Sunday, August 31, 2008

Vientiane's finest

A typical seated Buddha at Wat Sisaket in Vientiane
The 16th-19th century Buddhas of Wat Sisaket in Vientiane number over 7,000, the majority are set wthin tiny wall niches whilst 300 larger statues, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze, fill up the cloisters surrounding the main ordination hall (sim). Wat Sisaket is the capital's oldest pagoda, dating from the early 19th century, and inside the sim, where photos are not allowed, are more niches, more Buddhas and a series of fading wall murals. Across the street is the museum of Haw Pha Keo, that used to house the Emerald Buddha before it was stolen by the Siamese and relocated to Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew. We also stopped by the Patuxai, the Lao-Arc de Triomphe, though built as late as the 1960s and apart from Pha That Luang and the Buddha Park, that's all we had time to see in Vientiane before we were on our way again during our 2-week tour of Laos.
A view of the cloisters and some of the 2,300 Buddhas that surround the main sim of Wat Sisaket
A Buddha that has seen better days at Wat Sisaket, with the niche Buddhas behind
The main sim of Wat Sisaket with murals and Buddhas inside
This is one of the wooden pediments on view at Wat Sisaket
The museum of Haw Pha Kaeo, rebuilt by the French in the early 1940s
An inscribed Lao stele in front of Haw Pha Keo
The Patuxai monument, Laos' very own 'Arch of Triumph'

Voyage of discovery

Antonio Graceffo is irrepressible. He will try his hand at everything and anything. In recent months he's trained to become an emergency medical technician in the Philippines, and that was after spending the preceding five months with the Shan State Army rebels in Burma for a film, In Shanland, documenting human rights abuses of the Burmese government against ethnic minority people. Better known for his martial arts activities, he's travelled throughout Cambodia and those travels have just been published by Gom Press as an e-book, available online for under $10, in Rediscovering the Khmer. It should also be out in paperback in October. His first Cambodian book, Letters from the Penh, a mix of journalism, diaries, and short stories, has never found a publisher. His second book began at Angkor Wat, and included hiking, bicycling, riding elephants, fighting, and scuba diving his way around the country. To find out more go to his website at www.speakingadventure.com.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A national symbol

The symbol of the Lao nation, Pha That Luang
Perhaps the most recognizable monument in Laos is Pha That Luang, the 45m tall elongated golden lotus bud that can be seen on the national seal, Lao money and countless other places. It resides in the capital Vientiane and was originally a stupa built in the 3rd century to house a piece of Buddha's breastbone. It's been rebuilt numerous times since then, at least twice by the French and was regilded in 1995 to celebrate the Lao PDR's 20th anniversary. It's official name is Pha Chedi Lokajulamani and was erected in its current form - the tall tapered central stupa has a brick core that has been stuccoed over - by King Setthathirat in the mid-16th century, on the site of a former Khmer monastery. Closeby are two wats, That Luang Neua and That Luang Tait, the former being the residence of the main Buddhist hierachy. It draws big crowds every day and the statue standing in front of the stupa is its founder, King Setthathirat, the Lao-Jayavarman VII of his day, who despite seeing off the Burmese, was murdered at the tender age of 38, whilst fighting an ill-fated war with Cambodia.
The Pha That Luang stupa looking down from the wide Th That Luang boulevard
A memorial to the stupa's founder, King Setthathirat
The Lao-Jayavarman VII of his day, King Setthathirat
The admission gate to Tha That Luang
An imposing sight against the beautiful blue and white sky
A praying figure on a gate leading to the inner enclosure of the stupa

Friday, August 29, 2008

Home-grown success

Mr T at his organic farm (pix Tom Fawthrop)
Although I didn't visit the farm whilst I was in Vang Vieng, I am told by people I trust that just 3 kms north of town, perched on the banks of the Nam Song River is the Vangviang Organic Farm, the brainchild of Thanongsi Soangkoun, affectionately known as Mr T, and it's well worth a visit. In an effort to curb the use of chemicals in farming, Mr T led by example and twelve years ago introduced his organic farming methods to the area, which are not only healthier but he also supports community projects that benefit the locals by way of a community youth centre, a school, a bus and a library. The farm produces silk, wine and mulberry tea, welcomes volunteers and visitors and has great veggie food in its restaurant. If you are in Vang Vieng, call in and pay Mr T a visit. Fine out more here.

