Monday, June 30, 2008
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Friday, June 27, 2008
Rice paddy interlude
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Update from Pakse
I'm travelling through Laos with my brother Tim in tow. We've both had a great time, met lots of interesting and extremely friendly people and been very impressed with the country and its people in equal measure. Its beautifully green, heavily forested on its mountainous slopes and populated by gracious hosts throughout. It's also a haven for eco-tourism style adventures with a river around every corner and provinces teeming with national parks. We've been fortunate to stay at some gorgeous hotels en route such as the Apsara, La Residence Phou Vao and Maison Souvannaphoum in Luang Prabang, and Settha Palace and Beau Rivage Mekong in Vientiane. As I said earlier, Jerome at Hotel Pakse has gone out of his way to make our stay tonight a pleasant one and tomorrow its an early start for one of the highlights of my trip, an early-morning visit to Wat Phu, a relic of the once-great Khmer empire that stretched throughout the region. More soon.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Today's photos from Laos
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Photos in Laos
Saturday, June 21, 2008
I'm in Luang Prabang
We spent 1 night in Muang Sing after a couple of night's in Luang Namtha. Less tourists and even less people on the main street, Muang Sing has a tribal museum and little else, so we spent our time in the nearby villages, the two wats in town and the morning market and another stint in the ricefields, planting rice with a group of thirty women - which was great fun. The drive to Luang Prabang was long but certainly not boring. The surrounding hills covered in lush greenery and ethnic villages around every corner made the trip an interesting one and was in almost complete contrast to my travels around much of flatland Cambodia. We have another night in Luang Prabang at the Maison Souvannaphoum hotel tonight before a stop-over in Vang Vieng on our way south to Vientiane. More soon.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Update from Luang Namtha
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Off to Laos
Whoops, nearly forgot to say happy birthday to my very good friend Sophoin, who is 24 today. The picture below was taken at a celebratory meal on Friday night at one of my favourite restaurants, Bopha Phnom Penh. She's a great kid, works harder than anyone I know and joins me for some of my jaunts outside the city at weekends.
Postscript: I left a wet Phnom Penh and arrived in humid Vientiane at 5pm today. The refined old-world elegance of the Settha Palace Hotel is my home for tonight before an early flight to Luang Namtha in the morning. We took advantage of the hotel's gorgeously cool pool prior to a walk along the promenade facing the Mekong River and dinner, albeit disappointing fare at cheap prices, at the popular Khop Chai Deu restaurant.
Golden Voice film screening
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Friday, June 13, 2008
Excavation on Kulen
The Phnom Kulen Archaeological Project
Lying 30 km outside of Angkor Archaeological Park is the cool, leafy retreat of Phnom Kulen. Best known as a popular picnic spot and location of the exquisite riverbed carvings known as the River of 1000 Lingas, archaeology buffs might also be familiar with the mountain as the location of the Angkorian period Kulen ware pottery kilns. But farther up the mountain and deeper into the misty jungle lay dozens of archaeological sites ranging from towering brick prasats, to cave sites, to water features. Until recently there had been little research done on these sites, but the Phnom Kulen Archaeological Program, in collaboration with the Apsara National Authority and funded by the Archaeology & Development Foundation, has begun a three-year project aimed at excavating, mapping, conserving and maintaining these sites.
Project Director Jean-Baptiste Chevance first visited the sites on Phnom Kulen Mountain in 2000 but did not have the funding to being research until January 2008. In its first field season the project has focused on conservation and excavation around three brick temple sites: Prasat Thma Dap, Prasat Neak Ta and Prasat, Anlong Thom. “Excavation is one part of the conservation process. It allow us to know the nature of foundations, the exact size of each site and to propose a perimeter for protection,” says Chevance. “Excavating Neak Ta and specially Thma Dap gave [us] a lot of information about peripheral structures.” Prasat Thma Dap had been previously excavated in the early 20th century by French archaeologists, however Chevance wanted to revisit and expand the initial test pits. Appearing as a lone brick temple nestled in the thick jungle the recent excavation has revealed a large area of occupation immediately around the temple. There is a second laterite tower, a surrounding wall, a causeway going to the East, a gopura, and evidence for wooden architecture. There is also the impressive brick and stuccowork on the temple itself.
