Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Phnom Penh - a place to call home

I’m here at last. I’ve landed in Phnom Penh to begin a new chapter in my life. I’ve been here many times before of course, but this time it’s for keeps. I have a new job, I have a place to stay, and I have a new beginning as an expat in this bustling and vibrant city some 6,300 miles away from my former home. I am excited and apprehensive in similar measures, it’s a country I know well and love to bits, but I’m out of my comfort zone and that brings with it a certain degree of nervousness. But one thing I have in abundance is that I am in a country where I’m surrounded by friends. They’re what made me decide to venture out here for this brand new start in my life, they have sustained me on my thirteen previous trips to this beautiful country and I’m sure they will be my rock for my first few months of life here in Phnom Penh. Stay tuned for further developments and for a look inside my new Phnom Penh life.

A Cambodian success story

Getting Water to the Poor - And Making Profits Too - by Puy Kea
A Cambodian public official has weathered assassination threats and a slow-moving bureaucracy in this post-conflict country to create one of the most trusted and safest water supply systems in Asia. "It was bureaucratic and it was full of incompetent staffers," Ek Sonn Chan (right), director of Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) said of the organisation he joined in October 1993. "I fired many staff and my friends told me that I would be assassinated." But the 57-year-old ‘water champion’, as Asian Development Bank (AsDB) hailed him, prevailed and transformed the authority into a model public water utility in Asia. For his work, he was awarded the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The Phnom Penh water authority has been lauded for its efficiency and productivity. Likewise, it was able to increase its consumer base by radically transforming a decrepit and war-torn water supply system into a model public sector water utility that provides 24-hour safe drinking water to the Cambodian capital, including its poor communities. Under Ek Sonn Chan’s leadership, the Phnom Penh water authority now provides 90 percent water coverage to some 1.4 million residents of the Cambodian capital and its outskirts. "My dream in the government service is I want people across the country to receive enough water of high quality," Chan said in an interview at his modest government office.

During the Khmer Rouge years from 1975 to 1979, there was no stable and adequate water supply to speak of. Many of the country’s water production, distribution facilities and equipment were destroyed, while many of its qualified personnel were also killed. The Khmer Rouge is held responsible for the deaths of more than 1.5 million people, and was booted out when Vietnam invaded the country in 1979. When Chan joined the Phnom Penh water authority in 1993, it was supplying water to 40 percent of the city area and serving merely 20 percent of the total population. Water supply was at best intermittent and available for just 10 hours a day. "Now I have sufficient water to use," said Ly Korm, who lives in Chamkarmon district here in the capital. "In 1993, I didn’t have 24-hour water supply and at the time, when the electricity was cut, the water supply was also cut." "Some powerful people who had high positions within the authority did not pay their bills. Some people made illegal connections," recalled Chan, adding that the rate of water lost through the system was 72 percent. Today, the situation is quite different. Consumers pay their bills in full, and both the soft and hard infrastructure for the city’s water system are in place. Chan said that the PPWSA also collects almost all the bills due it. "We have lost only seven percent, it’s very minor. If we compare this to other countries, they lose about 20 percent (through uncollected charges)," he noted. Chan said PPWSA produces 235,000 cubic metres of water daily, serving about 1.4 million people in the city. He added that there are 160,000 connections across Phnom Penh and in the city outskirts, courtesy of the 1,500-km water pipe network in Phnom Penh.

"The situation has improved much, from no running water to tap water at an affordable price," Chan Samnang, a resident of Russei Keo district, said, while looking back at the last 10 years. However, despite assurances from the water authority that the water is safe to drink, she is not confident about drinking from the tap. But Ek Sonn Chan said: "In any place where you turn on the tap, you can drink the water right away. I’ve been drinking tap water without boiling for six years already. I’m safe"."If you get a stomachache after drinking the tap water, I’ll pay you compensation," he added, addressing the city’s residents. He believes that it is an economic imperative that potable tap water be available to the poor. "Now the poor communities drink water from the tap and save five US dollars a month from not buying firewood." The Phnom Penh water authority has conducted tests for bacteria in water from 30 different places, but the results were negative, Chan added. Apart from providing safe drinking water to the poor, the water authority - untypical for a public utility - is also making a modest profit. It earned about 3.5 million dollars in 2006, and expects to make 4 million dollars this year. "My business is growing. I am making more and more profits for the government," boasted Chan. He expressed confidence that by 2020, the Phnom Penh water authority will be able to provide 100 percent water coverage within Phnom Penh and its suburbs.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Onset with Living Dangerously

Look out for a new dramatic feature film called Living Dangerously, sometime in mid-2008. The photo above was taken onset during recent filming in New York, under the production of Vibol Films, the brainchild of Vibol Sok Sungkriem, the film's director. The film is about hard choices for a group of Cambodian-American teenagers, and doing what you need to do to survive whilst living on the mean streets of the Bronx, a mirror of the director's own tough upbringing in New York. Vibol Sok credits his love for filmmaking as his salvation from those mean streets of his youth. He has been behind the camera for ten years now working on community projects, documentaries and freelancing. He's worked on several projects such as Race Against Time, co-directed Pump Your Back, boom operator for Dante’s Girl, directed Déjà Vu and written several screenplays. You can find out more about Vibol Sok - pictured below on the set of Living Dangerously - here.

Giving people a chance

Some positive news from Concern Worldwide, who I hooked up with quite a few years ago in Phnom Penh for a party after visiting their offices. Its good to know they are still making a difference to the lives of so many.

Breaking out of poverty with $50

In what started as a small savings and loan program for the rural poor in Cambodia just fourteen years ago, today has grown into an independent microfinance bank reaching nearly 68,000 people. In villages where people were living from day to day, access to credit was virtually non-existent for millions caught in the poverty trap because they had no way to improve their economic productivity. Now, with a loan portfolio of more than $5 million, one bank dedicated to the poor is helping families throughout Cambodia change their lives. In a country like Cambodia, still recovering from a difficult history, the poorest people are the ones struggling to turn their lives around. The bank was started by Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian relief and development organization, and it is called Angkor Mikroheranhvatho Kampuchea (AMK) bank. It was a bold step for Concern and widely seen as risky, but now it is an independent banking institution helping poor villagers realize their potential.

With 85 percent of loans going to women, AMK endeavours to issue loans to mothers who are often in charge of finances for the home and maximize the benefit. AMK says the figures speak for themselves - women borrowers generally put the money to the best use for the household."We target these loans to women, usually about $50 on average," Chetan said. AMK is unique because it engages communities from the bottom up. Communities fully understand that the repayment process is crucial and that one default impacts everyone. Credit is often issued to groups who are collectively responsible for paying back the loan, known as "solidarity lending." AMK's success is largely due to the remarkable level of responsibility of borrowers who make their loan payments on-time - an impressive record for any lender. "The scale up of the microfinance program is enormous and the level of growth and success of programs both in spread and depth was not expected a decade ago," Tanmay Chetan, Board member of AMK, said.

Loan sizes are smaller than they would be in the United States, but the concept is fundamentally the same. Businesses borrow money for overhead until they achieve net income. Large banking institutions like DEPFA Bank see the effective, if not crucial, role AMK plays in Cambodia. DEPFA's CEO, Gerhard Bruckermann, has deployed personnel from his bank to assist in the growth and development of AMK. "When you see what they are doing and what kind of change it makes on peoples lives, it's probably the best money spent by DEPFA - ever," Bruckermann said. "We couldn't do any better with our money." Once poverty-stricken, families are able to pay for school and access health resources if a medical emergency arises, rather than sell off animals or other collateral. Loans carry an interest rate of one percent, which further legitimizes the credit for what it is - not a handout. Moreover, that interest is immediately used to finance more loans so the economic stimulus is direct and fast. And the success of Concern's AMK Bank has not gone unnoticed. Earning recognition from the World Bank subsidiary, the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), Concern received their prestigious award for the past two years for financial transparency and progress, ranking above more than 200 other microfinance institutions. "AMK has demonstrated that when you give people the tools and resources to help themselves, they are able and eager to do so," Chetan said. Chetan is in New York October 29 - 31 meeting with Concern's microfinance personnel from 10 countries around Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. "It's part of Concern's way - to share the learning so that successful models that help us to tackle poverty are shared with others," Tanmay added. "We still have a long way to go to help the poorest break out of poverty but, with innovations like AMK, we can help transform a family's life with $50. We've reached 68,000 so far - we still have a long way to go."