Activities and scenery

Myself and Tim en route to Tham Chang cave on the west bank of the Nam Song River
Vang Vieng in Laos is rightfully regarded as a stunningly beautiful location, with its limestone karst terrain and a honeycomb of unexplored tunnels and caverns. It's also become a backpackers paradise with its easy availability of kayaking, rafting, trekking and tubing, as well as the constant re-runs of 'Friends' on the tv's in town. I stayed just one night so avoided the backpacker hordes but did sample a Khmer nighclub, which was loud, very dark and uninviting. However, the scenery more than made up for it and to see the towering limestone karsts across the Nam Song River shrouded in low cloud on a misty morning was particularly engaging. With my brother Tim tagging along, we visited the main cave within easy reach of town, known as Tham Chang, with its 151 steps and friendly novice monks. The cave itself is pretty expansive and the views across the valley from its lookout are very pretty. Lots of other caves await those visitors with longer to stay and soak up the atmosphere, but I was on a tight schedule and left next morning for Vientiane.
Early morning views across the Nam Song River from my digs at the comfortable Elephant Crossing
I love the low-flying cloud that hovers around and blankets the karst limestone scenery
The Nam Song River looking towards the Tham Chang cave area
Its all about scenery and activities in Vang Vieng, which is shrouded in trees on the right of this photo
Three young monks on an early morning stroll to Tham Chang cave

Monkey success

Hey, some good news on the monkey front at last. There's hordes of them in Mondulkiri.
Huge Endangered Monkey Population Discovered in Cambodia
Just when you think modern technology reveals all, Mother Nature throws out a few surprises. According to a Wildlife Conservation Society(WCS) report, two surprisingly large populations of globally threatened primates have been found in Cambodia. The report counted 42,000 black-shanked douc langurs along with 2,500 yellow-cheeked crested gibbons in Cambodia's Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, an estimate that represents the largest known populations for both species in the world.

The two primate species are found in much lower numbers at other sites in Cambodia and in Vietnam. Prior to the recent discovery in the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, the largest known populations were believed to be in adjacent Vietnam, where black-shanked douc langurs and yellow-cheeked crested gibbons hover at 600 and 200 respectively. The total population of the two species remains unknown. You may be wondering how something can be endangered if the population is unknown. Science has no answer for that. Regardless of the new finds, conservationists are rarely happy people. In Cambodia, WCS researchers are concerned that looming threats could jeopardize these recent successes.

WCS scientists conducted the surveys with the Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries across an area of 300 square miles (789 square kilometers) within a wider landscape of 1,150 square miles (3,000 square kilometers), which is about the size of Yosemite National Park. The scientists believe total populations within the wider landscape may be considerably greater. The recent census in Cambodia took place in a former logging area where the two monkeys were once extensively hunted. Then in 2002, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries declared the region a conservation area and began working with WCS on site management and landscape-level planning for conservation and local development.

According to WCS, a combination of factors account for such high numbers of primates: successful long-term management of the conservation area; cessation of logging activities; a nation-wide gun confiscation program implemented in the 1990s; and habitat where there is plenty of food. The report says that the two primate populations started to recover in 2002 when the joint program between WCS and the Royal Government began and have remained stable since 2005. "Despite this good news in Cambodia, the area still remains at risk from conversion to agro-industrial plantations for crops, including biofuels, and commercial mining," said Tom Clements, the lead author of the WCS report. "WCS is therefore committed to continuing to work with the Cambodian Government to ensure that these globally important primate populations will continue to remain secure." WCS has worked with the Royal Government of Cambodia since 1999, helping to establish the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area (in Mondulkiri), and developing landscape-level conservation programs in the Northern Plains and Tonle Sap Great Lake.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pick of the news

