Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tough draw

The AFC President's Cup - a trophy we just failed to capture last year
I will head for the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe in late September - yes I know, where the heck is that? - but the task that lies before us was made that bit harder today as my team, Phnom Penh Crown were handed the toughest possible draw in the final group stage of the AFC President's Cup. The draw was made in a  plush hotel in the Tajik capital this morning and pitted Crown against not only the two times winners of the cup, Dordoi from next-door neighbours Kyrgyzstan, who have also been beaten in the final on four other occasions, but the Tajik champions and home team, Istiklol. Both nations are former Russian Republics and I wouldn't be surprised if their teams are made up of former Olympic shot-putters and sprint champions. We've already lost to a last minute penalty against Dordoi in the qualifying round in May, so we've got a score to settle when we face them. Group A has just three teams and the group winners will meet the first-placed team from Group B in the final of the AFC President's Cup on 30 September. The teams from Group B hail from Chinese Taipei, Palestine and Pakistan. Crown are still smarting form the injustices of last season's competition, where we became the first Cambodian team to reach the final of a major Asian club championship, only to lose 3-2 in controversial circumstances to Taiwan Power, who are in Group B this time around.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Boutique bonkers

The inviting pool at Hilary's Boutique Hotel on St 302
Phnom Penh has gone boutique crazy. And I don't mean shops selling fashionable gear either. I mean the proliferation of small boutique hotels and guesthouses that are springing up left, right and center. I visited a couple today and have been to a hatful of them over the last couple of months, as hotel owners start filling the accommodation gaps that have plagued the capital for the last few years. The word boutique has been overused quite a bit with hotels with 100+ rooms getting tagged with the word, but in my view, that's crap. Boutique hotels are unique, intimate, comfortable and often contemporary chic with no more than 20 rooms max. Phnom Penh has seen a mushrooming of them with names like River 108, Villa Salt, Maison d'Ambre, Willow, 252, Villa Samnang, Hotel Nine, Villa Paradiso, Villa Srey, Villa this, Villa that and so on. In fact the first one I saw today was Arun Villa, twelve contemporary rooms inside a converted villa, with pool and restaurant, still a few weeks away from completion but looking set to grab a slice of the boutique market with room rates pitched at between $60-80. Next up was Hilary's, with an increasingly-popular BKK1 address, fifteen neat rooms, smelling fresh and new, with pool and restaurant, smiles and welcomes and aiming a bit lower at around $50. There's even one on the corner of my street, which has looked a shit-tip for the last few months but will soon unveil itself as the King Grand II. The concern I have is that they all melt into one. There is little to choose from each other, with rates hovering around the same level, each with a pool or its own individual hook, a new lick of whitewash and hoping to win a slice of the visitor market either through TripAdvisor or by word of mouth. I wish them well.

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Frontline Reggae

The new album cover, with artwork from the 1980s
I was fortunate to watch Black Roots, a superb reggae band hailing from Bristol, at Eve's Nightclub in Cheltenham many moons ago, sometime during the mid-1980s. They were already high on my list of fave bands and I was soon off to Bristol to watch them on their home territory. They even did the soundtrack for a BBC television series called The Frontline, which was supposed to be a comedy revolving around two black brothers, one a policeman, the other a street-wise dreadlocked youth. The tv series bombed, but the band happily went from strength to strength. They produced eleven albums until the curtain finally came down in 1995 and the band dispersed. However, they've now come back together again, have been gigging furiously, they are off to Italy next week, and have their first (or is it their 12th) album due out in shops in September. The album is called On The Ground, 17 original tracks that judging by reviews, is set to return the band to the top of the reggae pile in the UK and beyond. Catch them if you can. For more on their first incarnation, click here.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Movie crapola

Sleepy Kampot in the southern region of Cambodia, seems to hold an attraction for film-makers. A couple of years ago the film, The Road to Freedom was shot in the area and now another film, Age of the Hobbits, is being filmed near Bokor Mountain. It's not a big blockbuster, in fact it's a relatively-cheap imitation film which they call a mockbuster, essentially films very close in theme and title to an impending big-screen blockbuster, which are released straight to DVD to capitalize on the interest and name of their bigger and considerably better near-namesake. I didn't even know it existed until very recently and it sounds like an absolutely crap idea to me. This version is trying to cash in on the Peter Jackson movie The Hobbit, which should be released to theaters in December. The makers of these mockbusters try to get their DVDs out before the original and hope that people buy/rent them by mistake. Now in anyone's book that has got to be the bum end of the whole movie crapola. However, trying to be positive, because the film is being made in Cambodia, it does mean work for over 100 actors, extras and crew members in-country, which is a boon for them of course. Why do I get the feeling that this might just be the first of many mockbusters finding their way here.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Setting an example

