Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Preah Vihear to reopen

On my last visit to the temple of Preah Vihear in March 2009
Remember Preah Vihear? The amazing Khmer temple on the mountaintop that has been a virtual war-zone since July 2008 as the Thai and Cambodian forces squabbled over it after its listing as UNESCO World Heritage site. Access to the temple from Thailand has been impossible since then, with the entrance-way covered in thick barbed wire and patrolled by troops with heavy weaponry. Well, surprise surprise, it looks like the barbed wire will be removed and the border will re-open next week, or pretty soon anyways. That's the word on the street. The number of visitors from the Cambodian side has increased dramatically in recent months even though the troop presence at the site remains heavy. Now the temple looks as though it will be overrun with Thai day-trippers again in the forseeable future. We shall see. It was very tense when I last visited in March 2009, just an hour or so after 100 heavily-armed Thai troops tried to enter the temple and were repelled. It's one of my favourite Cambodian temple sites, primarily because of its location, though there is still much to see despite it being a battle-zone for the last thirty years between government, Khmer Rouge and more recently, Thai forces. Update: The opening has been put back a month as the two sides squabble over ticket revenue.


Sport and art

Cambodia will host the world disabled volleyball in 2011
Disabled volleyball will be on the menu again midway through next year, as Cambodia will once again host the World Volleyball for Disabled competition, in July 23-30, 2011. They have hosted it twice already, the last time in 2009 when Cambodia finished 4th. This time around Germany, Slovakia, Poland, Malaysia, India and hosts Cambodia may be joined by USA, Vietnam and Rwanda. It's always an exciting event to watch these talented individuals giving their all. Talking of sports, the Asian Games have come to a close in Guangzhou, China and unfortunately Cambodia's atheletes failed to get on the medal board. China topped the medal table with 199 golds, for the 8th successive games. Thirty-six out of the 45 participating countries medaled in the 16-day competition.
A reminder that the Tini Tinou circus will be in town on Sunday and Monday before moving up to Battambang. The fun starts on Saturday night in Phnom Penh with a parade through the city streets and then shows at Chaktomuk and the French Cultural Center on successive nights. Did you hear that those wonderful circus folks at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang are adding Monday nights to their weekly schedule from 1 January? Great news for visitors to Battambang as they can now see the shows on Monday and Thursday nights. And I must insist that you get along to the National Museum in Phnom Penh on any Thursday evening to enjoy the Children of Bassac performances throughout the high season. This is a must-see.
Whilst I enjoy a good photo like the next man, I haven't really got into the Photo Phnom Penh event that has kicked off in the city this week. Lots of exhibitions, events and stuff going on with local and international photographers and if you want to find out more, click here.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Rachel's picnic

Today's excerpt from To Cambodia With Love comes from Rachel Wildblood. Brit Rachel is a freelance consultant specializing in waste and environmental management. She worked for various NGOs in Cambodia over a four-year period from 2005 after arriving as a volunteer.

Rachel Wildblood takes a twilight picnic at Angkor Wat

Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

As dusk settles over the temples and the hordes of tourists take their buses back into town, the time has come for me to ride out to a local Khmer restaurant in the Angkor park and buy a ban chao picnic. There is nothing more beautiful than Angkor Wat at this time of the evening, when the orange glow of the day fades into nighttime.

Ban chao is a traditional Khmer fast food that you can eat in or take away. A large yellow pancake filled with bean sprouts and chopped pork or prawns, it is served with salad leaves, which you should wrap around pieces of the pancake before dipping the little package in the delicious accompanying peanut sauce. Because I am not accomplished at this kind of dining and tend to make a mess, I need a ready supply of tissues!

The food is tasty, but it needs to be said that it's the setting that makes it. After ordering my vegetarian version of ban chao, I head to the edge of the moat outside Angkor Wat. Gathered here are Khmer families, all with the same things in mind-eating ban chao and catching up on the weekly gossip. Each group sits on one of the large rented mats that line the temple walls on both sides of the causeway in the evening. As darkness falls, the picnickers light candles that are sold by industrious children. Sometimes, I might bargain for the rental of mats and candles, but it depends on how bold I'm feeling and how wily the kids are that day.

As the row of mats gets busier, the number of candles flickering in the dark increases. The atmosphere is relaxed and happy, but for me the main pleasure is to sit amongst Khmer families and to escape the foreign restaurants and bars that can dominate Siem Reap. Better yet, all this takes place against the backdrop of Angkor Wat, changing color from purple to red to green as the floodlights illuminate the massive towers against a blackening sky.

After dinner, the only thing left to do is to gather up my plastic boxes and bags and then pay the owner of the mats. By this time, the stream of bright lights from the tourist buses has long since died down, and their thundering engines are replaced with the noise of frogs, insects, and of course much laughter from those who remain, faces glowing by candlelight.

