Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not on trial

A mock-Angkorean temple stupa being erected to house Ta Mok's remains
With the Khmer Rouge Tribunal beginning again yesterday with the trial of Duch, it reminded me that last week I visited the final resting place of one of the most feared Khmer Rouge hardline leaders, who never managed to make it to stand trial for crimes against humanity, dying in custody whilst awaiting the formation of the Tribunal in July 2006. Ta Mok, The Butcher, Brother No 5 or Chhit Choeun to give him his rightful name, was the one-legged chief of staff and feared during the KR regime of the 70s and later ruled the northern part of the KR territory, operating out of Anlong Veng. To some of his followers he is remembered fondly, by others he's remembered with a cold chill as a murderer with the blood of thousands on his hands. As the KR began to unravel in the late 90s, it was Ta Mok who ended Pol Pot's command of the KR by placing him on trial, with the former Brother No 1 dying soon after during his house arrest. Almost a year later, in March 1999, Ta Mok was finally arrested and placed in custody awaiting trial. He never made it. And with his death, many felt robbed of justice. However, in Anlong Veng, Ta Mok is recalled with a degree of affection, owned a large house in the town which is open to the public to visit and his stupa, in the pagoda of Wat Srah Chhouk, is in the process of being upgraded, at the cost of his family, in a mock-Angkorean style. You can see the work being undertaken, which began four months ago, in these photos. More pictures from Ta Mok's house will follow soon.
The cement coffin of Ta Mok at Wat Srah Chhouk, just off the road towards the border
Ta Mok is recalled fondly by many residents of Anlong Veng
Tiles from the stupa roof are being glazed before being affixed
Setting the tiles in their mould before glazing takes place

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4Faces opening soon

A pal of mine, Eric de Vries will open his new gallery-cafe in Siem Reap very soon - 24 April to be precise - and the following story appeared in the Phnom Penh Post during my absence last week. In addition, Eric has launched the 4Faces website at www.4faces.net.

New Cafe Gallery

Siem Reap photographer Eric De Vries spent most of the weekend in Phnom Penh hunkered down with award-winning war snapper Tim Page to select a range of photographs to display at the opening of De Vries' new cafe gallery. Page has an ongoing exhibition of his iconic Vietnam War photos at Phnom Penh's Meta House and will now launch "almost the same" exhibition in Siem Reap. The Tim Page exhibition will debut in Siem Reap at the launch of De Vries's new cafe gallery, 4Faces, scheduled to open at the end of April in the street running parallel to Pub Street, near the Maharajah Indian restaurant.

De Vries, a member of the Asia Motion Photo Agency, said 4Faces will schedule new exhibitions every month on a specially-created 13-metre "black wall". Hopefully Dutch-born De Vries will not succumb to modesty by refraining from exhibiting his own works, as his arty black-and-white pieces have gained an international reputation, and an exhibition of his photos from his recent book, This Must Be the Place: Images of Cambodia, toured throughout the Netherlands. In June 2006, FCC Angkor exhibited his funky "Blues for Buddha" series, which documented the varied Buddha sculptures found in Cambodia and Thailand, including unusual Buddhas sporting Fu Manchu goatees and what looked like a Jimi Hendrix-style afro haircut.

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Two of the missing

One story that never seems to be far from the public eye is the disappearance of two photojournalists, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, who were last seen in 1970 as they rode their motorbikes into Khmer Rouge-held territory. Vietnam war photographer Tim Page has been in Cambodia recently continuing his search for the truth about what happened to them and I'm told is positive he's found Sean Flynn's last resting place. There's a book and a documentary in the offing I believe. Another book about the pair, Two of the Missing, Remembering Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, has just been updated and republished in paperback by Press 53. This new edition contains 18 pages of photographs by and of these two photojournalists. Most of these photos have never been published before. "Sean Flynn and Dana Stone were among the bravest and best of that daring young crew of photographers who covered the Vietnam War," says author and friend Perry Deane Young. "Flynn was on assignment for Time magazine and Stone was a cameraman with CBS when they were last seen heading around a Communist roadblock near the Cambodian town of Chi Pou." Director Ralph Hemecker has optioned the film rights to the book and is now in the process of casting. The screenplay was written by Young and Hemecker. Young is the author of three plays and nine books, including the bestseller, the David Kopay Story. A journalist with UPI during the Vietnam War, he remembers his close friends and colleagues as he examines their lives and wonders what led them to take this one final risk. Young also includes profiles of several other colleagues who took very different paths from Flynn and Stone, including the legendary madcap English photographer Tim Page.

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A few quickies

Smiling kids in a remote village on the 'ride from hell' between Stung Treng and Preah Vihear province
It's been non-stop since I got back home and tonight Davy from the Shadow of Angkor GH in Siem Reap gave me a call to invite me to dinner as he's in town for a few days, and then I fell asleep, understandably as we were painting the town a little too red during Tim's stay and my body is telling me it needs some rest. To keep you in the picture, here's five photos from last week.
Close to the edge at Preah Vihear
Tim is entertaining the young 'uns at Preah Vihear temple
Just one of the obstacles to overcome on the 'ride from hell' as I take a breather...
One of Tim's dolphin shots at Kratie, his photos were much better than mine, as the dolphins played hide and seek with both of us

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Old news

Nice to see that Goal.com have picked up the story I broke two weeks ago here that the Cambodian national football team coach Prak Sovannara has rung the changes after the team's three-match losing sequence at the Suzuki Cup finals in December by introducing 9 new faces into his squad, as they prepare for the AFC Challenge Cup group matches in Bangladesh at the end of next month. Here's the article, obviously re-worded from my own, that appeared in the South East Asia section of their website. It's good that someone at least took the trouble to give Cambodia a plug at all. Talking of the national team, their left-sided midfielder-cum-winger Chan Rithy played for the Phnom Penh Crown team as they collected the Hun Sen Cup on Saturday amid speculation that he could be off to play in the Thai Premier League next season. It's something I mooted a while ago that maybe 3 or 4 of the national team's best players need to take flight and go and play in some of the higher standard football around Asia to improve their skill, technique and big-game experience in order to bring that to bear in the international arena. I'm talking about keeper Samreth Seiha, Chan Rithy, Sun Sovannarith and the striking duo of Khim Borey and Kouch Sokumpheak. Anyway, here's that Goal.com article.

