Monday, August 31, 2009

Press talk

These are my match reports in today's Phnom Penh Post from the weekend's Cambodian Premier League games. They are online here.

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Accident waiting to happen

Tiny shinpads on a CPL player at yesterday's game - an accident waiting to happen
An accident waiting to happen in my opinion. Shinpads as worn by footballers through the ages are meant to protect the shins on the front of each leg from injury. The tibia bone is the one most likely to suffer as it lies directly under the skin without the cushioning given to other bones by muscle tissue. A kick on the shin is not only extremely painful but fractures are common if the area is not protected by a shinpad. Hence my concern is that in today's football, shinpads are becoming far too small and lightweight to offer the protection that is, in my opinion, necessary. Though I didn't play with rolled up newspapers in my socks as the older generation will have you believe, I always wore shinpads that protected my shins but also provided ankle protection too. It seems to me - and the picture above clearly demonstrates this - that the size of shinpads are going in the wrong direction and ankle protection is also in danger of being dispensed with. On one rare occasion when I forgot to wear my ankle padding during my playing days back in England, I suffered a chipped bone in my talus (anklebone) as well as a small fracture of the fibula (the outerslender calf bone) - so I know how painful it can be. My message to all footballers is to wear shinpads and ankle supports that will protect your legs from injury - cuz without your legs in good condition, you will find yourselves on the sidelines.
On a similar note, I am getting increasingly annoyed by the amount of play-acting by players when they are tackled during the CPL games I watch every week. It seems all teams are guilty of it and ear-piercing screams when a player is tackled, rolling around on the floor as if clipped by a sniper in the grandstand and then jumping up and running around as bright as a button as soon as the stretcher-bearers deposit them on the sidelines, makes my blood boil. Also its embarrassing that so-called professional players are trying to get fellow players in trouble with the referee by exaggerating every tackle. The referee's job is tough enough without players seeking Equity cards through their acting antics on the field. I would like to see the Cambodian football federation take a lead in this and issue directives to all clubs to cut it out, and if it continues, then for referees to have sweeping powers to punish the offenders. It's a trait in the game here in Cambodia that we need to get rid of, and quickly.
Shot by a sniper in the grandstand or play-acting - you decide! Photo: Nick Sells

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Penultimate madness

Ministry of National Defense eased to a 2-nil win over Kirivong
Despite having a lie-in on Sunday morning, I conked out in front of the tv on Sunday evening and have just woken up (1am on Monday morning). That's my excuse for the lateness of the football reports from Sunday afternoon's games at Olympic Stadium. The Cambodian Premier League is in its penultimate week of league competition before the play-offs decide the final league rankings - as a traditionalist its not a system I like at all but its designed to create more excitement at the end of a long, hard slog. For me, it's the slog that's important, coming out on top after playing your rivals twice and earning the right to call yourself champions - not the winners of a 4-team tournament. This is my 2nd gripe about the same topic in two days, I must be getting old and forgetful. Back to the action. The Defense Ministry (MND) rattled two goals past Kirivong without reply, Phuong Soksana and Nov Soseila netting for the army boys. In the diminuative Soseila, they have a young man willing to take on any defence and also get stuck in. I know Scott O'Donell, the national coach, likes his attitude, so expect him to feature for Cambodia in the future. MND's best striker Khim Borey is still out of action, as he has been for most of the season, but he's had an operation on his foot injury and could be starting light training again soon - great news for Cambodia and their SEA Games prospects for December. In the second game, Spark failed to ignite (sorry, but I couldn't resist it) and Post Tel grabbed only their 3rd win of the campaign, 1-nil. Durosinmi Gafar got the decider on 16 minutes. Their veteran defender Kun Kuon kept a tight shackle all afternoon on the CPL's most lethal marksman Prince Justine. The most noise in the stadium came from the drums and whistles that accompanied the Bokator championships being held under the main stand. There's both hand to hand combat as well as stick proficiency involved as far as I could make out but it wasn't immediately obvious as I only grabbed five minutes of viewing at the half-time interval.
Defense Ministry's opening scorer Phuong Soksana
Already relegated, Post Tel beat Spark 1-nil
Bokator seen from a birds' perspective - this is the group stick proficiency final

