Saturday, July 31, 2010

In the wind

Sarah O'Brien (right) arrived in Phnom Penh yesterday. Sarah had a vision to bring a musical she wrote about Cambodia, Winds of Angkor, to be performed here and that will happen next Sunday, 8 August at Chaktomuk. It won't be the full musical but will provide enough of a preview to appreciate how important this will be to open up Cambodia for a whole new audience in the theatre world. She is keeping her fingers crossed to be able to hold the world premiere of her musical in Cambodia at the beginning of next year. The following report appeared in the Nottingham Post yesterday, Sarah's home town.

Nottingham composer's play to be shown in Cambodia
A play written by a former Nottingham woman is to be shown at the Cambodian Living Arts Festival. Sarah O'Brien will become the first western composer to take part in the event when Winds of Angkor features at the festival on Sunday, August 8. David Mace, the British Ambassador to the South East Asian country, will attend. "It is a real honour to be asked to take part in this wonderful event," said Sarah, 41, who used to live in Wollaton before moving to America. "As a composer you hope to be asked to take part in these events. When I was asked, I jumped at the chance."

Sarah, who is also a cellist, wrote the show herself. It is set in Cambodia and chronicles the life of a western journalist who falls in love with a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime which committed genocide in the country under the rule of its leader, Pol Pot. The play will be shown at the Chatomuk Theatre in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. "I will be heading over there feeling very excited," added Sarah, a former Fernwood Comprehensive School and Bilborough College student. "I hope it will go down well and we can maybe begin to tour with the show in the future. It would be great if I could bring the show to the UK as that is where my roots are."

Sarah has been writing music since she was about ten. After finishing school, she went to London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to do Advanced Studies at the University of Southern California. She was selected to take part in concerts at the Taj Mahal and China's Forbidden City. After graduating, she worked in Hollywood, being credited in a number of TV shows, film soundtracks and albums. [Her credits include Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Jag as well as with ELO, Yanni, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Ozzie Osbourne]. Sarah is now based in Los Angeles but returns to the UK every summer to coach young cellists at the National Children's Orchestra of Great Britain, of which she is a former member.

She dreamed up the Winds of Angkor after reading fragments of letters written by Cambodian prisoners in the 1990s. She researched it by visiting the country several times and meeting some of the survivors. "There were a lot of terrible stories which I heard about and I wanted to write the play on it to display these," she added. "We are having to put a lot of things in place for the trip to Cambodia. I believe a lot of the equipment is being brought in from Singapore." Funds made from the show will go towards future development in Cambodia.

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Rooney on Wat Phnom

The shrine on Wat Phnom celebrating the return of 3 provinces to Cambodia in 1907
I can't let you read any of the stories that made the final draft of To Cambodia With Love at this point. As that would be giving the game away wouldn't it. But what I have been doing is letting you get a feel for the book with some of the stories that were submitted by the sixty-odd contributors but which didn't quite make the final cut for various reasons. An example of those essays is the one below from Dawn Rooney, one of the most respected writers around on Angkor and Cambodian history. Dawn will be in the book but this particular essay about Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh didn't make it in.

At Wat Phnom - by Dawn Rooney
Do you know that Angkor belonged to Siam (now Thailand) until the early 20th century? France signed a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863 giving them administrative control of the country except for the provinces of Siem Reap (where Angkor is located), Battambang and Sisophon - these were in Thai territory until 1907 when King Sisowath signed the French-Siam Treaty. This act is commemorated in a little-visited shrine at the base of Wat Phnom hill (south side). The king sits on a throne and he is flanked by three princesses, each representing one of the provinces that were returned to Cambodia.
French history records an anecdote about King Sisowath that suggests he came close to not being in Cambodia in time to sign the treaty. He was crowned king in 1904, following the death of his half-brother, King Norodom. At the age of sixty-six, King Sisowath fulfilled a lifetime dream to visit France. He departed from Saigon on a French liner in 1906 and was accompanied by a troupe of some one hundred Cambodian classical dancers and musicians from the royal palace. The ship docked in Marseilles and the king and his entourage proceeded to Paris where the dancers performed in Europe for the first time at the Colonial Exposition.
They arrived amidst great fanfare and were greeted with cheers from a large crowd. The French press described the king as a 'good-humoured' man of medium height with large, expressive eyes and a heavy-lipped mouth with a thin moustache. He wore a tailcoat, a felt hat with jewels, and a black silk sampot (a traditional pant-like garment). But it was the Cambodian dancers who captured the hearts and minds and the French public. With their little bodies, childlike faces and elaborate costumes and headdresses, they were truly unique. Augustin Rodin, the French sculptor, painted the dancers and remarked 'I contemplated them in ecstasy!' When they returned to Cambodia, he lamented that, 'they had taken with them all the beauty of the world.'
French officials presided over King Sisowath's departure and escorted him to the port of Marseilles amidst much pomp and ceremony. They bid him farewell and wished him a safe return journey to Siam. King Sisowath thanked them for their generous hospitality with Asian grace and expressed his regret at leaving. After the French officials departed, however, he went straight back to Paris because he so liked France. Within a year, though, he had returned to Phnom Penh to sign the French-Thai Treaty of 1907 which gave Angkor back to Cambodia.
Wat Phnom is set upon the only hill in Phnom Penh. According to legend, the first pagoda was erected on this site in 1373 to house four statutes of Buddha that had been found by Madame Penh in the Mekong River. Today, Wat Phnom is enjoyed by many people for different reasons. Some come to pray for good luck, others come to enjoy elephant rides with Sambo, the city's only working elephant, whilst for others, it's a green, quiet patch in an otherwise frantic city. The vihara on top of the hill was rebuilt four times, the last time in 1926. West of the vihara, is a huge stupa containing the ashes of King Ponhea Yat (1405-67). A small grave of a European also rests on the hill but more on that at a later date. The book To Cambodia With Love should be out in a couple of months. Keep your eyes peeled for its launch.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

The art of Bokator

One of the stories submitted to my forthcoming To Cambodia With Love guidebook came from martial arts adventurer Antonio Graceffo. It didn't make the final cut but it's relevant as the national Bokator championships begin today and Antonio is just about to publish a book on martial arts. His book, which covers his first six years in Asia has chapters about Cambodia and Cambodian martial arts such as Bokator, Bradal Serey and Jap bap Boran. It's called Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist Through Asia (right).

