Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Movin' weekend

Not sure why or how, but a new dance performance coming up this weekend, had managed to elude me until today. Especially as it includes my favourite Cambodian dancer, Belle (right), and some of the great young dancing talent the country is blessed with. Movin' is a contemporary meets classical piece that will be hosted by Sovanna Phum this coming Saturday and Sunday at 7.30pm. Tickets for barang cost $6, $2 for Khmers. With choreography by Yon Davy and the dancers themselves, under the direction of Bob Ruijzendaal, it's another step forward in the cycle of new works by the group known as New Cambodian Artists. Find out more here. Belle performed in the Hong Kong Arts Festival earlier this month with Emmanuèle Phuon's piece, Khmeropedies II and will be in Singapore in late May. Then it's off to the United States in June to perform Khmeropedies I and II in New Haven and at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York, and back to Singapore in August. Joining Belle on stage for the Khmeropedies performance will be the absolute cream of Cambodia's dancers: Sam Sathya, Chey Chankethya and Phon Sopheap.
Tomorrow night, as I'm enjoying the luxury of a river cruise, the Children of the Bassac will present their final show at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, starting at 7pm and lasting an hour. Tickets are $18 from 012 650 229. They'll perform in eight separate sections of the show including classical Apsara and minority dances. Supported by Cambodian Living Arts, they hope this will lead to more regular performances beginning at the end of this year. This is definitely worth supporting, the dancers are extremely good and the cause is a great one too.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lap of luxury

One of the deluxe staterooms aboard The Jayavarman
Psst... don't tell anyone but I'm having a night in the lap of cruising luxury on Thursday. The generous folks at Heritage Line, who run the new luxury cruise boat, The Jayavarman, home to 27 staterooms, one of which will be mine for the night and next day later this week, have invited me aboard to experience it for myself. I've already paid a fleeting inspection visit (and was mightily impressed) but this will give me the opportunity to spend a night on board and the next day sailing up the Mekong River from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham (we have some shore visits lined up) and back again. Essentially it's a floating five-star hotel, a replica of the famous 1930s cruise liner Normandie and decked out in an Indochine style with Khmer artifacts. I don't often get asked to sample the finer things in life, so I grabbed this one with both hands, even if it's only for 1 day and night. Beggars can't be choosers. You can find out all about the boat here.


Last look

These dancing figures could be termed apsaras, though the one in the middle has a face that resembles someone chewing a wasp
Wrapping up my recent visit to the Terrace of the Leper King, which some believe was used for funeral functions when it was first sculpted in the 13th century, a few more pictures from inside the secret passageway - obviously no longer a secret after the EFEO renovators opened it to the public - and a section of the outer wall that's in good condition, at the northern end of the terrace. There's a replica statue sitting on top of the platform - the original sits in the courtyard of the national museum - and is either one the Khmer kings who suffered from leprosy and gave the terrace its name or, more likely, Yama, the god of death, and overseeing the cremations that took place there. You choose. Here's a tip, it's Yama.
Another royal figure surrounded by courtiers, and no, they are not paddling a canoe
A look at a section of the inner secret passageway. Note the massive naga at the base.
This part of the northern outer terrace is in good condition. Note the multi-coloured sections of the wall.
A King with identifying short sword, in regal pose
Attendants at the royal court in various poses
Don't try this at home. A sword swallower tries to impress the King whilst spearing the head of his little friend

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Falling over themsleves

Sean Flynn, covering the Vietnam conflict. Photo by Tim Page.
I can hear the gnashing of teeth from here. Headlines in the local press today and in the UK's Daily Mail on Saturday, suggest that two individuals have found some bone fragments, teeth and clothing that they hope are the remains of missing Vietnam War photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Hollywood actor Errol, who disappeared nearly 40 years ago, in April 1970. They've passed their findings onto the American POW-MIA team who collect such remains, after spending a month digging around in the dirt in Kompong Cham province, near the Vietnamese border, following a tip-off. Veteran photographer Tim Page has spent years trying to trace the facts and last whereabouts of his friend Sean Flynn, who went missing with his pal Dana Stone and was believed to have been in the custody of the Khmer Rouge, and with a book and film in the works, he has expressed reservations about the latest discovery. It was only last year that The Road to Freedom was filmed in Cambodia, which is a fictionalized story of the two photojournos. In addition, another biopic based on the Perry Deane Young book, Two of the Missing, Remembering Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, is also in the works. It seems everyone is falling over themselves to get to the bottom of the Sean Flynn story.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Get outta here

