Friday, September 30, 2011

Freedom on show

A scene from The Road to Freedom, currently at Cannes, with Joshua F Smith and Scott Maguire
Film theaters in the United States today began showing the directorial debut of Brendan Moriarty, which is the first in a series of films the remarkably young director is planning to make in and about Cambodia, a country where he lived for many years. The film is expected to be in Cambodian cinemas in December. Below, Moriarty talks to MovieMaker Magazine about his film.

Brendan Moriarty Walks The Road To Freedom - by Hugh Cunningham

The recent death of photojournalist Tim Hetherington—killed while covering political unrest in Libya—made more people aware of the danger faced by those who go into war zones to document and publicize human rights atrocities that would otherwise be far too easy for the world at large to ignore. Hetherington’s tragic death caught the world’s attention, and rightly so. Photojournalists are fully aware of the dangers they face but do not let those dangers stop them in their pursuit of the truth. So it was for photojournalist Sean Flynn, whose life and tragic death is the subject of director Brendan Moriarty’s The Road to Freedom, in theaters tomorrow.

In 1970, photojournalists Sean Flynn (son of legendary actor Errol Flynn) and Dana Stone went missing while on assignment in Cambodia, where they were documenting the Vietnam War. Though the two are believed to have been captured and executed by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, the truth about their fate remains unknown to this day. MovieMaker caught up with Moriarty to discuss his reasons for making The Road to Freedom his first project and the difficulties (and benefits) of shooting on location in Cambodia, where the events of the film took place. For more information, visit the film's website.

Hugh Cunningham (MM): The Road to Freedom takes place in the 1970s, and you filmed on location in Cambodia. It’s a more ambitious feature debut than most directors attempt. Did you always want The Road to Freedom to be your first project, or did you ever consider doing something smaller in scope?BM: The Road to Freedom was a film I have wanted to make since I was ten years old. I have been in development on films since I was fourteen, and The Road to Freedom was always a priority. I never knew it was going to be my first film! It just turned out that way.

MM: Did filming go relatively smoothly, or did you run into any difficulties shooting in Cambodia? BM: Filming went better then we could ever ask for. We started during the “rainy season,” but there was no rain during any production day until the last day! The filming also went very smoothly due to the help of my two producers, Tom Proctor and Mei Savuth. I was blessed with a great DP, David Mun, who brought the film to life with his stylish ways of filming. The film went very smoothly, and the Cambodian government is wonderful to work with. Since The Road to Freedom was filmed, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and many others have used Cambodia for production locations.

Filming in the Cambodian region had a profound effect on the cast and crew. Joshua Fredric Smith, who played Sean, said that “We’re literally filming, acting and rehearsing on the very ground where all this took place. That was overwhelming and very powerful.”

MM: What happened to Flynn and Stone after they were captured in 1970 has never been determined. Was it difficult to film a story that no one really knows the end to? BM: It was not hard to make The Road to Freedom, because the film does not focus on how they died, but on how they lived and how they risked their lives to bring news to the world. I hope to remind the world to not forget about any photojournalists who have died bringing news to the world.

MM: Can you tell us about any upcoming projects? BM: The next film on my list is the story of the Mayaguez incident in 1975, [the last official battle of the Vietnam War]. The film is currently titled The M, and the script is full of action and adventure. Casting starts this fall. I am also in development on three other films. The Kings of Angkor: Army of a Thousand Elephants an epic tale of the Angkor empire. I will produce Red Fish Blue Fish with my producing partner from The Road to Freedom, Tom Proctor. Red Fish Blue Fish is a powerful story about a man trying to save his daughter from human trafficking in Cambodia. After The M, my next film is Jehovah, which I will direct.

MM: Anything you’d like to add? BM: I would like to recognize The Road to Freedom‘s executive producer Henry Bronson, who brought the film to reality. He gave me my first chance, and for that I thank him.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dining in history

Tonight I followed in the footsteps of one of the To Cambodia With Love contributors. As Robert Tompkins did for the article he penned for my guidebook, I too enjoyed a meal in the elegant and refined surroundings of the Restaurant Le Royal at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, courtesy of their new director of sales, Gareth Walters. To an accompanying piano player, I took the 3-course degustation menu of salmon, beef tenderloin and creme brulee, washed down with a fruit cocktail as befitting my non-alcohol regime. Lovely steak, lovely surroundings. I'm a glutton for history and you are immersed in it when you are at Le Royal. I'm sure I saw Charlie Chaplin dining in the corner with Jackie Onassis, or was it that French thief and later Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On the cards

PUC Talk Show presenter Soma Norodom with my book To Cambodia With Love
Coming up in October are the following: On Saturday 1 Oct it's the Cambodian Space Project, touching down at Mao's on the Phnom Penh riverfront, after gigging over in the United Kingdom. The following Saturday, 8 Oct, it's the repeat of my PUC Radio Talk Show 90.0FM appearance, at 7pm with host presenter Soma Norodom, where I talk about anything that comes into my head for 1.5 hours. That's the same day as the BIDC Cup will start in Phnom Penh. A six-team football tournament for Under-21 teams from six countries being held at the Olympic Stadium until 16 Oct. On Friday 14 and Saturday 15 Oct (my birthday), the adorable Belle will be performing a contemporary dance routine at Chenla Theater at 7pm under the banner of Roam Dansez 2011, called 'My Name is...!' It's sure to be worth investigating, as all of Belle's work is. Looking further ahead, American-Khmer rockers Dengue Fever are due to be in Cambodia in November. More as I get it.
Postscript: I forgot to mention Soma Norodom's blog, where she talks about my appearance on her radio talk show, a replay of which you can listen to this coming Saturday. At the end of October, Soma will be holding her birthday party at Diamond Island, which sounds like it's going to be the party to knock the spots off any other. Guest performers at the party will include rapper Pou Khlaing, crooner Sapoun Midada, tenor Sethisak Khuon and 60's singing star Sisowath Sieng Dy.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Slaughtered

