Saturday, February 28, 2009

Captivating lady

On a personal note, I continue to feel sorry for myself over my skin infection that has now moved upwards to my face and this weekend I'm undergoing my third set of blood tests as well as x-rays and ultrasound before deciding to head for somewhere like Singapore or Bangkok early next week to try to get to the bottom of the problem. All the tests so far have proved negative or inconclusive yet my skin is still badly infected and I really don't look a pretty sight (not that I looked a million dollars before all this). It looks that bad that a photo I took the other day would put you off your food for a week so I won't post it. However, to cheer myself up, I had a lunchtime rendezvous today with one of my favourite people, Denise Heywood. She's in town for a few days and will promote her new book, Cambodian Dance, at an illustrated talk at Monument Books next Thursday (5th March) at 6pm. Denise honoured me by appearing as a guest speaker at two of my Magic of Cambodia charity days back in England a few years ago and hand on heart, she is one of the most passionate and evocative speakers I have ever listened to. If you just have 1 thing in your diary next week, make sure it's the Denise Heywood talk, I can guarantee you will be singing her praises as I do. And once you've listened to the talk, make sure you buy the book, it's a fascinating look at both classical dance in Cambodia as well as the individuals who've made its revival possible after the horrors of the 1970s. Dance in Cambodia is part of the nation's soul and Denise pays it all the respect it deserves in her wonderfully detailed book, packed full of pictures. At lunch we had lots to catch up on though she was a bit bewildered by the traffic in the city, having lived here in the early '90s for three years when UN landcruisers were jockeying for space with a multitude of cyclo's with hardly a moto and not a tuk-tuk in sight. She was off to a charity event at Raffles this evening or else we'd still be there now chatting about all and sundry. Let me direct you to her website where you can find out more about this captivating lady.

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Out of the Poison Tree

The postman delivered a small package today and in it was the dvd for the documentary film Out of the Poison Tree, direct from the filmmaker Beth Pielert, and now available to be seen for the first time in Cambodia, at Phnom Penh's Meta House on Saturday 14th March, at 6.30pm. Beth's beautiful and moving film follows Thida and her two sisters back to Cambodia to find out more about the disappearance of their father and to hear first-hand from Cambodians about the necessity for justice, a trial and forgiveness. The most poignant plea for justice came from a teenage schoolgirl, Davey Heng, standing amongst her classroom peers, in a flood of tears, but determined to state her point of view. As the Khmer Rouge Tribunal readies itself for the trial of Comrade Duch, this film is aptly timed for the voice it gives to ordinary Cambodians as well as well-known figures like Youk Chhang and Aki Ra. Archive footage and music from Long Beach artist praChly complete the picture. Saturday 14th March - don't forget the date. If you wish to purchase the dvd, visit Beth Pielert's GoodFilmWorks website.
Thida, Beth with camera and Aki Ra
Rasmei Buth holding a photo of her father, Bun Choen
Interviewing survivors for the documentary

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Closing chapter

Wooden signs point the way, coming from the South Gate direction
The southwest Prasat Chrung and the nearby irrigation channel formed by Run Tadev and Beng Thom were the final pieces of the Angkor Thom jigsaw on my epic cycle ride a few weeks ago. If you have time, it's definitely worth doing all or some of the embankment pathway on top of the mighty city walls, either on foot or by bicycle, just to experience a different perspective on the city and to enjoy the solitude, peacefulness and the surrounding scenery. I saw a variety of birds on my travels though the biggest, a crane, was sat on a solitary tree-stump in the middle of the moat near the last of the corner temples. Here's some final photos to close the chapter on my cycling adventure.
The southwest corner of the laterite wall and moat
The devata at this shrine have not escaped the attention of the temple robbers
The false window with blinds and two devata standing alongside
Two decorated posts with praying figures on the left side and vegetal scrolls on the right
A view out over the moat and the Angkor balloon in the distance
The last section of path before you reach Prasat Chrung coming from the South Gate
Run Tadev was either a very long laterite bridge or was used as an irrigation channel or sluice gate to allow water to run into the moat at the far end
The laterite structure of Run Tadev is covered by earth and vegetation and the other end of this long tunnel opens out at the foot of the moat
The marshy Beng Thom was used as part of the ancient city's irrigation system

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The final Chrung...and relax