About Concern Worldwide: Concern Worldwide is a non-denominational, not-for-profit humanitarian organization that has more than 3,000 personnel working in 28 of the poorest countries throughout the world. Concern Worldwide focuses on health, education, microfinance, HIV&AIDS and emergency response programs, directly reaching more than five million people each year.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Gigbeth & Jean Mclean

The 2008 Gigbeth music festival will be held in various venues around Birmingham between 1-3 November. Tickets for each day can be purchased on-line for £6.00 here. On Saturday 3 November, one of my favourite artists, Jean Mclean will perform with a full backing band at South Birmingham College, starting promptly at 8.30pm. The line-up for that night also includes Basil Gabbidon, Skibu and Musical Youth, so make sure you don't miss this excellent event.

Vann Nath's exhibition paintings # V

Above: In February 1978 Vann Nath is moved from the interrogation building to the workshop to begin his painting.
Above: Vann Nath looks at himself in a piece of broken glass while washing, as the -21 guards look on.
Above: The prison commander explains to Vann Nath who he should paint, including Pol Pot himself. This painting was completed in 1996.

The Vann Nath exhibition of paintings called 'Transfer' is on display at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. The artist painted the majority of his exhibition work earlier this year, some thirty years after his arrest & incarceration. You can gain a much better understanding of the Vann Nath and Tuol Sleng story in Rithy Panh's film, S-21, where Vann Nath confronts his former guards and interrogators face to face and asks them why. For more blog postings on Vann Nath, click here. Or visit his website.

Vann Nath's exhibition paintings # lV

Above: Prisoners in S-21, chained together at their feet, were fed with watery rice gruel. Some died and remained until the guards removed the dead body a day later.
Above: Vann Nath is interrogated by the Tuol Sleng interrogators to obtain his' confession'.

Two more Vann Nath paintings from his 'Transfer' exhibition at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. Each painting is accompanied by a pencil drawing of the same scene. For more blog postings on Vann Nath, click here.

Vann Nath's exhibition paintings # lll

Above: All new arrivals at S-21 have their blindfolds removed and their photographs taken by the Tuol Sleng photographers.
Above: Prisoners are awaiting their turn for interrogation, and are kept together in wooden stocks.

Here are another two of Vann Nath's paintings from his exhibition at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. Each painting is accompanied by a pencil drawing of the same scene. Often there are subtle differences by the time the scene is painted onto canvas. The exhibition is called Transfer. For more blog postings on Vann Nath, click here.

Vann Nath's exhibition paintings # ll

Above: Prisoners are herded into a truck not knowing their fate or destination. They were on their way to Phnom Penh and certain death.
Above: A group of prisoners are escorted into Tuol Sleng under cover of drakness, tied around the neck and blindfolded. Vann Nath painted this in 1997.

Here are two more of Vann Nath's paintings from his exhibition at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. For more blog postings on Vann Nath, click here.

Vann Nath's exhibition paintings

Above: Vann Nath is arrested in Battambang province and taken to Kandal Pagoda for questioning.
Above: Vann Nath and a group of prisoners are blindfolded and awaiting transportation to prison in S-21 in Phnom Penh.
The exhibition of paintings by artist and S-21 survivor Vann Nath is still showing at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. Thirty years after his arrest in Battambang and transfer to Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge nerve-centre of death, Vann Nath has recreated the scenes from his arrest and confinement for the exhibition. All but two of his oil and acrylic paintings were painted this year - two of the paintings were completed about ten years ago. You can of course also see Vann Nath's paintings on the walls at Tuol Sleng, depicting the forms of torture used to obtain 'confessions' from the prisoners before they died. Only a handful of people survived their time in S-21, up to 17,000 weren't so fortunate. More of his paintings will follow shortly.
For more blog postings on Vann Nath, click here.

Escape to Kompong Phluk

Penny Watson reports on her visit to one of my favourite places outside Angkor, the floating village of Kompong Phluk.

Escape in Cambodia to a floating village - by Penny Watson, posted at The Contra Costa Times (USA)

In the jungle and farmland surrounding the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, the famous Angkor temples punctuate the landscape. Remains of the ancient Khmer empire, these magnificent edifices, numbering more than 1,000, vary in scale, design and state of repair. They also attract thousands of visitors each year. While the attention for such antiquated wonders is justifiable, at times the crowds are a bit too much. Tourists descend on the complexes particularly during the dry season, starting in October. But for an escape from the Angkor audience, you can take an easy side trip to the nearby floating village of Kompong Phluk. We traveled only 25 kilometers via motorbike, boat and tuk-tuk, a type of motorized rickshaw, to leave the busy tourist hub far behind. In its wake we found a place remote and wondrous, a landscape devoid of Western faces and familiarities.

Our wooden longboat slipped through the narrow waterways, past ravaged banks battered by the wet season. The root systems of dead trees clawed at the eroding soil in a final bid at gripping the bank. As we stared in awe at this strange landscape, our guide explained how Kompong Phluk came to be. "Its existence is the result of an inland tide," he said. "Each year, when the Mekong overflows into the Tonle Sap River, the Tonle Sap Lake (Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake) can rise nearly 10 meters and expand from 2,500 square kilometers to almost four times this area." The result is nature's own anomaly - a sunken mangrove forest, home to a curious species that survives almost completely submerged in water, and Kompong Phluk, a floating stilt village, ebbing and flowing with the coming and going of the seasons. Kompong Phluk means "harbor of the tusks," and it derives from the village's elephant-trading history -- hard to picture as our boat was drifting, the motor cut, past fishermen in wooden canoes and floating bamboo cages where baby crocodiles writhed in the sunshine. We pulled up beside a crude looking jetty servicing a row of stilt houses 26 or 30 feet above us. The jetty led to a strip of dry road running up the middle of the village. In the worst of the wet season we would have been treading water, but at the start of the dry season we had the advantage of being able to explore on foot. We climbed a bamboo ladder to the abode of a wiry old man, who was happy to receive guests for the customary exchange of a small tip. His hut was made of ad hoc bamboo scaffolding and sheets of rusted, corrugated iron. Inside, barely there walls made of overlapping palm leaves separated three small living areas, home to a family of six, maybe seven. Through the wide slits in the bamboo floor I could see the water lapping yards below. In the wet season, it would have been within reach.

Further along the street, a carpet of tiny shrimp dried in the midday sun. Shrimp harvesting is the main source of income in Kompong Phluk, with shrimp paste being a staple part of the Khmer diet. The bright-orange squares stood out against the browns and grays of makeshift houses battered season after season by flooding water. The upside of this relentless quest of nature is the abundant fish supply in the area. The lake, combined with the dense mangrove forests, provides a rich feeding ground. In the wet season, the fish and shrimp are spread out to dry on canopies strung between the houses. We continued our walk to the pagoda, one of Kompong Phluk's few concrete buildings, where two smiling monks were biding their time, smoking and talking. Come the flooding waters, this small patch is the only dry land in the village, the only constant in an environment where water dictates a way of life. Our boatman picked us up at the far end of the village, and we set off on the return trip to the Angkor temples, and Siem Reap, where tourists and ancient temples promised us completely different civilizations, yet again.
Penny Watson (www.pennywatson.com.au) is a Lonely Planet author who has traveled widely in Southeast Asia. Read about my own 2005 visit to Kompong Phluk here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ear to the ground

I recommend you cast your eyes on Andrew Symon's detailed review of Building Cambodia by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Leon Collins at Asia Times Online here.

Seth Mydans' latest report from Cambodia for the International Herald Tribune focuses on the S-21 photographer Nhem En, who has been called to testify as a witness at the forthcoming Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Read his story here.

The story of 3 African footballers currently plying their trade in Cambodia with Phnom Penh Empire can be found at Times Online here.

The Star Online from Malaysia brings a report on a Cambodian bird-watching venture that is helping to conserve the species and benefit the locals. Sam Veasna and WCS are doing great work in the field as I've previously reported, so its great to see them getting some well-deserved press attention.

