Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Taking a rest

I'm back home but pretty tired so more on my trip to northwest Cambodia sometime tomorrow. However it was a great success and full marks to the Cambodia MSME/USAid project for a very well organized visit. Phare Ponleu Selpak, the circus in Battambang, was excellent and last night's homestay in Banteay Chhmar under the auspices of the local CBT group was good fun, despite the downpour that curtailed our visit to the temple on Tuesday. Waiting for me were a couple of emails from the States where two family members of Ly Eng (pictured) had written to say thank you for providing details on their long-lost brother and uncle, who I mentioned in a blog post in April as one of the many journalists that died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. He was the Cambodian journo that 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 main 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. His family were unaware of these details of his disappearance and their emails were very touching as they felt that they now had some closure about his death. To be honest, I'm lost for words.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Feeling down

I'll be a bit quiet for the next 3 days as I'm in northwest Cambodia paying a visit to Battambang and Banteay Chhmar to see some community-based projects in that neck of the woods. Full report when I get back. I'm thoroughly depressed at the moment as England have just been booted out of the World Cup by the Germans with a large slice of help from the inept match officials. I'm not a supporter of goal-line technology or anything that interferes with tradition but I can hear the calls for it from the British press as I type this. It was the turning point of the match and how the linesman failed to see it is beyond me. It was the second football mockery of the day. The first was at Olympic Stadium where one of the games kicked off in a torrential downpour that flooded the pitch and made football impossible. The teams went off at half-time and the game was abandoned according to a public address announcement. However, 30 minutes later the teams returned, and played out the 2nd half in what I can only describe as an attempt to entertain the crowd, rather than play the game I love. Of course the audience loved it, players sloshing around, sliding tackles galore, players running without the ball as it stuck in the water and so on. But this was not football as I know it. It was a complete mockery of the game and shouldn't have been allowed. I can only presume the referee was under orders to finish the game, as no professional referee in their right mind would've allowed the game to continue. Okay, rant over.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Attempted beheading

The girls and boy at the Singapore hair salon, and myself. My shaving girl was too embarrassed to join in the photo.
Twas a hectic day today with the architecture tour of the three main university campuses along Russian Boulevard first thing this morning, lasting a bit more than three hours, then off to football at Olympic Stadium this afternoon where both games were played in torrential rain, and ending up getting my neck cut by my shaving girl at my regular hairdressers. All in all, a regular Saturday. I'll post a few more pictures of the university buildings in the next day or two. I've visited the campuses before, built in the 1960s and early 70s and part of the New Khmer Architecture series of constructions that KA Tours concentrate on in their tours. However, this visit was led by Sokly, an architecture graduate and a mine of information about the university buildings we walked through. I did think we would've had better access to some of the buildings, but the security folks at a couple of them weren't prepared to bend the rules, so we had to view from afar. As for the football, it was the usual Cambodian League fare, with one of the games producing ten goals and the other, a solitary strike. The attempted beheading by my shaving girl was in essence, a small nick but she reacted as though it was major surgery on my neck and couldn't stop apologizing for about fifteen minutes. No harm done and I promised her I wouldn't hold it against her in the future. She's been my regular shaving girl for about six months now.
The recently renovated main meeting hall at the Royal University of Phnom Penh
A look inside one of the War of the Worlds Vann Molyvann-designed lecture halls at the Teachers Training College on Russian Boulevard


Friday, June 25, 2010

On tour

They look like something out of the War of the Worlds; the Teachers Training college Lecture Halls
A busy few days coming up for yours truly. Tomorrow morning (Saturday) I'm taking my first-ever KA Tour in Phnom Penh. Yes I know I'm way behind the times and should've done it ages ago. This one is visiting the three main university buildings along Russian Boulevard and the coach will leave, very conveniently, from near my home at 8.30am, so that'll give me a bit of a lie-in. I've seen them on my own in the past but I'm keen to get the experts view of the Sixties campuses at the Institute of Technology (soviet designers), the modern baroque Institute of Foreign Languages (a group of three buildings by Vann Molyvann) and the Royal University of Phnom Penh (by Leroy and Mondet). Both Saturday and Sunday afternoons will be spent as usual at the Olympic Stadium watching Cambodian league football and then of course, Sunday night is THE clash between England and the team we all love to hate, Germany. A win will send me off on Monday morning with a big smile on my face as I spend the next three days in Battambang and Banteay Chhmar. It's another familiarization trip with the USAID/Cambodia MSME initiative, looking at the community-based projects in that area, specifically the circus folks in Battambang at Phare Ponleu Selpak and the homestay project at the temple of Banteay Chhmar. Both of which I haven't seen before.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Double engagement

