Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hothouse

Srey Thy dancing her way through the CSP set at Equinox
Equinox was rocking with the sounds of the Sixties tonight as the Cambodian Space Project came back to earth, well, Phnom Penh at least, after their recent sojourn overseas in China and the States. The leaner, meaner five-man CSP were performing at the renovated Equinox upstairs venue, larger and with an additional bar on tap, but way hotter than I recall and liable to help you shed a few pounds through the perspiration process. The crowd was a little shy when it came to exercising their dancing steps, but singer Srey Thy and the CSP boys did their best to raise the temperature with a few new tunes, picked up on their travels and which, with their back catalogue of favourites, will form the basis of their soon to be released 1st album. There were a few photographers with their smart cameras present, keen to capture the moment, and get in the way of the audience's viewing but CSP deservedly have a big name in the city these days (21 letters in all) and they are only going to get bigger. I hear they are off to Siem Reap soon for a gig or two and then next stop, England.
Rumnea showing how its done, Khmer style
Event photographer Nick Sells snapping away as Srey Thy leads the leaner 5-man Cambodian Space Project

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Phea's big day

Now wed, Phea and Channa before the confetti walk
700 guests at Phea's wedding tonight. A big occasion for him and his bubbly new wife, Channa. Good food, free flowing whiskey (not for me of course, I'm practically teetotal) and dancing to Madizon (old and new versions), Twist, Saravan and the rest. As usual I was the only foreigner. Met up with some old friends including Vourch and Sarein, Tima, Neang and the lovely Ara, though Lina, Kalyan, Rina, Vicheka, Alis and others were missing for a variety of reasons; Lina's excuse was that she gave birth to her daughter just a month a go, and I think that's a good enough reason. At my age it was good to give the bones a good rattle, though they should get another jangle at the Cambodian Space Project session tomorrow night at Equinox.
Proud parents, Phea and Channa on stage
Some of the younger party-goers with flower petals at the ready
Auntie Vourch (left) and best friend. Vourch makes the best chicken curry in Cambodia.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Take off

Be there - this Saturday night at Equinox on Street 278 at around 8.30pm. That's Phnom Penh of course. I recommend you join in the fun as the Cambodian Space Project are back in town and performing one of their spectacular, and free, gigs at the revamped upstairs bar. Just back from their whirlwind travels around the globe, they'll also be playing up in Siem Reap soon enough at 1961, a new art center comprising of a series of galleries, boutiques, food & dining outlets and an 8-room hotel, before leaving these shores again and heading for their first visit to the UK later in the year.

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TaTa

The lovely ladies of Tuol Kork: back: Vourch, Alis, Sokrum, Thida; front: Ara, me, Lina
I found another photo, above - most of my pictures from my earlier trips to Cambodia are prints rather than online or digital and so aren't readily available to post - and it brought back even more great memories of my yearly trips to Cambodia. This picture is from a visit to the TaTa restaurant in Prek Leap, just over the Japanese Bridge, from December 2000. A dozen of us went for a slap-up meal with all the trimmings and the cabaret show and guess who ended up paying. I must try and get my prints onto my pc so I can post many more of them onto my website. Scanning each photo used to take me forever which was why part of my Cambodia Tales stories are just that, stories without the accompanying pictures. It was, and remains, a work in progress but other things come along and take precedence and the job was never finished. The story of my life.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Great memories

With some of my Tuol Kork friends at a restaurant in Prek Leap in 2002
I am really looking forward to yet another wedding party this coming Friday when an old friend from way back, Phea, will marry his sweetheart Channa. It'll be a great opportunity to meet up with many friends from my Tuol Kork days, when my yearly visits to Cambodia always involved spending time with them at their home, usually at a party or a big meal, before gradually everyone went their separate ways. These occasions bring everyone back together again. I mention my friends in an excerpt from my book To Cambodia With Love, and the introduction to the chapter, Moveable Feasts:
Then there is my love affair with another Khmer dish, which came about in the aftermath of the passing of one of my closest friends a decade ago. His extended family, all living under the same roof in the Tuol Kork district of Phnom Penh, invited me to join them one evening, and his Aunt Vourch brought out her specialty, Khmer chicken curry (kari sach moan), made with her own secret recipe. That was it. I was hooked. I've been back to Tuol Kork many times since. There's just something uniquely special about Vourch's masterpiece, the taste and texture, the bond of true friendship that it represents. I've enjoyed similar dishes throughout Cambodia, but none come close.

