Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lucky for us

Its all been a bit quiet in the last couple of months as far as the country's most exciting contemporary dancer, Belle, is concerned. Her last appearance of note was with her own Silver Bell dance troupe at Chinese House in early September. However that should change on 12 and 13 November when she will be one of the cast for an unusual collaboration between Samir Akika, a Franco-Algerian based in Germany, who will offer up his own choreography, I should be so lucky, mixing theater, dance and video, and the country's classical, contemporary and hip-hop dancers. It will take place at Chenla Theater at 7pm on both nights, with free tickets available from the French Cultural Center library, Meta House and Java Cafe.

And lucky for me if what I'm told comes to fruition. My guidebook, To Cambodia With Love, is definitely at the printers. It should be in my grubby hands in a month or so. It maybe another month or two after that before it's available to the public, but the word is, it's definitely going to happen. Hopefully.

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Bruno's 2nd release

Bruno Bruguier with a copy of his 1st book is now set to publish his 2nd volume
The long-awaited 2nd book in a series of six archaeological guidebooks on Cambodia by Ecole Francaise d’Extrême Orient specialist Bruno Bruguier will be unveiled at the French Cultutral Center on Thursday 25 November at 7pm. Though the lecture will be in French and Khmer, his book on the archaeological sites of the Tonle Sap Basin and Sambor Prei Kuk, which will also be in French, will be a valuable addition to the publications available on Khmer temples. The book, which will include recent photos and maps, alongside archive photos and drawings from the EFEO vaults as the author happens to work for the organization that has done so much to rescue and restore Cambodia's Angkorean heritage, will cover well-known temple sites such as Oudong, Longvek, Kompong Preah, Kuhak Nokor, Phnom Santuk, Sambor Prei Kuk and other less-known sites as well. Co-authored with his wife Juliette Lacroix, it's the 2nd in a series of six they have written, though funding has been a tough nut to crack hence the delay since the first volume arrived in January 2009. Future titles will also cover Banteay Chhmar and the Western Provinces, Kompong Cham and the Mekong Basin, Koh Ker & Preah Vihear - the Northern Provinces, and Around Angkor.

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First day in the Mekong Delta

2 of my new friends at the Tay An pagoda, near Chau Doc
Time to catch up on my Mekong Delta adventures as promised. After the Blue Cruiser boat took us from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc in some style, we settled into the very plush Victoria Chau Doc Hotel, graciously given a room each for Tim and myself by the management team and for our evening meal we wandered around town a little, eventually finding our target restaurant, Bay Bong. Pretty standard fare in my view but popular with the backpacking crowd that are making their way to Cambodia through the Delta. After a blissful night's sleep, with my window on the activity taking place on the Bassac River below, and a sumptuous buffet breakfast, we hired a couple of motos and their drivers, Yom and Mai, and headed west for our first foray into the Delta countryside. The memorial at Ba Chuc was our initial target, along a busy road past the foot of Sam Mountain and through the small town of Nha Ban. After thirty minutes we stopped at our first Khmer pagoda of the day, Wat Jin Jom and some banter with a group of young boys as the monks were seemingly absent. Turning right off the main road, we passed through tiny villages and gloriously green ricefields, stopping at a couple of pagodas, shouting hellos to schoolkids in their dozens, all riding bicycles and wearing identical school uniforms, before arriving at Ba Chuc village in just under two hours. The village of Ba Chuc was effectively wiped out in April 1978 when its population of 3,159 were murdered by invading Khmer Rouge insurgents, with only two survivors living to tell the tale. The village lies close to the border with Cambodia and suffered this terrible tragedy, which is remembered today with a memorial park. There were a couple of local tourist buses pulling in as we arrived, but they didn't stay long, walking around the memorial, saying silent prayers, lighting incense sticks, buying some of the food on offer and then back on the bus and away to their next stop. Tim and I took a bit longer, meeting one of the many Ho Chi Minh impersonators we would encounter on our trip - it's a popular look for older Vietnamese men; bald or thinning hair on top, with long wispy white beard - and also visited the room next door which acts as a museum with photos of the aftermath of the atrocity, murder weapons and wall maps. A sobering start to our exploration.

