Friday, November 30, 2012

Big song and dance

With film director Roland Joffé at tonight's book launch
If you are going to launch a book, then make a big song and dance about it I say. So the launch of Phnom Penh Noir tonight was just the ticket. Excellent event, lots of interesting people, live music and even free drinks on tap. Can a book launch be this good again? Christopher G Moore was the perfect emcee, Roland Joffé spoke poignantly about Haing Ngor and Krom performed for only the second-ever time in public and did a darn good job. They fitted the noir theme perfectly. They performed three songs, the third was a combination with rap poet Kosal Khiev which came across very successfully, though I am far from being a fan of the quick-fire spoken word. Meanwhile Sophea's voice at the head of Krom was as sweet as it is on video. I met Roland Joffé briefly and he was the perfect gentleman, having time for everyone and I gave him a copy of my book as a small gift for the bounty he gave me with The Killing Fields and The Mission, two films that impacted massively on my life. A book launch to remember.
Christopher G Moore was mc for tonight's event
Roland Joffé tells an anecdote about Cambodian actor Haing Ngor

Krom on stage with the Chamroeun sisters

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Festival glad tidings

Two Shadows poster
Just heard that Two Shadows, a film by director Greg Cahill and starring Sophia Pel, will be shown, three times, at the upcoming 2012 Cambodia International Film Festival, that runs for six days from 7 December, in various locations around the city. Greg and Sophea were together for Cahill’s 2006 short film The Golden Voice, where Sophea portrayed legendary Cambodian songstress Ros Sereysothea. The film created a sensation at over a dozen international film festivals, garnering several first-place awards and Greg is currently developing it into a full-length feature film. The screenings of Two Shadows, 94 minutes in length, at CIFF will be at the French Institute (4.30pm on Saturday 8th), Sorya Mall Cineplex (6.30pm on Tuesday 11th) and the CJCC (6pm on Wednesday 12th). The festival will also see a number of other feature films shot in Cambodia, such as Comfortably Lost, I Have Loved, Bangkok Jam, The Final Sleep and If God Will Send His Angels, together with films from around the world and older films that will focus on Norodom Sihanouk and other Khmer filmmakers. Short films like Paulina by Caylee So, which won awards, will also get an airing, as will a slew of documentaries. For the full CIFF program, click here.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Roll on tomorrow

I've had my head buried in a pile of fiction in recent weeks. One book in particular, Phnom Penh Noir, has been open in my hands most days for the past week and I've just managed to finish reading it before tomorrow's official book launch, by invite only, at the Foreign Correspondents Club on the riverside. I've already mentioned that the man responsible for two major films that loom large in my life, Roland Joffé, will be there, as will a bevy of other authors who contributed to the PPN book, together with a live performance from the elusive Krom and a poetry rap from Kosal Khiev - both of whom feature in the book. Noir fiction brings you the tough, bleak, dark, shadowy side of life in the city and PPN is no exception. Edited by novelist Christopher G Moore, it has thirteen short stories with my favourites coming from Joffé, Moore himself and Andrew Nette, with two good stories from first-time Khmer fiction writers Bopha Phorn and Suong Mak. It's an eclectic mix of tales, some with a twist you didn't see coming, others falling just short of very good whilst the three I mentioned as my favourites, standing out amongst the crowd. But of course, everyone will have their own opinion. I, for one, welcome the book. I am already a fan of Moore's output and now I'm especially keen to read Andrew Nette's debut novel, Ghost Money. On this evidence, Roland Joffé could have a second career as a fiction writer too. Roll on tomorrow evening's bash.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rebirth at Samsara

The pool and main building at Samsara Villa
Another new boutique hotel has opened its doors in Phnom Penh at Samsara Villa, with sixteen rooms and soon to add another eleven in a building under renovation across the street. Samsara (known as the cycle of birth and death in Buddhism) is in a renovated 1960s villa on a very quiet lane, an offshoot of St 466, so its out of the way if you compare it to the riverside or BKK1. It has a nice sized pool, open-air restaurant and three types of rooms - the suites have their own breakfast balcony - in the all-too-common minimalist style with concrete-washed shower-rooms, tiled floors and nominal decoration. There has been an explosion of boutique hotel openings in the past couple of years in the city with Arun Villa, similar in style to Samsara, opening up a couple of months ago. I could list them all, but we'd be here all day.
A suite room at Samsara Villa