Cambodia Call Up Nine New Faces For AFC Challenge Cup
Cambodia have rung the changes ahead of some crucial matches... 30 March 2009

Prak Sovannara, the head coach of the Cambodia national team, has called on nine new faces to carry the team’s challenge for the upcoming AFC Challenge Cup qualifying round in Bangladesh with games against the hosts and Myanmar. Out of the 22 players called for the centralised training camp at the National Olympic Stadium, the decision was made to rely on the majority of the players from the recent Hun Sen Cup finalists - Phnom Penh Crown and Naga Corp FC. The Cambodian Premier League and Hun Sen Cup holders, Phnom Phen, already had Teing Tiny and Chan Rithy in the national squad and now they also have goalkeeper Peng Bunchhay, defender Lor Pech Seiha and offensive midfielder Keo Sokgnan in the line-up.

On the other hand, Naga Corp contributed striker Teab Vatanak, midfielder Pok Chanthan and defensive captain Om Thavarak alongside existing Kim Chanbunrith and Sun Sovannarith. Preah Khan Reach FC, who emerged as the third best team in the Hun Sen Cup last week, now have six players in the national squad with the addition of midfielder Khoun La Boravy. The other new faces in the Cambodia national team are right-back Pheak Rady from National Defense Ministry FC and Ly Ravy, a midfielder from Kirivong Sok Sen Chey. Those players who have been left out since their participation in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2008 are custodian Hem Samay, defenders Thul Sothearith, Chea Virath and Sun Sampratna, midfielders Sam Minar, Ieng Saknida, Ieng Piseth and strikers Pich Sina and Hok Sochivorn.

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Vann Nath in Forbes

I missed this story about Vann Nath, the painter who survived the gruesome Tuol Sleng prison because he used his skills as an artist to outlast the Khmer Rouge regime, as I was away last week - coincidentally spending some time in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng. The article appears on the Forbes.com magazine website here and has come in for some criticism for a few inaccuracies. Judge for yourself.

The Goya of the Cambodian Genocide -
by Lawrence Osborne

How painter Vann Nath reveals the truth of what happened.

It doesn't take very long living in Phnom Pehn before a 10-year-old boy with dog-dark eyes slips a plastic-wrapped book into your hand as you are sitting at an outdoor cafe and says, "Genocide, sir, genocide book. Five dollar." The child hustlers here are so charming in that Oliver Twist way that you always give in and buy a genocide book and, even more depressingly, you open it. There are certainly many of them being touted by the kids working the Sisowath Quay alongside the Tongle Sap river. There are the works of the American scholar Ben Kiernan, or the harrowing war memoirs of Jon Swain and François Bizot, or various other memoirs with titles like Pol Pot Killed My Sister or A Year in Hell. Genocide is big business in Cambodia; even the set price destination menus inside the tuk tuks feature the "Killing Fields" - the former Khmer Rouge extermination camp at Cheong Ek--as their No. 1 Phnom Penh attraction, followed closely by Tuol Sleng, the secret prison known as S-21.

For the last few years, the U.N. has been sponsoring a weary, bickering, increasingly fruitless war crimes tribunal to condemn the last five senior members of the Pol Pot regime. In the summer of 2008, I watched in disbelief as Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, was judged "unfit" to stand trial for mental health reasons. This year, it has been the turn of the sinister Duch, the commandant of Tuol Sleng. The others on trial are Khieu Samphan, the former nominal head of state; Noun Chea, Pol Pot's deputy, and Ieng Thirith. But this month in Phnom Pehn I noticed that the papers were also filled with rumors that the UN was threatening to pull out of a trial seen as being manipulated by the nervous Prime Minister Hun Sen. The slippery Hun Sen is an ex-Khmer Rouge himself, after all, and he has many skeletons in his capacious cupboards.

On the streets, meanwhile, the most ubiquitous genocide book by far is a slender volume with the modest title, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: A Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21. Unwrap the plastic and you enter the most harrowing memoir of them all, a first-person account of the Khmer Rouge years by a naive country painter named Vann Nath: one of only seven men to survive Tuol Sleng. Sixteen thousand others were not so lucky. Some have called Vann Nath the Goya of the genocide, which was contrived by the Maoist regime of Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979. It was a period in which the strange, secretive dictator Pol Pot - whose real name was Saloth Sar - tried to create what the British historian Philip Short has called "the first modern slave state." Upon emerging victorious from a long guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol, Pol Pot's militant Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and drove millions of people into the countryside to work in collective farms. Twenty thousand died on the road in the first few days of the regime and during the next three years and 10 months, 200,000 were executed as "traitors." In total, between 1.5 million and 2 million died. When the Vietnamese army finally drove Pol Pot back into the jungles of western Cambodia, the country was strewn with the remains of the so-called killing fields.

But the Khmer Rouge did not cease to terrorize Cambodia. Supported by China, Thailand and the U.S., Pol Pot himself fought on in the wild Cardamom Mountains near the town of Pailin, on the border with Thailand. Atrocities continued. In 1994, Khmer Rouge units attacked a train on the Phnom Pehn-Kampot line and executed dozens of people, including three westerners. In 1997, the former Khmer Rouge propaganda minister Son Sen was murdered with his wife and children on Pol Pot's direct orders--a lurid crime that led to the dictator's downfall inside his own movement. Only with Pol Pot's death in 1998 did the movement begin to peter out, and the almost supernatural fear he inspired begin to recede.

Vann Nath's electrifying, primitivist images inspired by Bollywood movie posters and drawn directly from memory, are the only testimony to what happened inside S-21, a former French school in the heart of the city where thousands were tortured and murdered under the eye of the psychopathic Duch. It's a paradox of torture (and genocide, for that matter) that it can rarely if ever actually be photographed as it happens. But it can be painted. Like Duch, Vann Nath is quite a well-known character in Phnom Pehn. He owns a large Khmer restaurant on Czechoslovakia Street with a dark dining room walled with bamboo and filled with the kind of miniature red-lit Chinese shrines that look like shrunken porn stores. He wasn't difficult to find in the end. A slightly stooped, white-haired man with a kindly, beaten-up face, he is to be found in his restaurant almost every day, self-effacingly holding court with a trickle of visitors and playing with his grandchildren.

You see at once the wounded, hunted eyes and the slight sense of bemusement--it's a face older than its years and yet somehow also younger. When you are one of only seven people who emerge alive from a killing machine that exterminated thousands, you inevitably wonder why it was you and not someone else. As Vann Nah explains in his book, he was only spared because he was a reasonably competent artist. Duch plucked him from the execution lists because he thought he might be able to produce a few decent propaganda portraits of Brother Number One, as Pol Pot was known. (The execution orders still survive, with Duch's signature at the bottom of a long list of Vann Nath's fellow prisoners and a red line under Vann Nath's name with a comment to one side suggesting that he be spared.)

