Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not everything is rosy

If you get the picture that Cambodia is an idyllic peaceful country existing in the bright green paddy-fields of Indochina, then think again. Shit happens, everyday. Last week my good friend Georgie was robbed for the third time in six months. This was the second robbery within her own home. They took everything of value, while she slept. Georgie works her butt off doing two teaching jobs, raising funds for a local orphanage and is a lovely person to boot, she doesn't deserve such cruel misfortune. She's not alone, robberies are on the increase here as the thieves target foreigners, including me, who they know will have phones, cameras, laptops, credit cards, cash and so on, either at home or on their person.
The traffic chaos on the city's streets was brought home to me on Saturday. As we left Phnom Penh on our way to Battambang, the traffic slowed to a crawl as we passed by a tragic scene in the middle of the road. A young woman on her moto had moments before been struck by a petrol tanker and her limp body was being held by a distraught friend who was shrieking loudly, as everyone stood by and stared. No-one lent a hand including the policemen at the roadside who didn't flinch, even though the dead woman's brains were splayed all over the road. The traffic laws, such as they are, are ignored by everyone. It really is every man for himself.
It was only a month ago that a member of the Hanuman staff, our office runner Mao, went to sleep and never woke up again. His parents found him the next morning. No post-mortems in Cambodia so I still don't know what happened to him. To me he looked like any normal healthy 26 year old. He was a nice, friendly guy. We all miss him. Shit happens, everyday.

On the run

Banteay Chhmar is worth a few hours of anyone's time, so my sprint around the site for my 1-hour visit was far from satisfactory. I've been there before and I will return again for a much more leisurely visit in the future, but at least this whistle-stop tour gave my work colleagues at Hanuman a taster for what this dramatic temple can offer visitors. I'll talk in more detail about the iconography to be found at Banteay Chhmar in another post, for now, here's a few photos that show the range of reliefs, carvings and of course the incomparable face-towers to be seen at the 12th century temple site in northwest Cambodia.
This dramatic scene in the eastern pavilion at Banteay Chhmar shows the slaying of Shishupala by Krishna who was annoyed at the behaviour and insults of the king of the Chedis and cut off his head with a sword (on the right of the photo). On the left a rishi plays a harp, another holds a child in his lap and a third is in the usual cross-legged position. The whole carving is in imminent danger of collapse and is held in place with wooden supports. As a whole, the temple has suffered badly in terms of collapse and much of the site lies in ruins.
The outer gallery of Banteay Chhmar is covered in bas reliefs showing a mix of historic events with religious and mythological scenes. Much of the carving shows the victorious battle between Jayavarman VII and his enemies, the Chams. It also includes the renowned reliefs of the multi-armed Lokiteshvaras. In the picture above, from the southern gallery, the severed heads of two enemy leaders are being held aloft and presented as war trophies to the victors. Unfortunately much of the outer gallery has collapsed and a lot of work needs to be done to piece this jigsaw back together again.
Banteay Chhmar is also famous for its giant faces. There are quite a few face towers still in situ, with more at satellite temples nearby that are often overlooked by visitors. However, its precarious state was clearly highlighted when one of its face towers collapsed in 2004. Above is one of the remaining face towers within the main complex.

Weekend accommodation

The Golden Palace from the Yu Vann park in Battambang
A quick note on my weekend accommodation over two nights in Battambang and Siem Reap. Above is the Golden Palace Hotel in Battambang, a fifty room hotel built in 2006 and one of the most comfortable places I've stayed at in the provinces. Everything worked and the place was very clean. Internet rate is around $18 which includes breakfast and free internet in the room. I've usually stayed at the TEO Hotel in Battambang and that's cheaper but the Golden Palace is worth a look if you aren't on a tight budget. The Yu Vann park in front of the hotel contains a Hanuman statue with a mermaid, so it was a fitting place to stay for the Hanuman team!
In Siem Reap, I went for a slice of luxury and took up an offer from the folks at Le Meridien Angkor Hotel, the 5-star resort complex on the road to Angkor. Very nice indeed. In the $200+ price range, its furnished in a modern style and has everything you could ask for at that level of comfort and class. 200+ rooms, unusual pool layout and excellent quality breakfasts, I arrived late at 9pm and departed at 7am the next morning, so it was a short but very sweet stay.
The Romanesque-style pool area at Le Meridien Angkor, Siem Reap

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

All aboard the Norry

Preparing to depart at O Sralau
Train travel in Cambodia is slow and incredibly uncomfortable. I'm pretty sure that passenger services have been officially postponed though they still happen but they're 'not official'. Instead, in various spots around the country where you find a railway line, you can find a 'norry' or bamboo train, which as you can see from these photos are a wooden platform on metal wheels that are powered by a small electric motor. Our party of 28 climbed aboard five norries for our bamboo train experience just outside of Battambang. The locals use them for transporting themselves and their goods to market, the tourists use them for a slice of local life and for fun. We were the latter. We drove out to O Sralau to catch our norries and an hour later after six kilometres of bumpy track we got off again at O Dambong. Thankfully the cushions provided absorbed some of the bumps but we also had to dismount and disassemble the norries halfway through the ride to await the 7am train from Battambang to Phnom Penh to pass, agonisingly slowly, before we could continue. I'd been on a norry a few times before but for my Khmer work colleagues it was a new and exciting experience and they loved it.
Yours truly and a less than excited Thoeun in the red & white hoops
The norry is disassembled before the 7am from Battambang arrives
Here is the 7am Battambang to Phnom Penh 'special' consisting of 3 goods wagons
The Phnom Penh 'special' also contained two passenger carriages that were in pretty poor shape
Having fun on the norry Khmer-style
The 'norry station' at O Dambong is also a timber yard

Som Leng round-up

Here's a few titbits that can be found in the latest edition of Som Leng, the Hanuman Tourism newsletter published last week.

Inflation in Asia Hits New Highs:
As you know, the global economy faces an uncertain future and it is beginning to impact on the Southeast Asian economy. Food prices are rising particularly fast and already there have been 25% increases in the first quarter of 2008 alone. Rice has tripled in price in a short space of time and other basics are increasing at an alarming rate. Fuel is also rising fast and is now three times the price of five years ago. Hotel rates are also beginning to rise, reflecting higher costs in the region. As a business we have a responsibility to match these new realities with higher wages and our wage bill continues to rise rapidly, far outstripping the wage increases in the West. This is creating many hardships for local people in this region. As a leading travel company in the region, it is also creating a number of headaches for us, but we are trying our best to absorb these costs and not pass them on to our partners.

Srepok Wilderness Area in Mondulkiri:
Isolated and remote, the Srepok Wilderness Area retains much of its rich biodiversity, ranging from crocodiles and exotic fish in the Srepok River to large cats and wild cattle roaming the surrounding plains. Once described as the Serengeti of Asia, its pristine isolation is currently threatened by commercial logging, land grab and the illegal trade in wildlife. To counteract those threats, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is developing an ecotourism venture that’s geared towards conserving the environment and generating benefits from the river and its forest for the local villagers. WWF’s plans include an ecolodge nestled alongside the Srepok River, bird-watching, river-fishing, cycle tours and safaris into the forest with the Park Rangers. This is another project at an embryonic stage in its development and we will keep you appraised of on-going developments. The Srepok Wilderness Area is at the centre of the much greater expanse of the Lower Mekong Dry Forest Ecoregion, one of 200 large landscapes identified by WWF as being of global importance.