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book of the Dead

The new books just keep on coming. It's another novel, this time by Tom Vater and called The Cambodian Book of the Dead. An author and travel writer, this is Vater's second crime fiction novel, his first, The Devil's Road to Kathmandu, was published in 2006. Last year he also released the bestselling Sacred Skin, the first English language title on Thailand's sacred tattoos. For his latest novel, a German detective named Maier travels to Cambodia, a country re-emerging from a half century of war, genocide, famine and cultural collapse, to find the heir to a Hamburg coffee empire. His search for the young coffee magnate leads into the darkest corners of the country’s history and back in time, through the communist revolution to the White Spider, a Nazi war criminal who hides amongst the detritus of another nation’s collapse and reigns over an ancient Khmer temple deep in the jungles of Cambodia. Crime Wave Press have published the book in Cambodia and Thailand, while UK-based Exhibit A has the publishing rights for the rest of the globe. Vater has written non-fiction and fiction books, travel guides, documentary screenplays, and countless feature articles investigating cultural and political trends and oddities in Asia. His website is here.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Coming soon

I should be getting a review copy of the debut novel by author John Burgess sometime soon. A Woman of Angkor is published by River Books and is already on the shelves at Monument Books in Phnom Penh, with a US/Europe release in April. Previously, John published the excellent historical record of a Khmer temple located in Thailand and which he called Stories in Stone, which I loved. If he does as good a job as he did with his first publication, then we are in for a real treat.

To give you a feel for the novel, I took this off John's own website: In a village behind a towering stone temple of Twelfth Century Angkor lives a young woman named Sray. Her beauty and spiritual glow lead neighbors to compare her to the heroine of a Hindu epic. But in fact her serenity is marred by a dangerous secret. One rainy season afternoon she is called to a life of prominence in the royal court. There her faith and loyalties are tested by attentions from the great king Suryavarman II. Struggling to keep her devotion is her husband Nol, palace confidante and master of the silk parasols that were symbols of the monarch's rank.
This lovingly crafted first novel by former Washington Post correspondent John Burgess revives the rites and rhythms of the ancient culture that built the temples of Angkor, then abandoned them to the jungle. In telling her tale, Sray takes the reader to a hilltop monastery, a concubine pavilion and across the seas to the throne room of imperial China. She witnesses the construction of the largest of the temples, Angkor Wat, and offers an explanation for its greatest mystery - why it broke with centuries of tradition to face west instead of east. This is what John le Carre no less, had to say about John's novel; 'Burgess has done something that I believe is unique in modern writing: set a credible and seemingly authentic tale in the courts and temples of ancient Angkor to stir the imagination and excite our historical interest.' More at

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Shors brings Angkor alive

Author John Shors says; "My goal as a novelist is to vividly bring distant cultures and places to life. My passion for such settings is the catalyst for how I write, and what I write about." That has prompted the globe-trotting US-based novelist to pen half a dozen best-selling novels set in India, Thailand, Vietnam and now Cambodia. His book, Temple of a Thousand Faces will be out early next year. In an email exchange, John says; "I was in Siem Reap about two years ago for a research trip. I loved my visit and am excited to go back in a few months. Temple of a Thousand Faces comes out Feb 5 so I will do a bunch of events in America for two months and then will head back to Cambodia for events in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. I've connected with Monument Books and they'll help me set some stuff up. I don't have all my event details yet but hopefully will in a month or so. My novel brings Angkor Wat back to vivid life and I'm excited to share it with people in and out of Cambodia." And we're excited that you've chosen Angkor as the setting for your latest novel too.

It'll be published by Penguin and is a weighty tome at 544 pages. The publisher has this to say about the book: In his international bestseller Beneath a Marble Sky, John Shors wrote about the ancient passion, beauty, and brilliance that inspired the building of the Taj Mahal. Now with Temple of a Thousand Faces, he brings to life the legendary temple of Angkor Wat, an unrivaled marvel of ornately carved towers and stone statues. There, in a story set nearly a thousand years ago, an empire is lost, a royal love is tested, and heroism is reborn. When his land is taken by force, Prince Jayavar of the Khmer people narrowly escapes death at the hands of the conquering Cham king. Exiled from their homeland, he and his mystical wife Ajadevi set up a secret camp in the jungle with the intention of amassing an army bold enough to reclaim their kingdom and free their people. Meanwhile, Cham King Indravarman rules with an iron fist, pitting even his most trusted men against each other and squashing any hint of rebellion. Moving from a poor fisherman’s family whose sons find the courage to take up arms against their oppressors, to a beautiful bride who becomes a prize of war, to an ambitious warrior whose allegiance is torn, Temple of a Thousand Faces is an unforgettable saga of love, betrayal, and survival at any cost.
To whet your appetite even further, you can read the first two chapters of the story at the author's own website:

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Justice, Liberty, Equality

Steel Pulse on stage in Tucson May 1984
A blast from the past. Photographer Ed Arnaud recently sifted through some of his old photos and found these pictures of Steel Pulse which he took in May 1984 at a gig in Tucson, US. It was around the time the band released their Earth Crisis album and I'd seen the band play in London a couple of months before. Alvin Ewen on bass had just joined as had Carlton Bryan, formerly of The Congos, who took over lead guitar duties. The band's drummer at the time, Steve Grizzly Nisbett recalls: "Carlton was born in Jamaica but lived in New York. He was introduced to us. We wanted someone who was different, someone who could play a bit and when their solo came, to make it their own. He came to rehearsals at Rocket Studio and did his thing. He was with us for a few years. He stopped playing with us because of a terrible car accident one Christmas. He was in hospital in a coma for a very long time and when he got out he had to learn how to play again from scratch." Pictures courtesy of Ed Arnaud. You can read about my own infatuation with Steel Pulse here.
A rare photo of lead guitarist Carlton Bryan

The unmistakable David Hinds
Still on the keyboards to this day, Selwyn Brown

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Roland Joffé Rocks

The Killing Fields. LToR: Producer David Puttnam, Director Roland Joffé and Screenplay Writer Bruce Robinson
Film director Roland Joffé has loomed large in my life without him knowing it. Primarily, as we've never met, so I've never had the chance to spill the beans. Though I'm sure he gets it all the time. Let's start with his film, The Killing Fields, which I saw in 1985 and which helped to cement mine, and legions of others, infatuation with Cambodia. And look where that interest took me. It completely changed my life. And then his 1986 film, The Mission, was the key to unlocking my love for the music of Incantation and Ennio Morricone. If you've heard the score, and who hasn't, Incantation played the haunting pipe music throughout the film, courtesy of none other than the maestro himself, Ennio Morricone, who penned the film's incredible soundtrack, one of the best ever. It still rankles that it didn't win the Oscar. In my book Mr Joffé can do no wrong. And I've just read his short story (45 pages in length) in Phnom Penh Noir - and it was excellent. Roland Joffé Rocks. And he'll be back in Phnom Penh next week as a guest speaker at the official launch party for the Noir book at the FCC. Invitation only, with Krom playing live, and Mr Joffé in the house. I won't be able to contain myself.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Comedy fix

Headliner Glenn Wool looked like a cross between Meatloaf and Dr Hook
Mirth filled the room at Pontoon tonight with the appearance of headline act Glenn Wool, originally from Canada but now a world citizen, and his own particular brand of stand-up comedy and story-telling. Facially-expressive, Wool littered his act with expletives and lots of shouting but it did the trick and the reception he received was one of the loudest the Comedy Club of Cambodia has witnessed. Personally I made the mistake of watching a chunk of Wool's act on YouTube the day before, so most of his punchlines were already firmly planted, which spoiled my enjoyment a tad. But I can see why he's won awards and is a man in demand on the circuit. As with most stand-ups, his topics ranged from religion and relationships to drugs, to alcohol and back to drugs again. The usual tried and tested formula. It would be invigorating for a comic to ignore the usual staple diet of subjects - especially drugs which I loathe - and come up with something uniquely original. Fat chance. Malaysia's Kavin Jay was the warm-up act and he was on and off again in double quick-time. I was acutely disappointed that as a host of a popular football show in his home country, he didn't take the piss out of Cambodian football. Not once. Now that would've been right up my street.
Malaysian football pundit Kavin Jay, without the football

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Monday, November 19, 2012

From Ice Age to Khmer Rouge

At last. It took me a couple of weeks, but I've finished reading Tom Knox's novel Bible of The Dead (aka The Lost Goddess), set in Cambodia, Laos and elsewhere. Not exactly the 'they lived happily ever after' ending I'd expected. Overall it kept up a good pace throughout and there were a 1,001 references to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, the temples and even Anlong Veng, not to mention the Khmer Rouge, oh and Paleolithic Caves of the European Ice Age. I also came across a new word, trepanning. You can read all about the author's trips to Cambodia to research the book at his website here. Now, I'm already well into another Colin Cotterill novel set in Laos. The pile of books I have to read is not getting any smaller that's for sure.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Your choice

