Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Kuti Rishi of Isaan

The central laterite tower at Kuti Rishi Ban Nong Bua Lai, with the foundations of the library in the foreground
Jayavarman VII was a fervent Buddhist as well as the greatest builder of the Khmer Empire. His determination to leave his mark included the construction of 102 hospitals (built in wood and long since disappeared) across his vast empire and with each of those hospitals came a chapel for religious purposes. There are a handful of chapels to be found in Isaan, and two of them both with the name Kuti Rishi, or hermit cell, are within a short distance of Prasat Phnom Rung and its nearby sister temple Prasat Muang Tam. They are identical in appearance, composed of hard laterite stone with a typical layout of a central redented tower, a southern library with a laterite rectangular enclosure wall and a single east-facing gopura with doors and windows made of sandstone. Next to each is a laterite-lined pond. There aren't any lintels or carvings to shout about though both of the Kuti Rishi are worth a stop en route between the two main temple sites for their peaceful locations. Kuti Rishi Ban Nong Bua Lai is the one closest to Phnom Rung, lying at the foot of the hill and near a large baray of the same name. It's a little more of a ruin than its sister, with its library no longer standing and much of its enclosing wall long since gone. Three young girls provided us with some entertainment as they practised jumping into the pond before they were scolded by their grandmother for not getting on with washing the family clothes. About five kilometres away and next to the baray of Prasat Muang Tam is the second hermit cell, Kuti Rishi Ban Khok Muang. It was devoid of any life, set on its own in fields, though was well maintained and alongwith a few antefixes on the seven metre tall laterite tower, I also spotted a couple of sandstone pedestals.
The informative introduction sign at Kuti Rishi Ban Nong Bua Lai
The broken wall allows a good view of the tower and gopura at Kuti Rishi Ban Nong Bua Lai
The ruined eastern gopura at Kuti Rishi Ban Nong Bua Lai
The girls carry on their practice dives into the pond despite scolding from their grandmother
The pond and temple of Kuti Rishi Ban Khok Muang
The central tower and gopura of the Kuti Rishi near the baray of Muang Tam
The east-facing gopura at Kuti Rishi Ban Khok Muang
The central laterite tower at Kuti Rishi Ban Khok Muang with sandstone antefixes in situ
A sandstone pedestal in the gopura at Kuti Rishi Ban Khok Muang

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Festivities ahoy

With the Water Festival (Bon Om Tuk in Khmer) just about to get underway here in Phnom Penh, there's a serious possibility of getting trampled underfoot as hundreds of thousands, possibly up to a million, Cambodians arrive in the capital from the surrounding provinces, to witness the boat racing as well as enjoying the free festivities and the chance to mingle in the capital. I was expecting Now to come down from Siem Reap for a few days break and to experience the capital in all its frenzy for the 1st time, but Eric's cracking the whip and his exhibition at Raffles has been extended for a week, so she'll try and make it next week instead. Its a time to be wary of your valuables as every expat I've spoken to (which is a handful) has suffered a robbery of some description around this time, so the key thing to remember is, don't carry anything you can't afford to lose. The streets will be jam-packed and I mean absolutely rammed over this weekend and into the early part of next week, so I might just stay at home and catch up on all those things that I've been putting off, which is a very long list. Meanwhile, the authorities have been clamping down on the city's prostitutes before the festival, they will be handing out up to 250,000 free condoms and have warned people to be wary of catching the H1N1 flu virus with a 'cover your cough' message. Its the Kings' Father's birthday tomorrow too, so another public holiday, it was Coronation Day yesterday and Water Festival is a public holiday for 3 days, though at Hanuman we're only off on Monday. And of course, football will take precedence next weekend, when the BIDC Cup begins a weeks' worth of football at Olympic Stadium involving the Cambodian national team, fresh from their training camp in Vietnam. I was gutted to read of a series of events at the EFEO HQ in Siem Reap this week which I will obviously miss. In English, the lectures will focus primarily on Angkor and will include speakers such as Christophe Pottier, Darryl Collins, Olivier Cunin, Martin Polkinghorne and Im Sokrithy. Damn and blast.
As part of the celebrations for Norodom Sihanouk's birthday tomorrow, TV3 hosted a program tonight of music and of course, classical Khmer dance. In the red costume on the far left of this screen-grab is my pal Sam Savin with fellow members of the royal ballet peforming a dance in honour of the King Father. Savin was also performing for the King earlier this week at Chaktomuk Theatre.
Sam Savin, far left in red costume, dancing on TV3 tonight

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Even more de Vries

Every time I open the paper here I see Eric de Vries' name. This man's publicity-machine has been a runaway success in recent months. He's just finishing a month-long exhibition at Raffles in Siem Reap. And as a very good friend of mine, I'm more than happy to continue the trend. The following article on Eric appears in the FCC's latest newsletter The Wires. There will be a Retrospective book out early next year and next month a series of 30 pictures from Sambor Prei Kuk will go online.

