Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brekkie on the riverfront

My breakfast buddies: LtoR: Gaye Miller, Hom Chhorn, me, Tim Purdie, Andrew Blogg
I never eat breakfast unless I'm staying in a hotel or it's free. Today was a rare breakfast occasion, primarily because it was a freebie courtesy of the team who are currently in the country making the documentary film In Search of Camp 32. They are here from Australia, in the capital first to make contacts and connections and then will head up to Battambang province literally in search of the former Khmer Rouge campsite that Hom, the central character of the film, and his family spent time at. Camp 32 has never been officially recognised and they intend to change that with their ongoing research and the documentary. They picked my brains (what little I have) over eggs and bacon and we found out that we have friends in common such as Tim Pek, Rithy Dourng and Jimi Lundy (all Melbourne based) amongst others. You can find out all about their project here, it was great to finally meet Gaye Miller and the rest of the team, enjoy a Blue Pumpkin breakfast for the first time and I'm looking forward to seeing the results of their labours in due course.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

On the way

The border crossing on the Cambodian side of the border at Dong Kralor, looking into Laos
Thinking of travelling up to Laos from Phnom Penh? Last Thursday we left the capital at 8am by minibus in order to head north for Pakse and join the Mekong Tourism Forum. We passed through Chhlong, Kratie, skirted Stung Treng and crossed the border at Dong Kralor, though my passport says Trapeang Kreal, entered Laos at their Nong Nok Khiene border post (costing $35 for the visa and $1 for the missing passport-sized photo) and continued onto Pakse. We arrived at the Pakse Hotel at 7.30pm. It was a long day. As for the timings, we left Phnom Penh at 8am, took the new Prek Tamerk bridge over the Mekong to avoid going through Kompong Cham and joined the road from Prey Veng and on up to Chhlong. We paused briefly at Chhlong around 11.30am before carrying onto Kratie to arrive an hour later. After lunch at Red Sun Falling and picking up an additional passenger in the shape of Elephant Valley Project chief Jack Highwood, we left Kratie at 1.15pm and arrived at the border with Laos at 4pm. Border formalities on both sides took just under an hour (it cost $30 to get the vehicle out of Cambodia and $13 to get into Laos) and then we drove the 150kms to Pakse, arriving at 7.30pm. For the return trip on Saturday by a combination of minivan, moto and bus, it took me 13 hours including a bus breakdown.
The new visa and immigration center under construction on the Cambodian side of the border
Locals crossing the border in order to conduct trade. Everyone duck!
The Relais de Chhlong hotel, on the banks of the Mekong River near Kratie, which is still closed for renovations

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15 Minutes of Fame

Posing with a young lady dressed in traditional Lao costume at the Gala Dinner
So what was the Mekong Tourism Forum (MTF) and what was Hanuman's part in it. Well, the 2nd part first. We took the trip up to Pakse in Laos on Thursday, following on from the success of last year’s event in Siem Reap. Hanuman acted as one of the official sponsors for the MTF 2011, supplying support and logistics for a pre-conference motorcycle trip from Phnom Penh to Pakse via Kratie with Hanuman's own Lonely Planet editor Nick Ray. Spending a night in Champasak to attend a New Media Boot Camp at La Folie Laos lodge on Don Daeng Island, Nick overnighted at the Inthira Champasak Hotel before continuing on to Pakse for the main event at the Champasak Grand Hotel. He joined myself, Guillaume and Bophay at our stand at the travel exhibition and we got involved in presentations and lively debate during the conference. I teamed up with Elephant Valley Project founder Jack Highwood to promote Responsible Tourism in Mondulkiri Province. Jack introduced the Elephant Valley Project via a series of videos and impressed the audience with his commitment to elephant conservation and his original ‘Walking with the Herd’ experience. He also promoted the mutually beneficial relationship between Hanuman and the Elephant Valley Project to demonstrate that the NGO community and private sector can team up to offer visitors a good cause experience. For my sins, I described Hanuman’s active commitment to Responsible Tourism in Cambodia and the Mekong region through an introduction to a variety of products and experiences, including Cambodian birding safaris with the Sam Veasna Centre, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang and KOTO Restaurant in Vietnam. In was in a section of the forum called 15 Minutes of Fame. It wasn't my best-ever public performance but hopefully it shone a light on RT for some of the MTF delegates.