Tried some Japanese finger-food at Kanji Japanese Restaurant, the latest addition to the Luu Meng empire at the Almond Hotel after work tonight. Kanji opened a month ago, tonight's event was a cocktail and food sampling session on the top floor patio and I must admit the finger-food was tasty. My previous experience with Japanese food has not been good, and it definitely ranks very low down on my preferred food list. I mentioned this in passing to Luu Meng, lauded as Cambodia's finest chef, and he promptly invited me to lunch next week, in order to change my mind. He obviously didn't read the comments about my recent Malis experience, or else he might've poked me in the eye, rather than issue an invite. I'll keep mum about Malis until the time is right. Not that Meng would get upset by a negative review. He treats every adverse comment as an opportunity to learn and improve and I was impressed when speaking to his HR manager Sophorn about the way he looks after the welfare of his 200+ staff. Most bosses could learn a lot from his example.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Artist's impression

Nov 2005 version
Photos are great for capturing real images but artist's impressions are often even better. Take this one, from November 2005, when I was still living in Blighty. Obviously with my memory, I can't for the life of me recall where it was done, who did it and so on. All I have is the approximate date. Suffice to say I thought it was a rather good impression of me at the time. Another impression of me was pencilled by the great Cambodian cartoonist Bun Heang Ung and you can see his handiwork here.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

French connection

Disturbing news for Frenchies living in Cambodia. One of their own was gunned down and killed this week and robbery was not the motive. Then some scummy websites/papers posted pictures of the dead man, as is often the case here, even though the authorities warned them against such crass reporting a few months ago. The French Embassy are pissed off with the local police as they were quick to point out that six cases of French citizens dying in the last year under violent circumstances have not be solved. I don't have any figures for Brits having a hard time in Cambodia.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Heading for trouble

Should I really be heading towards a country which has seen violent clashes between government and rebel forces, in which hundreds are feared dead? The AFC recently awarded the AFC President's Cup final stage to Tajikistan and my club Phnom Penh Crown will be heading there in late September. The final group matches will be held in the capital Dushanbe though the recent fighting has been in a border region that abuts onto Afghanistan. It's the worst outburst since a government campaign to wipe out Islamist militants in another region two years ago in the former Soviet republic. Presumably the AFC will have received guarantees from the Tajik authorities that the safety of the six teams, their players, officials and fans can be assured. If not, why the heck are we going into such a volatile situation. Tajikistan has already experienced a devastating five-year civil war that ravaged the country in the 1990s. I checked the British Foreign Commonwealth Office website for their travel advice and they indicate that terrorism and kidnapping pose threats in Tajikistan. Oh great. That cuts out sitting at a city center street cafe or talking to strangers on a dimly lit street late at night. Two of my favoured past-times when I'm abroad. Seriously, I am going to a Muslim-dominated country that is, as some commentators put it, 'a struggling society which could be on the brink of a violent realignment.' There is frequent detention and harassment of men with beards (I'll make sure I take a razor with me), or women in hijab headscarves. This month, the government announced new plans to censor the Internet (so match reports and Facebook updates could be a problem). I really don't want to be walking headlong into a revolt against an unpopular regime, with Afghan insurgents in prime position to fill a potential power vacuum, as the international press have suggested. I think the AFC should re-consider their decision and switch the finals to Phnom Penh. Where it's as safe as houses, as my mum used to say.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Recognition for Hem

One of the three paintings, This Woman's Work
Andrew Hem, a Cambodian-born illustrator, painter and sculptor who I've featured before on my blog has received a pleasing acknowledgement of his talents from the American Embassy here in Phnom Penh. Three of the paintings that relate to his personal narrative on his homeland, will be on view at state functions at the Ambassador's residence for the next three years. Next month, a monograph of Hem's work entitled Dreams Towards Reality, will be released with 120 pages, over 150 colour plates and a limited edition of just 1,000, at a cost of $45 each. Hem is no stranger to rave reviews and plaudits for his expanding body of work and already includes Adidas, Sony Pictures and The Los Angeles Times amongst his clients, with successful exhibitions in London, Italy and across the United States also in the bag. He left Cambodia with his parents as a toddler to make a new life in the US and now lives in Los Angeles. The published monograph contains a look at his recent paintings as well as selections from his earlier work, graffiti, sketches, murals, sculptures and collages, as well as photographs from his travels. More at his website.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Not bowled over