Access to Bokor Mountain:
The road to Bokor Mountain on the South Coast is open again. Expected to be closed for a long period, the Sokha Group who are renovating the road and the buildings at the summit of the mountain have re-opened it ahead of schedule to allow limited use of the road for tourist traffic. So we’re pleased to report, Bokor Mountain is back on our itineraries and open to the public.

PS. In addition, if you are visiting Tuol Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge interrogation center also known as S-21,
a new exhibition prepared by the DC-Cam museum team called 'Reflections: Democratic Kampuchea and Beyond' opened up in mid April. The exhibition, which will be housed in three buildings, aims to take museum visitors on an historical-visual journey starting on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and ending in the present day. The exhibition features photographs taken from the DC-Cam archives and showcases excerpts from its previous publications History of Democratic Kampuchea, Stilled Lives, Vanished, Victims and Perpetrators, and the Night of theKhmer Rouge. The visual documents placed upon the walls give insight into life during Democratic Kampuchea; the torture, execution, and killing in the prison systems; the finding and excavation of countless mass graves; the various ways Cambodians have sought to remember and memorialize the victims; and the ongoing process of and search for justice.

Birding - the winged variety

From the Hanuman Tourism newsletter Som Leng, a look at birding in Cambodia.

World-class birding destinations in Cambodia

Cambodia is world renowned for its temples and gaining recognition for its laid-back colonial-era cities, its blissful beaches and its remote areas of outstanding natural beauty. However, what is less well known is its incredible birdlife, including many of the world's largest water birds. Many people have heard of Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary near the Tonle Sap Lake, but this is not the only place to see endangered birdlife around Siem Reap. It is possible to witness some of Cambodia's rarest birdlife at close quarters on pioneering ecotours that are working with the community to protect the species.

Large groups of Sarus Crane are found in Ang Trapeng Thmor in Banteay Meanchey during the dry season. This tall bird has a vivid crimson head and is depicted on bas-reliefs at the Bayon. The site also provides a habitat for other birdlife, including 18 endangered species. Due to road improvements from Siem Reap, about 100km away, it is now a straightforward day trip and arguably easier to access than Prek Toal. This is a must for all bird enthusiasts. The Giant Ibis has attained near-mythical status for birdwatchers thanks to its rarity. It is found in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary near Tmatboey village in Preah Vihear Province. This location is also famous as the only nesting site in Asia for the White-shouldered Ibis. It is possible to undertake a challenging 4WD adventure into this area to see these rare birds and assist the local community in their struggle to protect these birds. This can also be combined with a Temple Safari tour to the remote temples of Preah Vihear.

Hanuman is also proud to work with Osmose promoting eco-tours to the Prek Toal Biosphere, one of the premier birdwatching sites in Southeast Asia. Prek Toal is home to breeding colonies of large water birds now extinct elsewhere in the region and is a pristine flooded forest environment. Some of the more accessible birds include lesser and greater adjutants, spot-billed pelicans and milky storks. These incredible birds have huge wing spans and construct large nests in the trees of the flooded forest. The Prek Toal Biosphere is about two hours from Siem Reap by a combination of road and boat. Osmose is a non-profit NGO working in conservation, environmental education and sustainable development. The Osmose eco-tourism project offers alternative livelihoods to the local communities through opportunities in guiding, paddling, providing food and accommodation and the sales of water hyacinth handicrafts. Link: Hanuman

Mekong Discovery

I highlighted the new Mekong River Discovery Trail a few weeks ago in this blog, but here's our take on it for the Hanuman Tourism newsletter Som Leng, which was published last week.

Mekong Discovery Trail

The mighty Mekong River cuts through the heart of Cambodia and the upper stretches around Kratie and Stung Treng are home to some of the world's rarest river dolphins. Many of our trips already include a visit to view these shy creatures at Kampi pool near Kratie, but now Hanuman has joined forces with the Mekong Tourism Development Project and the Ministry of Tourism to help promote the Mekong Discovery Trail.

Stretching from Kratie to the Lao border at Voen Kham, the trail is a community-based ecotourism project to introduce visitors to life and culture along one of the most wild and beautiful parts of the Mekong River. Highlights along the trail include: mountain biking around the peaceful island of Koh Trong opposite Kratie, home to friendly fruit farmers and a small Vietnamese floating village; the 100 pillar pagoda of Sambor, the largest temple in Cambodia, where it is possible to spend the night learning more about Buddhism or watch a traditional village show; kayaking through protected wetlands that are home to rare bird species; the chance to take a dip in secluded waterfalls or gentle stretches of the mother river; a homestay in the traditional village of O Svay; and boat trips through flooded forest with a picnic on a remote stretch of sand.

Some of the activities are already available, including cycling around Kratie and along the riverbank (using our own Trek mountain bikes for now), the pagoda stay at Wat Sor Sor Moi Roi, homestays at O Svay; and boat trips along scenic stretches of the river. We will introduce some of the most interesting elements into some new tour options such as Pakse to Phnom Penh or overland trips to Ratanakiri. Please be aware that this trail is still in its infancy, so facilities are basic, but for those that want a real Cambodian experience that brings them closer to life on the river and the wonderful Khmer people, then this is a unique opportunity. A homestay in O Svay may not be for everyone, but it is perhaps more interesting than staying in a bland hotel in Stung Treng. It is also possible to view river dolphins at O Svay, which gather in pools near the Lao border. Sitting on a sandbar, sipping a cold drink, watching rare dolphins glide past, is a memorable experience indeed.

Although not officially part of the trail, Hanuman is also able to offer trips that include stretches of the river to the south of Kratie towards Kompong Cham. Attractions here include: the port of Chhlong, one of the best preserved colonial-era towns in the Cambodia; Wat Roka Kandal, one of the oldest pagodas in the country, located on the edge of Kratie; the pre-Angkorian hilltop temple of Wat Hanchey, with impressive views of the Mekong; and Wat Mohaleap, one of the oldest surviving wooden temples in Cambodia. Some of our senior team recently travelled the trail and will be devising some new community-based tour options to promote sections of the Mekong Discovery Trail ready for Autumn 2008. Link: Hanuman

Som Leng & The Cardamoms

Hanuman Tourism's latest quarterly newsletter, Som Leng, was published on Friday. To keep you up to date with what's happening, I'll post a few of the stories from the newsletter, which was a special edition dedicated to ecotourism and community-based tourism in Cambodia, which is slowly but steadily taking off. Here's a look at the Cardamom Mountains for starters.

Opening Up the Cardamoms

The fabled Cardamom Mountains have been described as Asia's last great wilderness, a vast area of jungle-clad peaks rolling across Southwest Cambodia. Much of this area has been considered off-limits for a long time due to a combination of land mines, illegal logging and poaching, but as conservation organisations gain control of more areas, new ecotourism initiatives are under development. The remote peaks and isolated river valleys are home to almost 60 globally threatened animal species and more than 100 species of endemic plants. It is one of two places in the Mekong region where unbroken forest connects mountain summits to the sea and is currently under consideration as a World Heritage Site. Hanuman is working closely with these wildlife and environmental organisations to help them promote their new products to a wider audience.