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wall-to-wall football

At least referee Tuy Vichheka got the toss-up right, as for the rest of his performance - "no comment"
Last night was wall-to-wall live Barclays Premier League action on the tv, so no time to post the Cambodian Premier League results from yesterday afternoon. As it turned out, it was pretty tame stuff with the CPL Super 4 places already booked and the league action petering out as the regular season comes to a spluttering end. That's exactly why I don't like this Super 4 play-off, scheduled for 12 and 26 September. The CPL championship should be decided over the course of the league competition, not some knock-out mini-tournament but it isn't in my power to do anything about it, so I'll stop whining. As for yesterday, Khemara, who had 12 fit players and were without their injured talisman Kouch Sokumpheak, surprised me by beating Naga 2-0 with some degree of comfort. Joel Omoraka and Oladiji Olatunde netted for Khemara but it was referee Tuy Vichheka who got up my nose. 6 bookings and 2 red cards from a game that could hardly be called fiery, tepid even. He was trying too hard to impose himself and whilst Joel Omoraka's red was for an off the ball incident, Friday Nwakuna's dismissal was quite simply a joke, and the referee's way of evening up the numbers. I wasn't impressed. Khemara leapfrogged Naga into 3rd spot. In the follow-on game, 2nd-placed Preah Khan swatted aside BBU 3-1 and with some ease, fielding an all-Khmer starting line-up. Teenage winger Prak Mony Udom was the pick for PKR and though he didn't score, he did liven the game up considerably. Without his presence, I might've fallen asleep [which isn't unknown]. Sam El Nasa (pen), Tum Saray and Kao Kiry for PKR and BBU's Augustine Ogbni found the net. 2nd whine of the day - if the referee's are going to grab the spotlight at these matches [what happened to the man in black who we never ever noticed], then why don't they crack down on the epidemic of play-acting and screaming when tackled that I have to witness every week. That's one area where yellows and reds would be very welcome from my perspective, and the best way to drum it home to every team that football is a man's game, and not for sissies [he says in his best macho deep voice].
The Khemara line-up that defeated Naga Corp 2-0 and have never lost against them
Hero and villain, Khemara's Joel Omoraka scored the opener and was then sent off before half-time
The all-Khmer starting line-up for 2nd placed Preah Khan Reach, 3-1 winners against BBU
Whilst the football was taking place outside, inside the annual Bokator championships were underway

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

More from Chhlong

A fine example of the fading but sturdy buildings to be found on colonial street in Chhlong
You can still see some attractive floral decoration on this colonial-style home
Blogger is playing up today so loading my images is taking forever. This is a follow-on post from the Sleepy Chhlong post below and contains more images from this town hugging the banks of the Mekong River.
A well kept traditional wooden Khmer home on stilts on colonial street
A family of wood-carvers hard at work on colonial street
The town's post office occupies this run-down building in Chhlong

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Sleepy Chhlong

The laid-back, sleepy colonial street in Chhlong. On the left is the Mekong River.
There are a handful of locations that have eluded me on my travels around Cambodia over the years. For various reasons I've never managed to get to Svay Rieng, Pailin, Koh Kong and Chhlong. Well, a 30-minute visit en route to Kratie made sure that the sleepy town of Chhlong, hugging the east bank of the Mekong River, was deleted from that list. The driver announced we were taking the short-cut route to Kratie and rather than simply whizz past Chhlong (also known variously as Chlong and Chloung) I suggested a quick look around the place and my fam trip colleagues agreed. We didn't have time to do anything other than walk along the road fronting the river that contains a series of French colonial and Chinese style buildings, some in disrepair, others serving as family homes, but it was good to at last visit the town my pal Caroline had written about eight years ago here. Once the rest of the road to Kratie is paved then Chhlong will see a lot more traffic coming its way and I'm sure the crumbling colonial-era buildings, one of which proudly displayed the date, 1922, on its facade will undergo renovation, much like the classic 1917 family home that was transformed from a derelict mess into the gorgeous Relais de Chhlong hotel. On our return journey we popped into the hotel, which is just about to close for further expansion, but more on that in a later post. For now, colonial street in Chhlong remains a quiet and laid-back location, just around the corner from the town's market. I spotted a handful of very old Khmer houses as well, all of which ensures enough good reasons to return to Chhlong in the not too distant future. I can't believe it's taken me so long to get there in the first place.
The facade proudly shows 1922 as the date of construction of this colonial gem
A beautiful French colonial style building in need of some love and affection
It looks like Christmas has come early in Chhlong
Some of the French colonial and Chinese-style shop houses are in disrepair