Author Johan Smits signs a copy of his new book, Phnom Penh Express
Only two engagements after work today, a book launch at Monument Books and an opening party at The 252, a new contemporary boutique hotel of 19 rooms on Street 252, surprisingly enough. The book launch was for a new suspense novel by Phnom Penh Post and AsiaLife writer Johan Smits, titled Phnom Penh Express. He's lived in Cambodia for the past six years and felt the urge to set his novel in Phnom Penh and nowhere else. There's not even a token visit to Angkor Wat thrown in for good measure. In fact most of the action takes place along Street 240 and the launch was accompanied by plates of gorgeous but very rich chocolates, courtesy of the Chocolate Shop, which can be found along that very same street. Smits was quick to point out that any likeness to living individuals in the book, is pure coincidence. He got it published with the help of AsiaLife and this may well become an avenue for future authors to get their books published. I headed for The 252 after the launch, primarily as Espresso Thmei were performing, the slimmed-down duo of just Srey Thy and Scott, from the Cambodian Space Project. They were playing their first session next to the swimming pool when I arrived and did two more after that to keep the assembled throng entertained. The rooms at 252 are contemporary and what I call minimalist, with little in the way of decoration except a varying colour scheme for each floor. I spoke to Scott and Srey Thy between sessions and they are playing yet again tomorrow, at PSE in Stung Meanchey for the schoolchildren there. They still have plans to spend most of August in France, playing gigs and having fun, if they can get it sorted out.
The book launch was accompanied by a selection of lovely chocolates from The Chocolate Shop
Scott and Srey Thy perform as Espresso Thmei at The 252 opening last night

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Battambang exposed

A colonial villa in disrepair, ripe for investment and restoration in Battambang
Historically, Battambang is Cambodia's 2nd city and the municipal authorities in this sleepy northwestern city are taking steps to preserve their rich urban heritage that include a variety of historic buildings, over 800 alone from the French colonial time, for example. This initiative is called 'Our City - Our Heritage' and is aimed at preserving these valuable buildings in their original state as much as possible. They even have a website called the Battambang Heritage Preservation Initiative which is well worth checking out. In addition, Khmer Architecture Tours have now published two walking maps of Battambang on their website, offering their personal view of two walking routes in the city which will give you an overview of the different types of buildings you can see. See the maps here. Battambang is one of the jewels often overlooked by visitors to Cambodia. I recommend you take the time to get to know it a bit better.

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In fine fettle

Scott Bywater and Srey Thy warm-up in Espresso Thmei formation
With my nerves a-jangling before last night's make-or-break World Cup game for England, it was good to take my mind off the impending action by watching the Cambodian Space Project perform at La Croisette on the riverfront. Some broken guitar strings meant an interrupted session but the five-piece version of the CSP were just the ticket to set me up for watching, and shouting myself hoarse, at Paddy Rice's bar for a couple of hours from 9pm. After the footy all ended in back-slapping and progression to the next round, it was back to La Croisette to catch the second half of the CSP performance and they were even better this time around. Srey Thy was in fine fettle, as always, and out came all the favourites, including a couple of self-penned songs from Srey Thy herself. This band just gets better and better.
Srey Thy in fine fettle last night
Srey Thy blasting out her Pan Ron vocals with Scott in close support
The 5-piece CSP band at La Croisette, though two of them are hiding from view
Srey Thy mixing singing and dancing into her repertoire

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Women on show

A proud Duong Saree (left) collects her first prize from Ambassador Carol Rodley, which included $800 in prizemoney
Women's art came to the fore last night at the Java Cafe when 24 selected works were displayed from the 45 entrants to the You Khin Memorial Women's Art Prize. The cafe was packed with interested spectators, supporters and many of the artists themselves as American Ambassador Carol Rodley did the honours, and handed over the first prize to one of the stalwarts of female art in the country, Duong Saree, for her painting, Neary Dak Prolit, composed in the traditional style often used by other artists like Chhim Sothy. Saree, 52, was the first woman artist to teach at the Royal University of Fine Arts when it reopened after the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979, so she knows a thing or two about innovation and composition and the skill required to paint a memorable picture. Here are some of the entries though of course, I managed to forget to take a picture of the winning painting...duh.
This was one of my favourites as it demonstrates what we all know, that in Cambodia it's the women who do all the work. 21 year old student Two Sam Oun is the artist.
This is mother and daughter detail from a much larger painting in a flowery style by Chouve Touch
A poster art type painting decrying the lack of women's rights by student Noeum Kim San
One of the better known female artists in Cambodia is Battambang's Ouer Sokuntevy. This painting is titled Rich Neighbours.
We can never stray too far from the memories that still grip Cambodians. This painting is by Koung Sovicha.
A sculpture by up and coming artist Dina Chhan, who has an exhibition at Equinox starting this Friday