Most of you should already know that any football-related blog posts will no longer find their home here. Instead my new football-only blog at will be overflowing with footy news, especially after the new Metfone C-League kicked-off yesterday with fifteen goals in two matches. A great way to start the new season.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Secret friezes

A King sits in the royal court, identified by his short broadsword, fanned by attentive concubines
Most of you who've been to the Angkor temples near Siem Reap, will have visited the massive city of Angkor Thom and within its central area, the Terrace of the Leper King. Not as immediately obvious as its nextdoor neighbour, the Elephant Terrace, the outside wall of the Leper King version hasn't fared too well over the years and many of the sections of carvings are badly weathered and simply not photogenic. But step inside the 'secret' passageway just a couple of metres behind the outside wall, and you enter a zig-zag world of kings and concubines, heavenly dancers and giant naga snakes, where many of the sculptures are in pristine condition, having been hidden from view for hundreds of years. The height of the terrace wall is about seven metres which allows multi-tiered friezes, full of finely-etched figures, that were meticulously restored by the EFEO team under Christophe Pottier between 1993 and 1996. Previous attempts to renovate the terrace had been made before, the last was in 1972 but the civil war put an end to that and it was up to Pottier and his team to complete the work. And what a great job they've done too. The terrace was originally constructed in the 13th century under the watchful eye of the great Khmer king, Jayavarman 7th. The reference to the Leper King, well that's another story entirely.
These three registers of friezes at the Leper King Terrace show the royal court with the King surrounded by adoring female company
The secret passageway of the Leper King Terrace was hidden from view for centuries
The King and his attendants sit above a massive naga snake
A royal figure and short sword, with parasols in the background
The attendants or concubines have also been called devata or apsaras - take your pick
The King in all his regal glory is surrounded by well-dressed devata with elaborate headdresses

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Friday, March 26, 2010

From spider-country

Ah, that occasional series is back again. This is Navy from Kompong Cham. I have other friends called Navy and most of them come from the same province, it must be a popular name in those parts. This Navy comes from near Skun, spider-country to those that know and has lived in the city for about a year with her sister. Many Cambodians come to the city for their studies and live with their fellow family members, visiting parents back in their province on public holidays or when school allows and Navy is no exception. She's got a heart of gold, and perfect teeth, the latter quality making me very jealous.



A Dutch artist, Peter Klashorst, well known for painting and photographing young women, will have an exhibition of his work on show at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) in Phnom Penh sometime this year, supported by UNESCO. I've seen both April and August mentioned, so I can't confirm either way at the moment. He visited the museum, took photos on his mobile phone and put his paintings on canvas the next day in Bangkok. He's now added more to the collection, which has no name as yet, with some of them already for sale on ebay. More when I hear it.

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A Shattered Youth

The forthcoming English language edition of A Shattered Youth
My penchant for new books about Cambodia was well and truly whetted this week when one of my spies told me about a forthcoming paperback memoir, due out in September, by a member of the Cambodian Supreme Court since 2006, Sathavy Kim. It's called A Shattered Youth: Surviving the Khmer Rouge and tells the story of her life, in 240 pages, under the assumed name of Borgn Tha, throughout and after the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, where she was studying for her law degree at the time. The book was published in the French language a couple of years ago, as she had completed her law studies in France before returning to Cambodia. It will be published by Maverick House in Britain, Ireland, Asia and Australia.
The French edition, published in 2008

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Dance and stuff

The Khmer Arts Ensemble doing what they do best
Yesterday was so busy I didn't have time to fart let alone post anything on my blog. The introduction to classical dance by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and Toni Shapiro-Phim at Living Room last night was excellent. I learnt more about this art-form in two hours than I have in watching countless shows, as Sophiline demonstrated the hand movements and body postures in detail and spoke about her own involvement and thinking in maintaining and upgrading classical dance in Cambodia. She's been responsible for brand new works, which might upset some in the establishment, but after thirty years in the arts she rightly feels she deserves to be able to create and perform these mould-breaking dances. In answer to one of my questions, she felt that despite being intrinsically linked to Cambodia's cultural heritage, classical dance doesn't get the television coverage it should and the youth of Cambodia are not being helped to understand what they are seeing when a performance is shown. To that end, when her Khmer Arts Ensemble perform in Takhmau on 9 and 10 April, she will conduct a pre-performance workshop to explain what the audience are about to see, as well as a Q&A session after the show. This is exactly what's required in my view, to make classical dance more accessible to all. I recommend you put the dates in your diary and make the effort to get out and see her professional dance company perform one of the classics, Ream Eyso Moni Mekhala. The television companies should take note as well.

