Sunday, March 30, 2008

Diverse attractions at Phnom Pros

Some of the victims remains at the Phnom Pros genocide memorial
The newly-erected genocide memorial stupa at Phnom Pros
One of the larger burial pits at Phnom Pros, now full of water
Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei are extremely popular sites just a few kilometres west of Kompong Cham city. The two hills house a number of reasons to attract visitors, mostly Khmer of course, but of interest to foreigners too. Aside from the boisterous monkeys and the pagodas on each hill - coupled with the legend of how the hills were constructed and how the women outwitted the men blah, blah, blah - there is also a newly constructed genocide memorial one hundred metres from Phnom Pros, a series of colourful Buddhist statues and a library topped off by the giant faces often seen at pagodas across the country. Phnom Pros - the man pagoda - is the easier of the two pagodas to visit, whilst Phnom Srei has better views though has many more steps to climb. The genocide memorial at the site was constructed with donations from wealthy Khmers including the Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was born in the province, and contains skulls and bones of some of the 10,000 people believed to have been killed at the prison site and buried in fifty large and many more smaller burial pits nearby. Some remains were transferred to Wat Nokor, on the outskirts of the city, whilst the rest were kept in a kitchen used by the monks before the current stupa was erected. Witnesses tell of trees near the burial pits where babies were smashed against the tree trunk, whilst many others suffered lethal injections at the makeshift hospital there. At Wat Phnom Pros there are a couple of original sandstone lions with erect torso and stunted hindquarters, some seima stones and a large stupa, recently painted, that dates from the early part of the last century.
Wat Phnom Pros attracts a lot of visitors. The newly painted stupa on the left is the oldest part of the pagoda
2 original sandstone lions from Angkorean times in situ at Wat Phnom ProsThis serene Buddha face sits atop the library at Wat Phnom Pros

One of the Preah Theat's

The rubble and remains of Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay
Local farmers are usually the only visitors to Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay
Talking of uncovering ancient prasats, which I hope to do lots of next week, I forgot to show you a ruined temple or two that I came across during my recent visit to Kompong Cham. In fact I have realised that I have a few more pictures to show you from my Kompong Cham trip, so let's start with one of the many Preat Theat temples of Kompong Cham. I counted about ten separate sites where Preah Theat is included in the name of the archaeological sites located a few kilometres east of Kompong Cham city itself. This one is Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay and is in essence one of many such ruined temple sites to be found in the province. To everyone except the real temple boffins this is a pile of stones in a field. And they are right, though in its heyday the temple would've housed intricate sandstone carvings and a shrine to a Hindu or Buddhist deity. This site is located a few kilometres east of the small town of Suong and about a kilometre into the rice paddies and scrub behind the pagoda of Wat Pech Sa Ponnareay. Half a dozen youngsters on bicycles led me into the rice fields and to the ruined laterite prasat, with a large hole in the center where scavengers had dug deep in search of buried treasure, a common feature at many of the outlying temple sites across the country. Aside from the large blocks of laterite that formed two walls, and many more on the floor, there was little else to see, no carvings whatsoever and even the two large laterite-lined pools about 300 metres away were devoid of water. If you go to Kompong Cham on the hunt for temple sites, I can't recommend highly enough the new province maps produced by The Ministry of Culture & EFEO. They will keep you occupied for weeks.
One of two dry laterite-lined pools near to Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay
On the way to Suong, I called into the massive Chup rubber plantation compound for a look around as I headed for what I thought was a genocide memorial at Wat Preah Vihear Tontim. Unfortunately, I was thwarted as the laymen at the temple told me that the memorial and the victims remains were removed in the late '80s, whilst the laterite prasat that was formerly located next to the pagoda's vihara was completely destroyed decades ago. Just a few laterite blocks remained in the undergrowth. More disappointment followed when they told me that another genocide memorial at Chamkar Svay, the site of a Khmer Rouge prison and burial ground a few kilometres away, had also been destroyed. In addition, the area was known for a spate of moto robberies in recent months so I decided to skip it and carry onto visit Kok Preah Theat Ponnareay. You have to be prepared for some disappointments along the way in Cambodia and this day was certainly not one of my most successful.
The main vihara at Wat Preah Vihear Tontim

Into the unknown

My blog posts will lessen considerably next week as from tomorrow I'm heading off for another adventure, this time into the heavily-forested and gold-rich area of Phnom Chi in the far eastern corner of Kompong Thom province. Hot on the heels of my Mondulkiri bicycle nightmare, this trip is essentially 'back to my roots' and on the hunt for ancient Angkorean, or even earlier, prasats (temples) with my longtime adventure companion Sokhom and another pal from Kompong Thom, Cristiano. The latter has been working in the province for the last few years and has been documenting all of the archaeological sites he can find, which has already topped no less than 400. This man is a serious temple-hunter. As a result of his enquiries, he's established there's a real possibility of a series of temple sites in the Phnom Chi area that so far haven't been identified or visited by anyone. One site is already known and that's Prasat Trapeang Preus (or Pros), which is three brick edifices in the forest near to Phnom Chi. Jim from the California 2 bar in Phnom Penh has reported on his visit there in the Bayon Pearnik a while ago. We will certainly visit that site but we hope to uncover a few of our own on the way. I know of another large laterite and brick temple group called Banteay Siam a few kilometres from Phnom Chi and the word from villagers nearby is that other sites exist too.