Shooting from Heaven

"Retrospective Cambodia 00/09," on display at The Raffles in Siem Reap, is a showcase of Dutch photographer Eric de Vries most memorable Cambodian pictures.

Eric de Vries likes taking pictures in Cambodia. In fact, the native of Netherlands has spent the last nine years shooting photos throughout the kingdom. The acclaimed photographer is currently holding an exhibition at the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap. "Retrospective Cambodia 00/09" features de Vries' work from when he was either living in or visiting Cambodia. "I chose the best pictures I took from that period," de Vries says.

The exhibition includes photographs that de Vries shot of various landscapes around the country, the Angkor temples and the standoff last year between Cambodian and Thai troops near the Preah Vihear temple. When de Vries visited Preah Vihear, there were not any clashes between troops, as Cambodia and Thailand attempted to resolve the dispute diplomatically. "We - my assistants and I - had a great time up there with the troops," he recalls. "It was more like boredom and spending time (for the soldiers) to grow vegetables, and they were happy that someone was around with a camera."

A resident of Siem Reap, de Vries does fine art, commercial, documentary and news photography. He and a business partner run a café/gallery in Siem Reap where much of his work is on display. The relatively slow pace of Southeast Asia and his view that "Cambodia is a photographic heaven" are among the reasons he originally decided to come to the country. His first encounter with Cambodia occurred in 2000, when he traveled around Southeast Asia for three months. When de Vries initially visited Cambodia, he recalls how "there was something" about the country that made him want to come back for a much longer stay. "The people, the countryside, and the temples ... I was surprised by (Cambodia's) beauty and all the smiling Khmers," de Vries says. He made annual visits to Cambodia before deciding to take up residence in Phnom Penh in late 2007.

Since relocating to Cambodia, de Vries has had more than a few memorable moments as a photographer. Not surprisingly, the temples around Angkor Wat were among those memorable experiences. The Preah Vihear standoff and his documentary series, Hello Darling, about the working girl bar scene in Phnom Penh, are other fascinating encounters he's had as a photographer in Cambodia.

Born in the Dutch city of Arnhem, de Vries developed a fascination with photography when he received a camera as a birthday present when he was 14. There were more and better cameras for presents on subsequent birthdays, and he eventually decided that he wanted to become a professional photographer. While de Vries studied at a photography school in the Netherlands for two years, he says many years of practice on his own were what really allowed him to hone his skills. After living in Phnom Penh, de Vries eventually moved to Siem Reap and got married to a Cambodian woman before he and his wife had a daughter named C'moon. The 49-year-old has lots of photography work in Cambodia lined up for the coming years, and he says he plans to stay in the country for the foreseeable future. "So I have no plans of going back to the Netherlands," he says. Links: Eric de Vries FCC's The Wires

Next month, Eric will post 30 photos from his recent visit to Sambor Prei Kuk

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Serious Pulse

Steel Pulse looking serious. LtoR: Donovan McKitty, David Hinds, Selwyn Brown, Sidney Mills, Wayne C-Sharp Clarke & Amlak Tafari
I haven't posted anything on the best music band on the planet, Steel Pulse, for a while, so here's a group photo I found by accident today. The band rarely pose for group shots and this one doesn't include their regular female backing vocalists, Juris Prosper and Keysha McTaggart. I think it was taken sometime in July. The band are on a mini-break at the moment before travelling to Brazil for 4 shows in mid November. They rarely rest. For more on Steel Pulse, click here.
Another musician I miss since my migration is Basil Gabbidon, a Steel Pulse founding member back in the day. Basil in his various guises, either Gabbidon, Reggaerockz, simply Blu, etc, etc, is still doing the business and the picture below was snapped by Tim Ellis at the Birmingham Arts Festival in September, when Gabbidon played the Fountain stage at Victoria Square. My thanks to Tim.
Basil Gabbidon - September 2009 vintage by Tim Ellis

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Watching our heritage

From time to time I get a bee in my bonnet about Khmer treasures that have been spirited out of Cambodia and lie in museums and private collections around the globe. This includes both Angkorian and pre-Angkor treasures. For people like Heritage Watch this is their daily bread and butter and they deserve everyone's support to oppose this loss of Cambodia's cultural identity. The following article by Roger Atwood, which I found on the Heritage Watch website, isn't about Cambodia but nevertheless carries an important message which could be adopted here, if everyone was prepared to work together to achieve it.