The MTF itself lasted a couple of days. I was there for day 1 only and spent a large part of it following my 15 Minutes manning our booth with Guillaume and Bophay, not forgetting Phon our driver. Nick was on a panel discussion in the early afternoon slot that introduced journeys in the Mekong region, with all roads leading to Pakse. He included a bunch of photos taken on his motorbike trip up the Mekong and gave his version of events. Throughout the day there was a series of panel discussions from tourism experts, journalists, development specialists, marketeers and so on. All geared towards raising the tourism profile of the Mekong countries. The booths were an opportunity for travel companies like ours to highlight their wares, though there were a range of other exhibitors as well as a series of performances from Lao singers and dancers. In the afternoon, the exhibition hall became overrun with schoolchildren bent on collecting any freebies they could get their hands on. Nice kids though. On our first evening we attended a pre-forum welcome party at the Champasak Grand Hotel and then a Gala Dinner on Friday night, at the Champasak Culture Hall, where we fed ourselves on Lao cuisine provided by a series of restaurants and hotel, as well as watching more live performances. The next morning, I woke early to make my way back to Phnom Penh whilst my colleagues stayed for day 2 of the MTF and another Farewell Dinner before making their way back overland via the minibus and the motorbikes. More at the MTF website.
More traditional Lao costumes from the provinces with one of the MTF delegates in red
Traditional dance performances on the main stage at the Gala Dinner
Two of the sweetest Lao schoolgirls to visit our booth. They took my photo, so I took theirs.
Two ladies from a neighbouring booth holding up framed pictures of Hanuman PR postcards
Bophay manning the Hanuman booth at the exhibition hall
Delegates at the official opening of the exhibition area
A flag waving ceremony opened up the Mekong Tourism Forum in the exhibition hall

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hanuman on show

The Hanuman crew at our MTF booth. LtoR: A monk, Guillaume Ruppin, Nick Ray, Bophay and myself
More from the Mekong Tourism Forum later after I've watched my weekend fill of football. Especially as I missed 17 goals in two matches yesterday as I made my way back overland. Hanuman was well represented at the Forum, with a booth, as one of the sponsors and with two of the speakers, Nick Ray and myself, as well as Jack Highwood, who joined us to present a look at his Elephant Valley Project and how the relationship with Hanuman works so well. Anyway, more later. Footnote: we had another 11 goals in the Sunday matches as well, giving us a grand total of 28 goals in 4 games. No-one can claim Cambodian football isn't giving value for money, especially as it only costs half a dollar to watch these goal-feasts.

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Comedy of errors

The sign that adorned the two railway sleeper carriages that masquerade as the Laos visa offices. Beware weekend tea money!
Finally made it back to Phnom Penh tonight after what I would call a comedy of errors, once I'd left Pakse at 8am this morning. I was in the southern Laos city for the Mekong Tourism Forum where I was one of the speakers, very briefly for under ten minutes I must add, and where Hanuman had a booth and was one of the Forum's sponsors. We travelled up to Pakse on Thursday, arriving at 7.30 at night, the Forum opened the following morning (yesterday), I was on the microphone at 11, we enjoyed the Gala Dinner that night and I was back on the bus heading south early today. A bit of a whirlwind but it's important to keep the Hanuman name in the eye of industry professionals and the media and this was a perfect opportunity, as was the Asean Tourism Forum a few months ago. As for this morning's fun and games, I squeezed into a sweltering minibus for the first stage of the trip as we headed towards the border with Cambodia. The minibus pulled off the road 2.5 hours later, and I was plonked onto the back of a motorbike for the last fifteen minutes of the trip to the border crossing. The rest of the minibus headed for the 4,000 Islands. Lots of building activity at the border as both countries are building brand new immigration and visa facilities, though the one official on the Laos side wasn't exactly the friendly type. He demanded a $2 backhander because it was a Saturday and he said he was on overtime and refused point-blank to stamp me out of Laos until I paid up...which I did, though made sure he knew what I thought of his abuse of his position (once he'd stamped my passport of course). I walked across no-man's land to find another official, Cambodian this time, beckoning me over to a table where $1 got me a health certificate and clearance into Cambodia, at the border post known as Dong Kralor. With eight uniformed officials waiting at the visa desk I was deciding in my head how much I would argue about paying more overtime, when my passport was checked and stamped and I was waved through without a murmur. I was in a state of shock. No mention of any tip, backhander, tea money, whatever. So today it's the Laos border officials who get a big thumbs down. Which is a real pity as everyone else I met in Laos was lovely.

There was a Paramount bus waiting at the border, which was a mite disconcerting as one of their fleet blew up last week and was completely gutted, including the belongings of its 20 or so passengers, who were unhurt. We finally left the border just after 11am, bypassed Stung Treng though we did touch base with Kratie, Chhlong and Kompong Cham before the wheel axle had enough of the bumpy road and gave up the ghost. A passing bus picked up the waifs and strays stranded on the side of the road and I made it home by 9pm, in time for a curry from Mount Everest restaurant. My fellow passengers had come from the 4,000 Islands and were moaning that the VIP bus they'd booked never materialized, they had a endure a second-rate bus with no toilets and the timings they'd been promised were way off the mark. Unfortunately, another poor introduction to Cambodia for a bunch of first-time arrivals, which is something all too familiar from anyone who has crossed any one of the land borders into the country. Corruption, lies and lack of service gives an all too sorry prelude to their holiday here.
Arriving at the Laos border crossing on the back of a moto
This is the original entrance gate into Laos, looking across no-man's land to Cambodia
The new visa and immigration facilities being constructed on the Laos side of the border