It rained very heavily during the night and early morning (with accompanying thunder and lightning), leaving many roads under water in the city when I came to work. The sun hasn't appeared and rain looks likely during the day as well. Do I make a good weatherman? Tomorrow and Sunday sees the start of the new Cambodian football season. So that'll keep me busy for the next few months with four games each weekend and a midweek match as well. Regular readers will be pleased to hear that all football reports will be relegated (football terminology) to my new football-only blog here. On Sunday night at 7pm at Meta House, the Tenth Dancer will get an airing and if you haven't seen this film that focuses on classical dance revival in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge regime, make it a date. The fabulous Em Theay is one of the featured artists.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Classical dance at its best

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro instructing one of her troupe from the Khmer Arts Ensemble
The Khmer Arts Ensemble is the only independent professional classical Cambodian dance and music troupe in the country. It develops and performs the original choreography of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, as well as rare works from the classical back catalogue, so to speak. They are based in Takhmau and are planning to perform for 2 nights just prior to the Khmer New Year, on their home territory. Ream Eyso Moni Mekhala will be the classical story they will perform on 9 and 10 April - more details to follow.
In the meantime, tomorrow night (Thursday 25 March), at the Cafe Living Room at 6.30pm, you can get an introduction to the history and cultural context of classical Khmer dance from Sophiline Cheam Shapiro herself, accompanied by author and dance ethnologist Toni Shapiro-Phim. It should be a very interesting presentation. Count me in.


Splashing out

Villa Romonea, still adding some finishing touches back in November, is now open for business
You might recall that I visited a lovely renovated villa when I was in Kep in November last year. Yes, I know there are lots of villas being renovated in and around Kep you will say, but this one is a bit special. At the time it wasn't quite ready, they were still adding some finishing touches, including a 6-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, and the name was Eskepe. Well, the name has changed, it's now called Villa Romonea, the renovations to this 1968 modernist-style villa are complete, and it's ready to rent. It isn't cheap, as you might imagine, but for your money you will get a full food and drink service, housekeeper, a saltwater infinity swimming pool and secluded large gardens overlooking the sea, a tennis court, it can house 12 people in 4 double rooms and 2 twins, individual rooms can be rented at weekends or the whole house can be yours if you so require. Fancy splashing out? Find out more here.

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Experimental arts and music

The first phase of a new new cultural development project in Cambodia, called Neak Ta, will be to work with Khmer artists to foster and develop a tradition of experimental music and civic-oriented art in Phnom Penh. With most funding these days almost entirely directed towards the recovery of endangered traditional artforms - dance, sculpture and classical music - there are very few opportunities to explore connections between traditional culture and more experimental approaches to art and creativity. The organizers behind Neak Ta believe there's a huge opportunity to expand musical experiences beyond traditional forms into improvisational and electronic musics. And to explore young Cambodian's notions of their past, present and future through participatory, community-based artworks and media.

Over a six week period they'll run a series of workshops with the Royal University of Fine Arts, Cambodian Living Arts and Java Arts Cafe here in Phnom Penh, working with local musicians and artists to develop a series of public arts events. The entire process will culminate in a series of performances and public art, which will be recorded and photographed. These materials will be used at the end of the project to create a series of documentary pieces - including a commercially available CD release and photographic exhibition. With resources in short supply, the project needs support to help purchase equipment vital for the project. A laptop and music software for the local musicians to use. A materials budget to help the students to realise their art projects. This money is crucial - even though the institutions they are dealing with are influential within the city, funds are stretched for basic university courses, let alone a project like this. You can find out more and contribute here.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Virtual refugees

The Wanderers was screened for the first time at the Bophana Center tonight with director Christine Bouteiller and some of the Battambang villagers who are featured in the 1-hour documentary in attendance. With an English-language commentary, the French and Khmer versions will be screened later this week, and a Q&A to follow, the audience was treated to an intriguing warts-and-all look at how former Thai border camp refugees, who were repatriated to Cambodia in 1992, are still virtual refugees in their own country. In the same village, those who stayed behind and those who returned from the camps, live separately and view each other with suspicion and distrust, even all these years later. There are some powerful messages for Cambodians who are still dealing with the trauma of the 70s and 80s, and whilst the need for reconciliation is clear, with so much water under the bridge, it will be for the next generation to be the ones to kiss and make up.
Director Christine Bouteiller (left) and two of the villagers from The Wanderers