So-called orphanage tourism has been a feature in Cambodia for a while now and whilst it is appealing to be able to help (and not least, because the children are so adorable), there is the other side of the coin that says, if you visit or volunteer, then you are merely continuing the cycle. The same applies to child beggars and street sellers. It's really up to the individual to decide where they stand on these topics. However, one new website that might help you to make up your mind is here. In recent months, Friends-International also kicked off a campaign that pretty much mirrored the same message. I'm sure orphanage tourism will never disappear, so it's up to the individual to make their own decisions.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Koenig's observations

Will Koenig is an American journalist who now lives in Oregon, but spent three years living in Cambodia. His witty observations of life in his adopted country can be found on Amazon's Kindle in ebook format under the title At Home on the Mekong: Columns from Living in Cambodia. He describes himself thus: "When I was 22, I was bored with university and work and decided to seek adventure. My initial 10 months as a volunteer teacher transformed into three years. I taught English, worked for a development agency, met my wife, contracted malaria three times, got knocked unconscious in a motorcycle crash and was bitten by a gibbon." Now Koenig is set to release a second ebook, this time focusing on his marriage and taken from columns that first appeared in AsiaLife magazine from 2007 through to 2010. The title, and available on Amazon very soon, is Falling In the Well of Love: Notes from a Cross-Cultural Marriage.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Cambodia's essence

The glossy coffee-table magazine, Discover - The Essence of Cambodia, produced by the folks at SE Globe and designed to promote the best bits of Cambodia to the outside world, has just had its second volume/edition/whatever launched, ready for 2013. I didn't get an invite to attend, so my own stock has obviously dropped under the radar, after a review of my book was in the very first edition. This time around, it's 132 pages of words and pictures (and ads), spilling the beans about Cambodia, with pages overflowing with flattering and flowery descriptions, and will look just great in dentist and doctor surgeries around the globe. Kidding aside, it's a great advertisement for the Kingdom and if you don't pick up a hard copy, at $6 a throw, then have a look at it online, here. There's a couple of pages on the Cambodian Space Project no less, Song Saa Private Island, Vann Molyvann, day-tripping out of Phnom Penh, Sovanna Phum, discovering Battambang and lots, lots more.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

3rd B-Day bash

CSP's Srey Thy. Picture courtesy of Laurent Sicard Photographie
The Cambodian Space Project are three years old. Well, they will be next month. So they have decided to celebrate with a birthday bash at the Foreign Correspondent's Club on the riverside on Friday 7 December. Since December 2009 they've toured 14 different countries, played over 300 shows, released a vinyl ep and two albums. For the birthday gig they'll be joined by The Rajasthani Gypsy, Ghugge Khan, just to add some extra spice to proceedings. For the evening, perhaps they'll call themselves the Cambodian Spice Project. Just a thought. I'll get my coat. Two nights after the birthday party, the band will be playing in Java, Indonesia. They simply never sit still for a minute.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Top class contemporary circus

Gymnastics and acrobatics were on show from PPS
The Cambodia Youth Arts Festival is taking place this week and I managed to catch one of the free shows outside Chenla Theater tonight, with a shortened version of Cambodian Living Arts' Mak Therng, before moving inside the theater to enjoy the Phare Ponleu Selpak performance of Sokha. If you like your circus entertainment to include clowns and animals, then look elsewhere, as Sokha is a show that includes neither. Instead it focuses on the destruction of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime and the rebirth of the arts through contemporary circus skills such as tightrope, acrobatics, gymnastics and juggling, together with live painting and excellent music accompaniment. Essentially circus-cum-theatre from one female, six males, a painter and two musicians. Sokha, which is the name of the girl whose story is told throughout, is one of Phare Ponleu Selpak's regular shows at their home base in Battambang, though they now bring their troupe to Phnom Penh once a month, and I recommend you get along and see them. It's entertaining, despite the dramatic storyline, great fun and the performers are excellent at what they do. You only had to hear the constant clapping and see the standing ovation at the end, to know that. PPS will be setting up a permanent big top in Siem Reap next year, the monthly performances in Phnom Penh are a welcome addition and every time I see them, I am impressed. I'm sure you will be too.
Live painting carried on throughout the show