We are back. Just got in from our 5 hour stop-over in Saigon, which was made considerably less boring by access to wi-fi and watching the highlights of the Final on YouTube. It was such a nailed-on penalty (in injury time) that it hurts to watch the replays but the follow-up by our players on the referee (Marai Alawaji from Saudi Arabia - pictured) and the after-match scenes also make me weep as well. For the non-penalty, Hong Ratana was slaughtered from behind by their huge number 3 and the referee, no less than 10 yards away, simply chose to ignore it. He knew exactly what he was doing. He had a perfect view of it. Even their players stopped momentarily expecting the whistle. Every one of the Crown players had their arms in the air demanding a spot-kick. The referee was the only one who didn't agree. If the AFC review of the game doesn't censure the referee for his utter failure to spot the most obvious, then it will merely confirm what we've known all along. If he had given the penalty, as he should've, then none of what happened immediately afterwards would've taken place. At that moment, the Crown players knew they had been cheated and they reacted on the spur of the moment. In the worst possible way. He was the trigger for the series of events that ultimately reflect very badly on Crown as well as the Taipower team.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Life's a bitch

And I thought we'd been stitched up before the Final. Forget that. In the Final itself, which was played last night, the Saudi Arabian referee had one eye. Any 50-50 decisions went the way of the hosts, as he kept himself busy cautioning five of our players and ignoring their infractions. I'm as bitter as bitter can be. Forget this good loser crap, I'm a bad loser and always have been. Especially when it's a set-up. Which it blatantly was. For the last three years the hosts have won the AFC President's Cup. Judging by this competition, it doesn't come as any surprise at all. Phnom Penh Crown didn't play as well as we had in the previous two matches. That was a problem, as was conceding goals at the start of each half. Too many players turned in average performances on what should've been the night of their footballing lives. Nevertheless, and despite the one-eyed referee, Crown stayed in the game and went looking for a late leveller, which with any other man in black, they would've got. Not this one. He waved away a blatant, nailed-on penalty in time added on and after that, the final went haywire. Three Crown players decided that pushing the ref in the chest might make him change his mind. It didn't and they all got red cards, and rightfully so. As if that wasn't enough, the Taipower bench thought it was fair game to attack one of the Crown players at the final whistle, which triggered a chain reaction that saw most of the players involved in fisticuffs on the pitch. Order was eventually restored but the damage had been done. Crown had lost and their reputation was in tatters. All the hard work put in by the management and the players, undone in a few moments of madness. Goodness knows what the repercussions will be. I shudder to think. I went up with the team to get my medal, yes even the media officer gets a medal, but it meant nothing. Everything conspired against us, and blow it all, we didn't even help ourselves. Life can be such a bitch sometimes.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Stitched up, good and proper

Yesterday we saw a side of football that wasn't unexpected but still very disappointing and frustrating, not to mention showing a complete lack of respect for our club. Today, I hope we see Phnom Penh Crown give the Taiwanese a footballing lesson to reward them for their dirty tricks. Friday night some of the squad were kept awake by a late-night party into the early hours in the hotel by the Taipower squad for starters. At the lunchtime team manager's meeting, the Taipower team somehow managed to hoodwink the AFC suits to allow them to wear the playing strip they wanted in the final. This was despite Crown having 'home' advantage and initially the AFC told Taipower to wear green shirts and red shorts. They complained that it would look "ugly" so the AFC suits caved in and told Crown to change instead. It was quite unbelievable and the AFC would not listen to any dissent. I would say we were stitched up, good and proper. Crown had willingly moved back their training session to accommodate the pre-Final AFC press conference before we left for our last training session before the final. On arrival we found the pitch was already being used and the team were forced to train on a rubber running track instead of grass, curtailing the coach's plans and shortening the session. The local organiser's admitted they sent us to the wrong ground but calls to the AFC were ignored and we were left at a distinct disadvantage before the final. This is what some would call the oldest trick in the book, disrupting the opposition team's plans before a big final. Instead, it merely adds to the Crown resolve to win tonight's final.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Taking it easy

Yesterday was a rest day without any training after Wednesday night's crucial game, whilst today the team went for an early morning session and this afternoon, we're off to the national stadium to catch both of today's games, at 4pm and 7pm. The second game is the important one. If the hosts, Taiwan Power Company win or draw, they go through to meet Phnom Penh Crown in Sunday's final. If they lose then FC Balkan from Turkmenistan will go through instead. It's a good opportunity to see both teams ahead of the final, both for Crown's coaching team and the players themselves. In the other game, it's a dead rubber between Neftchi and Yadanarbon, both of whom Crown beat to top the three-team group. I hear that the Cambodian government team play the Thai Red Shirts on Saturday at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, and then we make it a double-header with our AFC President's Cup Final the following evening, kick-off 6pm Cambodian-time. Unfortunately, our game will not be screened in Cambodia, as none of the television channels deemed it important enough, though two teams of ageing government officials will have live coverage beamed into every household. Someone has got their priorities all wrong. I've just finished lunch and also had a long chat with Crown coach David Booth about what he found when he arrived at the club back in June and how things have changed since, especially how we fared in the Cambodian League programme.
Postscript: Taiwan Power Company are through to the cup final to meet Phnom Penh Crown after they recovered for a 3-1 deficit to beat FC Balkan 4-3 in their second group match. So like Crown, they have won both their matches to move into Sunday's final.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Invigorating