Enjoy it while you can - sunset at Boeung Kak Lake
All this week, adventure travel writer Tim Patterson is filing stories from Cambodia at the pop culture travel website, Jaunted. Read more here. As a rule, I don't regurgitate the vast majority of the news items that appear about Cambodia unless they prick my attention or are positive enough to warrant reporting here. So this week's stories, whilst plentiful, haven't really grabbed my shirt-collar enough, but may interest you. You can google-news any of them to find out more. They include the start of the filling-in of Boeung Kak Lake, the backpacker haunt and sunset-viewpoint in Phnom Penh; the rise in the price and demand for rat meat; the worthy performances of Cambodia's 4 atheletes at the Beijing Olympics, where three of them turned in all-time bests; tonight's two world championship kickboxing fights involving Khmer fighters at the Olympic Stadium; a warning that a lack of rain has damaged thousands of hectares of rice paddies in the Cambodian countryside; fears that 40 foreigners currently in jail could have their sentences reduced under new child abuse laws; CPP are raising the profile of women with female appointments at deputy governor level in 23 provinces; traffic deaths are up 15% and now stand at 4.5 fatalities in Cambodia each day, and more besides.
Postscript:
Cambodia now has 2 world champions! Both Vorn Viva and Meas Chantha defeated foreign opponents in their 5-round kickboxing ISKA world title fights at the Olympic Stadium tonight to firmly put Cambodia on the world kickboxing map. And don't even begin to think of any home bias amongst the judges, both fighers were deserved winners. I watched the bouts on television in the comfort of my own flat, and even I could see the reigning German and British world champions were beaten fair and square. Football and kickboxing are Cambodia's two favourite sports and the latter have raised the bar which the footballers will be hard pressed to equal anytime this century.
LtoR: New world kickboxing champions, Meas Chantha and Vorn Viva, being interviewed on CTN

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Candee's Angkor

Later this year, or early next, a modern and expanded edition of one of the most popular accounts of the exotic, and then largely unknown, temples of Cambodia in Helen Churchill Candee's Angkor The Magnificent, will be published by DatASIA Inc. It was due out a few months ago but a fire in the home of CEO Kent Davis destroyed some of the graphics and other material, causing a delay in printing. Originally published in 1924, it brought to life the vast jungle edifices of Angkor and their mysteries through the eyes of this intrepid woman explorer.
In addition, Candee was a survivor
of history’s most infamous maritime disaster, the sinking of the Titanic, one adventure among many for the Washington, D.C. society leader and interior decorator who turned more and more to the joys of writing and the thrill of travel to the foreign lands that intrigued her. On her journeys of discovery, Helen Candee walked with kings, presidents, the wealthy and powerful – entertaining, educating and influencing them along the way. Yet her outlook was democratic, her approach spiritual, her love for people of all races genuine. A champion of female equality, she was yet quintessentially feminine – as bold as she was beautiful, she charmed while she shocked. Candee’s vision and talent were never melded with greater impact than in the pioneering work she accomplished after traveling the Far East with her keen sense of detail, inquisitive mind, and respect for a culture that enchanted her. The result of her study, Angkor the Magnificent, is more than a tale of early 20th century Asian travel. Candee’s observations are enlightening, elegant and witty as she relates the history and context of Angkor’s ancient monuments. Thanks to her inspired hand, the world has one of the first significant works on Cambodia in the English language.
The book will include Candee’s complete original account of Southeast Asian travel, a biography of the explorer by Randy Bryan Bigham and more than 120 illustrations of Cambodia and the author. Candee’s personal account of the Titanic disaster is also included, as is a bibliography and index.

Here's an excerpt from Randy Bryan Bigham's biography of Candee called Life's Decor:
Travel for Helen Candee in the early 1920s increasingly meant Japan, China and the exotic Far Eastern lands of Indonesia and Cambodia. The latter was a chief draw, and in her sixth book, Angkor the Magnificent , now a classic travelogue, Helen's facility for words found inspiration in the mysterious, half-hidden temples and palaces, hanging gardens, sculpture and stonework of the ancient “Wonder City." In her book, the beauty and symbolism of the architecture of the temple of Angkor Wat came in for rapturous praise: One can never look upon the ensemble of the Wat without a thrill, a pause, a feeling of being caught up to the heavens. Perhaps it is the most impressive sight in the world of edifices.
The fascinating ruins of Angkor and their Eden-like environs had only been known to Westerners for fifty years, and weren't widely explored or photographed before Candee's ambitious study. Her book, published by Stokes in 1924, was the work Helen was most proud of. It also brought her the most acclaim. She was commanded to give a private reading of Angkor the Magnificent to King George and Queen Mary and was afterwards asked to Their Majesties' annual garden party at Holyroodhouse, being one of only a few Americans invited. Helen was even decorated by the King of Cambodia in a native ceremony. Captivated by the region, its riches and its people, Helen was pleased that the success of Angkor the Magnificent allowed her to focus on Asia in a series of articles and short stories for newspaper syndication the following year, as well as a special feature for Art and Archeology Magazine.