Is it just me or is the food at Malis, touted as one of the very best restaurants in Phnom Penh, much too hit and miss? Tonight I found it acceptable, without being excellent by any means, but the last couple of times I've dined there, it didn't really come up to scratch, both from a reputational and price-wise point of view. My meal tonight was simply okay. My taste-buds weren't exactly tantalized and the lack of vegetables with my chops left my plate bare and the meal less interesting. The bill of $50 for two people, we had three courses without wine or beer, was also too high for what we got. I've had good meals at Malis and I've had very average ones, the uncertainty will take me elsewhere for my next fine dining experience.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Shrieking for Crown

Rumnea in one of her quieter football moments
Rumnea shouts, or should that be shrieks, louder than most at football matches. Especially when Phnom Penh Crown are playing. She said she's always loved football and used to watch it on television with her dad. Now she gets the chance to exercise her lungs at the Olympic Stadium each weekend and her knowledge of the game is improving with each game she watches. As a true football fan, she also takes defeat hard, none of this nambypamby, "there's always another game," a defeat is like a knife to the heart. She's passionate about her football and that's exactly the type of football fan that the game in Cambodia needs. Long may it continue.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Second chance

In late 2007 I gave up on the Hagar restaurant on Street 288, just around the corner from my flat. A great $6 set-menu in the evenings, with friendly and attentive staff, but too many Christian missionaries, bible-thumpers, god-botherers, or whatever you want to call them for my liking. I stopped going. Lunchtime today I bit the bullet and visited their relocated restaurant on Street 310, just down the road from my office, to sample their $6.50 lunch buffet. Not a noisy Christian in sight, the food selection was plentiful and good quality, service was as friendly as always and judging by the dining crowd, its already very popular. I'll definitely give it another go and fingers crossed I won't have to listen to any evangelists and their inane conversations about bible practice and prayer meetings anytime soon. Maybe they only do that in the evenings. And Hagar help out women who've been victims of abuse, so its all in a good cause.

Tonight was the finale of the blood and guts television series, Spartacus: Vengeance, which has been great fun to watch with superb fighting scenes and slow-motion effects, and with blood spilt about every two minutes. There will be a third and final series next year, which will be very welcome though they'll need a new cast as most of them got slaughtered in tonight's programme, except Spartacus of course. Historically, a great story of slaves rising up against their Roman masters but it was only ever going to end in tears. The other tv series I've been enjoying recently is Game of Thrones, a medieval fantasy which will also be coming back for a third series next year. Other television series I watch if I'm at home are Blue Bloods and of course, any of the CSIs. That's it. Honest.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Post kickabout

I'm aching all over. Especially my lower back. I look like I'm walking and sitting with a plank of wood stuffed down my underwear. It's my own fault as I agreed to play football first thing yesterday morning, starting at 7am, on the artificial grass surface at the 3G ground near NagaWorld. Nice pitch I must say. And the water sprinklers showering you whilst playing help a bit, though by the smell of the water, they got it from the sewer. It was Jimmy Campbell's idea. He should know better. Inviting 50+ year olds to get out of bed at an ungodly hour to play a kickabout. Unfortunately, just six of us turned up so that meant more running around than I'd hoped for. I know it'll be good for me in the long run, especially if it becomes a regular gig, but try telling my body that at the moment.

Historian David Chandler is back in town and giving evidence at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in case 02, and providing an insight into the workings of the security apparatus of the Khmer Rouge regime, gleaned through his years of meticulous research. He always has something interesting to say, so keep your eyes peeled for the press reports from the ECCC. It already looks like the battle lines between him and defence lawyer Michael Karnavas have been drawn in the sand. Hold onto your hat.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I'm off to a Stan

I'm off to Dushanbe in September. Where the heck is that, you might ask? It's the capital of one of the Stans, Tajikistan to be precise. It's a Central Asian Republic, 90% mountainous, population 7 million and they broke free from Russian control in 1991 and then headed straight into civil war. It's quiet now but the area is volatile. I'm heading that way with my football club, Phnom Penh Crown, who have reached the final stages of the AFC President's Cup, and the news came through today that they will be held in a country that is bordered by Afghanistan, two other Stans and China. Cambodia threw their hat into the ring to host the finals, between 24-30 September, but the AFC suits decided that Dushanbe would be the venue. Hence my visit to Central Asia. The word 'interesting' readily springs to mind.