Posing on the pitch before yesterday's incredible match
What an incredible night. Not only did Phnom Penh Crown get the victory that sends them through to Sunday's AFC President's Cup final but they did it in such a way that they almost made it look easy. They followed the instructions of their coach to the exact letter and were 3-nil up by half-time. I was in cloud cuckoo land. It got harder after the break as the Burmese opposition tried everything to get back into the game, but the defence was resolute and another quick break and goal, and it was all over. 4-0 against last year's cup winners is a result to savour for a long time. The team will rest tomorrow and then start to prepare for the final, against opponents we won't know until Friday night. The players now have the belief in themselves and their leadership to go onto win this competition. They came here as underdogs but they could well go home as champions. We'll take nothing for granted as we have to win a third match, but they have the best chance ever, of giving Cambodian football the biggest shot in the arm it's ever had. This team is making history. It's invigorating to be part of it.
The Crown line-up that is re-writing the history books, here in Taiwan

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fine line

I'm in the middle of a very serious international football competition at the moment so my focus is totally on that, hence my lack of normal-style postings. You'll have to excuse me as literally every moment is spent on football matters, from the time I wake up until I close my eyes with my head on my pillow. This might be tedious for some but for me, it's meat and drink. Effectively, I'm what war journalists would call embedded with the troops, as press officer for Phnom Penh Crown I do exactly what the team and management do, except don the football boots and actually get onto the field of play. Tomorrow's game against Yadanarbon becomes the biggest match of the season for Crown, as it will determine their status in this competition. We have 1 win already, a second victory would put us in the cup final, a defeat would likely see us going home early. It's such a fine line between success and failure. It rests on 90 minutes of football tomorrow night. I can't wait.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

We did it

We did it. We managed to beat Neftchi 2-1 this afternoon and put ourselves in a great position to qualify for the AFC President's Cup final, but we must still do well against Yadanarbon on Wednesday. We are not home and dry yet. However, the team fought like trojans and aside from a very nervous last ten minutes, we were always in control, especially with Neftchi getting reduced in numbers because of their own stupidity. Kingsley and Chaya got the goals but we missed a few too. I spent the last ten minutes on the Crown bench getting more and more nervous, banging my head as I jumped up and down. Beforehand I was updating facebook throughout the match - which is very frustrating and didn't allow me to enjoy my normal game which involves lots of screaming and shouting - but my lap-top died on me towards the end of the game so I moved from the press box to the dug-out. As the team returned to the hotel to eat dinner, I stayed on at the stadium to watch the 2nd match involving the home team, Taiwan Power Company, who ran out 2-0 winners played in continual rain which almost flooded the pitch, before returning with David, the Crown coach, to grab a bite to eat and to reflect on a superb result.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

No time for sightseeing

A busy day with a series of meetings kicking off with the team manager's meeting, covering rules and regulations relating to the competition from the AFC guys in suits. It included player registration, kit colours, sleeve patches - if players are not wearing the correct patches they won't be allowed to play - dope test procedures and lots more. The sort of stuff that is procedural but needs to be overseen by someone or else in high level competition like this then it can come back to bite you on the arse with a fine or worse. The medical meeting followed, then it was time for lunch and at 2pm we had the Group B press conference with Phnom Penh Crown's coach David Booth and captain Thul Sothearith out front. It didn't take long as you could count the media folks on one hand. In the second session, the Taiwan coach got all heated and passionate about his beliefs that his team can win and how important Taoism was. Crown's first look at the Kaohsiung national stadium came at 3pm when we made the 15 minute drive from the hotel for our 1-hour training session. The playing surface was excellent and the ground itself is state of the art, with solar panels included. The AFC suits were there in force making sure we didn't get a minute more or less than our 1 hour and also telling us to cover up sponsors logos on our shirt sleeves. It's all very officious. David was pleased with the session and the players hunger for the task ahead. We headed back to the hotel with his words ringing in the players ears. Dinner was at 7.30pm in a room with the other foreign teams in the competition, lots to eat and the all the players were instructed to get an early night and lots of rest ahead of tomorrow's first, and vitally important that we get off to a good start, game.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

See you later

The Phnom Penh Crown players at the airport before departure this afternoon
I'm off to Kaohsiung in Taiwan in a couple of hours with the Phnom Penh Crown footy team, as we attempt to make history and win the prestigious AFC President's Cup. Though my playing days are way behind me, and my duties are off the pitch these days, my lungs are still in working order, so if my shouting and screaming from the sidelines can will the guys to success, I'll give it my all. We arrive late tonight after a stop-over in Saigon and have a training session on the pitch tomorrow before we play our first game mid-afternoon on Monday. I'll bore you with more football stories as the next few days unfold.
Arrived in Kaohsiung at 9.30pm local time, after a 4-hour stop-over in Saigon and a two and half hour flight to Taiwan. I don't think the stewardesses on Vietnam Airlines smiled once. All five of the foreign teams here for the cup competition are being housed in the same hotel. With our late arrival, the players have been shooed off to bed and I'm watching the Barclays League on the tv. We have a team manager's meeting tomorrow as well as a training session on the pitch. Hopefully they won't clash.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Snail man wins Princess