Bye to Luang Prabang

A young monk on his early morning alms-run, and yes that's an elephant in the background!
I'm still wading through the mass of photos I took on my recent 2-week visit to Laos with my brother Tim, as we traversed across that beautiful country from the northwest province of Luang Namtha down to the Four Thousand Islands in the very south and all points in between. In closing the Luang Prabang section, here's a few photos from our early morning start to see the monks receiving alms from the residents (and tourists) on LP's main thoroughfare, Th Sisavangvong, though we were late and only caught the back-end of the very last group of monks at 6am. We also climbed Phousi Hill and joined the backpacker hordes on top to watch the sunset across the river. There's a couple of wats on top but nothing to shout home about, though the views are pretty. And then we were on our way south to Vang Vieng for a night before heading for Vientiane. More later.
A common sight in Luang Prabang at 5.30am every day
Ok, that's it, the monks head for home with their pots full to brimming
Our lunchtime restaurant gave us a perfect view over the Mekong River
Tired of photos of me? Well here's my brother Tim on the banks of the Mekong. Hasn't he got big hands?
On top of Mount Phousi and looking east along the Nam Khan River
En route to Vang Vieng and the beautiful scenery to be savoured

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wats galore

The classic Luang Prabang sim style at Wat Xieng Thong
Luang Prabang is renowned for its plethora of wats that inundate the sleepy city and which attract its many visitors to marvel at their magnificence and to interact with their custodians, the monks. At the northern tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong River and the Nam Khan is Luang Prabang's jewel amongst its pagodas, Wat Xieng Thong. The wat's sim (ordination hall) represents what is considered classic Luang Prabang architecture, with high-peaked and layered roofs sweeping low to the ground. The rear wall of the sim features an impressive tree of life mosaic and the elaborate wooden columns and ceiling are stencilled in intricate gold designs. There's much to admire at this temple. During my temple-day in Luang Prabang I also called in at another half a dozen pagodas including Wat Wisunarat, built in 1513 and housing a collection of 'Calling for Rain' Buddhas and a large stupa, originally erected in 1503. Also on the list were Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Wat Pa Phai, Wat Manolom and Wat Xieng Mouane, where we encountered the very friendly monk, Olay, who I mentioned in an earlier posting.
Gorgeous elaborate gold-stencilling at Wat Xieng Thong
Mosaics adorn the rear wall of the sim and Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong
Scenes from daily life and the story of Siaw Sawat, a famous Lao novel, on the rear wall of the Red Chapel
The 34 metre That Pathum or Lotus Stupa at Wat Wisunarat - also known as watermelon stupa!
Up close and personal with a Buddha statue at Wat Wisunarat
A few of the hundreds of wooden Buddhas inside the sim of Wat Wisunarat
The elaborate frontage of Wat Pa Phai with Chinese guardians in the foreground

Pulse on the record

Steel Pulse's David Hinds in full flow
Over the past year, I've had little spare time to pursue many of my hobbies, one of which was watching live reggae (non-existent in Cambodia) as well as hosting the web's most extensive website on reggae legends, Steel Pulse. Not keeping my ear to the ground as closely as I did when I lived in England, I've only just caught up with this interview with Pulse's head-honcho David Hinds by Jan Salzman on the ReggaeReport.com website. In it, Hinds confirms he's in the midst of writing material for a new album - their last, African Holocaust came out in 2004 - as well as releasing a couple more dvd's and revamping their website. Hallelujah. Here's the interview:

David Hinds: On Tour, On the New Album, on the United Front for Africa - by Jan Salzman 14 July 2008, Malibu, California