FACT FILE: Finding ban chao
Take the tarmac road directly opposite the main steps to the Angkor Wat causeway across the moat. You know you are on the right road because it has an obelisk in the middle. You will pass some toilets and an open templelike building on the right about 50 meters from the obelisk. Walk down the road approximately 150 meters. You will see two restaurants on the right-hand side. Rachel prefers the first restaurant, Ban Chao. It has a tattered blue Khmer sign outside it. If you cannot read Khmer, check to make sure that the restaurant next door is called Somnang Kohdot. The pancakes are incredibly cheap, and you can buy soft drinks and beer to take with you too. All the food is packaged for a takeaway, including vegetables and peanut sauce. You can request your pancakes without meat.

Keeping it legal
Rachel has not had any problems with going into the outer temple area in the day or night without a ticket, but you may get stopped and even fined if you actually go into the temples themselves. Stay on the public roads around the temples and you should have no problems-this includes the restaurant and picnic areas. Remember that it gets dark quickly here, so try not to leave it too late to sort out a mat and candles for a picnic-tricky in the pitch black.


Reliving the past

I haven't mentioned Winds of Angkor for a few weeks, so it must be that time again. Here is a YouTube video showing some excerpts from their visit to Cambodia in August. When I hear more of their plans to perform their musical in full in Cambodia I'll let you know.


Sunday, November 28, 2010


Continuing on the To Cambodia With Love theme (which will go on for ages and probably bore you all to death), here's a roll-call of the 65 contributors that helped to shape the book, some of whom contributed just 1 essay, others up to three. All of them played a big part in the final product and for that they have my eternal thanks. It goes without saying that I urge you to buy a copy when and wherever you can.

Juanita Accardo
Matt Ames
Mariam Arthur
Anne Best
Andrew Booth
Adam Bray
Elizabeth Briel
Andy Brouwer - Editor
Janet Brown
Cristiano Calcagno
Hing Channarith
Karen Coates
Kent Davis
Tiara Delgado
Christine Dimmock
Kim Fay - Series Editor
Don Gilliland
Steve Goodman
Antonio Graceffo
Debra Groves
Anna Hassett
Christina Heyniger
Denise Heywood
Aaron Horwitz
Mark Hotham
Soumya James
Helen Ibbitson Jessup
Molly Jester
Phil Lees
Peter Leth
Martin Lum
Roy McClean
Steve McClure
Doug Mendel
Howie Nielsen
Caroline Nixon
Dougald O'Reilly
Joanna Owen
Daniela Papi
Robert Philpotts
Socheata Poeuv
Jan Polatschek
Geoff Pyle
Nick Ray
Dawn Rooney
Geoff Ryman
Anita Sach
Sheila Scoville
Lundi Seng
David Shamash
Gordon Sharpless
Robert Tompkins
Georgiana Treasure-Evans
Loung Ung
Glyn Vaughan
Dickon Verey
Christine Thuy-Anh Vu
Ray Waddington
Georgie Walsh
Peter Walter
Debbie Watkins
Rachel Wildblood
Mick Yates
Ronnie Yimsut
Ray Zepp


Loung Ung in TCWL

Unless you have been living under a rock, you'll be aware that my guidebook, To Cambodia With Love has finally seen the light of day. I've actually got a copy in my hands as I type, which makes the keyboard a bit tricky. Over 120 articles, sixty-plus contributors all contained in a nicely-packaged 242 page book, with colour photos by Tewfic El-Sawy. To get you in the mood, and persuade you to buy your own copy, those kind publishing folks at ThingsAsian have posted 11 essays from the book on their community website here. The first story in the book, in the chapter Moveable Feasts, belongs to none other than the acclaimed memoirist Loung Ung (right).

Loung Ung dines on chive rice cakes in Phnom Penh
Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

The motodop stops in front of a row of dusty wooden shops, all selling pirated CDs and DVDs. He announces, "Psar Tuol Tom Pong." Immediately, the smell of fried food beckons me in, making my mouth water and my stomach expand in anticipation. I enter the market, walking quickly past booths selling factory-second Gap T-shirts, blue and white ceramic plates and bowls, bicycle tires, and strange, silver looping wire contraptions that hang from the ceiling like metallic animal innards.

I duck, sidestep, and march my way through the maze of stalls, ignoring the vendors' calls, until in front of me I see my destination, the market's food court-a vision of heaven for those of us who call ourselves foodies. Like vaporous hands, its smell floats toward me and hooks its fingers into my nostrils, pulling me forward. I eye the many stands hungrily. Spread across their tables are rows and rows of pots and plates full of crispy brown egg rolls, red sizzling chicken teriyaki, golden fried dough, hot red curry, cool cucumber salad, and yellow crepes, all making my taste buds stand at attention on my tongue.

