Thursday, December 30, 2010

Klashorst's S-21

One of Holland's best-known contemporary artists, Peter Klashorst will commence his long-awaited exhibition of images at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S-21) from 14 January and the exhibition will remain in situ for 3 months. Preparation has taken almost a year to complete for the 40+ paintings, many of which are reinterpretations of well-known face portraits of the victims and it's his first solo exhibition for five years. The show is supported by UNESCO.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

ATF 2011

There is a tourism trade fair of massive proportions just about to hit Phnom Penh that aside from those in the trade, few know little about. It's called the Asean Tourism Forum which takes place annually and rotates between the 10 member nations of ASEAN: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. At the start of the new year, from 15-21 January, Cambodia will host the 30th anniversary gathering and is gearing up to welcome over 1,600 delegates which includes 500 international buyers and 150 international media. The fair will take place at Diamond Island, aka Koh Pich, more recently known for the tragic loss of life during the Water Festival. There will be conference and meetings aplenty, 500 performers will be on stage for the opening ceremony, late night functions, extravagant dinners and shows, hosted lunches, golf tournaments, and more. It's the most important tourism spectacular of the year for Southeast Asian countries and Cambodia is pulling out all the stops to make sure it's a raging success.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Another shameless plug

Mariam Arthur and her cat Tigger spend their days reading TCWL with the Royal Palace as their backdrop
Look, it's not just me, okay. Even some of my wonderful contributors can't put that book down either. In yet another shameless plug for To Cambodia With Love (just in case you'd forgotten the book's title), here are three of my valiant contributors, gritting their teeth and appearing to look interested whilst holding onto TCWL. They weren't really, but some people will do anything for cash.
Tiara Delgado and her delightful daughter Aliya collect their copies of TCWL
A rare picture of the camera-shy Nick Ray gritting his teeth and pretending to read TCWL

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The Great Xmas Stickup

John Weeks (maroon shirt) is no Santa Claus on the streets of Boeung Keng Kang 1
There I was, minding my own business on Christmas Day, having just pigged out on a Lucky Burger and chips when lo and behold, the self-styled avid consumer and producer of media, John Weeks, thrust a wooden lackey-band gun into my midriff. What to do? Fortunately, Lucky Burger had just disarmed me of most of my riel and John's lack of disguise worked against him as I threatened to blow the whistle on his nefarious daytime activities. Oh, the fun and japery we get up to in Phnom Penh knows no bounds!

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Pointing the way

Okay, so this is another blog post about that book. My excuse is that I don't get a book published every five minutes. In fact, this is my first. And probably my last. So I've got to make the most of it. Those nice folks at Monument have generated this artwork for the Book Launch on Thursday 13th January at 6pm - by the way, have I mentioned that before? Refreshments will be provided by the new Blue Pumpkin cafe that is on-site - everyone's been so kind. Now I just hope someone will turn up, as talking to myself can get a bit embarrassing.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

For sale

Rumnea models the TCWL books on sale at Monument
Continuing my low-key festive holidays, I paid a quick visit to Monument Books to confirm that they do indeed have To Cambodia With Love for sale, on the front of the middle table, just behind the xmas tree. Only one quick snap though as a sales assistant decided that taking photos in the shop was not allowed under any circumstances. Oh well, at least here is the proof, with a copy of the book being modelled by Rumnea.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Fantastic news

Kunthea and Sokhom pictured a few years ago
I'm not into Christmas and never have been, but it was good to wake up to today's news that Kunthea, the daughter of my long-time friend Sokhom from Kompong Thom, has been successful in her exams and will begin her medical studies at International University in Phnom Penh sometime next year. She's 18 now and has always talked about becoming a doctor, and now her dreams look set to become a reality, though she knows she faces up to another eight years of hard work to complete her course. She has always been an excellent and focused student, guided by her diligent father, she was always top of her class and this is the pay-back for all that hard work. It was one of the best Christmas presents I could've had, knowing how proud Sokhom will be of his daughter. Sending a child to university in Cambodia, when your background is as a motodop in a provincial town, and despite having progressed to taxi-driver, day to day expenses can still be a struggle, is a tough ask. But Sokhom has always wanted to give his daughter the best possible chance and I feel as proud as punch to know that this father and daughter team, who I've known for more than ten years, have managed to pull it off. Kunthea rang me early this morning, excited but in her perfectly clipped English, to tell me this fantastic news.
To round off the day, I went to Chayyam restaurant on Street 278 for a Christmas Day fish amok and watched one of my favourite dancers, Sophea Chamroeun from the Children of Bassac group, give an excellent rendition of one of the Khmer classical dance masterpieces, Ream Eyso Moni Mekhala. She is such a graceful mover and to my untrained eye it looked perfect. Sophea is part of the team that puts on music and dance performances at the restaurant four evenings a week.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Goodnight cobber