To catch a looter - by Roger Atwood (New York Times)
As United States troops begin withdrawing from Iraq, we should take stock of the staggering damage that Iraq’s ancient archeological sites have suffered from looting over the last few years. After the 2003 invasion, swarms of looters dug huge pits and passages all over southern Iraq in search of cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals. At Isin, where a Sumerian city once stood, I watched men sifting through tons of soil for 4,000-year-old objects to sell to Baghdadi dealers. It was mass pillage. The worst of the looting appears to be over, say the experts who monitor archeological sites with armed inspections and aerial photographs. With security improving, Iraqi authorities now have the chance to bring long-lasting protection to what’s left of the country’s ancient heritage. They could take some pointers from an unexpected place: Peru.

In 1994, residents of eight villages in northwestern Peru — a region of deserts and oases that looks much like Iraq — organized citizens’ patrols. The patrols weren’t out to stop house burglars or cattle rustlers. They were looking for looters, who, for several years, had plundered the area to feed the robust international market for pre-Inca artifacts. I spent a few days with one of these patrols in the village of Úcupe in 2002. The members were unarmed and well organized, and they knew the terrain as well as you know your dining room. When they spotted looters digging up the overgrown ancient burial mounds that dot the landscape, they surrounded them and called the police. In this way, I saw the patrols apprehend three potential looters without firing a shot.

Last year, archeologists excavated an intact tomb at Úcupe that contained the remains of a lord who ruled during the Moche civilization around A.D. 450. He was buried with golden headdresses, war clubs, silver rattles and opulent jewelry. If sold piecemeal on the black market, these objects could have fetched millions. Instead, their discovery opened the door to a new understanding of how power was exercised in the Moche world. Without the civilian patrols, this tomb would certainly have been emptied by looters. The people of Úcupe will now benefit from the archaeological tourism that often follows such discoveries and that, in Peru, is booming. They protected a community asset, and it paid off.

This kind of grassroots organizing — where local officials, police officers and archaeologists join forces with local residents — is the best way to combat looting and protect sites from being swallowed up by the illicit antiquities trade. A similar strategy has proved effective in Mali, a country that has little in common with Peru besides a rich archaeological heritage. It would work in Iraq and elsewhere. Surprisingly, though, relatively few governments have focused on getting rural people involved in protecting threatened sites. Most spend their energy pressing museums in the United States or Europe to repatriate looted artifacts, instead of focusing on safeguarding the archaeological riches still in the ground. Repatriation is a valuable goal, but an immense amount of historical information is lost whenever looting occurs and sites are damaged, even if the objects are later recovered. The government’s time would be better spent expanding the patrols to prevent looting in the first place.

In Iraq, the authorities could start by inviting provincial museums and archaeologists to work with local governments and police departments on organizing residents who live near key ancient sites. Rural citizens’ patrols aren’t expensive — they need binoculars, cellphones, maybe a few dirt bikes and some basic training. Financing could come from international conservation and community development organizations and should include money for education to encourage people to see the ruins in their midst as valuable community assets as much as potable water or clean streets. Once organized, the patrols need to be lightly armed if armed at all, and they have to be well regulated by the police. But as the good citizens of Úcupe have shown, they work. Roger Atwood, a contributing editor at Archaeology magazine, is the author of “Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World." Find out more about Heritage Watch, click here.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Canoeing to Tatai