Wildlife Alliance (formerly Wildaid) has a pilot community-based ecotourism project underway in the Chipat area of the southern Cardamoms. Plans include village homestays in Chipat, boat trips along pristine stretches of river, treks through the unique rainforest environment, cycling routes through the forest, and animal hides near freshwater ponds in the jungle. Wildlife Alliance is working with an educational NGO called Live and Learn to arrange specialised mountain biking tours that will help support education projects in the southern Cardamoms. Future initiatives include a canopy walk to view gibbons and monkeys in their natural environment and a wildlife rescue and release centre.

This is another project in its infancy, but we will be travelling to Chipat in May to take a look at what is available and help advise them on how to move things forward. Hanuman will be offering a new range of ecotourism adventures around Chipat, combining boating or kayaking, biking, trekking and wildlife viewing. Short day trips will be possible for visitors entering or exiting Cambodia via Koh Kong and longer multi-day trips for those who really want to see this great wilderness. In time there are plans to offer challenging treks across the Cardamoms to link up with the Conservation International project in the Areng Valley (see below). Hanuman will also be able to use its comfortable 'Temple Safari' tents at designated camp sites under development and near the animal hides, in return for contributing to the community fund.

Chipat lies about four to five hours from Phnom Penh or just three hours from Sihanoukville and Koh Kong and is accessible via National Road 48 which crosses the Cardamoms from Sre Ambel to Koh Kong. Access is via a dirt road (bumpy) or a scenic river trip from Andong Teuk. As part of next month's trip through the Cardamoms and along the remote South Coast, we will also be looking at remote beaches and islands to offer a combination wilderness and beach experience for those wanting something truly unique. See the Cardamoms, one of the most pristine environments in the region, before enjoying private tropical beaches on remote stretches of coastline.

Further west in the Cardamoms, Conservation International is encouraging ecotourism activities in the Areng Valley. A remote and beautiful valley, this river is home to the rare Dragonfish, one of the most sought after species in the region, and the only population of wild Siamese crocodiles left in the world. It is possible to stay at a new guesthouse in Thmar Bang and try treks and boat trips in the area. However, sadly this area is also under threat from development and during our exploratory visit last March, we saw Chinese dam workers measuring up the river. We will be revisiting the area as part of the May trip and will assess the potential for our guests.

Other areas just beginning to take off in this region include: Botum Sakor National Park, occupying a headland jutting into the South China Sea that is ringed by pristine beaches, and is home to forest elephants; Peam Krasoap Wildlife Sanctuary, a unique maze of mangrove swamps that shelter rare birdlife and some incredible stilted fishing villages that perch above the sea; Koh Kong Island, the largest in Cambodia and ringed by stunning sandy beaches with not a beach hut in sight; and Tatai Waterfall, a scenic spot in the Cardamoms with a new ecolodge, located 22km from Koh Kong.

All these and more will feature in our new 'Cardamoms and Coast' discovery tours that are currently under development for later this year. For those that thought of Cambodia as an add-on destination to Thailand or Vietnam, it may be time to think again.

Unguarded moments

Anyone got the instructions for this camera? Incompetent photographer on Phnom Banan
Some of my favourite photos are when you get snapped and you're not expecting it. Here's a couple of photos by one of my colleagues, Thoeun, from our weekend trip to the northwest of Cambodia. In the top picture, I'm struggling to work out how to use someone's digital camera - my excuse is that I'm still new to this digital game - surrounded by the small army of guides that accompanied our party on our visit to Phnom Banan, just outside Battambang. In the photo below, I'm stuffing my face at our picnic inside the temple walls of Banteay Chhmar, whilst Roth next to me favours sign language rather than the food.
I'm snapped in an unguarded moment of stuffing my face with food at Banteay Chhmar

Cambodia's children

My personal guides at Phnom Banan just outside Battambang were Srey Na and Tola
Wherever you are, the children of Cambodia will be close by. It's a country where the largest sector of the population is of school age. That's if they're lucky enough to go to school. Many don't. Some of the children in these photos don't attend school, some go for a couple of hours each day, if their parents can afford it. It's a fact of life here, unlike the easy access to schooling that we take for granted living in the West. Whether at school or not, the smiles and laughter are never far away either and that's the sound that will linger long in my memory from my weekend excursion to Battambang, Banteay Chhmar and Siem Reap. Here's a few of the children I met along the way.
These mini-guides at Phnom Sampeau get some hand-sign training from my colleague Kimhean
These youngsters accompanied our 'norry' bamboo train ride just outside Battambang
Srey Nich and Srey Noch at Banteay Chhmar that did a great job in collecting bottles and cans as well as leaping across the ruins with a small fan in hand to cool me down

Last breakfast in Cambodia

Cambodians and other Theravada Buddhists celebrate their New Year in mid-April. They were not always able to do so. Under Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese rule, those ancient traditions were forbidden, impossible. But now Cambodia is free again and the festivities are in the open. As I wander the country of my youth, I see people spending the long holiday praying at temples and visiting relatives.

And I remember. My family used to hold a reunion on April 13 to mark both the New Year and my mother’s birthday. In 1975, we had no idea that it would be our last. We were all apprehensive about the future, and my mother was distraught because I had missed the American evacuation. The day before, an officer of the United States Agency for International Development had told me that I had to be at the embassy within an hour if I wanted to be airlifted out of Cambodia. (I was a manager for the American relief agency CARE and had been selected for the evacuation.) Instead, I went to a meeting to find a way to help 3,000 families stranded in an isolated province.“Maybe I can make the meeting and get to the embassy in time,” I thought.

But as I returned to Phnom Penh, the traffic became heavily congested. Thousands of people on ox carts and overloaded bicycles were making their way to the capital to seek shelter and safety. When I finally reached the American Embassy and gave my name to the security officer, he looked puzzled. “They are not coming back — they are gone!” The guard shouted his answer to emphasize the hard truth. And he added: “The war is over. We will have peace!” Speechless, I went to the riverbank and looked at the horizon to see if I could spot the helicopters. The sky was blue and cloudless. I saw nothing. Years later, I learned that I had been looking in the wrong direction. The helicopters had flown westward toward the Gulf of Thailand. And I was looking east. I was 30 minutes late. My life was going to change forever.

Everyone in the city was in a very somber mood. We prayed that our beloved country would return to the peaceful and stable life of the 1960s. What would happen to us now that the United States had closed its embassy? Two days earlier, President Gerald Ford had announced: “The situation in South Vietnam and Cambodia has reached a critical phase requiring immediate and positive decisions by this government. The options before us are few, and the time is very short.” Five days later, on April 17, I stopped at a street-side restaurant to have a bowl of Phnom Penh noodles. A waiter took my order in Khmer and shouted in Cantonese loudly enough to be heard all the way to the kitchen: “One bowl of Kuytiev Phnom Penh, no MSG, no fat, blanched bean sprouts, hot tea for the skinny guy with glasses, white shirt, dark pants, table 13!” A different waiter brought my noodles in less than three minutes. Not once had they got the order wrong. It was going to be my last proper breakfast in Cambodia.