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Our goal achieved

PPC coach Bojan Hodak looking like he means business, whilst I appear to be carrying a 'man bag'
The festival of football that was the AFC President's Cup has finished. Cambodia's best team, Phnom Penh Crown achieved their goal of qualifying for the competition finals to be played in September. Even though they lost their final match this afternoon to the Kyrgyzstan champs, Neftchi, who also happen to be the cup favourites. Crown went down 1-nil to a late goal in a pretty turgid affair, as both teams had already qualified so didn't exactly bust a gut in what was a formality. It should've been a draw to be honest. So it's now off to an Asian country, yet to be decided, for the finals. There is even talk of staging the finals here in Phnom Penh. We shall see. A latecomer to the match today was my favourite female Khmer singer Meas Soksophea, who snuck in behind dark sunglasses and watched the last thirty minutes of the match. We'll have to get her to sing the Crown song, when we get one, in fact, how about a duet with Preap Sovath. Despite the loss, everyone was upbeat that we've qualified, in addition to how well the whole competition went, the first of its kind to be held here. The matches, the music, the media, the merchandise, all the m's and everything associated with the tournament was a success. We'll have to do it again some time.
I'm off to Laos in the early hours of tomorrow to attend the Mekong Tourism Forum in Pakse, in southern Laos. Apparently, I'm going to be one of the speakers, and our company will have a booth at the event. So I'd better get my notes prepared. We'll be going up by mini-van, across country, so it ain't going to be a bed of roses. I then need to get back sometime Saturday as Crown are playing again just after lunch the next day. So all pretty rushed. It may mean that the blog will be a bit quiet for a few days, depending on internet access.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cultural high life

King Norodom Sihamoni and Princess Bopha Devi on stage with the dancers
Life has been a very football-centric in the past week, so it was good to get a bit of culture under my belt tonight. And it doesn't get much more cultural than attending a special celebration for the King's 58th birthday at Chaktomuk Theatre, for a specially-invited audience, to watch a combination of film and classical dance, gifted to King Norodom Sihamoni by his half-sister Princess Bopha Devi. My ticket came courtesy of one of the key dancers in the Royal Ballet, Sam Savin. We were honoured with the first public performance of two dances that the Princess did when she was a young girl and then when she became the Prima Ballerina, and which had only previously been seen by the royal family, as well as a 20-minute film, shot entirely at Kbal Spean and Angkor, called Dance of the Apsaras. There was also homage paid to the teachers at the royal university with a demonstration by some of the younger members of the school and their teachers, one of which was Savin. It is a duty for all dancers to pay respects to their teachers before they perform any sacred dance. Members of the royal families, the country's elite and invited foreign guests were present, all in their suits, except me and a few others. I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Sam Savin (right, brown skirt) instructs her pupil on with the correct posture
The first public performance of a dance that only Princess Bopha Devi has danced before
A scene from the film, Dance of the Apsaras, shot at Kbal Spean

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Even more joy

They did it. Phnom Penh Crown stood up to be counted on the big occasion. This afternoon's AFC President's Cup match was crucial. A win would confirm Crown's qualification to the finals, though the experienced Abahani team from Bangladesh stood in their way. The big crowd, full of expectation, held their breath until 11 minutes from time when Chan Chaya scored the all-important winning goal from close in, to send the stadium into delirium. It was a really close game which Crown just shaded on clear-cut chances but it was tight, and Chaya is fast earning himself a reputation as a match-winner. Defensively, Crown were excellent with Odion Obadin giving the performance of the match as the crowd erupted in celebration at the final whistle. They have one more game on Wednesday against fellow qualifiers Neftchi, but both teams are already through to the cup finals to be played later this year. Love Cambodia, Love Phnom Penh Crown!

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Unbridled joy

Unbridled joy for Crown's U/13s as they lift the trophy this morning
A very quiet day by comparison to yesterday. I watched the Phnom Penh Crown's academy boys in action this morning, as they won their first trophy since they began life a couple of months ago. It was the final of the Indochina Starfish U/13 championships and the Crown squad was made up of both academy and non-academy youngsters. It was the residential boys who started the game and with their sublime passing game, were just too good for their opponents from Takhmau. The 5-1 win was no more than they deserved. So unbridled joy for the young men of Crown, the day after the first-team brought the same sort of joy for the thousands who came to watch the action at the Olympic Stadium. The boys collected their medals and the trophy and willingly posed for photos. I remember playing football at that age back in Cheltenham for a team called Leckhampton Mosquitos, and though we were never good enough to win a championship, it was character-building stuff. However, the football played by the Crown boys is simply light-years better than the football we ever played for Mosquitos. I can't speak highly enough for the work being done by the Academy head coach Bouy Dary and his assistant Kao Kiry in teaching the boys the right way to play football. I've watched a few games now and I have never seen any dissent or come to think of it, any foul committed by the youngsters. If they get fouled, they get up straightaway, dust themselves down and carry on as if nothing has happened. And the standard of football they are achieving in such a short time together is so enjoyable to see. Watching them is a pleasure.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

A perfect day

It doesn't get much better than this. Phnom Penh Crown won their first AFC President's Cup Group A match this afternoon, beating the Don Bosco Sports Club from Sri Lanka 3-0, and in some comfort, in front of a partisan Olympic Stadium crowd of thousands. I won't go into details here, as I do that on my football blog, suffice to say that Kingsley Njoku, Kouch Sokumpheak and Chan Chaya were on target and everyone went home deliriously happy. Love Cambodia, Love Phnom Penh Crown!