Fighting the urge to plant my butt down at every table, I head to the stall where a pleasant looking middle-aged woman stands frying chive rice cakes in a giant skillet. I sit at her booth. We greet each other. I am a regular, and I order for one.

Chive cakes come in two shapes, round and square. For the square cakes, the rice batter and chives are mixed together, while the round one is made with an outer rice cake wrapping and filled with fresh green chives mixed with garlic and salt. Personally, I prefer the round chive cakes for their crispy shell and juicy chives inside, and I watch as the woman silently scoops two brown, crispy cakes with her silver spatula, drops them on a plastic flower plate, and hands it to me. Immediately, another customer calls her attention away.

The temperature at the booth is oppressive, and instantly I go from glowing to sweating like a pig. I watch as Meang hovers over the hot stove, one hand on her hip. The other grips the handle of the heavy spatula. When she adds a ladle of oil to the skillet, it splatters and sizzles, causing bright orange flames to nip at her skin. I am astounded that her face barely glistens as she pushes the round cakes into an upside-down arc, which reminds me of the connected rings of the Olympic symbol.

Most cakes are automatically served with a Khmer sweet-and-sour sauce. I don't have a sweet tooth, so I like my cakes with soy sauce, hot sauce, and vinegar. I turn away from Meang to add a spoonful of each to my order. I take two plastic chopsticks and split open my cakes, letting the steam burst forth with the fresh aroma of sweet chives and garlic. The first bite turns on the faucet in my nostrils, the second opens the pores in my face and skull, and the third burns the roof of my mouth so that I am hissing and sucking for air as my body empties itself of moisture. But a smile forms on my lips as I chew and swallow, wiping my dripping nose and lips in between each bite.

Once I clean my plate, I give Meang my 50 cents, thank her, and leave, satisfied. Along with immersing myself in authentic flavor, eating at a local stall like Meang's is perhaps the simplest form of paying it forward, and the most appetizing. I love knowing that my money will stay in country and help her provide for herself and her family. To me, it's a win-win situation for everyone.

FACT FILE: Chive rice cakes in the Russian Market
While chive rice cakes (nom kachay) are sold in most outdoor Khmer markets in the "food court" from eleven-ish in the morning to two-ish in the afternoon, at Psar Tuol Tom Pong, Meang's stall is the only one selling these cakes. To prepare, she and her family wake up every morning around three to make her cakes. For the day, they will make approximately four hundred each of both the round and square cakes. They use only fresh ingredients. Because they serve many foreign customers, the daughters know a bit of English. Chive cakes are best eaten at the stall when they are still hot and crispy. They generally sell for 800 to 1000 riel. Psar Tuol Tom Pong, also called the Russian Market because of the customers who shopped there in the 1990s, is known by all the tuk-tuk drivers and motodops in Phnom Penh.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

A day in the sun

Phnom Penh Crown line-up for my camera today
My old Phnom Penh Post pal Nick Sells paid a visit to the Phnom Penh Crown training ground this afternoon to do the honours and snap away merrily as I arranged a player's photo call before the start of this afternoon's friendly against the Navy. Nick did individual portrait head and shoulders shots first, before getting the players out into the searing sun for 'down on one knee' individual pictures and finally a team photo, without and then with the coaching team. A couple of players who should know better but will remain nameless had the wrong socks on and the variety of rainbow colours in the playing boots on show these days added a splash of colour to the photos. Nick's pictures are top drawer but I took a couple of photos as well, and above is my team photo without the coaching team. This is the 1st pre-season warm-up game to be played at Crown's Tuol Kork ground, where completion of the dormitories for the new youth Academy is almost complete.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

She's a winner

Rumnea sporting her considerably shorter hairstyle. I declared it a winner.
Whilst the country was deep in mourning today, with a national day of remembrance for the victims of the Koh Pich disaster, there was no stopping the wedding season, which is in full swing, and the Mondial Center was as busy tonight as it ever is. The authorities had put a ban on entertainment venues opening today but weddings were allowed to go ahead. So it was off to Hall J with Rumnea to celebrate the nuptials of Ly and Sreytouch, the latter being one of her work colleagues. Rumnea has just had her long hair cut considerably shorter than usual and she looked a picture. It suits her face perfectly. If the penny hasn't dropped yet, we're an item.
Taking a quick rest between dances at tonight's wedding party
Ly and his bride, Sreytouch, together with her bridesmaids, getting ready for the toast


Cheshire cat

Who's the dummy impersonating a Cheshire cat?
The grinning idiot in the above photo is me. I'm very happy because my book, To Cambodia With Love, arrived today. I had to pay the post office for the privilege of receiving my copies and the package had been opened by customs, but I finally have the book in my sweaty palms. It's great to see the contributions from so many people who love Cambodia finally in print. I hope many of you who are as interested in Cambodia as I am, will buy it, either in a bookshop or online. It retails at US$21.95, is 242 pages long, has a bunch of colour photos and more importantly, is brimming with unique insights into this beautiful country. I wholeheartedly recommend it, but then again I would, wouldn't I. More. If you are a fan of Facebook, you can also become a fan of the book here.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On second thoughts...