Resurrecting Bokator Khmer - by Antonio Graceffo
The ancient Khmer martial art of Bokator is something which only belongs to Cambodia. The proof is 'written in stone' on the walls of Angkor Wat. Unlike kick boxing, which is a sport fighting art, Bokator was a soldier's art, designed to be used on the battlefield, and was practiced by King Jayavarman VII no less. Khmer Bokator is a very complete martial art, which uses strikes, throws, drags, trapping, locking and ground fighting. In Bokator every single part of the body can be used as a weapon. Bokator practitioners are trained to strike with knees, hands, elbows, feet, shins and head. Even the fingers, hip, jaw and shoulders can be used to pound an opponent.
Grand Master Sam Kim Saen is the man credited with reviving this wonderful martial art, which was almost lost. "During the Khmer Rouge time, masters of traditional arts, such as painting, music, dancing and martial arts were hunted down and killed." Explained Master Sam Kim Saen. "All of my training brothers and students, as well as two of my children, were killed by the Khmer Rouge." After the Khmer Rouge regime ended, and the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia began, martial arts were completely outlawed. To keep the art alive, Master Sam Kim Saen taught martial arts in secret, but was eventually turned into the authorities by an informant. Afraid for his life, he escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then later, to the USA. He returned to Cambodia and opened up a Bokator training school, near Batook High School in Phnom Penh.
Bokator is gaining in popularity in Cambodia. There are now annual Bokator national championships held at the Olympic Stadium with the first finals taking place in 2006 and involving teams from nine provinces. To attain the highest level in Bokator, the gold karma, is a life-long endeavor; in the unarmed portion of the artform there are between 8,000 and 10,000 different techniques, only 1,000 of which need to be learnt to attain a black karma, the second highest level.

This is timely as this year's national Bokator championships begin today with matches held each day until the finals on Monday of next week. A total of 222 male and female exponents of the art will compete across four weight divisions, while competitors will also perform routines with or without weapons and in groups in twelve non-combative categories.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Aljazeera in town

A friend informed me they saw me on Aljazeera News the other day and as if by magic I found the clip on YouTube. But you have to be quick to spot me for the 4 seconds that I'm on screen. Harry Fawcett's 3-minute report from Cambodia looks at the possible delays in bringing the older Khmer Rouge leaders to trial at the Tribunal considering the 15 months it took to get to the end of the Duch trial, which everyone thought was a pretty open and shut case. The report includes some footage with local filmmaker Thet Sambath and 2 minutes, 47 seconds into the video report you can see a guy in a white shirt sitting in the audience to watch of the screening of Sambath's documentary. That's me. I may have a personal hygiene problem as I'm sat on my own. I will check.

Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin's film, Enemies of the People, that was shown over five nights at Meta House last week has just be reviewed in the New York Times. Here's what they had to say about it.

From the Killing Fields, on a Mission of Truth - by Stephen Holden
“Some say that almost two million people died in the killing fields,” declares Thet Sambath, a polite, soft-spoken Cambodian journalist for The Phnom Penh Post, in the opening moments of the documentary “Enemies of the People.” He adds, “Nobody understands why so many people were killed at that time.” Thus begins this intensely personal film, undertaken at some risk, in which Mr. Thet Sambath seeks the truth about the mass killings from 1975 to 1979 at the hands of Cambodia’s Communist Khmer Rouge government, which was responsible for the deaths of nearly a quarter of the country’s population. The heart of the film, a collaboration by Mr. Thet Sambath and the British documentarian Rob Lemkin, consists of meticulously cataloged interviews conducted during nearly a decade with perpetrators of the mass execution, many of them rural farmers living in northwest Cambodia. As they open up and matter-of-factly describe horrific acts, the camera scours their weather-beaten faces.

“Enemies of the People” is extraordinary on several fronts. Mr. Thet Sambath’s father and brother were slain by Khmer Rouge militants, and his mother died in childbirth after her forced marriage to a militiaman. Yet as Mr. Thet Sambath gently coaxes peasants to confess to atrocities, there is not a shred of bitterness in his questioning. At times, Mr. Thet Sambath suggests a one-man Cambodian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead of affixing blame, he seeks the healing power of confession. “Enemies of the People” is another disquieting testament to the fact that ordinary individuals under extreme pressure will carry out the most monstrous crimes. If they hadn’t followed the orders of superiors, they say, they themselves would have been killed. One farmer, a Buddhist who believes in reincarnation, expresses his tormented certainty that it will be many lifetimes before he returns in human form. He is persuaded to demonstrate with a plastic knife on a nervous young villager how he pulled back the heads of prisoners and slit their throats. “I slit so many throats that my hand ached, so I switched to stabbing in the neck,” he recalls.

These peasant executioners were often given wine to loosen their inhibitions. Soldiers stood by to cover the mouths of children when they screamed as they witnessed their parents’ murders. One farmer recalls acquiring a taste for drinking human gall, even though it was bitter. The stench of blood was worse than buffalo flesh, another remembers. As bodies decomposed, the waterlogged fields bubbled as if they were boiling, one woman remembers. Another refuses to drink the water in this now placid tropical landscape because of bodies buried there.

The film’s journalistic coup is Mr. Thet Sambath’s persuasion of Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue of Pol Pot, the Cambodian Communist leader who died in 1998, to explain what happened. Mr. Nuon Chea, also known as Brother No. 2, is a proud, gaunt man in his 80s with missing teeth, who lives with his family in a cabin in the woods. Mr. Thet Sambath visited him regularly for three years before he agreed to tell the truth. By his account, the Khmer Rouge government, which he describes as “clean, clear-sighted and peaceful,” was determined to be more Communist than Communist China by abolishing all private property. Its enemies — “spies who attacked and sabotaged us from the start” — belonged to the party’s more moderate, Vietnamese-sympathizing faction. “If we’d let them live,” he says, “the party line would have been hijacked.” He and Pol Pot, he says, were in perfect accord, but the revolution failed because they had no experience in governing. For every question that is answered, 10 more are left hanging.

