Thursday, July 31, 2008
In and around Champasak
A Thai view on ANM
Damn the begrudgers! - The Bangkok Post, Horizons
Less than a year old, the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap has already come in for a lot of flack; we paid a visit recently to see what all the hullabaloo was about.
With Angkor Wat in its backyard (or is it the other way around?), the town of Siem Reap is a revolving door for tourists eager to gaze on the remnants of the majestic architecture of a once-powerful civilisation. The sheer size of this temple complex is, in itself, overwhelming. And while a stroll through the site is always an eye-popping experience, the surviving structures are, quite literally, shells of their former glorious selves. All the statuary and other sacred objects that escaped the attention of looters have long since been removed for safe-keeping. Most of the artefacts were transferred to the National Museum in Phnom Penh where lack of display space means that a lot of them are kept locked away in warehouses. Enter the Angkor National Museum, a $15 million project which is divided into eight themed zones and covers an area of 20,000m2; it is, remarkably, Siem Reap's first full-scale museum.
It was officially opened late last year but finishing touches are still being put to the so-called Cultural Mall, a building adjacent to the museum proper which features a host of gift shops, restaurants and even a spa - a one-stop centre for those in search of sustenance, souvenirs and retail therapy. The modern facilities in the museum include numerous interactive presentations; visitors are free to manipulate the controls of audio-visual displays which come with commentary in a choice of seven languages (English, Cambodian, French, Thai, Japanese, Chinese and Korean). The first of these presentations is encountered at the very start of your tour, in an 80-seat briefing hall where you are shown a brief video, a primer for everything you'll encounter during your visit. The first gallery you enter isn't even counted among the eight aforementioned zones, but it certainly doesn't pale in comparison; in fact it's one of the highlights of the whole place. A special exhibition aptly entitled "1,000 Buddha Images", for it features (you guessed it!) 1,000 Buddha statues ranging from the pre-Angkor (1st to 8th century AD) and Angkor (8th to 14th century) periods to the present day. The oldest dates from the 6th century. The juxtaposing of the different eras allows one to see the marked variations in style. The pre-Angkor images show strong Indian influences and are carved mostly from sandstone while those from the Angkor period utilise both sandstone and bronze. The post-Angkor Buddhas on display here are made from wood and various metals and exhibit many similarities to statues one might come across in a Thai wat. A striking feature of this hall is that all four walls have rows of niches housing hundreds of Buddha statuettes.
As one penetrates farther into the museum one progresses through Cambodia's illustrious past, touching on aspects of its history, culture, society, traditional costumes and spiritual beliefs. There are in excess 1,400 authentic artefacts in all, some, unfortunately, in poor condition. A focal point of interest is the Angkor Wat zone where one can pore over a fascinating, miniature scale model of the temple complex and watch a video explaining the methods used in its construction. Although the museum's government-appointed curator, Chann Charouen, is a Cambodian national, there has been much mumbling and grumbling of late about the folks behind this project. The Thai folks, that is. Yes, it may raise some eyebrows, but this museum is in fact the brainchild of a Thai company, a fact which has, understandably, drawn the ire of some Cambodians. (One can only hope that the ongoing stand-off over Preah Vihear/Khao Phra Viharn does not add fuel to the fire). Critics of the museum have accused the Thai investors of exploiting Cambodia's heritage to pocket a profit. And all sorts of wild rumours have been flying around. According to one (patently untrue) canard, it is mandatory for all visitors to walk through the official gift shop at the end of their tour. But then what new museum, aquarium or zoo in this day and age - Thai-run or otherwise - doesn't sport a souvenir shop with overpriced key chains and stuffed toys?
The Thai investors insist that their intentions are pure; that they set up this museum to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the Khmer Empire. They point out that, according to the terms of the agreement they signed with Phnom Penh officials, once their 30-year lease on the site and the exhibits (on loan from other museums in the country) expires, the Cambodian government will become the legal owner of the museum. Many still suspect the investors' motives, however, and this is hardly surprising given that the fingerprints of Thai entrepreneurs are to be found all over Siem Reap. No one seems to be making a fuss about these Thai-run businesses but then none of them are claiming to be a national museum, are they? All that aside, some areas of the museum could do with a bit of tweaking. Many of the artefacts on display still lack proper descriptions and much of the compound is under-lit, making it a bit hard on the eyes sometimes. Despite what its detractors say, the museum does offer an educational and aesthetically pleasing experience and - let's face it - it's still the only place in Siem Reap where you can see what once embellished the interiors of all those mesmerising ruins.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Arnfield's one-woman show
The Gymnast brings Cambodian torment to life - by Chris Collett (MetroLife)
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took control of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. During the next four years, the regime reduced the country to a slave state and was responsible for the death of an estimated 1.7million people through executions, compulsory urban evacuation and forced labour. Watching news reports about Cambodian refugee camps at that time had a lasting effect on Jane Arnfield, whose new one-woman show, The Gymnast, directed by DV8 founder member Nigel Charnock and premiering at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is inspired by this dark episode in the country's history. 'When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, I was nine,' says Newcastle-based theatre artist Arnfield. 'I remember the Blue Peter Appeal for the refugees, and I remember collecting bottle tops. I was shocked by what I saw and it obviously made a deep impression.'