Phnom Chi is better known for its gold deposits and the active goldmining concessions on Phnom Chi mountain itself and in Snang An a few kilometres away. Phnom Chi lies approximately 100 kms east-northeast of Kompong Thom city but we're expecting the road to the area to be no more than a track. We will be going on motos and camping overnight for a few nights, wherever we can find a suitable location. This is temple-hunting at its most basic. Phnom Chi gold has been known about for a long time though all mining activity - effectively it was done by local farmers using a straightforward panning technique - was stopped during the civil war of the '70s and resumed in the '80s despite the area being under Khmer Rouge control. Locals paid taxes to the KR to mine the deposits. After the government sent the army into supervise the area, the miners merely switched the payment of taxes to the military and mining activity has boomed ever since. Independent mining is now banned in the area, the concession has been granted to a locally-owned company, who in turn provide a basic wage of around $2 per day with three meals to the workers who mine the ore in shaft-mining to a depth of fifteen metres. Acid and cyanide is used to extract the gold from the mineral ore though this led to large-scale cyanide poisoning in the area and in nearby Stung Chinit River a few years ago. Malaria is also prevalent in the heavily-forested area, so I'm already asking myself, "why am I going?" The thrill of discovery and to see another remote part of the country are the main attractions, though nothing is guaranteed. My fingers are crossed. If I find a lost city in the jungle, I'll let you know.

Aw shucks....!

I've just got home from a double film-showing at the Meta House, of two Peter Degen films on the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap, produced in the early part of the decade and showing life and livelihoods on the two rivers and the Great Lake. With the prospect of those livelihoods being affected by hydro-dams and more in the countries higher up the Mekong chain, these films could present a picture of life that will dramatically change in the near future. Some great photography though the ineffectual Mekong River Commission seemed to be behind both films, so they were virtual propaganda documentaries.

I was disappointed to see a news report that the Latin pop singer Ricky Martin is in Cambodia, as I was hoping to break that story. I was asked to keep mum for a few days after Ricky arrived in the country a couple of days ago but it seems someone else couldn't wait to spill the beans. Oh well, no big deal, I'll get over it. Ricky, known for his Living La Vida Loca song, is in town to visit projects fighting child trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Nice to see some complimentary remarks by a few bloggers when I did a blog search on my own blog tonight. My thanks to them. Here's what they had to say:
Carl Parkes posted on 15 March, 2008: While this blog may seem obsessed with Thailand, it's only because Thailand seems to consistently produce the most interesting and varied stories within Southeast Asia. Surprisingly, Cambodia is now in the second place, the country that inspires the most offbeat, culturally attractive, and socially challenging stories I find on the net. Indonesia should be second on this list, but it's not really generating stories I feel would be of great interest to the readers of the blog, and that's a pity. Check the blogrolls on the right and you'll see that Thailand has an overwhelming number of blogs or websites that I think are worth visiting or putting in your RSS reader. Not much for Cambodia, but that deficit is made up for by the excellent and consistent posts from Andy Brouwer, who works in the travel industry in Phnom Penh, and so has good reason to wander around the country visiting the more remote locations. He's interested in architecture and old temples (same as me) and speaks enough Khmer to ask the old monks to unlock doors to photograph rarely seen interiors. And his photography is surprisingly good, especially with his flash shots that aren't terribly washed out...something that has always been a problem with my photography. And so, today, I salute Andy Brouwer and his great site about all things Cambodia.

Erik posted the following on 10 December 2007 at Buddhismadjunkt. Andy Brouwer Starts Roaming: It’s always been fun to read Andy's blog - for one thing, he seems incapable of having negative opinions or thoughts. Let me say first off that I don’t always like this: too often in my experience, people with nothing ‘negative’ to say are just in the business of getting along and trying to be liked. But that is clearly (to me, anyway) not the whole of the story with Andy, whose genuine-ness and overwhelmingly obvious love of Cambodia overcomes my suspicious nature. Or maybe it’s just the fact that he shares my love of conscious reggae greats, Steel Pulse, whose Earth Crisis album I found in a public library in Topeka, Kansas, and which changed my life. Since moving to Cambodia (lucky sunavagun), Andy’s been prowling around like only a single man on a mission can do. I’ll readily admit that I’m horribly jealous; and also that I’m enormously grateful for the commentary, the photos, and as always, Andy’s good nature. Not only has he been prowling, but he’s been spending an awful lot of time dealing with my specialty - Cambodian thoughts, ideas, and especially rituals, that might be classified as ‘religious.’ Here he is at the Famed Phnom Baset temple, with the magic monk himself, getting his cell phone blessed, and watching others get splashed with water (a common ceremony called srauch teuk), traipsing around an apparently completed Wat Trai Leak (on the Chruoy Changvar peninsula, I’ve visited many times, but it’s quite a lot further along than I’d imagined possible), adding new genocide memorials to his list of ones visited, and visiting the famed Tampuon cemeteries in Ratanakiri.