I needed this at the end of our canoeing visit to the Tatai Waterfall
This is the view I had during our adventure, a tranquil river view and the back of Tim's head
I have so many photos and stories to post about my trips and adventures over the last few months, that there is a real danger I will forget many of them. For example, I spent nearly a week in and around Koh Kong (on the southern coast of Cambodia) before my birthday and that was closely followed by my trip to Isaan in NE Thailand. So to ensure I keep the Koh Kong trip in mind, here's some photos from a 3-hour canoe trip my brother Tim and I did on the afternoon of our arrival at Rainbow Lodge, an eco-friendly set of bungalows, just a little upstream from national highway 48 and the bridge at Tatai village. The owner of Rainbow is Janet and after she made us a bite to eat, we made good use of the lodge's two-man canoe. Tim sat in the front, I tagged along at the back, and we set off for a paddle along the tranquil Kep and Tatai Rivers. Our target was the Tatai Waterfall, which because we were at the back-end of the rainy season, would be in full flow. It took us about 45 minutes of fairly leisurely paddling to reach the waterfall. During that time on the river we saw no-one else and had only bird-calls for company. The water level was high and the waterfall itself stretches across the river, making quite a loud racket and not allowing us to get too close, because of the swell, and my desire not to get dumped into the water. Both Tim and I aren't great swimmers (or canoeists) and even wearing life jackets, I wasn't taking any chances of getting too close. The forest comes right down to the water's edge and rather than get out of the canoes and try to get a closer look at the waterfall, we decided to take a look at a couple of much smaller falls we'd noticed on our paddle upstream. During the dry season, the main waterfall is much less dramatic and swimming in some of the small pools is easily done I'm told. We carried on our adventure, regularly stopping for a breather because I have discovered that I am totally unfit, and made it back to Rainbow before dark, three hours after we'd begun. It reminded me of our kayaking session in Laos a year before, though we emerged considerably less wet from this one.
Where's the riverbank - as the forest comes right to the river's edge
Tatai Waterfall from a safe distance to avoid the swell
It doesn't look too dangerous but the current and swell was pretty strong and carried us downstream as soon as I took this shot
We paddled back upstream to get a bit closer to the waterfall - trying to paddle and take photos wasn't easy
We crossed to the other side of the river for this photo
I'm a big fan of waterfalls but you have to give them the respect they deserve
Another view of the Tatai River, which was like a mill-pond for much of the time
One of the smaller waterfalls we encountered on the Tatai River
The sun came out as I snapped this picture
Yet another smaller waterfall with the stream cascading over a series of rocks
A close-up of the final smaller waterfall en route back to Rainbow Lodge

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BIDC Cup draw

The Cambodia U23 team in their last international friendly against Singapore
The BIDC Cup 2009, named and sponsored by The Bank for Investment and Development of Cambodia PLC - a Vietnamese Bank - is fast approaching. The winners of the 4 team tournament stand to take home a cash prize of $20,000 and the runners-up get half that. As a precursor to the SEA Games in Laos in early December, the Cambodian Under-23 team will complete against one of their main rivals at the SEA Games, the Laos Under-23s, alongwith two Vietnamese club sides, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), who finished 6th in the V-League last term, and Vissai Ninh Binh, who topped the First Division to get promotion to the V-league. HAGL are one of the stalwarts of the V-League, having won league and cup doubles in 2003 and 2004 and finished 3rd a couple of seasons ago. They will be the first opponents for the Cambodian U23s at 6pm on Sunday 8 November at the Olympic Stadium. HAGL are currently playing in a tournament in Phuket, will have a friendly in Bangkok then arrive in Phnom Penh for the BIDC but minus their new coach, Kiatisuk Senamuang, who is in charge of the Thailand U23s for the SEA Games.
The draw for the BIDC Cup is as follows, with all games at the Olympic Stadium:
Sun 8 Nov: V Ninh Binh v Laos U23 (3.30pm): HAGL v Cambodia U23 (6pm)
Tue 10 Nov: V Ninh Binh v HAGL (3.30pm): Cambodia U23 v Laos U23 (6pm)
Thu 12 Nov: Laos U23 v HAGL (3.30pm): CambodiaU23 v V Ninh Binh (6pm)
Sat 14 Nov: 3rd place play-off (3.30pm): Final (6pm)

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Press talk

My article in yesterday's Phnom Penh Post on the Cambodian Under-23s ongoing preparation in Vietnam for the BIDC Cup in early November and the SEA Games in Laos in early December. Click here to see it online.
The Cambodian Under-23s played their 3rd practice match on Wednesday, drawing 0-0 with the Ho Chi Minh Under-21 team at The Thanh Long training centre. Coach Scott O'Donell commented on the game; "We dominated the first half creating a lot of chances but could not put them away. The 2nd half was more even but still we had some good chances. I was happy with most aspects of our game but our finishing was poor."
There are no injury worries to report from the squad's training camp just outside Saigon. The team are lining up two more practice matches to round off their month-long stint in Vietnam. The likely opponents are Can Tho, who finished 3rd in the V-League 1st Division last season and just lost out in the play-offs for promotion to the V-League proper. Their new coach is Lu Dinh Tuan, the coach at Ho Chi Minh City last season when they were relegated to the 1st Division. The Cambodian youngsters will return to Phnom Penh on 5 November and have two more training sessions before they compete for the BIDC Cup with an opening game against Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) on 8 November at the Olympic Stadium.
Below are the two new additions to the Cambodian U-23 training squad currently in Vietnam. Both players, Ieng Piseth and To Vann Thann, joined the squad last weekend and both play their football for the Ministry of National Defense team in the CPL.
To Vann Thann (Ministry of National Defense)
Ieng Piseth (Ministry of National Defense)