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Otherwise engaged

Life is a bit hectic at the moment with the build-up to the AFC President's Cup here in Phnom Penh, literally taking up every waking moment. That's football to the uninitiated and will send most people to sleep. We have another press conference this morning and then more planning for the matches which begin in earnest tomorrow afternoon. There's a band and DJ's playing before the action starts and then we have more games on Monday and Wednesday. I'm on holiday from work for a week so I can help look after all the media stuff that's associated with this prestigious competition, the first time an international club competition has been held in Cambodia. Gotta run.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Under the carpet

Former Khmer Rouge military commander Meas Muth may never come to trial
I can only concur that the Khmer Rouge Tribunals have gone tits up. Pardon my French. Not only is case 003, and by default 004, being pushed under the carpet in the hope that they'll fade away without anyone noticing, but the internal squabbling could take a turn for the worse as the British prosecutor who last week called for new investigations into case 003 is facing censure by the trial judges for speaking his mind, and the truth. Political interference and mind games from those in power have long dogged extending the trials beyond the original two cases, Comrade Duch in 001, who's already been tried and convicted, while 002 will bring to task Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Actually, case 002 against the 4 top-level Khmer Rouge defendants is due to kick-off on 27 June with a formal hearing. The sooner the better before any of them escapes the trials by popping their clogs, so to speak. The court has already rejected claims from all four of them to be released, and rightly so. Back to case 003, the civil party applications by Rob Hamill and Theary Seng have both been rejected. Though they named who they believed the suspects were in case 003, Meas Muth and Sou Met, the court itself has refused to name them, or even interview them, making it almost impossible for anyone else to lodge civil party suits, as some 4,000 people did in the first two cases. The court has been deliberately silent on any aspects of cases 003 and 004 making it blatantly obvious to everyone that they have no real intention of progressing them. Other names were mooted recently for case 004, namely Im Chaem, a district chief; Ta An, a regional commander in Kompong Thom; and Ta Tith, a regional commander in Takeo during the Khmer Rouge years. However, its speculation again, as the court has not publicly acknowledged them at all. For the court, it's easier just to sweep them under that very large, and deep-piled, UN carpet.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

We're on the telly


Well, here it is, the first-ever television commercial for Phnom Penh Crown and the soon-to-be-upon us AFC President's Cup. The Sports Promotion Group are responsible for the commercial which is currently being shown on television channels, Bayon 1 and TVK, in Cambodia in the lead up to this weekend's big event. We included a few of the team that will represent Crown in the competition, such as goalkeeper Peng Bunchhay (in close-up), striker Kouch Sokumpheak (at the Royal Palace) and Tieng Tiny, as well as our academy youngsters, finishing off with the most famous face in the country, Preap Sovath, uttering the words, "Srolang Kamuchea, Srolang Phnom Penh Crown!" The commercial lasts 1 min 34 seconds, though the last 30 seconds is naming the sponsors. I know it's a bit cheesy and you can blame me for the general idea and inclusion of the famous star but we had to start somewhere and I reckon it's a good 1st attempt.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Panh on Duch

A Vann Nath painting of S-21 that is used in the new film by Rithy Panh
Film director Rithy Panh has been a busy man. Whilst the rest of us were watching and reading about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the case of S-21 commandant Duch, Panh was already making his next film, Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell. Panh spent many hours interviewing Duch in prison and out of 300 hours of taped interviews, additional documentary footage of the prison and interviews with survivors, he has produced a 108 minute film that is being shown for the first time at the Cannes film festival this week. It's a topic that Panh covered particularly well in his 2003 film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine where he got survivors like Vann Nath to confront their jailers. This time he's got the main man himself. Duch oversaw the deaths of more than 12,000 people at S-21, he was convicted of his crimes and received a 35 year sentence, for which the appeal verdict is due next month. Though he insists in his Panh interviews, that he never committed any crime personally, he does admit to devising and training his torturers and executioners in the methods they used. Duch argues that he did what he did as a faithful soldier of the Khmer Rouge revolution, extracting confessions through torture was necessary to find the truth, as was destroying the enemies afterwards. I know it's a necessary piece of historical film footage but as in his trial, I'm sure Duch will only say what he wants us to hear, the truth being an inconvenience best left unsaid.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