Fabulous gymnastics included firing a bow & arrow with her feet

Storytelling through drama and circus

Balancing and tightrope were also very much in evidence

The CLA were on the outside stage to present Mak Therng Yike opera

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bird's-eye view

The Frangipani roof-top swimming pool, with views
The newly-opened Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel put on lunch and a look around their facilities this lunchtime, though it'll be another week before the hotel is fully operational. The first three floors are complete, as is the roof-top swimming pool, but the workmen are still finishing off some of the contemporary-style rooms and the top floor lounge. Lunch was tasty and plentiful. What the hotel does boast is an excellent viewing area, whether you are looking east over the Tonle Sap River, south across to the Royal Palace or west to the National Museum and the remainder of the Phnom Penh skyline. A drink at their sky bar will be a magnet as soon as word gets out. The front rooms of the hotel will also have a bird's-eye view of the King Father's funeral when its held in February, with work already underway preparing the gardens in front of the National Museum, Veal Mean, for a traditional Buddhist ceremony and cremation. It's been announced that the King Father's funeral procession will once again allow the population to pay their respects to their revered former monarch before the cremation takes place. The King's cabinet has said some of the King Father's ashes will be kept in a stupa at the Silver Pagoda, though most will be placed in the area where the Tonle Sap meets the Mekong River at Chaktomuk. If you are staying at the Frangipani at that time, you'll have a memorable view of the whole proceedings.
The frontage of the newly-opened Frangipani Hotel

A bird's-eye view of Veal Mean where the King Father's funeral will take place

The Royal Palace is calm and quiet

Looking across to the National Museum and the city skyline


Monday, November 12, 2012


The Chamroeun sisters, Sophea (left) and Sopheak

The up-til-now elusive band, Krom will make their live debut, and in front of the TV cameras, on Saturday 17 November on CTN's Cambodia Entertainment Tonight, from 5.30pm. The band will perform three songs from their debut album, Krom - Songs from the Noir. There will also be an interview with lead female vocalist Sophea Chamroeun and just to keep it in the family, the band have added her sister, Sopheak, as a harmony vocalist. Both girls have been key members of the Cambodian Living Arts troupe for some time and are highly-regarded singers and performers in their own right.

Monument Books has been a bit quiet on the book launch front in recent weeks, so its good to hear that will be rectified on Saturday 17 November at 5pm when Benoit Duchateau-Arminjon will be on hand to launch his book, Healing Cambodia: One Child at a Time - The story of Krousar Thmey. Available in English, French and Khmer, it recounts the author's journey in setting up and developing one of the leading child welfare organizations in the country, which provides material, educational and social support to abandoned and orphaned children, street children and victims of trafficking, as well as developing Khmer Braille and Khmer sign language for use in education for blind and deaf children. A very worthy cause indeed.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Looking back

The Like Me's in Cambodia in 2011. Spot the hanger-on in the blue shirt near the end of the video.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Srey Thy's story

Srey Thy is the focus of Marc Eberle's documentary
There's been a man with a camera following in the footsteps of Srey Thy, the female lead singer of the Cambodian Space Project for the past three years. His name is Marc Eberle and he's plotting the rise of both the band and their female lead as CSP take their brand of 60s Cambodian rock around the world. His work hasn't gone unnoticed and BBC Storyville have agreed to come on board with the documentary, Rock Cambodia! and this is a big leap for Eberle and by association, the band themselves. Storyville have a reputation of bringing the most interesting character-based stories from around the world to the screen and have picked up no less than four Oscars and many other awards in their ten-year history. Eberle has already had his documentary, The Choice, on Aung San Suu Kyi, shown on BBC2 and soon, HBO, as well as gaining prominence for his highly-regarded The Most Secret Place on Earth - the CIA's Covert War in Laos. Find out more here.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Back in the groove

I'd love a time-machine if anyone's got one going spare for tomorrow evening. Black Roots will be launching their first studio album for more years than I, and they, care to mention at the Malcolm X Centre, St Paul's in Bristol tomorrow night. They plan on playing all 17 tracks from the album, On The Ground. In truth, to make the album the band went into the studio for the first time in more than twenty years and fell straight back into the Black Roots groove that served them so well during the 1980s and beyond. I love this band, as you can see for yourself here.
The Black Roots line-up for the album was: David Henry Holder – Keyboards; Errol Anthony Brown – Vocals; Anthony Charles Ward – Drums; Patrick Anthony Tenyue – Trumpet ; Jabulani Ngozi – Guitar; Kondwani Ngozi – Vocals; Cordell Francis – Lead Guitar; Raymond Carless – Saxophone; Senouci Madani - Bass; Charles Bryan – Vocals; Carlton Anthony Smith – Vocals. To listen to some of the tracks, click here.

