, the blasted thing broke down and got stuck. The 2nd photo was taken just outside the village of Kateung, a Kreung ethnic minority village where you can arrange elephant rides to the nearby waterfall of Katieng. These two girls - don't you just love the wellies - were minding their own business when I hopped off the moto and engaged them with my "soksabai-saisabok" refrain. It never fails to work, even in the backwaters of Ratanakiri, and usually elicits the reply, "Oh, you speak Khmer very good" - little do they know!

Wat Sovantomreach

The impressive entrance gate to Wat Sovantomreach is similar to the Gates at Angkor Thom
The giant faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and attendants
From the top of Phnom Baset on Sunday I could see at least two large 'Angkor Wat' style buildings in the distance. Wat Nokor Vimean Suor is the most popular one, inundated with Khmer tourists and families taking a break from Phnom Penh and basking in its notoriety as the backdrop in many of the country's karaoke video-shoots. The other red-coloured pagoda in a similar style is the more sedate Wat Sovantomreach. Currently in its eighth year of construction, the main vihara is still not complete though its a functioning pagoda and two families were receiving blessings and fortune-tellings as I wandered through the immense building with high ceilings and numerous passageways. The outside entrance to the grounds of the pagoda was eye-catching to say the least. Its a replica of the massive Gates of Angkor Thom - with the gargantuan faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara peering out over statues of gods and demons pulling on a naga - and as I arrived, two monks, Sophat and Jansat stopped for a chat and invited me to meet their fellow monks at the back of the main vihara, where some of the structures are half-painted and still under construction. I hope my photos give you a feel for the place - it's well worth a visit as part of your Phnom Baset 'experience'.

54 demons pull on the body of a naga in a representation of the Churning of the Sea of Milk

The impressive causeway leading to the main entrance to the pagoda

Painting and construction is on-going at Wat SovantomreachLight streams into the main altar area of the vihara
New friends; LtoR: Sopha, Sokvan, Sophat and Jansat