We sat in the gloom of the dining room in the middle of the afternoon, under plastic vine leaves on trellises, while he ordered me a Khmer feast: mo-cou kroeung, a fiery sour soup, and spiced omelettes called pong teair. Vann Nath has his painting studio upstairs above the restaurant and, for all his odd celebrity, it's a quiet life now, by his own admission--daily painting, family and the business. Like most Khmers, he is reticent, refined, never raising his voice or making emphatic gestures. But from time to time he covers his face with a hand in a gesture of apparent nervousness. He said that he had never dreamed his life would turn out this way, that his work would become the most instantly recognizable icon of a surreal state crime. "I thought I would be painting landscapes. Indeed, I have now gone back to painting landscapes." On Jan. 7, 1978, the 33-year-old painter was arrested. As usual with the Khmer Rouge, there was no explanation, no credible charge; the whole process was somewhat mysterious.

Equally inexplicably, Vann Nah was tortured by electrocution. The questions were always the same. Was he a member of the CIA? The Vietnamese sympathizers? The KGB? He had never heard of any of them. He was then bundled into a convoy bound for Phnom Pehn, still with no idea what he had been arrested for. Instantly, he was catapulted into a Dostoyevskian world of secrecy, paranoia and terror. None of his fellow prisoners knew what they had been arrested for either. It hardly mattered. Decades later, many Khmer Rouge cadres freely admitted that most of the people they had murdered were innocent. Killing innocents was as important as killing the guilty. "Better to kill a thousand innocent people than let a single guilty one go," was one of the Khmer Rouge's cryptically absurd slogans. In the converted classrooms of S-21, prisoners were shackled together with iron bars. They were not permitted to talk, urinate, stand or even turn their bodies without asking permission from the ferocious teenage guards. If they ate cockroaches to supplement the appalling food, they were beaten savagely - sometimes to death. The guards knew, even if the prisoners didn't, that everyone there was doomed to die anyway.

Vann Nath's gripping paintings show many of these scenes: prisoners being flogged, water-boarded, their nails ripped out, their throats cut (it was rumored that blood was collected in this way and peddled to Phnom Pehn hospitals). In a 2003 documentary made by Rithy Panh, Vann Nath re-visited Tuol Sleng with some of the former guards, who were outwardly unrepentant. With demented enthusiasm, they re-enacted their cruelties - revolutionary children tormenting their elders. They stormed up and down the corridors for the cameras, screaming at the ghosts of long-dead prisoners. Vann Nath and Chum Mey, another survivor, watched them in stupefaction. "Pol Pot was always obsessed with the Cambodians disappearing as a race," Van Nath said in the restaurant. "There was this racial hysteria about the Vietnamese, about the Khmers being conquered and assimilated. But during that whole time I kept wondering if the Khmers were simply destroying themselves. I wondered, how can we do this to ourselves? Is it self-hatred? Are we trying to wipe ourselves from the face of the earth?"

We went upstairs to the open-air studio on the first floor - a terrace overlooking the tin rooftops. It was the rainy season and the skies lit up with monstrous flashes of lightning. The studio paintings were a mix: half political paintings, half idyllic, sunset-drenched landscapes filled with Ankgorian ruins, water buffalo and the timeless villages that seem to reside in the Khmer unconscious as a kitsch memory of a lost Eden. They are the kinds of images you see everywhere at Angkor Wat, sold by scores of artists by the roadside. But the Tuol Sleng images are something else. Also derived from memory, they have the gritty, driving force of a personal pathology. Among them stood one of the hallucinatory pictures of Pol Pot, clearly inspired by the iconography of Mao. Looking at it, I was reminded of a curious observation by the French writer Pierre Loti upon visiting the ruin of Banon at Angkor Wat, which is famous for its giant smiling faces of King Jayavarman VII. Loti found the temple terrifying because of those faces, which showed the smile of totalitarian power and cruelty, of calm implacability. When I told Vann Nath this he seemed to recognize the parallel. "Yes, I can see that. I made Pol Pot smile like that because that's what they wanted."

Like a miniature gulag, Tuol Sleng had its hierarchies, its survival strategies (futile in the end, of course) and its resident sadists. Over it all presided the cool, methodical, pedantic Duch, who took pride in the exactness of his bookkeeping. Every day he came into the studio, where a handful of artists were being kept alive for official purposes, and examined their progress. The executioners always came with him. I wondered how Vann Nah felt about Duch now. "Duch was always polite to me. He would come in and look at my portraits and admit that I was making a good effort. We both knew that if I didn't make that effort I would be taken out and shot with the others, but he could pretend to joke about it. He asked me to make Pol Pot look young and fresh. I ended up making him look like a teenage girl, with the pink cheeks. Duch was delighted. I was allowed to live."

Duch was himself a curious character. A former math teacher who had come under the sway of Maoism in the '60s, he was the same age as Vann Nath and had fought in the jungle army of Pol Pot for years. As it happens, he also interrogated the French scholar Francois Bizot in 1971 after Bizot was captured by the Khmer Rouge near Angkor Wat. The portrait of Duch in Bizot's book, The Gate, was unforgettable enough. Mildly sadistic and a fanatical Communist, Duch had spared Bizot because the latter could play chess and speak Khmer. This odd Frenchman was intriguing and Duch was too curious about him to have him shot. To Bizot, there was a cat and mouse quality to their relationship, and perhaps the same had been true for Vann Nath. Vann Nath's images are more than paintings, and they cannot be judged merely aesthetically. They are folk stories lit by a sudden flash of pornographic horror. His images of water-boarding, a technique used daily at Tuol Sleng, have recently found their way all over the Internet in the light of recent controversies, though few know the story behind them. For many in the West, it was their first actual image of the technique. It shows how the archaic tool of painting has once again become strangely powerful and relevant in the age of digital media.

The faded black and white photographs from 1975, "Year Zero" of the regime, often look like something from the distant past, like views of the Middle Ages. Our sense of distance from them is already extraordinary. But Vann Nath's brilliantly colored nightmares somehow remind us that most of us were alive at the time, living happy lives elsewhere. Pol Pot is not a figure from the distant past and memories are not digital. Last summer, I went every day to the trial out by the air force base. The defendants are ancient, but the machinery of U.N. justice has tried its best to be merciless toward the leaders of the genocide. (Nevermind about the thousands of subordinates who did the actual killing. They cannot be dredged up, for some mysterious reason, and they have slipped back into the population unnoticed: a thousand killers walking the streets with their shopping bags.) As the technicalities dragged on, many impatient Khmers in the audience began to hiss and mutter angrily. Many of them were survivors or relatives of the dead. One day, I was invited to accompany a group of relatives from a small country town called Takeo, who had been invited by the U.N. outreach program to visit Tuol Sleng. The idea was to teach them about what might have happened to their loved ones and to show them the place where they might have died.