Three generations of Em Theay's family, with her daughter Thong Kim An on the right
Em Theay is center-stage with her flowers and her performers
The Em Theay clan was out in full force tonight at the first showing of Preah Saing, a traditional tale that the lady known in the West as the Tenth Dancer, had adapted and written in a classical style and was showing as part of the annual Lakhaon festival put on by the Institut Francais at Chenla Theater. As long as you suspend belief for the duration of the performance, it's about a child found by a giant in a snail shell and to win the hand of the King's daughter, there's some jiggery-pokery with fish and snail masks before everyone lives happily ever after. Em Theay came out at the end to take the plaudits, and was on-stage next to her daughter Thong Kim An, who directed the piece, as well as her granddaughter, Nam Narin, who donned the snail mask for much of the show. Another big star of the classical stage was also one of the central characters, with Sam Sathya shining bright as the King's beautiful daughter. It's always a pleasure to see Em Theay, especially on stage, where she simply can't help herself, showing off a few poses and movements with her toothless grin spread from ear to ear, but it's also important that she continues to add to the classical repertoire by writing a piece like Preah Saing. I hope she goes on forever.
Sam Sathya, as regal and perfect as always
Nam Narin in her snail mask
Sam Sathya owns the stage whenever she's on it
Sam Sathya as the Princess trying to find a husband
The Princess and the snail-faced suitor spend the night together
The cast take the applause from the packed Chenla Theater audience

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ouch...I hate pain

More dental treatment this week. I hate the dentists. Not the actual dentists themselves, they are usually nice guys, but the thought of it. The pain as the needle sinks into my gum is etched on my psyche through numerous visits to dentists over the years. Especially when you get to my age you've clocked up quite a few visits. I use the Roomchang clinic here in Phnom Penh, they are not cheap at all though they are professional, clean, excruciatingly courteous and Dr Rithy is a very pleasant guy. We had fun getting him to pronounce the word anaesthetic correctly. I've just had a crown fitted after an old one gave up the ghost during a meal earlier this week. I had to get the treatment completed quickly as I'm off to Taiwan on Saturday for a few days, and the folks at Roomchang duly obliged.

Tomorrow night I'm off to see Preah Saing at the Chenla Theater, which is a performance by Mekala Arts as part of the Institut Francais Lakhaon festival. It's an adaptation, by none other than the wonderful Em Theay, of a traditional Khmer tale: The story of a child found by an giant in a snail shell. When the ruler of a neighbouring kingdom wants to marry his daughter, Preah Saing is part of the contenders...so the story goes. Time to suspend belief for an hour or so methinks. Fortunately Rumnea is joining me so at least she can translate what I'm seeing, even if it doesn't make much sense. As as Em Theay is involved, I'm determined to show my support for this icon of the Khmer classics by showing my face.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vann Nath's last wish


Vann Nath, the artist and human right activist, was cremated on Sunday. In film director Rithy Panh's funeral address, he said; "Nath, for all of us, you personified dignity. Your testimony goes beyond the Cambodian tragedy; it belongs to the history of mankind. Its relevance is universal. It raises a central issue about man and his accountability. Today we are left orphans, deprived of your wisdom. But you left behind you a profound legacy; your works, your words, your advice, your memories. And you live on in our dreams. Your spirit remains with us. We will never forget you."
Vann Nath's last wish to his family was to have his ashes placed in a stupa in his hometown of Battambang. His family needs to raise money to help fulfill his last wish. If you would like to donate to the memorial stupa for Vann Nath, Hanuman has set up a collection for his family. Please contact Kulikar Sotho on kulikar@hanumantourism.com for more details.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Hey, Soul Sister


Every time I hear this song I recall the 2009 episode of CSI New York - the CSI series is oh so popular on tv in this part of the world and can be seen most nights on the AXN channel and I must admit I'm a big fan too - where the band's lead singer, Pat Monahan appeared. The band is Train and the song is called Hey, Soul Sister. Catchy or what...
On the subject of television, one of the series I've enjoyed in recent times was Spartacus: Blood and Sand, all about an ancient hero that I've always had a soft spot for. So it came as a massive shock to hear that the star of the programme, Andy Whitfield, has died at the age of 39 from lymphatic cancer. Quite a shock.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Clean sweep

Mixing with the stars of the tournament, the PPCFC2 team, who won the cup final. Back Row LtoR: Rumnea, K Chhaya, S Samnang, Ronaldo, Baraing, Sovann, Titchhy, myself. Front Row: Ponvuthy, Piphop, Noeut, David, Phearath, V Samnang
I'm sunburnt but happy after a great weekend of youth tournament football, culminating in today's cup final and a clean sweep for the youngsters from the Phnom Penh Crown Academy. The two teams from the Crown Academy, out of the six that took part, dutifully won through to the final of the First State Gold Investment Cup competition this morning - hosted by the Crown Academy at their Tuol Kork RSN Stadium - after yesterday's round-robin matches left the PPCFC2 team at the top on ten points and PPCFC1 in 2nd spot on 9 points. The first day's games were played in high spirits with plucky efforts from the boys from EYC and CFO finding it tough going against the professionally coached boys from the Singapore Academy ISA and the two Crown teams. Two teams from Vietnam had pulled out at the 11th hour and EYC came in as a last-minute replacement. All the teams played each other and the final round-robin match came down to the two Crown sides meeting in an even encounter that PPCFC2 won with Ouk Sovann scoring to claim the overnight bragging rights. All the teams then gathered at the Diamond Hotel for dinner before returning this morning for the play-offs for the final placings. ISA from Singapore took third place, defeating CFO before the cup final, with PPCFC1 facing PPCFC2, and beamed live to homes around Cambodia by the TVK channel, gave everyone a feast of football to showcase what can be achieved by Cambodian youngsters. In a see-saw final match, PPCFC1 came storming out of the blocks and Mat Sakrovy netted to put them ahead. That was the cue for Vat Samnang, one of the smallest players in the tournament, to stand head and shoulders above everyone else with two goals, a 25 yard strike that fizzed into the top corner and a close range finish, that won the cup for PPCFC2 in extra time. Samnang was small enough for his teammates to hoist him above their heads in celebration. As they put him down, he was in tears as he spoke to his mum in Battambang on a mobile phone. After the presentations, both of the Crown teams joined together in a double celebration, proudly showing off their two cups and their medals. A fabulously successful weekend for youth football, ably hosted by the Crown, with their Academy youngsters taking the top honours. It doesn't get much better than this.
The two Crown Academy teams celebrate their joint success

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Diary dates

A date for your diary. Saturday 1 October, at Mao's bar on the riverside when the Cambodian Space Project will be back for a short whistle-stop in Cambodia on their travels around the globe. It'll be Srey Thy and the boys final gig in the country this year, they reckon.