The southwest Prasat Chrung, the final one of the four corner shrines on my cycle ride; this is the west false entrance.
My recent bicycle ride along the embankment walls of the ancient city of Angkor Thom seems to have been taking place for weeks, whilst in actual fact it took a little less than four hours and that included stopping to visit and photograph five monumental gates into the city, four corner shrines that few ever get to visit and negotiating a few breaks in the wall as well as meeting up with a group of five twenty-something Khmers, who were out for a picnic, on their bikes, as they reminded me that the day of my trip was a Buddhist holiday. They shared their water, as mine had run out and they offered to share their food as we chatted about life in general and about work - they worked for ANZ Bank - and so my 30+ years in British banking aroused their interest. Nice folks and it was good to chat having spent the previous three and half hours on my solitary ride. We met at the southwest corner Prasat Chrung, which translates as 'temple of the angle,' after my five minute cycle from the West Gate, parallel with the water-filled moat. This shrine is the most visited of the four corner temples as the access from the popular South Gate is straightforward. The prasat itself is similar to the others though its west door is false and it only opens to the east. The devata are here in numbers though they are small in size, the windows have half-blinds as in the other shrines but the only pediment carving I could find was on the ground and the Buddha image had been remodelled into a linga, a popular pasttime in the 13th century. I thought the temple might be a pleasant place to visit to experence a quiet sunset across the moat sometime in the future. After our chat, they cycled off to enjoy their picnic near the West Gate, while I stopped at a cutting in the forest which took me to an ancient laterite bridge and a nearby large pond. The bridge is Run Tadev and the pond Beng Thom and both acted as a way of letting out water from the city and into the moat. Then it was back to the South Gate, descending from the wall for the last time and cycling back to my hotel for some food and a well-earned shower. My cycle ride of around 13 kilometres was definitely an enjoyable way to see parts of Angkor Thom I'd never seen before, to get a different persepctive of the walled city and a way to enjoy a part of Angkor without the crowds. For the last four hours Angkor Thom had been mine, and mine alone and that gave me a great deal of satisfaction. I hope you've enjoyed the journey too. Try it sometime.
The pleasant cycle path from the West Gate heading to the southwest corner
The best devata on show at the southwest Prasat Chrung
This is Prasat Chrung from the south side, with its false door
The all next to this devata looks decidely unsteady
This pediment has a defaced Buddha, converted into a linga and lies on the ground, protected by red ants
A devata on the north face of the corner shrine
This devata is playing hide and seek with a tree growing next to the temple
The east entrance to Prasat Chrung is now supported by wooden beams. The stones in the foreground were part of a small shrine or gate to the east.

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Forgotten vibe no more

It looks a little like a mask, but its the north face of the West Gate, approached from the northwest corner shrineWooden struts support the sides of the eastern entrance of the West Gate of Angkor Thom
The embankment pathway from the northwest Prasat Chrung to the West Gate was the best section so far and completed in less than five minutes. I was now well over halfway in my bicycle ride around the top of the walls of the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The last time I'd been at the West Gate was quite a few years before when it was rarely used and quite atmospheric with a forgotten feel to it, nowadays that vibe has disappeared and it's been made safe with lots of wooden structural supports and a wooden driveway that takes you through the gate door and out the other side. This entrance to the city is now much more popular that ever before when only locals rode their bicycles through it, to and from their nearby villages. A popular route along one section of the wall, for walkers and cyclists, ends at the West Gate, having begun at the South Gate. If anyone does venture onto the city walls it is that section they normally choose. However, I hope I've given you a flavour of what the other sections of the wall can offer as well. I hadn't yet finished my cycle ride so after a good sniff around both sides of the gate, I took my mountain bike back onto the wall to complete my journey via the southwest corner temple. Stay tuned for more.
The face of the king looks down on the entrance into the city at the West Gate
This provides a good view of the wooden driveway installed at the West Gate, and the absence of 'atmosphere' there nowadaysLooking at the west face of the West Gate from outside the walled city
The west face has parts of the royal visage missing
Two faces of the West Gate, the south face on the right and the east face
A final profile look at the east face of the West Gate
A broken Lokeshvara pediment at the top of the wall, in front of the south face. You can just make out the torso at the left of center.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Basement roots