Back to an 8-member line-up for tonight's Equinox gig
Recent posts have been dominated by the book and the Cambodian Space Project but after this quickie, the latter will be on the plane and heading for Oz, so we won't be hearing from them for a fair while. But we did tonight, this time at one of their fave haunts, Equinox, for their farewell party, and as the Space Commander said himself, after a hectic 24 hours. Last night they played La Croisette, and then today they took lead singer Srey Thy's mum into hospital, played a gig in front of two thousand former rubbish dump kids at PSE and then rounded it all off with tonight's performance to see in Christmas Day. They have a gig in Bangkok tomorrow and then they really do head for that tour of Australia. All the usual suspects were there tonight, on and off the stage, all the usual tunes and a lot of sweaty, dancing bodies. That's how we like it. They'll be missed.
Srey Thy desperately trying to look professional next to the wig-wearing antics of Scott Bywater

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Album preview

With Christmas almost upon us, though personally it's never been a time that held any interest for me (bah humbug), it means that parties and events in Phnom Penh are cropping up left, right and center. Tonight at La Croisette on the riverside, from 8pm onwards, the Cambodian Space Project have the first of two gigs in two days, previewing and playing tracks from their forthcoming debut album. Then tomorrow at Equinox, again from 8pm, the band will be belting out their own brand of Khmer rock for their farewell gig before they jet off to Australia, via Bangkok, for a tour down under. Considering that CSP have been together for just a year they are on the top of their game right now and you'd be mad to miss these two free shows.
Update: As forewarned, CSP played the full roster of songs from their debut album tonight at La Croisette to a good crowd, though I expect Equinox to be packed to the rafters for tomorrow's Christmas Eve gig. The restaurant on the riverside isn't the most ideal place for an eight-piece live band but it's where it all started for CSP a year ago so they feel comfortable there. Though for the audience, it has no room to dance (which for me is what CSP gigs are all about), the view can be obscured and people are trying to eat. Nevertheless, after an initial hiccup with the sound, Srey Thy was belting out the numbers in her own inimitable fashion and the combination of tried and tested numbers and less well-known songs went down a treat. The album promises to be special. Marc Eberle, who is a filmmaker and currently producing a documentary on Srey Thy, is also a dab hand at bass and made his first appearance with the band tonight, in preparation for their forthcoming world domination tour. Srey Thy told me she's off to Australia followed by China and then the USA and wrapping up in the UK. Not bad for a gal who until a few years ago had never left her province of Prey Veng. More power to her elbow I say.
At La Croisette, Srey Thy with Julien Poulson (left) and Marc Eberle (right)
Srey Thy seems to be enjoying herself in her last but one gig in Cambodia

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

TCWL Book Launch

I promise that not every post will be linked to my new book. Honestly. Though this one is. Just agreed with Monument Books that To Cambodia With Love will go on sale at the Monument outlets from tomorrow, Thursday 23 December, just in time for Christmas. And at a special price. So you can get it at their main shop on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh, at the two main airports and at their shop in Siem Reap. And if that wasn't good news, here's some more.

The official book launch of TCWL
will take place at the main Monument Books store at 6pm on Thursday 13th January 2011. Come along and listen to me rabbit on for a couple of minutes, more importantly meet some of the contributors who are the real powerhouse behind this book, and eat some of Monuments' freebie snacks. Oh, and buy a book if you like, at that special Monument Books-only pricetag.

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Kent's on the ball

The reviews for To Cambodia With Love are coming thick and fast. Well, okay, that's an overstatement as I've just read the second one, this time by Kent Davis - one of the contributors so he has a vestige of interest - here, which he's also posted on the book's Amazon page. Thank you Kent. A delivery of the books into Phnom Penh may well see them on sale at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard before Christmas if you are thinking of buying your loved one a Chrimbo present that they will cherish. Did I really say that? All of that aside, here's Kent's review:

An Essential Travel Guide in a Digital World - by Kent Davis

To Cambodia With Love is an attractive and useful guidebook for any traveler headed to Cambodia. Its secret is that this book offers a unique collection of tips and ideas that readers simply won’t find anywhere else.

When I began traveling internationally in the 1970s trips were always too expensive and too short. So some things never change!

Info about exotic destinations was sparse, but even a few ideas about sights, food, transport and lodging could make the difference between a memorable adventure and a stressful fiasco.

On my first trip to Laos in 1992 I just ripped the 20 page supplement out of the Thailand Lonely Planet Guide so I didn’t have to carry the whole book…but even those 20 pages made my Laotian trip easier. Knowledge is power!

With the advent of the Internet, travel research has evolved. So have travelers.

Finding mainstream attractions and accommodations is fairly easy. If anything, there’s too much information available and online sources aren’t always reliable. Beyond that, most modern travelers are seeking insights and experiences much deeper than “been there, done that”. Enter senior editor Kim Fay with a new concept to create “travel guides for the connoisseur”.