Mak Remissa - the importance of photography

In May, I highlighted the work of outstanding Cambodian photographer Mak Remissa (right), so I was pleased to see the following interview with Mak appear in the latest edition of the magazine TouchStone, the quarterly publication of my friends at Heritage Watch. Read my blog post on Mak here.
Mak Remissa
The importance of photography for Cambodia
Mark Remissa works as a freelance photographer and is one of Cambodia’s leading photographers. Born in 1970, Remissa found his calling after enrolling at the Royal University of Fine Arts to study painting. In 1993, the French association Arts Cambodge offered photography classes to the students and this short training session would change his life. Whilst most people at the time viewed photography as a low-skilled career with little revenue, Remissa was intrigued. Looking for work after graduation he ended up at the then French-language newspaper Le Mekong working as a photojournalist.
Q. What inspired you to study the arts, and more specifically painting?
A. The Khmer Rouge, one of the bloodiest mass murdering regimes in the history of mankind, killed everyone that had higher education. Some survived, like the painter Mr Vann Nath who used his paintings skills to record all the killing and torturing activities of the Khmer Rouge, was not killed. For that reason I realized art is a skill that is useful for everyone and everywhere in the world.
Q. Do you work only in Cambodia or abroad as well? And have you held any exhibition, nationally and internationally?
A. I was given the opportunity in 1997 to study photojournalism in Thailand which allowed me to come back and start as a freelance photographer. As a freelance photographer I had clients from various parts of Cambodia and the world, including UNDP, UNESCO, PLAN, REUTERS, Bates, etc. Since coming back from studying in Thailand I have travelled all over the world to capture pictures for the world to see. I have also done many exhibitions of my photos nationally, and internationally – Canada, USA. In 1997, I won first and third prize at the National Photo-Journalism competition.
Q. What do you think that made you become so successful?
A. Besides the experience and good skills that I have, my success has been made possible by two reasons; one is because I am Cambodian. International firms, as well as NGOs love to hire a Cambodian for jobs in Cambodia, as long as you have the skills they need. They understand that no one understands Cambodia better than the Cambodians themselves. Second reason is because I ask lower prices for my photos than foreigners ask!
Q. So what does it mean to be a Cambodian artist?
A. Cambodians have to wake up and realize that we Cambodians are of no less value than the foreigners. We might not be as good as them at something, but we might be better at something else. For instance, when I offered photo classes no one would come to learn because I am just another Cambodian, which would not have been the case if I was a foreigner. That’s the psychological thought that most Cambodians have. But I am very proud to be a Cambodian artist. I am the pioneer in this profession and I am very proud. I only wish that all other Cambodian artists feel the same as me.
Q. What have you done to help bring this profession to the attention of the young generation?
A. I have given lectures at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and put up many exhibitions to show the values of professional photographers. In the future, I plan to open a photography school, where I hope I will pass on my knowledge and skills to many more people. I am really worried that after my professional life is over, there will be no one to continue.
Reproduced courtesy of Heritage Watch TouchStone Magazine. Website.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Somaly Mam Foundation

The Somaly Mam Foundation launch event will be held on 7 November at the United Nations in New York City in conjunction with the premier of Holly, a feature film about the sex slave trade in Cambodia. The Somaly Mam Foundation has recently been formed to combat the illegal slave trade of women and girls by funding organizations that rescue, rehabilitate, and reintegrate the young girls. AFESIP Cambodia is currently the primary beneficiary of the Somaly Mam Foundation. The foundation’s mission includes raising awareness through a multi-level marketing and educational campaign consisting of online interaction, celebrity voices, high-profile events, media exposure, university clubs, and a central source of educational information. The non-profit foundation’s ambitious vision of ending sexual slavery requires the support of an active community - and that means, you. Somaly Mam (pictured below) is President and spokesperson of the foundation. She is one of the most prolific activists fighting sexual slavery today. Sold into slavery at the age of 12 she later escaped and made it her mission to rescue others. The result was AFESIP, an organization that has rescued, rehabilitated, and reintegrated over 3,400 women and children since its inception in 1996. AFESIP was recently recognized by the U.S. state department for best practices in the battle against human trafficking. Somaly has been the recipient of several awards including the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year for 2006, CNN Hero, and recognition from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Find out more here.

Latest Film News

Resurrecting Bokator Khmer, The Nearly Lost Martial Art of Cambodia
Soon to be released, a new DVD introduces the world to the pride of Cambodian martial arts, while preserving a piece of history, which was almost lost. The Ancient Khmer martial art of Bokator is something which belongs only to Cambodia. The proof is written in stone, on the walls of Angkor Wat. A thousand years of war with Thailand and Vietnam, followed by the Khmer Rouge Genocide nearly wiped this art off of the face of the Earth. Film maker and Khmer genocide survivor, Tim Pek, and martial arts author, Antonio Graceffo, have teamed up to create the DVD Bokator Khmer. Shot on location in and around Phnom Penh, the DVD introduces the world to this fascinating martial art, which is a complete fighting system of more than 1,000 separate movements.
Bokator includes striking, grappling, ground fighting, and weapons. The DVD also features Master Sam Kim Saen, who fled the Khmer Rouge, and arrived in the USA as a refugee. After returning to Cambodia, more than twenty years later, Master Sam Kim Saen opened the first modern school of Bokator. The Master works tirelessly, trying to teach as many students as possible, in the hopes that the art will live on. "If we had more time they could specialize", said the Master. "But I want every one of my black belts to know every single movement, form, and weapon, so when I die, no portion of the art will be lost." See the beauty of a lethal Cambodian martial art. Learn about the plight of the Khmer people. And, become one more link in the long chain of history, a history which will include Bokator Khmer. Visit the film's website.

Opening nationwide in the US on 9 November is Guy Jacobson's critically-acclaimed film Holly. Shot on location in Cambodia, including many scenes in actual brothels in the notorious red light district of Phnom Penh, Holly is a captivating, touching and emotional drama. Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American card shark and dealer of stolen artifacts, has been 'comfortably numb' in Cambodia for years, when he encounters Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl, in the K11 red light village. The girl has been sold by her impoverished family and smuggled across the border to work as a prostitute. Holly's virginity makes her a lucrative prize, and when she is sold to a child trafficker, Patrick embarks on a frantic search through both the beautiful and sordid faces of the country, in an attempt to bring her to safety.
Harsh, yet poetic, this feature forms part of the 'K-11' Project, dedicated to raising awareness of the epidemic of child trafficking and the sex slavery trade through several film projects. The film's producers endured substantital hardships in order to be able to shoot in Cambodia and have also founded the RedLight Children Campaign, which is a worldwide grassroots initiative generating conscious concern and inspiring immediate action against child sexploitation. Find out more about the film and the project here.
Finally, have a sneak preview at Sam B Lorn's latest movie, Moirai - Smile Now, Cry Later, an action-thriller focused on one man's endeavors to avenge his adopted mother’s death while being thwarted by a local drug baron. Sam's a Cambodian filmmaker with more than eight years of experience in the film industry and has produced/written/directed three feature films bringing a modern Cambodian-American experience to the big screen. Visit Sam's Myspace site here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Basil on song

Thanks to Richard Battye for this photo of Basil Gabbidon taken at the recent ArtsFest performance in Birmingham's Centenary Square. Richard is a musician himself and also works as a professional photographer in the creative and performing arts industries. He works out of River Studio at The Custard Factory. His website is www.riverstudio.co.uk. For more about Basil and his band, Gabbidon, click here.

More news on the Gabbidon front, includes their brand new album, Reggae Rockz, which should be finished very soon and will contain the following thirteen tracks: Dubba Pre Log, Dubba, Burning Up, Cool Runnings, Friend of Mine, Song of Freedom, Rasta Girl, Malcolm, Living in the City, Kicking Time Away, Missing You, Should I, Song of Freedom. They've also posted a new website at www.reggaerockz.co.uk.

Kep to expand

Plans are afoot to extend the tiny sandy beach at Kep into the sea by between 300-500 metres along 26 kms of coastline, in order to attract more tourists. Its at the assessment stage at the moment but dredging could begin as early as the middle of next year if the plan gets the green light. Formerly Cambodia's premier beach resort, Kep hosted a glut of palatial villas belonging to Cambodia's elite until the Khmer Rouge took charge, with most of the villas now in ruins, populated by families of squatters. A few new bungalow-style hotels have sprung up in the last couple of years as Kep recovers from years of neglect and if the beach-plan gathers momentum, Kep could once again find itself as the first choice for many Cambodian holiday-makers. Above is one of my photos of the existing beach at Kep.

Hab Touch - the new National Museum Director

In the following interview with Heritage Watch Magazine, TouchStone (Oct-Dec issue), the new Director of the Cambodia National Museum in Phnom Penh, Hab Touch (right), talks about the challenges he faces in his new role.