The great and the good

The lady of the moment, Vuth Chanmoly
The wedding party of the year took place at Koh Pich tonight or that's what you might've thought if you saw the guest-list. I've known Vuth Chanmoly for a while, as she's the best friend of Sam Savin, and both have been leading classical dancers for the royal Cambodian ballet for many years. So that's how I got my invite for Moly's wedding to Kiriya. Hundreds of the well-connected came as well including faces I recognised ranging from Sok An, the deputy prime minister, to Krum, the Charlie Chaplin-like comedian, from leading singers Him Sivorn and Ieng Sithul to a host of television personalities. And of course, Princess Bopha Devi was there too, surrounded by all the great and good of the classical dance world, past and present, including Moly's mum, Soth Somaly, another star of the dance establishment. I sat with Sam Sathya, the leading prima ballerina in Cambodia, who like Moly has tried her hand at contemporary dance after a life in the classics, and who is off to the USA soon to perform in Khmeropedies again. Moly graduated from the royal university of fine arts in 2003 and has toured with dance troupes throughout Asia, Europe and the United States, as did her mother before her. She also appeared in Where Elephants Weep and other contemporary productions as well as working with Bayon TV as she's expanded her horizons. After today she has a brand new engagement, this time with her husband. I wish them the very best.
Sam Savin with her very smart son, who said he recognised me off Facebook!
The wedding party was full of beautiful and talented classical ballet dancers. Here's just some, with Sam Savin in center.

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In the media

A busy weekend as usual. On Saturday morning we hosted a press conference, that is the football club I work for as media officer, Phnom Penh Crown, at the Phnom Penh Hotel, primarily to let the local Khmer press, television and print media, have details of the forthcoming AFC President's Cup competition. It starts next weekend and Phnom Penh Crown will represent Cambodia, as the league champions, against the national champions of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan. It's the biggest international club tournament ever held in Cambodia, hence the press conference. It all went pretty well and hopefully we'll have got the message out to the masses. We have also put together a television commercial, with the legendary singer Preap Sovath helping us out, and which will be on on local tv next week to shore up the message. Yesterday afternoon, at the Olympic Stadium, the Crown team did the business against BBU, winning 3-0 despite a thunderstorm, to keep their lead at the top of the table. Job done nicely and confidence high going into the big tournament next week. Last night I watched the FA Cup Final as well as Man U clinch the Barclays title.
The Crown Academy boys, playing the game the right way
This morning I was up early to get to the football club's training center in Tuol Kork to watch the Academy U13 boys in action. They were taking part in the ongoing Indochina Starfish competition and were up against their arch rivals Preah Khan Reach. I arrived a minute after kick-off and the game was already being played at a frenetic pace with the Crown Academy team passing the ball with precision and deservedly leading 1-0 at the interval. PKR had a few older and bigger boys in their team and weren't afraid to dish out some of the rough stuff, with one of their players seeing a red card late on and a few others getting yellows. The Academy kept their cool and ran out 3-1 winners, avenging a 5-2 defeat earlier in the competition. They were ecstatic. Yue Muslim netted twice with En Sodavid grabbing the other. The Crown boys have now won eight matches and lost two in the Starfish league, and are a joy to watch. All of the first team squad were on the sidelines cheering them onto victory. Now it's back for a rest and off to more football this afternoon and then Chanmoly's wedding party this evening at Koh Pich. I'm looking forward to that.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Equinox gig

As I type the Cambodian Space Project are getting ready to perform in Siem Reap and there's talk of them taking up a musical residency at the new happening spot in the town, at the 1961 art-hotel-thingy (near the River Garden guesthouse). Never fear, they will be back to Phnom Penh soon enough and have a gig at Equinox on Street 278 lined up for Saturday 18 June at 9pm. I hear Equinox have installed some air-con units, so it shouldn't be as hot as it was a few weeks ago at their last gig. CSP will have their first album out very soon and are off to Vietnam in July, before heading to the UK in September.
It's all getting very messy over at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal just as case 002 is set to begin next month, with judges threatening prosecutors with contempt for telling it as it is, cases 003 and 004 looked doomed to fall flat on their face mainly because the powers that be don't want them coming to trial, the reputation of the court itself looks decidedly dodgy at the moment, whilst the saddest note of the whole sorry affair this week was the untimely passing of the court's public face in recent times, Reach Sambath.

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Views on Cambodia


I mentioned it earlier in the week, so above is part of Gordon Ramsey's Gordon's Great Escape television programme that was shown for the first time on Channel 4 in the UK on Monday. This YouTube video includes a feast fit for royalty, which I attended and spotted myself in the background a few times. At 14 mins 11 seconds of the clip, you can see me suggesting his words flew straight over my head, immediately after Gordon Ramsey utters the words, "fucking piece of shit!" I don't believe he was referring to me, but I could be wrong.
Two very different written articles on Cambodia. One by well-known British newsreader Michael Buerk, who I spotted at the FCC with his wife in Phnom Penh a few months ago during his trip, after which he wrote this article for the Daily Mail Online, here. In Buerk's own words; "Cambodia is utterly beautiful, its people are charming, its heritage unequalled." I have to agree, wholeheartedly. The next article is about a wildlife pioneer, the head of Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia, Suwanna Gauntlett, who appears in a series of photos saving various creatures and giving the low-down on her organization's good works. You can read more about her story here.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Srolang Phnom Penh Crown