“Enemies of the People” reserves its biggest emotional punch for the end of the film, when Mr. Thet Sambath, who has lied to Mr. Nuon Chea about the fate of his own family, finally tells him about their loss. Mr. Nuon Chea, after a pause, thanks Mr. Thet Sambath for his “graciousness” over the years of their relationship, and then expresses his deep apologies. As the final interviews with Mr. Nuon Chea were conducted, he and other high-level Khmer Rouge officials were waiting to be arrested for war crimes and genocide by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a United Nations-backed tribunal. On Monday Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch, the head of the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng prison, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for charges that included crimes against humanity. In 2011 Mr. Nuon Chea will be the tribunal’s second case.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Boutiques in the city

The pool and pavilions in the rain at the 252
Still on buildings in Phnom Penh. This time a few hotels that I visited recently. Boutique accommodation in the city is pretty scarce so when something new opens up its well worth having a look to see how it compares with the opposition. Pretty soon we'll have a new Sofitel of at least 12 stories opening up near the river which can house guests that prefer large hotels but many like a more intimate place to stay and that's where the boutique places come into their own. The 252 on the street with the same number is smart, stylish and contemporary with polished stone and wood. It has a nice pool, restaurant and chill-out pavilions but is in the shadow of Tower 42 that will put some people off. The Villa Paradiso on Street 222 is a converted villa, has 10 rooms, each with a distinctive style of their own, small pool as well as spa, jacuzzi and sauna. I liked its individuality. An old fave Villa Langka on Street 282 has just added 19 new rooms in a new block with a lift. Rooms now total 43 and that may be just too many for the popular pool and restaurant. To round off my brief whirlwind tour, I popped into Naga World for a totally different view of hotel life. Boy, was it different. In fact it was the 1st time I'd stepped foot in the place. As well as the casino, restaurants and conference facilities and just about everything else you can think of, it has over 400 hotel rooms, some with great views of the riverside and is adding more rooms and a swimming pool by the end of the year. Certainly not everyone's cup of tea but on the day I was there, every room in the house was occupied by a convention. Beat that.
The contemporary rooms at The 252. Lots of polished stone.
A view of the Villa Langka pool from the new annexe
One of the individual rooms at Villa Paradiso
The pool at Villa Paradiso. Behind the foliage is the sauna and spa.
The wonderful view from a room at Naga World
One of the standard rooms at Naga World that could do with some brightening up


Hanuman revealed

The recently revealed facade of Hanuman headquarters, minus the large tree in the courtyard
This is another post about buildings in Phnom Penh, well one building in particular. It's the HQ of Hanuman which until last week I'd never seen the front of properly. Then we had a thunderstorm to end all storms in the middle of last week and the large tree that had stood in the front yard of our HQ for eons was struck by lightning and took a tumble. Fortunately it missed the building, though it fell on the motorbikes of staff members. The outcome, apart from a broken wing-mirror, was bright daylight and the front of the building has been revealed after years of being cloaked in the leaves and branches of a massive tree.


Filippi's view

One of the city's long gone architectural landmarks
Dr Jean-Michel Filippi is an expert in quite a few things. Forgotten minority languages (he speaks more than a dozen languages himself), Cambodian history in general, absolutely anything to do with the Kep and Kampot region of Cambodia and the buildings and history of Phnom Penh. It's that latter topic that he will be breathing life into at the Brasserie Durga on Street 130 at 6pm on Sunday 15 August. Entry to the presentation will cost you $5 and Dr Filippi will be running through 145 years of the city's history from 1865 to the present day. He hopes it will become the first of a two-week cycle of presentations and debates for the remainder of the year. A regular contributor to the local French newspaper Cambodge Soir, he also has designs on building a Kampot Regional Museum, just outside Kep, when funds and time permit. Corsican-born, he has plans to publish a new book, Strolling around Phnom Penh, in French and in English, at the end of September. Definitely a book to look out for.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The pain never goes away

John Dewhirst (left) and Hilary Holland (Photos courtesy of North News)
Anyone who has read my blog postings on S-21 and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal will know that I follow the British press reports on the single Briton who was killed at Tuol Sleng, John Dewhirst. This article appeared in the Telegraph online website a couple of days ago, before the verdict on Duch was announced yesterday. You can read more about John Dewhirst here.

As the trial of a notorious Cambodian prison guard Duch draws to a close, the sister of the only Briton to die in the Killing Fields says Duch should never be freed - by Nick Meo in Castle Carrock, Cumbria (Sunday Telegraph)

When a slightly built, bespectacled former revolutionary is sentenced on Monday for ordering the deaths of more than 14,000 people, Cambodian will at last see justice being done for one of the 20th century's greatest crimes. Thousands of miles away on the moors of rural Cumbria, so will a solicitor whose brother fell victim to Pol Pot's murderous regime in 1978 when an adventure went horribly wrong.

John Dewhirst, a 26-year-old teacher from Cumbria, was enjoying one last trip before returning home, sailing through the Gulf of Thailand in a motorised junk called Foxy Lady. All went well until he and his friends came too close to the coast of Cambodia, then a closed land whose rulers had instituted a chilling reign of terror. They were seized by Khmer Rouge coastguards and taken from their boat to a torture centre in the capital Phnom Penh. There Mr Dewhirst was brutally interrogated and forced to make the ludicrous confession that he was a CIA spy, before being slaughtered in what became known as the killing fields - the only Briton among the hundreds of thousands to die there. "It's hard to believe Duch's confession and apology," Mr Dewhirst's sister, Hilary Holland, told The Sunday Telegraph, speaking of the man who condemned her brother to death 32 years ago. "There has has been some talk about releasing Duch because he has been in prison for so long. To me that would be wrong."