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Stories in Stone

River Books in Bangkok are a goldmine for interesting publications on Cambodia but their books aren't always readily available. Two new books that I'm itching to get hold of are Beyond Angkor, looking at the country's remote temples through the eyes of Helen Ibbitson Jessup and Ang Choulean, and Khmer Ceramics by Dawn Rooney. I talked about both books in a blog post in March, click here. Also slated for publication is a revised edition of Vittorio Roveda's Khmer Mythology. Another newcomer to the River Books stable is John Burgess' Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History. This 198-page publication by a former Washington Post correspondent looks at a little known outpost of the Khmer Empire and how this temple and its inscription have fared since it was written in 1052, including its emergence as a haven for refugees and resistance fighters in the late '70s. The temple itself is located 34 kilometers northeast of the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet and the inscription stone is housed in the Bangkok national museum, where it was severely damaged in a fire in 1958. The temple has undergone extensive reconstruction by the Thai authorities over the past two decades.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Landmark writings

Sydney Schanberg is a name synonymous with the landmark film, The Killing Fields and he has just brought out a new book, Beyond the Killing Fields: War Writings, that is an anthology of his reporting and commentary from wars he reported on in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq. Schanberg won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his New York Times coverage of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia. The book’s centerpiece is his signature work, 'The Death and Life of Dith Pran,' which was turned into the Academy Award winning movie The Killing Fields starring Sam Waterston as Schanberg. The book is dedicated to Dith Pran, who died in 2008 of pancreatic cancer, and Schanberg’s wife, Jane. Find out more about the book at its website.


Wicked Vy

In returning to my very occasional series of posting snaps of my friends, this beautiful young woman is Vy (pronounced Wee) who hails from Kandal province and works in a Khmer BBQ restaurant in Phnom Penh. She has a wicked sense of humour but her English is about as limited as my Khmer, which is really poor, so we get along just fine. I couldn't possibly tell you her age as I'm a gentleman...but she's 25. She hates football, so is avoiding the World Cup like the plague. The way England are playing, I don't blame her.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Women in art

On the art exhibition scene, Cambodian female artist Dina Chhan will present her latest solo exhibits with her Cross the Line presentation at Equinox on St 278 (near my home) from 7pm this coming Friday, 25th. Her work includes acrylic, enamel, ink and oil paintings that are abstract and contemporary in their style. Expect the unexpected. Before that, on Wednesday 23rd at 6pm at Java Cafe & Gallery, the first ever prize for Cambodian women artists will be presented by American Ambassador Carol Rodley. 45 entries were received from female artists around the country and the artist in first place will receive an engraved plaque and a cash prize of $800. A scoring system to decide the winners looked at technique, composition, content and material. It's the same night as the England v Slovenia World Cup decider (9pm) and the latest appearance of the Cambodian Space Project at La Croisette (7pm), so something's got to give.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

On the telly

This screen-capture shows my involvement, as one of the match photographers, wearing white shirt and shorts. I'm not too happy about how my legs look on tv!
Apparently I'm on Cambodian television every weekend. I was informed of this by a friend who religiously watches the live football coverage from the Olympic Stadium produced by the CTN channel every Saturday. I hadn't seen any of it until I was channel-hopping on Sunday evening and saw that CTN were replaying the whole of this weekend's match between the Army and Kirivong. And there I was, in all my glory, wandering around the touchline before the game like a kid left alone in a sweet shop. Actually I was taking a few snaps of the team line-ups for my blog but I stand out like a sore thumb as I'm usually the only white guy involved and I'm the only non-player wearing shorts. I've been on the television a few times since I moved to live in Cambodia, but I wasn't aware of my weekly 'football soap opera' role until recently.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Being responsible

For those who want to catch up with the latest guidebooks on Cambodia, the 7th edition of Lonely Planet's Cambodia edition should be out in the next month or so. The sixth edition came out in August 2008 and the latest version, in their two-year cycle, is with the printers. When I see travellers here carrying a guidebook, you can bet your bottom dollar that it's an LP. While you wait for its arrival, you can seek out the brand new first edition of Responsible Travel Guide Cambodia. This 118-page 'feel good' book was published last month to support the work of non-profit organization Friendship with Cambodia and directs you towards projects and businesses that help disadvantaged Cambodians as well as providing tips for responsible travellers and volunteer opportunities. Pujita Nanette Mayeda is the author. The beneficiaries of the work of Friendship with Cambodia include micro-credit programs for women, education for rural students living in poverty, vocational training for landmine survivors, sex-trafficking prevention and support for children living on the streets. The organization grew out of a collaboration between Bhavia Wagner and Valentina DuBasky, who were responsible for the 2002 book Soul Survivors - Stories of Women and Children in Cambodia.
And of course, I couldn't let the opportunity pass by without reminding you that my own To Cambodia With Love should be out in a few months. It'll be worth waiting for with over 60 contributors and more than 125 essays, all demonstrating a passion for this incredible country, its sights, sounds and its people.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Catch onto CSP