At the disused wooden pagoda at Wat Thlung we had our first of what would become numerous sit-down and chat sessions with all of the 30-odd monks that reside at the Khmer pagoda. Our few words of Khmer went a long way and finding one of the monks who spoke reasonable English was a big help. They were a fun bunch and their humour infectious. We were now heading back towards Chau Doc, stopping at other pagodas, a war memorial with what seemed like thousands of war graves, arriving once more at the foot of Sam Mountain, where we pulled in for lunch opposite one of the tombs that dot the hillside. All very local, identified by pointing at what looked like chicken and pork in the kitchen area, that doubled up as the owner's living room. After a bite to eat, we paid our respects at the tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau, a 19th century official who built the main Vinh Te canal in the area, before moving onto the temple of Lady Chua Xu, which was awash with pilgrims, and finished at the Tay An pagoda. All of them were a mix of Chinese, Buddhist and Vietnamese influences and difficult to appreciate the various statues and guardians without a knowledgeable guide, which we didn't have. Nevertheless, everyone seemed keen to welcome us at what is the most obvious spot for visitors, as its only a few kilometres from Chau Doc town. We took a couple of different motos to the top of the mountain - I think its a moto-mafia deal though my driver indicated his moto wouldn't make it up the steep track - for a great view of the surrounding countryside and also called into a hilltop estate of bungalows that are owned by the Victoria Hotel group but have yet to be tidied up and opened to the public. An interesting garden of stone sculptures caught our eye on the way back into town, arriving back at 4pm in time to test out the hotel's riverview swimming pool and then out to dinner at the Mekong restaurant, which turned out to be very Fawlty Towers-like in their level of service, ending with a torrential rainstorm to wrap up our first full day in the Mekong Delta.
Our 1st pagoda stop of the day at Wat Jim Jom
One of the traditional Buddhist wall paintings at the pagoda of Wat Soai Chek
Wat Soai Chek, another Khmer pagoda about 15kms from Ba Chuc
The lush green ricefields of the province of Tri Ton
The war graves in a military cemetery en route to Chau Doc
A bust of Thoai Ngoc Hau, a revered local official, inside the temple that bears his name on Sam Mountain
The Chinese-influenced pagoda at Tay An on Sam Mountain
The flooded delta area surrounding Sam Mountain
Green fields and water as we peer towards Cambodia from the top of Sam Mountain
My motodop Yom after our day out in the countrysideTim gets friendly with the monks at Wat Thlung near Ba Chuc

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wowing the party audience

LtoR; Julien Poulson, Srey Thy and Scott Bywater at tonight's Equinox gig
A free bar and the Cambodian Space Project. Most of the attendees tonight at Equinox thought that Christmas had come early with the offer to join Karen's 45th birthday party, to sink the free flowing alcohol and to listen to CSP and the Teaner Terners, who opened the show. Srey Thy fronted CSP in a sparkling red number and wowed the audience, as usual, with her strong vocals despite the presence of seven more members of the band, including three guitars. It takes some vocal power to be heard above the pounding beat that's for sure. All the CSP favourites were on offer, though I must admit I'm a mite disappointed that Monkey has been dropped from the roster of songs. I love Srey Thy's cackle on that particular song. Anyhow there's more than enough great tunes to revel in, their new single I'm Unsatisfied got the biggest cheer of the night and the party crowd certainly revelled to their hearts content. Someone asked me whether CSP play too often but my take on it is that they are a great band live, they're doing their bit to promote and keep alive that special Khmer sound of bygone years and when else do you get the opportunity to get your dancing shoes on and jive the night away. Long may they continue.
Cambodian Space Project in full voice at EquinoxCSP end the evening with a Cha Cha Cha, a particular favourite of mine


Indelible impression

As the gong sounded to begin classes again, this bunch of kids couldn't resist one last photo, despite the rain that was falling
The children at a school in the grounds of the Khmer pagoda at Wat Prasat Kong, near Soc Trang left an indelible impression on Tim and myself when we stopped by to say hello recently. Lots more photos still to come from my Mekong Delta adventures but in the meantime here are two more from the kids at the school who were the noisiest and most welcoming of the many schools we stopped by on our 10-day travels. And they spoke better English than their teachers.
These three girls followed me throughout my visit to their school and to the nearby pagoda. I think they just liked to have their picture taken.

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Friday, October 29, 2010


Srey Thy sings Mondulkiri, music by the Cambodian Space Project
CSP, Cambodian Space Project to the uninitiated, will be rocking Equinox tomorrow night with their 60s Khmer rock in celebration of Karen's birthday party, and free bar, from 7pm. Also appearing are the Teaner Terners, the less said about them the better after they climbed on stage at the end of the Dengue Fever gig a few months ago and made arses of themselves. It was bad enough having to listen to Poukhlaing and Tony Re-al. CSP have just opened and closed the Cambodian Film Festival, were playing the Phnom Penh Post's Finishing Post tonight and are scheduled to depart from Cambodian soil in January for a tour down under, in Oz. Somewhere in between they will put the finishing touches to their first album. God knows when they'll find the time. The YouTube video above is CSP's Mondulkiri, words by the irrepressible Srey Thy.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'm in the dark

You may've noticed that I've recently stopped prattling on about my guidebook that has yet to see the light of day, To Cambodia With Love - A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur. Believe me when I say that myself (as editor) and the With Love series editor Kim Fay bust a gut to get it completed, late nights, bags under our eyes, loud tantrums and gnashing of teeth, etc as we whisked it into fine fettle and conveyed it to the publisher's designer and then the printer, months ago. At which point, everything has gone deathly silent and not a peep has been heard, emails not returned and a pin-drop hush has descended on the project. If it was a hospital patient it would've had its life-support machine switched off by now. The work of more than sixty contributors and over 120 essays are currently gathering a thin film of dust on the printing presses. That's if they ever made it that far. That's what I've been trying to find out. I'll keep trying but this is just to put you in the picture, that there is currently no picture that I'm aware of. I'm as in the dark as you. Has anyone got a candle? And a match.