The pyramid temple of Prasat Thom as I encountered it on my arrival in Koh Ker in November 2001
Tonight I watched a television documentary on National Geographic that I should've made. What am I talking about? Back in 2001 I was contacted by Live Art Entertainment in Singapore, who were considering making a documentary in Cambodia. They'd read my website and were keen for me to take a small camera crew into the Cambodian jungle to search for ancient temples. I kid you not. However, not having the face and voice for television, and having a full-time job in the banking industry in England, I turned down their offer. Instead I suggested they consider the double-edged angle of lost temples and landmines at Koh Ker, buried in the forests northeast of Angkor and gave them as much information as I could muster. Then I forgot about it. In fact it was in November of that same year that I made my first visit to Koh Ker - a real tough trip that only the foolhardy would've ever considered at that time. Landmines were a real threat outside of a few temples that had been cleared but I knew there were many more in the forest waiting to be discovered - both temples and landmines. So imagine my surprise when I saw a documentary under the National Geographic banner at the beginning of 2003, following Professor Charles Higham, a noted SEA archaeological scholar, into the recently-discovered temples of Koh Ker in a film called Guardians of Angkor. The guardians turned out to be landmines and it was exactly the angle of temples and landmines that I'd suggested over a year before. In fact the show's producer, director and writer, Dean Love, netted a couple of television awards for his programme. That's what happens when you turn down offers that come out of the blue. So when Kim Fay asked me to edit the book To Cambodia With Love a few years ago, I bit her arm off. I got a message today to say that a package was awaiting collection at the post office, so fingers crossed, my copies of TCWL have finally arrived. Whilst watching the programme I spotted a young girl trying to sell Professor Higham a krama at Angkor Wat and recognized her as Piya, one of the temple sellers I've known for many years now. She made it onto the tv, I didn't.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A more positive note

Most of the Hanuman team celebrate Kulikar's birthday
With so much grief, shock and emotion swirling around town today in the aftermath of the Koh Pich disaster, I thought I would end the day on a more positive note. Today was Kulikar's birthday, she's in charge at Hanuman, the company I work for, and we all gathered in the meeting room to celebrate with a few bottles of bubbly and a very delicious cake just before going home. As a gentleman I couldn't possibly disclose her age. But it was nice to see a few smiles on a day when that warm and welcoming Khmer smile was largely absent from most faces.
Kulikar cuts her cake, with her mum, Tan Sotho looking on



I went to bed late this morning as I received a string of sms messages about the tragic scenes that unfolded at the end of the 3-day water festival here in Phnom Penh. And I awoke to see the aftermath scenes on television as a panicked crowd on a bridge leading to Koh Pich Island caused the deaths of more than 340 people and injured another 550. I decided against joining the party revelers for the festival this time around as I've experienced it before and the immense crowds on the streets make it difficult to actually get anywhere. Koh Pich is a recent addition to the places in the city where Cambodians love to go and hang out and free concerts drew massive crowds to the area. It used to be covered with grass and ramshackle dwellings but is now a development of conference and exhibition centres and attracts hordes of locals every weekend. However, access to the reclaimed island is limited and it was on one of the access bridges where the tragedy took place around 10pm last night. It's too early to say what took place with certainty, what caused the tragedy, but it has left so many people in a state of shock today in Phnom Penh.


Monday, November 22, 2010

A reminder

The obligatory fam trip team photo in front of the 'tree temple' as everyone called it
As a reminder to myself that I need to post some more pictures from the Sambor Prei Kuk trip, here's two team photos to keep your interest up. Obviously I didn't take a separate photo of the male members of the fam trip, and why would I? Much more to follow, but I'm off to work soon. Yes, you heard me, its water festival here in Phnom Penh and I'm working today. Pound of flesh or what. Before I forget Bruno Bruguier will be giving a talk about Sambor Prei Kuk at the French Cultural Centre this coming Thursday to co-incide with the release of his new book on the temples in the Tonle Sap region. It'll be in French, as is the book. I'm double-booked that night, so I'll probably miss it. Anyway, I don't speak or understand French, so maybe it's a blessing for all concerned.
Another team photo, this time the ladies from the fam trip though Linda isn't here as she was still scoffing her lunch


Roll up!