Secrets uncovered

Female devata on the inside passageway of the Terrace of the Leper King
Now has lived in Angkor all her life. Our visit to the Terrace of the Leper King last week was her first time ever to see the fascinating carvings up close and to walk through the inner passageway. And she's not alone. I'll bring you a few pictures of the carvings later but it still surprises me that my Cambodia friends are always so busy just making ends meet that they don't have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to discover the world around them, or even their own wonderful heritage literally just around the corner.
Now in jovial mood after her visit to Angkor Thom

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I wandered lonely as a ...

I must admit that poetry has always manged to pass me by without making much of an impact. However, that's not to say that occasionally my attention is grabbed by a poem, but it's a rarity for sure. If on the other hand, you are into your poetry and would like to brush up on works that feature Cambodia, there are a handful of books you should be aware of. Expected out this month in Khmer and English is the poetry book O! Maha Mount Dangrek: Poetry of Cambodian Refugee Experiences by the late Venerable Ly Van. He died in Lowell, USA in 2008 but his poems live on and are now being published. The title of the book refers to his survival of the Dangrek Mountain incident of 1979 when around 45,000 Cambodians were forced down the mountainside by the Thai army at gunpoint; many of whom lost their lives. Other poetry books of note are Sacred Vows by U Sam Oeur, Fuchsia in Cambodia by Roy Jacobstein, Storytelling in Cambodia by Willa Schneberg and another recent publication, Thousand-Cricket Song by Catherine Strisik (above); a poetry collection inspired by her experiences in Cambodia and published last month by Plain View Press.


Full dress rehearsal

Sinat and Srey Peou after their performance
Next month, Sinat and Srey Peou will give American audiences a flavour of their personal brand of traditional Cambodian music and song, having last night earned plaudits from an appreciative crowd at the Cafe Living Room as a prelude to their trip overseas. With Sinat playing his beloved tro khmer and other instruments and Srey Peou providing the vocals with her smot and poetry renditions, the west coast of America and the Khmer communities in that region are in for a rare treat. Sponsored by Cambodian Living Arts, the pair will spend a month in the States, travelling over with CLA's founder Arn Chorn-Pond before an exhaustive tour of venues, schools and suchlike that will leave the two performers with barely a minute to breathe. Last night, their solos and duets were accompanied by a slideshow as well as two brief video biographies of the two youngsters, who hail from Siem Reap and Kompong Speu respectively, and who've been studying their specialized art-form for many years already, despite their tender years. It's clear that Srey Peou will do the on-stage narration as her English is pretty good though Sinat's mastery of his instruments will do his talking. CLA are also hosting their 2nd National Museum show with the youngsters from the Tonle Bassac Folk Group this coming Thursday. Though tickets are priced at a hefty $18 and primarily aimed at tourists, the organisers tell me that the lighting rig, sound stage and logistics will mean that even with a full house (its outdoor) they will still make a loss. But they are thinking long-term and the two shows they will perform, on Thursday and then again on 1 April, are to whet the appetite and gauge the interest pending more regular shows towards the end of the year. It's all designed to help CLA become more self-funded and less reliant on donations as they look to extend their programme of youth education and revival of the various art-forms under their watchful eye.
Sinat and Srey Peou deliver one of their duets at the Living Room
Sinat's story has been made into a comic book for children


Monday, March 22, 2010

A view from the west

The face of a dvarapala male guardian at the western gopura
This is my final posting on the Baphuon, pending my next visit. These pictures are taken from the western gopura, which has been reconstructed and is visitable even if the main pyramid is out of bounds. It has decorative panels, a couple of legible lintels and dvarapala male guardians in niches, either side of the doorway.
The western side of the western gopura, leading onto the Baphuon
A male guardian, dvarapala, in reasonable condition, apart from his face
Close up detail of the dvarapala's clothing, hands and club
Another male dvarapala, designed to ward off bad spirits from entering through the gopura
This dvarapala has fared far less better than the others and is in poor condition
A rishi or wise man at the foot of the doorway colonette, in meditating posture
A decorative lintel still in situ, with kala and floral designs
This lintel with kala figure eating a garland has a broken figure of Vishvakarma seated above