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Friday, August 28, 2009

By Any Means

Though it was published nearly a year ago, I caught Charley Boorman's adventure travel book, By Any Means, for the first time today, specifically to read the section on Cambodia. He was gushing in his praise for Hanuman's own Nick Ray, who acted as the fixer for Boorman's whistle-stop tour through the country, and by the time he left, Boorman had fallen in love with Cambodia. Doesn't everyone? The book was also a companion to the television series of the same name on BBC2, which was why Nick was on board as they travelled down from the Lao border and onto to Thailand via Siem Reap on a variety of transport including rocket boat, 250cc dirt-bikes, wooden boats and a bamboo train. Effectively that was the focal point of the tv series, travelling from Wicklow to Wollongong by any means of transport that was available. The more diverse the better. Full of typical enthusiasm and humour, Boorman devotes fifteen pages to his Cambodia adventures as well as half a dozen photos.

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A small step

A proud moment as I pose with my sapling on Koh Trong - we became very close in such a short time :-)
If you visit the island of Koh Trong, a few minutes by ferry from the Mekong River town of Kratie, you can make a small difference by joining a tree-planting scheme at one of the pagoda's on the island. It's an idea started about a decade ago by one of the island's inhabitants who wanted to reverse the trend of tree-felling that was happening all around him. It's got the full backing of the community, the locals play their part in the scheme, there's a caretaker for the area, which surrounds the pagoda at Wat Ty Param Kbal Koh Trong, and you can already see the fruits of earlier labours with large swathes of fledgling trees taking root. As part of the recent fam trip organised by the Mekong Discovery Trail team, each member of our group of 18 tour operators was given a small plot of soil, a sapling and a shovel. Fortunately the locals had done most of the spadework so our role was mostly symbolic though it was still hot and sweaty labour in the middle of the day, though enjoyable nonetheless. At the end of the exercise, each of us had planted a new tree - with a wooden stake bearing our name nearby - which will be monitored by the caretaker and where we can, if so inclined, return to check its progress in the future. A great idea to leave a small eco-friendly footprint from our visit.
A quick check of my sapling's roots to determine its survivability - I almost look as though I know what I'm doing
My sapling appears to be outgrowing its next-door neighbour already
Other group colleagues putting the effort into the tree-planting
The main vihear at Wat Ty Param Kbal Koh Trong, soon to be surrounded by fledgling trees

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Coming up next week

In September of last year I watched a new movie by the Khmer Mekong Films team called Heart Talk at Meta House. It was effectively a preview audience screening to get feedback on KMF's 2nd feature-length film. Next week, on Friday 4th September, the film will get its gala premiere at the Sorya Cinema, next to the Central Market, at 7.30pm, under the new name of Vanished. It's a suspense-thriller-murder story, starring Saray Sakana, one of the country's rising stars.
Also coming up soon will be a new performance by the star of Cambodia's contemporary dance scene, Belle (as seen on the cover of The Cambodia Daily), who will join with Japanese artists to present a performance at the Parkway Center, 2nd floor, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 1st September. Belle has just returned from Taiwan and will soon take off for a two-month sojourn to Europe to further expand her repertoire.
Next Friday, 4th September, will also mark the beginning of the Lakhaon Festival here in Phnom Penh, which'll last for 1 week and include revived and new performances of dance, poetry and spoken theatre by groups such as the Khmer Arts Ensemble, the School of Fine Arts and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. All performances will take place at the Chenla Theatre from 7pm from the 4th to the 11th, with the Khmer Arts Ensemble and their fertility dance-drama, Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala, taking place on Monday 7th. If it was up to me, I'd like to see at least five of the 8 shows but I think seats will be at a premium. The plays will be in Khmer with English and French subtitles to make them accessible to all.