Bob Uva wrote on 26 January 2008: The other voice, written not spoken in this case, is that of Andy Brouwer, an expat Brit living in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I was unable to keep up my reading pace through the past week due to this cold, and Andy has a tendency to become extremely prolific in his blog postings over a short period of time. Fortunately, today I have felt well enough to flee the home for a coffee shop and get some uninterrupted reading in. I had over twenty unread entries in Andy's blog going back to December 30th, so I decided to start there. And am I happy I did. The mix of travelogue, history, humor and humanity that Andy weaves in his writings is truly remarkable. My heart was warmed by the pictures of Khmer children he met at temple visits or along the road, then it is wrenched from my chest as I observed the piles of skulls at the genocide memorial at Sala Trapeang Sva. Then the "three sreys" restored my hope and the painted pagoda at Wat Kork Ksang made me yearn to visit. I felt myself being very thankful that I had been introduced to Andy's blog (thanks Kilong) for his light-hearted as well as his serious jaunts around that beautiful country have been a joy to follow. And finally, he has recommended a book that I am looking forward to reading: The Judas Strain by James Rollins. Andy's recommendation mentions that he's a Robert Ludlum fan. I devoured the Bourne series and am looking forward to reading another author of a similar vein.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

How can this happen?

This 11th-century statue in the Baphuon style fetched $2.11 million at Christie's (Photo: Sotheby's)
News just through that the beautiful sculpture of a female deity above in the Baphuon style recently fetched the highest price at auction for any Khmer sculpture, reaching an amazing $2.11 million in a sale at Christie's in New York. Souren Melikian reports for the International Herald Tribune that the Indian & South-East Asian Art sales on March 19 at Sotheby's and March 21 at Christie's took prices to new heights. Just how artifacts of obvious Khmer identity can be sold without their provenance being accurately established is beyond me. I don't know the intricacies of the fine arts world, but these sculptures have almost certainly been misappropriated from Cambodia, yet Cambodia cannot demand their return unless they prove ownership. For goodness sake, these items came from Cambodia, everyone knows it, but the art world effectively turns a blind eye.
Some of the sales included the following:
A sandstone figure of a woman carved in the 11th century in the style known as Banteay Srei and described as having been acquired in 1986 was missing its head, very neatly chopped off, and both feet. It's commercial performance was not affected and it raised $361,000, nearly six times the estimate. Next, a 12th-century bronze bodhisattva from the Angkor period. No provenance at all here, no date of acquisition. The 34 centimeter four-armed statue did not sell so well, and only went under the hammer for $73,000. It was followed by a 13th-century bronze figure of Ganesha seated on a pedestal cast in the Bayon style, which exceeded its high estimate by half, climbing to $52,000. For this item the catalogue noted "Provenance. Hong Kong Collection, 1980s," implying little more than it had been in Hong Kong at some stage. This complete disregard for its Cambodian origin is blatant and grossly shameful. Two days later, at Christie's, things got a lot hotter. A Khmer statue of the 11th century in the Baphuon style had surfaced in the market in 1968, two years before the UNESCO cut-off line of 1970, after which goods of uncertain provenance are deemed less legitimate. At $2.11 million, it now holds the world record for Khmer sculpture.

Water everywhere

Sunset over the Mekong River at Kompong Cham
Alongside property and oil speculation, increasing costs of rice supplies and all the usual headlines that hit the newswires over here every day, the subject of water is never far behind. The biggest worry right now is the prospect of numerous dams on the Mekong River and the potentially devastating effect that might have on livelihoods and fish supplies in Cambodia.
To keep you in the picture regarding recent press reports, here's a few links that will highlight the current concerns:
Eric Coull in the Bangkok Post with his article, The Mekong: Charting a sustainable future here.
Rob Sharp's A Poisoned Paradise: Cambodia's Water Crisis, for the Independent in the UK here.
Asia Times' Andrew Nette's article called Cambodian dam plans suffer information drought here.
and finally Ek Madra's article Chinese dams threaten Cambodia's forests, farmers here.

Rachel in the news

Pictured at Romdeng on our recent getogether in Phnom Penh. LtoR: me, Rachel and Sak
It's pleasing to see my good friend Rachel getting some positive press back in the UK after her recent visit to Cambodia. Someone once said 'all press is good press' and the following article in the Bucks Herald reflects well on Rachel and her chosen charity, The Cambodia Trust. She hooked up with another pal of mine, Sak and his family in Battambang and the upshot is that Sak will be spending a couple of weeks in the UK at the start of next month, his first time outside of Cambodia. It will be an amazing experience for him I'm sure.

