Friday, April 30, 2010

Off to the bronze show

The garuda from the Koh Ker temple complex that stands at the entrance to the National Museum
I visited the National Museum in Phnom Penh today, accompanying a group of mature cyclists from the USA and I noticed there were a lot of top quality bronze items not on display. Then I remembered that there's an exhibition of the best 36 pieces opening up in Washington next month for the rest of the year. The Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery will host the exhibits under the title, Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia. The exhibition will then move to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in February next year. So be prepared for some near-empty display cabinets for a long while. The fascinating story of bronze sculpture and casting in Cambodia is revealed through these thirty-six exceptional works. Magnificent examples dating from the prehistoric period to the post-Angkorian period (third century BC to sixteenth century) present the origins, uses, and techniques of bronze casting and the development of a distinctly Cambodian style. This exhibition is the result of an ongoing partnership between the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the National Museum of Cambodia. The museums have worked together to establish a metals conservation laboratory in Cambodia, the first over here. Seven of the works on view, discovered in 2006, are among the first bronzes conserved in the lab by the staff of the National Museum.
The face of the garuda at the National Museum
The statue of Yama in the courtyard, that used to sit atop the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Thom
The inside courtyard at the National Museum
Cambodia might see the arrival of celebrity television chef Gordon Ramsay sooner than expected. His culinary travels for his Gordon's Great Escape tv series have brought him to this part of the globe with filming intended for Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam. With the troubles brewing in Bangkok, he might just decide to hop over the border and begin filming in Cambodia sooner than expected. If you hear a commotion in any restaurant kitchen, poke your head around the door and you might just see Gordon strutting his stuff.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

LeVine's ritualcide

Peg LeVine reads a passage from her new book at Monument
Peg LeVine is a clinical psychologist in Australia and her book, Love and Dread in Cambodia, looks at what she terms ritualcide during the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia that had such a traumatic impact on Khmer society. It's a pretty specialist area of study looking at weddings, births and the dislocation of rituals that were an integral part of the Khmer make-up. In the launch of her book at Monument Books tonight she spoke passionately about her study, about the loss of courtship as group marriages were arranged under the Khmer Rouge and the absence of traditional rites and practices that were previously the norm amongst the Cambodian population. The emotional scar left behind is almost irreparable, though she also found instances where the new Khmer Rouge orders seemed to provide a sense of stability in an otherwise lost social order.
Peg LeVine discusses her studies with an interested attendee at Monument

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Intensive care

Vann Nath, inside one of the rooms used as a prisoner holding cell at Tuol Sleng
This morning I visited Calmette Hospital to meet with Vann Nath's wife and to find out more about the artist's critical medical condition. He was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday with severe internal bleeding from what may be a stomach ulcer and has not eaten or drank for three days. He's in the intensive care unit at Calmette, his family are with him though the absence of a proper diagnosis and treatment is worrying, as the hours pass and he gets weaker. The family would like him to be treated in Bangkok, where he underwent surgery for spine and kidney problems in recent years, but in his current critical state that's not a feasible option. I was there to pass on a private donation towards the family's medical bills from Hanuman and a New Zealand film team who met and interviewed Vann Nath last year. Vann Nath has appeared in many documentaries over the years, always exuding a dignified calmness about his past, as one of the few prisoners to get out of Tuol Sleng alive, and his desire for justice. He was a key witness in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal proceedings against Comrade Duch last year.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fighting for his life

Vann Nath sitting alone at Tuol Sleng
I've just received an email from film director Rithy Panh with an urgent call for help. Vann Nath, the S-21 survivor and painter, who appeared in Panh's film about S-21 was admitted to Calmette Hospital yesterday with a bowel and stomach haemorrhage and is fighting for his life. Panh's appeal is for funds to help with medical bills and offers of blood donations. Elen Gallien at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh is collecting sealed envelope donations up to and including Saturday. Vann Nath has been struggling with his health for a few years now, I sincerely hope this isn't his final battle.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

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If you see me and I have a worried frown on my face, it's because I am attempting to follow the instructions of as I have to amend the location of my blog hosting. are no longer allowing FTP publishing and I must migrate my blog before 1 May. They have provided an online migration tool but when you are a technophobe like me and have a large blog, going back to May 2006 with thousands of posts, you begin to break out in a cold sweat at the mere thought of doing anything which might make a total balls-up of it. And with my history with blogs - don't forget I had my blog stolen a couple of years ago - anything could happen. I'm migrating tonight so if you don't hear from me tomorrow via this blog, then something may've gone tits-up. Wish me luck.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Shadow host Friday show

The absolutely adorable Chamreun, from the COFCO dance troupe
In case you are in Siem Reap on any Friday evening and enjoy a spot of Cambodian folk and classical dance demonstrated by some talented youngsters, then get along to the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse, along the riverside and around the corner from the Old Market. My friends at the Shadow are giving a platform to the orphans from COFCO to perform each week at 6.30pm, with a BBQ buffet if you fancy it, and donations are gratefully received, going direct to the orphanage for the benefit of the children. I recommend you join in the fun. I saw them in March and the COFCO kids are pretty talented.