1978 was the year that the band with whom I've shared all of my adult years, Steel Pulse, really took off as a major force in British and world reggae. It was the year they released their first single, Ku Klux Klan, which they perform on this video, as well as their first album, Handsworth Revolution which did incredibly well and they capped the year by touring with the late and great Bob Marley. It also happened to be the year that I saw them play live for the first time, at Cheltenham Town Hall, my own backyard, on 2 June. A gig I will never forget as long as I live. As for this video, it was filmed in the cellar of lead singer David Hinds' parent's house at 16 Linwood Road in Handsworth, Birmingham, which the band used at that time, at the start of 1978, as their rehearsal studio. The footage was used for a film called Reggae in Babylon, a documentary about the reggae phenomenon in the UK that year. At the back is Selwyn Brown on keyboards, then there's Basil Gabbidon on lead guitar, Michael Riley (white cap, white trousers) on backing vocals with Phonso Martin (percussion and vocals), out front is lead singer David Hinds in his woolly hat, with Grizzly Nisbett on drums and Ronnie McQueen on bass. The quintessential Steel Pulse line-up. Enjoy.

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Sea Wall screenings

Your first chance to see Rithy Panh's latest feature-length film offering, The Sea Wall, here in Cambodia, will be upon us soon enough. The French Cultural Center (St 184) are screening the film, in French with English subtitles, on four consecutive nights, beginning on 4 March at 7pm. Entry is free. Panh is Cambodia's best-known international film director and launched his latest work, The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique), at the Toronto Film Festival towards the end of last year. With critically-acclaimed films such as S-21, Rice People, Burnt Theatre and lots more under his belt, he has moved into more mainstream cinema with his newest work adapted from a classic French novel and including the successful French actress Isabelle Huppert amongst a strong cast. The photo above reminds me of the Oliver Stone film Heaven and Earth which included Cambodian actor Haing Ngor amongst its cast.

Postscript: On Monday 2nd March there will be an exhibition opening at 6pm called 'The Making of the Sea Wall' at the Bophana Center on Street 200. The film itself will show for 4 nights from the 4th March at the CCF though tickets can be collected from the Bophana Center beforehand, just to make sure you get a seat at one of the 4 screenings.
Not in French but in English, though it'll be delivered by Christophe Pottier, the head of the French-based EFEO in Siem Reap, will be a talk on Friday evening (27 Feb) titled, 'Dating Temples: histories of styles and style of history?' at 6.30pm at the EFEO offices alongside the Siem Reap River. I am kicking myself that I won't be there to listen. Definitely my bag.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Well-kept and tidy

The main shrine of the northwest Prasat Chrung with a ruined small building in front
A pediment with a standing Lokeshvara minus its face and a group of acolytes
It's Prasat Chrung time again, this time the northwest one, sitting in the overhead sun with little shade, though tidy and well-kept, located at one of the corners of the walled city of Angkor Thom. The view over the wall looked out onto fields and cows to both right and left, though I could just make out the sandstone blocks that used to act as the wall of the long-gone moat. The track from the North Gate was straightforward except one massive break in the wall that had made the path at that point difficult to negotiate on my mountain bike. The devata in niches on the walls of the central shrine were in reasonable condition and a standing Lokeshvara, minus its face, pediment was still in situ above a grinning kala lintel. Any of the four shrines in the corner of the great city could double-up as a picnic venue, so keep that in mind if you fancy a day's walking trek along the walls of Angkor Thom. Next stop would be the West Gate that used to be the most evocative of the city's gates until the authorities decided to make it safe with enough timber to make a small forest.
The gentle track that leads to Prasat Chrung from the North Gate
A massive break in the laterite wall made this section hard to cross
Below the wall, green fields and grazing cows with some sandstone slabs at the foot of the treesA reassembled pediment on the ground showing a re-formed linga and two acolytes
The east entrance to the main shrine with its Lokeshvara pediment
A grinning kala lintel with vegetal scrolling below the pediment
This devata over time has lost her feet which now look stunted
An uncrowned simple-styled devata in a niche
Two crowned devata, the left holding a lotus blossom
The devata of the northwest Prasat Chrung are well developed though their decoration has worn over time
The main shrine of Prasat Chrung with its many devata, windows with blinds and different colours on it walls

