Thursday, January 31, 2008

Comfort and style

The pool at Borei Angkor was a pleasant haven after a morning at Angkor Wat
My spacious & comfortable accommodation at Borei Angkor Hotel
My understanding is that there are over 100 hotels already in operation in Siem Reap with another 10 at least, scheduled for completion sometime this year. There seems to be no end to the accommodation boom in the town that acts as the gateway to the Angkor complex of temples. My own 2-night stay in Siem Reap at the weekend was at the Borei Angkor Hotel, located on Route 6 and a very enjoyable and comfortable stay it was too. My room was spacious with a private balcony and decked out in a mix of art-deco and Cambodian themes. I used the Borei Cafe restaurant for my buffet breakfasts and the gorgeous pool/jacuzzi pool for my cooling down session after a visit to Angkor Wat. The hotel staff were helpful and very pleasant, from the front-desk to the room cleaners. It's so important for any hotel's image that the front-desk staff are warm and welcoming, which I've found is not always the case when paying visits to hotels for inspections as part of my role at Hanuman. I won't name names but it's something that some hotels need to work on. Competition for customers is red-hot in Siem Reap now so competitive pricing and attentive top class service are no-brainers for the hotels looking to succeed.
The photo below is of a building that has caught my eye on a few trips to Siem Reap. It's a Youth Center that is located along the main road to the temple complex. It's opposite the entrance to the Le Meridien Angkor Hotel. The style I believe is in the modernist 1960s art-deco category but I'm sure someone will put me straight on that. Its in an area that is seeing a lot of development, so don't be surprised if it disappears over the course of the next 12 months. Siem Reap is changing so rapidly, that's its impossible to keep pace with it all.

A stylish art-deco Youth Center building on the road to Angkor

WWF update # 2

The wild of Cambodian dry forests - by Tep Asnarith, WWF
It was inside the Cambodian dry forests where Sophoan, Porny, Soeun and Asnarith, all from WWF Cambodia’s head office, spent four nights in early December to participate in a team building workshop, organized annually by the Srepok Wilderness Area Project (SWAP) this time at its Mreuch headquarter, as they respectively gave presentations about WWF and financial policy and guidelines, and in particular to see for themselves the beauty of the unique Cambodian dry forests and the magnificent wildlife it harbors. The forests are located in the east of the country in Mondulkiri province and are one of the WWF’s important protected areas, called Mondulkiri Protected Forest (MPF).All of them joined WWF within the least one or two years and used to hear project staff describe and tell stories about the area, project activities, things that happen in and around the landscape. They had only seen the forest and wildlife from photos and other visual materials. This was the time they were able to admire these significant flora and fauna of the Cambodian Eastern Plains for themselves. “These forests are absolutely splendid! It is so exciting to be here in the middle of such a wonderful landscape,” said Soeun, former admin and finance manager. “What we use to hear about the area and see from photos has almost nothing to compare with what we see and learn in reality. Tall canopy trees with similar spacing between and diverse grass types in the ground layer make this whole area the most incredible forest landscape I have ever seen,” he said. “We now know what we are working hard everyday for and the reason why WWF is making great efforts to protect this beautiful dry forest and the globally significant wildlife it supports. Also we understand better why we help the Cambodian government and local communities sustainably manage these valuable natural resources, on which Cambodian generations including ethnic Phnong depend for many years,” he added.

Dry forest, or deciduous dipterocarp forest, consists of large tropical hardwood trees that are long-lived and can grow up to 30 meters high. It has an open canopy and grassy understorey. Despite the name, the dry forest is wet too because of its incredible rainy season where 90% of the annual rain falls in just seven months (May-November). Many of these trees are prized for their timber. The fruits of dipterocarp trees have conspicuous long wings (sepals) to aid in dispersal by wind.Despite years of war and isolation, the Cambodian dry forests are still relatively intact and provide home to one of the most diverse large mammal communities in Asia, including key species such as Tiger, Gaur, Banteng, Wild Water Buffalo, Asian Elephant, Leopard, as well as bird species such as Great Hornbill, Green Peafowl, White-rumped and Red Headed Vultures. According to the most recent research as part of wildlife monitoring annually conducted by the SWAP team, all of these bird species have been directly sighted, while tracks of Tiger, Leopard and other large mammals have also been recorded. At the same time, the result of the research confirmed the presence of Eld’s Deer and Douc Langur in the area. “Look there, three of them, those are Eld’s Deer!,” Sophoan, finance officer, shouted from the back of an elephant during a morning ride into the landscape as she wanted other colleagues to follow what she had spotted. “The mahout told us that those Eld’s Deer we have just seen were all males and that we were lucky to see them during such a short elephant ride. Project rangers and mahouts normally spend longer time to be able to sight wildlife,” she said. “Beside Eld’s Deer, we also saw wild pigs, around ten of them running so fast trying to escape from us and our elephants, as well as birds coming to small ponds for water,” Porny, communications officer, described to other colleagues when returning to Mreuch office after she dismounted from the back of the elephant.