I had read gruesome descriptions of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge against enemies of their revolution: babies thrown into the air and caught with a bayonet, children smashed into trees, villagers having their throats cut with the thorns of palm branches, merchants clubbed to death with the back of a hoe. I did not believe them. The street was lined with city residents, a few still wearing the kramas and sarongs they had slept in. One was brushing his teeth. But all were looking north, waiting for something. They looked fearful. I spent all day in a temporary emergency room in the Hotel Le Royal doing what I could to help. I came out for fresh air and saw the Khmer Rouge being welcomed. People seemed genuinely happy that the war had ended.

Later that day, the first day of “peace,” I and 15 of my family members left our home after the Khmer Rouge had ordered all cities immediately emptied, and walked to Pochentong, the village where my siblings and I were born. Our house was occupied by strangers, so we went to the temple. The monks were already gone and there were bodies lying around. Mother was sobbing. The women and girls in our family were choking back tears. The boys and men were all silent. Shortly thereafter, I was separated from my family by the Khmer Rouge. After a year in slave labor camps, where I survived two death sentences, I escaped to Thailand. Following a few months in a Thai jail, in a Buddhist temple and in a refugee camp, I arrived in Wallingford, Conn., with $2 in my pocket. I later learned I was the only survivor in my close family. The Khmer Rouge had killed everyone else.

Cambodia today is not unlike the Cambodia of my youth — there is deep poverty and enormous wealth, side-by-side. There is unrest beneath the surface, the unrest that helped to make the horrors of the last century possible. And so, as I walk from one memory-filled place to another, I pray for a new year in which Cambodia’s leaders will find a way to bring about peace and stability. And, of course, I pray for my family. Article courtesy of The New York Times.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Group travel - not my thing

Hanuman group photo at Phnom Banan. Can you spot the only foreigner amongst this group of Khmers?
I'm back folks. Group touring isn't really what I enjoy and this trip did nothing to dispel that long-held view. I really prefer to 'do my own thing' when travelling in Cambodia and this trip to Battambang, Banteay Chhmar and Siem Reap added more weight to that preference. I'm a stickler for time-keeping and making the most of my daylight hours so touring with a group of 27 Khmers, and young ones at that, doesn't really suit that mind-set and that was again much in evidence on this trip. However, it was a great success from the point of view that practically none of the group had previously visited the places we saw on our travels and the whole idea behind this FAM trip was to introduce them to tourist attractions that they can feel comfortable in recommending to our clients, having seen and experienced the sight for themselves. And they loved it. And for me, revisiting Battambang and Banteay Chhmar at any time is a great idea. I've always enjoyed the vibe I get when I'm in the second city and Banteay Chhmar remains one of my favourite temples, even though our visit was a whistle-stop one in the truest sense of the word. More later.
Having just ran around Banteay Chhmar, I was hot and sweaty for this pose next to the 32-arm Lokiteshvara on the northern wall of the temple

Friday, April 25, 2008

Gone but not forgotten

Over the next three days, this blog will be pretty quiet. I'm on my travels again and will be in Battambang, Banteay Chhmar and Siem Reap until late Monday. It's a work's outing with about thirty colleagues, of which I'm the de facto team leader. God help me. Obviously I'll have a few things to report when I get back but in the meantime, enjoy the break and here's a group of friendly Battambang residents I met on one of my previous trips to the city, one of my favourite places in Cambodia, in December 2000.

Looking over the fence

Today's Bangkok Post takes a look at the Cambodia film industry.

Moving Images
- by Kong Rithdee
Cambodia's film industry may be modest, but it has real heritage and an important role documenting the travails of this most turbulent of countries

Cinema Lux sits at a busy street corner in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. A blocky, modernist structure built in the late 1930s French colonial era, it is now the last functioning movie house in the country. Its huge sign is filled with Cambodian script - so similar to Thai - touting films currently screening. Billboards show a barking, kicking transvestite in a garish Chinese costume and high heels promoting the Thai film Tat Soo Fut, or Kung Fu Tootsie, a gay action-comedy-parody and a mild hit when it opened in Thailand last year. On the wall, posters of other Siamese imports like the horror flick Fadd, or Alone, and the boxing film Chaiya work up the local appetite for upcoming features. Tickets cost the equivalent of 32 baht and the earliest screening is at 9am. The dialogue is Khmer-dubbed and, surprisingly, the projection is 35mm print, not DVD, as I had suspected. A few blocks further on, a cinema from the late 50s has been retooled into a kitschy entertainment complex. (It had opened with the Brigitte Bardot-starring And God Created Woman.) Nearby, another former picture palace sits empty, crumbling in a state of sad dysfunction. Nowadays, Cambodians watch their movies on VCD; Thai, Chinese and local films that are specifically made for the medium.

That stands in sharp contrast with activity on the arthouse front. The films of Paris-educated director Rithy Panh, one of the most respected Khmer filmmakers at work today, have played at the Cannes Film Festival, and his latest effort looks likely to premiere at another prestigious cinefest in Venice. The film is called Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, or The Sea Wall, and stars European arthouse veteran Isabelle Huppert as a struggling French mother in mid 20th century Vietnam. Rithy, who found his way to Paris after his family was persecuted by the Khmer Rouge, adapted the script from the novel by Marguerite Duras, the towering figure of French intellectualism in the 1970s.

Maybe it helps to appreciate a country by looking at its movies, or at what its people watch on screen. Or at least that's what I was trying to do on my recent trip to Phnom Penh. In the case of Cambodia, a glimpse of its complex transitions from the colonial period to the Pol Pot nightmare, and even from the current state of peace to the promise of future prosperity, is possible, to an extent, through the movies made by and about Cambodians. The awkward need to confront tragic chapters of history, to look back not in anger, can also be registered as there are now attempts to reconnect the present generation of Cambodians to the country's audio-visual heritage. Visitors to Phnom Penh will read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that one of the causes of the country's political instability in the 1960s was King-Father Norodom Sihanouk's passion for filmmaking, which distracted him from running the state. Though not entirely inaccurate, the claim smacks of sensationalism and adds an air of cinematic myth to a country that once boasted the greatest civilisation in Southeast Asia.

Before looking at King Sihanouk's movies, however, we swung by a few other film-related "attractions". The Killing Fields of Cheung Ek entered the mainstream consciousness through the 1984 British film (shot mostly in Bangkok), and it remains a vast, sun-searing plain where the mass graves of 17,000 Khmer Rouge victims were buried. Despite the heat, visitors are likely to describe the encounter as "chilling" - certainly much more chilling than watching the film. Chances are that The Killing Fields once opened at Cinema Lux. (Imagine if someone had made a film about our own October 14 massacre and screened it at Scala a few years after the incident.)