In addition to excavation at these sites the team is also working on creating a more detailed map of all archaeological sites on the mountain in order to identify other sites in more urgent need of conservation. Sites slated for research in upcoming field seasons such as Rong Chen pyramid and Poeng Tbal cave, have also been mapped in detail. Chevance explains that this comprehensive research is necessary “in order to have a better vision on the occupation of the mountain.” The mountain is believed to have been inhabited from the 8th century AD to the end of the Angkorian period. It was initially rumored to have been a capital during the Jayavarman II period and later became a popular location for hermits from the 11th to 13th centuries. Archaeological research will help clarify how the Angkorian people used the mountain.
Despite the close proximity to Angkor there are no immediate plans for tourism. The sites are difficult to access, requiring a bumpy ride through narrow muddy paths. Additionally there is omnipresent danger of landmines and UXOs. Chevance notes that at the 5 sites that were de-mined prior to fieldwork 4 had unexploded UXOs. Even with the danger and difficulty of doing archaeological research on Phnom Kulen, PKAP team is looking forward to continuing field seasons. The project’s work in mapping, excavating, and conserving the sites on Phnom Kulen promises to provide useful data for expanding the archaeological record of this period, as well as helping villagers and preserving a unique part of Cambodian history. Article posted courtesy of Alison In Cambodia.
There are over 4,000 archaeological sites in Cambodia...and this man visited almost all of them. Here’s the latest article I wrote and submitted to TouchStone for publication in an upcoming issue: an interview with Chetra Chan. I met Chetra through a mutual archaeologist friend and am very impressed with all his archaeological experience so far. I’m glad to say he’ll be getting some more advanced GIS training in the US which I think will lead to some very exciting research in the future.
Most tourists and visitors to Cambodia are only familiar with Cambodia’s major archaeological sites at the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap. However Cambodia is home to over 4000 archaeological sites all across the country, and one man, Chan Sovichetra, has visited almost all of them. Sovichetra, or Chetra to his friends, was a member of a joint project run by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the goal of which was to map the location every archaeological site in Cambodia. Chetra joined the project in 2002 after finishing his degree in archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. We asked Chetra about his experiences working on this project.
1. How did you go about finding out about all of these sites?
The first part of the project was to collect all the information that the French had already recorded. [Several French scholars including Etienne Aymonier and Lunet de Lajonquière surveyed and recorded archaeological sites in Cambodia the 19th century]. We would go out and visit these sites [to collect information for the maps]. For the second step, we collected information from the list documented by Department of Culture and Fine Arts for all the provinces. After that we would go to different villages and ask villagers about other sites nearby [that hadn’t yet been recorded]. We would take GPS points, photographs, and ask the villagers the name of the site.
2. How did you travel around the country to visit these sites? Were there any difficulties?
By motorbike. Sometimes the motorbike broke down which was difficult. Also I don’t know how to swim so I don’t like crossing rivers. But it was exciting. I am Cambodian so I enjoyed getting to see my country.
Temples always have legends, like they are the palace of the gods or stories about people who lived around them. For example at the Koh Ker group there is a temple and behind the temple there are mounds. The people there say it is the tomb of the White Elephant from the legend of Neang Tournsatra.
4. Were there any interesting artifacts at any of these sites? Could you tell how old they were?
Sometimes the sites were interesting and sometimes they weren’t. Most of them had already been destroyed. If there were temple remains I could sometimes look at that and determine the time period it was from. Almost all of the Angkorian period sites had evidence for pre-Angkorian occupation as well.
5. Were there any sites you were unable to go to visit?
Yes, there were many sites in areas with many landmines that we could not visit because it was too dangerous. There were many sites in Banteay Meanchey near the Thai border. These are not listed on the map.