Q: How long have you been director of the National Museum? And what did you do before this?
A: It’s been only one and half months that I been director of the national Museum. I had been the Deputy director for ten years before this. And before I came to work at the museum I worked at the Ministry of Culture.

Q: What drove you to work in this field?
A: I have always been proud of Khmer culture. So it was a great honor when I got the job at the National Museum. I got into the Royal University of Fine Art in 1980, majored in earth sculpture. In 1986 I went to study ancient building conservation in Poland, and I got my master degree in 1993. I spent a year and half teaching building conservation in Poland before I returned to Cambodia in 1995.

Q: Were you here during Pol Pot?
A: Of course I was here too. I was very little then.

Q: Being the director of the museum that houses the largest collection of Khmer artefacts, what are the responsibilities?
A: The job does not just require me to manage this museum as we also have the responsibility to coordinate with other museums in Cambodia. Plus, since most of the other museums in Cambodia were destroyed or became dysfunctional after the Pol Pot regime, most of the artefacts in Cambodia need protection, which falls under my responsibility. Being the national museum, we must provide visitors with an outlook of the whole country so basically everything we do has to be nationwide.

Q: Of all the archeological sites in Cambodia, which one do you think is the most important after Angkor? Why?
A: Personally, after Angkor, I think Preah Vihear archeological site is the most important. I base my opinion on three reasons: 1. The scale of the temple – 800m from front to back. 2. The location – most sacred Khmer location is on a hill or mountain. 3. And, the cultural landscape of the temple.

Q: Does the museum have any plans to expand the current building since the number of tourists in Cambodia is increasing rapidly? If so, will there be any modification to the old museum that will change its original design?
A: There have been plans to expand the museum but funding and space availability are big issues. We are still working on it. No clear plan yet!

Q: Cambodians have so many archeological sites and rich with history in every part of the country. For this reason, why don’t we have many more museums in the provinces? Are we planning to have them in the future?
A: It’s very true we have many historic sites and we are trying to bring back many of the built museums that are currently closed, as well as building new ones. For instance, newly built museums in Angkor Borei, Banteay Meanchey, takeo, etc. Currently there are three major museums that are operating daily: the National Museum, Angkor Museum and Battambang Museum.

Q: How many artefacts does the museum have? What are the classifications?
A: We are still working to create a list of all the artifacts we have here. The process has been going on for three years and is still not complete. At this point we have 14,000 items marked.

Q: is the number of artefacts being donated to the museum increasing or decreasing? What dies it mean?
A: The numbers are fluctuating from one month or season to another. But compared to the past (maybe 10 years or so) I think the number is decreasing. Why? I don’t really know. There are many reasons. It could be because there are slowly more local museums now, so people bring their findings to these museums directly. Or it could be because artefacts are now very hard to find unlike when the war was just over. They are not lying around waiting to be found anymore. Another very possible reason is because artifacts are now in high demands from artefact traders. They are willing to offer more money to get the goods. That could encourage people to stop giving to the authorities which do not give any money in return, and give to the traders instead.

Q: Currently, is the Cambodian government doing anything to bring back all the Khmer artifacts that are abroad? If a Khmer artifact is in a foreign museum, is this legal?
A: We are definitely wanting to bring our artifacts back. But the process is not as easy as you would think. You have to have the appropriate documents showing that this particular artifact comes from Cambodia. We definitely want to bring our artifacts back. First Cambodia has to establish the bilateral relationship with other countries, then you have to have the appropriate documents showing that this particular artifact is from Cambodia. As you know, after Pol Pot, most documents were destroyed. We have lost all the proofs. That’s why currently we’re working hard to make documents of all the artifacts that we have in Cambodia so that we can prevent further loss.

Q: What qualifications make an object valuable and should be put in a museum?
A: Every object has its unique qualities. An object may not be worth keeping in this museum but in another. There is not just one museum for all kinds of objects. There are museums for ancient artefacts, museum for animals, etc.

Q: How is the museum performing in general? In the next few years, how will the museum’s developments be like?
A: In general, I think the museum is performing well. Even though it’s slow. There have been improvements in many sectors: human resource, artefacts protection, and so on. I see big positive improvements for the future!

Q: If there were one improvement that you would like to make to the current system of the museum, what would it be?
A: There are actually two things that I think need immediate attention: one is the ways the artefacts are being displayed. Two is to expand our advertisement campaign to make our museum known to more tourists and local visitors from the provinces, not just those who live in the city. When they come to the museum, they learn about history: it’s a very good way to bring education to the people.
Reproduced courtesy of Heritage Watch TouchStone Magazine.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Positive and negative

A couple of stories from the newswires present a positive and not so positive view from Cambodia, kicking off with the story of former gang member Tuy Sobil, deported back to Cambodia from the US, who has turned his life around, and given hope to many youngsters, with his breakdance troupe Tiny Toones. The Christian Science Monitor reports here.

Meanwhile, for Guardian online in the UK, Simon Taylor berates the international community for what he sees as their failure in Cambodia and is scathing in his views on the current Cambodian government. Read his column here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

New technology helps National Museum

A current project close to my heart is the Inventory Project currently being undertaken at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. I'd love to spend some time behind-the-scenes at this museum but so far my requests have fallen on deaf ears. However, this article from the Asian Art newspaper by Sarah Murray in October 2005 gives more detail on this vitally-important project.

National Museum Inventory Project, Phnom Penh

It is early morning at Phnom Penh's National Museum and a gentle breeze blowing in from the Mekong fills one of the museum's larger offices with cool air. Here, ranks of the copied heads of Angkorian statues share space with gifts from various countries and institutions. There's a fan donated by Unesco, a couple of antiquated air-conditioners - a 'Don de Dr Wolfgang Felten' - and a fridge given by the National Gallery of Australia. These days, however, no one pays much attention to these objects. For staff members are focusing on a far more important donation: a set of computers. They may look like ordinary computers, but these machines - along with a larger server and digital cameras - are behind the small revolution that is taking place at this august institution. For since last autumn, through funding from Shelby White and the Jerome Levy Foundation, this technology has enabled the museum staff to start registering every item in the collection and recording it via digital photographs. Identification tags are added to the objects and their condition and locations are recorded. Hab Touch, deputy director of the museum, believes the inventory project represents a major step forward for the institution, which until now has had an incomplete knowledge of what is contained in its collection - and of what is missing. 'We've never used technology like this before,' he says. 'We've been waiting for the funding for a long time and now we have it, we can really get started.'

It is an extremely ambitious project. For this is one of the world's most extraordinary collections Khmer arts. The creation of Frenchman Georges Groslier in the 1920s, the museum began life as a collection of more than 1,000 objects. Today that number has expanded to about 14,000 and the collection is growing at a rate of more than 300 objects a year. In number and quality, the pieces on display here are unmatched elsewhere in the world, including sculptures in stone, bronze and wood from the pre-Angkorian period of Funan in the 4th century through to works from the post-Angkorian period in the 14th century. Also on display are ceramics, dance costumes, a royal barge and items from military and court life. And more of the collection lies in the basement. But it is not just the collection that makes the National Museum such an unusual institution. Characterised by a profusion of red hues, the building itself is one of the city's most unusual and elegant structures. The form and layout was greatly influenced by Angkor. And while most of Phnom Penh's French colonial architecture is a golden yellow, here walls the colour of dark red wine are topped by earthy terracotta tiles and crowned by delightful dancing curves of the pagoda-style roofs. Inside, the best known piece is the serene 12th-century sandstone head of King Jayavarman VII, the great god-king, who ruled Angkor from 1181 to 1219 and was responsible for many of site's the architectural wonders. His rule marked the highpoint of the Angkor Empire and of the Khmer civilisation. Jayavarman's head, with its serene smile and gently smiling lips, is an image of extraordinary grace and beauty. But there are dozens of other gems too, such as the 7th-century statue of the horse-headed Vaijmukha, one of the personal favourites of Bertrand Porte, the Frenchman in charge of restoration and conservation at the museum. 'And what you see here is in the galleries represents only half of the museum's collection,' says Porte. 'There is so much more in the basement.'