To Cambodia With Love is a perfect example of how well her formula works. With Phnom Penh-based British writer Andy Brouwer, they sought out more than 60 expert contributors with one thing in common: a passion for some aspect of Cambodian life. Food, history, sights, temples, Buddhism, wildlife, art, music, nature, charity, adventure, education…you name it…these people all live and love their Cambodian dreams.

And to each they posed one question: If you were giving advice to a friend who was headed to Cambodia, what would you tell them?

And so To Cambodia With Love was born, the newest in a brilliant series of travel guides. In addition to Cambodia, ThingsAsian Press now offers guides for Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Shanghai, Northern India, Nepal and Japan.

I can honestly say that I wouldn’t go to any of those places without one of these clever compact guides in my luggage. Why take a chance of missing the most inspirational experiences that await you in these exotic lands?

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thumbs up from Gabi

The first review of To Cambodia With Love has hit the streets. Well, technically it's hit the web, here at those good folks from Expat-Advisory. The very gracious lady who gave it the thumbs up is Gabi Yetter, a regular contributor for EAS and I repeat it here because it brought a warm glow to my heart.

Spiders, temples and a great bowl of hot noodle soup - by Gabi Yetter

I moved to Phnom Penh with my husband six months ago and thought I was pretty clued up on a lot of the good local spots to eat and explore in this region.

But, after reading Andy Brouwer's new book, "To Cambodia With Love", I now have a host of new places to add to my list.

I want to find the chive rice cakes hidden away in Psar Tuol Tom Pong which are a favourite of Loung Ung and to dine on crabe farci (fried, stuffed crab) at Seng Lipp restaurant. I want to hang out at Battambang’s s riverside Balcony Bar and find Karen Coates’ favourite seafood restaurant in Kampot. I want to discover the little café near the airport with “the most amazing bowl of hot noodle soup”. And I want to find the lesser-known temples in Siem Reap where I can walk to the top of Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunrise and then have breakfast at Angkor Reach.

"To Cambodia With Love" is a fabulous read for people visiting, living in or wanting to learn more about Cambodia. It's a patchwork of personal stories and fact, woven together by a host of esteemed authors who are familiar with the lesser-known areas of the country and who provide insights not usually given in traditional guide books.

The stories and experiences described in the book are written by such authors as Loung Ung ("First They Killed My Father"), Socheata Poeuv (producer of "New Year Baby") and Phil Lees ("the unoffical pimp of Cambodian cuisine") along with a host of others who reveal their own personal favourites in the country they love.

It's not just a how far/how much/how to guide - but rather a compilation of secrets and delectable bites from each author, giving the reader better insights and direction into how to find the real Cambodia.

Not only do you learn how to order (and recognize) exotic fruits, where to find the best deep fried spiders and how to find a white-shouldered ibis, but you'll also learn how to behave at traditional weddings, what to expect at local festivals, how to find secret gardens and how to volunteer your services at charitable organizations.

And, while the book includes travel information about the usual suspects (Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Kampot and Sihanoukville), it also takes you to places like Sambor Prei Kuk, Kaam Samnor and Virachey National Park – places which are certain to dispute the cliché that “everything looks about the same in Camboda”.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Two books

Two new books have come to my attention. Bun's Story - Tomorrow I'm Dead by Bun Yom is a re-published memoir of a young man's survival under the Khmer Rouge regime, who then becomes a freedom fighter. Only those determined to sweep up every memoir of the Khmer Rouge period will be hell bent on getting a copy of this. The author, who resettled in the US in 1984, has a couple of YouTube interviews with tales from the book. Suffering, courage and heroism just about covers it, according to the book's publishers. Also just out is a book which could easily be confused with my own. It's called Cambodia With Love, but that's where the similarities end. This is a 160-page photography book by Tim Bowman, aimed at raising funds and awareness for the NGO Who Will, who relocated from Phnom Penh to Kompong Chhnang a while ago. Sounds like a great idea to me to help these orphans and disadvantaged kids who are being raised in a family environment. Find out more about Who Will here.

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Avoiding a faux pas

I had kittens a while ago when I was sent an early suggestion for the cover of my book To Cambodia With Love. It's the one in green above, with the rice planters wearing the traditional Vietnamese pointy hats. I rejected it immediately. Of course, some farmers in Cambodia wear pointy hats to shield themselves from the hot sun but to avoid a faux pas or even a mini international incident, I suggested we aim for something more Cambodian, and we eventually ended up with two classical dancers, snapped at the temples of Angkor. Phew... close call. We also changed the colour of the book cover. Below is one of the book's Phnom Penh-based readers, Rumnea.
Rumnea and her copy of TCWL

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ice with your Pepsi

This excerpt from To Cambodia With Love comes from Dickon Verey, who has three essays in the book. Dickon has recently returned to live in Phnom Penh, having previously lived in Cambodia for three years from 2003.

