Friday, October 31, 2008

Look-alikey 2

Continuing on the royalty linked to Bun Heang Ung theme, here's another couple of look-alikes. This time its Prince Charles, the future King of England and well-known for his large ears, and yours truly, in a cartoon drawn by Bun Heang Ung. I'm actually well known for my very small ears (and big nose) but as soon as I saw this cartoon I thought of Prince Charles, so I had to post it. I'll leave you to work out which one the cartoon figure is. I can confirm however, that I will not be playing the role of Charles in the forthcoming film of his life - I didn't make it through the auditions.


Prasat Chrey or N18 at Sambor Prei Kuk - host to a spreading strangler fig
One of the most evocative temples at Sambor Prei Kuk is N18, also known as Prasat Chrey, which is on the opposite side of the main road into the complex from the northern group of temples that surround Prasat Sambor. The sight of the brick-built 7th century structure being literally squeezed to death by the strangler fig tree that embraces it and sprouts high above its eastern entrance, makes for a great photo composition. The strangler fig is known for its seeds which are often bird-dispersed and which germinate in crevices, growing their roots downwards and enveloping the host, in this case a brick tower, while growing upwards to reach into the sunlight above the forest canopy. There are over 900 species of fig tree, or Ficus, around the world, and it's another member of the fig tree family, the banyan, which is famous for its roots that engulf the Angkor temple of Ta Prohm. Prasat Chrey, in addition to its tree overcoat also has an inscribed doorway in ancient Khmer script and false doors with their own version of a flying palace, but minus the royalty looking out. You'd be a fool to miss this picture on your visit to Sambor Prei Kuk.
The eastern doorway at Prasat Chrey
Ancient Khmer script on the doorjamb of the entranceway to Prasat Chrey
This is the false door and stone carving on the north wall of Prasat Chrey
The northern and western walls of Prasat Chrey can't escape the firm embrace
Up close and personal with the Ficus of Prasat Chrey
This is the southern view of Prasat Chrey and its photogenic overcoat
I didn't want to hang around too long in case I was next on the strangler fig's menu


I hadn't noticed it before today, but there's a real look-alikey resemblance between my favourite cartoonist and animator Bun Heang Ung, who lives in Australia and posts his cartoons, often with a sharp political bite under the name Sacrava, and his Royal Highness, King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia. I'm sure Bun doesn't try to make a living posing as the King at public events but Sihamoni, who has acted in his father's films in the past, could play the part of Bun in a film version of his biography, The Murderous Revolution. Now that would be a turn up for the books! If you are not sure of who is who, check the artist's pen behind the ear and you won't go far wrong.


A quick round-up of a few items. Last night's Cambodiana documentary at Meta House was a mite disappointing to be honest. It was a simple camera follows-three-naturalists into the Cardamom Mountains and besides the camera shake, the quality of the camera itself was a million light years away from the Nat Geo standard we've come to expect these days. Mind you, if I'd been trekking in the Cardamoms for 2 weeks, my hands would be shaking too. We saw a few birds and other creatures but nothing to write home about, unless you are a twitcher. Tonight should be better, a docu on travelling through Burma.
Lots of media coverage yesterday for the forthcoming opera Where Elephants Weep, an East-meets-West blend of traditional Cambodian music and Western rock that is modeled on Tum Teav, the Khmer version of Romeo and Juliet. The show will have a 10-day run next month in Phnom Penh and is the brainchild of Cambodian Living Arts. Watch out for this groundbreaking production starting on 28 November. The 4th annual Angkor Photography Festival begins on 23 November and I hear Phnom Penh will have one as well this year, organized by the French, so I won't even be able to read their promo leaflets! Last night the Phnom Penh International Music Festival began but it's a Germany-inspired classical Baroque music series of concerts so holds precisely zero interest for me.
Of considerably more interest is the Cambodian government's very vocal desire to sign the December treaty to ban cluster bombs and munitions around the globe. These silent killers still claim victims in eastern Cambodia in Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces, usually children who find and play with the bomblets or villagers who use the ordnance for scrap metal. This was the subject of the Skye Fitzgerald film, Bombhunters, which you can find out more about here.