Though childhood memories were the spark for the show, The Gymnast is the result of extensive research. In January, Arnfield spent a month at the Documentation Center Of Cambodia, an organisation dedicated to bringing the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice. While there, she was able to work closely with its Victims Of Torture project. 'They allowed me to accompany them on field trips and offered me the opportunity to interview people,' says Arnfield. 'I interviewed a man called Bou Meng, who is one of the six survivors of S-21, which was an infamous Khmer Rouge prison.' Although Arnfield learnt much about the atrocities that took place under the Khmer Rouge from first-hand testimonies, she stresses that the show is not a verbatim catalogue of pain and suffering. 'The last thing I want to do is just take people's stories and put them onstage,' she says. 'It is about culpability, responsibility and ultimately about loss - and how we deal with loss.'
An assemblage of spoken word, physical theatre, music, recorded voice and sound, the show juxtaposes her personal experiences of growing up in the late 1970s - the title refers to the gymnastic certificates Arnfield was working towards at school at the time - with the events taking place in Cambodia. 'The starting point for me was that while the West was disco dancing, this country was almost being taken back to medieval times,' she continues. 'I find the contrast fascinating.' Described by Arnfield as a 'multilayered experience', disco songs from the period are interwoven with material such as President Nixon ordering the obliteration of Cambodia. Some of the content is self-explanatory; other aspects are less directly relevant, but everything, including Neil Murray's wardrobe set design, is there for a reason. 'I read an extract that John Pilger had written when he first landed in Phnom Penh,' Arnfield explains. 'When he was walking down the road, he saw a wardrobe, and as he looked at it a child emerged from inside and ran off down the road. He had obviously been living in there. I thought that was a really powerful image.' Committed to investigating the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and other despotic regimes, Arnfield sees The Gymnast as the beginning of a larger project. 'It is the first of many planned pieces using Cambodia as a starting point,' she says. 'Over the next ten years I want to investigate what it is like to come from a traumatic situation.'Note: Jane Arnfield is Artist in Residence at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and recently completed her research for this piece in a one-month trip, which provided the opportunity to work closely with Sophearith Choung and the Victims of Torture Project as well as with Youk Chhang, Director of DC-Cam, artist and one of TIME magazine’s 100 Heroes and Pioneers.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Cambodia's Forgotten Temples Fall Prey To Looters - by Guardian Unlimited
The three freshly dug holes under the two arching palm trees measured a metre by about half a meter, and about half a meter deep. A few fragments of what appeared to be centuries-old clay pots were scattered around the excavation site, seemingly discarded as worthless in the hunt for more valuable treasure. "We find new holes every week," said Ndson Hun, a farmer living in the nearby village of Phoum Snay. "The demand [for artefacts] is as great as ever, so people keep digging." No one knows the extent of the riches at Phoum Snay, an unremarkable Cambodian village about 40 miles north-west of Angkor Wat, the complex of 100 9th to 15th-century Buddhist temples seen as among the world's architectural wonders. But, unlike at Angkor Wat, there are no heritage police here, no Unesco staff, and no local authorities to guard the site. As the latest holes testify, anyone wishing to pillage the remaining hidden riches will encounter few obstacles. Experts fear the decades-long looting for artefacts across Cambodia is now so rampant there will soon be little left outside the splendors of the Unesco world heritage site at Angkor. "Almost all sites of antiquity and temples far from towns are being destroyed," said Michel Trenet, the undersecretary of state at Cambodia's culture and fine arts ministry. "Naturally, the priority for us is to protect the Angkor sites and then think about the others. But we don't have enough guards and people are not motivated to protect their heritage. Cambodia is becoming a cultural desert."