Steel Pulse has been one of my favorite bands for about 25 years. In 1985, the popular band from Birmingham won the coveted Grammy award for their album Babylon The Bandit. More Grammy nominations came for Victims, Rastafari Centennial, Rage and Fury, Living Legacy, and African Holocaust. Steel Pulse has recorded 16 albums throughout their illustrious career. David Hinds, central songwriter and lead singer, hails from Birmingham, England. His music has always been tinged with political opinions; he makes his stand in the name of justice. There are also spiritually uplifting songs and deep love songs. This year celebrates 30 years since the release of their first album, Handsworth Revolution, in 1978. David is eloquent, kind, and remains boyishly cute after all these years. Together with his associate, vocalist and keyboardist Selwyn Brown, they form the core of Steel Pulse. I caught up with David Hinds recently at the Malibu Inn. After a tightly packed show, he took time to answer a few questions. Here is my interview with David Hinds:

Jan: Tell us a little about your new DVD, Door of No Return. David: It’s a DVD that’s a collection of inserts of different scenery, but the body of it was filmed some seven or eight years ago, when we made our first exodus to Senegal. There’s an island off the coast of Senegal called Gory, [where the Africans were shipped out to face slavery] and that’s what the video has been based on. Hence the term, door of no return.

Jan: You have been known for your socially conscious lyrics and your stand on socially conscious issues. At what age did this start for you, and is there any particular incident that triggered it? David: I would say that my socially conscious or politically conscious age began when I was about fourteen years old. It was all to do with the “Free Angela Davis” campaign that was happening in England and throughout the United States’ black community… and, the actual incarceration of George Jackson and the killing of his brother, Jonathan Jackson, who was trying to free him at the time, from the court house. I think that is when I got introduced into the whole realm of being politically active.

Jan: You are also known for such beautiful spiritual songs as “Chant a Psalm a Day.” At what point did you reach this kind of enlightenment? David: “Chant a Psalm” was written about 1980. It was at a time when the band was at rock bottom…in regards to its career. We had teamed up with Island (Records) two to three years before that. Then, all of a sudden, we lost the contract with Island. It was our first time venturing into the United States; also, certain band members within our infrastructure were going through a lot of domestic problems at the time. So, with that, and not having the second half of your corner to help you sort through your problems when you’re out on the streets…it brought about the whole aspect of putting a song together that’s all about praising God, and having something that can [act] as a ritual to help you go through a positive day.

Jan: What kind of music do you listen to when you are on your own? David: I listen to all kinds of music. You would be surprised what I listen to.

Jan: What was the last CD you bought? David: The last CD I got…what I literally bought in my hand was a reggae CD. I think it was Stephen Marley’s Mind Control album. I think it is a very vibrant album. It didn’t hit me at first. That was the strange thing about the album, it never grabbed me at all initially. But, after the third, fourth listening…I think it is one of the best albums that’s out there on the market right now. It’s very underestimated because of the nature of the music…which, well you know, when it comes to the acts that are out there…the ones that are making it in the mainstream…your Sean Paul’s and your Shaggy’s…I think Mind Control is a very technical album. I think it is something that is a spin off and [in the] progressive direction, as what Bob Marley would be doing, in so many different ways. I think all the sons, as a matter of fact, are contributing in a very big way towards how the music should be going, as far as I’m concerned.

Jan: What’s in your CD player right now? David: There’s an artist called Umojah that was passed on to me by one of my associates here within the camp, Rootsman Kelly, which is a new act out there trying to penetrate his reggae vibe. I don’t know much about him. This is what I’m trying to say to you. I listen to unknown acts and I listen to people who are up there. Then I go diverse and I start listening to guys like Papoose and 50 Cent. Trust me. You nah mean. I just jump from different artists to different artists.

Jan: What makes you happy? David: I think what really makes me happy, when I look at the nitty-gritty, is meeting people with positive spirits, people who are intelligent, and have good ideas to share. When I look back on it…that’s what really makes me happy.

Jan: What would be a perfect day for you? David: I find is a perfect day is when I manage to get through all the chores that I’ve written down the night before, which includes if I can get a nice song written or half written. I think that becomes a perfect day for me, because that gives me my greatest high of all… when I have a song that I know is really in the pocket. It just gives me a buzz that nothing else does…to be honest with you.