The Lakhaon Festival, put on by the Institut Francais and running for eight days starting this evening has something on at Chenla Theater every night, including lots of people wearing face masks for a French classic for the first three nights. Then it's the turn of performances by Cambodian directors including Friday's Preah Saing (7pm), which has been written by none other than Em Theay, that wonderful lady who has done so much to revive classical dance in Cambodia. Mekala Arts will perform and Thong Kim An, Em Theay's daughter, will direct. The festival closes next Saturday with an afternoon family show from the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus team. Don't forget that the Our City Festival is also taking place this week with numerous events.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

From the trail

Sydney Morning Herald journo, Leisa Tyler takes a trip along the Mekong Discovery Trail - a network of ecotourism ventures supporting remote communities - in Cambodia, along the Mekong River surprisingly enough.

It takes a village

Koh Trong has the trappings of an idyllic tropical island. But it's nowhere near the sea. To get there, you must drive five hours north from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to the town of Kratie, along a potholed road scattered with oxen, bicycles, chickens and children. When you reach Kratie, find the concrete staircase leading to a makeshift boat dock. Hold your breath as you walk the brittle plank to the old wooden ferry that will cross the Mekong River, here a swathe of murky brown water gliding towards the sea. Bring some patience: the ferry will leave only when it is full. Safely on the other side, cross the beach and clamber onto the back of a motorbike taxi driven by a jovial middle-aged woman wearing pastel pyjamas. Your luggage can go on the front of the bike, or between you and the driver. Just hold on tight as she negotiates the "road" - a thin path of bamboo sticks suspended over the sinking sand. Bobbing along behind my pink-pyjama driver, I get my first glimpse of Koh Trong.

On one side of the road are stilted wooden houses, hovering like praying mantis. On the other, thickets of bamboo, towering five or six metres, veil the Mekong. Adults snooze in hammocks tied between mango trees, and barely clothed children play hacky sack with rolled-up old socks. After 10 minutes we pull into the front yard of one of these houses. It's the home of Vanny Vorn and the reason that a small group of travel analysts, aid workers and I have travelled here. The island of Koh Trong and Vorn's homestay are the pilot project of the Mekong Discovery Trail, a project finalised last year between the Cambodian government, the World Tourism Organisation and the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV). The initiative aims to encourage intrepid tourists to travel to the northern reaches of the Mekong River. Establishing maps and itineraries, and teaching designated local people basic tourism skills, the organisations are hoping travellers can stimulate economic development in rural Cambodia.

Upstairs, Vorn lays a cloth on her polished wooden floor and encourages us to sit, cross-legged, and eat lunch: stir-fried morning glory, curry of pineapple and buffalo, sour fish soup, rice and local Angkor beer. Moments later, a thunderous clap booms overhead and a monsoonal downpour falls on Koh Trong. Rain billows in through the windows and through holes in the iron roof, splashing the sour fish soup and sending us ducking for cover. The amiable Vorn, a gentle Khmer woman with three teenage daughters, speaks no English but soldiers on with a point-and-choose book of food items and other necessities produced by the trail initiative to help bridge language barriers. Like the rest of Koh Trong, her house isn't connected to electricity, which means there are no fans or airconditioners. The heat is incessant and staying overnight can be rough. Guests sleep on bamboo mats or thin mattresses under a mosquito net, side by side, in the main room.

"It's not a five-star hotel," says a consultant for the Netherlands Development Organisation, Marjorie van Strien, meaning that it's not for everybody. "But it really gives you a wonderful glimpse into an older way of life in Cambodia." It costs $US3 ($2.85) a person to sleep overnight at Vorn's house, or $US8.50 for bed, breakfast and dinner. Yet the benefits are enormous: the former pomelo farmer (a south-east Asian fruit closely related to the grapefruit) now earns enough to send one daughter to high school in Kratie and another to university in Phnom Penh. The Melbourne-born team leader of the Netherlands organisation, Trevor Piper, says about 80 per cent of Koh Trong's inhabitants live on less than $US1 a day, or what the World Bank declares as extremely poor. Since the Mekong Discovery Trail began on Koh Trong in 2009, it has improved the livelihoods of the island's vegetable farmers, fishermen, pony keepers and pyjama-clad motorbike drivers, to name a few.

The community has established a fund into which 10 per cent of tourism money earned is funnelled to buy more tourist equipment - bicycles, boats - and generate more jobs. That afternoon we take a pony cart around the island, a long strip of greenery in the heart of the Mekong River. We clip-clop to the far southern end, stopping to watch a man weave baskets from strips of bamboo. In the north we stop at a temple and for $US9 plant a hardwood sapling with our names attached. The main activity for guests on Koh Trong is to observe village life. The island is adorable and the locals warm and eager to make friends. But it's also hot - stiflingly hot - so it's easy to understand why most travellers don't stay more than a night. "It's like the chicken and the egg," Piper tells me. "The villagers need money to make their houses more comfortable for tourists but tourists provide that money."