Dickon Verey catches that Pepsi spirit in Battambang
Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

Cambodia is a country of myths and fables, where gossip in the street becomes fast fact in minutes. I would wager that sorting fact from fiction would be a very lucrative business here if anyone found a good way to market it.

I spent almost three years of my life in the town of Battambang, which has a quiet provincial charm and laid-back ease. It also has its fair share of rumors and legends. I used to spend days driving around on my motorbike, following hearsay, happy in idle discovery. One time, I was in the Balcony Bar describing an adventure to Kompong Puoy Lake. My drinking partner looked at me, smiled, and said, "Bet you've never been to the Pepsi factory. That place gives me the creeps."

"Eh?" I said, cocking my ear. I had always assumed that Western corporations stayed away from Cambodia due to corruption. Furthermore, why would fizzy drinks frighten this character? "Yeah, it's an old Pepsi factory from Lon Nol times. Now it lies empty. Scary place. Apparently the Thais had an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola, so Pepsi built a factory in Battambang and shipped the stuff across the border. You can find it just outside of town on the road to Ek Phnom."

Fact or fiction? To find out, the next morning I hit the road. Three kilometers later and there it was; a large 1960s-style complex of warehouses and buildings. On the largest sat the old Pepsi logo. I drove up to the entrance and parked my bike. It appeared that the factory was in use. A group of ladies was cleaning plastic bottles. They looked at me in surprise. In broken Khmer I asked if I might look around.

"Ot panyahar!" (No problem!). I walked into the second room and stepped back in time. All the bottling machines were there, along with what must've been ten thousand old bottles. There were classic Pepsi, green Miranda, Singha Soda Water, and Teem. Could I take a couple? I was given the go-ahead. I then explored some more. The factory was suffering from age, but other than a few bullet holes and shell damage to one of the warehouses, it seemed largely untouched.

When I got home I noticed that the bottles had "72" etched on the bottom. I assumed that was the year they were made and that consequently they had never left the warehouse, as the surrounding countryside at that time was full of Khmer Rouge. The sense of history was palpable.

I decided to do some more research and talked to a friend of mine who spoke fluent Khmer. A few weeks later we headed back to the factory. As we wandered around outside, a band of giggling kids approached us. My friend asked one of them if he knew anything about the place.

"Speak to my dad," the kid said. A man of about sixty approached. My friend started chatting to him in Khmer. He seemed delighted that anyone was interested in the factory. He told us he delivered water that was processed by the people who were working there now.

"Where do you live?" He waved at some shacks a few meters away.

"Have you lived here long?" He laughed and explained that he had always lived there.

"Do you remember the time when the factory made Pepsi?" He laughed again and told us that he had delivered the stuff around Battambang. He didn't remember if the product was shipped to Thailand but thought it likely. The factory had closed when Pol Pot's people came, he said. However, every Khmer New Year the Khmer Rouge opened the factory for five days and made ice. In a rare act of generosity, they gave the ice to the villagers, and then they shut the factory again. When the Vietnamese occupied the country, they reopened the ice factory. When they left, the factory lay dormant until the water company came a few years ago.

On my last visit the factory was still there, so go and have a look yourself. Sure, Cambodia may be a country of myth and fable, but this is one story that's definitely true.

Fact File: Getting to the Pepsi factory
Battambang is located in the northwest of Cambodia about three hundred kilometers from Phnom Penh along National Highway 5. From the center of Battambang, take the road to Ek Phnom. Keep your eyes peeled for the Pepsi bottling factory, which is located about one mile from town.

Talking of To Cambodia With Love, we are aiming to hold a launch getogether at Monument Books in Phnom Penh around the middle of January. More when it's firmed up. Basically just standing around talking about the book or anything else you want to talk about. Probably a few difficult questions like, "why did it take so long from the beginning of the project to publication" at which point I blush, shuffle uncomfortably and look at my feet, hoping the floor will swallow me whole. Monument should have a pile of the lovingly crafted books by then. Lovingly crafted by the 60+ contributors I might add. Amazon had the book for sale before I'd even seen a copy and their author section tells me that 9 books have been sold in Seattle over the past couple of weeks. Go Seattle! With a fair wind we might even get some reviews in the local press here in Cambodia in the next couple of weeks. I'm buying a hard hat and building a bunker just in case the reviews are less than complimentary - I have to live in this town afterall.