As the morning goes on, more visitors arrive. A group of excited young monks in Saffron robes line up to have their picture taken in front of the museum. The galleries fill up with everyone from foreign tourists to schoolchildren and devotees, who come to the museum to worship the sacred figures within. But here in the office, with its dark 1960s wood panelling and strip lighting, all is silent as the project team workers concentrate on the task at hand. One of their tasks involves scanning older photographs and information cards. For while this is the first time an electronic system has been used, this is by no means the first effort to catalogue the museum collection. As well as Groslier's original card catalogue, during the 1950s, French curator Jean Boisselier created a new registration method for all the pieces in the collection. Decades later, another system was introduced in an attempt to get the collection back in order after the years of neglect suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime. 'The problem is that the catalogue systems are physically dispersed and there are completely separate inventory systems from different periods,' explains Darryl Collins, the art historian who is managing and training the inventory project team. 'You have got the systems of Groslier and Boisselier, a 1970s Khmer system and a 1990s Khmer system. So there are four parallel systems through which the collection has gone through at different times. The trick is to make all this available so that modern database systems can search and correlate the numbers.' Once this is possible, says Collins, the museum will be able not only clarify what has been lost from the collection - and many objects disappeared during the 1980s - but it will also prevent further losses. Much progress has been made since the project began. With the cataloguing of the bronze collection almost complete, the team will soon be moving on to one of the other large sections - probably stone sculptures.

The importance of cataloguing systems - whether electronic or otherwise - in stemming theft is demonstrated by the story of two statues that were discovered in the 1990s by police in a private home. 'The police brought them to the museum for identification and the original numbers were still on the bases,' says Collins. 'They are now here and have been restored. But the point is that the museum was able to formally claim them simply by use of the original cards, the photographs and the matching numbers. So we want to be in a position to do this with every piece in the collection.' As well as securing the collection, the inventory project will help reduce wear and tear on the collection - whose descriptions and photographs will reduce the need to access the actual object - and assist researchers, who until now have found it difficult to trace the history of an object in the collection. 'Once this inventory project is complete we can begin to provide some sort of service,' says Collins. 'Then there's the possibility of eventually having a website.' The inventory project may even help the museum recover some of its lost objects. When in 1993, Unesco published a list of 100 missing items, the museum, with the help of the International Council of Museums and Interpol, was able to recover eight objects that had been illegally exported. 'When we have finished this project, we may do a similar thing,' says Collins. 'So it will ultimately identify the gaps in the collection.'
Link: Asian Art newspaper.

Read all about it!

After a brief lull in postings - due to a weekend away - I have a few snippets of news to pass on. Some of it's confirmed, others bits are rumour but worth mentioning. I'll kick off with Bokor Mountain, the home of the ghostly casino and beautiful views over the South China Sea and the plans by Sokha to turn the plateau into a resort - the latest word is that the only road to the summit of the mountain will be closed soon for about two years as they construct a 'proper' road to the top, leaving anyone who wants to visit Bokor with two options, take a Sokha-owned helicopter flight, or walk. More as I hear it.
Next, Boeung Kak lake, home of the backpacker fraternity in Phnom Penh, could disappear next month if plans to pump out the water and fill it with sand are to be believed. This raises massive concerns about the potential for flooding in other areas of the city as the lake acts as a buffer against an already fragile drainage system that is under severe pressure. It also poses the question of where do the travellers looking for cheap and cheerful accommodation hang-out. And it will certainly spoil the lovely sunsets to be seen across the lake. I will believe it when it happens.
Feeling energetic? If you fancy running or cycling around the Angkor complex of temples, the International Angkor Wat Half Marathon will take place on 2 December, with the cycle event a day earlier. Find out more here.
The delapidated Cambodian railway system is to get a much-needed overhaul with the aid of grants of up to $73 million. The Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville as well as Phnom Penh-Poipet railway lines will get the benefit as part of the massive Trans-Asian Railway, which aims to create an integrated freight railroad network across Asia. The focus is on transporting commercial goods but passengers should get the benefit too, though the general view is that passenger services invariably lose money.
The 2008 CamboFest for filmmakers is now open for submissions. A mirror-event of the recent inaugural Phnom Penh event will take place in Siem Reap at the end of November. Find out all the details here. In addition, the same team have just launched CamboTube.com - Cambodia's only video sharing portal.
Finally, Mondulkiri is looking forward to a new airport at a cost of $6 million, to be built at the provincial capital Sen Monorom from December. However, already the local chunchiet (ethnic minority) group, the Phnong, are complaining the proposed site takes away some of their sacred forest. Land grab is a major issue throughout Cambodia nowadays so this news doesn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Women take heart

For a political party to choose a woman as a candidate for the position of Prime Minister in next year's Cambodian elections is an unusual and arguably progressive step forward for the women of the country. Yes, of course there are arguments that Princess Norodom Arunrasmey (right) isn't an ordinary woman, she's the youngest daughter of retired king Norodom Sihanouk, she's a puppet of a political party, Funcinpec, that is in turmoil and has no hope in hell of winning the July 27, 2008 election, and so on - but wait a minute, this is male-dominated Cambodia we are talking about and any sign that women are getting a better chance is worth shouting about. Okay, so the party secretary's comments regarding her selection are naive in the extreme; "She is wife of party president Keo Puth Rasmey and current Cambodian Ambassador to Malaysia, and we hoped that she will bring the party to victory in the 2008 election because 50 percent of the Cambodian people are women and they will vote for her. (This shows that) We have deeply reformed our party in accordance with the world situation, under which democracy and women are cared." However, its a sign and any sign is a positive move forwards in my view.

Funcinpec was created by Sihanouk in 1981 as a royalist party. In 1993 it won the general election under the leadership of Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Now it has 26 seats at the National Assembly and ranks as the Cambodia's second largest party but has been split in recent months by defections and in-fighting. For more on Princess Norodom Arunrasmey's life story, click here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Teeing off in Cambodia

Golf is taking off big-time in Cambodia and two new courses in the Siem Reap area are causing all the commotion. The capital, Phnom Penh already has two international courses - the Cambodian Golf & Country Club – the country’s first course, opened in 1996 and located 35 kilometres west of the city - and the Royal Cambodia Golf Club, 9 kilometres south of Phnom Penh and 7,075 yards in length. However, its the two courses near the famed temples of Angkor that are making all the headlines.
The new Phokeethra Country Club is managed by the Sofitel Phokeethra Royal Angkor Golf & Spa Resort, this is a world class golf course destined to put Angkor and Cambodia on the international golfing map, especially with the Johnnie Walker Cambodian Open tournament slated for the end of November 2007. 130 of Asia's best golfers will descend on Siem Reap in the full glare of publicity as the first major international tournament takes place in Cambodia. Located 20 kilometres from Siem Reap, this par-72, 18-hole golf course includes the par-5 18th hole, an incredible challenge at 582 yards. The Phokeethra clubhouse affords picture-window vistas overlooking the entire landscape of the course and within the grounds, the magnificent ‘Roluh’ bridge, dating back to the Khmer Empire, allows the club’s slogan to boast; “Tee-off in the 11th century and finish your round back in the 21st century.”
The second course to put a real twinkle in the eye of any golfing enthusiast is the brand-new Angkor Golf Resort, which will tee-off its first game in December this year. Promoted as Cambodia’s first PGA standard championship golf course, it’s a lengthy 7,230-yard, par 72 course that has been designed by Nick Faldo, considered to be Europe’s greatest golfer and winner of 6 Majors in his illustrious career. Located within easy reach of the city centre, the ‘Faldo Course’ is a stunning addition to Cambodia’s developing golf facilities and will see the course designer, Nick Faldo, at its opening. Faldo explains that his firm had 19 golf courses at the drawing-board stage, 12 under construction and five that will open this year. "It fits in with my time schedule to get about half a dozen opening each year," he said and courses in China and Cambodia are on this year's list.

More on the Roluh Bridge at the Phokeethra Country Club golf course:
This elegantly designed stone bridge dates back to the 11th century, and it stands today as a symbol of the splendour of the ancient Khmer civilization. Recently declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, the bridge has since been beautifully restored. Located between the 9th green and 10th tee, the Roluh Bridge is the showpiece of the course, and it is no accident that its iconic image is a central feature of Phokeethra's logo.

