Sunday, May 31, 2009

World's top fixers

UK's Sunday Times Online today revealed their list of the travel world's top fixers and first on the list was Hanuman, the company I work for. Great publicity for us and recognition for the great job we do here in Cambodia and the Mekong Region.

The travel world's top fixers. It's not where you go, it's who you know when you get there. Our team reveal their top fixers guaranteed to give your trip wings.

When exploring the more exotic reaches of the planet, there is nothing like having an insider to guide you, to shepherd you away from the crowds. That’s where your local connections come in. We’re talking about those expert Mr Fix-Its who know their patch like the hairy side of their hand, and can whisk you off to camp in a “lost” jungle temple, party in an off-limits favela, or simply cook with Granny in her native village, somewhere deep in the bush. We’ve asked Travel’s team of writers to pick out their favourite grass-roots tour companies worldwide. All locally run outfits, they are well established, reputable and masters of their region. Some also work for UK tour operators, it’s true — and if you prefer a packaged option, we’ve given their details. But if you have decent insurance and are willing to book direct, it should save you money and offer more flexibility. For most of the destinations covered, direct flights operate from London only. For regional and Irish connections, ask the tour operator or travel company about routes via European or Gulf hubs. It may be cheaper and more cost efficient than flying via Heathrow

CAMBODIA - HANUMAN

Kulikar Sotho’s first job in travel was organising passage for 7,500 UN peacekeepers. Then the Khmer Rouge collapsed, ancient Angkor was rediscovered by the west, and Kulikar’s company, Hanuman, was on hand to act as midwife to Cambodian tourism. A decade or so later, more than a million visitors pitch up each year — including Korean coach parties wielding megaphones. Not to worry: Hanuman’s impeccable guides know how to dodge the crowds. For example, they spirited me to Angkor Wat’s eastern gate, the “back door”, for an exclusive, all-to-myself view of Asia’s most humdinging archeological site.

Hanuman also fixed it for me to spend a few days in the remote, red-earthed Ratanakiri region, where I penetrated sacrificial rituals, shook hands with pipe-smoking toddlers, and found out exactly why you should never sup rice wine with the villagers. Best of all was my “temple safari” in the steaming, spidery Cambodian jungle — the brainchild of Kulikar’s husband, Nick Ray, who is also Lonely Planet’s writer in Cambodia and a self-styled temple-hunter. As the location scout for Tomb Raider, Ray unearthed virgin Angkorian citadels such as Ko Ker, where I scrambled up a rickety ladder to the top of a 120ft pyramid and found myself sole overlord of a 10th-century city, scores of its monuments still smothered in the undergrowth.

The plan: a 12-day trip with Hanuman, including three days at Angkor, a three-day temple safari and time in Phnom Penh and Ratanakiri, starts from £1,500pp, including transfers and accommodation in three-star hotels. Contact 00 85 523 218396; www.hanumantourism.com. There are no direct flights to Cambodia from the UK or Ireland, but there are nonstop flights from Heathrow to Bangkok and good connections from there. Fares to Siem Reep or Phnom Penh, via Bangkok, start at £565 with Thai Airways (0870 606 0911, www.thaiair.com). If you’d prefer a package option, Audley (01993 838000, www.audleytravel.com) uses Hanuman as its ground operator. Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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9 goals in 2 games

Livewire striker Sunday Patrick Okonkwo starred for Naga Corp
Okay I know its been a football dominated last few posts on my blog, but I promise this is the final one for this weekend. The two games at the Olympic Stadium this afternoon provided a few thrills and spills as Preah Khan Reach returned to the top spot in the Cambodia Premier League table, making heavy weather of beating Post Tel Club 2-0, whilst Naga Corp rattled in 5 goals against Phuchung Neak, who scored twice in reply. Sam El Nasa, with an early tap-in, and a Sotheavy own goal undid Post Tel, who failed to register with a last-minute penalty when Ouk Mic saved well at the foot of the post. But it was PKR striker Olisa Emeka Onyemerea who missed half a dozen guilt-edged chances to double and triple PKR's winning margin in an otherwise scrappy game. That said, PKR now sit at the head of the league table with 12 points, which will please their fans and their coach Prak Sovannara, who has just seen Scott O'Donell appointed as the national team coach in his place. He was philosophical about the change saying that Scott's experience will serve the team well and that he will now concentrate on PKR full-time, whilst also considering offers he's received to coach abroad in Holland and Germany.
In the opening game of the day, Naga rattled in the goals but still didn't look convincing, allowing their oppponents to score twice when the game should've been dead and buried. The star of the show was Sunday Patrick Okonkwo, who scored twice and looked constantly dangerous. Naga's other scorers were Friday Nwakuna (days of the week seem popular with Naga's overseas imports), Meas Channa and substitute defender Neang Chenla. Pointless Phuchung Neak's goals came from Ouk Thoun and Pov Samnang and they lost Oghenekevwe Auwara with a straight red card for a needless elbow on Channa in the dying moments of the game. Today's fare was certainly an improvement on yesterday's but one thing didn't change, the rolling around on the floor screaming in agony whenever a challenge came in was just as prevalent and something that the CPL should look to stamp out as quickly as they can. It's just a way to try and curry favourable refereeing decisions, whilst the poor lads who operate the stretcher are leaving the ground in an exhausted heap, having worked harder than anyone on the pitch!
Naga Corp ran out easy 5-2 winner against the league's whipping boys Phuchung Neak
Bottom of the table Phuchung Neak and still without a point
PKR's Olisa Emeka Onyemerea missed a hatful of chances in the game against Post Tel
Preah Khan Reach went back to the top of the table with their 2-0 success