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Bon voyage CSP

You have one final opportunity to catch the Cambodian Space Project before they take-off for a tour of Australia and follow that up with visits to the USA, Europe and the UK later in 2011. Not bad for a band that only got together a year ago. Be there at Equinox on Street 278 in BKK1 on Christmas Eve (Friday 24 December) from 8pm. And it's free. If you haven't heard of CSP then what stone have you been living under, and you obviously aren't a regular reader of this blog.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Memory intact

Not the best photo of the occasion, but the only one that survived to record my meeting with Em Theay last weekend, as well as a copy of TCWL
Though my own camera failed miserably when I met Em Theay last weekend, the phone-camera of the guide, Eak, who was with us and did a great job at translating, was working and it managed to grab this rather dark image of Em Theay and myself in close quarters with a copy of To Cambodia With Love, in which I wrote a story about the lady who has done so much to resurrect traditional classical dance here in Cambodia. Long may she continue.
I've been informed by a couple of people that Sambo the elephant has been seen back at her post at Wat Phnom recently, though walking home at rush-hour along Sisowath Quay has been suspended for the time being. The other Sambo, the rampaging bull elephant in Kompong Speu province, has been calmed down with tranquilizers pending the authorities deciding on what to do with him. Phnom Tamao Zoo looks the most likely location. While I'm on the topic of Wat Phnom, the inside of the pagoda on the top will be off-limits for a few months whilst renovation work takes place on the inside wall paintings and the outside roof tiles. They reckon it'll take six months from February. Just a pity they can't renovate and train the monkeys at the same time.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Better late than never

Welcome to Banteay Chhmar
It was quite a while ago that I visited Banteay Chhmar on a fam trip. In fact it was at the end of June and whilst I've already posted a few photos from that trip, here are the best of the rest, with 10 photos taken entirely at the temple itself. Banteay Chhmar is one of my favourite temples, I've even written about it in my book, To Cambodia With Love, so if you dredge through my previous blog postings, I'm sure you'll find lots of other pictures from the temple complex. I hope you enjoy them and get along to the temple yourself, you won't be disappointed.
The Hall of Dancers is in great danger of total collapse
Banteay Chhmar is a temple with many remarkable carvings, this one shows Shiva with 10 arms between Brahma and Vishnu
A pediment still in place showing a figure with 20 arms and nine heads in the center frame; experts have yet to identify this deity
This dvarapala door guardian is partially hidden by fallen blocks of stone
One of a few inscriptions found at Banteay Chhmar, this one is on a doorframe
A face tower at Banteay Chhmar, in dire need of restoration, as are many others
A medallion showing an apsara dancer holding a ribbon of pearls next to one the multi-armed AvalokiteshvaraTwo praying crowned attendants underneath the Avalokiteshvara in the anjali pose
A reconstructed pediment sits on the ground at Banteay Chhmar with two rows of worshippers

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Preah Vihear's future

Preah Vihear in 2002 without any tourists
The Cambodia Daily has a news article on Preah Vihear today, in which I get a small soundbite. The front page feature talks up the future of Preah Vihear now that the Thai and Khmer troops have pulled back and that the new road from Siem Reap via Anlong Veng has cut the journey time down to 3 hours. It also focuses on the town of Sra'em, where Paramount Angkor Express has a bus delivering customers from Phnom Penh daily and where guesthouses are springing up, now that the village of Kor Muoy, at the foot of the mountain, has been dismantled. My comments recognised the importance of the improved infrastructure but sounded a note of caution over the current military situation:

Despite signs of detente between the Thai and Cambodian governments, the temple remains a conflict zone. Andy Brouwer, product manager for Hanuman, a tour agency in Phnom Penh, said yesterday that while the new road made tour visits "much more feasible," the temple needed permanent peace to reach its full tourism potential. "Until the two sides categorically state that they are no longer squabbling or fighting over Preah Vihear, then it's always going to remain a potential trouble spot that could go downhill at any stage," Mr Brouwer said.

Essentially we need to avoid false dawns as far as Preah Vihear is concerned. The troops may've pulled back but I don't hear of any peace treaty being signed or the Thai government stating publicly that the military stand-off won't flair up again, which means that the situation remains fragile. That will be a concern to many foreign tourists who will shy away from a potential trouble spot due to safety concerns. And rightly so. We all want Preah Vihear to flourish as a tourism magnet, but people must be aware of the situation they are entering before they go and without their safety being assured, many will stay away.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Preserving heritage

Cambodia is looking to add to its list of World Heritage recognised locations and cultural activities next year. It already has Angkor (1992) and Preah Vihear temple (2008) on the UNESCO World Heritage List, whilst Sbek Thom (2005), Khmer shadow puppet theatre, and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia or Apsara Dance (2003) are included on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Next up could be the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar, which has already been submitted, whilst a batch of five more items are also likely to get the nod for inclusion as well, if all goes well. The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts are keen to promote the following to the two forms of listing, tangible and intangible:
Ayai - an artform that involves pitching their wits against each other through song
Chapei Dong Veng - a two-stringed long-necked guitar, played by veteran musicians such as Kong Nay
Sambor Prei Kuk - the 7th century capital city in Kompong Thom province
Hol Phamuong - a colourful traditional dress made from silk
Kbach Kun Boran Khmer - a traditional form of boxing.