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Enjoying a treat

The Balcony Suite bedroom
I get easily confused by the extraordinary number of room categories offered by all the different hotels. It doesn't take much as my memory isn't what it used to be. I just wish these room categories were standardized for people like me with the memory of a goldfish. But what I can tell you is that the four rooms I saw at Raffles Hotel Le Royal at lunchtime were all very posh. Gigantic televisions and so clean you could eat your extraordinary large breakfast off the floor, if you so wished. State, Landmark, Colonial, Balcony and so on, simply too many classifications for someone of my advancing years but all top quality, as was the lunchtime food bonanza we enjoyed. Gareth and Ratanak made sure we ate our fill of the large buffet selection on offer and the service was impeccable, as it always is. Le Royal is a timeless tradition in Phnom Penh, just ask Hillary Clinton who stayed there last week, and they work hard to make it appear seamless, and they do it very well. To be invited to Le Royal is a treat and one which I always savour.  
The popular Landmark Room at Le Royal

I just love the hallways in Raffles hotels - I think it's the tiles and the cleanliness

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Flowery PJs

Rumnea in those flowery PJs in July 2007
I was looking through some photos tonight and came across a picture I'd forgotten I'd taken. It was July 2007 and I was on the outskirts of Kompong Thom when it started to rain heavily. My pal Sokhom and I pulled into a small wooden shop, which was a tailors and asked for shelter. It was immediately granted by a young girl dressed in flowery pyjamas who spoke with what I am certain was excellent English. She will disagree but I was bowled over by her confident language skills and beaming smile and we have remained very close to this day. Rumnea's English has got even better, her smile has never diminished and thank goodness, we've never seem those PJs again. It was very soon after I arrived here, having decided to close the England chapter of my life and open the Cambodia one. Excellent choice I must say.
Rumnea in rather different attire in more recent times

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Invitations welcome

Invitation from the Bougainvillier Hotel for lunch today was gratefully accepted and a very pleasant Khmer and French buffet was enjoyed by our team, in the company of the hotel's all-Khmer management team. Thanks to Rindy, Davin and Sokchan for their kind hospitality. We also had a look at a few of the hotel's rooms, some of which have been spruced up recently, and of course some of them have a great view over the Tonle Sap River and beyond. The rooms at the back have a view of a wall. Not so great. Actually the ones at the front look onto the new monstrosity being built by Sokha on Chrouy Changvar so the view isn't that good afterall. The roof-top at Bougainvillier is open for pizza and evening drinks but the elevator that is being constructed to avoid the plethora of steps won't be finished anytime soon, after the lift company went bust. So the walk to the top is still a mini-marathon. If its a riverside location you are seeking, with a French flavour thrown-in for good measure, then Bougainvillier might be just up your rue.

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Hello Kara

Kara is the slightly smaller, considerably more attractive one
Meet the lovely Kara Ung from California who was in town a few weeks ago and came to watch the big drum show at Sovanna Phum and loved it. We'd talked online before but never met in person until now. Kara is a talented individual and has many strings to her bow including singer-songwriter, wedding dress maker, fundraiser, advisor for domestic violence sufferers, clinical psychologist, and much more besides. Where does she find the time? It's hard enough for me to get out of bed in the mornings.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reunion time

Meeting up with Soriya at Luk Luk BBQ
I was so happy to see so many old friends tonight with a reunion at Luk Luk BBQ, in the street behind PizzaWorld. The restaurant has been open for a month and the owner, Tima and his family were celebrating the return of his brother Sam, and family, from two years studying in Australia. They are the brothers of Thea, my great pal who passed away twelve years ago and a host of other faces I recognised were there to join in the fun and food bonanza. They included Soriya, who I first met as a football-playing tomboy in Kampot more than a decade ago and who I saw again at Lina's wedding a couple of years ago. She's now moved to study in Phnom Penh. It was lovely to be so warmly welcomed by people I have known for so many years, including Auntie Vourch, who I lauded in To Cambodia With Love for her magnificent Khmer chicken curry. 
Great to see Sam back from two years studying in Australia

Rumnea tucking into the suki soup and BBQ

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In the frame

Trendsetter or what? I'm in the frame whilst watching the Phnom Penh Crown Academy youngsters this morning at the RSN Stadium in Tuol Kork. I don't recommend this look, it wouldn't work for just anyone.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Blogtastic