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Sells' sights

The latest exhibition at the 4Faces Gallery in Siem Reap will be 'Olympic - Sights from the Stadium' by Nick Sells which will give even greater exposure to the football and sports activities that take place at Phnom Penh's Olympic arena. Nick's photos appear in the Phnom Penh Post a few days each week, accompanying the football reports (that I often write) and other sports. His exhibition, at the gallery-shop run by another pal of mine Eric de Vries, will begin tomorrow and last until 25 September. Get along to the exhibition if you are in Siem Reap over the next month, as Nick captures some great sporting action at the stadium and deserves your patronage.

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Before & after

Island dwelling children at Wat Ty Param Kbal Koh Trong
On our last day of the Mekong Discovery Trail fam trip, we took a ferry ride to the island of Koh Trong, which lies directly opposite the riverfront of Kratie. In fact I used to think it was the west bank of the Mekong River until I looked at the map properly and saw that it was a massive island instead. Silly me. It turned out to be a really enjoyable few hours and I'll fill you in on the details in another post. On a visit to one of the island's three pagoda's, Wat Ty Param Kbal Koh Trong, we all took part in a tree-planting exercise, again more on that later. We also met the group of happy children in the photos above and below, and once again, they were eager to see themselves on film.
...and wait for the giggling to begin. Pic courtesy of Sybille Rotzler of Exo.

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Never before

One of the images from the S-21 photo archive
Tonight at Meta House (7pm), I will be hosting a double-bill of mid-1990s documentaries on a photography theme, both films never having been seen before in Cambodia. The first is Secrets of S-21: Legacy of a Cambodian Prison, a half-hour BBC production from 1996 in which two American photographers, Doug Niven and Chris Riley, painstakingly piece together the details of the murders that took place at S-21 through thousands of photos left behind when the prison was evacuated. The photos and interviews with former prison guards and prisoners reveal a world built on power, fear, and total disregard for human life and dignity. This is still a relevant documentary more than a decade after it was made and so relevant to the KR trials taking place right now. In the second half-hour film, veteran Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, in a film called The Shoot: Cambodian Odyssey, returns to Cambodia to talk about his experiences in the area but also of his approach to photojournalism. This documentary was filmed in 1996 by director Richard Traylor-Smith for the BBC. Griffiths died in March 2008. A third, short film by Touch Yinmony called My Father's Teaching will also be shown tonight.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Double take

The smiles say it all from the young troupe of classical dancers at Preah Rumkel
Just as I was posting the group shots below, Jasmine from Bayon Tours, one of my fellow Mekong Discovery Trail fam trip colleagues, sent me three of her photos that corresponded exactly to the scenes in my photos - what a remarkable coincidence. With her permission I have posted her pictures here too. I loved the look on the young girls faces as they saw themselves on my digital camera. They were such an adorable bunch.
These young boys burst into giggles immediately after this photo was taken
All aboard, as we get ready for our boat trip to the Lao border area. I'm in the center and Jasmine is directly behind me. All photos courtesy of Jasmine.

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Group shots

These are the adorable young girls who gave the fam trip group a classical dance performance at the Preah Rumkel community office
What is it with me and group shots. Following closely on the heels of the Mekong Discovery Trail team photo, here are a few group pictures from other parts of the trip. It's been a bit non-stop since I got back from the fam trip, hence my posts have been a little tardy to-date.
These young boys gave me a noisy and giggly welcome when we reached the village of O'Svay, the gateway to the border area with Laos
Getting ready for the boat trip to Anlong Svay and the border area with Laos. Behind me is Jasmine and alongside us are Anna and Sybille.