The connection of these forests with one of the important Mekong river tributaries, the Srepok river, makes the whole area one of the most outstanding habitats in the region for large waterbird populations. Its seasonal wetlands provide breeding grounds for threatened species including the White-shouldered Ibis, Black-necked Stork, Giant Ibis, Sarus Crane and Greater and Lesser Adjutant. “Based on the results of our latest research, the project counts significant numbers of waterbirds including 19 Sarus Crane, 18 Giant Ibis, as well as 74 Woolly-necked Storks,” said Sopheak, senior SWAP officer. While wild cattle, large cats and birds still roam the surrounding plains, the Srepok river itself stands out as special and unique in the Greater Mekong Area as it boasts some subpopulations of at least 140 Mekong fish species including the 2.5-foot giant carp, a close relative of the Mekong giant catfish, and hosts an immense diversity of aquatic life including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile. The exotic fish the river teems with are a very important food and water source and constitute in the river catchment nearly 90% of the animal protein supply of the local people. Attempting to retain their cultural and agricultural practices, a remarkable diversity of minority ethnic groups, including Phnong, Tampuan, Kraol, Thmon, Jarai, Kreung and Stieng, as well as Khmer, Cham, Chinese and Lao living throughout the Cambodian Eastern Plains landscape, are heavily reliant on the area's natural resources, including forests where they collect non-timber forest products. The Phnong is the largest group. And like many groups who live in the dry forests in Mondulkiri province, they collect liquid resin from certain trees. Natural resources support development in many ways. Ecosystem services, like the provision of clean surface water from protected upper watersheds, are an undervalued, but vital benefit of healthy natural areas. Local people rely on plants, animals and fish for subsistence needs, and ensuring the sustainability of these harvests is the first step towards greater development. Some kinds of natural resources also can be sustainably managed for commercial uses. Nature tourism has great potential in the dry forests if wildlife populations recover. In many of the more open patches of the dry forest mosaic landscape, key wildlife species could be viewed as easily as in the great game parks of Africa, India, and Sri Lanka, if their numbers were restored. Together with government and NGO partners, WWF is working towards finding a balance between development and conservation, for the long-term benefit of the people, plants and animals which share this globally significant ecoregion. “WWF Cambodia’s SWAP is implementing a very successful Southern African approach to protected area management in the MPF in Cambodia’s Eastern Plains landscape. The project’s main objectives are to protect and conserve plants, country’s rare and endangered wild animals including large mammals and large water birds, and water sources; while at the same time promote sustainable use of natural resources and ecotourism,” Sopheak said. Link: WWF.