The Pithou! show from PPS in Battambang will be in Phnom Penh very soon
Roll up! roll up! the circus is coming to town. The 7th international circus festival, Tini Tinou, will be in Phnom Penh in early December - 4th, 5th and 6th - before it moves onto its spiritual home in Battambang from 9th-12th. In the capital, there's a parade on the opening day before the fun moves to the garden of Chaktomuk Theatre from 6pm on the 5th and then the French Cultural center on the 6th. For the 'international community' there's a charge of $10 and $8 respectively. There are a stack of different acts from Cambodia and around the globe, including juggling, clowns, acrobatics, fire juggling and so on. The excellent artists from Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang will be there and they are definitely worth seeing. Should be great fun for all, especially the kids and grown-ups who've never really grown up.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Aladdin's cave

Probably the best lintel on show in the new museum's collection at Kompong Thom with Krishna as the central character
Lower register detail of acolytes and animals on the museum's best preserved and most expressive lintel
Anyone who knows me will be aware that a visit to a museum full of Khmer sculpture before it's even open to the public is like letting me into an Aladdin's cave. The problem was that our visit to the new provincial museum in Kompong Thom was of the whirlwind variety as we were due in Sambor Prei Kuk, and that the exhibits weren't labeled so it takes a bit of detective work to find out what some of items represent. Nevertheless, even though it was over in the blink of an eye, I'm pleased that we made the stop. I'll visit it again when it gets the official seal of approval and opens for the public.
Two fairly similar lintels on display with lots of foliage and with Garuda prominent. The lintels are in the Pre Rup style.
Cylindrical lingas on display. I wasn't keen on the cementing of the lingas into the base.
A sandstone wall panel showing a series of 9 Divinities in slightly different poses
One of the lintels in the Sambor Prei Kuk style waiting to be moved inside the museum
This lion from Prasat Tao inside Sambor Prei Kuk has seen better days
In its place outside the front door of the new museum, a lion from Prasat Tao
Another lintel, upside down, awaiting a move inside the building
A Sambor Prei Kuk 7th century lintel in place outside the museum doorway with makara and Garuda. They also do this at the Battambang museum.
This inscription stone or stele also has the beginnings of a drawing of a figure on it


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sneak preview

A sneak preview of the inside of the new Kompong Thom provincial museum
En route to Sambor Prei Kuk to visit the new Isanborei community project, our fam trip team stopped off at the new Kompong Thom provincial museum, which isn't due to open for a couple of months as they are still adding a few finishing touches, but as we were in the vicinity, we got a special sneak preview of what visitors can expect to see. The lintels, colonnettes, lingas and pedestals that were previously housed in the dingy and dusty exhibition hall at the Culture & Fine Arts office opposite the Arunreas restaurant, have been shifted to the new museum, specially-built but some way from the town centre. The curator promised me that everything would be labelled up in time for the opening, in what was a pretty tiny building with one room, that looked chock-a-block full of sculptures from the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian period. Two of the Prasat Tao lions were on pedestals outside the front door, looking a bit worse for wear, whilst inside an absence of natural light made it difficult to get any good pictures. Nevertheless, the museum is an improvement on what went before, so that's a positive.
Detail from one of the best lintels on view showing Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana
This fierce looking somasutra head is from the 7th century
Another inside view of the new museum, still in the throes of being completed
A row of lingas inside the museum


Friday, November 19, 2010

Bora's tearful vision

Actress Kauv Sotheary played the main lead, her mother, in Lost Loves
Emotional, sentimental, moving, tear-jerking, all these and more were emotions felt by the audience, and me, at Meta House whilst watching Chhay Bora's poignant film set in the Khmer Rouge period, called Lost Loves. It's based on the true story of his mother-in-law, Leav Sila, who like so many of her countrymen and women suffered extreme hardships and acute unhappiness during the regime's control of her country in the Seventies. It's a brave attempt by Bora to put a human face on the Cambodian suffering, with his wife Kauv Sotheary taking the film's main lead, as well as writing the story about her own mother. There was lots of pain and tears as you might expect, afterall the main character lost her father, brother and two children, but the indomitable spirit of the survivors of that period shone through, accompanied by some gorgeous shots of the Cambodian countryside, all captured during a 45-day shooting period. The film was premiered at the recent international film festival in Phnom Penh and the director hopes to show it abroad, if funds prevail. One familiar face on screen was Nou Sondab, who played the part of Auntie Sok. She is the mother of contemporary dancer Belle and has been a well-known actress on Khmer television for many years.
Director Chhay Bora answers questions from the audience at Meta House
A familiar face to Khmer audiences was Nou Sondab, mother of the dancer Belle