Blow me down with a feather. I am crap, really crap at remembering anniversaries, birthdays, etc, simply ask anyone who knows me. Former girlfriends and my ex-wife can vouch for my piss-poor memory. So I was a bit surprised when I realised that my blog has been in existence for more than six (6) years, including when I had it stolen from under my nose (long story, long nose). Par for the course, I missed the six-year anniversary a couple of months ago. It all began in May 2006 and in the 2,220+ days in between, I've posted no less than 3,622 blog posts on Andy's Cambodia. Who's been a busy boy then. In addition, I started my separate Kingdom of Football blog (essentially on Cambodian football) in February 2010 and that's already clocked up 1,005 blog posts. That's it. Nothing earth-shattering in blogging about my blogs, just some big numbers and I don't envisage giving up anytime soon.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hip Hop Moore

Anne Elizabeth Moore will be releasing her second book on Cambodia in August, courtesy of Green Lantern Press. Its title is Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present. The publicity for the book explains it thus: The city of Phnom Penh offers public dance lessons on a newly revitalized riverfront directly in front of prime minister Hun Sen’s urban home. Every night before dusk, much of the city gathers to bust a few Apsara moves and rehearse a few choreographed hip hop dances learned from a slew of attractive young men at the head of each group. Following on the heels of Cambodian Grrrrl: Self- Publishing in Phnom Penh, Anne Elizabeth Moore compiled photographs that document Phnom Penh’s bustling nightlife and thus form a portrait of a nation’s emerging middle class. A series of essays complement the imagery, investigating the relationship between public and private space, mourning and memory, tradition and economic development. For more about the author, click here.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Three on a bike to Bokor