I spotted a story in about three of the African players who turn out for my footy team in Phnom Penh, Bayon Wanderers. There's a fair few Africans over here in Cambodia, plying their trade with both professional and amateur football teams, and a few of the lucky ones are making a tiny bit of money with the sponsored teams, hoping that they will get spotted and snapped up by the larger professional sides in other Asian countries. The story of Daniel, Baba and John is a common one. They were given promises by African agents in their own country of Cameroon, that there were riches to be had playing pro football in Thailand. Duped into parting with agent's fees and making the trip to Thailand, the promises were never fulfilled and they had to move on, Cambodia being their next destination. Here they are keeping fit playing with Bayon but they really need to make some money for themselves and their families back home, so they will be willing to give their talents to the highest bidder, in fact, any bidder. The story in French is here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Uniquely Sambor

Tower N7 in the northern group, known as the Prasat Sambor group, has a wealth of interesting and quite well preserved flying palaces
The flying palaces of Sambor Prei Kuk deserve a few more pictures to highlight this unique decorative feature of the brick-built temples of the 7th century. So Sokuntheary, a Khmer-born archaeologist who has worked extensively at Angkor and Sambor as part of a team from Japan's Waseda University, joined our recent visit to Sambor and told us that 288 separate temples had been identified in the area, ranging from the larger structures such as Prasat Tao to small mounds of broken bricks. Under the guidance of Waseda, more excavations are currently taking place and new discoveries are being made to further enhance the reservoir of knowledge about this former capital city of the Chenla empire. The central characters in the palaces are likely deities or royalty and it looks to me that a male figure is usually the central character, flanked by two female attendants or wives though the passage of time has weathered the brick carving to make it difficult for my untrained eye to see. At the foot of the palaces are mythical creatures supporting the palace facade. All very unique though I have seen versions of flying palaces at other locations such at Phnom Bayang close to the Vietnam border in southern Cambodia.
Three deities in the central part of the flying palace, looking out of windows at N7
Four faces surround a central figure in the arched upper register of this flying palace on N7
Winged horses and mythical figures adorn the lower register of the flying palace at N7
A flying palace on the wall of tower N15 has deities and outward-facing makaras on the upper register
Three of five female figures that are shown in full-length on the middle register of tower N15
On the upper register of N15 it looks like a king is surrounded by attendants and outward-facing sea monsters, which are also found on lintels of that era

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Flying Palaces

The brick tower S10 in the southern group at Sambor Prei Kuk, showing the large flying palaces on its outside walls
Inside one of the flying palaces are deities and royal figures looking out
Flying Palaces are essentially a miniature facade of a palace with deities or royal figures looking out of the windows and doors of the building. These are most commonly found on the external walls of the brick temples at Sambor Prei Kuk, and other temples of that era - the 7th century - and were all once covered in white stucco and most probably painted. The flying palaces provide a wonderful decorative feature on the individual brick towers at Sambor in addition to the usual decoration such as lintels and colonettes. Due to the ravages of time, many of Sambor's flying palaces have not fared so well and the carving is indistinct, worn and weathered but they do make for a unique and quite colourful addition to the towers of this lovely forested setting, 30kms north of Kompong Thom. The friezes of winged horses and other animals and figures at the base of the flying palaces are another feature well worth a closer inspection next time you visit Sambor Prei Kuk. My time was very short during last week's visit, so my photos of the flying palaces are few. Next time I'm there, I hope to spend a few days visiting all of the 250+ temples that dot the landscape in that area.
This flying palace at Prasat Trapeang Ropeak still retains its original stucco covering
A flying palace with figures inside and carvings below at the northern group tower N7A frieze of winged horses and a Garuda style figure on tower N7
Fantasy mythological figures adorn the bottom of the flying palaces in the northern group
More fantasy figures, both human and animal in appearance
A flying palace on tower N15, near to the Isanborei craft hut at Sambor Prei Kuk