Tangible heritage refers to built heritage, cultural landscapes and all man-made elements with cultural significance. Intangible heritage refers to the practices, representations, expressions, memories, attachments, as well as the knowledge and skills that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals, recognise as part of their cultural heritage. It is sometimes called living cultural heritage, and can be manifested in the following areas: oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; traditional craftsmanship.

On the subject of preservation, the rampaging 5-tonne elephant currently running around wild in Kompong Speu province by the name of Sambo, is not the elephant of the same name that has been giving people rides around Wat Phnom for the last few years. It's just a coincidence that they have the same name. The Kompong Speu Sambo has already killed three people in the past, including his owner last week and is running amok near Mon village in the province. It doesn't look like there will be a happy ending to this particular dilemma. The Wat Phnom Sambo, who was given a rest by the authorities during the recent Water Festival, may not be allowed back to carry on her regular duties if the local authorities have their way. I don't know the latest but traffic congestion was the main sticking point for the Phnom Penh authorities.

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Aqua Marina

Heroines were a rare breed when I was growing up, so when they did come along, they stuck in my memory for a long time. One of the heroines I always had a soft spot for was Marina, the beautiful mute girl who could breathe underwater in the 1960s children's television show Stingray. Okay, so she was a puppet (actually, a marionette to be precise), but she was a first-class heroine, who escaped from evil clutches as a slave to become a fantasy love interest for the Stingray captain, Troy Tempest. By the way, not many people know that it was the first British television programme to be filmed entirely in colour. As for Marina, the romantic feelings that Troy had for her were encapsulated in the song, Aqua Marina, that can be heard in the closing credits of the show. Perhaps the heroine who comes closest to Marina in modern times, and who bears a striking resemblance to the 1960s star (if you are wearing the same inadequate prescription spectacles that I wear) is the contemporary dancer Belle.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Kim loves Kratie

This excerpt from To Cambodia With Love comes from the series editor Kim Fay. Currently living in Los Angeles, Kim first came to SEAsia in 1991 and subsequently spent 4 years living in Vietnam. She is author of Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam and creator and series editor of the To Asia With Love guidebooks. She also edited the Vietnam edition. For TCWL she took a trip to Kratie.

Kim Fay falls into the rhythm of life in Kratie
Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

Kratie at seven in the morning is similar to Kratie at noon and Kratie at sundown. Mellow. Midway up the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and Stung Treng, this is an old colonial town that does not know how to not relax. Even progress goes at its own pace here, as a cement mixer passes by on the back of a pony cart. Kratie has a sedative quality, and it was in this state that I set out from my guesthouse on a rented bicycle, with a water bottle, a camera, and a Mekong Discovery Trail booklet tucked into my basket.

I headed north on the road that trailed the river, and I made it just a few hundred yards beyond town when I realized that it was already uncomfortably hot. Turning back, I stopped at the first stall at the market, bought a big hat and shawl, and covered myself from head to toe. Wrapped in this cocoon, with only the backs of my hands showing, I cycled for hours while the river ebbed and flowed from view, the shadows of sugar palms skipped over the road, and people went about their daily business in the shade of their modest wooden homes, which were lifted off the ground on stilts.

When I returned to my guesthouse that afternoon, I was addicted and asked if I could rent the bike again the following day. I set out even earlier, my muscles already aching from my first ride. This time I did not go for the countryside surrounding Kratie, but clumsily carried my bicycle down the steep steps to the boat landing. There it was hauled onto a canoelike wooden boat (so small it had only two facing benches) that was the ferry to Koh Trong Island in the middle of the river.

Along with a handful of locals, I was deposited on a vast, flat beach, where a cow that was curled up for a nap could not even be bothered to glance at us. I dragged my bike across the sand to a bumpy, slat-wood path, which led to a deeply rutted trail up a hill to the dirt road that circled the island. The morning was so quiet, and as I set off, I was intensely aware of everything around me. The petals of flame trees scattered on the ground. Butterflies drifting as if a breeze had come to life. Chickens pecking at fallen jackfruit. Spirit altars like small bird houses perched in front of homes on stilts. I cut off on a side path through the center of the island, and the landscape opened, its pastoral fields smelling of wood smoke, hay, and the lanky grazing cows. Without the shelter of trees over the road, every passing cloud was a gift, a relief from the sodden heat.

It was possible to pedal for great stretches without seeing a single person. When I did, it would be a grandfather napping in the shade of a roadside food stall or a naked child emerging up a bank with an armload of mangoes. The mango trees were laden at that time of year, and when I passed the one group of children I saw the whole day, they did not go crazy shouting "hello! hello!" but just smiled and gave a nonchalant wave before returning to eating the ripe green fruit.