Jan: Is there a new album in the works that we can look forward to? David: There is a new album in the works. as far as being written. The other band members haven’t heard any of the tracks as yet. We’re putting ideas down, we’re putting subject matters together. I don’t like throwing any old song out there. I don’t like throwing any old groove out there. That’s one of the reasons why the band takes such a long time to put music out. ‘Cause once we put it out, then it’s the whole idea of touring for quite a long while. ‘Cause that’s what usually happens. I don’t like putting dumb lyrics together. I like something that is constructive and has meaning to it. It makes me feel good about what I do, and I think it pays off when I see people come back and compliment the bands’ legacy.

Jan: Yes, I think your work is brilliant. David: Thank you very much. We’re absolutely jet-lagged right now. I’m talking to you on auto-pilot.

Jan: Thank you very much for the interview. I bought the DVD and look forward to watching it. David: There’s another DVD that’s coming out shortly. It’s gonna be in two parts basically. It’s a show that we did in Anguilla, which commemorates the 30th anniversary since Handsworth Revolution. We’re also putting together a DVD that is a documentary of the video of the Door Of No Return video that we did in Senegal. We actually did a video for the song itself. What’s going to encompass that video is a history of the band, which has never been out there before. Told in our version, as opposed to anybody else’s point of view of what happened. Also, all the little things that we participated in…such as the punk rock era. We are just gonna be digging up old footage, and amalgamate it with new footage and put it out there. So, you should be looking forward to that one as well. There’s not a title for it as yet…but it’s gonna be out there shortly.

Jan: Oh, that’s great! Do you have any particular message that you’d like to give your fans or your readers? David: Yeah, we are going to be vamping up our website. We’re not happy with the way it is at the moment. Never been actually, but we’ve never had the time to address it, now we’re finding the time. We want to also launch an organization that we are putting together, via the sales of our merchandise…and that’s called UFFA…United Front For Africa. It has to do with raising and distributing the funds in various parts of Africa, which need that kind of money. It might sound like an old story but it does ring true. It’s all about offering as little as you can or as much as you can. Either which way of what you can afford. You would be surprised that little can do so much. Like the purchasing of mosquito nets, for example. And any other kind of medicine. Mosquito nets work out to about eight dollars each, which saves a life, and it minimizes the whole spread of malaria. It doesn’t cure it but its gonna minimize it until there’s actually a cure and a treatment. Haffi clean up the polluted and stagnant water that’s out there. So, these are the things we want you to know about when it comes to launching the new website. We want people, and especially our fans, to be supportive of that particular organization. It’s UFFA…that’s U-F-F-A…United Front For Africa.

Jan: Are there any songs from your vast repertoire that are favorites of yours? David: Wow, there are so many favorite songs of mine. Sometimes I listen back to tracks like “ Nyabinghi Voyage,” “Door of No Return” …there are certain songs I can’t believe I wrote. Something possessed me at the time. I look back on it and I sort of wake up and realize …Hey, where did these lyrics come from? Those are the songs I feel pleased about. “Soldiers” is probably my all time favorite. Obviously there’s “Rally Round”…there’s so many of them. “Drug Squad,” I like that. When it comes to songs, it’s not only the song itself…it’s how it comes into being in the first place. It had to be an excuse of some kind that brought that song into motion. I’m enjoying putting together the new sets of songs right now. Taking my time with it. See what happens. Let’s hope that the grooves are strong enough to stand up to what the songs are gonna contain.

Jan: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview and for taking time on your jet-lagged body to talk to us. David: Thank you, as well, for all of the support you’ve given us over the years and all those wonderful photographs. I hope to be sifting through some of those for the new website. I’m telling you…I’m serious as a heart attack…Boo Boom! Interview copyright of ReggaeReport.com and Jan Salzman.

The right places

The white sands of Koh Rung island
There's lots of talk at the moment about the islands off the Cambodian coast and that Cambodia is destined to become Asia’s newest island hotspot, in succession to Thailand. It's certainly the case that contracts have been signed for many of the sixty-plus virgin islands that lie off the coast and projects have already begun including building a bridge between the mainland and the island of Koh Pos for example. A post on the Private Islands Blog here has the run-down of who's doing what and where, if you are interested. I've never been much of an island lover myself but a visit to Koh Rung late last year gave me a glimpse into what all the fuss is about, and where sand, sea and holiday-hideaways are in demand, Cambodia has untapped potential in abundance.