WWF update # 1

Cambodian conservation work – not just a man’s world - by Porny You, World Wildlife Foundation (WWF)
Women are working as hard and sweating as much as the men in WWF conservation programs in remote areas of Kampuchea. In WWF-Cambodia’s Srepok Wilderness Area Project (SWAP), in the country’s eastern plains, Khmer, foreign and local indigenous Phnong women play a vital role in preserving the Mondulkiri Protected Forest (MPF). Hy Somaly, a Phnong indigenous woman, joined SWAP’s Community Extension Team to inform and educate the indigenous community on the importance of wildlife conservation. “I have to go to different communities to inform and educate them on how to improve their livelihoods with sustainable natural resources use”, she explains. It is testament to Somaly’s skills and talents that she can work across three cultures – her own, Khmer and that of her foreign colleagues. Her Khmer colleague, Att Sreynak, a data assistant with the Srepok project, notes that though Khmer and Phnong people have different traditions, they can work together very effectively to reach the projects goals. “Luckily Somaly can speak Khmer, so there is no language barrier between her and other colleagues”, she says.Sreynak is no stranger to hard work on the project. While collecting data, she often has to walk long distances into the forest. She acknowledges it is quite demanding, but would never let the mainly male ranger team that accompanies her know. “Even though the conditions can be quite bad, especially in the rainy season – we would never give up – because we are responsible for getting the job done”, she says.
As SWAP has planned to develop its site for ecotourism, Olga van den Pol has been a recent new female addition to team, joining as ecotourism team leader. Originally from Holland and fluent in many languages, she is still struggling with the Khmer language. “Though I cannot speak Khmer language, I can ask for help from any Khmer colleagues who can interpret for me. The system works and we recently had a reward from our conservation efforts with the “capture” by a camera trap, of one tiger we knew was in the forest, but which we had not seen for two years. It was good to know it was still thriving in the forest area we are protecting and developing”, she explains. She hoped, as a result of WWF-Cambodia’s work in this area, that wildlife populations would increase and alternative livelihoods could be developed to reduce the local communities’ dependence on natural resource use. The MPF is a quiet place with fresh air and bird sounds, where some people wish to visit or stay at for a while for pleasure. However, as it has not yet been developed as an ecotourism site, it also can be considered as a dangerous place, in particular for women who live there for work. All rangers and police have to leave their posts to go patrolling – leaving only women, who are chef and cleaners at the posts. According to Keo Sopheak, senior SWAP officer, women do not dare to walk at night around in the open, because they are afraid of dangerous wildlife. “I can not blame them as in the past we have seen tiger tracks around the camp sites. It is not only wildlife that is dangerous, humans can be worse with hunters and poachers who might take the opportunity to visit the post sites while the rangers and police are not there”, he said. “Though they feel scared, these women never ever give up their work. They all play a vital role in supporting WWF-Cambodia’s conservation work by keeping our staff strong and healthy. Working in the hard conditions of the forest might seem like a job more suited to a man, but in the SWAP, the women play just as important a role at every level of our conservation work”, Sopheak says. Link: WWF.

Angkor Pass

The new 1-day Angkor pass with photo - please excuse the mug-shot!
As it was my first visit to Angkor for a few months, the 1-day pass I purchased for $20 on Sunday now includes a photo of the recipient, ie. me. Due to a high demand from foreign tourists visiting Angkor and wishing to retain their ticket as a permanent souvenir of their trip, all passes now contain a photo. Previously it was the 3-day and 1-week passes that contained a photo and were laminated. Now everyone gets their photo on their own pass, the process takes less than 2 minutes with the ticket-seller advising you not to lose your pass and to show it on request, but as you can imagine, when a few coachloads of Koreans arrive at the same time, the queues can quickly build up.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The shrines of Phnom Thom

This is the main shrine of the temple of Prasat Premea Cheung Prey, that sits atop Phnom Thom, dedicated to Preah Meada and Preah Ang Pheap. Smoke from incense sticks fills the air.
The summit of Phnom Thom contains Prasat Premea Cheung Prey and a series of smaller structures, each with its own unique shrine and background story, housed within each building. The main prasat was being watched over by a sole lay-woman who was a recent arrival at the temple and didn't know the history or any details of the various shrines. No-one else was around at the time of my visit. I have visited this temple on three occasions now and always find something of interest that I didn't notice before. I'll post more pictures from Prasat Premea Cheung Prey tomorrow, including its collection of interesting lintels.

Another shrine located in an adjoining building

This reclining Buddha is flanked by two nagas, a small stone lion and several severed heads

Another colourful shrine on top of Phnom Thom with a stone bed

A small open-air shrine at the foot of the hill, contained within a separate laterite prasat

Neak Ta at Cheung Prey

An Indian-inspired Neak Ta at Phnom Thom in Cheung Prey
A more classical Buddhist pose for this Neak Ta at the foot of the hill
The hilltop temple of Prasat Premea Cheung Prey is well worth a quick visit if you are travelling Route 6 between Phnom Penh and Skun. There are two hills, male and female, a few kilometres east of Skun as you approach Phaav market. More on the temple soon but in the meantime, here are a couple of examples of Neak Ta shrines- powerful guardian spirits - to be found at Phnom Thom, where the main prasat is located. I don't know any details about these two shrines, though the top one looks Indian in its origin to me. I must admit I haven't taken much of an interest in Neak Ta until recently, so I need to find out much more about these intriguing shrines that you can find literally everywhere in Cambodia. The two lower photos were also taken at Phnom Thom, with the large red-coloured faces atop one of the entrance gates to the hill and the 4-armed figure at the top of the flight of 153 steps to the summit.
Don't you just love these huge faces that greet you at some of the pagodas around Cambodia
A 4-armed figure at the summit of Phnom Thom