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Take a moment 2

Moments, the e-zine from the photographers known as the SEA/collective, has its second edition out now, here. The e-zine has a wide range of photographic subjects for your viewing pleasure and news that the group will be working with Dengue Fever on their upcoming visit to the Kingdom for a couple of shows in Phnom Penh. They will also have their own group exhibition at Chinese House in the city in July. Stay tuned for more on both projects.

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Pulling the plug

Bousra waterfall in Mondulkiri - regarded by many as the country's best
As the police crackdown on riverside restaurants and their outdoor seating in Phnom Penh - there's always something for the police to crackdown on, crime might be a good one to begin with rather than removing pot-plants and the odd chair and table - there's news that the company who were developing/ruining Mondulkiri's best tourist feature, Bousra waterfall, are pulling the plug on the $6million ecotourism project (that included hotels, restaurants and shops surrounding the attraction) due to lack of funds. Maybe someone will stop cutting down all the trees now. Fat chance. Talking of ecotourism projects, I'm off on a fam trip jolly next week, courtesy of Cambodia MSME and USAid. It's for tour operators to have a good look at a few community-based projects, namely Chambok, Anlung Rath, Peam Krasaop in Koh Kong, Tatai Krom and Chi Phat, with the desire that we will offer up our professional advice and promote these projects to our clients. This is a follow-up from the Hidden Treasures Cambodia contest that was run last year and which included these and many more community-based initiatives.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Who's who

Elizabeth Becker signing copies of her new book Bophana at Monument Books
A who's who of names graced the book launch of Bophana, the latest release from acclaimed former New York Times journalist Elizabeth Becker, at Monument Books earlier this evening. A short speech and questions & answers by Becker was already over by the time I arrived at Monument, having been slow to get away from the football at Olympic Stadium. As I entered the bookshop and saw the massive turnout, I spied Mu Sochua and Roland Eng and knew the heavyweights were out for this particular publication. A mere 83 pages in length, printed in three languages and costing $8, with some of the profits going towards the Harpswell Foundation, Bophana has been published by The Cambodia Daily Press and describes the life of this Khmer heroine as well as Becker's desire to bring her story to a wider audience. Bophana does just that.

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Shameless plug

With all these book launches taking place, I must insert a shameless plug for my own book, which with a fair wind and uninterrupted shipping (knowing my luck, the book's shipment will be impounded by customs), should be out and about in June. Well, that's the last publication date I heard but nothing is certain in the world of books, so stayed tuned. The book is titled To Cambodia With Love, published by ThingsAsian Press, and will contain over 125 essays from more than 60 people who have a passion for this wonderful country. I'm just the co-ordinator, editor, chapter introducer, general dogsbody for the book, the real meaty stuff will come from my fellow contributors who like me, share a deep love for Cambodia. If William at Monument Books can fit us into his busy book launch schedule, we might even get our five minutes in the spotlight, where I will encourage/threaten you to buy the book.
I had an interesting email recently that informed me that the dancer adjusting her crown on the front cover of the book is named Peow, and that she still dances for the Komar Angkor dance troupe in Siem Reap. The original photograph was taken by the Tewfic El-Sawy, who took all the pictures that will appear in the book. He's a freelance photographer who specializes in documenting endangered cultures and traditional life in Asia, Latin America and Africa.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Book launch crazy

Monument Books in Phnom Penh are going book launch crazy. They are hosting Elizabeth Becker's new book, Bophana, tomorrow (Saturday) night and then follow that up with Peg LeVine's Love and Dread in Cambodia next Thursday (29 April) at 6pm. Hats off to Monument Books. For Becker, she first told the Bophana love story in her excellent book When The War Was Over and this latest version is published with The Cambodia Daily and available in English, French and Khmer languages. This is a must buy book showing the strength of love under extreme circumstances. For Peg LeVine, she spent a decade researching so-called forced marriages and births under the Khmer Rouge and the traumatic impact this had on so many. Love and Dread in Cambodia: Weddings, Births and Ritual Harm under the Khmer Rouge is published by NUS Press Singapore.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Talk shop