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O'Donell's reign begins tomorrow

The new man in the hot seat, Scott O'Donell
Scott O'Donell is the new national team coach of the Cambodian senior and under-23 football teams. It's official, especially as I interviewed the man himself at half-time during one of this afternoon's games at the Olympic Stadium, and that interview will appear in Tuesday's Phnom Penh Post. So you'll have to wait for Tuesday to get the full low-down. What I can tell you is that Scott is very keen to get started, to assess the talent on offer and to run the rule over anyone that qualifies for the SEA Games in Laos in December - the football squad Cambodia will enter into the SEA Games will be an under-23 team. He'll be a regular face in the crowd for all future Cambodia Premier league fixtures, as he has been for the past two weeks. His contract is for 1 year and this will be the second time that the Aussie has managed the Cambodian national team, having had a two and half year spell previously, beginning in July 2005. He officially begins his new full-time job tomorrow. And it goes without saying, we wish him all the success in the world, though we must remain realistic that Cambodia still has a long way to go before it can compare favourably with its Asean neighbours.

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Saturday's soccer

A coolly taken goal by BBU's Prum Puth Sethy took his team to the top of the CPL
I don't hate the word soccer, as many do, but it's what football is known as around the American-accented globe, hence the catchy headline. Saturday's games in the Cambodia Premier League were anything but classics. For much of both matches, it was all pretty dreary, the teams cancelling each other out and goalmouth action was scarce. There was more rolling around on the ground and being carried off on a stretcher than actual playing time. A rainstorm heralded the start of the second half of the opening game and a whipping wind took down all the advertising hordings and pitchside umbrellas at one stage too. To be honest, the weather conditions were more interesting than the football, and its rare to be able to say that. I watched the games in the company of the national team coach Prak Sovannara, so it was good to get his tactical perspective on what we saw, with his team, Preah Khan Reach - who he has been helping coach this season - and who play today, due to meet Spark next week so he was running the rule over his future opponents. The first match was Defense Ministry against Spark, pitching Khim Borey, last season's Golden Boot winner, with the leading scorer this season, Justine Prince from Spark. However, the two strikers failed to live up to the hype and both had quiet, almost anonymous afternoons. The goals arrived after the rain and in the last 15 minutes. Thong Oudom poked in the opener for the Defense team with Spark's Chhordaravuth heading in the equalier ten minutes from time, to keep his team unbeaten this season. A 1-1 draw was a fair result for this drab encounter. In the second match, Build Bright would've expected a harder game from Kirivong, but the Takeo-based team lacked their usual killer touch and BBU's Prum Puth Sethy finished coolly just before half-time, with the game's only goal. It has put BBU at the top of the table, before this afternoon's two matches and no-one would've expected that at the start of the seaon. The CPL is very tight so far this term, there's no runaway leader as many expected Crown to be, which gives all the teams something to play for. Amen to that.
This Kirivong Sok Sen Chey team suffered a surprise 1-nil defeat to BBU
Spark's Meak Chhordaravuth headed an equaliser for his unbeaten team against Defense Ministry
Unbeaten Spark FC, with leading scorer Justine Prince, 3rd from left back row
The Defense Ministry team with Khim Borey, 2nd from left back row, but still without Samreth Seiha in goal, who was amongst the subs

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Cambodia's new coach?

The air was thick with rumour and intrigue at this afternoon's Cambodia Premier League matches at the Olympic Stadium. I'll bring you the results in another posting but the most important development is in the form of a new team coach for the senior Cambodia national team. It was no coincidence that Scott O'Donell (right: Getty Images) has been at the Olympic Stadium for the last two weekends and the word on the terraces is that he will be taking over the reins of a role he has held before. The 42 year old played his football in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore before spells in charge at Geylang United (Singapore) and as the Cambodia coach in 2005 for a couple of years, whilst also appearing on ESPN television as a football pundit. More recently he's been director of coaching education with the Asian Football Confederation in Kuala Lumpur, holds the AFC's A certificate and a national coaching license from Australia. His family live in Phnom Penh so that's a good reason to be seen here but there's a big desire at the Cambodian Football Federation to have a coach with overseas experience and O'Donell fits that bill. For the past year Cambodia's best coach Prak Sovannara has been in charge of the national team, taking them to the finals of the Suzuki Cup and just missing out on a place in next year's AFC finals. So far this season, he has been helping with the coaching at league leaders Preah Khan Reach as his contract with the national team wasn't renewed and he was working on a match by match basis. I must repeat that this has not been confirmed by the FFC but watch this space. Update: I've just had confirmation from Scott O'Donell himself - he's the new head coach of the Cambodia national team.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Look at them

The highlight of my weekend by a country mile, with Belle at Sovanna Phum
A busy day again today with work as usual this morning, followed by a few hours at the Olympic Stadium watching Cambodia Premier League football and then this evening, a front row seat at the premiere of Look At Us Now, a well-attended contemporary dance performance at Sovanna Phum, looking at the struggles faced by dancers in today's Cambodia. The performers were Yon Davy, Khieu Sovannarith, Phumtheara Chenda, Sang Porsda, Va Chamnan, Yim Savann, Phon Sopheap, Kay Sokchan and well-known classical dancer Vuth Chanmoly, who also appeared in Where Elephants Weep recently. The play allowed the artists to express themselves in a variety of vigorous and imaginative ways on stage, though the dialogue was in Khmer so it was difficult for the majority of the Western audience to understand. Contemporary dance in Cambodia is certainly progressing at a rapid pace with this and other recent performances, usually including the star of the scene at the moment, Belle. She wasn't one of the performers in this show as she's been working as artist-in-residence with the French Cultural Center for the last five months, but she was there to lend her support to the dancers and working behind the scenes.
On stage action from Look At Us Now
Vuth Chanmoly provided the closing sequence to Look At Us Now
Looking as proud as punch, and rightly so
Some of the performers take their bow at the end of the dance