Hanuman Films update

An elephant shoot with Radical Media
It's been a busy few months for Hanuman Films with a number of major commercials coming to Cambodia to shoot. Radical Media arrived in October to shoot a major commercial for Pepsi's 2008 global campaign. Locations included the East Gate of Angkor Thom, the temple of Ta Prohm and the old market area of Siem Reap. Body doubles were in town for Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Frank Lampard, plus some pretty good footballing skills on display by the stand-ins. At the end of the year, Radical Media returned to shoot a TUI commercial with elephants at the East Gate of Angkor Thom, plus there was a small Cisco shoot involving 300 extras and a refugee camp to showcase their satellite and communication business.
On the television side, Destination Truth came over to investigate the story of Jungle Girl who came out the forests of Ratanakiri last year and looked into the existence of 'forest people'. The filming was raw and felt a lot like the Blair Witch Project. Other projects included a film about the Khmer Rouge tribunal for HBO and an inspirational documentary about conquering disability called Beyond the Chair. More projects are in the pipeline and I'll let you know about these as and when they happen. Link: HanumanFilms.

Angkor Wat artist

Pisey paints in oils with one of the world's most stunning backdrops for inspiration
I spent a couple of hours with a few of my souvenir selling pals at Angkor Wat on Sunday morning and also had the opportunity to meet Chan Pisey, a painter and seller, who has a stall to the left of the causeway as you enter the complex. Pisey, who is 26 years old, studied for two years at the home of his teacher as there is no art college in Siem Reap. He's now been out on his own for the past four years, painting in oils and watercolours and selling his work directly to visitors to Angkor Wat, or at his home-cum-shop a few kilometres on the road towards Banteay Srei. I sat with him, with Angkor Wat looming large in the background, as he used a pallet knife to begin an oil-painting of Jayavarman VII, though he stopped frequently to serve customers to his stall, where he also sells wooden carvings and t-shirts. His paintings sell for $25 and upwards depending on the size and style; he paints traditional scenes as well as abstracts and his stall is alive with colourful examples of his own work, and that of some of his artist colleagues. If you'd like to contact him, his mobile number is 012 567 649.

Some examples of his work and other artists on his stall at Angkor Wat

More paintings on sale at Pisey's stall, from $25 and upwards

Fresh-faced Pisey holds up an example of his art at his Angkor Wat stall

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cambodia Border Crossings

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you'll know that I now work for Hanuman Tourism in Phnom Penh. One of our more mundane tasks is to try and keep track of the myriad number of international border crossings that seem to open up almost on a monthly basis in recent times! It sounds easy enough but believe me, it ain't. Cambodia shares a border with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodian visas are available at all land borders with Laos and Thailand, but only two of the land borders with Vietnam. They are not currently available at Phnom Den. Here's a look at the international border crossings currently in operation. There are dozens of 'locals-only' border crossings between all the countries.
From Laos:
The only border crossing with Cambodia is at Voen Kham (L). Confusingly there are two Cambodian posts that service this crossing, which connects Si Phan Don in southern Laos to Stung Treng (C): one on the river (Koh Chheuteal Thom) and one on the new road to Stung Treng (Dom Kralor). The river route is rarely used these days, as minibuses ply the road.
From Thailand:
There are now as many as six land crossings between Thailand and Cambodia, but only two are popular with travellers. The border at Aranya Prathet (T) to Poipet (C) is frequently used to travel between Bangkok (T) and Siem Reap (C). Down on the coast, crossings can be made from Hat Lek (T) to Cham Yeam (C) by road, which connects to Koh Kong (C) and on to Sihanoukville (C) or Phnom Penh (C).
There are also three more remote crossings, which see little traffic: Chong Jom (T) in Surin Province to O Smach (C), connecting with Samraong (C); Choam Sa-Ngam (T) to Choam (C), leading to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng (C); and Ban Pakard (T) to Pruhm (C) leading to Pailin (C). Bear in mind that road conditions on the Cambodian side are pretty poor.
There is also a border at Prasat Preah Vihear (C), the stunning Cambodian temple perched atop Phnom Dangkrek mountain range. This is currently just a day crossing for tourists wanting to visit the temple from the Thai side, but may open up as a full international border in the near future.
From Vietnam:
There are new border-crossing options opening up every five minutes! The most popular option is the road border linking Moc Bai (V) and Bavet (C) for quick passage between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. The most evocative route is the river crossing linking Chau Doc (V) to Phnom Penh (C) via the Mekong border at Vinh Xuong (V) and Kaam Samnor (C). There is also the rarely used option of Tinh Bien (V) to Phnom Den (C) that connects Chau Doc (V) and Takeo (C). More recently, there is the new border at Xa Xia (V) and Prek Chak (C) linking Ha Tien (V) and the island of Phu Quoc (V) with the popular Cambodian destinations of Kep (C) and Kampot (C). Finally, there is a new border just opened in remote Ratanakiri at Le Tanh (V) and O'Yadaw (C) which links Pleiku (V) with Ban Lung (C).
Tourist visas, costing US$20 and requiring one photo, are available on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports and all land border crossings except the Phnom Den/Tinh Bien border crossing with Vietnam.
It is also possible to arrange a visa through Cambodian embassies overseas or an online e-visa (US$25) through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: here. Arranging a visa ahead of time can help prevent potential overcharging at some land crossings. However, this e-visa cannot be processed at certain land border crossings. Anyone planning an extended stay should get a one-month business visa for US$25, as these are easier to renew.