Jon Swain (center) flanked by two hangers-on, myself (left) and Nick Ray (right)
It was sweltering hot, the pa system was inadequate and the organisers were completely unprepared for the huge turnout, and to be honest the panel session could've gone on into the wee hours, the interest was that high. The war correspondents from the late 60s and 70s were out in full force with Al Rockoff snapping merrily away as Jon Swain, Sylvana Foa, Dan Southerland and T Jeff Williams regaled us with their memories, paying particular emphasis to the gung-ho style of reporting in those days and the not to be forgotten contribution from their Cambodian fixers and fellow journalists. Tim Page stood up at the end to announce that the remains recovered recently did not belong to his friend Sean Flynn, George Hamilton, the suave, tanned actor from Hollywood was on hand to lend the event some kudos, but it was the incredibly large turnout that caught everyone by surprise and almost turned the night into a shambles. It was rescued but only just. Jon Swain and Elizabeth Becker graciously signed copies of their excellent books, River of Time and When The War Was Over, which have been in my possession for 15 and 20 years respectively. Nice people.
Three of the war correspondents at tonight's event, Jon Swain, Elizabeth Becker (center) and Sylvana Foa
My camera flash has managed to rob actor George Hamilton of his trademark golden tan - sorry George.
Veteran photographer Al Rockoff (right) snapping away at tonight's event
Jon Swain telling the packed audience of his memories of Phnom Penh
The animated Sylvana Foa and the more restrained T Jeff Williams at tonight's panel discussion
A wall of photos of the journalists who were killed or are MIA from the Cambodia conflict

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Becker's Bophana

If you have read Elizabeth Becker's acclaimed book, When The War Was Over, or watched the documentary by Rithy Panh that's played a couple of times each day at Tuol Sleng, you'll be aware of the story of Huot Bophana. Her love letters to her husband were found in her S-21 file and was a story that first captured the imagination of Becker and many others since. In her new book Bophana, the award-winning author and journalist, takes us closer to the main characters in this love story in the time of war. Elizabeth Becker has covered national and international affairs as a Washington correspondent at The New York Times, the Senior Foreign Editor at National Public Radio and a Washington Post correspondent. She began her career as a war reporter in Cambodia in 1972 and was one of only two journalists to visit Cambodia and interview Pol Pot while he was in power. She will be at Monument Books this Saturday (6pm) to launch her latest offering. website

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tummy trouble

I can't make the football match this afternoon, the first I've missed this season, as I've had severe stomach cramps all morning and caution is the key word, rather than spending a few hours at the Olympic Stadium with its less than rudimentary toilet facilities. Oh, and it looks like rain, which belted down for an hour yesterday lunchtime and flooded the whole city. I've still got a chest cough, that's been hanging about like a bad smell for over a week now, so all in all, I'm doing the usual manly thing and feeling very sorry for myself. No-one else could care less. Added to that, my cleaner Det, who is excellent, has handed in her notice and will be leaving next week. Damn, damn, damn. Cycling to my house three times a week is not doing her weak heart any good she tells me. Ah, okay then, good point. She's the 5th cleaner I've had in the last three years and they've all been especially good. My female friends say I should get married so my wife can look after me, which is the usual course of advice anytime I'm under the weather. Four of them have offered, but I'm not sure if that's to be my cleaner, or to be my wife!


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

At last

Have I whinged about the state of the Cambodian post system recently? Because I've just had a delivery to my office from the main post office in Phnom Penh of three large envelopes which contained books and stuff sent to me in early February. It's now close to the end of April and frankly, the service is crap. Though at least this time the envelopes hadn't been opened. So what did the postie bring you might ask? Two books from Demaz Baker, namely her A Taste of Cambodian Cuisine, a Khmer cookbook of ingredients and recipes, which she uses in the cooking classes she teaches; and Khmer Legends, seventeen folk tales from her homeland including the story of Wat Nokor and Phnom Pros Phnom Srey (Man and Woman Mountain). From James Rosin came his look back at the classic cult sci-fi television series in the late 60s called The Invaders, which was a big favourite of mine with David Vincent doing his best to warn the world of the invasion of aliens. Okay, you had to suspend belief and the invaders were recognisable by their distorted pinky finger but that was part of the fun. The final envelope contained a DVD of excerpts from Sarah O'Brien's new musical, Winds of Angkor, which she hopes to premiere in Cambodia in the not too distant future. She also sent me a book of images from the musical. My grateful thanks to all three. I also need to get out to Monument Books sometime soon, as I have a list of books that are missing from my library of Cambodia publications and that needs to be addressed.