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Dancing for the King

Busy boy as I am, I met Ravynn Karet-Coxen and Nick Wood for breakfast at Java to find out more about the Nginn Karet Foundation that is providing help to 14 villages in the Banteay Srei district of Siem Reap with health, education, agriculture and a dance school, which was recently named the NKFC Conservatoire Preah Ream Bopha Devi. Over 2,500 families are getting direct help from the foundation, though its not all one way help, as the families have to meet criteria to earn the help on offer. The dance school has nearly 150 students and they have recently performed for the King in Phnom Penh and then held a sacred ceremony at the temple of Banteay Srei in honour of the King's birthday. You can read more about the Nginn Karet Foundation here and here. Brit Nick Wood is the founder of Navigator Films and he's been living in Cambodia for the last eight years, working on various film and television projects including the popular At The Factory Gates which has been a regular on Khmer tv about the plight of garment workers. Nick's current project is much further from home, in Columbia to be precise and focuses on the severe landmine problem that country is facing.

At lunchtime, I met up with Cristiano who was in town for the day and he told me he is nearing the end of his exhaustive exploration of Kompong Thom province. Over the last few years Cristiano has visited every ancient site in the province, well over 400, and has logged all of his findings, both big and small. It was with Cristiano that I made the trip to Phnom Chi just over a year ago. In a recent expedition into the countryside west of Kompong Thom, he uncovered an early brick temple, still standing, that is not recorded on any map or document. It was ten kilometres from the nearest village and in a very remote location, and his driver for this trip was another great friend of mine, Sokhom. Its another example of the secrets that still lie within the confines of Cambodia, waiting to be uncovered. Cristiano's temple searches in Kompong Thom will provide invaluable information about the province's cultural history - it's just a pity there is not a Cristiano in every province in this country.

Later this afternoon, a surprise visitor to my office was the young woman who seems to single-handedly carry the expectation of a nation on her graceful shoulders as far as the future of contemporary dance is concerned. Belle (Chumvan Sodhachivy) is a lady in demand, her name is rarely out of the newspapers and that's quite a heavy burden on a young Khmer woman in my view. For her part, Belle (pictured right) is focused on her art, she felt from an early age of her dance training that she wanted to express herself and to find new ways to do that outside the strict confines of traditional classical dance. With the support of her mother she has done exactly that, and is leading from the front as contemporary dance begins to take a foothold amongst the artistic community and audience in Phnom Penh. Working with the French Cultural Center for the last six months has broadened her horizons even further and she won't stop there. She is open to any artform, recently working with hip-hop artists for example, has plans to travel abroad to seek more influences and to incorporate those into her choreography in the future. Belle is on a mission to take dance to another level and with an incredible track record so far, I'll bet she will definitely succeed.

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Arrested and deported

As it wasn't on my Cambodia radar, I missed this story from my good friends Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern, who were both deported from Myanmar a couple of weeks ago. Karen (pictured) is the author of the excellent book Cambodia Now and Jerry is a well-respected photographer. Here is their own press release issued on 11 May from Bangkok, when they became the center of attention on the media wires:

Arrested & Deported: The two of us were detained in Mandalay on the evening of Wednesday, May 6, and deported to Bangkok the following night. The arrest came within hours after we had finished a series of feature writing and photography workshops, organized by the American Center in Yangon and approved by the country’s Scrutiny Board (censors). All of the 20+ government authorities we encountered during the ordeal said they were acting on orders from Naypyidaw. They did not give a reason for the arrest. Many said they did not know why we were arrested. They asked us nothing, told us nothing, searched nothing, took nothing. We were not mistreated or manhandled.

We were arrested at our hotel after dinner on May 6. Immigration authorities came to the hotel lobby and ordered us to pack for an evening train to Yangon. They said they had received the arrest order from Naypyidaw half an hour after our last class and lecture had ended. We spent the following 16 hours under the escort of two officials who shared our cabin. When we arrived in Yangon, we were taken to the airport, then Immigration offices downtown, then back to the airport for several hours before an evening flight to Bangkok. We had been in Burma to teach and lecture about creative nonfiction feature writing and photography. The programs were follow-ups to similar work we did in January, all of which had been approved and acknowledged by the Scrutiny Board and the Special Branch (police). In fact, Special Branch officers briefly visited Jerry on the first day of his class in Yangon, on April 27. All of our classes and lectures proceeded without incident or further visits from the authorities.

We have no idea why we were arrested, though we have since heard many rumors. Perhaps it was fallout after another American – whom we do not know nor have any connection to – allegedly swam across a lake to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. We have heard people say we are CIA agents in disguise as teachers – that is not true. We have heard people say we met with monks in monasteries and other politically sensitive sources – that is not true. We have heard rumors that we met with the Moustache Brothers comedy troupe in Mandalay – that is not true. In fact, we met very few people outside of the classroom, mostly because we wanted to avoid any run-ins with the government for just this reason.