6. What was your favorite place to visit? Is there any place you would like to go back and study more?
I really liked Preah Vihear. Not just the Preah Vihear temple, but there are many big temples in the province located in the dense jungle. I am also interested in the ancient roads. There is part of Angkorian road that goes near Bakan [also known as Preah Khan in Preah Vihear Province]. On the map it just stops but I think it goes further east, I would like to study that more.
7. What are your plans for the future?
I would like to continue studying archaeology. In July I will go to University of Hawaii to continue studying archaeology there for a special program to learn GIS and archaeology.
After six years of hard work and with additional help from UNESCO, a set of paper maps has been produced noting the names and locations of all of the recorded archaeological sites in Cambodia province by province. Maps have been published in both French and Khmer and are for sale at the National Museum and the French Cultural Center. A corresponding interactive website the Carte Interactive des Sites Archéologiques Khmers (CISARK) with photos and additional information can be found at: CISARK. Article printed courtesy of Alison In Cambodia.
In honor of David Chandler
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Educating the masses
Genocide film seeks to help healing - by Nuch Sarita (VOA Khmer)
An American professor is making a documentary titled 'The Genocide Forgotten,' and hopes to finish the film next year. He is focusing on ongoing efforts to educate and inform Cambodians, especially young Cambodians, about what happened in the country in the 1970s, and how awareness of history can lead to a national healing. "I hope that the film will educate worldwide audiences about genocide and about the prevention of genocide," said University of Florida Journalism School professor Tim Sorel, the filmmaker. Sorel started working on the documentary three years ago and hopes to complete a 50-minute film by next year. He says he expects to make one more trip to Cambodia for it. Sorel became interested in Cambodia when he traveled there for the first time in 2004, working for an NGO called Sustainable Cambodia, which brings clean water, a literacy project, health care and a food bank to the people of Pursat province.
"When I got there and when I came back to the United States I realized that a lot of US citizens really don 't know all that much about the Pol Pot regime and a whole period of the history," said Sorel. "Then on my second and third trips to Cambodia I also found that there were a lot of young people in Cambodia who didn't understand Cambodia's history as well, and that's how the documentary was born." Not many Americans understand what took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, following the US withdrawal from Vietnam. "This documentary was not only to educate the US audiences about Cambodia and the plight of the people, now 30 years after the Khmer Rouge, but also to talk a little bit of what is being done to educate people in Cambodia, young people especially about that time period of the history," Sorel said. While Sorel was making the documentary, the Cambodian people have gone through such extraordinary changes. More so than he thinks any US audience could ever understand. Sorel also interviewed Khamboly Dy, who recently wrote "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," which will be taught, in some form, in Cambodian high schools as early as 2009. "It has been a wonderful experience to come here to interview Khamboly in a way of a tremendous young man," Sorel said. "I think he is taking all the correct steps that he needs to take to make sure that young people and all people educate themselves about this time period to help the country heal, and to help the country move forward."
Brothers in arms
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Thieves on the rampage
Back to the pagoda at Wat Preah Theat in the Roluos commune of Kandal. In 2002, twelve 7th century artifacts were discovered at the site, though two statues were stolen last week and another in 2005. The monks have realized they are not equipped to protect the artifacts and have handed them to the National Museum in Phnom Penh to keep them safe. However that will probably mean that the items will now languish in the vaults of the National Museum like thousands of other artifacts and will most likely never be seen again by the public. At least, in their original location at the pagoda, I was able to see the items when I visited it in January, but the problem was clear that day too, as no-one was around as I inspected the lintels and stone lions on show, and a locked door was the only protection for the Buddha statues. A thief with bolt cutters and a truck with a winch would have been able to cart everything away in the blink of an eye.