Last night I had a call from Rachel, in town for a couple of days before starting her new job in Siem Reap, to meet on the top of one of Phnom Penh's tallest buildings for cocktails. It's just around the corner from me, it's called The Place and is a smart, newly-opened mish-mash of restaurants, bars, a gym and more besides. Not somewhere I'd usually visit but worth it for a view over the rooftops of Phnom Penh at night, looking down towards and past the Independence Monument. My photo doesn't really do the view justice but with a pepsi at $3.50 it won't be the place for me.
Phnom Penh at night, from The Place

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pocket guide review

Siem Reap is changing rapidly and to keep abreast of the best the town and the surrounds have to offer, Lonely Planet are publishing a 150-page Encounter pocket guide to Angkor Wat & Siem Reap. Written by resident Nick Ray, co-author of LP's Cambodia, it's essentially a handy-sized book of top tips rather than the in-depth look its parent guidebook takes. It's aimed at the short vacationer, written in a witty style, focusing on shopping, eating, drinking and sightseeing, moreso than accommodation. It still has 33 pages on the temples of Angkor, which is afterall why most people visit Siem Reap - the book title should really read Angkor & Siem Reap - and it also branches out with a few excursions beyond the town. Some will say it's cheap and cheerful, in fact I do, but it fills a niche for visitors who will see only Angkor and Siem Reap on their visit to Cambodia and who don't have time to wade through a mass of detail.
It kicks off with a top-six highlights, includes two walking tours as well as interviews with locals such as Nhiem Chun, the famed sweeper of Ta Prohm, Angkor guide Srei Omnoth and scholar Dr Ang Choulean. Here's a sample of Snapshots - Spas & Massages to give you a flavour:
Foot-massage shops are spread out around Psar Chaa and offer a range of remedies for dispirited soles.... Siem Reap is littered with massage shops, but some offer more 'services' than others. Gentlemen should not be surprised to be offered a 'happy ending' in certain establishments, but the amount of make-up caking the face of the masseuse is usually a good indication that traditional massage may not be high on the agenda.
As I said, cheap and cheerful. It costs $12.99, is in full colour and will be published in September.
An interview with scholar Dr Ang Choulean in the new Encounter pocket guide

Smile

Make a note in your calendars. The Smile exhibition of photographs taken by 5 children who have found their way to the Centre for Children's Happiness from Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey rubbish dump and been given street-documentary photography instruction, will be on display at Gasolina, Street 57, for a month from 25 October. If you want to see their 'work in progress,' click here, it's pretty darn good.

Reggae Rockz 2008

Gabbidon in tune
Despite a complete absence from their programme and event advertising by the Birmingham ArtsFest organizers, Reggae Rockz 2008 will take place in Centenary Square on Friday 12 September from 5pm, with Gabbidon as the late-night main headline act together with Yaz Alexander, Memphis, Dennis Seaton from Musical Youth and a host of other muso's - and its free! I really can't fathom the apathy of the ArtsFest team and their press relations unit as the Reggae Rockz festival has been so popular in the past with Steel Pulse headlining in 2005 in front of a massive audience. Read about it here. ArtsFest itself will take place in Birmingham between 12 and 14 September with hundreds of artists, performances, workshops and exhibitions. A series of outdoor and indoor venues will be used for this unique festival, and it's all free. They just need to get their press unit up to speed.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reflections

Reflections is an exhibition that began life in April 2008 at Tuol Sleng and will present different aspects of the Khmer Rouge regime in an historical-visual journey from their take over of the country in 1975 through to the present day. The exhibition is a collection of photographs and information provided by DC-Cam that range from the work carried out to locate and document the mass graves left behind by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime through to daily life in Democratic Kampuchea and onto the ongoing search for justice.
Lists of the 19,733 mass graves uncovered during a ten-year project by DC-Cam to map the grave-sites, KR prisons and genocide memorials
An unidentified grave-site of Khmer Rouge victims
The early '80s saw the unearthing of mass grave-sites around Cambodia
This is the national emblem and flag of the Khmer Rouge regime
The Renakse Petitions from the early '80s were signed by hundreds of thousands of survivors seeking justice against the Khmer Rouge
The front cover of Democratic Kampuchea Magazine, published monthly, extolling the virtues of the Khmer Rouge regime
Democratic Kampuchea's National Anthem, in English
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