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dog tired

No, this isn't me yawning - it's a sandstone lion from Sambor Prei Kuk housed at the new Kompong Thom Museum, which we visited even though it's not yet open.
More on Lost Love, the film, rather than the story of my life, tomorrow. I got home tonight from my two-day trip to Sambor Prei Kuk and the Isanborei community project, headed straight for Meta House to watch the recently-released and eminently watchable Cambodian film set in the time of the Khmer Rouge and then as soon as I was through the door at home, promptly fell asleep in front of the television. And of course more about my trip soon too.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lost love in Isanborei

A new Cambodian feature film, Lost Love by director Chhay Bora was screened for the 1st time at the recent film frstival here in Phnom Penh. I missed it then and I'll miss it tomorrow, when it gets another airing at Meta House, with the director present for a Q&A afterwards. The plot is based on the true story of Chhay Bora’s mother-in-law Nun Sila, whose father is executed by the Khmer Rouge. I hope to be back in time to watch its second night at Meta House on Thursday. Tickets are $5 to get in with a free drink. The reason I'll miss tomorrow is that I've been invited on a fam trip to Isanborei, known to you and me as Sambor Prei Kuk in Kompong Thom Province, where the community-based tourism project is having an open-day for travel agents and then a formal launch by the provincial governor. We're talking homestays, cycle rides, ox-cart trips, watching rice grow, the usual community-type stuff. I always enjoy a visit to Sambor Prei Kuk, so I told them to count me in. You can find out more at their website.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A zest for life

The author with the adorable Em Theay in March 2008
A second essay of mine from To Cambodia With Love that has been posted on the ThingsAsian website as one of 11 'to get you in the mood' articles taken from the guideb0ook, is about that icon of classical Cambodian dance, Em Theay. She's a wonderful woman, full of energy and a zest for life and particularly her dance, and I've been lucky to meet her a few times now since coming to live in Phnom Penh. Hence why I had to include her in the guidebook. The essay is included in the Resources section and relates to the documentary film The Tenth Dancer that came out in 1993, in my opinion a must see film resource.

Andy Brouwer Meets Cambodia's Tenth Dancer
Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

Around the same time as I first came to Cambodia in 1994, I watched a memorable documentary that focused on the fledgling revival of Cambodian classical dance. It featured one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed nine out of every ten of the country's dancers-hence the film's title, The Tenth Dancer. The survivor's name was Em Theay, and it was clear that she was a remarkable woman. Little did I know that years later I would meet her and discover that she was an even more exceptional individual than I first thought.

I was acting as the local fixer for a documentary about Cambodia, thirty years after the end of Pol Pot's iron-fisted rule. We'd interviewed Vann Nath, the famous painter of Tuol Sleng prison, and now it was the turn of the living icon of Cambodian royal court dance. Dressed in her finest clothes, her toothless grin spreading from ear to ear, Em Theay arrived with her eldest daughter, also a leading classical dancer. She was seventy-eight years old, and the prospect of talking about dance-her lifeblood for so many decades-was something she was eagerly anticipating.

With the help of a translator, Em Theay launched into the story of her life, a tale of funny moments interspersed with the sadness of the Pol Pot years and the subsequent struggles to resurrect her beloved dance traditions. She was chosen to dance at the age of seven by Queen Kossamak, for whom her parents worked as domestic servants. She grew up in the Royal Palace and was a dancer and singer in the King's Royal Ballet until the Khmer Rouge took over her country. At that time she was forty-three and was sent to live in Battambang, where her talents did not go unnoticed-her captors encouraged her to sing and dance as well as work in the fields.

In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, twelve of Em Theay's eighteen children were alive. By the end of the Khmer Rouge period in the late '70s, seven more had died and only five were left. Her spirit unbroken, Em Theay returned to Phnom Penh, where her knowledge and skills of the traditional arts were put to use as a teacher at the National Dance Company and the Royal University of Fine Arts until a few years ago.

She told her moving story with such grace and dignity that it was impossible for those present not to feel the emotion of the moment, and as I listened in awe, I quickly wiped away the tears before anyone could see. But laughter is never far from Em Theay's lips. She even surprised the cameraman on a couple of occasions by springing up from her chair to demonstrate the wealth of postures and movements that she knew by heart and had passed on to countless students over the years, including her own children and grandchildren. As she finished her tale with more of her amusing stories about her students, I found myself unsure whether to laugh or cry. She ended the session by sitting on the floor and handing me countless photographs of her family and some of herself, yellowing with age, but obviously precious items and memories. Clearly, her desire to pass on the secrets of the royal court dance has been undiminished by time.

In March 2009 Em Theay and her daughter lost everything in a house fire. Irreplaceable documents of dance and family history - her treasured notebooks, which contained the record of many important sacred songs and dances, along with those yellowing photographs, which she kept hidden from the Khmer Rouge on pain of death - were gone forever. A benefit concert and a screening of The Tenth Dancer have raised much-needed funds to assist her. While such support helps, nothing can be done to retrieve her invaluable possessions. Yet she continues on, undaunted. Her life has been - and still is - an incredible journey. She is not only a true survivor, she is also a vital link to Cambodia's glorious past.