Luckily on Koh Trong there are other options. Tucked under towering mango trees, Sala Koh Trong has five guest rooms on two floors of a newly built house, with stand-alone villas and a pool under construction. For now it is still basic but with en suite bathrooms, Western-style toilets, beds with mattresses, and sporadic electricity run from a generator, it's like the Ritz for these parts. The next day we take the ferry back to Kratie and continue 190 kilometres north to the border with Laos. The first time I came to this border, from the Lao side in the late 1990s, the area was still occupied with remnants of the Khmer Rouge, the militant group that enforced a social engineering project in agrarian communism so radical and brutal it killed about 2 million Cambodians and Vietnamese. What a difference a decade or so can make. These days you can take a boat to spot the rare and elusive Irrawaddy dolphin, a snub-nosed mammal closely related to the killer whale. In Kratie, the 18th-century Wat Roka Kandal temple has been restored and exhibits local craft, all for sale. In Stung Treng, the last town before Laos, the women's co-operative Mekong Blue produces fine silk scarves.

An hour by car and boat north of Stung Treng is Preah Rumkel, a dusty one-car village clinging to the bank of the Mekong River. It has half a dozen homestays established in 2008 by Mlup Baitong, a local non-government organisation. But they vary considerably in cleanliness and facilities: allocation is on a rotation system, so visitors have no choice in their accommodation for the night. Half of our group bunks down at the project office, the other with a nearby family. The heat at Preah Rumkel is tedious and the air is thick with repellent-impervious bugs. We track down the island's beer and ice stocks and drink enough to instigate a few hours' kip on the office verandah. But it's a long, still night.

Morning arrives with the crowing of a rooster and the shuffling of feet under the house. From my threadbare mat on the floor I catch a glimpse of the Mekong, silvery blue in the morning light. Fishermen throw nets from skinny wooden boats as the rising sun washes the sky in a dusty shade of pink. It's a perfect, well-earned travel moment. Keen to head off before the sun turns the day into a sauna, we hire a merry young boatman to take us up the river. On a muddy bank we meet a trapper who guides us for two hours through scrubby jungle to the tumultuous Sopheakmith Falls, a series of short but muscular rapids spanning the Mekong. Bearing the full brunt of the world's 10th-longest river, the falls are awesome; the cool spray a welcome relief from the humidity of the jungle. It's popular with local picnickers but, sadly, few take their waste away and rubbish blankets the site.

We plan to retrace our steps through the jungle but the temperature is already nudging 38 degrees with 100 per cent humidity. After a show of hands, we agree to hire a vehicle and drive back to our boat instead. We don't get far. Workers on the newly constructed road have neglected to include the culverts, which sit idly to one side, so the monsoonal rains make a mudbath of the road. We push our van through one, two, three bogs. But the fourth bog proves to be a little more complicated, spanning 20 metres and with metre-deep ditches and an overloaded truck jammed deep inside one of them. With a wink, our driver runs off into the forest, returning half an hour later with a two-wheel tractor with a trailer, driven by a man with one leg. We pile on and head off in the direction of our host village.

It is almost 4pm when we finally drag ourselves up the front stairs of the Tonle Guest House, a little Khmer house in Stung Treng that will be home for our last night. Established in 2007 by the French-Swiss group Tourism for Help, the Tonle Guest House recruits children from remote jungle villages and teaches them hospitality skills and English. The guest house is simple. There are only four rooms and one shared bathroom but it is wonderful, with real beds, fresh linen, tasty Cambodian food, all-day electricity and a big lounge, overlooking the river, on which to drink cold beer. But best of all, you can be sure your holiday money is going to a worthwhile cause.

Leisa Tyler travelled courtesy of the Mekong Discovery Trail.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

The perfect host

On Air and discussing To Cambodia With Love, with host Soma Norodom
Soma Norodom was the perfect host for my appearance on the PUC Radio Talk Show for an hour and a half last night, having done her homework to perfection to make sure we had more than enough to talk about. In fact we could've easily carried on for a lot longer. And I think that's the reason for her success as a radio show host since the programme began a few months ago. Precise research and a knack of making her guests feel comfortable, were a few tricks of the trade she brought with her when she returned to Cambodia, with her ailing father, in the middle of last year, having worked as a television actress and news and sports reporter in the USA. For me, this was my first time back in a radio studio since I worked on hospital radio and at Severn Sound Radio in Cheltenham more than twenty-five years ago. Our discussion ranged from growing up in the UK, to Vann Nath, to sci-fi, observational comedy, the late Haing Ngor, contemporary dance, blogging, of course, Phnom Penh Crown FC, my book To Cambodia With Love and Khmer food. In fact, just about everything under the sun was thrown into the conversation. The nightly show, which can be heard on 90.0FM in five provinces across Cambodia, is aimed at providing the students of Pannasastra University with the opportunity to hear the thoughts of a diverse array of people, from business leaders, to journalists, to arts leaders and also odd-bods like myself. The show is in English and appears to be going from strength to strength judging by the feedback they receive. They also managed to slip in a few tracks from my favourite band Steel Pulse, during a couple of brief interludes. A very enjoyable experience, made easy by Soma and her dedicated team. I'm told the show will be replayed at 7pm on Saturday 8 October.
Soma modelling her latest fashion accessory, a PPCFC jersey
Waiting for the radio talk show to begin - can you see me trembling?

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Vann Nath obituary

Vann Nath in a quiet moment at Tuol Sleng
Vann Nath is no longer with us but he will never be forgotten. A friend, Tom Fawthrop penned this obituary in the Guardian newspaper in the UK on Monday.