Phoum Snay is a classic example. On its discovery, almost three years ago, the site was thought to have been a mass grave for victims of the Khmer Rouge, the communists who ruled from 1975-79 and under whose regime some 1.7 million people were executed or died from disease and starvation. Then, when iron-age artifacts, including weapons, jewelery, pots and trinkets, started appearing, the site was reassessed as the burial ground of an ancient army. The researchers moved in, and digging started. Thousands of items were found. Yet little was done to secure the area and antiques traders - people mainly from neighboring Thailand, say villagers, and seeking to sell Khmer treasures abroad - now have virtual free rein. Their success is shown by the regularity with which Khmer artifacts appear at auction around the world. At any one time, dozens of Khmer "treasures" are on offer on the eBay auction website. Poverty and greed are considered the two main motivations behind the looting. Monks living in a temple half a mile from Phoum Snay believe the villagers are involved in the illicit digging, despite protestations by Ndson Hun and his friends. "The villagers are doing it because they are so poor," said Moy Sau, clad in his traditional saffron-coloured robes. "They don't respect their heritage because they can't afford to turn down an offer of a few dollars for a night's work." Chea Vannath, president of the Centre for Social Development, says that the average annual income in Cambodia is about £155 a year - much lower in rural areas. "Protecting our cultural heritage is a luxury," she said. "People are fighting to survive so they don't know better." Moy Sau does not dare warn the authorities about the looting: "As a monk I cannot do anything because I rely on the villagers for my food."
Even if he raised the alarm, that might not ensure the artifacts' preservation since government officials and members of the security forces are also involved in the trade, widespread reports suggest. A stone carver based a few miles away, in Phumi Rohal, who was too afraid to give his name, said some provincial government officials last month asked him to build a base for a "half Buddha" that one of their bosses had acquired. "I was suspicious even though they had lots of letters and said it would be kept in a temple," he said. "But I did it because I'm afraid of the authorities. Us little people can do nothing against them." With the country's legal system being so corrupt, the "dark forces", Mr Trenet says, are too powerful, even for him. A tour of Toul Ta Puon, known as the Russian market, in the capital, Phnom Penh, proves his point, with shops packed with tall cabinets full of artifacts. Bronze-age axe heads and rings sell for less than £15. One intricately carved 11th-century, long-necked water jar was £30. The shopkeepers appear motivated only by money and refuse to lower their prices, even for Mr Trenet, though most recognise him. "I would like to buy all [the artifacts] for the museum. But my salary is only [£155] a month so what can I do?" he says.
More tears on the way
The Mulberry Tree experience comes complete with the pub's Choir who knew every word of every song and play a big part in complementing the comedic singing of Mr Hill, the bass brilliance of Cronk and the keyboard wizardry of Nick Magnus. With fifteen tracks you certainly get your money's worth. The CD's tracks are: Radio; I Love Roxy; Dancing in the Danger Zone; Fashion; Man Overboard; Every Single Time; On Holiday; Don't Leave Me Here; Tears on the Ballroom Floor; Jenny Takes A First Look at Life; Marion Jones; Jimmy & Johnnie; Cry No More; Looking for Something Mr Templar; Wooden Heart.
The altogether more expensive affair, Cry No More, was released by EMI in August 1987 and produced by Richard Gotherrer, Jeffrey Lesser and David Richards. It didn't make them millionaires but its top drawer nonetheless. The CD's ten tracks are: Cry No More; You Don't Hurt; Tears on the Ballroom Floor; Recipe For Romance; Oh Bessie; Real Love; Every Single Time; Marion Jones; Hit The Big Drum; Don't Leave Me Here.
To get copies of both CD's at ten British pounds apiece plus postage & packing, email firstname.lastname@example.org and keep your fingers crossed. Roy has recently released two solo CD's, Hello Sailor and Fun With Dave, which are excellent, and has a few solo shows lined up on 7 Sept (at Brentford Festival), 11 Sept (at the Milton Arms, Southsea) and 17 Oct (at the Turks Head in Twickenham). The Cry No More annual Christmas Show and Farewell Appearance has also been booked for the Turks Head on 27 Dec. It's not really their farewell appearance, well, I don't think so, its just Roy's attempt at humour.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Scenic shots at Wat Phu
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Postscript: Early indications suggest a landslide victory for CPP with the opposition vote split between the majority Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, with the royalist parties losing voters in droves. Shenanigans in Phnom Penh meant many voters names were not on the electoral role. I spent Sunday afternoon watching my Bayon Wanderers team-mates play football at the Old Stadium. My leg is giving me some grief after last weekend's exertions so I was sidelined and if the swelling doesn't recede tomorrow I will visit the doctor for a check-up.