Woman fights against discrimination in Cambodia by Anna Dowdeswell The Bucks Herald, UK

An Aylesbury woman who joined a Thame charity to raise awareness of the discrimination faced by disabled people in Cambodia has returned to the UK. Rachel Madden, 35, spent a 'life-changing' six weeks working with three charities including The Cambodia Trust treating landmine survivors, fitting prosthetic limbs and braces and small business grant and school funding. She also spent time in the country's capital Phnom Penh, watching people having prosthetic and orthopaedic limbs fitted and adjusted. Another charity Rachel worked with was the Working for Children orphanage and centre for poor children in the Pouk district of Siem Pang in the north of Cambodia. Established in January 2007, it homes 43 orphans/poor children, including schooling, a family unit.
She said: "I spent my time teaching basic English, crafts, sports, music and was able to support the orphanage by providing bicycles, rice and school uniforms." She also worked in two schools, one in Battambang district in the west and Prey Chrouk in the south. She taught English, painted classrooms and with the help of the IAM Foundation installed two water pumps. "My time working with these NGO's has changed my life and settling back into corporate life in the UK has been difficult. I have made some wonderful, long-lasting friendships, with both Khmers, particularly my 'family' in Battambang, and many ex-pats working in Cambodia. Cambodia is no longer just a holiday destination for me. I would love to have the opportunity to work out there for longer. Cambodia is quite simply my second home."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Cambodia Dreams

Last night, all the Cambodian television channels were tuned into the fortunes of matriarch Yan Chheing and her extended family as Stanley Harper's film, Cambodia Dreams received an unprecedented simultaneous showing across the country. Twenty years in the making, this sentimental look at Yan's struggles in the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand and her daughter's hard life in a small village in Battambang before the two were reconciled, was a triumph for Harper's dogged determination to tell their story and a window into the strength of character of spirited Cambodian women like Yan and her daughter Tha. It delved into the nitty gritty of village life in Cambodia against the parallel of the hand-out culture prevalent in the border camps, with Yan voicing a series of insightful views on life and work. She was undoubtedly the star of the film and has since been honoured by the government for her love of Cambodia and her unwavering work ethic.

Changing themes, there's an Apsara classical dance show by students of the Royal University of Fine Arts at the Art Cafe this evening. It kicks off at 7pm, so count me in. The Art Cafe is on Street 108, not too far from Phsa Chas.
Tomorrow evening (Saturday), Meta House will screen a couple of films by Director Peter Degen focusing on Cambodia and its life-sources, the Mekong and Tonle Sap. Mekong - The Mother is a 45-minute feature looking at the Mekong River through its people, whilst the 52-minute docu When The Floods Recede, focuses on the fishermen and women who depend on the abundant supply of fish in the Tonle Sap.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Khmers

This large and imposing book arrived in the post today all the way from England and will keep me busy for a few days whilst I devour the text and beautiful photographs contained within. I'm already in the middle of about five different books, so one more won't make much difference! I never seem to get the chance to sit down and finish one of the books I'm reading in recent weeks. Very frustrating. This new glossy coffee-table sized edition is The Khmers (History and Treasures of An Ancient Civilization) by Stefano Vecchia and published by White Star in Italy and the UK a couple of months ago. In taking a peek its 200+ pages are full of colour photos from the temples themselves as well as a lot of the statuary to be found in museums like the National Museum in Phnom Penh and the Guimet Museum in Paris. I'll take a closer look and give you my opinion in due course.

Prasat Ta Muen annual festival - in Thailand

Prasat Ta Muen Thom - a tug of war between Cambodia & Thailand. Photo: courtesy Mike Newman
I found an interesting festival date taking place in Thailand next month, on 12th April, the eve of Khmer & Thai New Year, at the disputed Angkorean temple of Prasat Ta Muen - located on the border between Thailand and Cambodia in Surin province, if you believe the Thai claims to the site. Organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand's Northeastern Region, this annual festival is supposed to create and foster good relationships between the two countries and is expected to draw thousands of visitors from both countries. (Really?) There will be a cultural procession, folk music performances, sport competitions and so on. It sounds very much like the Thais are emphasizing to everyone that the temple is inside the Thai border area and that Thailand rather than Cambodia is giving the temple the credit and public recognition it deserves. I wonder if a rather apt tug-of-war competition will be one of the sporting events!