Many of these aging farmers had never been to the capital before, and Tuol Sleng to them was just a terrifying word. They arrived at the museum at 8 a.m., a large group anxious at first to have their pictures taken on the neat lawns under the shade of the frangipanis. But soon the mood changed. Tuol Sleng is filled with hundreds of mug shots taken by the captors as the prisoners were being processed prior to being "smashed." There are men, women, children--wildly beautiful young girls, old men, defiant teenagers with bloodied faces, disillusioned Party members who seem incredulous, small boys with cherubic eyes. Each one has a number slung around their neck (there is a famous Vann Nath panting of these ghastly photographic sessions). And there are pictures of the killed, too, each one with his or her throat cut, their chests cut open. There is a girl who threw herself out of a window to commit suicide. And there are the pictures by Vann Nath at every turn, exhibited here as if to corroborate the evidence. The farmers were as shocked by Vann Nath's paintings as by the portraits of the dead - perhaps more so.

Then it happened. I was standing next to a series of photos of prisoners, one of which is quite well known: It shows a young woman sitting next to her baby, her eyes turned helplessly toward the camera. Most of the portraits are marked "unknown" and this was no exception. The woman next to me was also studying this photo with excruciating intensity, and finally she let out an ear-splitting howl of grief. Tears streamed down her face. She recognized the girl with the baby. The farmers gathered round and the U.N. officials came up quickly with their notebooks; it sometimes happened t-hat a visitor recognized a dead relative, and it had happened now. The girl in the picture - the number - had a name after all, and she was the woman beside Me's sister-in-law. She had had no idea what had happened to her all those years before. The girl's name was Ouk Sareth. In the photo, she was 29. The sister-in-law's name was Nob Chim. I spent a little time with Nob Chim. She was 50 now and said she remembered "every moment" of the Khmer Rouge nightmare. Her hands shook with rage; she felt dizzy and had to sit down. She remembered she had built dams and farmed rice for Pol Pot. Ouk's husband had worked in the Ministry of Forestry and as an official had been targeted by the Khmer Rouge. He had been dragged behind a car to begin with - a little warning torture, if you like. Later, he disappeared altogether.

Ouk was sent to Tuol Sleng, it seemed, never to return. Her baby was killed as well. It is only by listening to people like Nob that you finally begin to fathom how casually the state can kill. Duch had signed Ouk's death warrant; she had shared this small prison with Vann Nath, whose Pol Pot busts stood piled up in a corner of the same room. How intimate and suffocating these interconnections were. Yet the anonymity of the regime's cruelty is strangely connected to the anonymity of its prime instigator, the man born as Saloth Sar.

It is that same anonymity that Vann Nath - consciously or otherwise - has captured in his pictures. As Nob wept, I couldn't help looking over at the impassive, smiling faces of Pol Pot that Nath had created to save his life. They explained nothing. Or did they? Vann Nath's pictures of Pol Pot are the most unnerving of all because he has captured something about the man without even wanting to. Pol Pot was always shadowy and inscrutable. He was always a smiling face in a humdrum photograph, an elusive eminence grise who ruled from behind the scenes. (During his reign, Western analysts had only been able to ascertain that Saloth Sar was Pol Pot by examining photographs of one of his state trips to China.) Inside Cambodia, many didn't know him even at the height of his power, even as they were about to die at his hands.

When Duch asked Vann Nath to put a name to a picture of Pol Pot, the confused artist said "Noun Chea." The director was highly amused, for Comrade Number One often "disappeared." He was always the puppet-master, the hidden engineer of human souls. And in Tuol Sleng one cannot help asking the question: Who was he? In a remarkable 1997 video interview with the American journalist Nate Thyer, the deposed dictator admitted, "I am not a very talkative person. … I am not a special person." He meant it. He mentioned with a shy smile that the French author Jacques Vergès had known him for 30 years "as a polite, discreet young man" but nothing more than that. Saloth was nothing if not stunningly ordinary. "Am I a violent person?" he liked to ask. How secretive the torturers always are, screened by legalisms and pseudonyms and euphemisms, their operations always carried out behind walls and closed doors - from where images can rarely travel. "If I had not painted water-boarding," Vann Nath told me one night, "people would probably not believe it had happened at all." He paused, "Let alone sawing people in half."

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It makes sense

I've some news hot off the press for you: the first-ever Phnom Penh screening of Tim Pek's feature-film directorial debut, The Red Sense, will take place on Friday 24th April at 7pm at Meta House, next to Wat Botum. After receiving a Cambofest award when it got its first Cambodian screening in Siem Reap in December, Pek's made-in-Australia film about revenge and forgiveness when a women discovers the identity of the Khmer Rouge cadre who killed her father, will be very timely considering the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal that begins again today in Phnom Penh. There were fears that the film's topic was too sensitive for some to be screened here, but it will now be shown afterall. You can find out more about the film here and I'll be bringing you additional news from The Red Sense camp closer to the screening date.

This Wednesday night (1 April) at Meta House, to coincide with the start of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, journalist/author/filmmaker Tom Fawthrop will present his rarely-seen documentary, Dreams & Nightmares: Cambodia Ten Years After Pol Pot, which he directed and produced for Channel 4 in 1989, and other films focusing on the Khmer Rouge legacy, beginning at 7pm.