Comrade Duch, the former head of the Tuol Sleng interrogation centre and the first Khmer Rouge official to go on trial, has told the court that before ordering John Dewhirst's death he chatted to the young Englishman and found him to be a polite young man. Now it is Duch's turn to await sentence. The one he will be given tomorrow by the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh will be far more merciful than the savage punishments he once inflicted during the Khmer Rouge's rule in the 1970s. On trial, he has attempted everything he can to be released; apologising for his crimes, offering to meet the surviving captives of Tuol Sleng, and begging the judges for clemency. He became a born-again Christian in an attempt to find forgiveness.

Mrs Holland is one of those who cannot forgive him. A mother of four aged 55, she has never been able to steel herself sufficiently to visit Cambodia. She considered attending the trial to describe to the judges the pain she has suffered in the years since her brother's murder; but in the end she could not face it. Instead she set out her feelings in a letter which was read out. She spoke to The Sunday Telegraph in her home at the foot of the Pennines, with a view from her sitting room window of the Cumbrian mountains where her brother had once loved to walk. From her home Mrs Holland has been attentively following the tortuous progress of the court proceedings, watching video recordings of the testimony sent by friends. The trial is the first attempt at bringing a Khmer Rouge killer to justice. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered or starved to death - almost a third of the population.

"I've seen video where things are put to him," Mrs Holland said. "There is no reaction. The man seems to be so controlled, without emotion. I haven't seen any evidence of him showing any remorse at all. He doesn't look as if he is sorry. Maybe he is. For me it makes no difference whether he is sorry or not, because he can't undo what he did. Duch said a lot about having no choice about what he did. He claimed that if he hadn't followed orders, he or his family would have been killed. Well he didn't seem to show any remorse in 1979 when the Vietnamese came and liberated the country. I feel strongly that it is not within my remit to forgive inhuman acts. How could you forgive?"

After the downfall of the regime in 1979, Duch vanished. It was only in the 1990s that he was discovered, living in a refugee camp, by an Irish photographer called Nic Dunlop who recognised his face from pictures of the former commander. Comrade Duch, who is now 67, had been one of the most notorious cogs in the Khmer Rouge's killing machine. He was a maths teacher who had joined the communist movement, rising quickly through its ranks to head the Tuol Sleng interrogation centre, set up in a former school in the capital. The Khmer Rouge had come to power under their leader Pol Pot after a vicious civil war, and set out to create a Maoist paradise cleansed of class enemies. The method was mass murder, orchestrated by men like Duch, whose real name was Kaing Guek Eav. Suspects were interrogated and tortured before being led to the killing fields, where they were usually despatched with a blow to the head from a hoe.

The outside world knew little of these horrors in 1978, when Mr Dewhirst was unlucky enough to fall into Duch's hands. Perhaps that was why he and his travelling companions strayed so close to its coast. He had spent 18 months in the Far East, mainly in Japan, and planned to settle down in England after the voyage. The Canadian skipper, Stuart Glass, died when coastguards opened fire on their boat. Mr Dewhirst and a New Zealander, Kerry Hamill, were captured and taken to Tuol Sleng, where they were held for a few weeks and then executed. Before that the young Cumbrian had to write out a lengthy "confession" to being a CIA spy, a strange mix of fantasy- concocted to please his captors - and the mundane truth about his life in the north of England. "My father was a CIA agent whose cover was headmaster of Benton Road Secondary School," was one of its more ludicrous claims. The carefully typed document, written in flawless English, describes how Mr Dewhirst was recruited by the CIA at the age of 12, then learnt to spy at the college in the Midlands where he completed teacher training. It was titled "Details of my course work at the Annex College in Loughborough, England".

Tuol Sleng is now a museum which records the savage treatment prisoners endured to make them "confess" to crimes; manacled and starved, they were beaten, half-drowned, subjected to electric shocks, and had their toenails pulled out. Eventually all would admit to being CIA agents or Vietnamese spies, at which point they would be taken to the killing fields and murdered. Three decades later, millions of Cambodians are expected to watch the live televised proceedings as the verdict is read out. Duch will almost certainly be sentenced to life in prison. The case has been followed closely by a nation which has never before examined its terrible past; thousands of ordinary Cambodians have sat in on the year-long hearing, hoping for a clue to help them understand why the horror happened.

Yet many fear that instead of the tribunal delivering justice, it will make Duch a scapegoat; more senior regime members, Pol Pot's henchmen and women who are due to start going on trial next year, are now so old and infirm that they could well die before they give evidence. Duch, as the only confessed former senior Khmer Rouge official, may well be the chief prosecution witness in those trials. And then there are the senior members of Cambodia's new and nominally democratic government who once belonged to the Khmer Rouge. They include the current prime minister, Hun Sen, who left the party before the mass killing began. To the fury of many Cambodians, the tribunal will not scrutinise their pasts.

It will not examine the role of America in Cambodia's tragedy, although many blame the United States for spreading fighting into what had been a peaceful nation when it started bombing North Vietnamese supply lines in 1969, and thus starting the war which ultimately led to the Khmer Rouge takeover. Nor will the tribunal examine the support that Britain and other nations allegedly gave Khmer Rouge guerrillas after their downfall in 1979 - when Cambodia was still a Cold War battlefield - in order to fight the Vietnamese.

The Khmer Rouge still have their supporters in Cambodia - those who see them as defenders of the nation against first the Americans, then the Vietnamese. Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Khmer Rouge torturers and killers still live openly in Cambodian villages. They will never be put on trial for fear of restarting civil war. And the tribunal has cost donor nations $100 million, a huge sum in a country which is still blighted by desperate poverty. Mrs Holland supports holding the tribunal, for all its flaws. "I hope some light is being shed on how the mass murder happened, how the rest of the world ignored it and allowed it to happen. It was so similar to what happened under the Nazis," she said. "Young people in Cambodia don't seem to know about their own history. I think more than anything that is what I wanted to come out of the trial - better knowledge and understanding. If the world knows what happened, perhaps it is less likely to happen again."