Other rumors allege that we were working on sensitive stories. That is not true. The only story we had in mind was a small piece on laphet thote, (pickled tea leaf salad) explaining the flavors, history and cultural significance of the dish. This would have run on the food page of a travel magazine. In Mandalay, a colleague introduced us to the owner of a longstanding laphet thote business. That man invited us to see his place, which we did. He then invited us to visit a trade center where people buy and sell beans and pulses, key ingredients for laphet thote. He was very excited about the invitation; we thought little of it. We accepted and planned to meet on Thursday morning – but we never had that chance. This might be all, or part, of the reason we were deported.

What happened to us does not compare to what happens to Burmese who run afoul of their own government. We were spooked, and the train trip was uncomfortable and unnecessary (we already had plane tickets back to Yangon that could have been switched to Thursday morning). But we were fairly certain we were not going to jail for years – or decades. We are heartbroken to think we might not be able to return to Burma. But that is trivial to how we worry about the safety of the people who helped us on these trips. We worked hard to avoid government scrutiny, or any “journalistic” appearance. In the end, we cannot say why we were arrested. That mystery rests with the Burmese government. [end]

On an entirely separate note, I presented The Tenth Dancer and Samsara at Meta House Thursday evening to a small, but nicely-rounded audience. In taking a few questions from the assembled throng afterwards, one comment came from a lady who said she was excited to see Em Theay on The Tenth Dancer as Theay had briefly been her dance teacher in 1979 in Pursat. As Theay made her way back from Battambang to Phnom Penh, she spent time en route teaching dance and the audience member had been in her dance class for about two months in 1979. I didn't manage to speak to the lady involved after the session, but what a lovely addendum to the screening of the film.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Palace views

They are not joking when they claim to have a great view of the Royal Palace
I popped out of the office to have a quick look at the FCC's latest addition to their accommodation stable, namely the one-roomed Palace View they have just opened, which fronts onto the popular Royal Garden spread out at the foot of the Chan Chhaya Pavilion and the Royal Palace behind that. Great views from the room and the private terrace up above though its a popular area at all times of the day and the room is more what I would call intimate than spacious. The FCC already has nine rooms at their original location and another 16 rooms at The Quay, with plans to turn the run-down colonial building known as The Mansion into another hotel outlet. I also stopped off at Sorya Market for a whizz up to the top of the building and a look at the views from the balcony over the under-renovation Central Market and across the rooftops of the city. It's now just started raining cats and dogs and fingers crossed it'll clear up before tonight's double-bill screening at Meta House of the documentaries, The Tenth Dancer and Samsara. They are certainly two films that deserve a big audience but you can never really judge how many people will turn up until it starts. Get along if you can, it begins at 7pm.
The one-room Palace View, part of the FCC stable
The frontage of Palace View, on the 1st floor. A coffee shop is opening on the ground floor, next to Pacharan
A look over the Central Market, taken from the top of the Sorya Market building

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Winds of Angkor

Western-style musicals based on Cambodia are few and far between as far as I can make out. They are a bit like double-decker buses, none for ages then two come along at once. Phnom Penh recently revelled in the glory of Where Elephants Weep and now it looks as though another musical maybe about to steal the headlines. Winds of Angkor has been written by British composer Sarah O'Brien who visited Cambodia in 1999 and 2006 and says; "The piece evolved musically from the initial concept of an intimate love duet to a full-scale theatrical production involving soloists, orchestra, Cambodian musicians and dancers, rhythm section and a state-of-the-art set that features spectacular 3D projections and video content. The challenge was to balance the tenderness of the original letters with the enormity of one of the worst human catastrophes of the 20th Century. Angkor Wat and the surviving temples that rise from the jungle stand witness to the resilience of the Cambodian people and their culture, which ultimately prevailed. Although the story is inspired by tragedy, the musical celebrates the unique, exotic beauty of Cambodia and carries a message of hope to those affected by genocide today." The composer is a classically-trained cellist who has worked with artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Russell Watson, Celine Dion and is a regular member of Yanni's touring company as well as recording a host of TV and movie soundtracks. I'm not sure of the current status of the project as a world premiere was slated to take place in California sometime this year. When I hear more, you'll be the first to know. Visit the website.

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Confusion over helmets

I'd fine this guy whether he was wearing a helmet or not!
Whatever you do, don't fall asleep in your tuk tuk (aka remork) or else you might be impounded. This has been the latest fad by police in Phnom Penh as a high level meeting of Asean and EU ministers kicks off today. Drivers of tuk tuks and cyclos found sleeping in their vehicles after 10pm along some of the city's main streets have been woken up and their livelihoods taken from them. Personally I use motos to get about town but I will be affected by a new ruling from the city's governor, if he gets his way. Up until now, only moto drivers have been required to wear helmets but now Kep Chuktema has said he wants all passengers to wear helmets as well, despite it not being in the current traffic provisions. Just to confuse the matter, his traffic police chief says he's not heard of it either. It's clearly the right way to go - I bought my helmet a while ago but use it infrequently - but the cost implications on poorly-paid Cambodian passengers will be a real concern. The police occasionally crack down on helmet-less drivers, or if they spot a moto without mirrors, or any other infraction they can dream up on the spot, to supplement their own meagre wages. If Kep Chuktema gets his way, this will be another reason for the groups of police standing at junctions and traffic lights to waive their batons and pull over hordes of moto-drivers and their charges.