The sounds of the CLA

Sinat and his beloved tro khmer
Tonight at Phnom Penh's Living Room on Street 306 at 7pm, two of the Cambodian Living Arts troupe of performers, Sinat and Srey Peou, will give a preview performance of their artistic talents which they will be exhibiting on their Children of Angkor tour of the USA next month. Srey Peou will chant poetry and Sinat will accompany her on his favoured tro khmer, as well as demonstrating other unique Cambodian instruments. I remember seeing Sinat display his talents at Meta House in January 2008 and this boy is excellent. Also this week, the Children of the Khmer by the youngsters from the Tonle Bassac Folk Group, supported and funded by Cambodian Living Arts, will put on another show at the National Museum, on Thursday 25th at 7pm. It is open to the public, tickets are priced at $18 each and it's a great show as I had the pleasure of enjoying it a couple of weeks ago.

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Decorative panels

This panel at the Baphuon shows a large ox
My visit to the Baphuon didn't go to plan and as it was closed for the weekend, I didn't get to see the outstanding decorative panels and bas-reliefs that are on the pyramid itself. However, I did get to see some of the panels that are on the reconstructed western gopura and these give a flavour of the ones to be found on the main monument. They show scenes of individual animals or men fighting animals and suchlike. For a taste of what I hope to find on my next visit, though I expect much better quality and preservation, here are some of the panels from the gopura's walls, which can be visited even if the central pyramid is closed.
Man and beast, an ox I believe, in a duel
One animal kills another, though it looks like this ox has developed a taste for animal flesh
This warrior is either fighting or trying to control a horse
The bottom panel shows two horses rearing up against each other, or they could be just making friends
Another man versus beast decorative panel, this time a horse is being brought under control
This Baphuon panel shows a man engaged in a fight to the death with a lion


Neak Ta - it's official

A Neak Ta on the cliff-edge above Anlong Veng
I find Neak Ta fascinating. You only have to see some of my previous posts on the subject to understand why. Their diversity is intriguing. And now I've found what could pass for an official explanation for this important cultural heritage in Cambodia. Whilst leafing through the books on offer at Bohr's bookshop yesterday I came across a booklet entitled Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Cambodia, produced by UNESCO and the Fine Arts Ministry in 2004. Amongst its pages, which listed classical dance, folk and popular dance, music, circus, languages, oral literature and artisan skills, was a section on oral folklore. This is what it had to say about Neak Ta.

Neak Ta and Animist Beliefs (Local Guardian Spirits)
Along with a rich oral tradition are beliefs in the natural world. Supernatural tradition has deep historical roots in Cambodia, as primitive religious elements preceded both Brahminism and Buddhism in Cambodia. In this way, animistic spirits and Buddhist deities play a part in virtually every aspect of Khmer social life.
Neak Ta are primarily local guardian spirits. The cult of Neak Ta rests in nature. Local spirits inhabit mountains, rivers, trees, rice paddies, swamps and forests; even an odd shaped tree or rock can be inhabited by a local spirit. For Khmer, they are living, watching spirits of the land. Several types of supernatural entities are believed to exist, that make themselves known by means of inexplicable sounds or happenings. They are frequently asked for protection, as some are compliant, others are merciless against those who fail to show proper respect.
There is belief in spirits, those of the dead, who are to be found in any locality and who may be hostile. Among these phenomena are khmoch (ghosts), preay and besach (malevolent spirits who have died violently, untimely and unnatural deaths), arak (evil spirits, usually female), Neak Ta (local guardian spirits, usually male), mneang pteah (guardians of the house), Meba (maternal and paternal ancestral spirits) and mrinh kongveal (elf-like guardian of animals, mainly found in tigers and naga snakes).
Khmer people often have stories of personal encounters with these spirits. The wilderness or forest has always figured prominently in numerous legends and folktales warning them of these spirit powers and the potential dangers possible. It is for that reason, that all spirits must be shown proper respect. An important way to avoid misfortune is to show respect by numerous rituals and providing fruit, food and alcohol to appease them.
Respect for Neak Ta also includes famous people that were known for protecting their village. After their death, they became worshipped as a 'commander', in which offerings are made to respect and commemorate their special powers. Well-known Neak Ta that are worshipped today include Neak Ta Krahorm Kor, Neak Ta Mesa, Yeay Mao (Sihanoukville), Dambung Dek (Battambang), Khleang Moeurng (Pursat).


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