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Gates of Ivory

Back in 1991, Cambodia rarely featured in any novel that I was aware of. So it came as something of a surprise when I heard that one of Britain's best known female novelists, Margaret Drabble, had set her book, The Gates of Ivory, partly in Cambodia. Drabble, it turns out, had been to the border camps on the Thai-Cambodian border and penned her experiences in Harper's Magazine in April 1989. "I was going to Australia and I spent a fortnight on the way. And then I went back the following year. So I made two visits to that part of the world for research. But I had been interested in the story of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge for a long time," said the author in an interview.
Here's a brief summary of the book, from the publisher.
In The Gates of Ivory, Liz Headland, a London psychiatrist blessed with a successful practice, and amicable divorce, and independent children - all the comforts of the modern world - receives a cryptic package in the mail. Inside are drawings of Cambodian temple ruins, fragments of a novel by her old friend Stephen Cox, and two points from a human finger bone. The package is a message, apparently from Stephen, which Liz can decipher only by retracing its sender's journey from the safety of England to the chaos and corruption of Southeast Asia. As Margaret Drabble interweaves the odysseys of Liz and Stephen, she ushers the reader into a world that would be colourful were it's horrors not so authentically portrayed - a world of entrepreneurial beauty queens and media superstars, of ideological butchers and permanent refugees. It's one of Drabble's most memorable novels - a successor to The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity. It is scalding in its indignation and riveting in its narrative drive. She recreates nothing less than the end of our century. With all its huge betrayals and small apocalypses intact.
In addition, Dame Margaret Drabble DBE - to give her the correct title - is also patron of the Cambodia Trust, of which she says; "The Cambodia Trust has been working  for twenty years in the most sustained and farseeing  ways to improve the lives of the disabled in Cambodia and beyond, and has many enabled lives to its credit. I first became interested in Cambodia when I was writing about the epic tragedy in the days of Pol Pot, and it has been important to me to be able to keep this practical link with what is happening today."

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Youth on show

The Cambodia Youth Arts Festival kicks-off this coming Saturday 10 November until the 16th with indoor and outdoor shows at Chenla Theater and the Dept of Performing Arts, some are free, others are ticket only. I fancy the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus show at Chenla Theater on Wednesday next week (14 Nov) from 6.30pm, as I missed their recent show at Beeline Arena and the PPS folks are pretty fabulous at what they do. You can find the whole program of performances here. Lots of variety including some performances from the Children of Bassac and the Yike team from Cambodian Living Arts.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Eugenie makes an entrance

If you are a graphic novel or comic fan, you'll be in seventh heaven with the publication for the first time in English, of Patrick Samnang Mey's Eugenie novel, set in Cambodia, 240 pages in black and white, watercolour and Indian ink, with the book launch and exhibition set for Friday 16 November from 7pm. It will take place at The Empire restaurant on Street 130, just a block away from the riverfront in Phnom Penh, with an exhibition of drawings and paintings as well as signed copies by the author. The novel was originally published in French in three volumes. The only other graphic novels I can recall are Shake Girl, based on the true story of a Cambodian karaoke performer named Tat Marina, by the students of Stanford University and the more prolific French-Khmer graphic artist Ing Phouséra, or Sera to use his pen name. You can find out more about the author here.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Highways to Cambodia

One of my favourite novels focusing on the war in Indochina is Christopher Koch's Highways To A War, which a year or two ago was in development as a possible movie, but it hasn't happened as far as I know. Published as long ago as 1995, it was reviewed by the eminent Milton Osborne for The New York Times on 30 August 1995. Rather than my personal review, suffice to say I gobbled it up, especially as it was so closely entwined with Cambodia, here's Milton's opinion.  