Snaps from my weekend away

Angkor Wat souvenir seller, Now with the bride, Yeay Panh
I've got some more 'stuff' to share with you from my weekend away in Siem Reap, but in the meantime, here's a few more photos to keep you 'in the picture'. On Saturday night I was a last-minute invitee to the wedding party of Yeay Panh and her husband Somach. Yeay Panh had heard I was in town and invited me to her wedding bash alongwith just about every souvenir seller that I've ever seen on duty at Angkor Wat. The next morning I spent a couple of hours at Angkor Wat, visited a few hotels after lunch and then attended the excellent Hanuman Annual Party in the evening. We drove back yesterday and visited the hilltop temple of Prasat Premea Cheung Prey en route.

A monk inspects the 8-armed Vishnu at the entrance gopura to Angkor Wat. The original head of this statue was re-attached in 2004.

Talking of heads, the giant's head was detached by an arrow on this painting on the wall of the pagoda's vihara next to the Angkor Wat causeway

Respected historian Ang Choulean at the Hanuman Annual Party, introducing his latest work, Khmer Renaissance

The unusual laterite hilltop temple at Prasat Premea Cheung Prey, a few kilometres from Skun

Spean Praptos

A view of Spean Praptos from the west
The east section of the bridge showing the corbel arch and the embankment faced with laterite blocks to deter slippage
The best example of a laterite Angkorean bridge in Cambodia can be found at Kompong Kdei, on the route between Kompong Thom and Siem Reap. Its called Spean Praptos and I never tire of visiting it. It also happens to be the longest corbelled stone-arch bridge in the world and is called Phra Phutthos by the folks at UNESCO. Now that the main highway has been diverted, it only sees light motorized traffic these days and should survive for many years to come. I wasn't aware until recently that the French restored it between 1964-7 but they made a good job of it and the bridge now resembles how it must've looked in its heyday. It was one of the many construction projects completed during the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century, as he built temples, royal roads, monumental bridges and rest houses across his kingdom. Spean Praptos spans the Chikreng River at a length of 87 metres, is 17 metres wide and has 21 corbel arches, topped by a Naga balustrade of sandstone, with multi-headed serpents at the end of each balustrade. If you've never seen it for yourself, make sure you take a few minutes when travelling along Route 6 to marvel at this feat of Khmer engineering. I nearly forgot to mention, there are another nine laterite bridges, considerably smaller but of the same era, located between Kompong Kdei and Siem Reap. Keep your eyes open for them when travelling along the highway.

The north-west Naga on Spean Praptos with multi-heads. There are 4 Naga heads like this.

A guardian figure on a boundary stone that marks the walkway at the side of the road that spans the bridge

A gormless tourist who got in the way of my photo - oh so predictable!

Angkor National Museum

A window into the gallery of 1,000 Buddhas
A lion-headed kneeling Asura demon guardian from the 10th century Banteay Srei temple
Saturday afternoon was my first opportunity to visit the new Angkor National Museum, which opened its doors to visitors in November. I must concur with previous reports that the museum is well presented using state-of-the-art technology with collections themed by temples, kings, beliefs and religions. The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas is particularly striking and all the main collections include interactive multimedia presentations. However, the stylish presentations can't hide the fact that that the overall collection is way short of the quality to be found in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. It's also pretty small by comparison though that's deftly disguised through the technology and presentation. Entry is $12 per foreigner, $3 for Khmers, which is very expensive when compared with the museum in the capital or the Temples of Angkor. My view - an interesting addition to the range of visitor attractions in Siem Reap and an informative introduction to the Angkor story, but its over-priced and crying out for a bigger collection. I didn't have time to visit the attached shopping gallery, so can't comment on that. The museum covers 20,000 sq metres and has attractive water features including a pond at its center. A $2 camera fee will allow you to take photos in the public areas, so you can snap away at a few lions, heads from Angkor Thom and Preah Khan and a few other pieces of sculpture but cameras are not allowed in the main collections. I was disappointed that 40% of the items on display do not have any signage or explanation of their provenance, whilst the lighting on some exhibits could be improved. The galleries of inscription stele and lintels were quite poor and I have seen much better examples myself in the storage areas of Angkor Conservation. I loved the 1,000 Buddhas gallery though, with the walls inlaid with small back-lit Buddhas and larger items including the highly-unusual Sumethabos, a 9th century prostrate Bodhisattva from Phnom Vak, presented in the middle of the room. I'm glad I went but there's work still to do to bring it up to an acceptable standard for the price they are charging.
This eight-faced head of Brahma was found at Tvear Khmoach, near the west gate of Angkor Thom. It's from the 12th century.
A lion from the 12th century temple of Banteay Kdei
One of the demons, with a typical grimace and headdress, from one of the entrance gates to Angkor Thom. Hundreds of these original sandstone heads are in storage at Angkor Conservation.