Staring back into ugly history is not a favourite pastime in Thailand, and we may learn something from Cambodia. Much more chilling than the Killing Fields is the Tuol Sleng prisoner camp, better known as S-21, a macabre, barbed-wire compound of terror in downtown Phnom Penh where nearly 17,000 captives were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. The place has been transformed into a museum, and it is the subject of Rithy Panh's most famous documentary, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which premiered at Cannes in 2003. Rithy's film brings back an S-21 survivor to meet their former tormentors - who were only boys of 13 to 20 then - and the confrontation is both a form of provocation and a radical attempt to find a cure for the abiding aftermath of such a shocking atrocity.

Walking into the actual S-21 is like snooping around the set of a horror film. The place was originally a school, so the classrooms doubled perfectly as crude prison cells. The disturbing feeling is curdled from the fact that every simple, harmless object we see - a metal bed, an exercise bar, a jar of water, a closed room - was once an instrument of terror that carries the real weight of history, a fairly recent history to boot. Someone was actually chained to that bed, or someone was actually hung from that seemingly ordinary bar and dunked head-first into a jar of filthy water. This before they were shipped off to the Killing Fields. At the entrance of S-21 there's a DVD stall. Among the selections are pirate copies of television documentaries about the Pol Pot regime, and of course the Rithy Panh film. What caught my eyes, though, was a Thai film called Kampuchea, directed by Toranong Srichua in the mid 1980s. It's a Thai film with Thai actors, and tells the rather sensational story of a Cambodian girl who endures persecution from the Khmer Rouge. Again, it's highly possible that the movie once played at Cinema Lux.

Not all cinematic material in Phnom Penh is related to the villainy of the Red Khmer though. Cambodia has no film archive (though it has a national archive where documents from the colonial period and on through the Pol Pot years are preserved), and many of the films made before 1975 were destroyed when the city fell to the communist army. Then there was the controversy, that became public in the mid-90s, about the "missing films" - purportedly rolls of films made before the Khmer Rouge as well as Pol Pot propaganda movies, all considered valuable national heritage and audio-visual artefacts that disappeared from Cambodia's Ministry of Culture. Some archivists believe that the missing films might have ended up in Paris, though their location has not been determined to this day.

Films from the Pol Pot period are significant because they are a proof of history and a depiction of the ideology that brought about such catastrophe. And yet the films made before those years are not simply nostalgic treasures but a record of a different political and social era. Fortunately, we can view some of them in Phnom Penh right now. In December 2006, Rithy Panh won support from an array of French cultural institutes to set up a resource centre called Bophana, where visitors can access digital archives of Cambodia-related movies, documentaries, TV clips, propaganda films and King Norodom Sihanouk's feature films made in the 1960s. Bophana is funded largely by the Thompson Foundation; the centre has a French director, is run by both Cambodian and French staff, and offers free services to the public. From its database, which has largely been licensed from French television and film archives, we're able to watch clips of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh from 1899; the visit of general Charles de Gaulle in 1966; the Khmer Rouge propaganda films showing young Cambodians working in factories and fields and singing revolutionary songs; the return of Phrae Viharn to Cambodia after winning a case against Thailand in 1963, and more.

At least 18 works by King Norodom Sihanouk (father of the present King Sihamoni) are kept in the digital database. King Sihanouk directed both documentaries and fiction films, as well as penning scripts for other directors in the heyday of his filmmaking activities in the 1960s. At Bophana, I looked at his film Rose of Bokor, in which the king himself plays a a Japanese general who arrives to help liberate Cambodia from French rule (the movie also thanks Kim Il-sung of North Korea for support). In Crepescule, King Norodom plays a prince of Siem Reap who's tangled up in a three-way romance with a visiting Indian princess, played by HM Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, and a common nurse who takes care of him. And in the period piece Prachea Komar, the king directed his then-teenage son, the present HM King Sihamoni, who plays a young prince who rules his ancient sandstone kingdom with valour and justice.

All this represents the surprising riches of Cambodia's history of moving images, from the time of royal movies to the red-carpet receptions at Cannes Film Festival. At the same time, sloppy Thai comedies and VCD flicks still dominate the screens from Phnom Penh to Battambang. If a country is what its movies are, then Cambodia, still drowsy from its turbulent past, has much more to offer than glamorous colonial buildings and the overcrowded Angkor Wat.

A Woman of the Mekong

I would like to bring to your attention an article that appeared in a recent edition of The Soroptimist - SWP. It's the monthly magazine of Soroptimist International's South West Pacific branch for business and professional women who want to make a difference for women in the world. The organization has more than 100,000 members in 3,000 clubs in over 120 countries and territories. The article is about Sophoin (pictured right), a very good friend of mine in Phnom Penh who is being supported by SI with a contribution to her studies. I think they made the absolute right choice when they chose this strong-willed and intelligent young woman.

A Woman of the Mekong - by Lynn Ciurlionis & Helen Hutchins
Sordy Sophoin at 25 years is the youngest of a family of five born in Kompong Cham, Cambodia. Through determination she completed high school and in 2001 worked as a receptionist at the English School. Part of her remuneration was free English classes. In 2002 she moved to Phnom Penh to live with her older sister who supported her in studying English and a short course in marketing. After a short time in an advertising agency, Sophoin secured a job as a medical representative with Glenmark Pharmaceuticals Ltd. She is proud that she secured this position without prior experience in the industry. On her own initiative she requested the company employ her but if she did not perform they did not have to retain her. In this position, she works for a minimum of seven hours for six days a week and attends the National Management University for six evenings to obtain her degree in management (marketing).

Her salary of US$150 per month is stretched to cover her rent, utilities, studies and support extended family including expensive medical care for her sick father. SI members met Sophoin last year when the Hands Across Borders team was working in Phnom Penh. She impressed us as a woman who had overcome the prejudices of Cambodian society and had set goals to attain an education for herself and her family. Parents there need to value the girl child for more than economic dependency. To us she embodied the ideals of Soroptimism. To help her achieve her educational goals the committee of SI Cambodia, which has been recognised as an NGO, has bestowed its first Performance Award to enable her to continue with her studies in 2008-2009.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A convenient blind eye

The last thing I want to see or hear about is parts of Cambodia's heritage leaving the country. It should be here and accessible to all. Cambodia has an amazing cultural heritage and should show it off proudly to its own citizens and to international visitors. If that means developing a series of large museums in the capital and Siem Reap with the best quality items and smaller museums in each of the provinces with a secondary category of items, then I implore the Cambodian government to make it happen. When I see Cambodian items reaching world record levels in sales at Sotheby's or wherever, as I recently reported, my blood boils. In surfing such matters, I came across this article by Jos Van Beurden from The Netherlands in 2006, which I repeat here to highlight the blind eye that some museum curators and dealers around the globe will develop when items of Khmer heritage come before them.

A tainted bell from Cambodia? - by Jos Van Beurden
Each museum has its own ethical guidelines for acquiring objects. Many museums try to set an example, and the slightest doubt about the provenance of an object will cause its acquisition to be rejected. But sometimes a museum prefers to look the other way. That becomes easier when the Ethical Commission of the Netherlands Museum Association does not deliver proper advice.