Okay so I'm a bit late in catching onto the Cambodian Space Project, but better late than never. They definitely merit a big following in Phnom Penh for their recreation of the sound and spirit of the decadent Sixties in Cambodia and you have the opportunity to see them at La Croisette restaurant on the riverside next Wednesday, 23 June. Following that will be an appearance by their acoustic, slimmed-down version of Scott and Srey Thy as Espresso Thmei at The Cavern on St 104 sometime soon. In the meantime, catch them on the streets of Hong Kong in this Kmlo-shot video. It takes a full minute before the music and Sry Thy's piercing voice cut in. Enjoy.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

KR memories

Nhem En surrounded by the mug-shots he took at S-21
Nhem En is spouting off again, this time telling everyone that he's begun building his own $15,000 museum, out of his own pocket, to house his memorabilia and photographs of the Khmer Rouge leaders in their last stronghold, Anlong Veng, where he is a deputy governor. I'll believe it when I see it. I've never met the guy but the word obnoxious springs readily to mind whenever I see his name in print. He's displayed a coldness for his actions in interviews and a penchant for self-publicity and financial gain since he resurfaced and admitted that he was the main photographer that took the face portraits of the prisoners as they entered the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) interrogation facility. For that alone he's had more column inches than he deserves. More recently he tried to get cash from the World Monuments Fund for his museum as well as trying to sell Pol Pot's shoes and some of the cameras he used when he was at S-21, and living with the last dregs of the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng. Admittedly, he will have unique photographs that no-one could own as he was in a position of trust that allowed him unrestricted access to the upper echelon of the KR leadership. There was also the documentary by Steven Okaszaki that was up for an academy award last year that carried the photographer's name, The Conscience of Nhem En - or lack of it many would say. There has been a lot of talk about making Anlong Veng a focus of the KR memory that has government support, but as yet, no real action. So Nhem En has decided to kick it off himself.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Saturday morning was an eye-opener for me. I knew very little about HIV in Cambodia before I spent time with John Tucker at his New Hope for Cambodian Children (NHCC) village in Kompong Speu. John is definitely a one-off but NHCC is not about him or his wife Kathy, it's all about the 200+ orphaned or abandoned children that live there, full-time, in a loving and caring environment, receiving the medicine they need to keep them alive. With NHCC and the ARV medication provided by the Clinton Foundation most of these children would not be alive today. And alive they are, and positively thriving. The girls I met were absolutely adorable and with access to the right medication, they will continue to live normal lives. NHCC doesn't restrict itself to providing the best possible care for the children in Kompong Speu, they also have an outreach program that helps and supports another 1,000 children in surrounding provinces. They also help themselves. Their pig and chicken-breeding and vegetable and fruit-growing programs are all part of their self-sustainability initiative. They welcome volunteers too and I couldn't think of a better place to spend your time and energy. $160 completely supports one child’s nutritional, care giving staff/foster parents, medical and educational needs at the village for one month if you'd like to make a difference yourself. Read more here.
These piglets in the village pig-breeding program reminded me of the children taking sustenance from the loving care provided by John Tucker and his team at NHCC


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

NY screening

Though we have yet to see the film screened in Cambodia, the New York film watching audience will get a chance to see Enemies of the People - One man's journey to the heart of the killing fields at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival on Sunday of this week. The film screening will also have director Rob Lemkin and the subject of the story, Thet Sambath (right), present and they'll answer questions from the audience afterwards. The film, which uses Thet Sambath's skills as a senior reporter with the Phnom Penh Post to interview and get close to Brother Number 2 Nuon Chea, has received lots of accolades and plaudits in other festival screenings around the globe. Sambath will also tell his story in a new book, Behind the Killing Fields, that will be published later this year. Find out more about the film here.
Rithy Panh's film S21: the Khmer Rouge Death Machine will be shown at Bophana Center this Saturday at 4pm in Khmer with English subtitles. The video is available to buy everywhere in Phnom Penh but just in case you haven't seen it, get along to Bophana on Street 200 this weekend. Tuol Sleng survivor Vann Nath, who appears in the film has recently been receiving medical treatment in Bangkok after a spell in hospital in Phnom Penh. And don't forget, if you have missed the news, that the verdict in the trial of S21 chief Comrade Duch is expected to be announced on 26 July.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Poor connectivity