Art of Survival exhibition

The new Art of Survival exhibition at Meta House made the headlines yesterday in Reuters Life! It opened on 24 January with over 20 Cambodian artists, including Vann Nath, Chhim Sothy, Hen Sophal, Vandy Rattana, Prum Vichet and more, reflecting on the genocide of the Pol Pol regime.
Pol Pot artist links past to present with "Art of Survival" - by Chantha Lach
Cambodian artist Van Nath's talents saved his life in the 1970s, when he was forcibly put to work painting pictures of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Now the artist, one of a handful of remaining survivors of the regime's notorious Tuol Sleng prison, hopes his latest works will expose the reality of Pol Pot's rule to a new generation. On show at Phnom Penh gallery Meta House as part of the "Art of Survival" exhibition, his paintings of prison life are aimed at helping visitors deal with the trauma of the Khmer Rouge's 1974-1979 rule, when an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of starvation, torture or disease. But they also hold a mirror up to the present, said Van Nath, throwing the treatment of Khmer Rouge officials currently on trial for crimes during Pol Pot's rule, including "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, who has been linked to Tuol Sleng, into sharp relief. "If I compare the prison where I was to Nuon Chea prison, it is very different. The prison at the Khmer Rouge court is very good. It has televisions, electricity, mattresses and they have enough food to eat," he told Reuters."At the prison where I was, I was in handcuffs 24 hours a day with no food and no medicine. Now even with today's good prisons, prisoners can still ask to be released on bail. They complain that they cannot stay there. But what about me and the nearly 20,000 people who were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng?" Van Nath said.
An estimated 17,000 to 20,000 Cambodians were crammed into Tuol Sleng, also called "Security Prison 21" or "S-21" under the Khmer Rouge, a black-shirted communist guerrilla movement who declared war on modernity after overrunning Phnom Penh in 1975. They were ousted four years later by a Vietnamese invasion.Of the tens of thousands accused of betraying the regime at Tuol Sleng, only a dozen are known to have made it out. The plain three-storied high school building, in a quiet quarter of the capital, is now a public memorial site and museum. It draws thousands of visitors every year, as do the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, about 15 kilometres (9 miles) out of the capital, where the remains of many of Tuol Sleng's victims are buried in mass graves. But some worry the country has not yet processed the trauma of the Pol Pot years, even as high-profile trials of former officials, including Tuol Sleng's former governor, Khang Khekh Ieu, or "Duch", make their way through a United Nations tribunal. This is where artists such as Van Nath can contribute, said Metahouse gallery owner Nicolas Mesterharm. "The young generation we work with knows a little bit, so we try to educate them and we try to bring young and older artists together," German-born Mesterharm told Reuters. "We try to address that issue of genocide and the Khmer Rouge atrocities through art within the society that has not learnt yet to speak openly about what happened 25 years ago," he said. A number of international documentaries and films, such as the 1984 Oscar-winning "Killing Fields", have brought the country's violent past to international audiences. And several memoirs written by survivors of the regime sell at tourist sites such as Angkor Wat in the country's north, and Phnom Penh. But book sellers often say they have not read the English-language stories themselves. For many young Cambodians, like student Sar Sayana, exhibitions such as the Art of Survival give a more accessible window to the past."It is important that these artist know what happened and that they made this exhibition so that others can know all about it too," she said, walking through the gallery.

Monday, January 28, 2008

And there's more...