Bridge-building fever is taking hold in Cambodia. Unless you are in remote areas, long gone are those quaint bridges made of tree trunks or the Bailey bridges made of steel that arrived with the advent of UNTAC. Instead, we are getting a plethora of brand spanking new concrete bridges like the Monivong Bridge that opened yesterday, at a cost of $10 million. That makes two Monivong Bridges, sat next to each other, and designed to reduce traffic congestion in the southern part of the city. The PM said at yesterday's opening that five more bridges were in his plans, two of which will be for a new railway line that will cross the Bassac and Mekong Rivers. And thank goodness that another bridge, sat alongside the Japanese Friendship bridge is in the plans too, as the congestion there, at any time of day, is a nightmare.
One of those tree trunk bridges I was talking about, in Preah Vihear province

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pulse in the press

Steel Pulse's David Hinds
Steel Pulse play one of their rare UK live dates tomorrow night (Wednesday 27 May) at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire as part of the Island Records 50th Anniversary, having just completed a short tour of the United States. Steel Pulse will be back playing live in the UK at the Glastonbury Festival on 26 June. Lead singer and songwriter David Hinds has been in the press recently to coincide with the US tour dates and here's a couple of on-line interviews with the man himself.

Lend Him an Ear - written by Damian Orion (Good Times Weekly)

Joni Mitchell once flung a memorable quip at some audience members who were shouting out requests for her hits: “You know, a painter does a painting, and that’s it. He’s had the joy of creating it ... No one ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint another “Starry Night” again, man!’” David Hinds, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter for the veteran reggae outfit Steel Pulse, would surely be able to relate to Mitchell’s lament. Having been making the rounds with Steel Pulse for more than three decades, Hinds can’t be faulted for wanting to explore new musical terrain with his bandmates, but he finds himself somewhat held back by his obligation to slake his fans’ thirst for classics like Ku Klux Klan, Worth His Weight in Gold and Bodyguard. “When we go to places like France and certain parts of the Caribbean where our market’s pretty strong, and certain parts of Europe as well as the U.S., we find that no matter what we play, they still want to hear the traditional reggae stuff from us,” the Birmingham-born musician explains. “When we’ve dabbled in dancehall and featured acts like Capleton and Damian Marley, the general complaint of the fans is that they want to hear us in the way they were introduced to us in the first place.”

Hinds readily acknowledges that his predicament is not a unique one. “I’m sure it plagued Hendrix; I’m sure it plagued Vincent Van Gogh; I’m sure it plagued Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” he states. “You want to move on and do other things, but how you’ve been introduced to the world in the first place is the way they want to see you. And then when you’ve died, and the word ‘R.I.P.’ is on your tombstone a hundred years later, people say, ‘Wow! That was far out! Is this what he was trying to do?’”Though Hinds’ quest for musical expansion has led him to flirt with everything from R&B to pop over the years, his lyrical content has remained fairly consistent since Steel Pulse’s inception in 1975: This is, in essence, a protest band, with racism right at the top of the list of sociopolitical issues being addressed. Hinds points to various visa, passport and immigration complications as well as to the discovery of nooses on a tree in Jena, Lousiana in 2007 as examples of the lingering presence of racism in the world. Nonetheless, anthems like “Ku Klux Klan are happily a tad less relevant today than in 1975. “We’ve still got a long way to go, but I do see a progression,” Hinds offers. “I didn’t think Nelson Mandela would have been released or a black president in the United States would have happened in my lifetime. But having said that, George Bush played a remarkable role in making that happen. He had to be so bad a president that they had to look in the direction of a black man!”

The singer, who notes that this year marks the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King, adds that all throughout his childhood in England, he observed hostility between people who came from the Caribbean and people who came from India or Pakistan. “Now, when you see an Asian person in a BMW with the windows down, and reggae music is blazing at 200 decibels, it’ll show you that there is an understanding of cultures,” he says. Hinds feels that reggae music has been instrumental in helping break down cultural barriers. “When I go to rock concerts, I see white folks,” he states. “I go to an R&B concert, I see mostly black folks. You go to a reggae concert, and you see all kinds of people there from all kinds of walks of life, whether it’s someone with a tie pushing a pen in his office or someone who’s got his pants half around his ankles, doing the bop. They’re all there, chuggin’ around to reggae music.”

Steel in The Game - by Curtis Cartier (MetroActive)

It's tour time for Steel Pulse. Plane tickets have been booked, backup singers hired and hotel reservations made. David Hinds is in Birmingham, England. In less than two weeks, he'll be in San Francisco, kicking off the latest leg of the tour. But after 35 years as frontman for the iconic roots-reggae set, he's got the process down to a science and is a sea of calm amid the last-minute preparations. "I'm really looking forward to coming to Santa Cruz again," he says of his May 6 gig at the Catalyst. "I've been there a million times, and I always love coming back." Hinds' excitement seems genuine; his cultured Birmingham British accent only slightly marred by occasional dips into the London cockney. The giddiness is refreshing, given the sour outlook many musicians possess after decades of records, gigs and interviews. For Hinds, despite watching 12 members, including four founders, quit, wash out or move on, and despite bitter fallouts with three major record labels, touring is still a time when it's all about the music. "It's always been a struggle," he says. "A lot of people still don't get what we're trying to do, you know. But on the road we can just concentrate on the music."