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No tensions at Ta Muen Thom

Off-duty Khmer and Thai troops, two local women and myself enjoy a moment of bonding at Prasat Ta Muen Thom
I mentioned a few days ago that during my visit to Prasat Ta Muen Thom, on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, the Thai and Cambodian troops stationed in the vicinity were mingling freely, sharing stories, jokes and cigarettes. Though the temple site itself is clearly in the control of the Thai soldiers, who were patrolling the area with their weapons on display, the wooden gate that leads across the current border and into Cambodia, was open and two Khmer soldiers wandered over to join a couple who were already sitting with their Thai counterparts. It was all very amicable and Tim and I joined the group for a chat with our smattering of Khmer and Thai and their limited English. A couple of women also joined in to add a bit more spice and laughter and half an hour later we were on our way, after the obligatory photo opportunity of course. The paved road that leads right up to the temple from the Thai side was under the watchful eye of a Thai army post. I didn't venture past the gate that leads onto the Cambodian side but read recently that they've also put a road up to the site. There was no entry fee from the Thai side, and the temple sits about 60kms southeast of Phnom Rung, as the crow flies.
These two Khmer soldiers and their dog had just wandered through the gate that marks the border
Here's the gate amongst the trees and the edge of the temple's laterite steps
A look at the end of the paved road before the path winds to the temple from the Thai side
A sober reminder not to stray off the paths or take a leak in the forest next to the temple site

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Somaly Lun's story

The Mirror newspaper in the UK has come up trumps again with a story in their online edition yesterday. In recalling Cambodia thirty years ago, they focused on Somaly Lun, who I haven't met personally, but I knew her husband Borithy, when he was working at the Cambodia Trust in the late 1990s. They also highlighted Marcus Thompson, who did so much for Oxfam around that time and I've always been fascinated by some of his pictures of Phnom Penh in the early 1980s. Anyway, here's the story.
Somaly Lun and Marcus Thompson today (pic Harry Page, Getty)
Cambodia's killing fields 30 years on: 'They will kill our parents tonight...we must escape' - by Ros Wynne-Jones (Mirror.co.uk)

It is 30 years since John Pilger revealed the existence of the Cambodian Killing Fields in the Daily Mirror. For Somaly Lun, the anniversary is bittersweet. Today, customers at the Oxfordshire supermarket checkout where she works have no idea of her extraordinary story. How she escaped US B-52 bombers as a child, a Khmer Rouge concentration camp as a teenager, and Vietnamese soldiers as a young woman. How she lost her father and six brothers to the Khmer Rouge. Somaly owes her life in the UK to Oxfam's Marcus Thompson, then a young humanitarian worker who had become friends with Somaly and her husband Borithy. "England gave me the first safe place I had ever lived," Somaly says.

By the time she was 10, her home town of Kratie was under attack, even though Cambodia was neutral. Kratie was close to the border with Vietnam which was at war with the States, and US President Richard Nixon ordered 100,000 tonnes of secret bombings. "The B-52s came every day," Somaly recalls. "Every day, shooting and bombing and running." One day a man grabbed her as an F-11 US fighter jet swept low and held her in front of him as a shield. "The plane was so low I could almost see the pilot's face," she says. It permanently damaged her hearing. Somaly's family fled to Phnom Penh, but by 1975 it had fallen to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Backed by the US against the Vietnamese communists, the Khmer Rouge were determined to return Cambodia to Year Zero, to a time before industrialisation. "My father, a doctor, was in the middle of an operation the day the Khmer Rouge came," Somaly says. "He said, 'What about the patient?' They pointed a gun at him and asked, 'Do you want to die?'"

Somaly's family were herded out at gunpoint with two million other people. The family was taken to Pursat, a concentration camp in the remote countryside. Then the Khmer Rouge came for Somaly's father. "They said, 'We know you are a doctor'." The first time, they wanted him to treat one of the leaders. But the second time, "they took him away and he never came back". Somaly was forced to spend 20 hours a day as a slave doing hard labour in the rice fields despite starvation, exhaustion and malaria. Her older brother was caught saving his food rations for her. "They made him confess he was a US spy," she says. "They kept beating him until he died. Then my younger brother was taken. They put him in a prison with other children, and burned it to the ground. The screams have haunted me ever since. "One day, they came and took 2,000 people. One of the girls came back like a zombie with blood all over her. She said, 'They killed everyone'." Then, one day a pal whispered: "They are killing our parents and we have to escape now, tonight." Somaly says: "After dark we went to where people were gathered with three big boats." The Khmer Rouge chased them along the river, firing at the boats. She says: "We hid in the mangrove and caught fish and ate it raw as we didn't dare to make a fire. We drank muddy water. We all became sick - just skin and bones." Everyone on Somaly's boat was drifting in and out of consciousness. "But somehow it arrived by itself at Kampong Chhnang, where the Khmer Rouge was driven out," she says. "They gave us food, water, shelter."