Niemans lend a helping hand

Through the efforts of Ted and Bonnie Nieman of Maryland, USA, over 500 wells have been installed to provide fresh water to the poorest areas of Cambodia, a sewing center for disadvantaged women has been opened in Siem Reap and now they are outfitting and rebuilding a school two hours from the country's main tourist attraction, Angkor Wat. The Nieman's have simply never stopped after a three-day visit to Cambodia changed their lives forever. Working with the Shinta Mani Hotel, and the Institute of Hospitality - a vocational training facility funded from the operations of the hotel as well as from private individuals - Ted and Bonnie formed CambodiaWeCare.org where 100% of all funds collected are sent directly to Cambodia, there are no overhead costs or fees with everything done on a strictly volunteer basis. Here's a link to their website.

Chicago's Khmer art

Continuing the theme of Cambodian art, two new collections in Chicago are currently on show.

Khmer Here - by Deanna Isaacs, Chicago Reader (Chicago, Illinois, USA)

Ty Tim was a high school teacher in Cambodia in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over. The country, which had suffered years of strife during the Vietnam war and massive U.S. bombing in its wake, now fell victim to Pol Pot’s efforts to transform it into a land of peasant farmers. The plan called for the eradication of religion, culture, and history, and it was brutally enforced. The calendar was reset to year zero, temples were destroyed, educated city dwellers were declared the enemy. Capital city Phnom Penh was emptied—“turned into a ghost town,” Tim says. He and his family were among the thousands forced to trek through the jungle to labor camps, where they were subjected to inhumane conditions and fed a starvation diet. During the three years and eight months of the Khmer Rouge regime, about 1.7 million Cambodians—more than 20 percent of the population—died. Tim and his wife lost four children, as well as his parents and two brothers.When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, the Khmer Rouge enforcers abandoned the camps and the workers dispersed. Tim, his wife, and a daughter eventually made their way to Thailand. In 1982, with the help of a sponsor in Mokena, they came to Illinois. Tim, who’d specialized in Khmer (Cambodian) literature, culture, and philosophy, found work as a bilingual teacher, and he and his wife had three more daughters.

Retired from full-time teaching, Tim now works as the archivist at the Cambodian American Heritage Museum, which opened in 2004 as a project of the Cambodian Association of Illinois. Started by a few refugee families in the western suburbs 31 years ago, the association has been located in Chicago since 1980, providing resettlement help and basic social services to Cambodian immigrants. In 1999 it purchased and moved into an old building with an empty lot next door. It also began a capital campaign, not only to add office space but to build a dream: a museum that would tell Cambodians’ story, honor their dead, and display their culture. It would be for the public but also for the elders forced to leave everything behind and for their American children, making their way in a very different society. The golden age of Khmer culture lasted from the 9th century through the 13th century, when the Angkor empire included all of current Cambodia and extended into what are now Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. An agricultural and artistic society rooted in the cycles of the Mekong River, it was characterized by tall, elaborately decorated stone and brick temples (or wats) and temple cities. The most impressive of them was the fabulous 500-acre Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The arts of the period included ritual music and dance and the masterful stone bas-reliefs and sculptures still visible in the temples. After raising $1.3 million, the Cambodian Association added a handsome 4,000-square-foot museum to its building three years ago. It opened with a permanent Killing Fields memorial and a text-and-photo exhibit that explained what had happened to Khmer Rouge survivors, but it had no collection of its own—none of the ancient artifacts.

A member of the museum board, Northern Illinois University anthropologist Judy Ledgerwood, suggested that the museum and the university might partner on a grant proposal. NIU is home to a center for Southeast Asia studies, started in 1963 to train Peace Corps volunteers, and the university was looking to mount an exhibit on Cambodia’s current economic and cultural recovery. Ledgerwood’s research has been focused on that part of the world, and in the past she’d received funding from the Henry J. Luce Foundation, which she says has a history of supporting projects on Southeast Asia and an interest in helping young institutions. They submitted a proposal with three components: an exhibit for NIU, a collection of art and artifacts and staff training for the museum, and an oral history. The Luce foundation gave them $116,000, and in June 2006 Tim set off with NIU’s anthropology museum director, Ann Wright-Parsons, on a buying trip to his homeland—only his second visit since he and his family had fled. Even with the money, however, Tim wouldn’t be acquiring any ancient treasures: Cambodian law now prohibits taking them out of the country. He’d be shopping for reproductions. Tim says that, with the $6,000 he had to spend, he was determined to find the items most deeply connected to the Cambodian spirit. “Before the infiltration of the Indian religion,” he says, “we had our own culture. We worshipped the parents—the living god as the mother and father, mother as earth and leader, father as water and protector.” If Cambodians lose their reverence for these traditional things, he says, “we lose our identity.” The core pieces of the 16-item collection he brought back—which includes finely hewn musical instruments, a pair of dazzling costumes, and a 12th-century caravan in bas-relief—are a large, flawlessly crafted wood carving representing the mother and two banners like waterfalls representing the father.

Both the NIU exhibit and the museum show opened within the last few weeks; in the spring they’ll change places for six months or so. (The project’s final component, the Killing Fields oral history, is scheduled for completion by 2009.) Ledgerwood says both exhibits are about Cambodia’s recovery under what is still a relatively authoritarian government: the rebuilding of temples, the resurgence of arts and crafts, and the emergence of an economy that, besides rice growing, includes the mass manufacture of clothing and a booming tourist business. Museum chairman Leon Lim, another Killing Fields survivor, says the gleaming new collection is a way for people who lost their homeland, families, belongings, and culture to claim their identity and celebrate the lives they’ve found in Chicago. Meanwhile, back in Cambodia, recovery aside, the wheels of justice barely turn: Pol Pot’s second-in-command was arrested only last month; no other Khmer Rouge officials have ever been brought to trial. Khmer Spirit : Arts & Culture of Cambodia will show through til June 2008 at Cambodian American Heritage Museum. Cambodia Born Anew will be on display at the Anthropology Museum, Northern Illinois University through til May 2008.

Khmer artist Emmanuelle Nhean

This article on Khmer artist Emmanuelle Nhean was penned by a good friend of mine, Denise Heywood for the Asian Art newspaper in 2003. Emmanuelle Nhean now has her own website, click here to find out more.
'Art is a sort of hope, a dream, a source of beauty, to show others what one has lived through,' says Cambodian artist Emmanuelle Nhean. Nhean is a survivor of the Pol Pot regime which devastated her country, Cambodia, between 1975-79, claiming the lives of nearly three million people. In 1980, she fled to France. In the ensuing years, she went to art school and through her vivid, colourful paintings, created a new life for herself. Nhean's career as an artist is one of inspiration, reflecting her determination to put the past behind her. Born in 1952, Nhean originally studied medicine. But when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, she and her family were forced out of their home at gunpoint and marched out into the countryside to do forced labour in the fields. Her father was killed, as were her brother and his young family, and many of her friends. Starving and debilitated, but still alive, she managed to get to a refugee camp and from there fled in 1980 and went to France. Although she resumed her medical studies in France, she was no longer motivated and felt a need to express herself in other ways. 'I had always loved art, even as a small child,' she explained. Her sister had been an architect and she was fascinated by her drawings. She decided to follow her instincts and attended private art classes, financing them by working as a nurse. Eventually she gained a place at an art school in Montparnasse in Paris and abandoned medicine. There she studied Western art and was especially influenced by Vermeer and Matisse. By 1988, having married a French fellow art student, she was earning her living as a painter.
Echoing the ancient artistic traditions of her native Cambodia, her abstract paintings explore new forms of expression. She has moved away from her Cambodian heritage whereby artistic patterns consist of emulating and perfecting ancient art forms that reached their apogee in the 12th-century Khmer empire. Although art is universal, she says, each culture has its own particular identity, but she no longer felt at ease with Khmer art. 'It's a culture which was halted a thousand years ago,' she said. She was drawn instead to abstract art. 'Since 1998, I have devoted myself to researching Khmer art and its contemporary expression, she continued. 'I pushed hard towards abstraction and found that liberating.' The result is a unique combination of past and present, which gives a powerful resonance to her paintings. Thus, three oil paintings, identified by numbers, called Ban Teay Srei Dans L'Univers Cubiste No 1, No 2 and No 3 each reveal hints of the exquisite carvings of female deities and decorated lintels at the 10th century temple of Banteay Srei at Angkor. But juxtaposed with the images are cubistic forms, boldly outlined in black and filled with either muted or strong colours of blue and gold and red. The subtlety of the ancient statuary is balanced against the immediacey of contemporary painting style.
Les Trois Graces (The Three Graces) is both witty and profound, echoing Western art by grouping three female figures together. But they are, in fact, images of apsaras, the celestial dancers carved in bas-relief on the walls of Angkor Wat, resplendent in elaborate head-dresses and long earrings. The subtle colours of stone are here replaced by bright reds, royal blues and vivid yellows. As if to confuse the notion of identity, both cultural and personal, the faces of the figures are blank, unpainted. This adds rather than detracts from the allure of their otherness and exoticism. Autant en Emporte le Vent (Gone With The Wind) another cultural juxtaposition challenges the viewer. Against a deep blue background are rows of red and orange figures. Too abstract to be positively identified as kneeling or sitting, they nevertheless recall rows of Buddhas in temples, not only by their numbers and arrangement, but because the red and orange recall the colours of Buddhist robes. Yet the title of the picture, with its filmic reference, also suggests a lost world and a culture that was almost wiped out. In La Danse (The Dance), a Khmer classical ballet dancer is shown in a typical pose, yet the picture is not at all Asian. It resembles the paintings of the dancers done by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, when King Sisowat brought his retinue of dancers and musicians to Paris for the Great Exhibition at the beginning of the 20th century. Le Guerrier (The Warrior) is another Angkorian reference, an astonishingly virile image of a male figure in bejewelled belt slung low on the hips, his legs bent as if in a movement of Khmer ballet, yet his arms raised in a pose of aggression. Once more, identity is both hidden and revealed, gleaned through cultural references while the face is almost blank, with only a few brushstrokes to suggest eyebrows, nose and mouth.
Nhean's unique artistic talent has resulted in a succession of solo and joint exhibitions in France, Austria and the USA. Her latest project is to promote the restoration of the Cambodian Pavilion at the City International University in Paris. Inaugurated in 1957, the Cambodian Pavilion is one of 37 student residences at the university. Following the catastrophic political events in Cambodia, it was closed in January 1973. The project is supported by Unesco, the Cambodian Embassy and the City International University. She will hold an exhibition of her work at the Hotel du Rond Point des Champs Elysee in 2003 to raise funds for the renovation, and to highlight, at the same time, the much needed restoration at the Museum of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and at Angkor. As yet, relatively little contemporary art is emerging from Cambodia, as it recovers not only from the violence within it but from its isolation from the rest of the world. This makes Nhean's work, exposed as it has been to cross-cultural influences, all the more dynamic. In her art, as in her life, Nhean has acknowledged her past but embraced the future. 'I confronted the horrors, but without being destroyed, she concluded. 'It is through art that one is saved.'