Fact File: The Tenth Dancer
Sally Ingleton's 1993 documentary is a testament to the resilience of Em Theay and the rest of the Cambodia classical dancers and their dedication to resurrecting this vital link to Cambodia's past.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

My love for Cambodia

Whilst I await the arrival of my copy of To Cambodia With Love via the post office here in Phnom Penh, god forbid, those kind folks at ThingsAsian, who are the book's publishers, have posted 11 essays from the book on their community website here. The articles include a couple by me, one on Em Theay, one of my favourite people in the world, and the other is my own Introduction to the book. As I've made you wait for the book for so long, I post here my intro which explains why I was more than happy to take on the job of editing this beautiful guidebook about this beautiful country.

Andy Brouwer's Introduction to To Cambodia With Love

Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

How do I describe my love of Cambodia? I'm not the world's greatest wordsmith, so I'll keep it simple. In 1994 I came to this country for five of the most exhilarating, nerve-jangling, and frightening days of my life - and that was it. I was hooked, completely, by a country and a people who've subsequently enriched my life to a degree I never thought possible. Those five days sparked a passion that grew with each of my annual visits, culminating in my migration here three years ago. I truly feel at home, I belong, I love every day of my life here, and I want to share my passion for this country with everyone. To Cambodia With Love is the perfect vehicle to do just that.

Fortunately, you don't have to read my inadequate prose to understand the essence of Cambodia. I've joined forces with more than sixty contributors who know this country as well as I do - better in many instances - and who I'm convinced will inspire you to come and see for yourself why this beautiful land is so alluring. Whether it's acclaimed memoirist Loung Ung eating chive rice cakes in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, journalist Karen Coates exploring a bird sanctuary in Preah Vihear Province, pioneering guidebook author Ray Zepp riding a traditional norry along countryside railway tracks, or scholar and Angkor historian Dawn Rooney explaining her favorite time to visit Cambodia's most celebrated temple, there are essays to feed your obsession if you're already hooked, or spark a love that will continue to grow after your Cambodian baptism.

I urge you to discover and unearth Cambodia's secrets, some of which you will find within these pages, others you must find for yourself-and you will, I assure you. Wander amongst the crowded maze of its markets, absorb the slow pace of village life in a rural landscape where few travelers venture, discover the unique lifestyle along the Mekong River, and above all, appreciate a culture and setting that spawned the incredible temples of Angkor, the jewel in Cambodia's crown. Fifteen years ago, I was blessed to see the Angkor temples without the crowds, to experience sunrise over the pineapple towers of Angkor Wat in glorious solitude, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Though the secret of Angkor is now well and truly out in the open - it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world - there are still many opportunities to grasp your own special memories and lock them away forever, as I have ... beginning with a few suggestions in this book.

I know it's a bit of a tired cliché that it's the people of this and that country that make it such a wonderful place, but the truth is, they really do. Cambodia is no different. After weathering decades of bloodshed and civil war, poverty, and instability, the Khmer have proved their incredible resilience, and their smile remains as bewitching as it has throughout time. The friendships I've developed over the years will last forever. No one will leave Cambodia without a large chunk of admiration and fondness for the people they encounter. You have my guarantee.

This is not a definitive guide to Cambodia. Far from it. It is about inspiration, discovery, sharing, and above all else, a love and a respect for a country that has changed my life forever, as I hope it will change yours.

Andy Brouwer
Editor, To Cambodia With Love

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

They can dream

The 40 boys on trial line up for the camera with coaches from PPC and guests Ken Shellito and Graham McMann
I've just spent the afternoon watching 40 young boys give absolutely everything they had to earn themselves a place in the final 22, the number that Phnom Penh Crown will draft into their first Elite Football Academy. The fortunate 22 were elated but it was great to see how much they consoled the boys that didn't make it. The 18 boys that won't be part of the two year residential programme will still become part of the PPC Academy and will be invited to come to the capital for coaching every couple of months and on school holidays. Just because they didn't make the elite 22 doesn't mean they will be forgotten. Afterall, these are the best of the under-13 age talent across the country after PPC conducted trials in 17 locations across Cambodia. They've left no stone unturned in their search for the cream of Cambodia's future footballing talent. And it showed during the matches I watched this afternoon. Take it from me, some of these boys are very talented individuals. They will spend the next two years getting quality coaching every morning and attending private school in the afternoons. They'll live out at the PPC training facility in Tuol Kork in specially-built dorms from January. This is a wonderful opportunity, the first of its kind in Cambodia, for these youngsters who want to follow their dreams of becoming the next Rooney, Ronaldo or Messi. To ensure the final selection over this weekend was fair, Crown invited English coaches from Malaysia (ex Chelsea manager Ken Shellito) and New Zealand (Graham McMann) to join the local coaches in assisting the boys during the trials and making the final decisions this afternoon. The diversity of locations where the boys currently live, is a great example of how widespread Crown's net has been cast with players in the final 22 coming from Phnom Penh, Kompong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, Kandal, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong and Stung Treng.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sothy on show