Rumnea and I share a tasty Chinese snack at Feeling Home
I had a rare day today with poor internet connectivity at home, hence my lack of posts. Normally my internet provider, Online is pretty good. Today they had an off day. Probably connected to this morning's extremely embarrassing football result where the country that brought the game to the world and taught the world how to play, couldn't even beat the country that refuses to call the game by its correct name. I was up until 3.30am this morning watching the match in the Gym Bar and it pained me greatly to watch the Americans present believing that had just won their own personal World Cup by holding England to a draw. Thank god the smug buggers didn't beat us. It was back to watching the bread and butter of the Cambodian League this afternoon, as is my normal football diet on Saturday and Sunday afternoons during the local league season. And as usual, it was far too hot to be watching football, let alone playing it. After footy I had my first Chinese meal at the Feeling Home restaurant near my house at the suggestion of its owner Luu Meng, who I met in the week. There's a small restaurant in the basement of the building which also houses nine hotel bedrooms. It was cheap and tasty so they'll definitely get my custom again. Rumnea, who can only spare a few hours at weekends due to her job and her university studies in the week, joined me.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

A new home

The new genocide memorial stupa at Wat Snguon Pech, near the ECCC buildings
This morning I took a trip along Highway 4 to Kompong Speu to visit the New Hope for Cambodian Children village, which cares for more than 200 children infected with HIV/Aids. This is a remarkable program and I'll bring you more about it very soon. On the way back I popped into the pagoda at Wat Snguon Pech, located within spitting distance of the toll booth on Highway 4 just past the ECCC buildings. This was the pagoda where I found a genocide memorial in a dire state of disrepair in March 2008. Today the old memorial has gone and it's been replaced with a brand new memorial stupa, thanks to donations from the local community, hence my visit today to see the newly-erected stupa. The pagoda and nearby school had been used as a prison and killing site during the Khmer Rouge years in the late 1970s and around 700 victims were found in burial pits and a nearby canal. The prison was then known as security center 103 and the pagoda is just 2km along the main road from the ECCC, where the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are now being tried.
Two rows of bones provide a reminder of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime at Wat Snguon Pech
The shelves of the new stupa contains bone fragments and skulls
Only a token number of six trays of bones were taken from the old memorial and transferred to the new one, which is similar in style to the stupa at Choeung Ek


Friday, June 11, 2010

Fever funds

The Mekong Sessions are slated to begin in November and if ticket prices are to be believed, it'll pull in a stack of cash for the organizers and the beneficiaries, who include the Red Cross and disabled sport. Though AsiaLife splashed it across their latest edition, it's still a bit hush-hush re ticket prices, etc and the word is that pre-sales and VIPs have snaffled most of the seats anyway. Can you believe it? 3,000 tickets sold for Leonard Cohen before it was even announced. Have I been living under a rock? I've never heard the guy sing a note. I must get out more.
Nice to read about the $7,500 that Dengue Fever helped raise for the coffers of Cambodian Living Arts during their recent visit to Cambodia. Their sold-out Parkway gig on 11 May was the chief reason, playing to a 700-capacity crowd and including chapei master Kong Nai on the same bill. Well done to Dengue Fever and a nice windfall for CLA who do fabulous work in keeping artistic traditions alive and preparing youngsters to succeed the masters.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

JC to return

Jackie Chan, one of the most easily-recognisable faces in world cinema, will be strutting his stuff in Siem Reap and Cambodia in July for nearly two weeks as he brings his film-making roadshow to the Kingdom. I've heard different versions of what the film is about though information that emerged recently suggested it will be called Cambodia Landmine, a drama-comedy with a $25 million production budget, to be directed by Ding Sheng. Though at the time filming was scheduled for February next year. Chan first visited Cambodia in 2004 to promote awareness of HIV/Aids, in 2005 to focus on landmines and was back a few months ago to give a lecture and to get permission to film at Angkor Wat. He's known as Chin Long amongst the Cambodian community and to the world for his acrobatic fighting style, his innovative stunts and his comic persona.
Staying on the film front, Redlight will get its red carpet world premiere on 21 June in New York. Filmed over a 4 year period, this powerful feature documentary about child sexploitation focuses on the harrowing stories of young Cambodian victims and two advocates for change; grassroots activist Somaly Mam and politician Mu Sochua (who will speak at the premiere). Filmmakers Guy Jacobson and Adi Ezroni were also responsible for the film Holly, which Jacobson wrote and produced. To find out more about the film and other associated websites, click on the following: Redlight, Redlight Children, The Road to Traffik.