Cambodian painter who survived and depicted the horrors of the Khmer Rouge's S21 prison: by Tom Fawthrop

After his escape from S21, the prison hell of the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the painter Vann Nath became the most celebrated survivor, and an important witness, of one of history's darkest chapters. His graphic depictions of the horrendous torture at S21, painted in the years after his release, became evidence in the conviction of the prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, by the UN-backed Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal that sat in Phnom Penh from 2007 onwards.

In January 1978, Vann – who has died aged 65, after lapsing into a coma following breathing difficulties – was detained by the Khmer Rouge as an "enemy of the state". He was taken to S21, also known as Tuol Sleng, the headquarters of the Santebal (state security). This was the interrogation, intelligence and torture centre of the Khmer Rouge. At least 15,000 suffered the same incarceration. Only a handful survived.

The documentary archives from S21 reveal that Vann's name was on the execution list, signed by Duch, in 1978. At the last minute, Duch, who orchestrated the confessions and torture of the inmates, scribbled a note: "Spare the painter." The last-minute reprieve came about because they needed someone to paint a portrait of their supreme leader, Pol Pot. Vann was among the seven or eight prisoners who narrowly escaped death by dint of their special skills and usefulness to the regime.

Vann was born into a poor family who could not afford to send him to school. He had two brothers and a sister, and grew up in Battambang province, western Cambodia. His interest in art was sparked by the elaborate paintings that adorn the walls of Cambodia's Buddhist temples. He left home to serve as a Buddhist monk from the age of 17 to 21. He then enrolled at a painting school. Before 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power, his life as a painter of landscapes and cinema posters in Battambang was unexceptional and apolitical. He was working in a rice field when he was arrested in 1978. The Khmer Rouge took him to Wat Kandal, a temple used as a detention centre, and told him that he had violated the regime's moral code. Huge numbers of artists and other professionals perished during the Pot Pot regime. Commissioned by the new government's ministry of information and culture, in the 1980s Vann vividly captured on canvas the horrendous torture and excruciating suffering he experienced along with his fellow inmates. These starkly vivid paintings still adorn the walls of the museum.

In 1998, Vann's story, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S21, was published. He appeared in the film S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), in which he confronted his former jailers in a tensely dramatic reconstruction of life inside Pol Pot's torture chamber. He interrogated the prison guards with a calm dignity in his search for answers, explanations and truth. This riveting film, directed by the Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh, received the François Chalais prize at Cannes in 2003.

Vann has been widely recognised for his work. He received the Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers twice. He was artist in residence at Providence College, Rhode Island, during the Spirit of Cambodia art exhibition in 2002, and during a US book tour in 2003 he was made an honorary citizen of Lowell, Massachusetts. Surely his finest moment came as a key witness in the courtroom in the historic encounter between Vann and his former jailer, Duch. For the victims of the "killing fields", it had been an agonisingly long wait for justice. Vann declared in 2009, when the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh commenced: "I have waited 30 years for this. I never imagined that I would be able to sit in this courtroom today to describe my plight, my experience. I hope by the end that justice can be tangible, can be seen by everybody."

Vann suffered from kidney disease for many years and underwent periodic dialysis treatment, although he still managed to travel abroad for exhibitions of his work. In 2010, he required spinal surgery. With no financial support from his own government, he was forced to survive on the sales of his paintings. Vann's hugely expensive medical treatment prompted Rithy to launch a successful fundraising campaign for him.

In spite of his personal suffering and financial hardship, Vann never lost his determination to fight for justice. He is survived by his wife, Kith Eng, and two children.

• Vann Nath, artist and human rights activist, born 1946; died 5 September 2011. Courtesy of Guardian.co.uk.

A special screening of S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine will be held at Bophana Center on Friday, 9 September at 6.30pm in his memory.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I'm a winner

My almost daily visits to Cafe Fresco in BKK for coffee or a sandwich paid off with a phone call from Annie this morning, to tell me there's a gift voucher waiting to be picked up. 1 free night at FCC Angkor, with a pool view. Thank you very much. That'll do nicely. And that's on the back of winning an umbrella, a t-shirt, a $10 voucher and a jigsaw-puzzle as part of the Cafe Fresco promotion that's been taking place for the last couple of months. Those FCC folks know how to look after their regulars and Annie is the best cafe manager that I know.

The Our City Festival program is now up and available on the festival website which I urge you to take a look at. It runs from the 8th - 18th of this month all over Phnom Penh with various exhibitions and events taking place. There should be something for everyone.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

A very sad loss

Vann Nath surveying a painting of himself at Tuol Sleng in 2008
Vann Nath succumbed to his illness and passed away earlier today. It's difficult to put into words the loss that will be felt by his death. Because of his past, as a surviving internee at S-21 and through his paintings and recollections of his experiences, he came into contact with many people around the globe and had a profound effect on most. His graciousness in recounting his story will stay with me after I helped out on a documentary we filmed with him in Tuol Sleng in 2008. But also a sense of melancholy pervaded our day together and his recurring health problems were an emotional, physical and financial drain that refused to go away. He suffered a heart-attack last Friday and slipped into a coma with his family by his bedside. Their loss is our loss.