Arts revival on a weekly basis

The Children of Bassac performing at the National Museum
The revival of traditional Cambodian arts is picking up apace and at the forefront of this charge is the organization, Cambodian Living Arts. Under their umbrella, The Children of Bassac are fast developing a reputation of the highest order after showcasing their talents both in the United Kingdom and Japan and at the recent International Youth Arts Festival held in Phnom Penh. The group, aged between 16-21 are under the tutelage of the renowned Cambodian arts master Ieng Sithul.

From Thursday 4 November until April 2011, The Children of Bassac will be showcasing their talents every Thursday on stage and under lights at the entrance to the National Museum of Phnom Penh, from 7-8pm. Seating is limited so advance booking is recommended for a show that will include both classical and folk dance and music. Tickets cost US$18 per person.

The Children of Bassac troupe was formed in 2003 by Ieng Sithul and were named to remind people of its origins in the Bassac community in Phnom Penh where the performers still live and rehearse. The intent was to provide poor and street children with the opportunity to learn traditional Khmer music and dance. “Most of the children in the program can sing, dance and play traditional instruments,” says Sithul. “They can get some income doing this, but what’s more important is that it helps the children avoid lives of drug use, thievery and prostitution, which are not valuable activities in society. We are only able to help about 10 or 20 percent of the children in the Bassac area who are susceptible to bad influences from society and their environment,” he said. In 2005 the group joined with Cambodian Living Arts, increasing opportunities for the children to learn more skills and today they are a flourishing troupe, bringing the revitalization of the arts to a wider audience.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ba Chuc memories

The lasting memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge at Ba Chuc
1,700 skulls are classified by age and sex inside the glass-fronted memorial
The memorials in honour of those innocents slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the late Seventies aren't confined to the fields of Cambodia. In the sleepy village of Ba Chuc, a glass tomb, an ossuary or the bone pagoda of Phi Lai, as it is also called, stands as a reminder of the death and destruction visited upon this small village in April 1978. Of the village's population at that time of 3,159, only two people are known to have survived the massacre, one of a number of incursions into Vietnamese territory made by the Khmer Rouge forces along the nearby porous border that eventually goaded the Vietnam authorities into invading Cambodia, or Democratic Kampuchea as it was known, and driving the Khmer Rouge out of power. But that came too late for the inhabitants of Ba Chuc, some of whom were disemboweled, raped and decapitated as they sought refuge in the pagodas of Phi Lai and Tam Buu. Ba Chuc was one of five villages attacked by the invading killers, who burned and looted as they went, leaving four thousand dead in their wake. The hexagonal, glass-windowed memorial was erected in 1984. Inside, 1,700 skulls of the deceased are classified according to age and sex including one sign that poignantly reads 'Baby of Ba Chuc under 2 years old (29)'. Behind them, in the centre of the monument, a pile of bones are heaped up randomly, unclassified. There was a long line of people visiting, lighting incense and saying silent prayers as we walked around the stupa. The Ba Chuc memorial is not a quiet place when a coach party arrives. A few steps away, in a large room that is part of the Tam Buu pagoda, black and white photographs line the walls, detailing how the villagers met their gruesome deaths in the fields and buildings of the hamlet. Ba Chuc is firmly on the tourist map, as Choeung Ek is just outside of Phnom Penh and now that the roads in this part of the Mekong Delta are improving, more and more visitors are finding their way to the memorial, to learn more about the massacre that wiped out a whole village.
The Ba Chuc memorial was first constructed in 1984 to honour the deceased
The memorial is on three levels and is similar to the lower levels of Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh
3,159 people were massacred in Ba Chuc village by the Khmer Rouge in 1978
The entry sign to Ba Chuc memorial
Photographs of the deceased line the walls of the exhibition room nearby the memorial
Interested Vietnamese tourists find out more about the Ba Chuc massacre
The display of photographs is inside this building next to the memorial

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You Khin - more than just a home