New escapees from Pursat told Somaly that thousands had been taken to a cliff and forced off at gunpoint. Yet, somehow her mother, sister and brother had escaped. "The day I saw them again was the happiest day of my life," Somaly says. When they returned to Phnom Penh in 1979 they found a ghost city occupied by the Vietnamese liberators. Somaly took a job at the hotel Samaki - now Le Royale - as a receptionist, where she met Borithy, who was working for the Cambodian foreign office as a translator. She also met Marcus Thompson, a 34-year-old British aid worker sent by Oxfam to set up a humanitarian programme. "We became friends," he remembers. "We were all stuck together at the hotel." But Cambodia was still dangerous - and Borithy was warned to leave Phnom Penh. "He said he was in love with me and refused to leave without me," Somaly says. On March 16, 1980, the couple married in secret inside a destroyed pagoda. The next day, they escaped. Passing through fields of landmines, they made it through Vietnamese, then Khmer Rouge territory and even past the Thai border guards to Khao I Dang, a squalid refugee camp on the border. Somaly wrote to her family and to Marcus to tell them they were alive. "I needed to go to those camps as part of my work," Marcus says. Somaly says she will never forget seeing Marcus walking through the camp. "I cried out 'Marcus!' and just hung on to his neck," she says.

Marcus was shocked by their plight. "They couldn't go back to Cambodia," he says. "The Thais wouldn't accept them. We had to do something." Back in England, Marcus and his Oxfam colleagues went through official channels to ask whether Britain would accept the family as refugees. "We had no expectation anything would happen," Marcus says. "But then we got a letter saying 'Yes'." Somaly, 22 and pregnant, arrived in the UK on May 12, 1981, with Borithy, Somaly's mother Moeun, brother Rithy and sister Virak - and settled close to Marcus and his family in Witney, Oxfordshire. "People at the Oxfam offices donated all kinds of furniture, saucepans, an old TV, carpets," Somaly remembers.

Today, the couple's daughters are success stories in their own right. The youngest, 23-year-old Bophanie, is a teacher in Brighton, while her sister, Mary Thida Lun, 27, is Assistant Private Secretary to the Minister of State for International Development, Gareth Thomas. At 64, Marcus still works as an adviser to Oxfam, and the charity remains working in Cambodia, still tackling the legacy of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and facing new challenges from climate change, typhoons and flooding. Today, 30 years on, when she goes to and from work at the local supermarket, living her British life, Somaly sometimes remembers the words her father said to her before they took him away. "He said, 'You are going to survive. You are going to go places'." She shakes her head slowly. "I think that was what gave me the strength to survive."

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ynav and Bosseba

King Norodom Sihamoni thanks Sam Savin personally on stage after the performance
Talk about rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, it was more like a who's who of the Cambodian royal family, the country's elite and the higher echelons of the foreign contingent in town, from Ambassadors to Trial Judges at the ECCC. Armed with my ticket from Sam Savin, one of the principal dancers in the Cambodian royal ballet, I arrived at the Chaktomuk Theatre around 6.15pm and was shown to a seat in the middle of the theatre, about halfway back. Not bad at all. Author and activist Theary Seng plonked herself down in the next seat and we introduced ourselves. More than an hour later, with every seat in the house taken, King Norodom Sihamoni entered alongwith Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, who had choreographed the piece we were about to see, Ynav & Bosseba. Sam Savin was the first to appear on stage, as a beautiful peacock being chased by a prince and was quickly followed by a series of princesses, kings, bandits, battle scenes, unrequited love, kidnap and happy ever after in a 75 minute performance - pretty much standard fare for the fantasy that is Cambodian classical dance. Savin reappeared later as a hand maiden to the princess and Vuth Chanmoly joined the cast as Prince Choraka. The cream of the country's classical dancers took their plaudits and individual thanks from the King, who was a dancer and dance teacher himself before he ascended to the throne, and the Princess. The television cameras were there too, so I can watch it all again on Apsara tv, maybe even spot myself in a suit for the first time in 2 years.
The King, the Princess and Sam Savin (front row, 2nd left) with her royal ballet colleagues
Princess Buppha Devi and King Norodom Sihamoni give their personal thanks to the performers
The cast of Ynav & Bosseba line up on stage for a group photo with their royal patrons
A parting bow from the King amongst the cast of the royal ballet
Three of the principal dancers with a young fan. Vuth Chanmoly is far right.
Yes that's me in a suit for the 1st time since I came to Cambodia, alongside my next seat neighbour, author and activist Theary Seng, who was great company