Wednesday night at Meta House, Joel Montague regaled us with details of just one of his hobbies, collecting old postcards of Cambodia. He recalled the promotion of Angkor to the French and international public via a series of expositions in France between 1906 and 1931, the latter one in Paris was attended by no less than 33 million people. They were intended to convince the French public of the necessity to colonize, with Cambodia and in particular Angkor Wat representing all that was good in France's efforts to bring civilization to the natives. Joel, who has volunteered in Cambodia in rural health programs, showed a very small part of his postcard collection to highlight the different colonial expositions held in the early 1900s and the development of the message to the French population. The replicas of Angkor Wat, especially for the 1931 exposition, were remarkable in their grandeur. It was only a few years earlier that Andre Malraux had been arrested for stealing sculptures from the temple of Banteay Srei yet still managed in later life to rise to the position of French Minister of Culture. Unbelievable.
A postcard showing the replica Angkor Wat in Paris in 1931, seen by over 33 million people

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Belle gets a lift

Belle in dance mode
The Phnom Penh Post produces a magazine for youth readers each Wednesday, it's called Lift. In today's edition it includes an article on Belle, Cambodia's best contemporary dancer, who is catching the plane to America as I type, on her way with three colleagues, to perform the Khmeropedies I and II dances in the States in New Haven and at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York. The magazine article is aimed at youngsters who would consider a career in the arts. I've reproduced it below:

A Life in dance - by Dara Saoyuth and Vorn Makara

Chumvan Sodhachivy, more commonly know as Belle, is not only one of Cambodia's greatest cultural ambassadors for her dancing in performances around the world, she has also found a way to make a living through her passion for the arts. Between her travels to the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and France for cultural exchanges and dance workshops, she has established herself as a leader in the innovation of Cambodian contemporary dance, combining classical and modern styles to create a dance which expresses the globalization of the 25-year old's home country.
Creating a new style of dance in Cambodia, where older generations are hesitant to tamper with traditional culture, has not been easy. After her first performance in 2003, she received praise, criticism and confusion from her audience. "30 per cent of the audience really didn't like, the other 70 per cent said it was difficult to understand," she said. "People were saying to each other 'What are they doing? What kind of dance is she dancing? It's crazy!'"
Although the initial reaction to her and the other 4 women in her group was disheartening, Belle continued to pursue her passion for dance. "I promised to myself that I would continue dancing with the hope that someday my audience will love it and I will be a success," she said. A recent performance by Belle and her fellow dancers at Chenla Theatre on May 14, seven years after her first contemporary dance performance, shows that her resilience and hard work has indeed raised appreciation of contemporary dance in the Kingdom. The audience was an even mix of Cambodians and foreigners and Belle says that many of the Cambodians who used to complain about her modern adaptation of traditional dance have started to appreciate her vision and attend her performances.
Though many people may think that going to university to study dance will leave you with a degree and no job, Belle has shown that a passion for the arts can be profitable as well. Belle graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in 2007 after 13 years of studying and has created various outlets for her talents. She organizes dance classes as well as private lessons to teach others to express themselves through dance and can also been seen on CTN and stages across the country performing her latest numbers. It has taken huge amounts of time and energy, but Belle is now one of the Kingdom's great examples of artists creating a new, and commercially viable, expression of the changes in Cambodian society.

I also saw this story on VOA Khmer by Nuch Sarita in Washington DC, USA.

In Khmeropedies, an exercise of Cambodian dance style

Amrita Performing Arts is scheduled to perform at the Howard Gilman Performance Space Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City later this month, as it bring a new contemporary dance method to the US. Amrita performers will first bring Khmeropedies One and Two to the Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven Connecticut from June 16 to June 19, followed by four performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York from June 24 to June 26.
The performers in Khmeropedies are trained in Khmer classical dance and represent the next generation of Cambodian creativity. Contemporary Khmer dance is a brand new discipline that had to look abroad for its initial performance. Khmeropedies I was performed in New York in April 2007 at the Baryshnikov Art Center.

Emmanuele Phuon, the main choreographer, is a French-Cambodian who lives in Brussels. She started training with the Royal Ballet of Cambodia at age 5. In 1975 she moved to Bangkok with her mother and then to Avignon, France. She studied and graduated from the Conservatoire National de Dance in 1986. In 1987, Phuon went to New York and has performed with the Elisa Monte Dance Company and the Baryshnikov White Oak Dance Project. “The main purpose of Khmeropedies is to share my experience as a dancer in the West, a very different technique with Cambodian classical dancers, and see if they can live together,” she told VOA Khmer. “Khmeropedies is a play between the words Khmer and Gymnopedies, a reference to a French composer and pianist in 1887, and could mean an exercise in Khmer style,” she said. Phuon said the basic idea for the work was to take Khmer classical dance and apply it in different ways and to different themes and to push it as far as possible from its original form while keeping it recognizable.