A riot of colour as Indian dancers perform - by You Khin (1949-2009)
You Khin is the name of a new guesthouse that has just opened its doors on Street 830 in Phnom Penh, but it's also the name of an artist who's surrealist style of paintings hang on the walls throughout the building, his former home. Tucked away in a quiet sidestreet, the guesthouse is cosy, just seven comfortable rooms with a small swimming pool and a lovely gallery area lined with paintings where the children from the next-door Seametrey school for the underprivileged come to practice their music and dance lessons. School director and guesthouse owner Muoy You has opened up her home and her husband's art to visitors, feeding all the profits back into her school and her hopes for the children of the city. As for the art, You Khin travelled widely after his schooling in France, including Africa, the Middle East and London before returning to his homeland in 2004. Much of his work focuses on women as a central theme and 2009 saw his first solo exhibition in his own country. He passed away the same year. The inaugural You Khin Memorial Art Prize was awarded recently, the first arts competition in Cambodia designed specifically to promote and celebrate the role of women in the arts. His memory lives on, both in his art and his legacy.
Three You Khin paintings inside the gallery on the ground floor
A woman takes a nap whilst sewing
Titled 'Deafness and Blindness' as the woman depicted dances to a beat
An African woman and child (left) and a girl at school
The You Khin guesthouse on St 830 in the Tonle Bassac area of the city


River views

A lopsided view of the Royal Palace as we leave Phnom Penh and head for Chau Doc
To round off my border-crossing at Chau Doc, even though its actually at Kaam Samnor-Vinh Xuong, here's a few snaps from the journey. There were less than ten of us on the boat, it was a very pleasant trip and thoroughly recommended as the entryway into the Mekong Delta. A few speedboats ply the route every day, each way, and as I said in my previous post, it was a doddle. The Blue Cruiser people we travelled with made it a walk in the park and hassle-free. The ferries at Neak Loeung were doing their bit, working like fury in the knowledge that they will be replaced by a lovely new bridge sometime in the next few years. The border post at Kaam Samnor was typically laid-back in the usual Cambodian style. At least the official behind the grill was awake, for a change. And no-one asked me for a penny, either to leave Cambodia or enter Vietnam. It would be a different story when we re-entered Cambodia at Prek Chak ten days later. The waterways of Vietnam were as busy as they always are, lots of hustle and bustle on Vietnam's canals and rivers, much more so than you ever see in Cambodia, lots of smiles and waves as we took the canal that joins the Mekong to the Bassac before the Victoria appeared in the distance, easily the biggest building on the riverside in Chau Doc.
Another speedboat whizzes past the riverside scene in Phnom Penh
The largest of the car ferries in Cambodia at Neak Loeung
Inside the cockpit of the Blue Cruiser as we speed on our way
The sleepy jetty scene at the Kaam Samnor border crossing. The moored boat looks like its made of papier-mache.
The international border crossing at Kaam Samnor was very straightforward and hassle-free
All smiles as I take my leave of Cambodia, but I'll be back soon
The sun is shining as we enter the large canal that joins the Mekong with the Bassac River
A local motorbike and people ferry crossing the canal. No bridges in this part of the Delta.
The sun offers us a warm welcome to Vietnam's watery Mekong Delta
Our final destination on the first leg of our Mekong Delta journey, the Victoria Hotel at Chau Doc

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Monday, October 25, 2010

To Chau Doc is a doddle

The Blue Cruiser boat, which is actually green, our mode of transport to Vietnam
Entering Vietnam with the Blue Cruiser boat was an absolute doddle. On our recent visit to the Mekong Delta, we took advantage of the daily Blue Cruiser boat run from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc, and it was a good choice. We left bang on time at 1pm from the city's boat dock, the boat's helper Mai was on hand throughout with explanations and assistance at both the border checkpoints and the 26-seater boat was comfortable, with room to move about, take photos of the trip, and four and a half hours later we arrived at the Victoria Hotel boat jetty in Chau Doc, almost as fresh as daisies. Not quite but you get my drift. Crossing borders always fills one with a little trepidation but after enjoying the views along the Mekong River all the way to Neak Loeung and beyond, we arrived at the sleepy Kaam Samnor Cambodian border crossing for our departure formalities at 3.45pm. This border crossing has been open for a decade so its all pretty quick and painless and hopping back on the boat, another fifteen minutes later we were inside the Vietnamese immigration room at Vinh Xuong. More hanging around, though soon enough we were back on the boat and into Vietnam - if you didn't know, you must get your Vietnam visa before you arrive at the border or else they'll turn you away - where the waterways are much busier, lots more river traffic, lots to see en route and after taking a long connecting canal to Chau Doc, which is 30kms from the border crossing and sits on the Bassac River, we arrived to a welcoming cold towel at 5.30pm and 3 nights of luxury at the lovely Victoria Hotel. More of that later. A couple of boat companies offer this border crossing, Victoria even have their own boat, though Blue Cruiser did us proud on our 1st time into Vietnam by the wet route.
The Cambodian passport office at Kaam Samnor
The waterborne immigration and arrival jetty at Ving Xuong, in Vietnam
The cloud formations above the Mekong River as we enter into Vietnam

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