Two of the welcoming committee at Kohak Nokor - the numbers of kids grew steadily during our visit
This was part of the crowd of children that saw us off at Kohak Nokor
Detail from the giant Nagas at Spean Praptos. Considering their age, the bridge and its Nagas are in fantastic condition
One of the lions from Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, on show at the new Angkor National Museum
Just before I leave the office, here's a few more photos from my weekend trip. We left Phnom Penh at 9am on Saturday and arrived in Siem Reap at 4pm. We immediately headed for the new Angkor National Museum, which I will give you my thoughts on, a little later. Stay tuned!

Just back!

We called into the 11th century temple of Kohak Nokor, as many of our Hanuman team had not visited it before
At our food stop in Kompong Thom, I popped to see Sokhom's daughter, Kunthea (right) and her friend Pisey. Sokhom was with a tourist at Sambor Prei Kuk.
Another stop en route was at Spean Praptos, the best example of an Angkorean bridge in Cambodia at Kompong Kdei. The main road has been diverted away from the bridge to protect it.
I've just arrived back - 4pm Monday - from a couple of days in Siem Reap. My days were packed solid so no free-time to get on-line. It was the Hanuman Party on Sunday night, and I also went to a wedding party the evening before. Above are some photos from the trip to Siem Reap. More photos and comment to follow when I get a chance to catch my breath!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Reunion at Romdeng

LtoR: Author, Rachel & Sak
Paying a surprise visit to Phnom Penh tonight was my pal Sak from Battambang, and another friend, Rachel Madden. I first met Sak a couple of years ago and have remained in contact ever since. He's a genuinely nice fella, a very knowledgeable guide around Cambodia's 2nd city and met Rachel and her husband on their visit to Cambodia in November. Rachel has returned to take a six-week sabbatical to help out at a school, an orphanage and at Cambodia Trust and brought Sak to Phnom Penh so he could get his passport and apply for a visa. The intention is to give Sak the holiday of a lifetime, in his words, with a two-week trip to England in April, courtesy of Rachel's generosity. He is deeply touched by the gesture and his family, especially his wife and four children, are so proud that he will be going abroad, the first person in their family to ever do so. He was also chuffed to bits that the second floor of his house has now been completed, the final brick was laid only yesterday, so in his words again, he's in dreamy-land. Tonight's meal was at Romdeng, billed as the taste of the provinces and run by the Friends' organization. We didn't take the spiders option, instead going for Muslim beef and squid, whilst outside the rain came down in sheets, for the 2nd consecutive night. It's pretty unusual to get such downpours in January by my reckoning, about five months too early! In my absence tomorrow night, don't forget the Flute Player documentary, being shown at Meta House from 7pm, which will be attended by the film's subject Arn Chorn-Pond, the founder of Cambodian Living Arts.

Looking at Angkor

Angkor Wat in 1928
I mentioned the National Geographic Magazines I have in my possession yesterday and I will close that chapter with a couple of photos from two of the magazines. In the September 1929 edition, Robert J Casey's article, Four Faces of Siva: The Mystery of Angkor - which the author also released as a book, a 1st edition of which I also have in my library - is accompanied by colour photographs from Gervais Courtellemont, including the one above of Angkor Wat. The April 1960 edition contains an article by W Robert Moore, who combined his 35 years of research with fourteen remarkable paintings by Maurice Fievet for a stunning pictorial, recreating the daily life of a lost civilization. The Nat Geo that is most common is the May 1982 edition which contains a fold out section of the Angkor temples, showing them in their full glory, courtesy of the magazine's art team. The photo below is part of that section.
Continuing the Angkor theme, the Wall Street Journal - Asia edition and writer Leslie Hook focuses on the splendour that is Angkor Wat in an editorial article today. Find out more here. And last but not least, bio-toilets from Japan are on their way into the complex later this year - you heard it here first!
The Angkor complex from the Nat Geo of 1982

Party time - again

Birthday girl Molyda is in the white t-shirt in the middle of this group of friends
This time of year seems to be one long party in Cambodia. We all know it's the wedding season - I think I've been to half a dozen wedding parties in the last few months - but parties in general seem to be coming thick and fast right now. Last night it was the 15th birthday party of a friend's niece, whilst this coming weekend, the thrice-postponed Hanuman party will take place in Siem Reap - well... I'll let you know if it actually goes ahead. Last night's bash was to celebrate the birthday of Molyda, who looked a picture in her bouffant hairstyle, and was held on the roof of her parent's brand spanking new home, just off the toll road on the way to the airport, and hidden in a rabbit-warren of gleaming new houses, that are sprouting up all around the outskirts of the capital city. The neighbours were all invited so that they didn't complain about the karaoke sound-system blaring out til midnight. The drink flowed freely, the chicken curry was delicious and made especially for me, whilst the cake-cutting was delayed until I arrived too. Anyone would've thought it was my party, as foreigners certainly do seem to get a very honoured status at these functions. And in age-old tradition, nearly every man at the party asked me to dance with them - something very alien in British culture, but very routine and acceptable in Khmer culture. A good time was had by all.
'Happy Birthday' is being sung just prior to the cake-cutting and streamer fight
Some of the younger element at the party. The older partygoers were too busy drinking beer