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Survivors reunion

This week sees a reunion in Phnom Penh of some two dozen surviving veteran journalists, photographers and cameramen who covered the conflict in Cambodia and Vietnam in the 60s and 70s. After a few days in the city they will continue their reunion in Saigon. Part of the Phnom Penh activities will be to dedicate a memorial to journalists killed in war. Among those expected to attend are author Elizabeth Becker, Tim Page, Kurt Volkert, Jacques Leslie, Martin Stuart Fox, Perry Deane Young, Don Kirk and Al Rockoff. A total of 37 international and Cambodian journalists were killed or went missing-in-action in Cambodia between April 1970 and April 1975. The largest number were from Japan (10), France (8) and USA (7). The most famous of the MIA are Sean Flynn and Dana Stone who disappeared at Chi Phou on 6 April 1970. One rather less well-known story is that of Khmer journo Ly Eng who hid in the Monorom Hotel for two or three weeks after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. He came out of his hiding place, found his old red convertible sports car and drove down Monivong Boulevard towards the bridge, breaking through a few Khmer Rouge barricades. He reached the bridge but a group of Khmer Rouge guards sprayed him with bullets and he plunged into the river with his car.
As part of the activities a panel discussion with 4 of the journalists who covered the conflict, will take place at the Himawari Hotel this Thursday, 22 April, at 7.30pm (free admission). The panel includes Sunday Times correspondent, Jon Swain, author of one of my favourite books, A River of Time, chronicling his experiences in Indochina, including the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. Also T Jeff Williams is on the panel, he co-authored the book, A Cambodian Odyssey and the Deaths of 25 Journalists with Kurt Volkert.
A panel discussion is set for this Thursday, 22 April at 7.30pm

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Guardians and the like

This military guardian figure in blue is on guard duty outside the pagoda on top of Phnom Han Chey
On my recent visit to Kompong Cham, I came across a selection of guardians and the like that can form an intriguing part of any trip into the Cambodian countryside and to any pagoda, in trying to decipher what they mean or represent. On this occasion, I didn't have a knowledgeable Khmer companion with me so some of those shown here remain a mystery. Unless you know better.
Accompanied by his nearby lion, this military figure stands on the other side of the doorway to the pagoda
A popular figure on the ceilings inside many modern pagodas is Reahoo (or Rahu), usually found munching on the moon to cause an eclipse - not one of the nice guys.
And no self-respecting pagoda should be without its own Neak Ta Dambong Dek figure to ward off evil spirits
Wat Han Chey is also home to a room dedicated to 16 of Cambodia's most respected and revered monks
Another guardian at Wat Han Chey is this pretty tame female Pleated Gibbon character
At Wat Nokor, just inside the entrance to the main chamber, there are two standing Preah Noreay statues. They are part concrete and part original in my opinion, though I overheard 1 guide saying they were cement copies. This figure has 8 arms.
Here is the 2nd large Preah Noreay figure, with 4 arms, at Wat Nokor. Most of this figure is reproduction.
Finally, this small face, one of 40, peers out from the basalt wall of Kuk Preah Theat at Phnom Han Chey

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Doing what he does best

Haunting and evocative film soundtracks are a speciality of Ennio Morricone. Listening to the song by BosbaPANH this morning reminded me of the maestro's composition for the film Fateless (Sorstalansag), which was released in 2005. Set in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place I visited myself a couple of years earlier, this is Morricone doing what he does best, taking control of your emotions and grabbing you firmly by the heart-strings without letting go. There is no one better. Read more about Fateless here.
A watch tower at the concentration camp of Birkenau

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Neak Me

This song, Neak Me (Our Mothers) by BosbaPANH is so haunting. She dedicated it o her grandmother. Here is what the young soprano had to say in her blog yesterday about the 35th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh:
17th April 1975. Today is the 35th anniversary of the sad date when my grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, so many members of our family disappeared. I have never met my grandmother and only hear from my dad who she was. A strong and fierce lady who run the house and the family, of honor and dignity. She was a fine cook, he told me. And that's true, when we visited her native village, the population still remembers her skills. She was cooking French dishes, Khmer desserts and samlor as nobody else could. When the French delegation came in the village, she was called to manage the kitchen and cook for the dignitaries. She seems perfect to me. Strong in her heart, in her behavior. She was the last to die, witnessing her children, grandchildren, husband disappear. It always make me sad, we have only one photo left of her and grandpa. My younger brother is named after him, Panhlauv. Dad wrote the lyrics of the song "Neak Me" and it makes me want to cry each time I sing it.
Neak Me is the name of BosbaPANH's latest DVD release of a recent concert held at Chaktomuk Theatre as well as a behind-the-scenes look at rehearsals and the concert, which took place in September of last year. Find out more here.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

90 years old this month

An old postcard showing the opening ceremony in 1920
April 1920 saw the opening of the National Museum of Cambodia. Kent Davis at his website has the inside story and pictures from Nicole Groslier, daughter of the museum's designer and first conservator, celebrating the museum's 90th anniversary.

A far less welcome anniversary, is the arrival in Phnom Penh 35 years ago today, of the Khmer Rouge to begin a period of Cambodian history that has affected every member of the population. Within days the city's inhabitants had been forced out into the countryside and Phnom Penh became a virtual ghost town. The rest is history of the worst possible kind.