Chey Chankethya, one of Cambodia’s best classical dancers, said Cambodia artists need to take part in festivals and other environments to develop their art. “To me the Khmeropedies, a contemporary piece of work, is not just only about showing movement or beauty of the dance, but it reveals a new Cambodian thought,” she said. “The dance piece is able to tell the audience exactly how the traditional Cambodian dance transforms over time and how one culture acts together with others.”

Part Two of Khmeropedies is about the dialogue between an older star dancer and teacher, Sam Sathya, who is rooted in traditions, and her three young students, who are curious and want to experiment with other techniques. The four performers in Khmeropedies are Sam Sathya, Chumvan Sodhachivy, Chey Chankethya and Phon Sopheab. Chumvan Sodhachivy, a solo star in Khmeropedies I, began training in Cambodian classical dance in 1994. She was trained specifically in Neay Rong, the male role, folk dance and Sbek Thom, large shadow puppetry. She participated in many dance festivals and has participated in numerous workshops with international artists from India, Indonesia, the US and the World Dance Alliance. “I think it is a great opportunity to bring the new face of Cambodian dance to US audiences who mostly have only experienced Cambodian classical dance,” she said. “It is important to share with the rest of the world the cultural transformation taking place in Cambodia.”

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In danger

I heard some disturbing news today. CCBEN, the Cambodian Community-Based Eco-tourism Network is in danger of extinction if something isn't done soon to save it. Established in 2002, CCBEN was always a network of local and international organizations, NGOs and private sector companies engaged in promoting and supporting communities who have something to offer the tourism industry. Remote communities in Virachey National Park, Chi Phat, Banteay Chhmar and Yeak Laom amongst many others have benefited from CCBEN"s support, advice and marketing skills in bringing visitors to their tourism locations but if CCBEN can't get enough funds after August it will cease to exist. In recent years CCBEN has spread its wings to engulf a wide range of activities, perhaps too wide according to some, rather than stick to the knitting of simply providing a network for everyone to speak to each other. A members meeting today offered up some suggestions but some tough decisions need to be made, and made soon, if CCBEN is to remain alive and a network that benefits both the communities and the public.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Old stuff

The Sa Sa Art Gallery has an interesting exhibition opening this Friday 11 June at 6pm, which will run throughout most of July, if you are into looking at the architectural heritage to be found in Phnom Penh. It is called Old Buildings and will be on show at the gallery's headquarters on Street 360. Photographer Chhin Taingchhea graduated in painting from university four years ago and after studying photography with Stephane Janin, his main subject is architecture and his most prominent work to-date was The Building, which focused on the 468 Municipal Apartments opened in 1963, now known as the White Building. This will be his second major solo exhibition. The Sa Sa Art Gallery opened in 2009, and focuses on emerging Cambodian contemporary artists exhibiting new bodies of work, hosting 5-6 exhibitions each year.

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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Espresso Thmei

Scott and Srey Thy during a brief lull in proceedings. Scott is in pink.
There's a saying that you can't get enough of a good thing. And that holds true as far as Srey Thy and the Cambodian Space Project are concerned. Saturday night's gig was exceptional and tonight's stripped-down version, Espresso Thmei, was just as good. Any combo that is as tight as the one that played at the Paddy Rice bar on the riverside this evening, you would've thought they'd been gigging for ages. No such luxury, this was the full debut appearance of Srey Thy on vocals and Scott Bywater on guitar and harmonica and they simply rocked. Srey Thy belted out her Pan Ron and Khmer hits of the 60s with her signature voice in full flow and not diluted by the plethora of instruments you usually hear with the full band version. She said there were a few bum notes thrown in, but I didn't hear any and was suitably impressed. This duo deserves your full attention next time they are behind the mikes.
The eminently agreeable Srey Thy looks stunning as usual
Scott on guitar and Srey Thy on unique vocals
Srey Thy's songs and delivery style are a perfect match
It was the first performance together of Espresso Thmei and was virtually seamless
A final look at the duo of Srey Thy and Scott, look out for these two near you sometime soon

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Pictured live

Last but not least on the music video front today is The Natural-Ites, another UK reggae band from the 1980s who made a big impression on me. This song, Picture On the Wall, became an anthem and kept the band at the forefront of British reggae until they finally called it a day in 1990. The Natural-Ites story can be read here. Percydread, one of the founding members and a good friend, has just posted his new website. Check it out here.

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African Delinquent

Continuing the reggae theme, YouTube is obviously a goldmine to catch all of your old fave reggae sounds and I just had to post this one from Black Roots, a Bristol-based reggae band who were one of the very best. This video is from their 1987 celebration video and the song is African Delinquent, which was their first single in 1983. The singer is the tiny livewire Delroy O'gilvie. Find out all about Black Roots here.