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Fawthrop on Heywood

Any excuse to mention one of my favourite people, Denise Heywood, whose book, Cambodian Dance, was reviewed in the Bangkok Post by Tom Fawthrop on Monday this week.
How Cambodian culture re-emerged after the devastating Pol Pot years - by Tom Fawthrop, Bangkok Post

The awesome grace and meticulous movements of the performers have entranced audiences since ancient times, an experience now shared with plane-loads of tourists descending on Siem Reap in western Cambodia, the jumping off point for the world's largest temple complex - legendary Angkor Wat. Dating back to the days of the great Angkor empire that flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries, Cambodian dance is a celebration of the gods, mythology and the world of the royal palace. This 144-page lavishly illustrated coffee-table book authored by Denise Heywood, a lecturer on Asian art, brings the reader a fine appreciation of Cambodian dance intertwined with the turbulent history and how it has always been at the core of Khmer culture and identity. The book details and explains the origins and development of the dances, music and shadow puppetry, all in the context of their spiritual importance as a medium for communicating with the gods. But Cambodia's recent tragedy brought its great tradition of dance near oblivion. The "Killing Fields" regime of the Khmer Rouge not only killed through slave labour, starvation and slaughter nearly 2 million people, including 90 per cent of artists, dancers and writers, but it also came close to extinguishing Khmer culture and tradition. Pol Pot's brand new agrarian dystopia had no place for the arts, culture or any other kind of entertainment except xenophobic songs and Pol Pot propaganda.

Heywood first arrived in Cambodia as a freelance writer in 1994, and her interest in dance was heightened by the extraordinary tale of how a few dancers and choreographers survived the genocidal years from 1975 to 79. In January 1979 a new Heng Samrin government backed by Vietnam proclaimed the restoration of normal society after four years of the Pol Pot regime had trashed most aspects of family life and the previous society. A handful of survivors emerged from the darkest era in Cambodian history dedicated to resuscitating their cherished traditions of dance. Actor, poet and director Pich Tum Kravel and former director of the National Conservatory Chheng Phon were among the cultural stars who miraculously survived. They became the key people enlisted by the new Ministry of Information and Culture under Keo Chenda, charged with the critical mission of bringing all the surviving dancers together. The expertise was handed down through the generations from master to pupil and never documented in written form, so everything depended on human memory. The late Chea Samy became the leading teacher at the re-established School of Fine Arts in 1981 (ironically Pol Pot was her brother-in-law). Piecing together the collective memories of survivors and much of the vast repertory, the performing arts were revived.

When this reviewer saw the post-Pol Pot Cambodian National Dance Company perform in Phnom Penh in 1981, it was a highly emotional experience. Members of the audience wept. This outpouring of raw emotion encompassed both tears of sadness for those loved ones they would never see again - and tears of joy that Khmer dance was alive again and had risen from the ashes of nihilistic destruction. Nothing had greater significance for the Khmer people in this process of rebuilding than this revival of the nation's soul and psyche in which dance plays a central role.

While Heywood is to be commended for her documentation of the revival of dance in the 1980s, it is a pity she has wrongly contextualised this cultural renaissance by claiming that "Heng Samrin's Vietnamese government" organised a national arts festival in 1980. In fact President Heng Samrin and everyone else in the new government were all Cambodians and not Vietnamese. Somehow the author has been infected with the cold war propaganda emanating from Asean governments and US embassies in the region that stressed Phnom Penh was being run by a 'Vietnamese puppet-regime' and the Cambodians blindly followed Hanoi's orders. The reality was more complicated. The cultural revival depicted in this book makes it clear that Vietnamese control over security and foreign policy, despite tensions and differences with their Cambodian allies, did not block the re-emergence of Khmer culture that at the same time planted the seeds for future independence. In 2003 Unesco bestowed formal recognition proclaiming the Royal Ballet of Cambodia to be a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage. And one year later Prince Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet choreographer and dancer, was crowned king.

Thai classical dance borrows much from the dance traditions of Angkorian times. After Siam's invasion of Siem Reap in 1431, hundreds of Cambodian dancers were abducted and brought to dance in Ayutthaya, at that time the capital hosting the royal court of the Thai king. This timely book also mentions that Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Shapiro has, among many other projects, adapted Mozart's Magic Flute to Khmer classical dance as part of a 2006 festival to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the great composer's birth. This production with many innovations caused a stir among the purists. Shapiro passionately defends her new productions against the critics, telling the author "increasing the repertory of dance will help to preserve it and prevent it from atrophying or becoming a museum piece."