Phalla and Bunly on the balcony overlooking the Gulf of Thailand in 2000
My recent post on the future of Bokor led me back to my first visit to Bokor in December 2000, which I repeat here for posterity and a glimpse into days now long gone.
Three on a Bike to Bokor
The lure of Bokor's ghost town-like appearance was a key reason for my trip to the south coast. The French had originally opted to build a hill station on this 1,000 metre high outcrop of the Elephant mountain range in the 1920s, to take advantage of the panoramic views over the Gulf of Thailand and the cool climate. It remained the retreat of the wealthy until 1972 when the Khmer Rouge took control and the mountain-top resort became a strategic military prize for the next thirty or so years. It's only in the last couple of years that Phnom Bokor has been regarded as safe enough for visitors to return, although landmines are still considered a minor threat if you step off the main pathways. The derelict buildings on the mountain edge, often shrouded in mist, and forest walks and waterfalls are what now attracts increasing numbers of tourists to this area which has been designated as a national park.
At 8am, Phalla and Lim Bunly arrived on the 250cc motorbike to pick me up from my hotel and we headed out of town on Route 3 and over the main road bridge, a narrow and dilapidated structure of steel girders and wooden planks, across the Prek Thom river. Bunly, at the controls of the motorbike and a friend of uncle Kong, was to act as our guide, having visited Bokor on half a dozen previous occasions. After a fuel and water stop opposite the turn-off to the Tek Chhou rapids, we quickly left the city limits behind us and raced along the highway in open countryside with Bokor mountain, cloaked in low cloud, looming large on our right-hand side. Twenty minutes later, we turned off towards the foot of the mountain range, crossing the single-gauge railway track and arrived at a newly-erected ticket booth and barrier, where the entry fee for a foreigner had recently been increased to 20,000 riel (US$5).
Our long and winding ascent wasn't easy with three on one motorbike and the road surface reduced to rubble and small craters, with overhanging vegetation making it even trickier. One sharp branch even penetrated Phalla's training shoe and left a nasty gash on the side of his foot. We passed by a solitary drinks stall and encountered low-lying cloud about an hour into our climb. The clingy cloud cover was cold and damp and caused parts of the track to be wet and slippery, causing us to take even more care. By 10am, we left the tree cover behind and levelled out, reaching a trio of derelict but sturdy buildings known as 'Sala Khmou' (or 'Black Tiger') villas, which Bunly explained were former residences of the royal family. Their location, on the edge of the mountain, would normally offer a spectacular view if the whole area hadn't been completely blanketed in mist. The villas are now mere shells with walls covered in graffiti, while broken floor and wall tiles just hint at their former grandeur. After a brief stop, we carried on towards the highest point of Bokor, passing a handful of overgrown and neglected villas and the fork leading to the two-tiered waterfall at Popokvil. However, I was keen to get to the deserted plateau with its atmospheric ruined church and hotel and the road-sign informed us, 'Casino 3kms'.
Half an hour later, we caught our first sight of the church and hotel in the distance between the drifting clouds, which at times obscured the whole area. The wind howled across the flat ground and the cold chill gave me goosebumps. It was reminiscent of an early black and white horror movie but without the distant cry of a wailing wolf. To our right were a couple of blackened buildings, leading onto the disused church with its reddish brickwork, on a slight incline. To the left and at the bottom of a dip in the plateau, was the distinctive green roofs of the park's conservation centre and a handful of other abandoned villas including the old casino. Our first port of call though was the mysterious and haunting Bokor Palace Hotel, which was still partly hidden by the mist and cloud until we were up close. It too is covered in a rusty red-coloured crust of lichen clinging to its walls. The windows on the ground floor are bricked-up, the glass in all other windows is broken and bullet holes scar the walls. We explored every nook and cranny from the hotel's graffiti-daubed ballroom with its broken ornate fireplace, through the corridors to the kitchens below and the trashed bedrooms and tiled bathrooms above. The wind whistled through the structure and as we reached the top balcony, it finally swept away the last of the cloud revealing a dramatic view of the coast and sea - the Gulf of Thailand - and across to Vietnam's Phu Quoc island (which Bunly assured me actually belonged to Cambodia and was called Koh Tral). It also re-affirmed the precarious vantage point the hotel possessed, with the cliff-face dropping 1,000 metres just beyond the wall that signalled the end of its rear terrace. In addition, it also afforded us a clearer view of the plateau itself with more ruined buildings, an old water-tower and a modern weather research facility nearby.
After an hour spent exploring the hotel and soaking up the gorgeous view from the overgrown terrace balcony, we called in at a few more derelict villas on our way back to the Catholic church. Like the hotel, anything that wasn't bolted down had been removed and the walls were again plastered in graffiti including an artistic impression of a Khmer Rouge guerrilla. At noon, as the cloud drifted back, we left the mountain-top and took the track towards Popokvil Falls. Leaving the motorbike, we crossed over a stream by a branch bridge, passed by another abandoned villa and walked through the scrub to the head of the river, just above the waterfalls. Our stomachs were rumbling at this point, so we settled down on large boulders to eat our packed lunch of chicken and rice, which Phalla had brought from Kampot. A tricky descent got us to the bottom of the upper 15-metre waterfall, where we kicked off our shoes and paddled in the ice-cold water, but decided against risking our necks on the slippery rocks to get to the foot of the lower tier. Retracing our steps to the bike, we returned to the Black Tiger villas, where the commanding view was a lot clearer than before and within an hour, we'd reached the ticket-booth at the foot of the mountain. Our descent had been a bit scary though. Phalla had taken over the driving responsibilities and his preference to get to the bottom as quickly as possible didn't sit well with my more cautious approach. The track was treacherous in places with loose rubble and a wet surface making it somewhat hazardous. It didn't help matters, when Phalla ducked without warning and the overhanging branch of a tree hit me squarely in the face. I was not amused, but my companions found it hilarious, so it was only moments before I joined in the laughter, my injured pride quickly forgotten.
Returning to Kampot, just before the road bridge over the Prek Thom river, we took a left fork and sped along the eight kilometres of highway to the Tek Chhou rapids, arriving just after 3pm. This was a typical Khmer riverside spot with low wooden picnic platforms and a host of food stalls nearby. Behind the trees, lay the fast-moving river which flowed over a series of rapids and boulders and is a magnet for Khmer families to swim and bathe, especially at weekends. Young girls were on hand with mats to rest on, sarongs to cover you while changing or swimming and large black rubber tyres, tied together for safety, to float on. Despite it being midweek, there were a few families eating and milling around before a group of eight teenage schoolboys appeared, chatted to me in faltering English and then lined up to have their picture taken, individually shaking my hand and smiling broadly. We polished off some noodle broth at one of the stalls before starting our trip back to Kampot. That's when we ran out of fuel and had to walk, much to the amusement of hordes of children who were leaving the school grounds opposite us. About a kilometre down the road, we took on some petrol, administered by an old woman, who poured a couple of 'coke' bottles into the fuel tank, before rolling back into Kampot.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Great all-round value