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Suited and booted

The invitation to Ynav & Bosseba with Sam Savin on the front cover
I'm just back from the Chaktomuk Theatre as my classical dance contact Sam Savin gave me a call to collect a ticket for a royal ballet performance tonight, in the presence of King Norodom Sihamoni. It was tough getting past security on the door and that was just to collect the ticket. The performance is the story of Ynav & Bosseba and Savin must have a central part as she's the dancer shown on the cover of the invitation. Its a suited and booted occasion, so I'll have to get my suit out of mothballs. The big question is - will I get in, even with an invitation?

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Pilger & Cambodia recalled

Anyone who has read my website will know that I owe a debt of gratitude to the journalist John Pilger. Without his 1979 documentary Year Zero, I would probably have never developed my initial interest and subsequent passion for Cambodia. I've also had the opportunity to meet John Pilger on a couple of occasions and to thank him personally. Yesterday, in the online Mirror, they recalled Pilger's reporting from Cambodia.

Beyond the imagination of mankind: Cambodia killing fields recalled 30 years on (mirror.co.uk)

Thirty years ago, the Daily Mirror's John Pilger revealed to the world the horrors of Cambodia. Two million people had died in Pol Pot's killing fields and hundreds of thousands were starving. Pilger's award-winning reports warned there was just six months "to save three million people". Mirror readers raised enough money for a plane load of aid, and the reports kick-started a global humanitarian response. Here he recalls his horrifying trip into a country that had been closed to the outside world for four years.

The aircraft flew low, following the Mekong THE aircraft flew low, following the Mekong River west from Vietnam. Once over Cambodia, what we saw silenced all of us on board. There appeared to be nobody, no movement, not even an animal, as if the great population of Asia had stopped at the border. Whole villages were empty. Chairs and beds, pots and mats lay in the street, a car on its side, a bent bicycle. Behind fallen power lines lay or sat a single human shadow; it did not move. From the paddies, tall, wild grass followed straight lines. Fertilised by the remains of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, these marked common graves in a nation where as many as two million people - or more than a quarter of the population - were "missing". At the liberation of the Nazi death camp in Belsen in 1945, The Times correspondent wrote: "It is my duty to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind." That was how I felt in 1979 when I entered Cambodia, a country sealed from the outside world for almost four years since "Year Zero".

Year Zero had begun shortly after sunrise on April 17, 1975, when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge guerrillas entered the capital, Phnom Penh. They wore black and marched in single file along the wide boulevards. At 1pm, they ordered the city be abandoned. The sick and wounded were forced at gunpoint from their hospital beds; families were separated; the old and disabled fell beside the road. "Don't take anything with you," the men in black ordered. "You will be coming back tomorrow." Tomorrow never came. An age of owned cars and such "luxuries", anybody who lived in a city or town or had a modern skill, anybody who knew or worked with foreigners, was in grave danger; some were already under sentence of death. Of the Royal Cambodian Ballet company of 500 dancers, perhaps 30 survived. Doctors, nurses, engineers and teachers were starved, or worked to death, or murdered. For me, entering the silent, grey humidity of Phnom Penh was like walking into a city the size of Manchester in the wake of a nuclear cataclysm which had spared only the buildings. There was no power, no drinking water, no shops and no services. At the railway station trains stood empty. Personal belongings and pieces of clothing fluttered on the platforms, as they fluttered on the mass graves beyond.

I walked along Monivong Avenue to the National Library which had been converted to pigsty, as a symbol, all its books burned. It was dream-like. There was wasteland where the Gothic cathedral had stood - it had been dismantled stone by stone. When the afternoon monsoon rains broke, the deserted streets were suddenly awash with money. With every downpour a worthless fortune of new and unused banknotes sluiced out of the Bank of Cambodia, which the Khmer Rouge had blown up as they fled. Inside, a cheque book lay open on the counter. A pair of glasses rested on an open ledger. I slipped and I fell on a floor brittle with coins. For the first few hours I had no sense of even the remains of a population. The few human shapes I glimpsed seemed incoherent, and on catching sight of me, would flit into a doorway. In a crumbling Esso filling station an old woman and three emaciated infants squatted around a pot containing a mixture of roots and leaves, which bubbled over a fire fuelled with paper money. Such grotesque irony: people in need of everything had money to burn. At a primary school called Tuol Sleng, with that this I walked through what had become the "interrogation unit" and the "torture and massacre unit". Beneath iron beds I found blood and tufts of hair still on the floor. "Speaking is absolutely forbidden," said a sign.

