Thursday, July 31, 2008

The many smiling faces of Maly

The cheerful and bubbly Maly
This permanently-smiling youngster called Maly was a resident of the car ferry between Ban Phaphin, north of Champasak and Ban Muang, on the eastern shore of the Mekong River, selling the contents of her basket of wooden jars and chewing gum to the ferry passengers. She was a livewire, cheerful and bubbly, enjoying a pretend gun-battle with my brother Tim before studiously writing down our names and ages when we gave her a couple of spare pens and notepads. She persuaded us to buy some chewing-gum even though neither of us eat the stuff before we disembarked and waved our goodbyes, with a massive beaming smile on her face of course.
Maly and her basket of wares that she sells to the ferry passengers
I think Tim has just been gunned-down in his prime
Maly getting ready to reload and fire her pretend gun again
Writing down our names and ages with her new pen and notepad
Maly gives Tim her friendly salute after their pretend gun-battle

In and around Champasak

The sun sparkles on the gently flowing Mekong River near Champasak
Two more colonial-style buildings in Champasak that have fared less well than those already renovated but you can bet these will be spruced up in the near future
If I revisit this building in a couple of years time I bet I won't recognise it
Part of that morning's catch from the Mekong River
The fisherman readies himself for another session on the Mekong River
The car ferry from Ban Muang on the eastern shore of the Mekong River to Ban Phaphin, a kilometre north of Champasak

A Thai view on ANM

An exhibit from the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas at the ANM
I reported back from a return visit to the Angkor National Museum a few days ago and it seems I wasn't the only visitor, as the Bangkok Post from Thailand also gives its tuppenceworth with this review in today's online newspaper.

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.

Colonial elegance

A colonial house in Champasak undergoes renovation as a boutique hotel
Champasak in southern Laos was until thirty years ago, the seat of Lao royalty. The local wat, Wat Nyutthitham contains the ashes of deceased members of the royal family, two of whom owned gorgeous colonial style buildings that have been renovated today and stand out amongst the otherwise traditional wooden Lao homes to be found in this quiet sleepy backwater, the gateway to the Angkorean ruins of Wat Phu. A few French colonial-era buildings remain, one of which is being converted into a boutique hotel whilst the eerie shell of a former royal residence that looks out onto the surrounding mountains, reminded me of the hotel and casino at Bokor in southern Cambodia. The renovated colonial homes of Chao Ratsadanai, the last King of Champasak who died in 1956, and his son Chao Boun Om, who was Minister of Religion, are pictured below. The independent Kingdom of Champasak was abolished in 1946. The town, which hosts a 3-day festival every February, is located on the west bank of the Mekong River and the ruins of Wat Phu are just ten kilometres away.
The renovated former home of Chao Boun Om, former Minister of Religion
The grandeur and elegance of the home of the former Champasak King, Chao Ratsadanai
A beautifully restored traditional Lao wooden home
An abandoned royal residence seeking new owners, in Champasak

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Arnfield's one-woman show

As well as the troupe of dancers and musicians from Cambodian Living Arts, who will be performing at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, there is a one-woman show that focuses on the Khmer Rouge legacy of Cambodia's recent history. It's called The Gymnast and opens today, until 23 August.

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

Bookshelf news

More new books on Cambodia are about to arrive on the bookshelf. These include two publications from the University of Hawai'i Press. Up for release this month is People of Virtue: Reconfiguring Religion, Power and Moral Order in Cambodia Today, a 320-page study into the role of religion in Cambodia and its impact on the society and how its been shaped by the past. The editors are Alexandra Kent and David Chandler. Last month saw Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-Conflict Society released, again 320 pages and edited by Joakim Ojendal and Mona Lilja. Written by a broad mix of Khmer and non-Khmer researchers, this study looks at how Cambodia has handled democracy and reconstruction since major conflict ended in the last decade. The Univerity of Hawai'i Press are certainly doing their bit to expand the bookshelves on Cambodian studies. Already this year they have released two books about the role of women in Cambodia, namely Khmer Women On the Move by Annuska Derks and Lost Goddesses by Trudy Jacobsen. One other book to mention, Cambodia - Culture Smart! will be out in October. Written by Graham Saunders, 168 pages and published by Kuperard, it will offer an insight into the culture and society of Cambodia, with do's and don'ts, taboos and so on. And coming very soon will be my exclusive review of the brand new, not yet available in the bookshops, Rough Guide to Cambodia 3, which has just landed on my desk. I'm looking at it now, as I type. Does it float my boat? How does it shape up to its big rival, the new Lonely Planet Cambodia? More later.


A recently defaced devata I encountered on a visit to Banteay Prei last week
The Guardian Unlimited yesterday posted this story, which we've heard before, but its important that we hear it again. I visited a few temples in the Angkor Park last week and the missing head of a female devata figure at Banteay Prei was so clean that it must've been taken a matter of days or weeks before. Its still a major problem for those temples that aren't closely guarded night and day and anything remaining in the provinces is virtually an open invitation to steal.