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fam trip team photo

My fam trip colleagues at the homestay on Koh Trong island. I'm in dark blue and glasses.
Just so that you know some of the faces that joined me on the 4-day fam trip along the Mekong Discovery Trail, here's a team photo, taken at a homestay-cum-excellent lunchtime venue on Koh Trong island yesterday. Koh Trong sits in the middle of the Mekong River, directly opposite the Kratie riverfront. More later from the island visit itself, suffice to say that it was a very enjoyable trip, the villagers were ultra friendly, the food was excellent and the homestay had a western loo, shower and proper beds, which is a real result. I won't name the individual members of the trip shown on the team photo, as most of them are tour operator rivals to Hanuman (wink), though included in the picture is Bun Ban, the community leader, as well as the lady owner of the homestay (in red).
I'm being presented with my gift of a pomelo by the lovely Sovanna, daughter of the homestay owner

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Puppetry excellence

Two of the shadow puppet characters that courted the most laughter from the watching children
The questionnaire that I completed at the end of my 4-day Mekong Discovery Trail fam trip asked me for the highlight of my tour. Without hesitation I scribbled down, shadow puppets at Wat Roka Kandal in Kratie. Not only is the venue pretty spectacular, a stone's throw from the Mekong River and on the steps of the renovated early 19th century vihear, but the quality of the performance was exceptional when you consider the artists had received only one and a half month's training before this inaugural show. With more practice and support from the professionals at Sovanna Phum, the talented girls, who provide most of the puppetry during the hour long performance, will be sensational. The musicians and the voice-overs all added to a great show and it was capped off by what seemed to be the whole village turning out for the floodlit event too, with the younger children laughing and screaming at the puppets' funny antics, as they inched ever closer to the stage. Whilst our group occupied two rows of seats near the front, hordes of villagers stood behind us enjoying it as much as we did. The shadow puppet story focused on the princess and the crocodile, which is the tale that is linked to the 100-pillar pagoda at Wat Sasar Muoy Roy, 35kms north along the Mekong at Sambor, so it was educational for everyone too. In the future, they want to offer a dinner and puppet show double-bill that will add a 'must-see' attraction in the Kratie area, which pretty much closes down for the night when the sun sets just after 6pm. It certainly gets the thumbs up from me. After the show ended, I met with the artists to thank them for the excellent entertainment they'd provided and they were simply adorable. They gave me two leather puppets to keep and then took turns to practice their faltering English with the usual array of questions that crop up on such occasions, ie. age, nationality, job, marital status, etc. In return, they rattled off their names and without exception they all looked about sixteen years old but I'm sure they were older. One girl said "I love you like my father" which made me feel very humble and pretty ancient at the same time! If you get the opportunity to see the shadow puppets at Wat Roka Kandal, make sure you grab it with both hands. More from my April visit to Wat Roka Kandal here.
Some of the children waiting expectantly for the show to begin
The musicians and singers open up the performance
A brother and sister watch the performance
The children inch ever closer to the main stage at Wat Roka Kandal
The light shines on the righteous; well on this occasion, two of the artists with yours truly, after their splendid performance

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Back in PP

One of the most enjoyable moments came when the girls above performed an evening shadow puppet show at Wat Roka Kandal in Kratie, to our group and the rest of the village
I'm back home after a very enjoyable 4 days along the Mekong River, getting a feel for what the Mekong Discovery Trail is all about, seeing the sights with some new friends (also known as tour operator rivals) and visiting a handful of new locations on the Brouwer itinerary. I'll post details of the trip and photos in due course, for now I need a shower and an early night. More tomorrow.
For the record, I wasn't available to cover the Cambodian Premier League matches at the weekend, hence the absence of any football round-up. Thank goodness some of you may say. Phnom Penh Crown kept up the pace at the top, beating BBU 3-1, whilst 2nd-placed Preah Khan Reach went down 2-0 to Naga Corp. The CPL's top scorer Prince Justine netted another two as Spark drew 2-2 with Khemara and Kirivong swept aside Phuchung Neak 2-0. PS. The Cambodian U-23 squad was due to play a select Nigerian XI early on Tuesday morning in their first practice match but the heavy rain put paid to my attendance. I later found out it was a 1-1 draw with Prak Mony Udom netting for the national team in their first run-out together despite numerous absences due to injuries and club calls.

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