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Giving back

4 of the 7 artifacts being returned to Cambodia
Thailand are making a big noise today after their cabinet agreed to return 7 artifacts that even they couldn't find an excuse to keep. There are another 36 sandstone sculptures that they are hanging onto until the Cambodian government can prove they are Khmer in origin. Essentially, Thailand are making Cambodia jump through hoops to get back artifacts that were stolen from Cambodia nearly a decade ago and found in a sea-freight cargo seizure by Thai customs. If Cambodia can prove provenance, either documentary or photographic, Thailand will return the other 36 artifacts. Until the handing-over ceremony, the 7 soon-to-be-returned artworks will go on show in Bangkok's National Museum. They include an 86-centimetre bust of a goddess and six heads of demons varying in height from 60cm to 81cm. Cambodia have been asking for the return of these items for a few years and only now have they agreed to their release. This is a thorny subject for me as I get easily riled when I hear of Khmer artifacts residing in other countries, when they really should be housed in Cambodia. Don't even get me started on the French, who came here, took what they liked the look of and returned to France with their ships laden with Khmer bounty. Presumably, the French removal firm that were employed to strip temples like Preah Khan of Kompong Svay of their treasures had a signed thumb-printed note from the local village chief that it was okay to remove the items from the country. As if. The French even had the brazen cheek to appoint a known thief of Angkorean sculpture from Banteay Srei, Andre Malraux, as their Minister of Culture for a decade.

In a similar vein, the former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, handed over his personal archive of over 1 million documents and 10,000 photos to... wait for it... the French National Archives in Paris, a couple of years ago. Can you believe it? As if they haven't got enough historic Cambodian items already in their possession. I await one of the former King's zany hand-scribbled notes explaining his reasoning behind this incredulous decision any day now. What was wrong with presenting these items, collected after 1970, to a Cambodian institution like the National Archives for example, or even (am I really saying this) the French-run Bophana Center, or leave them with me and I'll look after them. But keep them in Cambodia, it's the least you can do. I could almost feel Jane Fonda squirm when I heard the documents include a letter from the American actress to Sihanouk congratulating him on the Khmer Rouge victory and offering to take up their cause in the US - nice choice Jane. The 'Sihanouk Fund' will be housed at the Soubise Hotel in Paris - it's taken two years to catalogue the stuff. I'm speechless.

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Catch-up

To give you a breather from my posts on my epic bicycle ride around the walls of Angkor Thom (which seems never-ending to me so goodness knows how you feel about it), I wanted to catch-up with a couple of items. The Oscars came and went last weekend and Steven Okazaki’s documentary film The Conscience of Nhem En (or lack of conscience would be more appropriate) didn't make it into the winner's envelope. Nevertheless, it has received great reviews and should be aired on television sometime soon in the States. If Steven would like to send me a copy of the dvd, we'll get it shown in Phnom Penh too. Steven I mean it, send me a copy. Meanwhile, Nhem En continues to seek money from anyone who'll give him some, for his Khmer Rouge museum in Anlong Veng.
On the subject of showing documentaries in Phnom Penh, Beth Pielert has despatched her Out of the Poison Tree film to me and with the help of Nico from Meta House, we hope to show the film on Saturday 14th March. I'll confirm it as definite once I have the dvd in my sweaty palms. This will be the first showing of this intriguing documentary in Cambodia so I hope it'll draw a big crowd of interested onlookers, especially with the currency of the Khmer Rouge trials so high at the moment. More to follow - I hope.
One of my favourite people is the renowned Angkor scholar Dawn Rooney. I count myself as very fortunate to have known Dawn for many years now and she has always been a mine of information and helpfulness personified. In a mini catch-up, she tells me she's recently completed her latest book, Khmer Ceramics, Their Beauty and Meaning, which has just gone to the publishers, following on from her last book, Ancient Sukhothai, Thailand's Cultural Heritage, published by River Books. When she's not lecturing, in her spare time, she's part of the Thai-Cambodian team on the Living Angkor Road Project and has just joined the Board of Trustees for the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap. Another friend is due in town tomorrow, namely Denise Heywood (pictured), lecturer, journalist, photographer and author of the new book Cambodian Dance, as well as one on Ancient Luang Prabang. She will give an illustrated talk on her new book at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard on Thursday 5th March. I know from experience what a wonderfully evocative speaker Denise is, so I urge you to attend.

Moving away from Cambodia and onto music, I informed you about Yaz Alexander's new 9-track mini-album Cry for Freedom here with its focus on roots and culture reggae, though Yaz is a woman for all seasons and her next album is already in the works, with a release date of October, and which will contain elements of soul, r-n-b, hip-hop and jazz, with productions from Sly & Robbie, Montell Jordan and Beres Hammond likely. Also in the works are three forthcoming concert appearances; 7th March at International Women's Day; 4th April with Mighty Diamonds, both in Birmingham, and 12th April with Beres Hammond and Maxi Priest at Wolverhampton.
Two great friends of mine, Selwyn Brown from Steel Pulse with Yaz Alexander

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