Steel Pulse, however, has never been only about the music. From the group's first record, Handsworth Revolution, in 1978 to its latest, African Holocaust, in 2004, a rebellious political spirit and a fundamental Rastafarian message have permeated the substance of both music and musicians. And though the group now sits comfortably as the most successful reggae act to come out of the U.K., it's been a long fight to get here. "Reggae music came to the U.K. from people like us - children of immigrants who migrated after the war," says Hinds. "Back then, our music was never taken seriously. We were black Britons and we were used to getting the racial slurs in school. Venues didn't want to play us because we had a protest message." Hinds describes the mid-'70s as one of the most trying times for his young band. A strange thing happened in the late '70s and '80s in London, however, and reggae music soon found itself championed by unlikely supporters. "Punk rock came along around then. The punk rockers were interested in supporting anything that the system was opposing. And at that time, the system was definitely opposing reggae music," Hinds explains. "We were never really into punk but we started to realize the similarities between reggae and punk and started playing with a lot of the bands."

Fast-forward to the present and punk rock is all but dead. Reggae, with the passing of its prince Bob Marley in 1981, might have died also, but thanks to acts like Steel Pulse, Buju Banton, Junior Reid and the Wailing Souls, roots reggae can be now heard everywhere from head shops to supermarkets. Hinds says he's thankful for the longevity of his music and the increasing demand, but at times, he's still surprised by it. "As far as the media was concerned, when Marley died the music was over. That wasn't so," says hinds, his voice quickening. "People tried all kinds of new subject matters and styles to keep up the popularity. They started drifting away from the spirituality. But we've always been about deeper things, you know." It's these "deeper things" that Hinds says Elektra, MCA and Atlantic record companies could never understand. Those companies "turned their backs on us, so we turned our backs on them," according to Hinds, and today Steel Pulse is represented by the small, reggae-only, RAS label. "Every time reggae bands were signed to a major label they were thrown into the black category or R&B. We never saw any of the money they promised," he says. "Now with the Internet and pirate radio stations, we get more exposure than we did with the major labels."

In Santa Cruz, Steel Pulse has had plenty of exposure. Hinds says the town is always a must-stop on any American tour, and with tickets expected to sell out, it's clear that local fans feel the same way. "The people in Santa Cruz have been wonderful to us over the years," He says. "We feel deeply indebted to everyone there. Thanks for all the love."

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Never seen before

Never seen before in Cambodia is the title for Friday night's (29 May) screening of two films at Meta House in Phnom Penh, as part of their Legacy Film week. I have a list of films and documentaries that have never been shown here, or not seen for a very long time, and where I am contacting the film directors to ask permission to screen the films at Meta House. The response so far has been fantastic, my personal thanks to all of the directors involved, and Friday will see two more films that will be making their public debut. Fear and Hope in Cambodia was made in 1993 by Isabelle Abric and written and narrated by author and journalist William Shawcross. It contains lots of previously unseen footage as it chronicles the before, during and after of the history-making elections under the supervision of the United Nations. The second documentary is The Road From Kampuchea, made by Anne Henderson in 1998. It tells the story of Tun Channareth, a landmine survivor and ex-resistance fighter who became a disability outreach worker. He traveled to hospitals and remote villages to deliver custom-made wheelchairs to fellow survivors. He then became a spokesperson for the anti-landmine campaign, traveling to Japan and Europe to promote the cause. Eventually, he made it to Canada, where the first international treaty to ban landmines was signed by 125 countries and to Oslo, where he received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. We are also treated to the music of chapei master Kong Nai.
UNTAC's special representative in Cambodia Yasushi Akashi being interviewed
Tun Channareth receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997

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Legacy film shows

Em Theay adjusts the headdress of her principal student Sok Chea
This week Meta House is screening a selection of rare documentaries that deal with Cambodia's troubled past, it's legacy of the last 40 years. I will be presenting two films on Thursday of this week (28th May) and two more on Friday night, both screenings begin at 7pm at Meta House, next to Wat Botum on Street 264. If you haven't seen The Tenth Dancer then you must come on Thursday. It is a extraordinary film shot in 1993 that tells the story of the re-emergence of classical Khmer court dance in the wake of the Khmer Rouge's attempts to annihilate the country's cultural heritage. Told through interviews with the incredible Em Theay and her principal dancer Sok Chea, it is a wonderful time-capsule of the early 90s and a tribute to a true icon of Cambodian culture, Em Theay. The recent benefit screening of The Tenth Dancer at Bophana was dedicated to her after a house fire destroyed her family's possessions including a tattered song and dance book that she managed to keep hidden throughout the Khmer Rouge regime. You will see how much that book meant to her in the film. I saw Em Theay out of the corner of my eye at the Bophana screening and she wept as she watched that segment of the film. If that doesn't get to you, nothing will. To meet the lady in person is to be absorbed by her spirited personality and natural grace and zest for life and dance. The film by Sally Ingleton is a wonderful tribute to her and her fellow dancers and teachers. Visit the website of The Tenth Dancer to find out more about this incredible story of survival. The second screening on Thursday will be the dreamlike Samsara: Death & Rebirth in Cambodia, produced in 1989 by Ellen Bruno, documenting the struggle of Cambodians to rebuild a shattered society, interspersed with ancient prophecies and folklore.
The opening sequence of The Tenth Dancer with Em Theay and Sok Chea at the Royal Palace
Em Theay proudly shows some of the books she kept hidden during Pol Pot time
Em Theay and her principal dancer Sok Chea
Samsara: Death & Rebirth in Cambodia

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Facing eviction

A mid-day heat haze covers the desolate Stung Meanchey dumpsite
Various communities in Phnom Penh face eviction on an almost daily basis but there's one group with a difference. They are the families who rely on the city's main garbage dump site at Stung Meanchey for their meagre living and who face eviction when the site is closed sometime soon (estimates range from next month to the end of the year). The location of the city's garbage is being moved out to the Choeung Ek district, further out of town, and the current site will be redeveloped, necessitating the eviction of the families who live there today. It will also present a problem of what to do next for the dozen or so organizations who have set up shop near the current site to help the families who live there, and particularly the children of the dump.