In To Cambodia With Love, I also talk about the friend I lost:
As I write this I think about how different my life might have been had I not met Sok Thea. His spirit of adventure and boundless energy to uncover his country's secrets and to promote them to others was a revelation to me. I've never met anyone like him. Our best bonding session came over a decade ago as we clambered around an overgrown Beng Mealea temple along with five gun-toting soldiers when the area was still heavily mined. Thea died a year later, aged just twenty-nine, and I still miss him. No one has ever understood my love for Cambodia more than he did. His loss was Cambodia's loss. He was the one who prompted me to begin a voyage of discovery that continues to this day.
Inside the Tuol Kork home of Aunt Vourch (orange shirt) with more of my friends. Phea is on the back row with glasses.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fawthrop's Mekong

The key speakers at the PUC discussion forum and film tonight. Tom Fawthrop is on his feet.
The main topic at the film show and discussion at Pannasastra University tonight was the future of the Mekong River and the uncertainty caused by the proposed dams on the Mekong mainstream. Journalist Tom Fawthrop showed his film Where have all the fish gone? Killing the Mekong dam by dam, which poses the question of how the dams will possibly affect the livelihoods and diet of the millions of people who rely on the river's bountiful supply, not to mention the biodiversity, agriculture, riverflow and fisheries. The publication of a strategic environment assessment by the Mekong River Commission last October offered a critical appraisal of the dam proposals that are on the table. 11 mainstream dams in total for the lower Mekong, with two scheduled for Cambodia. The assessment called for a deferral of the projects for at least ten years in order to properly study and assess the impacts on the millions of people who look to the Mekong River for their food protein and livelihoods. Ministers from the four governments who are signatories of the Mekong River Commission will now meet later this year to decide on the 1st of the dams due for construction, the Xayaburi in Laos. If it goes ahead it opens the floodgates for the other dams. Is there enough public opposition to the plans in the 4 countries to sway government views, or will apathy reign as it often does when the environment is concerned in this part of the world? The students who attended tonight's discussion as well as the representatives from the Environment Ministry were in support of a 10-year moratorium, as was Fawthrop's film, as should everyone else be, whilst the impacts of the dams have not yet been properly assessed. This is simply too important to let it happen without a fight, to allow short-term monetary gain to leap-frog over the environmental, livelihood and numerous other concerns that affect so many people. Find out more for yourself, here.
Film producer Tom Fawthrop means business

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Singh on duty

Make a note in your diary. Friday 6 May at 6pm, Monument Books on Norodom. The author is making a special visit from Singapore, so make sure you get along to meet her.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Confusion abounds

A photographic pal in Siem Reap, Eric de Vries has just published a new collection of black and white pictures showing street life throughout Southeast Asia. The 160-page book is called Big Time Confusion 00/11 (morning night and day) and you can see more here. Eric is member of SEA/collectiv, a Cambodian based photographers collective, and founder of PhotoCambodia. His previous books include Images of Cambodia. Find out more about Eric and his work here.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Singh gets my vote

Shamini Flint's cracking new novel
Once I started, I found it hard to put down. Which in my reckoning, means it was a darn good novel. Shamini Flint's whodunnit - Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree - featuring a sweating, fat Sikh detective who gets caught up in shenanigans at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in modern-day Cambodia was an entertaining read throughout. Set in the present day and taking you from Tuol Sleng to the FCC and back to Choeung Ek, with Angkor Wat thrown in for good measure, Flint does a good job in keeping you guessing with a variety of twists and turns and comes up with an unexpected surprise ending, just when you thought the bad guys had been put to bed. The humour between the main character, Inspector Singh, airlifted in from Singapore and feeling like a fish out of water, and his adopted Khmer sidekick Chhean had me chuckling on a few occasions, and his penchant for chicken curry meant we shared common ground. Even an unlikely hero like Singh will get my backing if he is on a non-stop hunt for chicken curry. Published by Piatkus, the author will be at Monument Books in Phnom Penh on Friday 6 May for the launch of her brand new novel. I recommend you get hold of a copy smartish and enjoy it as much as I did.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Washed out

A massive thunderstorm with ear-piercing thunder claps besieged Phnom Penh this evening, deluging the city with enough rain to flood all the usual places and more besides. It also robbed me of my television transmission midway through watching the Barclays Premier League action. Darn it. It also flooded out the ground floor home of Rumnea and her family, so the four of them have made their way through the knee-high water to sleep in my spare room for the night. I have the blankets but I don't have the hot chocolate to give them. I shouldn't jest, everything in their house is soaking wet and this happens at least a few times every rainy season. They need to move to higher ground.