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Nat Geo gems

The front cover of the March 1912 National Geographic containing the first mention of Angkor
Rummaging around in second-hand bookshops often produces the odd gem, and my own rummaging back in England a few years ago, came up trumps in the form of a couple of National Geographic Magazines with articles focusing on Cambodia. A search of the Nat Geo articles listings also highlighted three other editions worth searching for and with the help of e-Bay, I now have all 5 in my possession. The earliest is the March 1912 edition (Vol XXIII, No 3) with two-thirds of the edition devoted to a story by Jacob E Conner titled The Forgotten Ruins of Indo-China: The Most Profusely and Richly Carved Group of Buildings in the World. It tells of Conner's visit to an Angkor that was only navigable by boat for two months of the year from Saigon and explains in detail what he found, accompanied by 63 illustrations (pictures) and 2 maps. The majority of the photos were lifted from the photographic collections of Dieulefils and Fournereau, two adventurous gentlemen who documented Angkor around that time. This edition of National Geographic helped to being Angkor to the attention of the public at large, especially in America, where the magazine was produced.

Stairway leading to the central tower of Angkor Wat (Dieulefils)

The 4 other Nat Geo's which any self-respecting Cambodia lover should endeavour to obtain - I would say that because I have mine already - are the following:
September 1928: Vol LIV, No 3. Four Faces of Siva: The Mystery of Angkor by Robert J Casey (with 14 illustrations).
April 1960: Vol 117, No 4. Angkor, Jewel of the Jungle by W Robert Moore & paintings by Maurice Fievet.
May 1982: Vol 161, No 5. The Temples of Angkor by Peter T White & Wilbur E Garrett.
August 2000: The Temples of Angkor by Douglas Preston & photos by Steve McCurry.

One of the few pieces of the ornately carved wooden ceiling from a gallery at Angkor Wat (Fournereau)

Women that care

Strong women in Cambodia are an absolute MUST for the future of this country. The story of 4 such women, leading the way for change in Cambodia, are featured on the CARE website
here. CARE are a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. Women are at the heart of CARE's community-based efforts to improve basic education, prevent the spread of HIV, increase access to clean water and sanitation, expand economic opportunity and protect natural resources.

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The railways in Cambodia are getting an overhaul. Two companies, French and Thai, will give all existing lines a total makeoever, that's 600 km of rail track, as well as extend the line to Poipet. The cost is $55 million with completion in two year's time. The end goal is to connect the Asean countries from Singapore to China, but Cambodia has been the fly in the ointment, until now. The renovation will begin next month. Cambodia's railways were constructed between 1929 and 1942 but have declined to a very poor state over the last 30 years.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Precocious and cute

BosbaPanh and her guitar at last night's performance
BosbaPanh did what she does best last night at the Meta House, wowed the crowded bar with her musical prowess, her precocious talent and her cute personality. The 10 year old starlet will undoubtedly continue to progress riding on the crest of a wave of publicity and PR that puts Hun Sen to shame but to back that up, she has got a gift for her art and a natural talent that her parents and teachers must continue to nurture and grow. The concert at Meta was a joint effort with her band, La Compagnie bospaPANH, and kicked off with a series of instrumental pieces led by Bosba's equally gifted younger brother Panhlauv, on the flute. The second half saw Bosba take on centrestage with her sweet voice, accompanying herself on guitar and violin, backed by her band. A tribute to Sinn Sisamouth in Khmer was followed by Reputation in French. Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind sounded even better sang in Khmer, while Samnang's violin and Bosba's English vocals on Love Story were top drawer. Mona Lisa was a joint English and Khmer version with a curt Phnom Penh bringing the evening to a close. It was a great showcase for the youngster and her band, the event was filmed by at least 4 camera teams including a tv station, and I'm sure maximum publicity will be squeezed out of the occasion. That said, Bosba is a real talent that could bring her and Cambodia some international recognition if handled with care. Link: website.

Bosba takes time out to sign copies of her CD