I highlighted the difference of opinion between Cambodia and Thailand over this series of temples in my blog in December. To refresh memories, here's what I said at the time:
If you're not aware, one of my biggest passions is visiting ancient Khmer temples, dotted around the Cambodian countryside. However, there are a series of Khmer temples in northeast Thailand that I have yet to visit so I was particularly interested in a report from Radio Free Asia's correspondent Kim Pov Sottan yesterday which highlighted the issue surrounding the 12th century Angkorean temple of Prasat Ta Muen Thom - which is in fact three ruined structures all with the same generic name - in a location that seems to be on the very border between Cambodia and Thailand. If you speak to the Khmers in the locality, they'll tell you that the temple is Cambodian and that the Thai's have stolen it in the last few years, whilst the Thai's have assumed responsibility for the temple and built a paved road for easy access for visitors. The report from RFA suggested that even the Thai military commander for the area claims that the temple is in a 'white zone' which is technically a disputed, no-man's land. Cambodia has experienced border disputes with Thailand and Vietnam over many years and the long drawn-out process to resolve them and agree on the exact position of the border markers is frustratingly slow. Cambodia has a history of disputing temple ownership with Thailand, with Preah Vihear being the most publicized but Prasat Ta Muen Thom is important in it's own right and if both countries are claiming ownership, somehow the deadlock needs to be broken. At the moment, Thailand is in possession and Cambodians are left to peer over the fence at this reminder of their glorious past.

Michael Freeman’s excellent Guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos throws a bit more light on the border temples of Prasat Ta Muen Thom, Ta Muen Toch and Ta Muen, after Radio Free Asia reported on the dispute over temple ownership between Cambodia and Thailand. Of the temples, Prasat Ta Muen Thom, constructed earlier than the other two, in the late 11th century, is the most notable and is situated by one of the principal passes over the Dangrek Mountains, and is unique amongst the sanitized Khmer temples in Thailand as it’s in the middle of a tall, dense forest. Its recent history, however, is one of the saddest. For several years during the 1980s it was held by the Khmer Rouge, who with the connivance of unscrupulous dealers, abused it badly. All carvings of substantial value were removed, or damaged in crude attempts at removal, including the use of dynamite. Of the three towers, the central and north-eastern ones were virtually leveled. In its forested setting, the sanctuary was built on the crest overlooking the small valley of a stream that runs in front of the temple, and unusually for Khmer temples, the main gopura faces south. The main shrine contains a natural rock linga and with the later addition of a hospital and resting house nearby (Ta Muen Toch and Ta Muen) add to the evidence that this was a major site on the Royal Road leading from Angkor to Phimai as it crosses the mountains. Ta Muen Toch is 1.5km and Ta Muen 2kms from the larger temple. Work on restoring the temples began in 1991 by the Thai Fine Arts Department and the trees at the foot of the approach to the larger temple, from the south, is where the existing border has been demarcated.

On the Tube

Stefan (left) films the map reading session at the start of the trip
For the duration of our Tour de Mereuch Bike Tour in Mondulkiri last week, much of the event was under the watchful eye of National Geographic journalist and film camerman, Stefan Lovgren. Swedish by birth, he now lives in the States and travels the globe on Nat Geo assignments. He was in Cambodia to cover the Srepok Wilderness exploratory bike tour and is also seeking out a story about sting-rays in the Mekong River as I type. Everywhere we turned throughout the tour, there was Stefan with his camera and his mike, and he expects a 3 to 6 minute segment to be the finished product on one of Nat Geo's weekly adventure travel programmes. He also took part in the cycling and probably regrets not taking his camera on Day 2 when the group got lost in the forest, just for the dramatic element that brought to the tour. Stefan also runs a new website that brings scientific stories into the public domain, its called ScienceCitizen and can be accessed here. Joining him on the tour was Phnom Penh Post's Brendan Brady, so watch out for a story in that bi-weekly newspaper sometime soon. Incidentally, the PPP has a new online edition and website here.
Stefan on location, along the Srepok River
Besides the superhuman effort required for the cycling element of the tour, seeing wildlife was also high on the agenda as WWF and the Srepok Wilderness Project is busting its balls to establish an environment where the wildlife can recover and grow again after years of hunting, poaching and neglect in the region. Hunter turned gamekeeper, one of the top Park Rangers admitted to have killed no less than 10 tigers during his days as a poacher, but now its his job to protect the wildlife such as tigers, leopards, other cats, large cattle and rare birdlife. Early in the morning and around dusk are the best times to view the animals and birds and that's when I saw quite a few muntjac bounding across the forest floor, as well as Eld's deer, three different types of eagle, some squirrels and colourful parrots. Some of the group also saw gaur and banteng, two species of large wild cattle. No-one claimed to have seen any tigers, leopards, wild elephants or bears - we'll search for those on the next trip.

This was definitely an exploratory trip, and the area is some way off being ready to receive visitors. There is a clear opportunity for a range of tourism options in and around the Srepok River, from kayaking to cycling to bird-watching to safari tours to fishing, and so on, though WWF are not in the tourism business and will need a partner(s) to make it happen, successfully. Their plans for an upmarket ecolodge are still on the drawing board at the moment, and without the backing of other partners, that's where they will stay. However, they are optimistic and have an area to promote that is untouched and pristine enough to attract tourists looking for a different alternative to temples and beaches. The Srepok Wilderness area is definitely that. Incidentally, immediately following our trip, the American Ambassador to Cambodia was due to spend two nights in Mereuch to assess the progress being made by WWF. I hope he left his bike at home! Link: WWF

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Final photos from Mondulkiri

Seriously, I couldn't believe it. Two of the famously elusive Koupreys were just standing/sitting there are the top the main drag in Sen Monorom. What an exclusive! This picture will almost certainly be on the main newswires in the next few minutes.
The beautiful solitude of the River Plai on the route between Sen Monorom and Bousra
Illegal logging is a serious problem in Mondulkiri. This collection of timber and chain-saws were confiscated by Park Rangers and is housed at the Nam Ram field outpost.
One of the few remaining older buildings in Sen Monorom that isn't yet under threat of demolition. Its the former HQ of the Government Bank, now in disrepair but still used as an office.