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Here we go again

The final steps leading away from Prasat Ta Muen Thom temple and the path that leads across the disputed border area
Just when you think it's safe to go to the border area temples like Preah Vihear and Prasat Ta Muen, the armed conflict kicks-off again. Yesterday mortar and artillery shells killed three soldiers on both the Cambodian and Thailand sides of the border area around the temples of Ta Muen and Ta Krabei temples in Banteay Ampil district. As usual both countries blamed each other for starting the six-hour conflict, calling it an invasion, and thousands of civilians were evacuated from the immediate area, on both sides. This is the first real breakdown in the border situation since February's fighting at Preah Vihear and the follow-on agreement by both sides to host Indonesian border observers, who have yet to arrive. Such a sad state of affairs, where people have lost their lives for little more than sabre-rattling. As I'm typing I've just heard that fighting has broken out again in the same area early this morning as well. Violence is never far from the surface either at the border area or in Phnom Penh, where the authorities are increasingly meeting protests and demonstrations with brute force and pictures in the press of an old woman with blood pouring from a head wound does the police and government no favours at all. The Boeung Kak issue, where 4,000 families are being evicted from land surrounding the former backpacker-infested lakeside area, is not going away anytime soon, so expect more ugly scenes in the future.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Mekong discussion


The recent press attention given to the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Laos, which the 4 main Mekong River countries failed to agree on this week, will be part of the focus of a film show and discussion at Pannasastra University next Tuesday, 26 April, at 6pm. Hosted by the NGO Forum on Cambodia, The Future of Mekong Fishery is aimed at raising awareness on the potential impact to the downstream communities who rely directly on the river for their livelihoods and food supply, due to the development of up to 11 hydropower dams on the mainstream Mekong River, including two dams in Cambodia itself at Stung Treng and Sambor. The film will be Tom Fawthrop's Where have all the fish gone? Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam, a trailer for which you can see above. You can find out more information at the following website.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Perfect strangers

Tuyen and Huyen (stripes) and their smiles, outside the Sao Bien restaurant in Tra Vinh
Without doubt, one of the most enjoyable evenings during our whirlwind tour of the Khmer provinces in the Mekong Delta last October, was a dinner engagement with two young ladies, both in their early 20s, in the town of Tra Vinh. At random I stopped and asked a passer-by whether there were any good restaurants in town and the stranger, who turned out to be the lovely Tuyen, responded back with almost perfect English and suggested one on the outskirts of the town center. Not one to miss an opportunity for good conversation, I invited her to join Tim and myself and to bring a friend along as well. Thus, we then spent the next four hours with Tuyen and Huyen, both of whom were studying English full-time, at the Sao Bien restaurant, ordering a selection of local delicacies as well as finding out about life in Tra Vinh and Vietnam in general. They nicknamed themselves Tra Vinh's lovely girls and I wasn't going to argue with them. They were fun, great company and it made a nice change from looking at Tim's ugly mug over the dinner table. We left Tra Vinh early the next morning on our way to Soc Trang to continue our adventures.
With the adorable Tuyen in Tra Vinh

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A novel approach

A fat Sikh inspector is on the prowl in Cambodia, sweating profusely and seeking out evil and solving crimes. That's the basis of a new book that goes under the title of Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree. It's the fourth in a series of crime novels by Singapore-based author Shamini Flint, who turned to writing after a career in law and seems to have found a rich vein with her unconventional hero, Inspector Singh, and a series that has so far been on tour to Malaysia, Bali and Singapore. She also dabbles successfully in children's books and will be bringing herself to a book launch at Monument Books on Friday 6 May at 6pm. I've managed to get hold of a copy of the book and have begun reading it tonight. You can find out more about the author here.
A new book that has already ruffled a few feathers is Joel Brinkley's Cambodia's Curse: A Modern History of a Troubled Land as it details what's happening on the ground in the country today, warts and all, with a few curveballs thrown in for good measure, according to the reviews I've read so far. Brinkley is a former New York Times Pulitzer-winning writer who doesn't hold back when discussing the country's ills. I'm not convinced that he'll be appearing at Monument Books anytime soon.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Luu Cu dig