Plans afoot to ease congestion

As I mentioned recently, efforts are now being made to control visitors to Angkor Wat before the sheer volume of tourists entering the complex causes major headaches and devalues the visit for many people. I was so so lucky to go to Angkor Wat for the first time in 1994 when aside from some local visitors, I was the only western tourist I saw at the temple for the sunrise and just one of a handful on my return visit later that afternoon. Fantastic memories and an experience I will never forget.

New tourist route could be answer to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat woes - by Stéphane Hanot TravelVideo.TV

As tourism in Angkor Wat continues to grow unabated, a new tourist route could alleviate some of the tourist pressure. For many years now, the Cambodian government has been looking for solutions to take some of the pressure out of the site. As the first seven months of 2007 brought 442,000 visitors to Siem Reap International Airport, a growth of 38 percent, Angkor Wat is poised to continue to take a beating from the hordes of tourists that visit the world heritage site. The Apsara Authority, which manages the Angkor Wat complex, recently introduced new paths with tourists taking different routes to enter and exit the temple. The objective now is to make certain that tourists do not flock to the site at the same time. The idea is to create circuits around Angkor to spread the number of visitors and take some of the pressure faced by Angkor top attractions.

“As France and Japan are sharing the presidency of the Permanent Secretary for the International Coordinating Committee for the Preservation and Development of the Historical Site of Angkor under the UNESCO, we work closely with Cambodian authorities to find the best solutions to accommodate tourism requirements,” explained Jean-François Desmazieres, French Ambassador in Cambodia. “The target is not to kill the hen with the golden eggs but at the same to preserve the authenticity of Angkor.”Ev en if the committee plays only a consultative role, it has been able to avoid the development of the most incredible projects such as a subway to the temples. According to the Ambassador Desmazieres, Angkor Wat can indeed accommodate a fairly high number of tourists every day. “During the time of Khmer Kings, they were already thousand of visitors per day to Angkor Wat temples,” he said.

The committee has also been working with Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism for the creation of new tourist sightseeing such as traditional handicraft or silk producing villages. The most ambitious project is the development of a new tourist road, which would link Angkor Wat to the spectacular Preah Vihear temple, via the old city of Koh Ker where many temples can still be visited. Discussions will take place about tourism development from October 26 to 28, when the Coordinating Committee meets. In another development, Cambodia’s tourism minister recently signed a joint declaration with tourism ministers from Laos and Vietnam on trilateral cooperation at the meeting in Ho Chi Minh City. The ministers agreed to encourage their national tourism agencies to boost exchange of information and experiences in tourism development and promotion. They also agreed to jointly hold and attend tourism events and tours and cooperate in personnel training. According to published reports, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, under the “three countries – one destination” scheme, will implement measures to boost tourism and cultural activities as well as encourage public-private partnerships with regard to tourism development.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Priceless friendships

Whenever I'm in Kompong Thom I meet up with my best pal, Sokhom and his family, as well as a variety of neighbours and friends. My last trip was no exception and the following photographs are of Sokhom, his wife Sroy and their bright-as-a-button daughter Kunthea, who repeatedly gets the top student award at her high school. If anyone deserves the chance of a scholarship to study at one of the country's leading universities, its Kunthea. She is a model student and never stops trying to learn, whether its in improving her English language or trying to find out more about the world outside Cambodia. Her ideal job would be a doctor though she is realistic enough to know that the cost is prohibitive but she is prepared to study hard and achieve as much as she can despite the family's limited resources. The second photo is of their next door neighbour Un, mother of four and who runs a small eatery in the compact space in front of Sokhom's tiny wooden home. She has a wicked sense of humour and is always smiling and joking whenever I'm in her company, usually at my expense! Its not unknown for her to chase after me with a pair of red-hot tongs straight from the open brazier. Friends like these are priceless.

Dengue takes heavy toll

Ek Madra for Reuters has reported on the severe problem with dengue, a mosquito-borne disease, which has taken a heavy toll on Cambodia's young this year. More than 350 children have been killed this year by dengue - which causes fever, headaches and agonising muscle and joint pains - in what is believed to be one of the worst outbreaks in years. Read his story here.
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A documentary film that follows the fortunes of two people as they take on the world including a visit to Mondulkiri in Cambodia was shown on BBC2 in the UK last weekend. Here's a review of the programme and a link to find out more about Ride Aid.

Dedicated Daz's Marathon Effort
Frank & Daz Take On The World
A tale of friendship, the human spirit and overcoming hugely difficult odds - all laced with Aussie humour (some of it with a Scottish accent). What's it about? Let the man it's about explain." I am the only person in the world with my level of cerebral palsy to run marathons," says Daryl Howe. Daz, as he is affectionately known, was told he would never walk but, having confounded the experts, his aim is to run the big one - the New York marathon. Originally from Ayr, but now resident in Australia, Frank Surgener has his own marathon in mind - building a school in a Cambodia still suffering the after effects of the devastating and brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
The one-hour film, by Rymer Childs, follows the two friends from their training runs in Western Australia to the skyscraper loaded streets of New York. An agent in sporting goods Frank,who helps Daz train, is full of praise for his friend's prowess as an athlete but is also conscious of his condition.
"Every time he pushes that body to the limit, it is a venture into the unknown." From the 'mean streets', the film then follows the two friends to the dusty backroads of Cambodia and Frank's efforts to raise funds through his charity Ride Aid. Director Judy Rymer says: "They are, as Frank says, 'men with a mission'. They support each other, challenge each other, laugh a lot - and they like a beer. "Bringing together the extremely different worlds of New York and Mondulkiri, in Cambodia, through the lens of a powerful friendship has been a privilege which I hope we can share with our audience through this film." Daz adds:"Frank inspires me by what he does and I hope I inspire him."
To find out more about the invaluable work of Ride Aid, click here.
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Bobby Charlton, yes the Bobby Charlton paid a visit to Cambodia last month and this month, he's 70 years old. Happy birthday Sir Bobby. Read more about this amazing British footballer who now spends some of his time travelling the world as a roving sports ambassador here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Angkor's New Museum

The brand new Angkor National Museum
The Angkor National Museum (ANM) now looks set to open its doors in December. After a few false starts the building is looking almost complete and exhibits are soon to be shipped into the new museum from the nearby Angkor Conservation Depot and from the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Also included in the ultramodern new building, which you can see on the main road to the Angkor complex, will be a cultural mall which will house restaurants, shops, a library and a spa. Its set to cost foreign tourists $12 to enter, $3 for Khmers, and the museum's aim will be to show visitors Khmer cultural heritage through various collections that will be displayed in eight galleries. The galleries will be: 1,000 Buddha Images; Pre-Angkor Khmer Civilization; Pre-Angkor Religion & Beliefs; The Great Khmer Kings; Angkor Wat; Angkor Thom; Story from Stones; Ancient Costume. It will house an 80-seat theatre where visitors can watch multimedia presentations featuring stories about the Khmer empire, while audio tour guides will be available on request in various languages such as Korean, Japanese, French, Chinese and Thai. Find out more at the ANM website.