The Pnong

A traditional Pnong house at the entrance to the village of Sre Ampom
A traditional Pnong house sits alongside a more modern Khmer-style home in Putang village
I didn't really have enough time in Mondulkiri to get under the skin of the province, as I spent most of my time in the protected forest, which is devoid of the local population. However, I did visit a couple of Pnong villges which were located on the main roads and it was noticeable how - aside from a couple of traditional houses pictured above - little difference there is to the casual observer, between the Pnong and other rural Khmers. The following overview of the Pnong (or Phnong) is courtesy of the ELIE website.

The Phnong
are the indigenous peoples of Mondulkiri, although considered a 'minority' they in fact make up the majority of the population of Mondulkiri Province. The Phnong are believed to have been living in the Mondulkiri area for around 2,000 years, they traditionally have a strong link with their natural environment, hunting in the woods around their villages as well as collecting foodstuffs and other non-food products (such as timber or tree-sap) from the woods. Traditionally the Phnong do not take products from the forests that they do not need themselves, and therefore have a minimal impact on their environment. The Phnong's religious/spiritual beliefs are animistic, this is to say that they believe all things have spirits - animals, plants, hills, stones, jars, buildings - everything. Their ancestors are also represented by spirits. If these spirits are unhappy because of some human action they can intervene in the life of the Phnong, to harm or protect them. Sometimes it is necessary to appease the spirits with ceremonies/rituals, including animal sacrifice.

The Phnong are a traditionally autonomous and self-governing society in which village elders are looked to to solve internal disputes. If it is decided that a 'law' has been broken then it may be that the guilty party would have to pay a fine to the village, and also need to carry out some ceremony as noted above. Crimes which are relatively common in the West and in much of 'developed society' as a whole - such as thefts, physical violence, rape, and murder - are practically unheard of in Phnong society. There is little documentation of the Phnong up until the French colonized Cambodia in 1864. A road was built linking Sen Monorom to Kompong Cham, though Mondulkiri remained sparsely populated (as it does today with only 2 people per square kilometer). In the 19th century the Phnong had a reputation for being particularly warrior-like in their resistance to the French army. In 1969-1970 Mondulkiri fell under Khmer Rouge control and as a consequence much of the population was displaced to Koh Nhek, where the people were forced to work in rice paddy fields. It was not until the 1980's that the Phnong were allowed to return to their villages and traditional homeland. Then they were provided with weapons to protect themselves from possible Khmer Rouge attacks. Also at this time they were told to move their villages closer to roads in order for the government to supervise their activities.

Traditionally the Phnong are essentially subsistence farmers who practice some trade with surplus products. Today this is more or less still the case, with the Phnong relying heavily on their hillside rice and bananas. For a number of reasons they have begun to diversify the crops which they cultivate and now Cashew trees, Sweet Potatoes, and other crops are becoming more popular. It has long been an ideal for the Khmer government to teach the Phnong how to "live and behave like Khmer" and this has had some success. The desire for the Phnong to be more like Khmer people - more modern - has led to a greater number of Phnong men getting jobs - ie a career - some of the Phnong men are employed in the police or army services. The small wages that these men receive - and the greater exposure to Khmer and Western culture has led to a demand for Khmer style housing, motorbikes, and electrical products such as radios and televisions. Strangely, even though it is recognised that the Phnong have occupied the lands in the region for thousands of years, they are not entitled to a legal right to their lands. This makes them extremely vulnerable to logging and land-grabbing which are becoming increasingly problematic in Mondulkiri Province.
These Pnong boys are warming next to the fire after swimming at Bousra Waterfall

Mondulkiri faces

This young lady was in charge of the sugar cane juice machine in the village of Puchiri. She did some brisk business after our arrival.
One of the ethnic Pnong villagers selling fruit at Bousra Waterfall
Two Pnong children wash their clothes in the fresh waters at Bousra. The one on the left is using washing powder!
The chief cook and her daughter at the Mereuch HQ of the Srepok Wilderness Project
This is the cute face behind the mask!