Our visit to Luu Cu attracted lots of attention
With Tra Vinh province known for its Khmer pagodas and Khmer-speaking population, it perhaps comes as no surprise that we also came across a set of brick ruins whilst undertaking our tour of the province last October. Known as Luu Cu, excavations unveiled in 1986, a huge brick-built building, though only the rectangular foundations remain today, but enough evidence was collated to suggest that it was a site of worship when it was erected in the 1st century AD during the time of the Funan empire, with further evidence to suggest there was a 2nd construction in the 5th century. Pre-Angkorian of course, though there are no Angkor-style remains in the Mekong Delta that I'm aware of. Archaeologists found yoni, linga, religious items made of sandstone, crystal rock, gold and brass, though none of these are kept at the site today. What does remain are the laid-bare foundations, with a few bricks featuring floral patterns, underneath a large covering, a sign in Vietnamese, a guest-book for visitors to sign and most of the village children, who came out to join our investigation, and of course, pose for photos. Luu Cu is about 40kms southwest of Tra Vinh and just a stone's throw from the Luu Cuu II pagoda.
A substantial brick-built rectangular place of worship remains at Luu Cu
Excavations have revealed this site dates back to Funan and the 1st century AD
A more formal team photo at the site of Luu Cu

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Dam and be damned

This amount of water, on the Cambodia-Laos border, could become a thing of the past
The livelihoods of fisherfolk and the diet of millions is under scrutiny in Vientiane today when the 4 countries - Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand - meet to consider the merits and give a thumbs up, or otherwise, for the Xayaburi Dam in Laos. It's the first of 11 hydropower dams that are in the pipeline and if the four members of the Mekong River Commission give the go-ahead, there will be very serious impacts on the two countries which rely on the Mekong River for much of their fish stocks, namely Cambodia and Vietnam. Essentially, if the dam gets the green light, environmentalists suggest that up to a third of all Mekong fish could be prevented from completing their migration cycles, which would have disastrous effects on the region's fish catch. Not to mention the impact on the dwindling dolphin population and the millions of people that rely on the Mekong River, Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong Delta for their daily diet. Laos and Thailand want it, Vietnam are dead set against it whilst Cambodia seems to be sitting on the fence. China is already constructing 4 dams higher up the Mekong River and if Xayaburi or the others join the construction frenzy, goodness knows what the outcome will be.
Postscript: The meeting failed to reach a verdict and has deferred a decision to ministerial level later in the year. Vietnam want a 10-year ban on dams on the Mekong mainstream (don't we all), whilst Cambodia and Thailand asked for more information and consultation. Meanwhile, Laos are keen for it to go ahead, so they can sell the electricity to Thailand, who will fund the construction. Let's wait and see what mess the respective government ministers can make of it.

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Climbing monks

Two monks take a rest after their climbing exertions at Wat Hang
When I mentioned my visit to Wat Hang a couple of days ago, I forgot to include a few more photos. Wat Hang is a few kilometres outside of the provincial capital of Tra Vinh in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. Tra Vinh is known for its Khmer pagodas, over 140 of them at the last count, and Wat Hang, the cave pagoda, also known as Wat Kompong Chray, is one of the best known, mainly because of the numbers of storks and other birds roosting in the surrounding trees - late afternoon is the time to see most activity and to dodge the bird droppings - as well as the pagoda's monks, who have earned a reputation as excellent sculptors of wood. Judging by my photos, they are also expert climbers of pagoda spires. We were given a guided tour of the pagoda by two of its teenage female residents, Cam and They, as it gave then a chance to practice their English.
Our friendly guides at Wat Hang, They (left) and Cam
Climbing monks in action at Wat Hang, doing running repairs to the pagoda's loudspeakers
The entrance to Wat Hang, also known as the cave pagoda
Not exactly a great photo for any bird enthusiasts but I think you get the idea that there were a LOT of birds in the surrounding trees

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Monday, April 18, 2011

A Buddhist welcome

Posing for a photo with the worldly-wise head monk, Vichet, at Wat Bangry Chas
Whilst pottering around the Mekong Delta last October, particularly in the Khmer stronghold of Tra Vinh province, we had a noodle lunch at the stall of the entertaining Nu in the town of Tra Cu before heading out of town and on the hunt for some of the more interesting Khmer pagodas in the area. Our 1st port of call was Wat Bangry Chas and its impressively sized reclining Buddha, which was two years in the making and some 54 metres in length, making it the largest of its kind in Kampuchea Krom. Well, that was according to the 33 year old head monk, Vichet, who took Tim and myself into his residence for a cup of tea and a chin-wag. His English was remarkably good, and from the photographs displayed on the walls, its clear this go-ahead monk had travelled far and wide. His brightly painted main vihara was just four years old, he proudly announced and was the gift of some very wealthy local families, as was the concrete reclining Buddha currently under construction. He walked us through the vihara and then we climbed the rickety wooden ladder to inspect the Buddha at close quarters and try our hand at chipping away some of the concrete toenails of the enlightened one. As we found throughout our travels and in particular at the Khmer pagodas that we called into, the welcome we received far exceeded our expectations in this amazingly friendly part of the Mekong Delta.
The 54-metre reclining Buddha is a work in progress - the biggest in Kampuchea Krom
Letting the experts chip away at the toenails of the enlightened one
These two female workers simply never stopped giggling the whole time we were there
The lovely Nu at her noodle stall in the small town of Tra Cu, 35kms from Tra Vinh