For decades until the trial began last year, Mrs Holland sought to bury the pain of her brother's death. He was 18 months older than her and they were very close. Yet she has barely mentioned him to her own children. When the trial began, she feared the prospect of learning more from the evidence about what happened in her brother's last days. "I prefer not to know exactly what happened," she said. "Knowing the details would be terrible. The best way for him to die would have been a knock on the head before they pushed him into a pit. That would have been after weeks of torture. He might have died in a much worse way." It was because her brother died in a faraway country at the hands such a cruel regime, so different from anything in her own experience, that she has found it difficult to accept what happened and grieve properly, she believes. "I am sure the problem is the extraordinary circumstances in which John died. The terror he must have felt, weeks of torture, the physical pain, loneliness. It is imagining how he must have felt during that time that is so difficult, not just the fact that he died. I try not to think about it. But it never goes away."

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Get out and dance

On a brighter note after the shambles that took place at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal this morning, will be the appearance of the Cambodian Space Project at Equinox on Saturday night (31 July), with an early start of 7.30pm. The group are scheduled to take their 60's Cambodian rock to France in August (pending a successful visa application) so this may well be their final performance before they take off. They also have a tour of Australia planned for later in the year. They've just released their debut single, I'm Unsatisfied (or Knyom Mun Sok Jet Te in Khmer), which is taken from their forthcoming album, Deja Voodoo. Watch this space for more details on their album release.


Guilty and sentenced

The face of evil - Comrade Duch
I appreciate that the news media will be full of the Comrade Duch (above) verdict any minute now but just in case you need to know right this minute, he was found guilty and handed a 35 year jail-time. Duch is 67 years old and should've seen out his days in detention but the judges then reduced his sentence by five years because he had been held illegally and then another 11 years for time he's already served. So the total jail-time will be 19 years. Which has obviously angered a lot of people considering Duch admitted being responsible for the deaths of over 14,000 people as commandant of the S-21 prison and execution facility. The judges claimed his crimes against humanity were "shocking and heinous" but still handed down a lenient sentence in the eyes of many, including mine. Rob Hamill, brother of Kerry Hamill, one of the westerners murdered at Tuol Sleng was in court. "Definitely not appropriate. The possibility of this guy walking free at any point in the future I just don't believe is appropriate," he told Radio New Zealand. "I was initially pleased because the judges only mitigated five years of that 40 and that is a reasonably pleasing outcome considering, but at the end of the day he could be a free man." I won't labour the point that I think the verdict stinks but I do know that the factors which worked in his favour were his cooperation, his admission of responsibility, his limited expressions of remorse, the coercive environment in the regime, and the potential of rehabilitation. A suggestion is that with good behaviour Duch may be eligible for release in just over 12 years time, though latest reports indicate that is a red herring. We shall see. If it happens, it will make a lot of people very unhappy.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

In person, at last

Two great role models for Cambodian women in my view, Rumnea (red) and Socheata (blue)
I made a beeline for The Flicks after this afternoon's football in order to give my friend Rumnea the opportunity to see New Year Baby in its Khmer language version and she loved it. The compelling personal story of Socheata Poeuv and her family was shown this week at Chenla as part of the Cambodian-USA anniversary celebrations and Socheata was flown over specially. She was also at The Flicks' screenings tonight so I had my first opportunity to meet her, and her producer partner Charles Vogl, at long last. We'd been in touch by email for ages but had never met in person. In addition, Socheata has contributed to my book, To Cambodia With Love, so it was my chance to thank her for that too. I was interviewed by FM 102 Radio for the Women's Media Centre of Cambodia after the screening and only too happy to agree that Socheata is a great role model for Cambodian women. You can find out more about Socheata and the film here.
At last, the opportunity to meet Charles Vogl and Socheata Poeuv in person

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Finders keepers

Nic Dunlop at a Q&A session at Meta House in May 2009
With Comrade Duch appearing in court Monday morning to hear the verdict against him in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Case 001, AFP's Didier Lauras did a story on Nic Dunlop, the man who found Duch and helped make this a possibility.

Irish photographer recalls the day he found Khmer Rouge torturer
In March 1999 an old man wandered up to an Irish photographer on his day off in a village in Cambodia. It was Duch, the torture chief of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime who many assumed was long dead. On Monday the former prison chief, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, will hear the verdict in his trial at a UN-backed court in Phnom Penh on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and premeditated murder. The story behind the remarkable encounter began in 1989 when Nic Dunlop left Ireland aged 19 for Cambodia, where Khmer Rouge rebels were still waging an insurgency a decade after being routed by invading Vietnamese forces. "Cambodia was the first place where I realised the world wasn't quite right. What has occurred under the Khmer Rouge was so far beyond my understanding... that ignoring it became impossible," said Dunlop.

He visited Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the Phnom Penh prison that has been transformed into a genocide museum, and saw the walls covered with photographs of the victims' faces. Duch's picture was also there. "If there was one person that could provide something close to an explanation as to what happened, it would be him," Dunlop said in an interview with AFP in Bangkok, where he now lives. By the late 1990s, Dunlop was on a quest to find the maths teacher turned revolutionary, who is accused of overseeing the execution of some 15,000 prisoners at S-21. Dunlop even carried a photograph of him in his wallet. He began to ask Khmer Rouge defectors if they recognised Duch, but with no success. "I was trying to work out whether they were trying to hide something or telling me the truth because he was a terrifying figure by any standard," Dunlop said.

Then one day, during a walk in a village in western Cambodia, he came face to face with Duch, who was working for a Christian aid agency under a false name. "It was Duch. Immediately I knew it was him," Dunlop recalled. "He was very disarming and friendly. We talked a lot. I tried to ask him questions that would not arouse his suspicion." For a journalist it was the scoop of a lifetime. Dunlop, worried about what might happen to Duch if his whereabouts became widely known, notified the United Nations in Phnom Penh of his discovery. He returned to see the former jailer several times in an attempt to learn more about him. Then Dunlop decided to give Duch the chance to defend himself for a magazine article he was writing.