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Hevajra on display

Peter Sharrock locates the legs of the 3-metre high Hevajra at Angkor Thom
Peter Sharrock is a former Vietnam War correspondent turned archaeology professor, and is now a senior teaching fellow in the art and archeology of Southeast Asia at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. He covered Indochina for four years as a reporter and finally made it to Angkor in 1990. His doctorate is on a new interpretation of the Buddhism and imperial politics of King Jayavarman 7th. He is now focusing on the evidence in Indochina for the influence of tantric or esoteric Buddhism, developed in the Ganges valley and developed in different ways throughout Asia. His interest in Hevajra, a warlike tantric deity, prompted him to go looking for the missing parts of the 3-metre high sandstone statue that he'd seen in yellowing photographs from EFEO. The bust is now with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York but the rest of the body - all 16 arms, one of its heads and its legs - lie elsewhere. The discovery of the legs of Hevajra, hidden in the forest surrounding Angkor Thom, has re-opened the mystery and a new chapter in understanding more about the reign of the great Khmer king, Jayavarman 7th.
The 7-headed bust of Hevajra at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was sold to the museum by EFEO.
Peter Sharrock shares his knowledge of Southeast Asian art at the Guimet Museum in Paris. Photo courtesy of Radhika Dwivedi.

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Sharrock's legs

Whilst I'm on the subject of King Jayavarman 7th, Peter Sharrock and the cult of Hevajra, I hope you caught sight of reports in the media last September that highlighted Peter Sharrock's amazing find in a forested area just outside the walls of Angkor Thom, of the massive legs belonging to a 3-metre statue that depicted Hevajra, a warlike tantric Buddhist deity that was crucial to the religious beliefs at the time of Jayavarman 7th. If you didn't, then here is a Q&A that Peter Sharrock sent me, just to put you in the picture.

1. Tell us why this find is so significant? How important is this to the world of archaeology?

Scholars are currently radically revising our understanding of the Buddhism of the ancient Khmers. The single most important icon informing this radical change of view is a large, broken sandstone image of the fierce, supreme tantric Buddhist deity Hevajra, whose bust stands in the New York Metropolitan Museum. After almost a century of being side-lined, this icon is now being repositioned as the crown jewels of Khmer tantric Buddhism. We can now hope to experience the full power of this statue because a large missing piece has just been found.

On a field trip to Angkor this summer I decided to try to find the spot where parts of the icon were first excavated in 1925. To my amazement I succeeded in locating the massive legs deep in the forest outside the ancient capital of Angkor Thom.

The French, who pioneered the restoration of the vast medieval temple complex around Angkor Wat, thought the Khmers had venerated only the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, like many other peoples across the northern Buddhist world of Mahayana. They acknowledged that bronzes of Hevajra had been found but thought they must be minor. Eminent art historian Jean Boisselier for example wrote in 1951: ‘The [tantric] bronzes from the 12th and 13th centuries constitute a fairly considerable group but with no stone statue being reported for the same period, the importance of the role these divinities could have played in Khmer Mahayanist beliefs is strongly diminished.’

But a consensus is now forming for seeing the royal cult of Angkor in 1200 CE as centred on Hevajra, known mostly from Tibet and the Tibetan-influenced Mongol dynasty of China. Realigning Angkor with Tibet and Yuan China is something of a tectonic shift in archaeology.

Cambodia's greatest king was Jayavarman VII who brought the Khmer empire to its apogee from 1182-c.1218. He broke with a 400-year tradition of venerating Shiva as the deity of state and turned the Khmers to Buddhism forever. By the 14th century Cambodia moved to the southern, Theravadin vehicle, which still dominates the country today. It comes as something of a shock to modern Khmers to learn that the king known for bringing them Buddhism venerated the tantric Hevajra.

My earlier research had pinpointed two pieces of evidence that are crucial to the shift in evaluation: (1) the world's museums contain a large group of bronze Khmer consecration conches or conch stands which bear an image of the eight-headed, 16-armed god who dances on the corpses of Hindu deities. This indicates that the Hevajra-Tantra (translated by Professor David Snellgrove of SOAS) cycle of four consecrations, one possibly involving yogic sex, must have been key rituals in the Bayon state temple, famous for its mysterious giant face-towers, and in the other great temples Jayavarman built. (2) A second clue comes from a contemporary Chinese account (dated 1225) that says 300 women or 'blisses' skilled in such rituals were performing in the king's temples.

Recovering the legs of the statue and launching an archaeological excavation to possibly recover the other missing parts will hopefully enable us to reconstitute this Hevajra in his original three metre high form. I had earlier attempted a virtual reconstruction of the icon using the French archive photographs. The public re-emergence of this icon should attract resources to boost the radical revision of Khmer Buddhism that is underway. The scientific excavation in the forest may now also uncover clues as to the circumstances, reasons and timing of the way in which it was apparently broken and 'dumped' some 250 metres outside the fortified walls of the capital, Angkor Thom.

(My own hypothesis about the dumping is that these icons were probably caught up in a brief Brahmanical reaction against Jayavarman’s temples a century after he died when many Buddhist icons were destroyed and the Bayon converted to Hindu ritual. The Hevajra so important to Jayavarman’s cult was presumably removed from its sanctuary in the Bayon and paraded out of the city to have its power broken by being ritually smashed beyond the city walls).