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Em Theay's sadness

With the legendary Em Theay (she's squeezing my hand behind my back) in March 2008
I've just heard some very sad news but I don't have all the details as yet. A house fire destroyed the possessions of one of Cambodia's true national icons, Em Theay, last week, leaving this lovely lady without any of her prized items including her books of priceless photographs which she proudly showed me when I spent some time with her in March last year. This lady lives for classical dance and her memories, which she loves to share with her students, family and friends. I can't begin to imagine how she feels after this tragic incident. There are moves afoot to get a benefit fundraiser sorted out to screen the film The Tenth Dancer by way of providing some monetary help to Em Theay, though nothing can replace the prized possessions she has lost. To remind you about Em Theay, here's one of my blog posts from September 2006:

After posting the Beyond the Killing Fields blog entry yesterday, I recalled that Em Theay was the main subject of a documentary I watched many years ago called The Tenth Dancer, which focused on the strength and resilience of the women of Cambodia in rebuilding their traditions from the fragments of a shattered society. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the death or disappearance of over 90% of Cambodian artists, including most of the dancers of the Royal Ballet. Theay was one of the 10% to survive. The Tenth Dancer was made as long ago as 1993. Em Theay is still dancing and teaching today and performing abroad at the age of 75 years old - by anyone's reckoning that is a remarkable story.
Em Theay was chosen to dance at the age of seven by Queen Kossomak, for whom her parents worked as domestic servants. She grew up in the Royal Palace and was a dancer and singer in King Sihanouk's Royal Ballet until the Khmer Rouge took over her country. At that time she was forty-three and was sent to live in Battambang, where her talents didn't go unnoticed and her captors encouraged her to sing and dance as well as work in the fields. In 1975, twelve of her 18 children were alive. By the end of the KR period, seven had died and only five were left. Em Theay returned to Phnom Penh where her knowledge and skills of the traditional arts were put to use as a teacher at the National Dance Theatre and the Royal University of Fine Arts until quite recently. She is a vital link to Cambodia's past, quite literally a living national treasure and one that Cambodia should be tremendously proud of.

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The front line

Myself and Tim (right) pose at the 5th Gopura at Preah Vihear during last week's visit
Lots of photos and articles to upload from last week's trip but yesterday was a busy one as it was Tim's last day in Cambodia and we did some scurrying around town sandwiched between a traditional Sunday lunch at the Green Vespa and a tasty curry at Sher-e-Punjab. We got home at 2am, he left at 7am for the flight back to England and I, and my liver, can now take a few months rest before he visits again.
It was interesting to read the local papers from last week about the continuing tension at Preah Vihear. We were there last Wednesday just moments after a group of armed Thai soldiers had approached the disputed border area, but we weren't aware just how nervous and agitated the Khmer soldiers were who gave us access to the barbed-wire border pass at the foot of the temple stairs. They did look a bit glum and said we couldn't take any photos whereas the rest of the troops we encountered at Preah Vihear, and there were a lot, were all very amicable and friendly. But we were at the 'front line' so to speak, so its not often you get such access in a disputed area, especially minutes after an incursion that could've sparked another gunfire battle that killed a few troops a while back. The full story about our visit to Preah Vihear to follow soon.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cup final fever

The highlight of today's cup final - a female acquaintance, Sokun, entertaining the masses
Quickly back into the swing of normal everyday life after my week away with my brother Tim in the provinces of the northern reaches of Cambodia, I had a couple of hours at work this morning before lunch at Cafe Fresco's and then onto watch Cambodia's version of the FA Cup Final, in this instance called the Hun Sen Cup, played at the Olympic Stadium. It wasn't a classic by any means, with Phnom Penh Crown managing a solitary one-goal victory over Naga, as expected, but they made heavy weather of it. Their Cameroonian semi-final sensation Lappe Lappe was kept very quiet by Naga's skipper Om Thavarak, so it was left to his teammate Keo Sokgnan to edge out their rivals with a goal late in the second half. The crowd was a fair few thousand with the main stand brimming with row upon row of military personnel, boy scouts and fans of the two sides rented for the occasion and handed a t-shirt. The VIP area was overflowing with people only seen once a year at the cup final whilst deputy PM Sok An turned up ten minutes into the second-half to milk the applause. The pre-match warm-up was provided by a band with female singers, one of whom, Sokun, I knew from our recent late-night drinking sessions, so it was a bit of a shock to see her entertaining the masses. With some recent articles in the Phnom Penh Post - including a photo of national coach Prak Sovannara in Thursday's edition - I was able to legitimately claim a press-pass for the cup final, though Tim's was a little more dubious. Tonight we'll aim to watch England's footy friendly which kicks off just after midnight Cambodia-time, whilst the earlier part of the evening is reserved for making more new friends. Postscript: England won 4-nil, and Crown's reward for lifting the Hun Sen Cup was 70 million riel ($17,500).
Substitutes and press cameramen snap the soon-to-be-victorious Phnom Penh Crown team before kick-off
The two teams line up before kick-off at today's cup final as the stadium begins to fill
The main stand is reserved for military personnel and the like
More crowd-pleasing before the big kick-off from Sokun.
The Hun Sen Cup, the Golden Boot Award and Player of the Match trophies before kick-off

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Back home

No I'm not going to post a video of the England football team singing their 1970 World Cup song 'Back Home,' it's just confirmation that I'm back in Phnom Penh after my week away in the sticks (where internet and blog updates are only available in my dreams), visiting Kratie and the frisky dolphins, Stung Treng and the moto mafia, then the trip from hell from the Mekong River across the wilderness to Tbeng Meanchey and then onto Preah Vihear - where we missed an international incident by 1 hour - Anlong Veng and Banteay Chhmar before getting in last night at some ungodly hour. We used a variety of transportation, met some great people and Tim and myself had a ball as usual. Obviously more to follow, but it's the Hun Sen Cup Final this afternoon at the Olympic Stadium so detailed posts will have to wait a few days. And thanks to the fan club for worrying so much!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Frisky dolphins

Though we were out at 6am this morning to whizz up to Kampi to get our dolphin fix, it was well worth it as the 'early bird catches the worm' or in this instance a considerable amount of dolphin activity ranging from the regular splash when they slightly break the surface of the water, to full, head-out vertical appearances followed by full, body-out somersaults, which we didn't expect to see. There was one group of four dolphins who circled our boat for twenty minutes, providing us with a series of displays across the range I mentioned above. This was Kratie dolphins at their best and most customer-friendly. The boat pilot ferried us to three locations to catch sight of the dolphins, all within100-300 metres of the riverbank, most of the time using his oar rather than his engine so he didn't scare them off. It's difficult to judge how many dolphins were in the area, or whether we kept seeing the same ones, but it was certainly an experience that exceeded our expectations. And just for good measure, we were the only boat on the river during the hour-plus we were on the Mekong. For those who haven't seen the dolphins at Kampi, it's 16 kms north of Kratie, took 25 minutes by moto and the cost per person for the boat ride was $9, quite a hefty rise from recent years but if everyone has the experience we did, they'll think its worth it.
Following our dolphin fix, we carried on north as far as Wat Sarsar Mouy Rouy, the 116-pillar pagoda at Sambour, stopped at the village of Baay Samnom to chat to a group of women and children for half an hour, before heading back for a sticky-rice with nuns encounter at Phnom Sambok. We called into a few wats en route including Wat Thma Krae where I spotted a partial lintel at the base of some steps that was in good nick. Back in Kratie for 1pm, we ate at U-Hong restaurant next to the market despite there being a power-cut that affected the whole town. Now its time for some shut-eye for an hour or so. Tomorrow morning we head for Stung Treng before a cross-country adventure to rendezvous with our transport at Tbeng Meanchey (for the onward trip to Preah Vihear and Banteay Chhmar).