Three times in one day he denied being the chief of Tuol Sleng, before suddenly confessing. "Suddenly he was talking about running S-21, responsibilities, his remorse, the fact that he felt he'd been betrayed by the communist party because he wanted to be a good communist and not an executioner." Duch was arrested a few weeks later and has spent more than a decade in prison. Dunlop has requested interviews with him for his biography, "The Lost Executioner," but Duch indicated he would only talk after the end of the trial.

Initially called to testify at the tribunal, the photographer was later dropped from the list of witnesses, without explanation. To those who say Monday's verdict might never have come about without him, Dunlop smiles. "It was just a matter of time before somebody else would discover him. What's strange for me in the end is that he should walk up to me and I should recognise him immediately." Duch is the first Khmer Rouge cadre to be prosecuted in an international court. He is also the first to have confessed - although he also asked to be acquitted and released - and the tribunal is relying on his testimony in the planned trial of four regime leaders. "Whatever you make of his confession, contrition, lack of contrition or arrogance, the fact that we had somebody talking about that period of history is very significant," said Dunlop. Prosecutors have demanded Duch be sentenced to 40 years in prison - in effect a life sentence for the 67-year-old. Dunlop does not plan to be in court for the verdict. "It's not my story. It's the Cambodians' story," he said.

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Totally professional

American Ambassador Carol Rodley presents Sophiline Cheam Shapiro with flowers at the end of the performance
The finale of a week's worth of events to celebrate 60 years of Cambodian and American cooperation on the diplomatic front was a rare performance of Seasons of Migration by the Khmer Arts Ensemble at Chaktomuk Theatre last night. This piece of classical dance was the brainchild of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who introduced it to the packed hall after opening remarks from officialdom. A beautiful programme helped explain the dance in detail to the gathered throng and was a perfect guide, both in Khmer and English, to helping the mixed audience understand what they were watching. The Khmer Arts team are experts in what they do, totally professional and it showed with another faultless performance from all concerned.
On a separate note, Meta House are extending the run of screenings for the documentary Enemies of the People to include Sunday (9pm) and Monday (7pm) to cope with demand to see the film. It's been the most successful film Meta House have ever shown and entry will cost you $5. At 7pm tonight Meta House will also screen We Want (U) To Know, which also has the Khmer Rouge conflict at its heart. Tonight at The Flicks on Street 95 you can watch the Khmer version of New Year Baby at 6pm and then the English-language version at 8pm. It's free and director Socheata Poeuv will be presenting her film.
I forgot to mention that Espresso (or is it Expresso) Thmei turned out for a rare performance at the Dream Up bar on Friday night. The slimmed-down version of the Cambodian Space Project that involves just singer Srey Thy and guitarist Scott Bywater were excellent and hearing Thy's voice so clearly without the rest of the band, for such a small venue as Dream Up, was perfect.
The Khmer Arts Ensemble performers on stage at Chaktomuk theatre
The excellent programme that accompanied the classical dance performance

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Being bookish

Those lovely people at River Books are at it again. They've just published in paperback a 152-page, with 172 colour photos, in-depth study of preah bots, those beautifully painted Buddhist scrolls that are to be found in Cambodia. The book, Preah Bot: Buddhist painted scrolls in Cambodia is written by the duo of Vittorio Roveda and Sothon Yem, who were also responsible for the wonderful Buddhist Painting in Cambodia tome. I haven't seen their latest publication yet as I'm still wading my way through their previous one. And it looks like there will be a book launch for John Burgess and his Stories In Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription & the Enigma of Khmer History on Thursday 19 August (6pm) at Monument Books in Phnom Penh.
Another new book that sounds intriguing is Foxy Lady: Truth, Memory and the Death of Western Yachtsmen in Democratic Kampuchea, in which investigative journalist David Kattenburg delves into the murder of four Americans, two Australians, an Englishman, a New Zealander and a Canadian by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. The book chronicles the life and times of the Canadian, Stuart Robert Glass – his restless youth in British Columbia; his travels across Europe, North Africa and Asia; his forays into drug smuggling; his brutal 1978 death on board a little yacht called Foxy Lady. Stuart’s shipmates, Kiwi Kerry Hamill and Brit John Dewhirst, would suffer a worse fate, dragged off to Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, charged with being CIA spies, tortured for a few months and then killed. It also focuses on the career of the S-21 chief Comrade Duch and includes interviews with former guards at the prison. The publisher is the Key Publishing House in Toronto, Canada. Kerry Hamill's brother Rob is currently in Phnom Penh, waiting to attend the Comrade Duch verdict which is set to be heard on Monday morning.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Speaking out

Vann Nath, S-21 survivor and recently recovered from illness, speaks at the public forum today. Behind him is David Chandler.
A great opportunity for some of the unheard victims of the Khmer Rouge regime to tell their stories and to pose questions to a panel of experts took place at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh this morning. A public forum organized by the Center for Justice and Reconciliation and sponsored by the Asia Foundation and the German Development Service, gave a voice to many that had travelled from the provinces on the eve of the verdict in the first of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal cases, the prosecution of Comrade Duch, the former head of Tuol Sleng, S-21. That verdict will be broadcast live on television and radio on Monday, so this was a timely reminder from some of the victims, of the suffering and pain they have endured in waiting all these years for such a trial. Indeed, two survivors of S-21 were on the panel, Vann Nath and Bou Meng, and they spoke passionately about the case. Another victim, Rob Hamill, the brother of one of the few westerners killed at S-21, Kerry Hamill, was also on the panel, alongwith celebrated historian David Chandler, British Ambassador Andrew Mace and others closely linked to the proceedings at the ECCC. The forum, which lasted three hours and was hosted by Theary Seng, proved again that Cambodians are still awaiting justice, they are seeking answers as to who was responsible and why did they inflict this upon fellow Cambodians, and Monday's verdict against Duch will be a big step in getting that justice.
Some of the panelists. LtoR: Rob Hamill, Bou Meng, Vann Nath, David Chandler, Ambassador Andrew Mace
Rob Hamill answering a question whilst being filmed for a forthcoming documentary called Brother Number One. Bou Meng is beside him.
That's me in the middle of the front row holding my camera with Theary Seng standing in the foreground (pic courtesy of CJR)

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Enemies trailer

As an appetizer for the film being shown at Meta House in Phnom Penh for the next two evenings, here is a short YouTube video trailer from Enemies of the People.