Ancient Angkor rivalled any city in the world in size and organisation during the reign of king Jayavarman VII. The construction of roads, hospitals, canals and temples was on an unprecedented scale. The population of the city probably exceeded 500,000. Since the French cleared the forest from Angkor's vast complex of elaborately decorated stone temples, it has become one of the largest and most beautiful tourist attractions in Asia.

2. Why do you think nobody discovered the legs before?

The broken statue was first discovered by French archeologists in 1925. They took away the beautifully carved bust along with several other Buddhist sculptures apparently dumped together in an earthen mound, but they could not identify the 'giant' they found broken in two. The giant bust with multiple heads was taken to the conservation depot but the legs were apparently left at the site where I found them 84 years later.

Ten years after being excavated the 52-inch bust was sold as an Avalokitesvara by the French School for the Far East (EFEO) to New York's Metropolitan Museum. Curator Alan Priest ascertained that it originally had eight heads and 16 arms and therefore correctly labelled it Hevajra. Apart from a brief catalogue mention, nothing was written about the giant Hevajra in New York until Professor Hiram Woodward asked some ground-breaking questions about it in an article on ‘Tantric Buddhism in Angkor Thom’ in 1981. The next shift in the debate came in my own PhD at SOAS, which built on Woodward’s work and made the case for seeing Jayavarman’s Buddhism as in essence tantric and focused on Hevajra.

I’m sure that local villagers who live among the Angkor ruins have come across the legs of Hevajra in the forest, but the broken part would only have meaning to someone who had seen the French archive photographs. Certainly no-one ever reported it to the Apsara authority which is responsible for conserving the heritage of Angkor.

3. What did the authorities say to you? What was the reaction like at the conference?

I announced my find a few days later at a large conference at Sisophon, near the modern Thai border, concerned with the current restoration of Jayavarman’s vast Banteay Chmar temple, the last great Khmer provincial temple to be excavated, restored and protected. In attendance were the province governor, top officials of Apsara and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Phnom Penh museum director Hab Touch, temple restorer John Sanday of the Global Heritage Fund, Dr Helen Jessup and Joyce Clark from the Friends of Khmer Culture International (FOKCI), whose support and organisation made the conference possible, and a large gathering of Khmer and international art historians and archaeologists – including Hiram Woodward. I spoke about the importance of the New York bust and then showed photographs of Hevajra’s legs still lying in the forest. This was greeted with delight and astonishment. After my paper the Ministry of Culture asked for a copy of my presentation and I was invited to be driven back to Angkor at the end of the conference to show Dr Hang Peou of Apsara the find spot. The following morning Dr Peou personally supervised the removal of the legs to the Sihanouk museum in Siem Reap.

4. So what next? Will the legs be reunited with the rest of the statue? Will you be helping to arrange this? Any other details you would like to add?

I am in touch with all parties involved, who are already in communication, to try to find a way of reuniting the pieces so that Jayavarman’s icon can be viewed in its original state. Meanwhile Apsara plans an excavation of the site in search of the missing eighth head, 16 arms and feet. It may prove to be a difficult negotiation, because New York and Phnom Penh museums would no doubt both like to exhibit the whole. Can some shared solution be found? I am in contact with curator John Guy (ex-Victoria and Albert Museum) in New York and Hab Touch in Phnom Penh. Professor Claude Jacques, the eminent Paris-based Angkorian scholar, has offered to join the group of experts to be consulted.

5. Did you feel like a modern-day Indiana Jones?

I don't know how he could wear that hat in a tropical climate. But there is a distinct feeling of the unreal or fictional about going into the jungle and actually finding something of such importance to my research and to Cambodia’s history. It took a few days for the feeling to wear off that I had dreamed it all. Indiana and I do I suppose share the experience of feeling close to ancient civilisations that are very obscure to most people.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Spotlight on Banteay Chhmar

The Banteay Chhmar Preservation Project
A face tower at Banteay Chhmar that could represent the tantric deity of Vajrasattva
Banteay Chhmar is a fascinating temple complex in northwest Cambodia. It's a temple built during the rule of King Jayavarman VII in the 13th century and unlike the temples constructed at Angkor around the same time, it didn't suffer the iconoclasm that engulfed temples such as the Bayon and Ta Prohm, where Mahayana Buddhism images were chiselled away and defaced after the King's reign came to an end. To that end, Banteay Chhmar can reveal a lot more about the time and beliefs of Jayavarman VII than other sites. That's if it was still in pristine condition. It's not. It too has suffered the ravages of time and temple thieves and only 25% of its bas-reliefs are still standing. The rest lie in pieces on the floor or have been stolen and lost forever.