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Foxy Lady unmasked

The inner workings of Tuol Sleng, or S-21 as it was known when more than 14,000 people came through its gates and succumbed to torture and death during the maelstrom of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, is something that has resonated with me since I watched John Pilger's shocking documentary, Year Zero, in 1979. So a book like Foxy Lady: Truth, Memory and the Death of Western Yachtsmen in Democratic Kampuchea is food and drink to anyone with a similar interest. The exhaustive investigation by author Dave Kattenburg is excruciating in its detail of twenty-seven year old Canadian Stuart Glass, who is the main focus of the book, as the carefree hippee, known as a 'gentle giant,' traversed the globe, occasionally smuggling marijuana. His untimely death at such a young age, along with another eight Western yachtsmen, shines a spotlight on the paranoia and mind-numbing obedience to their cause shown by those at the heart of the Khmer Rouge tempest. Kattenburg's gripping tale uncovers the minutiae of Glass's journey until that fateful day in August 1978, when Foxy Lady, the boat crewed by Glass and two sailing colleagues, entered Cambodian territorial waters, from which they would never return. The book also chronicles the story of S-21, from its inception to its discovery by the invading Vietnamese and the media attention subsequently lavished on this Auschwitz of Southeast Asia. Featuring heavily is the S-21 chief architect of death, Duch, who along with others like Meas Muth and Him Huy, know a lot more than they are telling about the demise of the Western sailors who all happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only snippets and hearsay have so far emerged about the true fate of the eight Westerners who were captured by the Khmer Rouge navy and taken to their eventual execution at S-21, that is after each one underwent weeks, sometimes months of torture for the purpose of fabricated confessions. For Stuart Glass, his story ended on the day the navy intercepted the Foxy Lady, where he was shot and his body dumped at sea. Some might say he was the lucky one. I commend Dave Kattenburg for unmasking this intriguing tale, it's a fascinating story that will resonate with many. Find out more at foxyladyachtsmen. Published by The Key Publishing House in Toronto, Canada.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hang pagoda

One of the sculpting monks at Wat Hang (Chua Hang in Vietnamese)
Wat Hang, a few kilometres outside the town of Tra Vinh was one of so many interesting places I uncovered on my visit to the Mekong Delta in October of last year. The Khmer pagoda is renowned for its flocks of storks, cranes and herons that nest, noisily, in the tall trees surrounding the vihara, as well as its monks, who are famous for their ability to create beautiful wooden carvings. I also encountered a bunch of friendly schoolgirls who live in one of the dorms at the pagoda and attend the nearby school and who gladly showed me around, communicating in broken English and a smattering of Khmer. The brightest spark amongst them was 17-year-old Cam, who proudly told me she played football and lots of other sports and had an infectious giggle. The monks were friendly too, with two of them climbing to the top of the vihara to carry out repairs, and the pagoda is well worth a visit if you are in nearby Tra Vinh.
New friends at Wat Hang including Cam, stood in front of me. We were standing on top of their dorm which was a great vantage point to see the birds in the surrounding trees.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Grrrl in print

A new book just out is Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh by writer Anne Elizabeth Moore, who came to Cambodia to share her expertise and knowledge with the capital's young women at the Harpswell Foundation and ended up teaching them how to make zines. It's the first in a series of short essay collections to be published by Microcosm Publishing.
Saturday will see Srey Thy and the Cambodian Space Project back in the country, after wowing China and the USA, and off to the rural countryside in Prey Veng to play a concert at the home village of their female lead singer. I can't make it but I know how wonderful these occasions are, so those who are going are in for a treat. Fortunately, CSP will be back in Phnom Penh and onstage at Equinox on Saturday 30 April from 8pm, so everyone will have the opportunity for joining in the fun once more. For those who like the CSP style of Cambodian rock and pop music, also check out those copy-cats from the States, Dengue Fever, who have a new album just out called Cannibal Courtship. You can listen to it for free here. I expect the Stateside pretenders will be back on these shores sometime soon trying to sell a few copies and doing their charitable good works (wink wink).