The Plantation pool and salas
An invitation to lunch at The Plantation today was my first opportunity to see the hotel (located on St 184 in Phnom Penh) since I paid a visit during its construction phase last November. It's been open and welcoming guests for a few months and is doing remarkably well, considering we're in the low season right now. Their occupancy rate is very high and they are exceeding all expectations. With 70 rooms its not what you can call a boutique hotel, but with low room rates and lots on offer it's currently knocking spots off its rivals for all-round value. They've just opened an entrance pool and bar for outside guests, as well as their main restaurant housed in a renovated colonial building. The main pool with accompanying salas for paying guests is a key feature but they also boast a poolside dining area (where I enjoyed a very pleasant three-course lunch), spa, gym and rooms that are comfortable and what I would term intimate and contemporary. They've cleverly created a buzz locally with their art exhibitions, have pitched in to help the next door school with their sanitation and look set to grab a large chunk of the mid-range market for some time to come.
A look inside one of the pool view deluxe rooms

The view of the pool from the 1st floor Deluxe room

The new entrance bar pool open to non-residents

An artwork on show by David Holliday at The Plantation

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Top Pick - Banteay Chhmar

One of Banteay Chhmar's face towers
Anyone who has read my blog for a while will know that I'm a massive fan of the temple of Banteay Chhmar in Cambodia's northwest corner. So much so that I wrote an article for my own book, To Cambodia With Love, about the temple. In case you haven't bought a copy of my book yet, though I can't imagine why you haven't, here is the article.

Andy Brouwer hunts for hidden temples at Banteay Chhmar

Spoken of in hushed tones when I first went to Cambodia in the early 1990s, the remote temple of Banteay Chhmar was in the midst of the battleground between Khmer Rouge and government forces and off-limits. A decade ago it was in the news for all the wrong reasons, as indiscriminate and large-scale looting robbed it of many of its priceless treasures. Today, it has found new life and has opened its doors to adventurous travelers as archaeologists repair its walls, and it may soon even attain UNESCO World Heritage status.
One of the major temple cities built by King Jayavarman VII during a twelfth-century construction frenzy, Banteay Chhmar is famed for its massive size, giant face towers, and wild location. I was hoping to enjoy the romance of a quintessential lost Khmer city when I paid my first visit in 2001. What greeted me was a giant jigsaw puzzle of fallen masonry, collapsed galleries, towers, and jumbled blocks of sandstone.
In the previous week an army of wood-cutters and leaf-clearers had descended on the site, removed much of the vegetation, and with it, the enchantment of my hoped-for lost city. Some sections of the temple’s intricately carved perimeter wall were in good condition, others were covered in lichen and moss, whilst large sections had simply disappeared altogether, removed by looters. Chisel and drill marks were much in evidence, and only two of the original eight multiarmed Lokesvara carvings were still in situ. Graffiti and headless apsaras made me angry, reminding me that the temple’s remote location, away from prying eyes, made it a perfect target for this type of desecration.
I returned to Banteay Chhmar four years later on a mission to uncover some more of its secrets. I was adopted by half a dozen local teenagers on my arrival. The ringleader was the only girl, India, “like the country,” she beamed, eagerly showing me the best bits as we ambled around the temple. We used large sandstone blocks that littered the floor as stepping stones and climbed onto the roof of galleries to get a better view of the three remaining towers with the enigmatic, giant, smiling faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (or Jayavarman VII, depending on your point of view)—one of the face towers had fallen and shattered into many pieces a few months before. Despite the occasional bout of laughter from my companions, who couldn’t keep quiet for longer than a minute, as we walked through the inner sanctuary the birdcalls and stillness gave the temple an undisturbed and tranquil presence, so unlike the crowds and trappings of the main Angkor site.
India whetted my appetite for further discovery with talk of additional satellite temples nearby. The first was located behind her village, in the center of a moat surrounding a tree-festooned island where a giant Bayon-style face peered over the treetops. Prasat Ta Prohm reminded me of a slimmer version of one of the main gates of Angkor Thom, with four massive faces at the four cardinal points, still in very good condition though lacking any lintel carvings. One had lost its nose, but apart from that the faces—carrying a serene expression with closed eyelids and thick, slightly curled lips—were identical to those at the main Banteay Chhmar site.
I engaged the services of fifteen-year-old Sita, with his machete, to act as my guide, and we set off on our adventure to find the other temples. The two badly ruined towers of Prasat Toch offered little by way of excitement. Prasat Mebon was on an island in the center of a huge baray, but again was in poor condition, though it hosted some interesting wall carvings. Prasat Yeay Pum, a sandstone temple surrounded by a laterite wall, showed obvious evidence of theft, with blocks of sandstone containing the heads of carved apsaras missing from the wall.
We continued north for another few minutes and came to a large, water-filled moat and a seemingly impenetrable undergrowth-covered island. It proved impossible to cut a way through the eastern approach, as we came under attack from the spiky thorn bushes, equally vicious red ants, and itchy kha pods, so we tried the western entrance, with more success. After ten minutes of inching our way through the tangled, thick bush, we entered the dark interior, under a canopy of tall trees. Adjusting my eyes to the darkness and to the large tower in front of me, I could make out a giant face. The temple, called Prasat Chiemtrei, was similar to Ta Prohm in the form of its main tower, though only two faces remained, with two sides of the structure having fallen down. This was temple exploration at its most exciting and challenging.
After lunch we located Prasat Yeay Chor in a clump of bushes, but with little to see we moved on to Prasat Yeay Chy. Surrounded by a dry moat and dense vegetation, this was another large gate tower with giant faces on two sides, north and east, but missing from the other two compass points. Farther west through a forest of trees and across a series of dry rice fields, we arrived at another moat, this time filled with water. The path into the complex of Prasat Samnang Tasok was easy aside from the ferocious red ants, but the floor of the temple was covered in thick bushes, so it was best to clamber along the walls and roof of the outer gopura to make our way to the inner sanctuary, which was topped by four more giant faces and other carvings.
Like the majority of the hidden gems I’d located, not another soul was anywhere to be seen, and the only sounds to be heard were birds and the occasional rustle of a lizard amongst the undergrowth. On the way out, I was perched precariously on the lintel of a gateway when two red ants bit into my stomach after crawling up my trousers, reminding me that temple exploration has an occasional downside.
After years of exploring, Banteay Chhmar is one of my top picks amongst Cambodian temples. It’s a genuine ruin where you have to clamber over the fallen remains and shimmy up onto the roofs of galleries. There’s something special to see in all of its nooks and crannies, and the thrill of adventure to be found within—and outside—its walls takes me back there time and again.
Banteay Chhmar
Andy adds: On my most recent trip, I saw the Global Heritage Fund conservation work underway. The fund is currently developing a master plan for the temple to preserve and protect the site, which has been receiving international press coverage and will soon apply for World Heritage status. I’ve a feeling it won’t be long until this temple changes forever, with roped-off pathways and more tourists, so try to make a trip as soon as you can.
Banteay Chhmar is sixty kilometers north of Sisophon. Finding the satellite temples will require the services of a local guide. The community offers overnight homestay options and can be contacted through the phone number and email address below. Temple admission: $5.