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Improv

Come with us! on the streets of Phnom Penh today
It's late notice but Belle and her team of contemporary dancers at Silver Bell will be on the streets of Phnom Penh at 4.30pm this afternoon, with dance improvisation in front of the National Museum and Royal Palace. I love the way that Belle is always willing to try something new. She continually pushes the boundaries here in Cambodia, when no-one is doing it.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

We are the champions

A quiet moment with the championship cup for Rumnea and myself as the celebrations died down
We knew it a week ago but Phnom Penh Crown were officially crowned champions of the Metone Cambodian League this afternoon after a pulsating match against their nearest rivals, Naga Corp, ended all square at 3-3. It was a fitting climax to the league season with Naga in front by 3-1 at the interval but Crown staged the comeback of champions and got back to level pegging, though couldn't quite find a winning goal to end the season with bells on it. Nevertheless, it was the Crown players who were celebrating at the final whistle and that carried onto into the presentation of the cup and medals and into the evening, with a team buffet at Tonle Bassac restaurant.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Getting the message

The Messenger Band take questions at the end of their concert
I'm a fan of the Messenger Band so I headed to Meta House tonight for one of their infrequent appearances outside of their usual round of human rights and workers rights gigs. At their core they are an advocacy group taking their message around the country to educate, inform and entertain their audiences, who are usually garment factory workers and the like. In fact the half a dozen female band members were all former factory workers themselves, so they tell it as it is. They can sing to backing tracks or acappella, their songs are sad, some are less serious, all of them tell a story, and all of them are written by the band members themselves. They dare to talk and sing about topics that are often taboo including sex work and land-grabbing and deserve much credit for their brave and courageous stance. This evening's Meta House gig was two-fold. They got to sell their new CD, Life and Occupation, 7 tracks of their best tunes, and they also showed a short music video called No Choice, which sums up the plight of many girls from the countryside who work in the garment factories. And of course they sang half a dozen songs and shared the stage with a breakdancing troupe. More power to their elbow.
The MB girls singing Life of a Vagabond
The band begin with just 4 members on stage at Meta House

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Sophea & Sopheak


It's a few months old now but this YouTube video of Sophea and Sopheak features two sisters who were part of the Children of Bassac performance troupe and though they talk in their native Khmer, the music is haunting and it's a good excuse to show you more of Sophea, who is a regular performer at my local restaurant, Chayyam. I'm told they are talking about how their art has changed their lives, and Sophea is the one getting made up as a classical dancer at the beginning of the video. At Chayyam, she often performs with Pov, who was one of the dancers in last night's contemporary show.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Scratching my head

The Thin White Line performers. LtoR; Pov, Narim, Davy, Belle, Leak
Occasionally, I watch a contemporary dance performance and I'm left scratching my head. Tonight was one such occasion. I had no idea what the choreographer (Paea Leach) or the dancers were trying to convey. I needed subtitles to tell me where they were going with this. In the preamble the choreographer said it was a collection of ideas, seemingly random as far as I was concerned. To some extent, you take from this style of dance whatever you want to take. It's pretty much a case of practiced free-form, so it's not a story in the strictest sense of the word, as you get with classical dance for example, so everyone has a different take on what they see. The programme that was given out as you entered the hall, explained that the piece, titled Thin White Line, was essentially the fine balance taken by the dancers between respecting tradition as they seek new ideas and influences. Tradition was there to see in the form of the hand-held Buddhas and the deer heads, the new influences, was pretty much everything else. A particularly outstanding series of moves came late on between Belle and Leak, who were entwined for what seemed like ten minutes, putting their bodies through a sequence of loops, twists, tangles and rotations that kept them bonded tightly together, which would've been a first for most of the Khmer audience to see a male and female dance so close together. The timing, energy and movement of the dancers, who also included Pov, Narim and Davy, was liquid and seemingly boundless throughout the piece but I was still left to ponder, and wonder, about what I had just witnessed. If I had time to stay behind, I would've asked. For the dancers, all of whom were classically trained, these workshops in contemporary dance, with different ideas thrown at them from various choreographers from around the world, courtesy of the link-up with Amrita, is an invaluable learning experience for them, and just because I didn't understand it, doesn't mean that they, and the rest of the audience went away equally perplexed.

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Sy stars at home

The Anne Bass directed documentary, Dancing Across Borders, eight years in the making and showing the story of Cambodian ballet dancer Sokvannara 'Sy' Sar and his rise from a dance troupe at Angkor to the stage of one of America's most prominent ballet companies will be shown on TVK Channel 1 in Cambodia for the first time tomorrow (Saturday 3 September) at 9pm. I'll be in English with Khmer subtitles. It's a truly inspiring story and will propel Sy, an otherwise unknown name, to audiences in his home country. Find out more about the film here.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Where's my spade?

In just under a week I'm due to spend an hour and a half on the Pannasastra University's PUC Radio Talk Show 90.0 FM, though a quick check on their September schedule of guest speakers had me down as a University Lecturer and a dig in the Cardamom Mountains, so they've obviously got their wires crossed somewhere. I'd better check with them before I turn up and they are grossly disappointed that I never lecture and I'm crap at digging. Broadcast daily from 7-8.30pm, the show covers a range of topics including youth, education, health, gender, climate change, food and nutrition, business, employment, and entertainment. I reckon I can fit into the employment (as I have a job) and entertainment sections with a squeeze, though my joke-telling is as crap as my digging and my singing voice shatters glass. I sent them a bio a couple of weeks ago and nowhere did it mention lecturing or digging in the Cardamoms. If it still goes ahead I'll be on Wednesday 7th September. But don't hold your breath. Recent guests have included Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and her husband John, who run the Khmer Arts Ensemble classical dance touring company, Scott Neeson (Cambodian Children's Fund), Nico Mesterham of Meta House, rapper Pou Khlaing and Ralph Begleiter, former CNN international correspondent.

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The lives of giants

click to enlarge
Saturday 17 September at 7pm in Takhmao. If like me you enjoy classical Cambodian dance performed by the best, then do not miss this one-off performance of The Lives of Giants by the Khmer Arts Ensemble team before they head off to perform in the USA. It's part of the Our City series of events taking place this month. Unfortunately I will miss it as I will be in Taiwan following the fortunes of Phnom Penh Crown FC.

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