This Chhim Sothy painting titled Movement has traces of Rodin's sketches in it
As I was enjoying the two-hour show at Chenla Theatre last night, I had to forgo the opening of the latest Chhim Sothy exhibition at Equinox, but I did pop in on my way home just to check out the 33 paintings that were hanging on the walls at the bar-restaurant on St 278 in BKK1. With prices ranging from $500 to $1200 Sothy's artwork doesn't come cheap anymore, but understandably so as he exhibits across the globe, having enjoyed high-profile shows in China and Hong Kong earlier this year. Recognized as one of the country's very best artists, both with his traditional artwork and his more contemporary abstract paintings, Sothy's latest exhibition is full of the latter genre. I must admit I have a penchant for his traditional fine artwork (I'm a bit of traditionalist in most things) though his use of gorgeous colours and faint outlines of performing artists in his latest exhibition, titled Beauty of Nature, work well. The show will remain in situ until late December. I hear that he's just completed a 7x5 metre painting in the lobby of the new Council of Ministers building with a scene from the Churning of the Sea of Milk and is also in the process of composing an 8x6 metre mural at a pagoda on the edge of the city. These I must see.
Can you see the Passion in the title of this Chhim Sothy painting?
Two apsaras are visible in this painting titled Danseuses


Friday, November 12, 2010


A scene from a make-believe tv drama called Riverside Story at Chenla tonight with Belle kneeling on stage
A phone call from Belle an hour before the performance began got me into tonight's show at Chenla Theatre and what a show it was. The younger element of the audience really lapped it up as the performers in I Should Be So Lucky, which reminded me of a modern version of West Side Story, gave it their all. We had acting, comedy, contemporary dance, realistic fight scenes, singing, acrobatics, paper airplanes, placard-wielding demonstrators, the set of a television drama, scaffolding construction, hip-hop breakdancing and a performance by the latest rock band sensation in Phnom Penh, Cartoon Emo. When I say it had a bit of everything, I'm not exaggerating. The show lasted two hours and had so many sections I've already forgotten half of them. I do recall that two westerners kicked it off with the cliched Holiday in Cambodia, so it could only get better. And it did. Alongwith Belle, some of the country's best up and coming dancers like Chy Ratana, Nam Narin and Yon Chanta rubbed shoulders with the cream of the breakdancers from Tiny Toones. I don't think a Cambodian audience has ever seen anything quite like tonight's show and for that the director Samir Akika should be congratulated. Breaking new ground by giving local artists the chance to express themselves outside their comfort zone is to be commended. Throughout the performance I was waiting to see what would happen next and that can only be a good thing. Bravo.
The cast and crew take their bow at the end of the show
LtoR: Narim, Nora, Chanpisey, Chanta, Belle and Nabil. The girls were wearing their nighttime attire.
Belle and Tou play the lovers in Riverside Story on stage
A placard-waving demonstration takes to the stage
The opening credits to the performance

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The same shirt

That shirt makes another appearance, next to the adorable Rumnea, at Roth's wedding party
You know its wedding season when the invites come flooding in, 3 this week alone, and I had to turn down 2 of them due to other commitments. I couldn't miss Roth's party though as he works at Hanuman and so we all trundled off to one of the regular wedding venues at Lucky Star on St 336 for our set menu and a few dances. Roth and Chakriya looked lovely together but no photos as my camera continues to let me down. However, a colleague snapped one of my date, Rumnea and myself as we waited for our grub. And yes I'm wearing that same shirt again. It cost me $18 from Export so I'm making sure I get value for money.
Lots of football activity yesterday as I announced to the local press, in my role as media officer at Phnom Penh Crown, the arrival of our new Croatian coach Bojan Hodak and five new signings, including three of the very best homegrown Cambodian players. I won't bore you with more football on this blog, so click here if you need to feed your football hunger. The Phnom Penh Post gave us half a page and the Cambodia Daily are coming to the Academy football trials on Sunday to do a feature. Not sure how much coverage the Khmer press gave us.
The title of the dance show tonight at Chenla Theatre certainly rang true for me. I Should Be So Lucky, involving a wide range of Khmer artists including Belle, is being performed tonight and tomorrow night. But trying to get a ticket from Java and Meta House proved impossible and word just reached me that all the free tickets have been snapped up. So unlucky for me.


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