In 2004 the Carillon Museum in the village of Asten in the Dutch province of North Brabant bought a second-century bc bronze temple bell from antique dealer Marcel Nies in Antwerp, Belgium. According to Nies, the 12 inch high bell comes from Battambang in Cambodia and shows characteristics of the Vietnamese Dong-Song culture. In order to be able to pay for the bell, the Carillon Museum applied for and received subsidies from the Brabant Museum Foundation and the Rembrandt Association. According to Nies, the bell had been exported to Thailand in 1969, in 2000 it had arrived in Italy and since 2003 it had been in Belgium. According to the Carillon Museum such bells can be purchased in Thailand without any problem, and permission to export an object like this from Thailand is not required. These bells are sold and sent all over the world. They can indeed be found for sale on the Internet.

The Brabant Museum Foundation was not certain about the acquisition. It therefore approached the Ethical Commission of the Netherlands Museum Association (NMA) and asked for it to check whether the museum had studied the provenance in a credible and careful manner. The Commission finally came to a positive conclusion — ‘in this case illicit trade is out of the question’ — and advised the NMA to give a green light for the purchase. The Brabant Museum Foundation accepted the advice, and the Carillon Museum was able to go forward.

‘What more do you want?’ asks Dr André Lehr, former curator of the museum and responsible for the deal. ‘A prominent dealer and the positive advice of the Ethical Commission!’ Moreover, the bell is according to him ‘not part of the cultural heritage of Cambodia. It helps us to get to know other cultures.’ Lehr produces here his own definition of cultural heritage, as he explained to me: ‘Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, the Borobudur and Angkor Wat, yes those are cultural heritage, but not this bell.’

Yet someone who reads carefully the advice of the Ethical Commission could get an uneasy feeling. To start with, the year in which the object left Cambodia, 1969, raises some questions. It is according to the Commission ‘just before the date of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which arranges the protection of stolen or unlawfully exported cultural heritage’. The year 1970 is often used as a watershed year: for objects acquired before 1970 no very difficult questions about provenance are asked, but for all acquisitions after that date provenance should be investigated. ‘Although the Commission is aware of doubts that could arise from the accidental succession of the dates 1969 and 1970, it has not been able to find a reason to doubt the information that has been offered by the dealer.’ Yet talking with Nies, he now says that the year 1969 is only ‘most probable’. He is not completely sure, ‘but I am not worried about it’.

A second question concerns the certainty with which it is asserted that no permission was needed for the export of the bell from Cambodia to Thailand. Upon inquiry with deputy director Hab Touch of the National Museum of Cambodia, which is responsible for the issue of export permits, and Etienne Clement, head of the UNESCO mission in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, it appears that ancient objects cannot be exempt from licensing requirements. Based upon e-mail exchanges with both of them, it can be concluded that Cambodia has had, since the year 1925, a law which determines that art objects are only to leave the country with a permit. In 1925 Cambodia was a French colony and in the law a broad definition of ‘art objects’ is applied; thus André Lehr’s assertion that the bell does not belong to Cambodia’s cultural heritage is contestable.

Some experts doubt whether the 1925 law still is legally valid. In her 2004 study Pillaging Cambodia: the Illicit Traffic in Khmer Art, Masha Lafont states that the old laws have lost their validity, since they were abolished by the Khmer Rouge. Thanks to the cooperation of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, however, I have received a message from Tara Gutman, legal adviser of the Council of Ministers of Cambodia, who points to article 139 of the new Constitution of 1993 which determines that laws and standard documents ‘shall continue to be effective until altered or abrogated by new texts’. Lyndel Prott, former Director of UNESCO’s Department of Cultural Heritage and presently a law professor in Australia, confirms Gutman’s interpretation. She writes: ‘In my view the present government may well regard the 1925 legislation as having remained in force and its lack of enforcement during the Khmer Rouge regime as simply due to the factual situation, rather than an abrogation’. In short, the Dutch museum could have, according to its own ethical code, acquired the ancient bell only if the Cambodian authorities had permitted it to do so.

At least one member of the NMA’s Ethical Commission did not share the positive conclusion. This member argues that the museum never should have bought the bell. He would have been in favour of asking the opinion of the government of the country of origin in order to overcome the one-sidedness of the information available to the purchaser’. In the twenty-first century, it is a bit out of touch that neither the Carillon Museum nor the Ethical Commission have done so, particularly since Cambodia has had for years an active policy to curb the illicit trade in art and antiquities and to protect its own cultural heritage. Lafont mentions in her study 17 examples of smuggled objects that have been restored to Cambodia. That should have rung a bell.

Did you know the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh now has its own website? No, neither did I until recently. Click here

Love Music Hate Racism

This Sunday - 27 April - to mark the 30th anniversary of the watershed Rock Against Racism festival held in Victoria Park, London in 1978, another massive carnival and festival will be held at the same location. One of the successes from the 1978 carnival, Steel Pulse, are unable to appear due to prior commitments but have been involved in several activities in the lead up to the event including a collaboration with other artists on a song based around their own Jah Pickney track. They also took part in a press conference in Birmingham with UB40 and Yaz Alexander last week and another press session with UB40 and Don Letts. This year's festival is being held under the new banner of Love Music Hate Racism. To read more about the original carnival, click here.

Here's a report from the Birmingham Post of the press conference with Steel Pulse, UB40 and Yaz Alexander. In the photo, Yaz is centre front row with Selwyn and David from Steel Pulse on left of back row:
Multi-cultural UK is a success say UB40 - by Gemma Boland and Helen Turner
Birmingham's chart-toppers UB40 have spoken out against Enoch Powell’s controversial ’Rivers of Blood’ speech on its 40th anniversary. Powell's infamous speech was made on April 20, 1968, at the Midland International Hotel in the city centre. On Friday, UB40 were joined by Mydas and Steel Pulse to celebrate multi-cultural Britain, while stressing the importance of education and the role music can play. Powell had called for an end to anti-race discrimination legislation, predicting "rivers of blood" on the streets of the UK if immigration continued. But Birmingham-born UB40 saxophone player Brian Travers said: "I know we've exported some rivers of blood to Iran and Iraq but I've never seen any on my doorstep."

A few weeks ago, former UB40 frontman Ali Campbell complained that racial tensions had tranformed Birmingham. But Travers criticised a politically-disinterested youth, obsessed with shopping and celebrity. "We live in a violent alcohol-fuelled society unfortunately," he said. "Celebrity culture is killing the kids, it has taken over and you're a nobody if you're not famous." He added: "It's not a big claim to say that music changed things, but we were a politically aware youth and that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment."

Birmingham reggae singer Yaz Alexander believed song lyrics were a powerful way to inform young people. She said: "The reason why I'm here is partly because of the influence of the musical artists of the 70s. I was born in Birmingham and have been influenced by what they went through all those years ago. "Love music and use it as a medium, no matter what your background is," she added. UB40's Robin Campbell highlighted the potential problems the credit crunch might pose. "Whenever the economy goes down, ignorance rears its ugly head," he said.