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mistaken identity

It appears that this photo at Tuol Sleng is not of David Scott afterall
Whilst reading Dave Kattenburg's book Foxy Lady, one of the mysteries surrounding a photo that had been posted on the walls of Tuol Sleng for many years, appears to have been cleared up. The picture of a western male with a polka-dot shirt, that looks nothing like the usual mug-shot photos taken by the S-21 portrait team led by Nhem En, was tagged with the name of David Scott, one of the eight western yachtsmen who came through the doors of Tuol Sleng but never made it out again. He was captured on his boat, Sanuk, with Ron Dean in early November 1978 and murdered sometime the following month. The picture that still hangs in Tuol Sleng today, is actually a friend of Dean's, who was not on the boat when it was captured by the Khmer Rouge navy, though his picture must've been amongst the personal effects of the two Australian sailors. Dean seems to have survived the torture and forced confessions at S-21 until just three days before the Khmer Rouge were chased out of the city by the invading Vietnamese army and the horrors of S-21 became apparent. Two American prisoners, Mike Deeds and Chris Delance were also alive right up until the last few days before Duch, the prison chief, and his henchmen finished off all the loose ends, which included killing the westerners and burning their bodies, before they escaped from Tuol Sleng. The story of the western yachtsmen is told in Kattenburg's Foxy Lady, published by The Key Publishing House in Canada, though much of the book's focus is on the one sailor who didn't make it to Tuol Sleng, a Canadian by the name of Stuart Glass, who was on the Foxy Lady when it was captured by the Khmer Rouge navy but was shot and killed and thrown in the ocean. His shipmates, Brit John Dewhirst and Kiwi Kerry Hamill were both whisked off to S-21 where they perished sometime in October 1978.

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Ramble

It's the first official day of Khmer New Year and I have a few days off work, which I'm spending at home. It sounds like everyone else has decided to take themselves out of Phnom Penh and either head to the coast, to Siem Reap or to their homeland. I haven't ventured outdoors yet but I could be the only person left in the city for all I know. Unlikely, but its deathly quiet outside. If everything has shut down and I am the only soul left, what will I do for food...I've got bugger all in my food pantry and fridge. Note to self - I must stop reading fantasy stories like Day of the Triffids. In fact I've just this minute finished reading Foxy Lady - Truth, Memory and the Death of Western Yachtsmen in Democratic Kampuchea and so will let you have my thoughts on that book soon. It was hard to put down, even though I knew the ending. More ramblings later.
A ramble update. I made it out of my apartment before mid-day to find that I wasn't the only soul left in Phnom Penh afterall. Predictably whilst walking the streets, foreign faces are much in evidence whilst the Khmers on show are either security guards or a few hardy sellers trying to make a dollar. Lucky supermarket was open, so I replenished my food stocks and grabbed a bite to eat at Lucky Burger for my sins. Not exactly a holiday feast.
Keen to give anyone a 2nd chance, I headed for Ngon Restaurant tonight, the incredibly popular and happening place on Sihanouk Boulevard, but it only reinforced my original opinion. My choice of food was to be frank, horrendous, though the service was quicker. There were people queuing up to get in as every seat in the house was taken, but for the life of me I don't know why and I won't be giving it a 3rd chance that's for sure.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Angry Andy

Click to enlarge - courtesy John Weeks
Comic guru John Weeks' take on me. Visit his daily comic QuickDraw here.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Eating out

The Ngon Restaurant in Phnom Penh
I turned up at Brasserie Durga tonight expecting to listen to a presentation on the cave temples of the Kampot and Kep region only to find it had been cancelled at the last minute. It was the 2nd time I've done the same thing, there won't be a third time. So instead I went to see what all the fuss is about at the new Vietnamese-infused Ngon Restaurant on Sihanouk Boulevard, that has been packed to the rafters since it opened a couple of months ago. Offering refined street food, as it does at identical establishments in Saigon and Hanoi, the prices are resonable and the eatery has been pulling in the customers, sat at tables surrounding an open central courtyard with frangipani trees, lanterns and cooking stations dotted around the place. The food was acceptable, if rather bland, the service was pretty slow despite hordes of waiting staff running around catching their tails, which didn't exactly add to the experience. It was clear from the clientele tonight that the restaurant is cashing in on the local Vietnamese population as well as Khmers keen to see what all the fuss is about. My eating partner tells me that 'ngon' translates as delicious. I wasn't as knocked out by it as the name suggests and won't be busting a gut to revisit anytime soon. Saying that, I dined at Malis recently to specifically try their fish amok and that didn't blow me away either. The portions were too small and I like my amok creamy, and it was anything but. Maybe my palate is playing tricks on me or I'm getting too fussy in my old age.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Open for business

A picture of the Central Market with its new facelift
One of Phnom Penh's best-known landmarks, the unique Central Market, is close to completing the renovations than have taken more than two years and cost upwards of $6.5 million. Known as Psah Thmei to locals, the facelift has included a lick of paint, new drainage system, covered areas for vendors and of course, an increase in costs for the stalls. Built between 1934 and 1937 by the French architect Jean Desbois and engineer Louis Chauchon, the art deco styled dome rises to 150 feet above the inner sanctum, where gold and silver are amongst the most sought-after goods on sale. Make sure you pay a visit next time you are in Phnom Penh.