I haven't ventured into the Cardamom Mountains of south-west Cambodia as of now. A lack of temples and a lack of time have been the major obstacles to-date. Oh, and I don't like trips where I will be completely knackered in a short space of time, and getting around the interior of the Cardamoms sounds like hard work. There's a couple of projects on-going there at the moment, one at Chi Phat through Wildlife Alliance and another at Thma Bang through Conservation International. I hear that the Chi Phat project is putting on 4-day trips for private sector tour companies and the like in late November and December, so hopefully I will have the chance to find out a lot more, on the ground as it were. Aside from that, the Cardamoms are pretty wild and it's that veil of mystery that will be revealed at Meta House tomorrow night (Thursday 30th) when the debut documentary by Estelle des Dorides, Cambodiana, will take us on a 52-minute trip to the highlands, with Dorides present at the screening for a Q&A session afterwards. The Cardamoms is home to 14 endangered and threatened mammal species including Asian elephant, Indochinese Tiger, Malayan sun bear, pileated gibbon, Irrawaddy and humpback dolphins, and half of Cambodia's bird species. Roof-top start time, 8pm. On Friday at Meta House, there will be a showing of Burma All Inclusive, a 2007 film by Austrian filmmaker Roland Wehap who describes a fictive tourist journey through Burma, which should be interesting.

Random Thom

It wouldn't be me if I didn't include a Neak Ta figure, this one is from Wat Chey Sampeau
Here are some random pictures from my visit to Kompong Thom last week. I still have a flurry of photos from Sambor Prei Kuk to post here in the next day or two. Quite often on my travels I take far too many pictures of inanimate objects like temples, carvings and suchlike, and often forget to take enough people shots. It's the people of Cambodia that make the country so appealing - I must keep telling myself not to forget them going about their daily activities. One photographer who has this off to a fine art is Steve Goodman. Visit his blog to see what I mean. Anyway, enough babble, here's the pictures.
An early morning look at the main bridge, actually there are two of them, in Kompong Thom city that crosses the Stung Sen River
This husband and wife team take their oxen for a walk in Atsu village
A krama silk weaver of Atsu village in full flow
This woman is spinning a yarn - I didn't know whether to believe her!
A seima stone at Wat Chey Sampeau showing the goddess with the long hair, known variously as Preah Thorani or Preah Neang Kong Hing
Mr Vanny, my ox-cart driver at Sambor Prei Kuk
This black statue of a child, with bright red lips, is much revered at the summit of Phnom Santuk

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Off to a flying start

The Mekong Discovery Trail guidebook was officially launched yesterday afternoon at the Cambodiana Hotel. Private sector tour operators and the like were invited alongwith the good and the great from the Ministry of Tourism, presided over by HE So Mara, the Secretary of State. This was my first official function of this nature and once the speeches and formalities were done - the launch appeared later on the local tv news - we got to see the guidebooks. The initial print run is 5,000 and like their website, it's a thoroughly professional production. The folks at the Dutch NGO SNV have been behind this project and they have certainly given it a good base from which to grow. The Mekong River has been under-utilised as a feature in Cambodia's appeal to visitors with the dolphins at Kratie capturing the headlines to-date. The Trail will shift that focus onto an eco-tourism footing that will couple the attraction of the dolphins with a series of other activities to appeal to foreign and domestic tourists alike. These include mountainbike tours, home and pagoda stays, birdwatching, cultural performances, island hopping, boat tours, horse-cart rides and more. It's time that Cambodia made better use of the extensive options the Mekong River provides and this is a good place to start. It's still in its infancy as far as infrastructure and bedding down the community services on offer are concerned, but the opportunity now exists to make it work as long as the variety of options is appealing enough to tourists and the marketing machine ensures that they are made aware of the Trail. I urge you to visit the Trail's website which like the guidebook is very professionally produced and informative.
HE So Mara (centre), Secretary of State for Tourism, presides over the official launch of the guidebook