Phanna's successful move

Phanna and the author enjoying a reunion.
On my last visit to Cambodia in January, I met up with a long-time friend of mine, Phanna. I met him initially, way back in 2000 when I visited Kratie for the first time. Then, he was an 18 year old who dreamt of becoming a lawyer. In between then and now, Phanna has moved to Phnom Penh to study International Relations and Law, as well as taking charge of the very popular backpacker haunt, #10 Lakeside Guesthouse at the Boeung Kak lake. He speaks fluent English and as a youngster he was a perfect guide for his hometown and the endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins. Nowadays, Phanna, whose full name is Sophanna Chheang, tells me that #10 Lakeside is the best spot for the backpacker fraternity at the lake and judging by its popularity when I visited him there, he's spot on. The rooms are between $2-5, with a bar and restaurant serving excellent food, and a beautiful sunset view across the lake, which should not be missed. In addition, a percentage of all the food and drink monies go to a local children's fund. Phanna is not resting on his laurels though, he has lots of irons in lots of fires and is switched on to what the tourist fraternity want and need. Fortunately, he's retained his boyish charm and sense of humour that served him so well as a teenager living in Kratie, despite his introduction to the hard and ruthless world of business in Phnom Penh.

Great friends & grub at The Rising Sun

Two of The Rising Sun's finest: Samnang and Thida, alongwith the author.
Whenever I'm in Phnom Penh, the bustling capital of Cambodia, I always, without fail, pop into The Rising Sun pub - located just around the corner from the popular FCC bar & restaurant on Street 178 - to meet my friends behind the bar and sample the delicious pub grub on offer. Its quality food at low prices and definitely worth a visit next time you're wandering along the riverfront area of PP. My personal fave is jacket potato with baked beans and cheese - takes me back to the green fields of Blighty as soon as I smell it being cooked. Samnang has worked behind the bar for a few years now, so we've become firm friends and she's usually on duty in the afternoons & evenings, alongside Thida, a newer recruit but just as friendly. Its a great little place and as I find all over Cambodia, its the people that make it so, though the food helps too.

Ta Prohm gets the vote

Some of the greatest travel experts in Britain are spilling the beans on their best kept travel secrets in The Observer online here. William Dalrymple chose Ta Prohm as his best kept secret - though its hardly a secret is it! Meanwhile, the Telegraph newspaper in the UK carried a story from broadcaster Mariella Frostrup who gives her tuppenceworth on Angkor Wat.

Ta Prohm
Hidden deep in a jungle overrun by parrots, cicadas and banyan trees is a magical 12th-century temple. Writer William Dalrymple journeys into the heart of medieval Cambodia.

I know nowhere more secretive, more lost-in-the-forest, or more mysteriously, darkly lovely than the Khmer temple complex of Ta Prohm, a few miles' hike into the jungle from Angkor Wat. Angkor itself is one of the great ruins of the world; but surrounded as it is now by grass and parkland and a moated lake, it feels magnificently grand, like a Cambodian Blenheim or a Khmer Castle Howard; and by necessity, given its fame, it is attended by ticket offices and little cabins selling postcards and guidebooks and fizzy drinks. Ta Prohm, by contrast, is hidden deep in the jungle, and is still wildly, magnificently, hopelessly overgrown - a Sleeping Beauty of a temple complex, tangled in a thick lattice of aerial roots and creepers.

I visited with my family last autumn during the kids' half-term, and we stayed in the King of Cambodia's old guest house there, now the understatedly stylish Amansara Hotel. Things got off to a good start when we were met at Siem Reap airfield by King Sihanouk's old pre-war Mercedes limousine which Amansara had sent to meet us. So unusually gentle, peaceful and friendly were the Cambodians we met - the smiling schoolchildren and the beautiful village women on their way to market - that my children simply refused to believe the stories I tried to tell them of the old days of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. Only when we visited the Siem Reap crocodile farm did they really begin to understand the horrors that this country so recently underwent. The Khmer Rouge had used the farm as an execution ground, throwing their bound prisoners to the crocs, and the old ones - evil looking things - still retain their taste for human flesh. When my small children crossed the bridge over the pens from which captives were once thrown, they were greeted by a ricochet of hopefully snapping jaws. Ta Prohm was a world away from these dark associations. To get there we trekked through thick monsoon-green jungle for an hour, as the children saw huge centipedes, squawking parrots, cicadas as loud as car alarms, hooting geckos and, best of all, a green poisonous snake hunting a lizard, one of the highlights of the trip for them. But it was the temple which made the biggest impact on me.

It was late evening by the time we finally got there, and the sun was setting. Suddenly, out of the trees, a mountain of masonry rose in successive ranges from the jungle - a great tumbling scree of plinths and capitals, octagonal pillars and lotus jambs. Trees spiralled out of the barrel vaults of the shingled temple roofs like the flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral; branches knotted over Sanskrit inscriptions, before curving around the bas reliefs of lions and elephants, gods and goldlings, sprites and tree spirits. Snake-like tendrils of pepper vines fingered their way through window frames and up door jambs. Cracked lintels covered in mosses and bright lichens were supported by the roots of 1,000-year-old banyan trees, which wrapped their way over broken arcades, coiling in spirals like the tail of some slumbering guardian dragon. Roots like fused spiders' webs gripped fallen finials and crumbling friezes of bare-breasted dancing girls in girdles and anklets, spear-holding warriors in war chariots, and long-haired, cross-legged meditating sages. As the shadows lengthened, we wandered through terraces and overgrown galleries, narrow corridors and dark staircases, courtyard after courtyard, the sculptures gradually losing their definition, crumbling into shadows of dusk.

Darkness fell, and it was by the light of a torch that we saw the eeriest sight of all: the 40ft-high face of the temple's 12th-century founder, Jayavarman VII, impressed into the monsoon-stained ashlar of one of the temple spires. He looked out into the night, with his full lips and firm chin, broad nose and prominent forehead, his eyes closed in meditation, expression impassive but powerful, pensive and philosophical, both monk and ruler, enlightened incarnation and megalomaniac monarch. The fireflies danced around us, the nightbirds screeched from the ruins, and the frogs croaked. A long walk back lay ahead; but we all knew we would never, ever forget this place.
Note: William Dalrymple's most recent book, The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, recently won the Duff Cooper Prize. The World Monuments Fund (wmf.org.uk) has played a vital role in the restoration of Angkor for almost 20 years and is currently developing an interpretation centre at the temple of Preah Khan.

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Mariella Frostrup's heaven on earth
The broadcaster doesn't normally advocate spending hours walking around old buildings - but makes an exception for the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

The most extraordinary place I've visited is the 12th-century temple complex at Angkor Wat, completely inaccessible during Cambodia's troubled past but very easy to get to now - it's just an hour's flight from Bangkok. The temples of Angkor are quite simply remarkable. I'm no great advocate of wandering around old buildings - I'm fine for about an hour but then I get a bit bored - but for Angkor Wat I make an exception. The main temple is like a mini-Versailles and there's another one you have to visit very early in the morning because the sun lights up the many Buddhas' faces at dawn - it's one of the most spectacular things you'll ever see. Then there's a temple where the trees seem to have grown out of the walls, one of many beautifully strange sights here. If you go, be sure to make an early start - it's worth it, just to see the complex in all its glory. It's just the most remarkable place.
Photo: copyright of Tim Brouwer
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