Steel Pulse member Selwyn Brown, speaking 30 years after playing in the original Rock Against Racism concert, said he believed music could still make a difference in combating racism. Love Music Hate Racism, which sponsored the conference, also promoted its anti-racism festival which takes place in London next weekend. Lee Billingham, spokesman for Love Music Hate Racism said: "Most people remember The Clash, but also Steel Pulse as well. The concert represented the Rock Against Racism movement, which led to the demise of the National Front."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Weekend viewing

This is a face I'll be re-visiting this weekend. Its one of the beautifully sculpted faces at the temple of Banteay Chhmar, in the northwest of Cambodia, not too far from the Thai border. This is a temple I love so I am very happy to be returning there. A group of staff (33 to be precise) from Hanuman Tourism are undertaking a 3-day FAM (familiarization) trip to Battambang, Banteay Chhmar and the floating villages near Siem Reap to see some key areas of Cambodia that all, except me, have never seen before. As a company we are keen to ensure our staff have personal experience of the areas they are promoting to our clients and this is just one of the FAM trips we undertake each year. In fact, next month I'm off to experience the beauty of Laos for at least two weeks with half a dozen colleagues before making my way back to Cambodia on my own, travelling through southern Laos and across the Cambodian border and back to Phnom Penh. For the story of my 2005 visit to Banteay Chhmar with photos, click here.

In brief

Cambodian football is suffering a lull in fortunes, in fact, they've never yet experienced a high! Their team of labourers, security guards and policemen have conceded 21 goals in their last 4 matches. In a drive to improve their fortunes, the national team have recruited 30 new players, who'll each be paid a princely sum of $250 a month. The football federation president, Sao Sokha said yesterday that he was looking for "bigger and taller players, of at least 1.7 meters tall, who are young, strong and can run fast," in order to challenge their more physical opponents. He also said, "I urge all parents to let their children play football so that it will help us to find good players - players who can attract spectators like rock bands do." There's nothing like having a serious nationwide youth development policy to uncover promising players for the future is there!

There are changes afoot at the Phnom Penh Post newspaper. For a few years I subscribed to this paper when I lived in the UK to give me the best English-language news coverage and now the PPP are soon to move to much more regular editions from their current twice-monthly stance. They've recently upgraded their website and now they are archiving all their editions back to 1992. That is simply a mammoth task. I wish them well. Read the archive here.

DC-Cam's head Youk Chhang recently announced that the USA will fund, to the tune of $2million, the building of a new genocide museum, research and training facility that will be the new home of DC-Cam. For more than a decade DC-Cam have been documenting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and they've been looking for a new home for much of that time. Their plans have finally borne fruit and the new museum should be up and running in Phnom Penh in a couple of years. They were initially given land next to Tuol Sleng but squatters moved in and wouldn't move out so they've now identified a new site. DC-Cam

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mekong sunrise

Ah, the good old days, sunrise over the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, in front of the Royal Palace, ten years ago last month. March 1998 was my fourth visit to Cambodia and my first proper look at the country, my previous visits had been whistle-stop tours to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap but my 1998 trip was more in-depth and a great chance to get under the skin of this beautiful country. Little did I know, ten years later I would be living and working in Phnom Penh.

Unimaginable suffering

Book Review:
The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Last week Somaly Mam, the Cambodian activist who rescues girls from sexual slavery, was honoured as the winner of the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child. Somaly Mam is president of AFESIP, the French acronym for Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, which builds safe houses to provide refuge, food, health care and schooling for girls saved from slavery. She has rescued over 4,000 girls in Cambodia and neighboring countries. She has won many awards for her incredible work.

Last night I finished reading her autobiography. I am exhausted. It's a book that was difficult, very difficult, to read. Somaly Mam's life story begins when she was sold into sexual slavery as a child by her family. She was repeatedly beaten, raped, starved and mutilated by the men she serviced. Its a story of unimaginable suffering, degradation and lack of self-worth. Its her story and that of thousands of others in Cambodia. Written without flowery prose or sensationalism, its matter of fact style makes it all the more powerful and uncomfortable reading. Very uncomfortable reading. Everyone should make themselves read it - so they are aware of exactly what takes place in the brothels and alleyways of countries like Cambodia. There is no place in this world for sexual abuse and slavery.

Inspirational, courageous, miraculous - such words are barely adequate to describe Somaly Mam and how she has recovered from her own living hell. I am surprised she is still alive. She has made many powerful enemies in her fight to protect and save the innocent. Her own daughter was kidnapped and her life threatened time after time. Today she is feted across the globe but lives in danger in her own country. Some people make a real difference in their lifetime. Somaly Mam has survived her own personal hell to do exactly that.
Links: afesip, virago.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Trails along the Mekong

Sunset over the Mekong River - captured during my visit to Kratie in 2000
A project seeking to make a difference to the lives of the people who live along the Mekong River is taking shape called the Mekong River Discovery Trail. Developed in cooperation with villages and communes along the river as well as NGOs and provincial authorities, this brand new ecotourism initiative is set to transform the underutilised northern section of the Mekong between Kratie and the Cambodian-Laos border. The opportunity to experience rural life that few have seen before during homestays, wat stays, trekking, mountain-biking, dolphin watching, kayaking and more, will provide a much-needed boost to the communities along the river and open up this gorgeous stretch of the Mekong to more than just a fortunate few. Dolphin watching at Kampi, just north of Kratie is already popular, but the trail opens up new viewing spots at places like Koh Phdau, Damrei Phong, Koh Preah and Anlung Cheuteal next to the border, along the 190km stretch of the Mekong. An overnight stay in the pagoda at Wat Sarsar Mouy Rouy, the 100 Pillar Wat, will give an unusual slant to your trip, while homestays are available in Koh Trong, Koh Phdau, Koh Khnhear and Ou Savy. Lots of other options are available to travellers wishing to tread new paths in the region. The Mekong River Discovery Trail looks set to take off later this year and you can find out more here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A freak show?

I'm not sure this is serious but with Vietnam and Nha Trang destined to host the Miss Universe 2008 pageant in July - that info is kosher - Cambodia is being eyed up as the location for the 2009 Miss Landmine pageant. No, as I type it, I can't believe its a real competition. A contestant from Angola won this month's 2008 inaugural competition. As you might expect the pageant has drawn howls of protest from rights activists and feminists, who brand it colonialist, racist, sexist and exploitative. The organiser says that whilst some international aid agencies have also labelled it 'a freak show,' he denies the allegations, saying it raises landmine awareness and empowers female amputee participants. First, he will have to overcome the ban on beauty contests imposed by Hun Sen in September 2006. I for one hope the ban stays in place - there are far better ways to raise landmine awareness and empower female amputees such as stories like the female landmine clearing teams that show a sense of achievement, purpose and true courage. Others will retort all news is good news. I will leave you to decide.

Hold-up for The Red Sense

Tim Pek's new movie The Red Sense enjoyed a successful premiere in Australia on 8 March. Tim (right) hoped to bring it over to show to audiences in Cambodia but there have been delays. Here is a report from Antonio Graceffo on the latest news.

Australian Khmer Film Struggles to be Shown - by Antonio Graceffo
While Cambodian Cinema teeters on the brink of extinction, the Cambodian officials put stumbling blocks in the path of Tim Pek’s Khmer Rouge film, “The Red Sense.”

Tim Pek’s film, “The Red Sense,” depicts the struggle of a Cambodian woman who grew up as a refugee in Australia after her father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. The basic plot deals with the concepts of revenge and forgiveness, as she discovers that her father’s killer posed as a refugee and is now alive and well in Australia . Should she avenge her father’s death, or should she allow the killing to stop? Khmer Film fans and martial artists around the world will know Tim Pek from his work with the Khmer kickboxing film “Krabai Liak Goan,” and his work as director and producer of “Bokator, the Great Angkorian Martial Art.”