Inside the protected forest

The sun rises over the Srepok River and the surrounding forest
A trail through the dry forests of the Srepok Wilderness Area, ideal for mountainbiking
I'm posting a few more photos from last week's expedition to the protected forest of Mondulkiri and particularly the segment known as the Srepok Wilderness Area. The WWF website has this to say of its involvement in the area: Years of isolation, the consequence of decades of war and civil strife, have left the Srepok River area and its rich biodiversity relatively intact. The river itself teems with exotic fish, while wild cattle and large cats still roam the surrounding plains. However, this natural wealth is highly threatened by destructive fishing practices, land conversion, illegal logging and the ferocious trade in wildlife. WWF are committed to working with local communities and authorities in developing an ecotourism venture similar to the successful game reserves of South Africa that will attract tourists from all over the world to bird watch, angle in the river and take safaris into the forest to view the spectacular wildlife. As well as saving this amazing landscape, once described as the the Serengeti of Asia, the aim is to create livelihoods for local people and alleviate the poverty that pervades this area.

Our visit was very much at the exploratory stage of the venture, to see what can be achieved and to identify a variety of ecotourism options for the future. It's not yet ready to receive visitors but the groundwork is being laid and I'm sure the Srepok Wilderness will be on the tourist agenda in the next couple of years. It won't happen overnight, as there's still lots of work to be done, but the Srepok River and the forest that surrounds it, are waiting to be discovered by those seeking an alternative to temples and beaches. Find out a lot more about the area here.
Part of our group on a walking tour along the Srepok River
Park Rangers in charge of our boat trip on a section of the untamed Srepok River

More from the 'Kiri expedition

I look a mite concerned as I had just managed to stay on the bike at the bottom of a steep drop
James MacGregor, now safely back in his snow-bound London office, sent me some snaps from the Tour de Mereuch WWF Mondulkiri Bike Tour, in which we both took part last week. Thanks James. I am slowly recovering my strength and should be back up to speed in time for my next trek, which is into the remote eastern hinterland of Kompong Thom province, aiming for the gold-rich mountain of Phnom Chi, on the trail of some long-lost ancient temples. There's far too much adventure to be had in this country! Back to the photos from James - there's another one of me in deep concentration as I negotiate a small wooden bridge; there's a back view as we are just about to get a faceful of red Mondulkiri dust from the passing 4WD; and a fuzzy farewell meal which we held at the Bananas restaurant in Sen Monorom. Incidentally, the food at Bananas was exceptional, especially after three days of forest-camp rations. More photos from Mondulkiri to follow.
A faceful of dust coming our way at the start of our tour
A celebratory meal at the end of our tour. I'm the one with the orange juice.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Temple talk

One of the enigmatic faces of Banteay Chhmar
Quite a bit of temple talk whilst I've been away in Mondulkiri, so here's some catch-up. The main highlight - or lowlight in this case - was some idiotic decision to build a mobile telephone antenna on the foundations of the pre-Angkorean temple at Kompong Preah, in Kompong Chhnang province. The four guys on site, who'd dug holes and erected a series of metal struts just inches from the remaining two 7th century towers, have been arrested but the sheer stupidity is unbelievable. This complete disregard for Cambodia's culture heritage is mind-blowing and shows that there's still a lot of work to be done to persuade and educate some Cambodians that their heritage is worth protecting. Kompong Preah is one of the few key sites that I still haven't visited and during the rainy season, the temple site is on an island surrounded by water. The Kompong Preah architectural style is notable for its distinctive floral lintels and the temple at the center of controversy was built in the reign of King Jayavarman I.
Banteay Chhmar, one of my favourite temple sites, located in the northwest of the country and pretty close to the Thai-Cambodian border made the news recently. A four-year plan to preserve and rebuild the temple has been hatched between the Ministry of Culture and Global Heritage Fund, a US-based NGO, who've contributed $280,000 this year and will continue to provide funding for the next three years. However, officials say it could take up to twenty years to fully restore the vast 12th century temple. The report also said that CMAC are de-mining in and around the temple site, which is a tad worrying, as I've been scrambling around that area on quite a few occasions in the past. Last but not least, Preah Vihear continues to hit the headlines, with various reports linked to the UNESCO World Heritage application which will be decided in the middle of this year. Lots of paper talk that the temple site will be a rival to Angkor Wat and whilst I agree its a fantastic temple in a stunning location, AW will always be number 1 in my book. I will never erase my first sighting of AW back in 1994 - its remains one of the most dramatic moments of my life.

On The Road

A study in concentration
Here's a few photos from my cycling experience in Mondulkiri, courtesy of Mark Ellison, MD of adventure tour company Asia Adventures. He kindly sent me through a couple of pictures and its amusing to see how serious I look when I'm on the bike, compared to when I'm on terra firma! To be honest on some of the downhill sections I had my heart in my mouth hoping that I wouldn't come a cropper. The one pictured here was a doddle compared to some of them.
I'm chatting to some passing locals and Ken was translating, as usual
This was one of the easier sections, just outside Sen Monorom and one of the few times when I wasn't at the back of the group!
I'm receiving instructions on how to make a gorgeous sugar-cane juice drink in the village of Puchiri

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bousra - Mondulkiri's finest