This photo of the Central Market was taken a few months ago. Virtually all of it has now been painted.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wedding fever

Rumnea and myself at tonight's wedding party celebration
Guess what? Yes, you got it, another wedding party tonight, this time it was a mixed event with Belgium man-about-town Philippe marrying his Khmer sweetheart Thearith. Instead of the usual eight-course meal, the happy couple provided a buffet supplied by Blue Pumpkin, so the food was particularly noteworthy, as was the location, Gasolina, and set against a background of one of the better musical acts on the wedding merry-go-round. I've known Philippe for a while as he's the advertising go-to man for the popular Pocket Guides, so it was the least I could do to celebrate his nuptials. I reckon 95% of the barang men were accompanied by Khmer ladies, and why not. I was one of them. As the rainy season approaches, the wedding invites should dry up pretty soon. Though of course, my own, won't be happening anytime soon after the government recently banned marriages between foreign men and Khmer women if the guy is over fifty. I'm 51 so I've missed that particular boat.
The groom and bride circle the cake table three times, followed by their attendants

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Davin grabs glory

Sorn Davin proudly lifts the Cambodian flag after her success today
Sorn Davin is one of Cambodia's most prominent female sportswomen. The 19 year old six-footer won a bronze medal at the last SEA Games in Laos and was victorious again today in the 10th Asean Taekwondo championships being held at the Olympic Stadium. I was at the stadium to watch the footy matches taking place and could hear the activity in the indoor basketball court but couldn't catch any of it until the football finished. Fortunately I was able to see Davin grab the glory in the middleweight category, cheered on by the proud Cambodian team contingent, even though both Davin and her Vietnamese opponent were barely able to stand, let alone kick, as the final took its toll. She's perhaps the country's brightest hope for a good showing in the 2012 London Olympics and is clearly one of Cambodia's elite women's sporting stars alongside her fellow taekwondo colleagues Sam Sophea and Chhoeung Puthearim, swimmer Hemthon Vitiny and petanque's Duch Sophorn and Ouk Sreymom. I couldn't stay for the national anthem and lifting of the flag but I know the Cambodian team and their supporters would've raised the roof at the stadium. For the record, Cambodia won 4 golds (Davin's female compatriot, Chhoeung Puthearim also claimed gold earlier that afternoon), 11 silvers and 26 bronzes in the 3-day tournament.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Bleak future

Arrrggghhh... came home depressed that very soon there will be no trees left standing in Cambodia. Bit of an exaggeration, but the prognosis ain't good at all after listening to Allan Michaud and watching the start of the Globe Project, which featured a handful of videos at Meta House tonight. The future of Prey Long for example, the largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in the country, looks very bleak. Land concessions threaten its very existence, and of course the diversity of plant and animal life there, that is found nowhere else. You can read out more about the current situation at Prey Long here. But it doesn't make pleasant reading. I'm no tree-hugger but even I get angry when I see and hear how bad the situation is from people who know the score. Looking on the bright side, Chhouk, the young elephant, is doing remarkably well with his new prosthetic foot, as we saw in one of the videos.
On Tuesday (12 April) at Brasserie Durga near the Central Market, Dr Jean-Michel Filippi will give one of his talks, in English this time, on the Pre-Angkorian history in the Kampot region from 7am. He'll concentrate mainly on the cave temples of the area. Definitely worth listening to.
Postscript: I forgot to mention the good news. I heard on the grapevine that the proposed titanium mine that could've devastated the Chiphat eco-tourism venture in Koh Kong province has been nixed in the bud, by none other than PM Hun Sen. It seems the estimates of the wealth generation were exaggerated and the PM can become a man of the people by claiming concern for the country's natural resources and climate change.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Civil unveiling