Out of action

The author in action - though this picture was taken a few weeks ago (courtesy Nick King)
Still on the football theme, I've been conspicuously absent from the Bayon Wanderers team line-up in recent weeks due to an eye infection that is refusing to clear up completely. Its been incredibly frustrating as my fitness was getting better after years (seven to be precise) of inactivity only for the eye problem to put me back on the sidelines. It also means I won't be able to take part in the Hun Sen cup competition where our team might be paired with one of the top club sides in the country and games played at the Olympic Stadium. What a bummer. I've been back to the doctors again this week for stronger medicine and I hope that will do the trick. In the meantime, the Bayon team will no doubt soldier on without me. There is a constant influx, and outflux, of players so I know I won't be missed. In fact I've been seriously disappointed with my own form whilst playing for the team, but I suppose that's understandable after such a lengthy lay-off, and I must remember that I am no longer a spring-chicken, far from it. I am not happy unless I'm scoring goals, so my rather pathetic tally of a few goals hasn't helped either. Anyway enough of feeling sorry for myself... onwards and upwards!

Lots of media coverage for the Amazing Race television series visit to Cambodia, that was screened this week. Not a programme that Hanuman Films got involved with as it was co-ordinated by a company from Vietnam. The feedback suggests that the programme suffered as a result, with complaints about the waste of such a venue as Angkor Wat with limp tasks for the teams to complete. In addition, I hear that Sokha Helicopters got wrapped over the knuckles by the authorities for flying over the temples and using a tracking shot down the causeway of Angkor Wat. A ban on flights around Angkor is the result.
Also there's an end to elephant rides to the top of Phnom Bakheng. Angkor Village hotel operate the elephants that take tourists to the top of the hill for the overwhelmingly popular sunset but with a 4pm ban on visitors - in an attempt to negate the impact of hordes of tourists clambering over the temple every day - seemingly about to take effect, they've called time on the elephant rides. However, they will still operate them in and around the Angkor Park. On the film front, Hanuman have recently completed the ground servicing for the immensely popular Top Gear tv series from the UK, with the three presenters travelling through Vietnam on motorbikes. Apparently it'll be a programme to remember. More on this later.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Match killer

Match killer Khim Borey - by Jean Loncle, Cambodge Soir Hebo
This is how much it means to Khim Borey, the Cambodian striker who netted the winning goal against Brunei on Saturday that took his country through to the Asean football championships to be held in December. The Armed Forces player, who was singled out by Cambodia Head Coach Prak Sovvanara as the "match killer" took his tally to three goals in the recent 5-team tournament, bettered only by his teammate Sam El Nasa, who netted four times. For once, thanks to Borey's winner, Cambodia will be battling it out with the big boys of Asean football, with Thailand and Singapore acknowedged as the top pairing. Sovvanara, who took over the coaching role after a series of changes at the top and steered the team through a rocky preparation for the tournament but onto ultimate success, said of Borey; "I didn't think he could play so professionally like he has this year because he was in very poor form last year. He was really bad, and now he has improved a lot. Borey himself, summed up his feelings after their success; "I am very happy to come out of this tournament a winner and I profoundly thank my coach and teammates, who have tried their best for the pride of our country." Both Khim Borey and Sam El Nasa will need to be firing on all cylinders come the team's 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup championship opener against highly-fancied Singapore on 5 December. Come on Cambodia!
Cambodia's 3 best players of the tournament. LtoR: Khim Borey (7), Chan Rithy (11) and Sam El Nasa (16) - by May Kunmakara, Phnom Penh Post
For more of Jean Loncle's Cambodia photography, click here.