Preap Sovath and the academy youngsters during tonight's commercial shoot
Filming for the television commercial to promote the forthcoming AFC President's Cup tournament took place around Phnom Penh today. I managed to catch the last part at the Olympic Stadium tonight when the lights were turned on for a special appearance by a very special guest. It was none other than the legendary Cambodian crooner Preap Sovath, who joined the film crew and a host of extras to play his part in supporting Phnom Penh Crown's bid to win the AFC President's Cup. The tournament will take place on 21, 23 and 25 May and it's the first time that Cambodia has joined the ranks of the big boys to host one of the qualifying groups. And Crown mean business. Getting Preap Sovath to join the promotion is a major coup and with the television commercial being shown on local tv channels throughout next week, they hope his words, "Srolang Kampuchea, Srolang Phnom Penh Crown," will be a rallying cry for the Cambodian public. For Preap Sovath, the country's most famous singer, to herald, "Love Cambodia, Love Phnom Penh Crown" will resonate with many. For the shoot, he joined the youngsters from the Crown football club's residential academy. Earlier in the day the boys as well as members of the Crown first-team were filmed at various locations around town, including the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom.
Lights, camera, action at Olympic Stadium tonight
The final shot for the television commercial with Preap Sovath and the Crown academy youngsters

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ronnie's story

Ronnie Yimsut's personal journey from the death and destruction of the Khmer Rouge era to a new life in America, Facing the Khmer Rouge - A Cambodian Journey, will be published in November by Rutgers Press, with a foreword by David Chandler. Reviews for the 288 page memoir include this one from fellow survivor Loung Ung; “Facing the Khmer Rouge is beautifully written, informative and heartbreaking. Ronnie Yimsut’s prose reads like poetry, vivid and captivating; and chock full of crisp details and imageries. With each turn of the page, Yimsut pulls readers deeper into his emotional and spiritual journey through his years of war and horrors. Yet, his story of love, family, and country, told in a soft, meditative voice—also breathes of forgiveness and healing. Facing the Khmer Rouge is a courageous memoir, and one that undoubtedly will leave Yimsut’s readers believing in the best of man’s humanity to man.” Over two dozen books have been published by survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and Craig Etcheson, one of the foremost experts on the KR regime says; "None of these existing works, however, embody the immediacy, range of experience, raw emotion, and drama found in a new offering by Cambodian-American Ronnie Yimsut..... There is no finer first-person account of what it means to be a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide.” High praise indeed.
Ronnie is an author and activist and has been the subject of independent documentary films and reports by CBS News, NBC News, and PBS, among others. His many written works include Journey to Freedom and In the Shadow of Angkor. A senior landscape architect for the USDA Forest Service, he is also involved in national and international NGOs, including Project Englighten, through which he is working on Bakong Technical College in his native Siem Reap.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

On his best behaviour

From inside the dining area on the boat, Gordon Ramsey (center) introduces Luu Meng (right) and Sopheak (left) to one of the Princesses
Tonight on Channel 4 in the UK, episode 1 of the 2nd series of Gordon's Great Escape will be screened. The official blurb reads like this:
Gordon visits Cambodia, eating fried tarantula and preparing a traditional banquet for the royal family. Cambodia is a country still ravaged from the ruthless rule of the Khmer Rouge and recovering from the terrible famines inflicted on the population. Travelling thousands of miles across the country, Gordon samples a host of surreal, unusual and delicious foods including local delicacies fried tarantula, stuffed frog and raw baby duck eggs. His thirst for adventure leads him to hunt, cook and eat the deadly anthropoid; catch frogs in snake infested waters; witness a traditional tribal wedding feast; and visit Phnom Penh, where the Friends Cookery School is re-establishing the country's traditional cuisine. Gordon is eager to learn how to cook perfect pork and pumpkin curry, and meets gifted student Sopheak, whose promise is so exceptional that Gordon invites him to join him in preparing a traditional banquet for Cambodia's royal family.
In fact it all happened last April but I was sworn to secrecy until the programme was screened. Hanuman were the fixers and ground-handlers for the show and I was added as a late extra to the final shots that you see on the boat on the Mekong River, where Gordon and Cambodia's own celebrity chef Luu Meng had a cook-off for members of the royal family, alongwith a young man by the name of Sopheak, who Gordon spotted at Friends Restaurant and took him along for the ride. He has a few adventures throughout the Kingdom and between you and me, he was on his best behaviour throughout, a real gent to everyone. There's also a book about his adventures in 4 countries in Southeast Asia for the television series with recipes and in an interview for SeenIt, he gave the following answers, amongst others:
Did you sample any of the food on the roadside stalls?
Yes I went up and down the stalls. They are like little umbrellas, nothing glamorous. It could be a duck egg foetus 3-4 weeks old, like a duck head and feathers. It is known for being bought by young men to advance their sexual spirits – I suppose it was like a sort of egg Viagra – and that was somewhat weird. I went on a hunt for tarantulas, I went into the desert and found them and forgot all about the fear factor and grabbed them and took off their fangs and blanched them and deep fat fried them. It is not the kind of finger food you would expect to see in Claridge’s, but it looked like some sort of chicken wing that was full of grease and tasted of nothing. This is how the country survived. They had no option but to hide in the countryside and eat bugs. Every garden has this big net with a fluorescent tube and all the bugs fly into them and they empty it the next morning and fry them – same thing with the tarantula where they pack them up with protein and eat them on a daily basis for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
What about the characters you met? Were there any stand out people?
Yes, I met some very talented individuals. There was a catering school set up for street kids, they were rounded up and taught how to cook, and they then cooked for street kids in return. I cooked for the members of the royal family and the young kids were so good that I demanded that they cook with me.
You really enjoyed this experience, didn’t you?
Take a trip out there because it was a dream for me. No-one was looking for sympathy, and the whole place had this vibe of a hard-working culture, a culture which, in the case of Cambodia, was deprived of freedom for so many years and had to become so self-sufficient beyond belief.
Gordom Ramsey at a roadside cafe with Vutha, his driver on the shoot