Human Rights activist Theary Seng raised the hackles of some of the international community this week by jumping the gun, in their view, and lodging a civil party application in Case 003/004 and naming Meas Muth and Sou Met, two of the five people believed to be under investigation by those tasked with finding out incriminating evidence at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, or the ECCC to you and me. The two former KR chiefs have not been charged hence the shouts of "premature' and "irresponsible" from the legal peeps at the ECCC. Hot on her heels, Rob Hamill, whose brother Kerry died at the hands of the torturers of Tuol Sleng, has done the same, with particular emphasis on Meas Muth, who was commander of the Democratic Kampuchea Navy when Kerry Hamill was captured in August 1978 off the coast of Cambodia. Hamill, the former New Zealand Olympic rower, gave powerful testimony at the recent trial of the S-21 prison chief, Duch and recently returned to try and get a face-to-face interview with the man who is currently appealing his 35 year sentence. The ECCC is pretty close to starting case 002, the trial of the four highest ranking surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, whilst Cases 003/004 will be the next strata of the leadership, if they ever get off the ground amid political dabbling and inertia. Meas Muth and Sou Met were military commanders and members of the DK Central Committee, just below the senior level, which allowed them to implement party policies and there is compelling evidence of their direct involvement in the arrest and transfer of cadre within their divisions to S-21 for execution. Muth was also the son-in-law of the infamous one-legged military chief Ta Mok. On the subject of the hapless foreigners taken to Tuol Sleng, I am currently reading the excellent Foxy Lady by Dave Kattenburg. It's a fascinating chronicle of the lives of the 11 'Western' victims at S-21, focusing on Canadian Stuart Glass, who never made it to Tuol Sleng as he was murdered on the boat, Foxy Lady, at the same time as two of his shipmates were captured by the Khmer Rouge and taken to the former Phnom Penh school. It also charts a parallel timeline, that of the DK leadership and the involvement of Duch, head of the S-21 prison. I'm half-way through and it's tough to put down.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Housing the environment

Meta House is host to a series of environmental films highlighting important issues this week, beginning on Friday night at 7pm. Films on Feed The Bears, Prey Long forest, the Cardamoms and the elephant with the prosthetic foot, Chhouk, all get an airing on Friday. There are more films on the following evening and then the Globe Project wraps up on Sunday with amongst other, Tom Fawthrop's Where Have All The Fish Gone? which looks at the threat to the fish stocks in the Mekong River due to a series of hydroelectric dams due for construction. If the challenges facing the environment in Cambodia is your bag, then I'm sure you'll be looking in to see what's happening on your doorstep. Meta House, now housed opposite the Phnom Penh Center on Sothearos Boulevard, will look at disabilities and landmine issues on Thursday 21st and the other evening that caught my eye was the two films showing on Friday 29th, namely Redlight and Holly. I've never seen either of them so I'll try to get along to watch them both.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

After dark

Nick Sells' photo in the pocket guidebook; I'm signing a copy of To Cambodia With Love for Sinat
I was in a restaurant the other evening and the waitress who took my order returned to my table and pointed at a picture in one of the pocket guide booklets that you find everywhere around town. It was one of the photos that Nick Sells took during the book launch for To Cambodia With Love in January and which was gracing the pages of the Feb-Apr edition of the Phnom Penh After Dark pocket guide, which is an A-Z of what to do in Phnom Penh when the sun goes down. It has a nightlife directory, tips on safety, the latest hotspots around town and so on. Not sure what my book launch has to do with that, though the two pages of Nick's portrait photos came under the heading of People Page - On the Scene. But as its another plug for my book, I was more than happy to see it there.
I found this photo amongst the ones that Nick gave me. Half-way through my presentation my phone rang from someone who was going to be late for the launch!

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Rice dreams

A new film, Rice Field of Dreams, documents Cambodia's first appearance on the international Baseball stage during the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand. Whilst they finished in last place the fact that they were there at all is down to the determination of one man, Joe Cook. The film, which will premiere amongst the United States' Long Beach community on 13 April, follows Cook and his pioneering team as they prepare and compete in their first-ever international competition. The film's director is Daron Ker, a Cambodian who fled to America from a refugee camp when he was six years old and who is aiming to produce his first full-length feature movie early next year called Holiday in Cambodia. For both films Ker has employed the talented Long Beach rapper praCh Ly for the original soundtracks. Link: website.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Madizone anyone?

Rumnea, with another self-made dress, and myself
After a hot and sweaty afternoon at football yesterday, I joined Rumnea at the wedding party of one of her female work colleagues, where the usual eating and drinking took place, the latter in large quantities by nearly every male present. Actually, it was one of her former workmates, as she left the company a few days ago and has now begun life with another firm. However, she honoured the invitation and dragged me along kicking and screaming. Especially onto the dancefloor to do our version of the madizone, where we were joined by the gaggle of young ladies you can see in the photo below. They thought it most amusing that a barang could dance the madizone, albeit with two left feet. Note to self: practice in front of the mirror.
My cute dancing crew take a breather between dances
Rumnea with the bride, her former workmate

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