Unsolved mystery?

A mystery face in a sandstone niche at S2 temple in Prasat Yeay Poeun group
These mysterious faces can be found inside the Mandapa entrance tower that stands in front of the central tower of Prasat Yeay Poeun, the Southern grouping of temples of the Sambor Prei Kuk complex in Kompong Thom province. Inside the tower is a sandstone canopy that experts have suggested is derived from Indian inspiration, Champa or even the Greeks during the Hellenistic period and which contains a dozen of these richly carved faces, these were the better preserved examples. The square canopy is also carved with floral and vegetal designs on all sides. The inside of the tower is difficult to access now after a collapse of the shrine in August 2006 because of heavy rain. An inscription at the site suggests this temple was dedicated to Shiva and an image of Nandi, the bull, may've been placed under the canopy. Other examples of small faces in niches, but without the tight-curly hair and moustache, can be found at the Asram Moha Issey at Sambor and at Phnom Hanchey. The faces certainly do not look Khmer and in a certain light remind me of the Three Musketeers!
Regular readers of this blog will recognise d'Artagnan from The Three Musketeers!
The faces alternate between looking left or right, but are definitely non-Khmer
This face appears to be wearing a crown above its curly hair
Greek, Champa, Indian, French? - anyone know the answer?
This face in a niche is less distinct than the others
Another face with a crown and a large bushy moustache and eyebrows
The floral designs on the sides of the canopy at Prasat Yeay Poeun

Sambor style

A typical Sambor Prei Kuk style lintel from the site's storage area
Indra on his mount airavata on the central medallion on the above Sambor Prei Kuk lintel
I have talked before about the typical style of lintel that showcases the pre-Angkorean, Sambor Prei Kuk era from the 7th century (around 610-650 under Kings Isanavarman I and Bhavavarman II) with its makara monsters, four arches and three medallions. A quick look in the storage area near the northern group of monuments at Sambor Prei Kuk reveals a couple of perfect examples. In the lintel above, Indra on his mount airavata sits in the central medallion though the figures above the makaras are a bit worn. The two prominent architectural styles following the Sambor Prei Kuk era were the Prei Kmeng and Kompong Preah styles that are notable for their absence of inward-facing makaras and medallions and the appearance of distinct garlands of vegetation and leafy pendants. And that's exactly what you can see on the central tower of the Prasat Tao group at Sambor. The four lintels still in situ, which is rare at Sambor, show a style more in line with the Kompong Preah characteristics, though its widely known that Sambor Prei Kuk was a complex that was added to and altered over a number of centuries, so a mixture of styles isn't unusual. Three of the lintels show a distinctive set of jeweled garlands with pendants, almost like a coat of arms, of vegetal motifs. There are no mythical figures, monsters or gods to be found on these lintels. The final examples I photographed on last week's trip to the temple complex were three lintels from Prasat Yeay Poeun, believed to be constructed at the beginning of the 7th century and though badly worn, two of them are definitely Sambor Prei Kuk style though the third looks more atuned to the Prei Kmeng style with large figures at each end and a narrative scene below the arch. My visit to Sambor was a short one, I wasn't able to visit many of the individual temples as there are hundreds so I'm sure there's more lintels to be spotted in situ, but at least the examples shown here give you a window into the Sambor style.
The rather plain and unadorned lintel above the east door to Prasat Tao
The southern door of Prasat Tao displays a lintel in the Kompong Preah style
More of the Kompong Preah style on the western door of Prasat Tao
The leafy pendants and wreaths denote the pre-Angkorean styles on the northern door of Prasat Tao
More Sambor Prei Kuk style lintels, though badly worn, at Prasat Yeay PoeunAnother worn and weathered lintel at Prasat Yeay PoeunI think this is more Prei Kmeng style above the eastern door of Prasat Yeay Poeun
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