It was as if, by coming out to the island, a person belonged, no matter her hair or skin color. To be there was just that: to be. The feeling stayed with me throughout the afternoon and back to town, where the day came to a close in perfect Kratie style, with a cold beer at one of the little café tables on the promenade while the sun set over the river.

Fact File: Getting to Kratie
Buses to Kratie leave Phnom Penh from Psar Thmei market, usually around 8 a.m. Numerous companies make this journey. Kim used the Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Company, whose office is at the market. While tickets can be purchased the morning of travel, she suggests buying in advance, to get decent seats at the front of the bus. Buses are basic, and the ride takes six to eight hours, with stops along the way for food and toilet breaks. Food at the roadside restaurants is acceptable, but not terrific. The same goes for the toilets. Bring your own toilet paper.

Biking around Kratie
Although it's not essential, try to pick up a copy of Mekong Discovery Trail while you're in Kratie. This booklet has basic bike route information, including the road north out of town and around Koh Trong Island. A bike with good tires and brakes can be rented from the You Hong II guesthouse (see below). Make sure to bring lots of water, a hat, a scarf/shawl, and your own sunscreen, since purchasing sunscreen at the market is nearly impossible. Don't underestimate the sun. The backs of Kim's hands-the only part of her body exposed-were blistered for days after her two rides. Also, keep in mind that there are no public toilets anywhere on these bike rides. www.mekongdiscoverytrail.com

You Hong II (U Hong II)
Accommodation choices are limited in Kratie, and not all are appealing. The first night, Kim stayed in a guesthouse that was swarming with cockroaches. When she mentioned this as the reason for leaving, the manager shrugged and said, with little concern, "They come in to play with the light." This led her to the You Hong II, which she highly recommends. The rooms are clean, the fans work, and there are en suite bathrooms-all for less than $10 a night. The ground floor restaurant is also quite charming (especially during blackouts), serving good food to travelers as well as those few expatriates working in town. A copy of the Mekong Discovery Trail can be borrowed here. The guesthouse is located just off the river, off the road at the south end of the market.

Riverside dining
Of eating and drinking in Kratie, Peter Walter adds: Walking along the river, I stumbled onto a long stretch of drink and snack huts basking in the glow of the late afternoon sun. After picking a spot, I was soon enjoying a bottle of ice-cold beer. The proprietor, a middle-aged mother of two girls, offered me some snacks, including the local favorite of an unhatched chick still inside its egg. Sticking with my drink, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the last rays of the setting sun before it disappeared behind the opposite bank of the river.

Once it was dark, the lady and her teenage daughter caught me by surprise as they started racing around their tables, lunging after fat, buzzing, cicadalike insects that had arrived under the cover of dusk and were flying all around the place. The pair successfully caught about two dozen of the critters, methodically plucking off the wings and legs before skewering the meaty remains and cooking them in a small charcoal oven. The proprietor explained that they planned to bring them home as a snack for her other daughter, who was still a toddler.

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Tribute

You might want to head up to Siem Reap and Angkor on 25 or 26 February, if an evening of musical story-telling and dance, set against a backdrop of the Bayon temple, is your idea of a good night out. The Tribute to the Masters concert has a sponsor's Gala Dinner on the first night at $100 a head, whilst the next evening the price comes down to a more manageable $10-20. On offer will be a diverse collection of performers and artists, with the teenage soprano bosbaPANH leading the way, alongwith members of her talented family and other artists of high calibre, including renowned cellist Sarah O'Brien, French jazz musician Jean Marc Padovani, folk singer Ieng Sithul, Laura Mam and The Like Me's, Chinese flautist Liao Qi Cheng, the sounds of composer Ung Chinary, mixed with music from King Father Norodom Sihanouk, Sinn Sisamouth and classical Cambodian dance choreographed by Em Theay and performed by her grand-daughter Nam Narin. Quite a line-up and a bit of something for everyone.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Absolutely adorable

Em Theay - I hope she will go on forever
Continuing the dance theme, I was fortunate to meet up with the adorable Em Theay for more than an hour this morning, in what I can only describe as a private audience with the icon of traditional Cambodian classical dance. Accompanied by Hannah from England and her tour guide, Eak, we sat in a small pavilion on the banks of the Tonle Sap in the grounds of Chaktomuk Theatre as Em Theay regaled us with tales of her childhood in the royal palace, the thwacks of her teacher's cane when she did something wrong and the long hours spent practicing the love of her life, classical dance. Despite her advancing years, she can't help herself and had to show us some of her poses, that she performed as a dancer and taught as a teacher, sang a few songs and explained why dance is so important to her. She spoke with great affection for King Sihanouk and recalled the desperately sad years of the Khmer Rouge, where she survived only because the local commander liked her dancing and singing. Now 80 years old, she is determined to reach 100 and to carry on helping others appreciate the art of dance that has brought her so much happiness throughout her own life. It is always a real privilege to spend time with Em Theay and as a memento I gave her a copy of my book, which contains a story I wrote about her. Unfortunately my camera is still playing silly buggers and ruined the picture of us together, but here are a few snaps I did manage to salvage.
Em Theay shows us a few monkey moves
LtoR: Eak, Em Theay and Hannah
Postures and hand movements are such an important part of classical dance
On her feet, she cannot stop herself from dancing and singing