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kratie sunset

Despite just a few hours sleep - Tim is setting me a very bad example - we caught the 8am Sorya bus to Kratie and eight, yes 8, hours later we rolled into the sleepy riverside town. It was hot though with a hint of thunder in the air, the water levels of the Mekong River are low exposing large sandbars and we had a nose around the Wat Rokakandal site before settling down for a chat with a variety of locals and a fruit-shake along the riverbank, as the sun sank behind the clouds. My chicken curry at Red Sun Falling was pretty hot and tasty and boo-hoo to the writer of the Ultimate Cambodia guidebook who gave the bar the thumbs-down without even setting foot in it and based on someone's sexuality. Shame on you, but at least it keeps the bikers away. Off to see the dolphins at 5.30am tomorrow, well maybe a few splashes if I'm lucky. I'm hoping the low water levels will enourage them to be far less candid than usual and I'll take along a beach-ball just in case they're up for some fun [wink].

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Friday, March 20, 2009

On our travels

A trip into the Cambodian countryside beckons early tomorrow morning. My brother Tim has arrived from England - my body clock is already shot to pieces after two late-night and early morning sessions painting the town red - so at least my liver will thank me for the rest as we head up along the Mekong River to Kratie and Stung Treng over the weekend, followed by the Route 66 section from the Mekong to Tbeng Meanchey and visits to Preah Vihear and up along the northern border area of Cambodia through Anlong Veng and onto Banteay Chhmar. We should return to Phnom Penh in about a week but as a result, posts to this blog will be sporadic, to say the least. Internet connections in the boondocks still leave a lot to be desired.

It's hard to believe that my last serious visit to stay in Kratie was as long ago as December 2000, when I managed to catch a glimpse of the dolphins and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets as well as get a feel for the relaxed and laid-back lifestyle along the Mekong. And my teenage guide in those days was none other than Phanna, now a successful businessman in Phnom Penh with fingers in lots of pies including No. 10 guesthouse at Boeng Kak Lake. It will be fun to compare my 2000 trip with the 2009 version. Lets hope for more of the following:
Sunsets are a treat in Kratie

Unreported World

Tonight on Channel 4 television in the UK, a filmed report from the Unreported World team focuses on Cambodia. Read about the background in this C4 exclusive.

Cambodia: Reporter's Log: Reporter Jenny Kleeman writes of her experiences making Cambodia: Selling the Killing Fields for Unreported World.

One of the most unsettling things about forced evictions is that it's impossible to know exactly when they are going to happen. For the 150,000 Cambodians currently under threat of displacement, that means living in a state of perpetual insecurity and fear. For a British crew hoping to document what a forced eviction looks like in Cambodia, it means my producer Andy Wells and I couldn't be sure if we'd be able to capture the key event in our film until it was happening right in front of us. After a few days of researching the story from our UK office, our contacts in Cambodia told us a large-scale eviction was imminent in the capital, Phnom Penh. The residents of Dey Krahorm had received their final eviction notice a month before, and the 120 families who remained on the site didn't seem to be reaching an agreement with the government over compensation for their land. The dispute had been going on for nearly four years. Even though it appeared to have taken a more serious turn in recent weeks, no one could tell us whether the residents would be forced from their land in a matter of days, weeks or even months. But we wanted to make sure we didn't land in Cambodia after it had taken place. We took a punt and decided to fly out as soon as our visas were ready – a week earlier than planned.

Once we'd touched down, it seemed our arrival was premature: the Dey Krahorm residents had managed to negotiate a stay of execution and the situation was quiet once again. In some ways, this was a relief for us: it meant we could get to know some of the key characters from Dey Krahorm - like Vichet Chan, the community representative - in relative calm. We got an insight into community life that we never would have captured had we arrived only a few days later. The news finally came that that the armed forces were poised to seize Dey Krahorm after we'd already done a full day's filming and were several hours away from the capital. It was as unexpected for us as it was for the residents. We managed to get back to Dey Krahom by 10pm. We had no idea what we were going to see that night, but once we'd spoken to Vichet and seen how distraught he was, it was clear that we could be about to witness the end of the community.

When the event you've come to film finally unfolds in front of you, you just keep filming. On the day that Dey Krahorm was raised to the ground, we worked for 30 hours straight. There was always another piece of the story to cover: from the construction of barricades before dawn and the brutality of the eviction itself to the impromptu press conference the government held on the rubble a few hours after it. By the time it was all over, we were truly exhausted. But for the people we'd been filming, it was only the beginning. They now faced the task of moving whatever they had managed to salvage to the relocation site, and trying to rebuild their lives away from the capital.

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Perspective

When a young woman takes her own life, as someone we all knew from working with her for the last couple of years did yesterday, it puts into perspective that we never know what will happen tomorrow, and we can never really know what's in the minds of others. I'm not trying to be profound, far from it, I just feel numb that someone we all knew and liked so much for her positive attitude and gregarious nature on the outside, could be so troubled inside and with nowhere to turn as to make such a tragic decision. Today is not a good day. My sincere sympathies are with Kong's family and her friends, many of whom are in our office and simply cannot comprehend what has happened.
With Kong in Sihanoukville in Oct 2007

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hanuman Film Night

Meta House, here in Phnom Penh, will be hosting a Hanuman Film Night on Saturday 11 April to provide a taste of some of the diverse film and television work that the company has been involved in since it began in 2000. If you are planning a shoot, they're the ones to get things done here in the Mekong region, whether its scouting and managing locations, getting permissions, providing extras, building sets, transport, costume, you name it, they've done it on countless productions all over the area. Nick Ray and Kulikar Sotho, the two people behind Hanuman Films, will be on hand to introduce examples of their work, to answer questions and to give you an insight into what goes into making the slick documentary, film or advert that you see on the screen. The screenings will include Timewatch: Pol Pot (BBC, 2005) and Top Gear Vietnam (BBC, 2008) together with two shorts: part of the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the first Hollywood film for 36 years to be set in Cambodia and a recent Pepsi Commercial that went global.