The beautiful scene at the top level falls at Bousra Waterfall
Not so beautiful - the author does his Khmer impression and has his photo taken with the falls as a backdrop
Everyone loves waterfalls in Cambodia and I'm no exception. I can't get enough of them. So having a free day in Sen Monorom at the back-end of my visit to Mondulkiri meant I simply had to get out to Bousra to see the waterfall. Regarded by many Cambodians as their country's finest waterfall, I hooked up with one of my best pals from Phnom Penh, Sokheng, who just happened to be in town on business - she works for the Wildlife Conservation Society and they have a project in nearby Khaosima - to make the 40km trip east of the provincial capital. Our moto drivers were Chen, her colleague at WCS and Samnang and an 8am departure meant we were there in an hour. The road, which has a top level of stones in places, hard-packed dirt in others, is a toll road and costs 3,000 riel per moto. It passes Pnong villages, rubber plantations and the Plai river before delivering you to the Bousra entrance, where foreigners pay a dollar to enter.
A close-up of the ten metre top-level falls at Bousra
Too close to the edge of the 25 metre drop for my liking: me and my good friend Sokheng
The ten metre waterfall that greets you was indeed impressive and is even more memorable during the wet season, from the photos I have seen. Now in the height of the dry season, the water volume wasn't too great but was still enough to catch three Khmer women unawares the week before our visit and swept them to their deaths. So be warned. The rocky riverbed now provides a nice place to picnic before it tumbles over a much larger 25 metre drop to the floor of the valley below. There are steps leading down to the valley but they looked far too steep for me to attempt, so I contented myself with a few photos, a paddle in the refreshingly cold water and a chat with a few Khmers on holiday for the weekend from Phnom Penh.
A side angle view of the 25 metre drop of the second-tier waterfall at Bousra
The 5 metre Monorom Waterfall, 3kms outside of Sen Monorom
After a drink with some of the stall-holders, who were cousins of Chen, we returned to Sen Monorom and a much smaller waterfall just a few kilometres outside of town. Its called Monorom Falls or Domnak Sdach (King's Resting Place) in Khmer. It's a five metre drop into a pool that is often frequented by young children who use the falls as their diving platform. Today there was no-one around except for workers from the hydro-electric power plant being built next door. Back in Sen Monorom, we had lunch at the So Paul restaurant, next to the Kouprey monument before Sokheng and Chen had to leave town to return to Khaosima, and I headed for another hot shower and rest.

More from the Mondulkiri tour

The elephant support vehicle and AK47-armed Park Ranger
If Day 1 had been tough on my creaking old bones then Day 2 was scheduled to be even tougher. Another 50+kms, this time through the heart of the forest, in order to reach our main target, the Srepok Wilderness headquarters at Mereuch, on the banks of the Srepok River. I had already decided, as I dragged myself through the pain barrier of the first day, that Day 2 for me would be a rest day, so I waved the other seven intrepid, and considerably more experienced, mountainbikers off at Trapeang Thmeir, at 7.30am, expecting to see them arrive at their destination by late afternoon. Because of the forest terrain, their support vehicle on Day 2 was in fact an elephant, that was loaded up with food and water.
A dried riverbed called O Rovei River on the way to Mereuch
The Srepok River just in front of the Mereuch Ranger HQ. We used the boat to travel upstream.
I took a spot, with my bike and the group's bags, in the rear of the back-up pick-up truck for the 40kms to Mereuch and arrived at 10am, spending the rest of the morning and afternoon, idling by the river. By late afternoon it was clear something had gone awry with the group and frantic communications between the Park Rangers at the HQ and the Ranger mahout on the elephant, indicated that the group had got lost in the forest and were in dire need of provisions. I forgot to mention that Mondulkiri's reputation for cooler weather was not applicable in the forest, where it was as hot as the city, so that merely added to the situation. The news got better when the group arrived at an outpost called Trapeang Chhouk but they were still four hours away from their intended destination and were mightily relieved to jump on board the pick-up truck that had been sent from Mereuch. They finally arrived, minus their bikes, an hour from midnight, exhausted, battered and bruised from their experience. My decision to take a raincheck on Day 2 had proved a good one.
The Srepok River, made famous in the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now
Day 4 and the support vehicle is starting to fill up with bikes, bags and people
Day 3 was a virtual rest-day for all, with a morning boat trip along the Srepok River to look over the intended site of an eco-tourism lodge and a late afternoon walk along the riverbank. Both nights at Mereuch were spent in beds rather than hammocks, and we had a shower and sit-down loo so conditions were okay. The plan for Day 4 changed a few times before it was agreed on another route through the forest back to Trapeang Thmeir for lunch and onto Sen Monorom. I decided to test my weary bones with an hour's worth of forest cycling before returning to the flat bed of the truck with my bike, to be joined by a few others before we reached the outpost at 1.30pm. The ride in the pick-up was nearly as uncomfortable as the bike riding on Day 1! I was back in my hotel room in Sen Monorom in the middle of the afternoon and headed straight for a hot shower to wash off the dust and grime of the last few days and to take a nap on a comfortable mattress. Heaven. More on my Mondulkiri experience soon.
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