His latest film, “The Red Sense” is extremely unique in many ways. It is probably the first movie shot in Australia which was done almost completely in Khmer language. It is also one of the first Khmer movies ever shot outside of Cambodia . The topic of revenge vs. forgiveness is one that most Cambodians live with on a daily basis, in the after math of the Cambodian auto-genocide. In other genocides, certain identifiable groups suffered at the hands of specific perpetrators. In Cambodia , the entire population was collectivized and subjected to horrible torture, starvation, and execution. One hundred percent of Khmer who were alive bwtween1975-1979 were victims, perpetrators or both. The parts of Cambodia , such as Ratanakiri province, came under Khmer Rouge control before 1970. Other regions, such as Pilin, were not surrendered until 1997, which means that some of Cambodia ’s current teenagers suffered, directly under the Khmer Rouge.

When the war was over, and twenty years later, when the surrender came, these Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadre didn’t necessarily move away. Many remained in the villages, where they live beside and among the very people they tortured and whose family’s they killed. With the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal already underway, and the world looking at Cambodia , “The Red Sense” becomes an even more powerful and more poignant film. Why then has it been so hard for Pek, a young Khmer refugee from Australia , to debute his film in Phnom Penh . One would think that in an age when even Khmers have stopped watching Khmer cinema, the powers that be would welcome an international film in Phnom Penh .

According to Tim, he finished work on the film in late 2007, and lodged the paperwork in Cambodia in early January 2008. In an Orwelian twist of nomenclature, The Ministry of Information is the government bureau in charge of censorship and film permission. Tim explains why he wanted to show the film in Cambodia ? “Firstly it’s a Cambodian film, and it’s made by Cambodian living abroad. Second, it’s the message in the movie. I always wanted to examine what reconciliation and forgiveness means for those Cambodians who left the genocidal nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime, but never escaped it. And how do the survivors of a civil war such as that suffered by Cambodia reconcile the fact that there were no foreign invaders? The only criminals were their own people. And most importantly how do individuals find justice, or forgiveness? What would you do if you ran into the murderer of your parents in the street?”

When asked if Cambodia has a law preventing foreign movies from being shown in cinema? Tim answered, “Yes, I believe there are, plenty of them.” There are also strict laws in Cambodia forbidding radio broadcasts in foreign language. The English language station must operate under strict guidelines. But, the first time the Cham ethnic minority wanted to have a Cham language broadcast, they were denied permission. Cambodia even has strict laws about the size of billboards which are written in foreign languages. Everything must be written in Khmer also, and the Khmer letters must be larger than the foreign language script. Tim outlined the many steps he had to go through in the hopes of obtaining permission to show his film. “I was asked for a business registration number, a transferring letter and I sent them all. I paid film fess. Then they needed to have a few meetings amongst other organizers, that’s including the Australian Embassy and so on…I didn’t expect it to go on like this.” What reasons might the government have for preventing Tim from showing the movie? “They think it’s a political issue, which I and other people don’t think it is, it’s the individual related issue.” Tim believes the Khmer film industry is dying. “From my own perspective, and I have seen heaps of Khmer movies, which now have drawn my attention to why our film industry is severely declining. It still can not reach the international standard. If we go back to the 60s and 70s our Cambodian Films were the most prominent ones in SEA. These days most local film makers have very little choice, and they’re stuck within one boundary and can not pursue or expand their creativity. These are the main obstacles from penetrating to the international market or SEA market, and the audience doesn’t understand that. It’s not healthy if we stay like this. Most films that are allowed to screen in public are PG rated. The most popular film genres are: Super Natural, Ghosts, Romantic, Drama, and Period Piece. These are their best and safest genres. They only distribute domestically and to Khmers living abroad.”

In Cambodia , only one company has a monopoly for dubbing movies. All movies, whether shot in Khmer language or shot abroad, are dubbed. You never hear the actual actors speaking their lines. Worst of all, ALL voices in a movie are done by the same two men and one woman? “Yes, that’s so true. When I heard people talk about Khmer film, the only word I hear first is DUBBING. That’s one of the biggest issue we’re facing right now. We shouldn’t have any dubbing companies at all, unless for foreign films. To me using someone’s voice is like your hard earned 50% of the movie quality is gone.” The dubbing studio is extremely archaic and when they dub, they shut off the original soundtrack and just lay Khmer voice tracks over it. So, you lose all the sound effects, music, and foley. If you are watching a “Die Hard” movie and Bruce Willis says something clever during a gunfight, the gun sounds are suddenly gone, as is the explosion happening in the background, and the same Khmer man who does the voice of Leonardo DiCaprio or Toby McGuire, gives some terrible Khmer version of the original text, and it isn’t funny, and makes no sense. Worst of all, each time Bruce Willis speaks, the dialogue is preceded by several seconds of the audio being cutout. The audio doesn’t return till several seconds after he finishes speaking. If two characters are having a conversation, the background sounds come in and out like a kid dragging a stick along a picket fence.

This dubbing only happens on films shown in the cinema or on TV. For one to two dollars, the original of any movie can be purchased any number of markets in Cambodia . Khmers who can’t even speak English would generally prefer to watch the original “Star Wars,” with all the laser sounds, rather than the Khmer version, which is like a silent movie with dialogue. “No matter how great your movie is, and not to mention a major impact on character’s emotions and body gestures” the quality is lost when they re-dub it. And this dubbing is not just for foreign language films, but also for films shot in Cambodia in Khmer language. They are all re-dubbed by the same two men and a single woman. “That’s the key point I would like to address for all Khmer film makers. If the actors can act, they also can speak. All you need is a little training. Let’s move forward and make a change. Once your Khmer movie is approved, and re-dubbed, there are a number of options of how to get it into the cinema. “There’s always a negotiation. First they like to see your film. Then you can either rent the theater out or share 50/50. The best way is to know someone there and find a distributor.”

Cambodia is one of the most centralized countries in the world, with the possible exception of Lao, where all of the development and services are in exclusively located in the capitol. The first high schools were opened outside of Phnom Penh in the late 1990s and the first university around 2003. “I know that’s there is one cinema in Battambang, one in Siem Reap, one in Svay Reang and a few in Phnom Penh. That was in 2006. Piracy and DVDs are the biggest problem, not only in Cambodia but around the world just a matter of more or less.” Minutes after a film is shown in the cinema, it is available at the markets. Local movies sell for $1. A single ticket at the cinema can cost $1 or more, so a whole family can watch the movie at home for the same price of a single ticket. Tim hopes that if he obtains the rights to show his movie, that it might generate worldwide interest in the Khmer cinema. “I know a few young talented Khmer film makers living abroad. Their works were sensational, and I can see the big potential for the Khmer film industry.” As for the powers that rule the cinema industry in Cambodia, Tim had this to say. “We need their supports if they need us to bring the Khmer film back on track, and I am sure we will.”

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia . He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people. He is the author of four books. See his website here

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