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Upside Downside

And finally, here's a video of the track Upside Downside from a good friend, Percy Dread, formerly Percy JP McLeod of British reggae band The Natural-Ites. Percy is a top guy, a fantastic vocalist and songwriter. He was due to release his solo album, with the same name as the video track, back in 2006 - he even sent me a pre-release copy to review and it was excellent - but the CD was never released. I've never got to the bottom of why the music-buying public was not blessed with this release. However, you can enjoy the video track and read more here.

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Juvenile Delinquent

And if you want some more of the reggae sounds I grew up listening to, here's a video from another of my fave bands, Black Roots, and their Juvenile Delinquent track. Black Roots were from St Paul's in Bristol and began life in 1979. Ten albums later, and definitely one of Britain's best loved reggae performing bands of the 1980s, Black Roots called it a day. This track was one of their earliest 12" releases and was also on their debut 1983 album. Taking the lead vocals for this track is Delroy O'gilvie, recorded live in 1987. Read more.

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Picture on the Wall

One of the classic reggae tunes that I was hooked into during my teens and twenties. This is The Natural-Ites and their legendary Picture on the Wall track that reverberated throughout the globe and is still popular today. The singers are Ossie Samms and Percy JP McLeod, backed by the Realistics band. The track was released in 1985 though the video looks like its from the latter part of the decade, most likely 1988 after Neil Foster had left the band. Enjoy. Read more.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Meet the coach

Cambodia's national team coach - Prak Sovannara
I recently chatted to Prak Sovannara about his own career as a player and coach before becoming the Cambodian national team coach midway through last year, and the first surprise is that he's just 36 years old, making him one of international football's youngest coaches. Born in November 1972, he made his debut for his country at 21, retired from playing at 27 to concentrate on coaching and took on the national team hot-seat last year at the tender age of 35. He's Cambodia's only Asian Football Federation A-licence qualified coach, coaching at junior, youth and club level before taking the top job after Korean coach Yoo Kee-Heung was sacked. Sovannara is quick to single out the influence of Joachim Fickert, whom he played under in the national team when the German coached the Cambodia side during the 1990s. "I learnt so much from him, about organization, tactics as well as how to handle players on and off the pitch, " he said.

Sovannara's playing career began at 17 for the Civil Aviation team in the 2nd Division. As a wide right-sided midfield player, he combined football with his sports teacher studies before joining the more-fancied Division 1 Royal Bodyguard team in 1993 - a move to a club that swept all before them in the top flight of Cambodian football during his half a dozen years there. 1993 also saw him make his international debut against a visiting USSR U/19 team, at the age of 21. It was in 1995 that Cambodia, with Sovannara as a regular in midfield, took its first tentative steps back into re-establishing its international presence. They took part in the SEA Games in Chiang Mai though their years of isolation clearly showed, conceding 32 goals and scoring none in their four matches. A year later, with Fickert (pictured) now at the helm, they took part in the Tiger Cup in Singapore, where they lost all four games, in the SEA Games in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in 1997, where they won twice and narrowly missed the semi-finals, and finished third in the Presidents Cup in the Philippines the same year.

1999 was a watershed year for Sovannara. In the SEA Games in Brunei, he was to play the last of his international matches for Cambodia, as well as parting company with his successful club side. He passed his B-licence in coaching that year and decided that coaching was where his future lay. He was 27 years old. Though he'd been involved in coaching schools and junior teams, he now moved up a notch, as assistant coach to the national youth team for the next three years, before another step up, this time as assistant to the new Cambodian national coach Scott O'Donnell for a couple of years. In 2006 he tasted a year in charge of club side Phnom Penh Empire, leading them to runners-up spot in the Cambodia Premier League before returning to coach the national youth team at U/17 level. Seemingly groomed for the top job in Cambodian football and definitely the best-equipped homegrown coach, Sovannara was the man the FFC turned to after the departure of Yoo Lee-Heung and following a few early forgettable results, he gained immediate success by guiding the country through qualification to the finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup. The next challenge will be to qualify for next year's AFC Challenge Cup finals with success in Bangladesh next month, as well as a good showing at the SEA Games in Laos at the end of the year. It won't be an easy task but Sovannara has shown he's prepared to take on that challenge, as he continues to shape and define his youthful squad.

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Wait for it...

I have a feeling in my bones that life is going to get pretty hectic over the next two weeks as my brother is arriving from England tonight and that usually signals an upsurge in nighttime activity, whilst next week we've got a plan to get out and about. Nothing's confirmed as yet but I'd like to get a good look at the activities along the Mekong Discovery Trail for myself as well as get the up-to-the-minute truth on what's happening up at Preah Vihear these days. We shall see. Just before we disappear into the blue yonder, I fancy popping my head into the Reggae & Dub party at Club Gasolina on Friday night, anyone care to join us?

Who's in and who's out?

I stopped by the Olympic Stadium at 7am this morning to get an update on the Cambodia national football team from coach Prak Sovannara, the man in charge of the country's football elite. My time was short and I didn't want to interrupt the squad's early morning training session, so I hope to catch him for a full interview sometime soon. In the meantime, I can exclusively reveal the comings and goings from the national squad of 22 players, who will form the nucleus of a reduced squad, which will travel to Bangladesh for the three AFC Challenge Cup Qualifying Group matches at the end of next month. Sovannara has been pretty ruthless in putting together his first squad for 2009, with nine players out, and nine players in. The new faces include three players each from the Hun Sen Cup finalists, Phnom Penh Crown and Naga Corp, so he's certainly selecting players who are already in good form.
Crown, the league and cup holders, who already have Teing Tiny and Chan Rithy in the national line-up, now have goalkeeper Peng Bunchhay, defender Lor Pech Seiha and offensive midfielder Keo Sokgnan amongst the 22. Naga, with Kim Chanbunrith and Sun Sovannarith already regulars in the team, have also provided new faces in the shape of striker Teab Vatanak, midfielder Pok Chanthan and their captain and defensive kingpin Om Thavarak. Preah Khan Reach, beaten semi-finalists on Saturday, are the best represented club with six players in the 22, now that midfielder Khoun La Boravy has been added. Completing the new additions to the squad are the National Defense right back Pheak Rady and Ly Ravy, a midfielder from Kirivong Sok Sen Chey.
The players who have made way after featuring in the 22-man squad for the preparations for the Suzuki Cup games in December are keeper Hem Samay, defenders Thul Sothearith, Chea Virath and Sun Sampratna, midfielders Sam Minar, Ieng Saknida, Ieng Piseth and strikers Pich Sina and Hok Sochivorn. Squad training for the Bangladesh matches officially begins at the end of this month so the players who were being put through their paces this morning, were there on a volunteer basis. They were still waiting for permission to use the pitch at the Olympic Stadium so were restricted to the grassy areas behind the goals as they concentrated on their fitness and ball skills. Such is the life of the national team.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mark your diaries