Here's a report on the situation by Claire Truscott for AFP:
Cambodia's dump dwellers face eviction

Scavenging for bits of plastic, metal and glass that earn them an average 10 dollars a month, the children of Phnom Penh's municipal rubbish dump are among Cambodia's poorest. Hundreds of families live on and around the 100-acre (40.5-hectare) site, making their meagre living from the materials they collect on the steaming rubbish heap, replenished daily with 900 tonnes of the capital's refuse. "We don't go to school. I'd like to but I need to pick the litter and earn money. I have nine siblings and they all work the same job as me," said 13-year-old Mek. Dump trucks rumble in and out of Stung Meanchey landfill site throughout the day, while the toxic waste that covers sink holes burns in the sun. "I really worry about the children working on the dump especially because of the rubbish trucks that sometimes hit the children, because it's hard to see them up there," said 26-year-old father-of-two Chan Samon. His fears are not unfounded - in February a 16-year-old girl was killed when a bin fell on her head. There have been numerous victims like her since the site opened more than 45 years ago.

Chan Samon told AFP he earns a pittance selling mostly bottles and cans to Vietnamese buyers. Middlemen come to nine storage depots at the dump's entrance, before selling it on to recycling companies for profit. One kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of plastic fetches 10 cents, while one kilogramme of iron or a glass bottle goes for 2.5 cents. But these slim pickings are all these families have. Many of them arrived in Phnom Penh from the rural provinces in the hope of finding better work, only to discover their only option was to join those foraging for rubbish. Now Cambodia's authorities are closing down the site and moving the dump several miles outside the capital. None of the residents are clear who is evicting them, only that they have been told to expect to move at any time. "I heard something about the dump moving but I don't know what's going to happen," said Mek, who has worked at the site since he was three years old.

The move has been discussed locally since 2003, residents said, but a recent letter sent out by municipal authorities to all Phnom Penh residents confirmed the closure would take place in the "second quarter" of the year. It said rubbish collection prices would need to rise because of the move, which it said was necessary because of the "environmental impact" of the site, citing the noise, smell, smoke and poor underground water quality. Until the proposed eviction a few lucky children had escaped the grimy work thanks to about a dozen charities set up around the landfill site. The organisations pay parents for lost income while they provide their offspring with schooling, clothes, food and a clean place to sleep. "When I was up on the dump I met (charity outreach worker) Theary and he was interested in helping me and he brought me here," said 10-year-old Srey Neat, one of 96 children being looked after by Theary, who goes by only one name, and the charity "A New Day Cambodia". The centre pays parents 10 dollars a month to keep their children away from the scavenging work.

But with the dump's closure, that helping hand may not be able to stretch far enough if the dump dwellers move further afield. "We have some concern about whether some of the parents will need to move away and would like to take their children with them," said the centre's director Annette Jensen. The landfill site is expected to be rebuilt next to Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields, where thousands of people were killed and buried by the communist Khmer Rouge regime during its 1975-1979 rule. Chan Samon said he will have no choice but to take his wife and two children and move over to the new site. "If the dump moves we will have to move with it. I have no choice because I don't have any other job," he said.
A small makeshift dwelling on the Stung Meanchey dumpsite

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Gongs across borders

Cambodian Living Arts have put together three short videos on YouTube about tribal (indigenous) people in Cambodia and Vietnam and the similarity of their performing arts and struggles to maintain their cultural identity. Titled Gongs Across Borders, the videos are each about eight or nine minutes long. Well worth checking out. YouTube

Today's Phnom Penh Post carried the results of the weekend's Cambodia Premier League matches with a joint report from Dan Riley and myself. Dan did the majority of it for Saturday's games, whilst I covered the two Sunday matches. Read the match report here.

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Two Barang

A newcomer to the Cambodia bookshelves is Anthony Maturin's Two Barang to Cambodia, published by Spider Press in the last month or so, 240 pages telling the story of his two years in the country. Maturin and his wife Sandra Jones spent a couple of years in Cambodia with Volunteer Service Abroad New Zealand, she as a research advisor to the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, and he producing his photographic work, A Certain Grace, in which he set out to portray the dignity and essential human spirit found in the midst of poverty. The couple travelled widely around Cambodia with the members of small Cambodian NGOs who work with street children and drug addicts, give AIDS education on the streets, support people living with HIV, the blind and mine amputees, remove land mines, try to avert land grabbing by the rich and powerful, and just plain alleviate some of the direst poverty. This is the story of those travels. The author also provides his own line drawings in the book. Anthony Maturin began his working life at age eighteen when he worked as a shepherd on Erewhon Station in the high-country of New Zealand's South Island. His varied working life included occupations such as farming, building, writing and documentary making about human rights issues. Photography became a passion of Anthony's when his mother gave him a Woolworths' camera at the age of seven. A Certain Grace, published in 2006, is a coffee table book of sepia pictures and notes by Maturin that is available from Monument Books in Phnom Penh. The diverse photographs are arranged according to five themes: hands; machines; death; daily life; and generations.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Borey is back with a bang