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

Where will it all end? In tears methinks. Nevertheless, Roy Hill has been hard at work again in remastering and releasing yet another two CD's, this time its the songs of Cry No More that get the airing. Roy and his buddy Chas Cronk were the mainstays of Cry No More during their ten-year stint together, and the two CD's that have just been released are their 1986 Cry No More Live at the Mulberry Tree session, and their imaginatively-titled Cry No More album from 1987. Both are definitely worth getting hold of - believe me. If you've yet to enjoy the delights of Roy Hill and Cry No More, you are missing out on top-quality pop and razor-sharp song-writing at its very best.
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 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

The southern palace seen from the upper level of Wat Phu
I still have a ton of photos and descriptions to post from my recent visit to Laos including a final flurry from the Khmer temple at Wat Phu. Here are some scenic shots from the temple to keep you in the mood, showing the beautiful views to be found at the site.
The two barays seen from behind tree cover at the summit of Wat Phu
A glimpse of the southern palace and barays from the upper level
The lower levels of Wat Phu stretching out below us, with the Mekong River in the distance
The two palaces and causeways at the lower levels of Wat Phu
The mountains surrounding Wat Phu as seen from the water-filled baray

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cambodia votes

Above, two of Cambodia's 8.1 million voters check the electoral list for their names and registration numbers before voting at one of the five polling stations at Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh this afternoon. Cambodia's adult population went to the polls for the fourth time today since the UN-brokered peace of 1993, and everyone expects the CPP party and the current Prime Minister Hun Sen to extend and consolidate their 23-year stint in power. With many of the city's workers returning to their home provinces to vote, much of Phnom Penh was as quiet as a mouse, with the majority of shops staying closed.
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.
A list of the 11 political parties contesting today's election, in the order they appear on the ballot paper
A pictorial guide to voting at today's election, with copies of the different types of identity that will be accepted

Solitude at Banteay Prei

Parts of Banteay Prei are in danger of collapse, here is the northern gallery pavilion
Banteay Prei lies in a quiet and untouristed corner of the Angkor complex. As I wandered through the sandstone temple built in the latter part of the 12th century, I was reminded of my first visit to Angkor in 1994 when every temple experience was like this - alone and eerily silent except for the sounds from the nearby forest. Those days are long gone at the main temple sites but you can still experience some of the hidden secrets and solitude of Angkor at places like Banteay Prei.
A wall at the eastern gopura with 4 devatas in niches and a baluster window with a drawn blind
A section of the eastern gallery in imminent danger of collapse
A stylish devata in all her regalia holding a lotus flower
Geometric designs adorn the entranceway to the main central sanctuary
In this forgotten corner of Banteay Prei, these two devata have had their heads stolen by temple thieves
This broken naga head and body lie at the eastern gopura entrance to Banteay Prei

Citadel of the Forest

The understated sign showing the way to Banteay Prei and Prasat Prei
An entrance pavilion sits on top of the covered gallery that encircles the main sanctuary area that is littered in large sandstone blocks
Banteay Prei - Citadel of the Forest - is the larger of the two temples that sit side-by-side just a few metres from the main road. Built by Jayavarman VII, it contains all the usual hallmarks of this amazing temple builder though is a smaller miniature version of larger sites like Banteay Kdei, Ta Som and Ta Nei. A moat surrounds the main enclosure which boasts a narrow covered gallery and four entrance pavilions at the cardinal points. The main sanctuary is tall and cruciform shaped and hosts a series of pediments that were altered or defaced during the iconoclastic destruction that followed after the temple's construction, alongwith devatas in niches all over the site. I've toured the site a couple of times in the past and I've always been the only visitor, so you are practically guaranteed to soak up the atmosphere alone.
A laterite-paved moat surrounds the enclosure of Banteay Prei
This pediment with worshippers and lintel have seen better days
The main Buddhist figure in this pediment has been removed leaving acolytes in prayer and apsaras behindMore worshippers sit below the main section of the pediment that has been defaced
The Buddhist figure, Vishvakarma, sitting above this kala has escaped destruction on this broken lintel

Forest Sanctuary

The inner courtyard of Prasat Prei with the central sanctuary in the middle
Prasat Prei means Forest Sanctuary, though the temple today is exposed on a small rise and surrounded by trees, close to the temple of Preah Khan. The photo above shows the central cruciform sanctuary in the centre - topped by a tower of four receding tiers and a blooming lotus on top - with a laterite and sandstone library to the left - in the southeast corner and opening to the west - and the corner of the laterite gopura, which is in ruins on the right. Typical decoration includes devatas in niches, windows with balusters and blinds and an abundance of foliage and geometric patterns on the walls and doorjambs. The standard of the lintels and pediments in situ is poor by comparison with the other temples on the Secrets tour as many have been defaced. Nevertheless, here's a few examples.
The pediment has been defaced to show only a row of worshippers and the kala lintel has also been altered
I thought this devata might be a contestant for 'wicked witch of the west' - she looked a bit evil
Another low quality pediment with two rows of acolytes and a defaced kala lintel
A small representation of a dancing Shiva in a niche
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