It's been very quiet on the Cambodia national football team front in recent months following their involvement in the Suzuki Cup in early December. Three defeats left the team licking their wounds but it wasn't unexpected, they were the least-fancied team in the whole competition afterall. Aside from a few mutterings and talk of bringing Khmer nationals over from France to be considered for selection, there's been a dearth of football chatter, especially about the national team. In the background, national coach Prak Sovannara has simply got on with the task of lifting his team's spirits for the forthcoming AFC Challenge Cup Qualifying Group matches in Bangladesh. Initially scheduled for early April, they have been put back until the end of next month. The two-legged pre-qualifying decider between Macau and Mongolia has at last been scheduled for 9th and 16th April and the winner of that tie will go into the group matches in Bangladesh.
With all matches to be played at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka, Cambodia will meet the hosts Bangladesh on Sunday 26th April, then either Macau or Mongolia on the 28th and two days later, Myanmar. Three games in six days is a tall order and both Bangladesh (174) and Myanmar (159) are higher-ranked in the FIFA list than the Cambodia team at 180th, but Sovannara is putting his players through their paces as I type, and will have benefitted from getting the squad together for nearly two months before the matches take place. He's made changes to the pool of players from whom he will select his squad of 18 players to take to the games in Bangladesh. Six players have departed including Thul Sothearith from Phnom Penh Crown and Pich Sina from Naga whilst six new faces have joined the national squad, who are currently training every morning at the National Stadium in Phnom Penh. Don't forget to mark your diaries with those three games at the end of April.

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Bakong's male guardians

Though badly weathered and eroded this Bakong dvarapala still retains a thin smile
It's only right that as the girls who adorn the walls of the brick towers at Bakong (in the Roluos Group) have had their stint in the spotlight, now it's the turn of the boys, or the male guardian dvarapala to be precise. There are eight brick towers and I'm not sure why some have devata and others the male figures shown here. They are similar in that they are sculpted from the base brickwork and would've been enhanced by lime mortar (stucco) back when they were fashioned in the 9th century. Much of that has now disappeared, though these males still adopt a dominant and forceful pose, especially as they are the guardians of the temple and their stance would dissuade wrongdoers from entering the holy shrine. Hands on their hips and carrying a spear or long club, these guys mean business.
This dvarapala at Bakong is topped by a mini-temple in lime mortar
Strong and imposing, these male guardians deter evil spirits and wrongdoers
The brickwork with this dvarapala has darkened over the centuries, though he still retains his immense strength
Hands on hips and determined to repel evil spirits from Bakong
This male guardian is holding a small mace or gada, his weapon of attack
A gorgeously carved false door to a brick shrine at Bakong with two fierce lion-monster faces on either door panel just to deter wrongdoers

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Colonial postcards

A postcard of Angkor Wat from the early part of the 20th century
Collecting postcards isn't everyone's cup of tea but there are some fantastic examples out there which show Cambodian scenes in the first half of the 20th century - temples, countryside, town views, palace scenes, monks, servants, transport and so on - and I'm kicking myself I didn't start collecting them from day 1. One man who has is Joel Montague and he's currently arranging his collection and researching other postcards for a forthcoming book to be published later this year, or early next year by White Lotus Press. It'll be called Cambodian Colonial Postcards and will include up to 900 views from the time they began to appear, in 1902, up til the 2nd World War. It's certainly a book that I'll be keen to acquire. Joel is not just into collecting postcards either. He's recently held an exhibition of Cambodian Business Signs, 25 of which he has hung in a gallery in the United States town of Wellesley. Shop signage in Cambodia has often appeared quirky and comedic to western visitors and Joel decided to take that back to the States for public consumption on a recent visit back home. Read the story here.
Servants from the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in the early part of the 20th century

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Devata of Bakong

Up close and personal with a devata from Bakong
Following close on the heels of the rich vein of lintels to be found at the pyramid temple of Bakong, the 9th century capital city of King Indravarman I at Hariharalya, or Roluos as its known today, here are a few of the devata that flank the doorways of some of the eight brick towers at the foot of the pyramid shrine. They share this position with male dvarapalas too, which I will post soon. The devata are made of sculpted brickwork that would've been covered in lime mortar or stucco as it's also called, in their heyday, most of which has cracked and fallen away through time, leaving the exposed brickwork. The figures are in niches which offer representations of mini-temples in themselves. They stand on plinths with full-length skirts and wear conical hats but mother time hasn't been particularly kind to the majority of them in terms of their current appearance.
Looking regal and serene, this devata at Bakong has lost most of one arm
The style of the female form is in its early stages here at Bakong, not yet achieving the beautiful representations we see later at Angkor Wat for example
Another good example of a devata at Bakong, now devoid of its stucco lime mortar covering
This devata has a fat face and isn't at all beautiful in her appearance
On the faint white trace of stucco remains on this devata and is missing from the mini-temple above
This devata stands on a tall plinth and the mini-temple above her is in fair condition, as is she

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Bakong lintel views

Vishvakarma sits above a spewing kala on the lintel above. Figures on elephants rise out of the garland.
I'm trying to catch up with some blog posts today including the final instalment of the lintels to be found above the doorways of the eight brick towers that surround the central pyramid sanctuary of Bakong in the Roluos Group, near Siem Reap. Constructed in the 9th century these lintels are evocative and beautifully presented with lots of vegetal scrolling, gods and deities festooned around a central kala theme in most instances. My next posts will show some of the devatas and male guardians that also enhance this particular temple complex.
No fierce kala monster on this lintel, which is practically covered in small naga heads and a central god figure on a plinth. The top of the lintel is badly damaged.
Naga heads, flying apsara figures and a central kala on a lintel that has seen better days
You can just see the brick indentations above the lintel in this photo. The lintel itself is very badly eroded and in danger of collapse.
A more regimented lintel, in fine detail, particularly the gods in a line above the central narrative, though the lintel itself is damaged
Two large nagas form the ends of this lintel narrative, with a central Vishvakarma figure though the rest of the lintel is in poor condition, and in danger of breaking apart
The final lintel, with naga ends, and a small god sitting on the kala, who is spewing forth the garlands from which dancing figures emerge
This is one of the eight brick towers, in the northwest corner, on which these lintels are still in situ and represent some of the finest of their style in all Angkor

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