New arrival

C-Moon waiting patiently for the arrival of her new sister and getting her toys in order. Photo courtesy of Eric de Vries.
I just had a call from my pal in Siem Reap, Eric de Vries, that his wife Lida has just given birth to their second baby, another girl, and they've given her the name Mo-Jique Indya de Vries. Both mum and baby are doing well. The new arrival will be a sister to Eric and Lida's first child, the adorable C-Moon. Congratulations to all in the de Vries household.


Successful premiere

A large crowd turned out for the two premiere showings last night at Meta House of Enemies of the People, despite the ferocious thunderstorm that struck the city in the hour leading up to the 6.30pm first screening, flooding nearby streets and uprooting trees. Both of the filmmakers, Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin were present to introduce and afterwards, answer questions and the screenings were a great success for all concerned. The film shows the results of years of interviews by Thet Sambath with former Khmer Rouge cadre as well as intimate discussions with Brother Number 2 in the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, before his arrest and detention awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. It took Sambath at least three years to get Nuon Chea to admit his part in the Khmer Rouge bloodbath on film, after first winning the former leaders' trust and acceptance. Sambath also took former killers back to the scenes of their crimes and recorded their testimony, including the revelation that human gall-bladders were eaten on regular occasions by some. More of the details he unearthed will be in a forthcoming book by Sambath, Behind the Killing Fields, to be released later this year. The film screenings continue at Meta House, two per night, for the next two days. I recommend you get along and watch this moving personal portrait.
Filmmakers Thet Sambath (left) and Rob Lemkin answer questions from the audience last nightBrother No 2 Nuon Chea admits on film for the first time, his part in the Khmer Rouge bloodbath
A familiar face in the audience, activist and politician Mu Sochua, who did more interviews that the filmmakers last night

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Benefitting the youth

The cast celebrating the success of Where Elephants Weep in November 2008 including Diane Phelan (in red) and Marc de la Cruz (far right)
The buzz for the 2010 Cambodian Youth Arts Festival will go up a notch with a benefit concert at the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center on 3 August. The concert will feature two of the stars of the popular Khmer opera, Where Elephants Weep, Diane Phelan and Marc de la Cruz, and will include songs from the opera and the popular Broadway musical, West Side Story. The two singers are returning as volunteer artists at the youth festival and will perform alongside WEW composer Him Sophy and his orchestra. The cost of tickets is $10, available through Cambodian Living Arts with a 6.15pm cocktail reception before the 7pm concert. The festival will also include two more of the WEW cast, Amara Chhin-Lawrence and Jean-Baptiste Phou, who are taking part in a preview performance of the musical Winds of Angkor at Chaktomuk Theatre on 8 August.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whetting your appetite

I keep prattling on about my soon-to-be-published book To Cambodia With Love, though technically it's not just mine, it also belongs to more than sixty other authors, who have contributed their personal essays on their respective passions for Cambodia. Now that passion may be about food, or getting off the beaten track, secret destinations, advice to newbies, book and film recommendations and much, much more. That's the point of TCWL, its a potpourri of lovingly crafted essays that express the authors love for this wonderful country. Over sixty contributors and well over 120 essays. Who has contributed, I hear you ask? Well, we have a diverse cross-section of people. Well-respected authors like Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father, Lucky Child), Dawn Rooney (Angkor: An Introduction to the Temples), Nick Ray (Lonely Planet Cambodia), Denise Heywood (Cambodian Dance), Ronnie Yimsut (Journey Into Light) and Karen Coates (Cambodia Now) for starters. I was so chuffed (British word for pleased) to get people of their calibre to contribute and they are joined by a host of others, some living in Cambodia and others who visit here regularly. People like Ray Zepp, who has returned to live here after a few years away and is also a published writer. Filmmakers such as Socheata Poeuv, Tiara Delgado and Steve McClure, who have produced engaging documentaries about the country. Renowned sci-fi writer Geoff Ryman, who also penned The King's Last Song, set in Cambodia, that breathed life into King Jayavarman VII in a novel for the first time. Expats who are giving back with businesses in Cambodia like Debbie Watkins, Daniela Papi, Gordon Sharpless, Glyn Vaughan and Debra Groves. Foodies like Phil Lees and Kim Fay and guidebook writers such as Anita Sach, Don Gilliland and Adam Bray. The list goes on and on. People who know Cambodia inside and out and who bring it alive in their writings. To Cambodia With Love will be published by ThingsAsian Press in about three months time. I urge you to get a copy. But I would say that, as I'm the editor.


Female essence lost

The only part of this devata at Banteay Chhmar that hasn't been stolen is her mid-section and her feet
If you have heard of Banteay Chhmar, a massive temple complex in northwest Cambodia, you'll probably be aware that the temple was badly looted in the 1990s and before, because of its remote location and away from prying eyes. Some of the stolen artifacts that have been recovered can be seen in the national museum in Phnom Penh. It would be nice to think that the sections of wall that are in the museum will one day be returned to the temple itself. Probably a fanciful idea but one can always hope. Elsewhere, throughout a visit to the temple you will see evidence of looting of the wall carvings and none moreso than with the heavenly maidens that adorn the walls, the devata (often mistakenly called Apsaras). I've highlighted two examples of here of devata that are in a bad way and a couple that are still intact. It is a feature of the more remote temples throughout Cambodia that few of the wonderful carvings that adorn the walls and doorways are still in their original condition. In the case of Banteay Chhmar, the collapse of large sections of the temple has wrought its own destruction of the bas-reliefs and carvings, since it was built in the 12th century.
An intact devata on a section of wall at the eastern entrance to the temple
This devata at Banteay Chhmar lost her head many years ago
Another intact devata at Banteay Chhmar, inside the central sanctuary
Two present-day devata who accompanied me on my visit, Jasmine (left) and Linda