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Bad news

Yesterday was so busy I didn't have time to fart let alone post a blog piece. Today is equally hectic. In the main, I try to be positive about the amazing country I live in but I have to say how really really crap it is to see pictures of injured women, after being beaten by baton-wielding riot police at anytime, but when it's workers who've been diddled out of their benefits by the fat-walleted garment factory owners already and then they get a beating for getting together to protest about it and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, that's really crass. In a lot of cases, the garment factories treat their employees with disdain at the best of times and the police just add to the injustice by treating them even worse. They have no compunction about laying into a group of women, whether it's with electric batons or as the case yesterday, firing their guns into the air to intimidate, and then using the batons indiscriminately. The police reaction; "They cannot block the street on which all VIP people are travelling." So the answer is to fire into the air, beat the crap out of them and deliberately drive motorbikes into the crowd. That is Cambodian policing. And it is happening on a regular basis. Someone in charge has got to address this situation before someone gets killed, because it's only a matter of time before that happens. It was only recently that an elderly grandmother in her 70s was beaten in similar fashion. And she won't be the last.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Buildings and stuff

Photographer John Vink is a well-known photojournalist in Cambodia. Now his new home in Kampot is featured in the Wall Street Journal here. On the theme of buildings, did I ever mention the architecture maps that KA Tours provide for the colonial city of Battambang, in Cambodia's northwest? If I didn't then I apologise. The maps have been produced in partnership with the City of Battambang and the German Development Service under the banner 'Our City - Our Heritage' and are free for personal use. View them here. And if you are a big fan of Battambang like me, you'll also love this site on the Battambang Heritage Preservation Initiative. There's a lot more to Battambang than meets the eye.

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Friday, May 6, 2011

Witty delivery

Shamini Flint talks about her latest novel at Monument Books
I thoroughly enjoyed the Inspector Singh Investigates book launch tonight at Monument. The audience was treated to a detailed overview of the book series, of which the Cambodia book is the fourth, by the author, Shamini Flint, who was witty and charming in her delivery. She gave an interesting insight into the life of a novelist, a career she took up after dabbling successfully as a lawyer and then to while away the hours of being a 'stay-at-home' mum. Her books describing the crime-solving adventures of the fat Sikh detective will continue with a fifth book set in India, where her previous Singh books have proved popular, whilst at the same time, Ms Flint also turns her talents to writing children's books, which have also proved to be well-liked, albeit by a different audience. AsiaLIFE magazine were in attendance, having interviewed the author before the launch took place. It was amusing to hear Ms Flint's reactions to a review of her book in today's Phnom Penh Post 7 Days magazine, particularly as I had raised an eyebrow at a couple of comments myself when I read the same review earlier this morning.
One for the scrapbook, the author with a newly acquired fan
Author Shamini Flint reads an extract from her latest novel
Well, it was a book launch and signing session, what else do you expect?

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Not enough hours

Are the days getting shorter? I don't seem to have enough hours in the day to get everything done. The latest project that is taking up my spare time is the forthcoming AFC President's Cup competition to be held in Phnom Penh from 21-25 May. Yes, it's football, so you can find out lots more about it on my football blog. This lunchtime was spent fleshing out the script for a television advert that we need to get on the tv screens pretty smartish as the tournament, the most prestigious club competition to be held in Cambodia ever, is literally just around the corner. We're thinking of involving one of Cambodia's best-known singing stars to get the audience interested, as well as one or two of the players from Phnom Penh Crown. If it actually gets off the ground I'll try and post a video of it on here. I'm working with both the national football federation and a promotions group on getting everything lined-up including press conferences, press releases, promotional banners, billboards, posters, other promo material and so on. The list is virtually endless. There's certainly no time to get bored. And little enough time to eat. Sleep is out of the question.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Meet Inspector Singh

This coming Friday at 6pm at Monument Books store in Phnom Penh, will be your opportunity to meet the author and hear more from the latest crime adventure novel by Shamini Flint, with her characters based here in Cambodia and investigating murders and wrong-doings in the Kingdom. Here's what I thought about it:
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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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Seeking out one's past

Another book to come out of Canada and dealing in part with the Cambodian experience is Madeleine Thien's brand new Dogs at the Perimeter which is out on bookshelves this month, published by McClelland. It's the author's second novel after her first, Certainty, was well received by critics and book fans alike. The heroine of her latest book was a child in Phnom Penh when the city was emptied by the Khmer Rouge and in seeking answers to another person's disappearance, she returns to Southeast Asia in search for her own past. Sounds very intriguing.