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dance in progress

Arco Renz (left) with Chankethya, Belle and Chanmoly at the post-show Q&A. Performance photos were not allowed.
The first look at an untitled contemporary dance performance at Chenla Theatre tonight left me scratching my head. I'm not an expert when it comes to dance, far from it, and when the talk is all about time, absence of space, fragments of architecture and an alphabet of movement, frankly it sails miles over my head. A work in progress was what it was billed as and for me that was exactly what I saw. Even a post-dance question and answer session with the protagonists left me none the wiser. An opening ten minute segment by Belle was riveting, economical movements whilst building the tension within herself, though the rest of the 45 minute show left me wondering. The line-up of dancers for this production, which will be refined ready for a May 2011 premier at the Singapore Arts Festival, was a who's-who of contemporary dance. Under the direction of German choreographer Arco Renz, Belle was joined on stage by Chan Chankethya, Vuth Chanmoly, Yon Davy, Chy Ratana, Nget Rady and Phon Sopheap. It doesn't get much better than that for an array of exciting talent. So I'm sure by the time the finished article goes live in Singapore, it will have been reshaped into something that encapsulates what the director calls, "a creation of an idiosyncratic physical language and discourse via the parameters of dance." There you go, I'm lost again.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Sophea on stage

Sophea Chamroeun on stage with Children of Bassac
It was my final visit to the dentist today to fit a crown that has been five visits in the making. I respect the work they do, but heck, I hate going to the dentist now as much as it scared the living daylights out of me when I was a kid. A word on the folks at Roomchang, they run a very professional ship and the quality of care was excellent, but they aren't cheap, as my bank balance will testify. This evening, it was off to Chayyam restaurant on Street 278 for some of my favourite fish amok as it's easy on the teeth and surprise, surprise, as part of their 4-times a week taste of Khmer culture, there was one of the best young dancers in the country, Sophea Chamroeun, from Children of Bassac, on stage. Sophea, as well as strutting her stuff with the Bassac show every Thursday at the national museum, also dances at Chayyam when she can. The restaurant puts on both music and dance performances every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 7.30pm. And their fish amok is really good too.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Kong Nay in space

Kong Nay in full flow at the Bophana Center
Tomorrow is Human Rights Day (and of course yet another public holiday here in Cambodia) and tonight the celebrations began in earnest at the Bophana Center with master chapei musician and singer Kong Nay joining forces with the Cambodian Space Project to spread the word. With UNHCR in full support, Kong Nay kicked it off and was then joined by Srey Thy from CSP as they duetted on a song especially written for this important international event, and then the Spacers took over the stage to belt out a handful of numbers for the audience. The Cambodians adore Kong Nay, who improvises and mixes his blues style with a unique form of rap, all in Khmer, which means people like me have no idea what he's singing about but the look on the faces of the watching Khmers, tells me that they lap it up. Wherever I've seen Kong Nay perform, he receives the respect that his talent deserves. And CSP, although they have years to catch up, are building a rock-solid reputation as well. They are heading for a month-long tour of Australia soon, after a Christmas Eve departure gig at Equinox, and then have plans to perform in Europe and the United States as well. Not bad for a mix of Cambodians and foreigners playing what is essentially Khmer rock music from the Sixties.
Kong Nay in tandem with the Cambodian Space Project
Srey Thy and the Cambodian Space Project take centrestage at the Bophana Center

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A rarity arrives

I'm a big book fan and especially novels set in Cambodia, so I was pleased and intrigued by an email that I received today. Enclosed was a request from a Vietnamese novelist, Nguyen Thanh Nhan, to read and review his self-published English-language novel, Away from Home Season - The story of a Vietnamese volunteer veteran in Cambodia. The book was enclosed in pdf format and I will do my best to read the novel as quickly as I can, though I must admit I'm not a fan of online reading. It's set in Cambodia between the years 1984 to 1987, when Nhan himself was stationed here, along the Thai-Cambodian border as Vietnam maintained a heavy armed presence in Cambodia to combat the Khmer Rouge and coalition forces. Nhan is a writer and freelance translator and has published novels, short stories and articles in newspapers, magazines and websites in his own country. This period in Cambodian history is rarely written about and I'm unaware of any other such work by a Vietnamese author in English. The novel is published by Lulu.com.

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