The Global Heritage Fund and its many partners are now trying to piece the temple back together again. Stone by stone, carving by carving. Last year they held their 2nd conference about the temple in Sisophon and you can find out much more about the project to renovate and restore Banteay Chhmar from the video-papers presented by various speakers here. One of the speakers was Dr Peter Sharrock, a scholar from the University of London, who had his own view on the identity of the giant face that stares out from the face towers of Banteay Chhmar, the Bayon and elsewhere. He discounts the possibility that it is the face of Jayavarman VII himself or the Avalokiteshvara, which is often stated in guidebooks and the like and instead suggests the face belongs to the tantric deity of Vajrasattva. "I think its the supreme deity presiding over a tantric cult of Hevajra. I said Vajrasattva in my chapter in Joyce Clark's book Bayon, New Perspectives in 2007 and nobody has yet argued against this analysis. Let's wait and see. Hevajra is a fierce emanation of Vajrasattva, who is more of a primordial conception than a god you could picture or address," he told me by email today. If that's the case, and proving it will solve one of the key mysteries that still envelope Angkor, then every book on Angkor will need to be updated.

Sharrock also highlights a carving at Banteay Chhmar that he believes is the first representation of Hevajra in stone, rather than the more common statues of the deity in bronze. This is of massive importance to understanding more of the Buddhism promoted by Jayavarman VII and is one way in which Banteay Chhmar can tell scholars so much more about that period of Cambodian history, which fascinates so many. The secrets of Banteay Chhmar are still waiting to be discovered. I've written an essay on the temple for my book To Cambodia With Love, which should be out in June, as it's one of the ancient temples that I have a close affinity with, after my first visit there in November 2001.
Scholar Peter Sharrock believes this carving at Banteay Chhmar is of the deity Hevajra, with 20 arms and 9 heads. A smaller figure below has 5 heads.
The carving is above a doorway that is unstable and will be one of the tasks of Global Heritage Fund to ensure that this wall is safely preserved

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Wake up

Looking out across the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh at sunrise
Helen Ibbitson Jessup is a renowned scholar and author on the art and architecture of Southeast Asia and as President of the Friends of Khmer Culture, is a regular visitor to Phnom Penh. One of the essays she submitted for my To Cambodia With Love book talks about one of the many pleasures to be found in the city. It didn't make the final draft. Find out more about the author here.

Early morning in Phnom Penh - by Helen Ibbitson Jessup

Before the dawn light strengthens, a stroll along the riverbank in Phnom Penh is a time warp. The water is pewter, and ripples from the wake of fishing boats flash silver. Silhouetted against the paling sky you can see curving prows suggesting the profiles of the ships carved in the reliefs of the Bayon temple. Naga figureheads rise commandingly, invoking the serpent who rules the waters and the underworld, recalling the ancient Khmers’ fleets repelling the invading Chams on the waters of the Tonle Sap in the days of Jayavarman VII. No intruding engines sputter as nets are cast, these modern fishermen for a while embodying the reincarnation of their ancestors.

Sunrise, like sunset, is a hurried affair in the tropics, and the warming light quickly dispels the illusion. Soon the vendors gather along the road by the bank. Some hack open a coconut to tempt the buyer, some offer juicy pink pomelo segments. There are fresh baguettes, a relic of the French presence. The flags of many nations flap in the strengthening breeze on the brave show of poles lined up along the river near the Royal Palace, motos roar in a thickening stream, and shopkeepers remove the night shutters. You are back in modern Cambodia, in a real city, going about its business without a thought of the tourist.

The riverside park in front of the National Museum and Royal Palace, the park at Wat Botum and the National Olympic Stadium have become magnets for Phnom Penh citizens who want to exercise at the start of the day, and as dusk falls over the city. The exercise bug has firmly struck the citizens of Phnom Penh.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Alleyways of PP

Breakfast time © Steve Goodman
Photographer Steve Goodman loves taking pictures around the busy alleyways of Phnom Penh. And he does it bloody well I must say. Steve gave me a few essays for my own To Cambodia With Love book that's due out in a few months and this one on his alleyway pursuits is one that didn't actually make the final cut. However, it's worth posting here. You can see more of Steve's photographic work here.

Phnom Penh's Alleyways - by Steve Goodman

As a photographer I enjoy going where other travelers do not tread, not only to witness and photograph everyday life, but also to meet and interact with everyday people and enjoy the surprised and delighted reactions of Phnom Penh’s denizens when they see a foreigner not only intruding into their private lives but demonstrating interest and warmth. I have never failed to be amazed at the almost uniformly friendly and warm greetings that I receive in long winding alleys and hidden side-streets that aren’t depicted on most maps.

Of course Phnom Penh’s bustling markets are fantastic places to wander around, but they are generally crowded and can be sweltering, especially during the hot season. So aside from shooting photos in the beautiful light of the early morning and the golden light of sunset, I enjoy wandering through Phnom Penh’s alleyways, where even on the hottest of days it is shady and relatively cool. One time on an alley behind the busy Kampuchea Krom boulevard, an entire family invited me into their shophouse where they sold traditional Khmer herbal medicine, and treated me to a few candied fruit treats laced with traditional herbal remedies.