Burning Up

Basil Gabbidon is one of the nice guys in music. He started out with Steel Pulse back in the day (the mid-70s to be precise) and hasn't stopped since. Before I left the UK I used to catch Basil regularly in various guises in the Birmingham area, whether it be in Gabbidon, Tuff Luv or giving his time to get children interested in making music. Whilst Burning Up isn't one of his best tracks, it's one of the few that have made it onto video. It was also on the 2008 album by the group, Reggaerockz. Find out more here.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

The band at platform 1...

Srey Thy commanding the audience at the railway station
Continuing the intention of the Cambodian Space Project band to conquer the world, or at least Phnom Penh, they played a great set at the railway station tonight with Srey Thy on top form and the band as tight as a gnat's chuff. Most of the audience were pretty merry as they'd just got off the train having been off to the countryside in a Chinese House special to listen to jazz, and CSP were playing as they arrived. Fortunately the rain held off long enough for their set. Srey Thy is down-to-earth and typically Khmer and despite the recent success of the band she is still genuinely happy when the audience responds positively. The whole set was excellent, especially the monkey song. There was a dj afterwards but everyone was so pissed, I left, hoping to catch CSP again sometime soon.
5 members of the 7-piece Cambodian Space Project perform on the bed of a rail carriageThis week Srey Thy chose a shorter sparkly dress to wow the crowd. It worked for me.
Srey Thy belting out one of her favourite Pan Ron songs

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Comedy with your dinner Sir?

To Cambodia With Love will be out and in bookshops in a few months. I was fortunate to have the support of more than sixty people who share my passion for Cambodia and who provided me with a wealth of personal experiences that have found their way into the publication. However, not all the essays made the final cut. The following look at a dining experience across the Japanese Bridge by Steve Gourley was one such essay, which is printed here with his permission.

Comedy Dinner Theater - by Steve Gourley
We all need a good laugh now and then, and when live comedy is combined with a fantastic meal, you're in for a real treat. At Phnom Penh's Heng Lay restaurant, situated across the Japanese Bridge along a stretch of the city's finest local restaurants, both live music and comedy are performed for the well-known restaurant's clientele, which consist of mostly middle- and upper-class Cambodians along with a smattering of expats and their visitors. In fact, the dinner show is a unique experience that I regularly take my friends and visitors on special occasions. Upon arrival, guests are seated at one of well over 100 round tables - yes, Heng Lay is big - each of which sits up to eight people. I recommend the tables immediately in front of the stage, as you will get an unobstructed view of the performers as well as avoid the blaring sound of the loudspeakers, which can be annoyingly loud if you are sitting directly in their path.

The comedy show begins at 8pm, but arrive at least by 7 to catch many of Phnom Penh's famous and up-and-coming singers perform with a live band. A surprising number of male and female vocalists may perform on any given night, trading off the lead role on songs spanning modern Cambodian pop and ballads to well-known western hits. Back-up dancers perform on some numbers with amusing if not altogether synchronized choreography. While taking in the music, enjoy the delicious food, starting with the outstanding crab soup served in small one-portion bowls as the first course, followed by fried rice served in a carved-out pineapple. I order my favourites including sweet and sour pork served in an edible 'basket' made of baked flour; steamed elephant fish with ginger; and mixed vegetables sauteed in garlic and butter. Nearly every type of drink is available, from canned sodas and fruit drinks to wine and beers served by an armada of beer girls employed by the companies to promote their products. For a local treat however, enjoy fresh coconut juice serve chilled and sipped straight from the coconut shell with a straw.

Around 8 o'clock - 'Cambodian time" - which could mean anywhere between 8 and 9 - the fun begins with a comedy troupe featuring the country's top comedians, two men called Koy and Krum, who are the local equivalent of America's Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Rather than stand-up routines, however, each show features an original storyline with a plethora of interesting male and female characters. Although performed entirely in Khmer, the slapstick nature of the show - replete with outlandish costumes, hilarious voice caricatures and delightful physical comedy - would be a treat for the eyes and ears in any language. Often the basic storyline can be deduced from the actions and gestures of the skilled comedians, but to understand the details and inside jokes, it's helpful to take a Cambodian friend or guide along to help translate the highlights of the approximately one hour show. While some skits are better than others, the Heng Lay dinner show experience never fails to result in a memorable evening for my friends and I.

Heng Lay is located on Highway 6A. which is accessed from Phnom Penh by crossing the Japanese Bridge. After the bridge, continue about 2 kilometres until you see a large hand-painted mural on the right depicting comedians and singers; as you get closer the Heng Lay sign becomes visible further in from the street on the right. Shows are performed nightly with the music starting at 6pm. Postscript: It would appear that Koy and Krum have become too well known these days to perform at Heng Lay and they are usually seen on Khmer television, almost nightly, instead.

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