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Black Roots reform


How the heck did I miss this? One of my all-time favourite reggae bands from the UK, Black Roots, who hail from Bristol, reformed after 25 years for a gig in their hometown last December and have also put out a new website. This is what Jabulani Ngozi, the band’s rhythm guitarist, had to say. “We seen a lot of old faces, still running and jumping and singing along like we hadn’t gone anywhere.” Ngozi is writing songs again, and hopes to have a new album out by the end of the year. “Music is what we do, man. To uplift other human beings, to show them what life should be,” he says. Also in September a Reggae Singles Anthology from the band will be released by Bristol Archive Records. They recently put out a Bristol Reggae Explosion 1978-1983 album that hosted three Black Roots tracks, namely Bristol Rock, Tribal War and Juvenile Delinquent. It's fantastic to see this incredible band get back together again and perform live, as you can see from the video clip above, released by their own record label Nubian Records. You can keep up to date with the band at their new Nubian website. And of course you can read the Black Roots story on my own website. I've just this minute heard that the band are due to play again, this time sharing the stage with Aswad, at the Bristol VegFest UK on Sunday 29 May. I may even be tempted to make my first trip home in four years to see the band play live.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In the press

Today is World Press Freedom Day, aimed at reflecting on the principles of press freedom, defending media from outside influences and controls and paying tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in exercising their profession. Talking about the press here in Cambodia could fill a book let alone a blog post but the one element that I've moaned about before, here, namely envelope journalism is something that Cambodia has to move away from before it can begin to call itself a truly independent press. We are planning for the AFC President's Cup in Cambodia later this month and as part of the budget, we have to cater for journalists attending the matches and press conferences, where they will expect to receive payment for their attendance, discreetly given inside a small envelope of course, hence the name. This is something that is anathema to me personally, but widely accepted locally. There's a lot more besides but the freedom of the press must go hand in hand with ensuring they maintain professional integrity and remain unbiased and balanced in their reporting.
On the subject of the news, retired King Norodom Sihanouk has chosen to discuss the subject of the current King's virtue. He stated that in the modern era Kings Norodom, Sisowath and Monivong had 'contented themselves with 300, 200 and 60 female consorts, or favourites, respectively. King N Sihanouk had 6 wives,' he wrote, whilst 'Our current King, Norodom Sihamoni, has neither spouse, nor mistress nor feminine adventure.' The current King will be 58 later this month. Thank you to his father for clearing that up.

Looking ahead to a couple of events at Meta House in May, the ones that caught my eye were a film about the Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, titled Facing Genocide, that will be shown on Wednesday 18 May. The 94 minute film was made by two Swedish filmmakers and will be presented by activist Theary Seng. Two nights later (20 May), the films Redlight and Virginity Trade will focus on the subject of child and female exploitation in Cambodia. We also have the book launch at Monument Books of the Shamini Flint novel set in Cambodia, Inspector Singh Investigates, this coming Friday 6 May at 6pm.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Looking for Camp 32

A documentary team from Australia are looking to highlight the existence of one of the rural camps set up by the Khmer Rouge, which has never been officially recognised. Camp 32 may've been responsible for the deaths of as many as 30,000 people during its existence and one of the survivors, Bunhom Chhorn, who was five years old at the time, wants their story to be told. The feature length film will follow his return to locate the camp and any survivors. They also hope to establish a charitable foundation to provide educational scholarships to Khmer students wishing to pursue a career in psychiatry or psychology, with the aim of helping the many victims of the Khmer Rouge who still suffer the trauma of those years. Find out more at their website.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Essay on the beautiful game

Click to expand and read the Essay in this month's AsiaLIFE
May is an important month for Phnom Penh Crown FC as they host the AFC President's Cup, the most prestigious international club competition ever to be held in Cambodia. The cup is for the smaller, emerging nations within the Asia football family. So it's fitting that the May edition of AsiaLIFE, the popular What's On magazine guide features a focus on the club and its 30-year-old president, Rithy Samnang, who is working hard, and spending heavily, to raise the standard of his club and football in general, in Cambodia. Okay, so the Essay was written by me and I'm the club's media officer so I have a vested interest, but the more people who know about the steps that football is taking to drag itself up by its bootstraps, including this month's big cup competition (which will be screened live on Bayon TV), the better. And kudos to AsiaLIFE for giving football coverage in its magazine.
The Essay page on Phnom Penh Crown FC in AsiaLIFE

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