What did I see on my visit in January to the site also known as Prasat Preah Theat? Under some sheets and tarpaulins were two sandstone lintels, both similar in style, though one was quite literally worn away. The other, pictured above, appears to be in the Sambor Prei Kuk lintel style, so that would date it to early to mid 7th century, definitely pre-Angkorean. There are four arches with three medallions, with the central one carved with the figure of Indra on an elephant, and inward-facing makaras or sea monsters, with figures on each makara. Below are jeweled garlands and pendants with beading and vegetal motifs. If these two lintels are from an original temple, it would suggest that the prasat was primarily constructed of brick though I could only find a few laterite blocks on the mound where the temple was located. The lintels and doorways were always constructed of sandstone. Now, a bell-shaped stupa is at the summit of the mound, around which a new wall is being built. Next to the lintels were a pedestal and four half-standing lions in varying degrees of repair. Again, experts can tell the date of a temple by its style of lion guardians, showing their fangs, their bulbous eyes and their jeweled pendants. I can't. In a locked room nearby, I could make out through the dirty glass, a couple of statues of Buddha seated under a naga but no-one was around to unlock the door, so their age and exact relief remains a mystery. Click here to see my photos from the pagoda.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
The Golden Voice
Visitors come a-calling
Hot on their tail, my brother Tim arrived at 9am this morning. Flying business class from Heathrow to Bangkok and then onto Phnom Penh, he looked relaxed and refreshed as I met him at Pochentong airport. Nonetheless, as soon as we got to my flat he headed for the bedroom and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. He's still fast asleep now. It's his second visit to Cambodia in eight months and after a few days in the capital, we will be flying to Laos on Sunday for a 14-night whirlwind tour of our close neighbours. It's my first-ever visit, it will be his second.
The many faces of Panmai
Monday, June 9, 2008
Sunday, June 8, 2008
The Smile of Angkor
I raise my eyes to look at the towers which overhand me, drowned in verdure, and I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile again, beyond, on another stretch of wall,...and then three, and then five and then ten. They appear everywhere, and I realize that I have been overlooked from all sides by the faces of the quadrupled-visaged towers....They are of a size, these masks carved in the air, so far exceeding human proportions that it requires a moment or two fully to comprehend them.
This extract and many more in a similar vein can be found in a book by the author Dawn Rooney, called Angkor Observed, which was published by Orchid Press in 2001. It consists of a selection of early travellers' impressions of Angkor, most of which are out-of-print and found only in the archives of institutions or specialized libraries, so few people today know about the experiences and thoughts of these early visitors to Angkor. It's a fascinating guidebook companion to Angkor.
For those who have not visited the Bayon temple at the heart of the great city of Angkor Thom, I repeat a passage from Somerset Maugham's 1930 book, the Gentleman in the Parlour:
It surprised me because it had not the uniformity of the other temples I had seen. It consists of a multitude of towers one above the other, symmetrically arranged, and each tower is a four-faced, gigantic head of Siva the Destroyer. They stand in circles one within the other and the four faces of the god are surmounted by a decorated crown. In the middle is a great tower with face rising above face till the apex is reached. It is all battered by time and weather, creepers and parasitic shrubs grow all about, so that at a first glance you only see a shapeless mass and it is only when you look a little more closely that these silent, heavy, impassive faces loom out at you from the rugged stone. Then they are all around you. They face you, they are at your side, they are behind you, and you are watched by a thousand unseeing eyes. They seem to look at you from the remote distance of primeval time and all about you the jungle grows fiercely. You cannot wonder that the peasants when they pass should break into loud song in order to frighten away the spirits; for towards evening the silence is unearthly and the effect of all those serene and yet malevolent faces is eerie. When the night falls, the faces sink away into the stones and you have nothing but a strange, shrouded collection of oddly shaped turrets.
And finally, this is one face that you won't find at the Bayon. However, if you do, you must let me know! Stereo photographer and musician Robert Bloomberg gave his own tongue-in-cheek take on the origin of the Smile of Angkor when he sent me the above photograph in 2002. "A small tribute to your Buddha nature..." was how he phrased it at the time.