Khim Borey doesn't look like a man that has just scored twice and won the game for his team does he?
Cambodia's star striker and last season's Golden Boot winner Khim Borey was the difference between the two teams in this afternoon's opening game. Ministry of Defence stupidly sidelined him and keeper Samreth Seiha at the start of the Cambodia Premier League season and he reminded them why that wasn't such a good idea with both goals in their 2-nil win over Post Tel Club. A wickedly curling free-kick and a safe-as-houses penalty was his telling contribution, though his national teammate Seiha only made it to the bench on his return to the fold. The Defence management had accused five players of throwing a cup tie before the league season began but thought better of it and reinstated them, but without any explanation. In the second game, Kirivong maintained their great start to the season with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Naga thanks to a goal by one of their Muslim contingent, Him Salam, in first-half injury time. And if In Vicheaka had his shooting boots on, it could've been a larger winning margin. Naga, with half a dozen national team players, failed to shine.
The only goal of the Kirivong v Naga game was a scrambled affair claimed by Kirivong's Him Salam
Storm clouds gathering during the latter stages of the 2nd game; a regular occurrence each weekend

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reaching for the top

National star Sam El Nasa came off the bench to score Preah Khan Reach's winner and send them to the top of the CPL
Whilst Preah Khan Reach took top honours in the Cambodia Premier League this afternoon, with a 2-1 win over Khemara Keila, the much-fancied Phnom Penh Crown took another nosedive, this time losing 3-2 against Build Bright. One of two Muslim players in the national team, Sam El Nasa came off the bench to score Preah Khan's second-half winner in today's first game after Kouch Sokumpheak had equalised from the penalty spot and looked set to give Khemara a share of the points. In the second game, Crown were 3 goals down before they got their act together but it was too little too late as Hem Simay, the BBU goalkeeper covered himself in second-half glory with brave saves and point-blank stops to help his side record a shock victory. With Crown suffering yet another defeat its thrown the whole CPL wide open even at this early stage of the season. Crown have also been rocked by the sale of their ace Cameroonian striker Jean-Roger Lappe Lappe to one of the Samut teams in the Thai Premier League, either Samut Songkhram or Samut Sakhon, not sure which one as no-one seems to know. He was sold a couple of weeks ago but Crown forgot to tell the press. And young French goalkeeper Simon Tracol has also returned home after a couple of matches for Crown.
Now sitting proudly at the top of the CPL - Preah Khan Reach
Phnom Penh Crown and Build Bright enter the Olympic Stadium for the 2nd match of the day
Has the Phnom Penh Crown bubble burst, with their 2nd consecutive defeat?
Build Bright's 2nd half hero, goalkeeper Hem Simay

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Another 'must have' book

Buddhist Painting in Cambodia - I saw this tome in Monument Books recently and I'm currently saving up for it, as it ain't cheap. But it's a 'must have' book if like me, you have an interest in pagodas and Cambodian culture. It's also a product of author Vittorio Roveda, whose work has opened many doors for me to understand what I am seeing during my travels throughout Cambodia, in collaboration with Sothon Yem, and published by River Books. In its 328 pages, complete with lavish illustrations and 630 color photos, Roveda and Yem introduce us to the mural paintings found throughout the country, their meanings, the painting techniques and the architectural styles of the pagodas in which they are found. They also include descriptions of 100+ wats with murals that the authors visited themselves over a period of five years. This is an immensely important record of Cambodia's Buddhist paintings and one which every self-respecting book collector should own, once they've saved enough cash.

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Sophiline's rewards

Sophiline demonstrates the fan technique to her troupe of dancers
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has just been awarded a prestigious honour and a grant of $25,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts (in the US) for her contribution to folk and ethnic arts and as an acknowledgment of her outstanding work with classical Khmer dance. And in running Khmer Arts programs in both Long Beach, California and in Takhmau, just outside Phnom Penh, the money and the recognition will prove very useful. However, its one of numerous awards she has received for her determined efforts to keep alive classical ballet as well as adapt and enrich it with new influences and interpretations. She has choreographed many new works that have been seen on the international stage and these have introduced new audiences to Cambodian court dance around the world. At Takhmau, her Khmer Arts Ensemble has a permanent troupe of 19 dancers plus musicians, vocalists and teachers. Their pavilion-style theater is located on the grounds of her uncle's home, Chheng Phon, a visionary of Khmer artistic culture, who created the theatre celeste with a $300,000 grant from Japan, and who was Minister of Culture fron 1981-1989. Sophiline's troupe of female dancers, aged between 18 and 22, all graduates from the Royal University of Fine Arts, rehearse each day, morning and afternoon, from a program of rarely performed classical standards as well as new works designed by their master teacher. They also have classroom sessions where they study dance from other cultures and delve deeper into the relationship between dance and everyday life. The troupe is a professional touring company, having toured abroad extensively as well as performing regularly in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. They are taking classical dance to new levels, new locations and new audiences and deserve our unstinting support. My thanks to Toni Shapiro-Phim for giving me a guided tour of their Takhmau home and to Sophiline for allowing my intrusion into her rehearsals.
The orchestra and teachers look on as the dancers go through their moves
Rehearsals carry on whilst other dancers await their turn to join in
The surroundings provide a great deal of colour and rural sounds to rehearsals every day
More of the dramatic backdrop at the theater in Takhmau
A feast of hand fans from the Ensemble dancers
Practice makes perfect for this young dancer
An overview from the back of the pavilion-style Khmer Arts theater in Takhmau

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