Without milk and medicines, children were stricken with preventable disease like dysentery. It seemed that the very fabric of the society had begun to unravel. The first surveys revealed that many women had stopped menstruating. What compounded this was the isolation imposed on Cambodia by the West because its liberators, the Vietnamese, leaves over of paper had come from the wrong side of the Cold War, having driven America out of their country in 1975. Cambodia had been the West's dirty secret since President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger ordered a "secret bombing", extending the war in Vietnam into Cambodia in the early 70s, killing hundreds of thousands of peasants. "If this doesn't work, it'll be your ass, Henry," an aide heard Nixon say to Kissinger. It worked in handing Pol Pot his chance to seize power. When I arrived in the aftermath, no Western aid had reached Cambodia.

Only Oxfam defied the Foreign Office in London, which had lied that the Vietnamese were obstructing aid. In September 1979, a DC-8 jet took off from Luxembourg, filled with enough penicillin, vitamins and milk to restore some 70,000 children - all of it paid for by Daily Mirror readers who had responded to my reports and Eric Piper's pictures. On October 30, 1979, ITV broadcast Year Zero: The Silent Death Of Cambodia, the documentary I made with the late David Munro. Forty sacks of post arrived at the ATV studios in Birmingham, with £1million in the first few days. "This is for Cambodia," wrote an anonymous Bristol bus driver, enclosing his week's wage. A single parent sent her savings of £50.

People expressed that unremitting sense of decency and community which is at the core of British society. Unsolicited, they gave more than £20million. This helped rescue normal life in a faraway country. It restored a clean water supply in Phnom Penh, stocked hospitals and schools, supported orphanages and re-opened a desperately needed clothing factory. Such an extraordinary public outpouring broke the US and British governments' blockade of Cambodia. Incredibly, the Thatcher government had continued to support the defunct Pol Pot regime in the United Nations and even sent the SAS to train his exiled troops in camps in Thailand and Malaysia. Last March, the former SAS soldier Chris Ryan, now a best-selling author, lamented in a newspaper interview "when John Pilger, the foreign correspondent, discovered we were training the Khmer Rouge [we] were sent home and I had to return the £10,000 we'd been given for food and accommodation".

Today, Pol Pot is dead and several of his elderly henchmen are on trial in a UN/Cambodian court for crimes against humanity. Henry Kissinger, whose bombing opened the door to the nightmare of Year Zero, is still at large. Cambodians remain desperately poor, dependent on often-seedy tourism and sweated labour. For me, their resilience remains almost magical. In the years that followed their liberation, I never saw as many weddings or received as many wedding invitations. They became symbols of life and hope. And yet, only in Cambodia would a child ask an adult, as a 12-year-old asked me, with fear crossing his face: "Are you a friend? Please say."

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Ta Muen's sad legacy

The head of this dvarapala male guardian has been chiselled away at Prasat Ta Muen Thom
The destruction of the intricate sandstone carvings at the border-straddling temple of Prasat Ta Muen Thom is heartbreaking. On my visit to the temple last week, which is the subject of a long-running dispute over ownership between Thailand and Cambodia, it was obvious that the temple, because of its remote location in the forested border area, had suffered badly at the hands of temple thieves over the years. For several years in the 1980s it was held by the Khmer Rouge, who in league with art dealers, tried to remove all of the temple's carvings, damaging many in their crude attempts which included the use of explosives. The main sanctuary and satellite buildings are now devoid of any lintels or pediments and the dvarapala male guardians and female devata that decorated the pilasters next to the doorways, are in a distressed state, as you can see from the pictures here. Heads have been chiselled away, whole sandstone blocks removed or feet have been left as a reminder of the beautiful 11th century carvings that once graced this important temple. I was so pleased to be able to visit this temple, particularly in light of the on-going border tensions between the two countries, but the destruction I found sadly reminded me of visits to other temple sites like Preah Khan of Kompong Svay where similar antiquity thefts have left the temple a mere shadow of its former self. More from my visit to the Ta Muen group of temples soon.
This decorated pilaster and male guardian have been destroyed by temple thieves
More crude attempts to remove cravings have left horrifying scars in the sandstone sanctuary
Further destruction, this time of a female devata, whose dress and feet remain

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