Highways To A War by Christopher J. Koch. 451 pages. Viking.
Reviewed by Milton Osborne.
It is appropriate that the publication of Christopher Koch's new novel, Highways to a War, should take place in 1995, a year during which attention has been focused on the Communist victory in Vietnam 20 years ago. For the book is a notable literary reflection on the war. Koch has long been regarded as one of Australia's finest writers, praised for his sensitive use of language and meticulous attention to detail, whether in describing his homeland or, as in his earlier novel, The Year of Living Dangerously, settings in Indonesia and other parts of Asia. These qualities are abundantly apparent in this, his fourth novel. The book tells the story of Mike Langford, a photo journalist who bears some resemblance to Neil Davis, the legendary Australian cameraman who survived the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia only to be killed in a failed coup in Bangkok in 1985. Like Davis, Langford seems impervious to danger and concerned to show the war as it was fought by local, as opposed to foreign, troops. This commitment leads to one of the novel's most rewarding features. Langford's association with South Vietnamese and Cambodian government soldiers means that they emerge from the pages of this book as characters who invite sympathy, rather than being, as so often has been the case in other novels about the Indochina wars, mere background against which foreigners play their dominant parts.
Nor is it only those fighting against the Communists who are given humanity. In one gripping section of the book, Langford and two journalist colleagues are held for a time by the North Vietnamese. Captain Danh, who leads their captors, is shown as a man of principle whose commitment happens to be to the other side. This is a novel that can be read at several levels. It is a tale of courage in the face of danger. As a reflection on the wars that ravaged Vietnam and Cambodia,Koch's book insistently reminds us that few conflicts lend themselves to being analyzed in simple terms of right and wrong. Victims can be found on both sides. But, above all, the book is rewarding because it brings alive a world that increasingly large numbers of readers will never have experienced and which others are beginning to forget. This is the author's most striking achievement.
As we follow Langford from his farming boyhood in the rural Australian state of Tasmania, through poverty in Singapore, to increasing status as a journalist in Indochina, the sights and sounds of his surroundings are vividly before us. Also vividly portrayed are the men and women who live, work and fight there. For those of us who knew Phnom Penh and Saigon before 1975, the descriptions Koch provides are achingly familiar, as are the scenes set in lush, yet harsh, environment of the Cambodian and Vietnamese countryside. In introducing his book, the author writes that Highways to War is "one of a related pair: a diptych." With the success of the current novel, readers will eagerly wait for Koch's next offering.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Sign of the times

Sam Roberts' new book
Sam Roberts' fascination with hand-painted street and shop signs that he enjoyed in the riverside town of Kratie where he worked for VSO for two years, has driven him to publish his favourites in a brand new self-published book, Hand Painted Signs of Kratie, which is now on sale. Flying pigs, retro hairstyles and hand grenades are among some of the 170 images in this celebration of the art and craft of hand-painted advertising. Roberts’ research not only helped him uncover the history of the signs and the stories they tell, but he has also tracked down some of the men who paint them. Their story is also told, with particular emphasis on that of Sai Sokheang, Kratie’s leading artist producing hand painted signs, who crafted the book's front cover. Find out more, including how to get a copy of the book, here.
Another book hot off the press is the more upmarket Cambodia's Top Tables, available at Monument Books for $25, which features 52 recipes by Cambodia's leading chefs, as chosen by editors Clive Graham-Ranger and the Kingdom's top chef, Luu Meng. I'm told cook-books are now all the rage.

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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Looking at life and death

Rob Hamill with veteran photographer Tim Page at Bophana Center

A double-header today with a second look at Brother Number One, this time with an afternoon showing at the Bophana Center, whilst early evening was the third night of the brand new season from Cambodian Living Arts under the Plae Pakaa banner of shows at the National Museum. First, the documentary of Rob Hamill's search for the truth and justice for the murder of his brother Kerry by the Khmer Rouge in 1978. Another full house with Rob giving a brief intro and then a much more extensive question & answer session at the end. I found the film even more emotional the second time around, being able to catch a couple of things I missed on Thursday. The effect of his brother's disappearance and death on the Hamill family was a major theme throughout the film, though Rob made it very clear that his story was just one of millions that could be told. He was just fortunate to be able to tell it. He doesn't expect the Tribunal to go beyond Case 002, whilst he's still seeking to have a face-to-face meeting with Duch, the former S-21 commandant sentenced to life for crimes against humanity, even though he's just been turned down for a third time by the born-again Christian.
After the questions ended, I made a beeline for the National Museum to watch the third night of the Plae Pakaa season, with the debut showing of the Passage of Life theater, a new project created especially for this series of shows. It tells through music, spoken word and performance, a series of life events which by tradition, involve ceremony and these are played out on the stage by the cast, with an accompanying orchestra. They include the birth of a baby, the coming of age for girls, Chol Mlop, male maturity into the monkhood, wedding, illness treated by traditional medicine and finally the funeral ceremony. Hence the title, Passage of Life. It was top-heavy with spoken Khmer, the subtitles helped to an extent, but for long periods the mainly foreign audience were in the dark about what was being said. The Khmer members of the crowd certainly understood, especially the humorous moments portrayed by the traditional medium, though much of it was effectively lost on the foreigners. Perhaps less spoken words and more on-screen translations would help. It was certainly an eye-opener for anyone who'd not witnessed these ceremonies before - I've been fortunate to witness all of them in real-life - and opens a window into Cambodian culture they would never normally see. It's a brave move by CLA to introduce this into their program and I think with some small tweaks here and there, and even some audience participation, it will work well.
Rob Hamill contemplates a question from the audience