Kor blimey

One of the oldest houses in Kor village, Khor Sang, constructed in 1907
A couple of kilometres outside of Battambang city lies the sleepy village of Kor. It used to be sleepier but the new tarmac road through the village means that the traffic whizzes through much quicker than it used to but at least the almost permanent haze from the old mud road has disappeared. Kor village is well known in the area for its collection of ancient houses, a handful of which are open to visitors who can enjoy a tour by the owners, who appreciate a small donation in return. On a recent trip to Battambang, I popped into two of the houses to have a good look, the first the home of Yi La Kheang. Built in 1907, the house is called Khor Sang and was built mainly of wood, using Phcheuk and Khvav wood for the roof and floors. The walls are made of woven bamboo and plaster. It's probably the oldest house in the village, although the original pagoda at Wat Kor was erected in 1900. Another ancient home we called at belonged to Bun Roeurng and her home was constructed in 1920 in the pet style, which includes verandahs, as well as Phcheuk, Beng and Kakoh wood. Her home stands on 36 pillars. Both home owners were proud to show off their old houses, allowing access to each room, many of which contained knick-knacks of bygone eras, furniture, ornaments, pictures and so on. If you have time, pop into an ancient house in Kor village and make the owners happy.
A painting of Khor Sang, built in 1907, that hangs on the wall inside the house
The 90 year old home of Bun Roeurng in Kor village near Battambang


Monday, July 19, 2010

An insight into enemies

This week Meta House will be screening the Asian film premiere in Phnom Penh of Enemies of the People, a personal film by Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin that has already garnered a host of film festival awards around the globe. Sambath is a reporter with the Phnom Penh Post and he used his skills to find out the mindset behind what took place under the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia in the 1970s, where he lost his parents and brother. Meta House will screen the film twice a night at their new location for three consecutive nights, starting at 6.30pm this Wednesday 21st. Meta House recommend you reserve a seat via email at and the ticket price for the film is $5.
Another film being shown this week around Phnom Penh is New Year Baby by Socheata Poeuv, a wonderful film which I first saw in March 2007 back in the UK. It's on at Chenla Theatre tonight, Bophana Center tomorrow afternoon, and at The Flicks on St 95 on Sunday, showing both Khmer and English editions. Socheata is also one of the contributors to my book, To Cambodia With Love, which should be out in about three months time. You can find out more about the film here.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bring me his head

Severed heads as 12th century war trophies as seen on the southern gallery at Banteay Chhmar
War can be gruesome especially back in the 12th century when these bas-reliefs were carved onto the walls of the Banteay Chhmar temple in northwest Cambodia. Trophies were sought in the form of collecting weaponry and clothing that belonged to your defeated enemy but it also included presenting the heads of your opponents to your commanders as evidence of your success in battle. That's exactly what is happening on this section of wall, on the western wing of the southern gallery, where two severed heads are being held aloft. However, the heads of the figures appear to be Khmer and the most likely explanation for this is that they are the heads of renegade Khmer leaders who dared to oppose the King in a civil war, rather than as part of the great battles fought against the Chams. However, the bas-reliefs also show that some Khmers fought on the side of the Chams and vice versa, so without further confirmation, it remains a debate to be had between scholars.
Two severed heads are held aloft by kneeling figures who are presenting them to Khmer commanders following the conclusion of a successful battle


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Meta rock

Srey Thy leads the Cambodian Space Project at Meta House last night
Meta House played host to one of the last performances of the Cambodian Space Project before they depart for a month in France, and they made sure it was a good one. It was great to see quite a few of the audience get up and dance because most of the CSP's repertoire is perfect Sixties dance material. I think the first gig in the new Meta House will go down as a great success in anyone's book with Srey Thy and the boys giving their all. To be honest, they didn't want to stop. I thought they were going to have to crow-bar them off the stage. And well done to the dancers for making it a fun night.
Once these three ladies started to dance, many more joined in the fun
Srey Thy (left) and Yamong in the viewfinder during the interval

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Deciphering the bas reliefs

These two main figures on a restored section of the eastern gallery at Banteay Chhmar are thought to be Jayavarman VII on the right and his adopted son, prince Vidyanandana. Both are holding bow and arrows with followers paying homage nearby.
In this scene on the eastern gallery, southern wing, the hand to hand combat with spears and shields appears to be between two sets of Khmer soldiers. Probably from an episode of the civil war, though some renegade Khmers also fought alongside the Chams.
The historical narratives on the walls of Banteay Chhmar have yet to be fully researched by scholars, as they have been at the Bayon for example, and as large sections of the walls have been removed or lie fallen in pieces, this research will take a while to complete. Meanwhile, Global Heritage Fund are doing their best to restore and piece back together certain sections, starting with the southern wing of the eastern gallery. Much of this section concentrates on battle scenes in the latter part of the 12th century. The Khmers under King Jayavarman VII against the invading Cham army, on land and at sea, dominates the reliefs. Whilst the carvings at Banteay Chhmar extend over a longer wall surface, they are lower in height and can accommodate only two registers or levels of reliefs, whilst those of the Bayon contain four. It's not yet known which came first, the Bayon or those at Banteay Chhmar. The restoration work now taking place is shredding new light on the narratives as new details are uncovered but there is still much work to be done and the full story remains untold.
More hand to hand, spear to spear combat but this time between the invading Chams and the Khmer army. You can recognise the Chams by their elaborate headwear.
Below a boatful of Chams, fallen comrades fall into the sea which is alive with large fish and crocodiles. You can see one soldier hanging onto the boat for dear life.
Two boats crammed full with the Cham army as they prepare to land and engage in battle with the Khmers
Wouldn't it be great to see more Cambodian youngsters studying the bas-reliefs at Banteay Chhmar, like this young boy from the nearby village

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