Often people who are eating on their stoops offer me some of their food. Me, a total stranger whose only calling card is a smile and a few words of greeting in Khmer. Sometimes I meet folks who speak a bit of English, but just as often I meet people who seem to speak fluent French and are sorely disappointed when I let them know that I don’t speak the language even a little bit. Of course the children that I meet are the most amazing people I encounter… playing, laughing, and sometimes showing off their blossoming English language skills by saying, “hello, what is your name”. Sometimes the younger ones will proudly count to ten in English in an always successful attempt to impress and surprise the foreigner.

Most people are happy to permit a few photos if asked with a smile. Often times when someone is initially reluctant, after I show them the photo they enthusiastically invite their friends and relatives to come and have me take their pictures too. The only time I get a negative reaction to a photo request is when I ask people who are gambling huddled around a card game, so I’ve learned simply not to ask most groups of street-side card players.

Along many alleys are small cafes and pushcart vendors offering a wide range of snacks and beverages and the people milling about trying to beat the heat always have time for a brief interchange with a smiling camera wielding stranger.You'll also find businesses of all sorts in these mostly residential sidestreets; noodle factories, tailors, herbal medicine shops, and much more.

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Free dengue for all

Everyone enjoys a freebie music concert and the news that the hip band of the moment, Dengue Fever will be performing an open-air gig on Thursday 13 May will come as music to the ears of many. The band will be in Asia as part of a world tour and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh have booked their services to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cambodia. The gig will take place in front of Wat Botum. The band will be in town for a few days and are scheduled to perform another gig, for the benefit of Cambodian Living Arts on 11 May, whilst a screening of the film about the band, Sleepwalking Through The Mekong, will be shown at the new Meta House on the 10th. Dengue Fever, with lead vocals from Cambodian-born Chhom Nimol, will bring their own brand of 60s and 70s psychedelic Khmer pop-rock back home, having previously played in Phnom Penh in 2005. The band originate from Los Angeles and have become a major tour de force on the American music scene, releasing three critically-acclaimed albums to-date. Visit the band at MySpace.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ghost town

A disabled beggar was the only person on Golden Street at lunchtime today. I can see just 1 solitary tuk-tuk, when usually there are 15+.
Okay so the streets aren't completely empty over Khmer New Year, there are still a handful of people left in Phnom Penh but the two streets shown here are normally choked with people and vehicles at most times of the day. Golden Street or 278 to give it its real number, and Street 63 are popular and busy thoroughfares in Boeung Keng Kang 1 district. They also happen to be fairly close to my home. A few 'barang' restaurants are open in BKK1 too, which were doing a roaring trade today.
Street 63 at midday is usually a hive of activity and full of traffic. A solitary tuk-tuk and a couple of motos are kings of the road today.


Wrapping up

A devata from the wall of the outer enclosure at Wat Nokor. Yellow lichen is staining the sandstone walls.
Here are a few more photos from my recent boat trip to Kompong Cham on the cruiser The Jayavarman. We paid a visit to the fusion temple of Wat Nokor, with its 13th century prasat incorporated into the modern pagoda at the same site on the outskirts of the city. I never have enough time in Kompong Cham. As an example I have still not been inside the small museum at the arts and culture offices, usually because its closed whenever I'm in town. Grrr. After the visit to Wat Nokor we headed back to the boat via an orphanage and a drinks stop at the bamboo bridge that acts as a passageway to the island of Koh Paen when the water level allows it. It costs a few riel to cross it depending on whether you are on a moto, cycle or car. There's always what seems to be a small sand-dredging operation taking place next to the bridge, as truck after truck gets loaded with sand swiped from the shallow waters of the Mekong River. We returned to the boat and enjoyed a lovely dinner aboard as we chugged our way seamlessly back to Phnom Penh, staying midstream overnight before disembarking at the boat jetty in the city after breakfast, amidst a thunderstorm I might add.
A false window with two devata either side of it at Wat Nokor
The lower register of the pediment on the western side of the central tower shows 13 women asleep. Above are more women in a pavilion also asleep and two apsaras flying above them.
There are 3 registers on this 16th century pediment. Top shows the Buddha cutting his hair, the middle, he's freeing his horse and the bottom has 7 kneeling worshippers. Its on the southern side of the central tower.
On the western gopura, over its west doorway is two scenes on the pediment and lintel of Bodhisattva being tortured, though in poor condition
The north pediment of the northern gopura has a 2-arm Lokeshava standing between two kneeling figures and a lower register of 7 worshippers holding two lotuses each
The start of the bamboo bridge that connect Koh Paen to the mainland. You can see how low the Mekong River is by the exposed sandbars.

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