A man matures into the monkhood in Passage of Life

Part of the wedding ceremony from tonight's show

Members of the Passage of Life cast take their bow

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For the Youth

Continuing on the arts theme, the Cambodian Youth Arts Festival 2012 (CYAF) will take place from the 10-16 November across Phnom Penh. It brings together students, artists, and non-artists to promote arts appreciation, both traditional and contemporary art forms, among the youth population. An outdoor stage will offer free performances and an indoor stage will host admission-based shows at Chenla Theatre and elsewhere. One of the first offerings is In Memory of Memory at Bophana Center on 10 November, at 4pm, when two documentaries with artists Svay Ken and Vann Nath will be shown. Outdoor performances and visual art shows are free, with a 10,000 riel admission for indoor performances. The program of events should be available soon here.


Yike tells a story

The main characters, Mak Therng and his wife Pangkiya
Cambodians love stories, especially traditional ones that have a meaning today. Take Mak Therng, the new Yike opera show presented for the first time last night at the National Museum by the youngsters from Cambodian Living Arts. Good versus evil, rich against poor, the search for fairness and justice. All told using the Khmer story-telling musical theater style called Lakhaon Yike. Not usually seen at all by foreign visitors, CLA have decided to made it one of their three performance shows that they will rotate every week, alongwith the Children of Bassac and another new performance, Passage of Life theater. The season of shows is called Plae Pakaa (the idea is of coming to fruition). The Bassac show, which was cancelled on Thursday because of a thunderstorm - the shows are in the open-air at the Museum on a specially-made stage and seating area - is a mix of classical and folk dance and is immediately appealing to all, foreign and local guests alike. Yike is altogether different, much slower, concentrating on the story, the characters, even facial expressions and of course, the moral of the story. I must say the acting by the young performers was pretty good, in an exaggerated way of course, real tears were spilled and it does an excellent job of bringing an otherwise unseen performance style to a wider audience. The origins of Yike are thought to come from the Cham ethnic group but its past is undocumented. Today the shows are accompanied by drums and string instruments, the characters dress up in colourful costumes and though the spoken language and singing is in Khmer, CLA have added a screen with translations of the words into English - a very useful addition to help with understanding the story. I have seen the Bassac show a few times and would recommend it unreservedly, as for Yike, it too gives a window into a different style of traditional Cambodian story-telling and for that reason, and the quality of the performance, is also well worth going to see. Tickets cost $10 and the shows begin at 7pm sharpish for an hour, six nights a week, except Sunday. The aim for CLA is to raise awareness of the arts as well as providing opportunities for their students to get regular jobs in the arts sector, which they hope Plae Pakaa will achieve. One small suggestion, it would be a nice gesture if some of the lead characters remained on stage at the end, to allow a few photographs for the visitors. It is afterall, a show aimed primarily at international tourists. Oh, and if it looks like rain, take an umbrella.
The drum of truth carried by Pangkiya and Mak Therng

The climax of the story of Mak Therng

The performers express their thanks to the audience

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Titter Ye Not

A majestic and beautiful tiger at Tek Chhou Zoo
Comedy is back on the menu when the Comedy Club Cambodia returns to the stage at Pontoon on Wednesday 21 November at 8.30pm. Tickets remain good value at $8 each and the imported stand-up comics for the night are Kavin Jay from Malaysia - a co-host of the popular TV program Football Overload on Astro’s SuperSport - and the main act, Canadian Glenn Wool, who has been making his way around the globe, living in London and Los Angeles. Make a date with Pontoon.

Last night's opening Plae Pakaa performance by the Cambodian Living Arts group at the National Museum was cancelled at the last minute when a thunderstorm hit the capital. Unfortunately, the show is in the open air and that left them with an opening night wash-out. They will be hoping for better conditions this evening with their first Yike opera performance at 7pm. Tickets cost $10pp.

In their efforts to improve the welfare of the animals and the image of Teuk Chhou Zoo in Kampot, the introduction of a brand new Paws and Claws Wildlife Encounter program, which started yesterday, will provide an up close and personal experience with the zoo's inhabitants. Taking their cue from Phnom Tamao Zoo's Bear Keeper for a Day, Teuk Chhou will offer a half-day meet-the-animals session at $25, whilst their full-day version at $45 gives guests a window into the life of a wildlife park keeper including assisting with food preparation, bathing elephants, cleaning enclosures and encounters with tigers, gibbons and other wildlife. Find out more here.

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