Article reproduced by kind permission of ThingsAsian Press.

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

The view from the top

Bokor - what we can expect to see
Some things will never be the same. Take Bokor in southern Cambodia for example. Above is an artist's impression of what the mountain top will look like pretty soon. My colleague Nick Ray,  recently ventured up to the summit of Bokor, a former French hill station and now a national park. Here's what he thought of the developments taking place: The area is now under development by the Sokimex Group and the new Thansur Bokor Highland Resort recently opened its doors over Khmer New Year. The first and dramatic change you notice when travelling to Bokor is the incredible new access road from Kampot. We first visited Bokor on trail bikes in April 1998 when the road was more an overgrown path with grasses and creepers obscuring the route. Fast forward 14 years and it is one of the best highways in Cambodia and it takes just 45 minutes to reach the summit. The road has been painstakingly built with professional drainage, new bridges and landslide protection.
Continuing along the plateau, the road eventually winds its way to the new Thansur Bokor Highland Resort which dominates its surrounds in the heart of the old French-era Bokor ruins. Modern Asian in style, it somehow feels at odds with the natural surrounds. The masterplan includes an eventual total of 412 rooms, so it can hardly be called intimate, and there is a large casino dominating the lobby building. Judging by the majority of customers, the hotel hopes to attract Cambodians, Vietnamese and other Asian customers but is not really aimed at the average Western visitor.
Following the road around to old Catholic church and the shell of the Bokor Palace Hotel, it still looks eerily abandoned on a quiet day, but at weekends it is very overcrowded and litter is everywhere. The old hotel is under renovation and it looks like the integrity of the old structure will be preserved. However, a nearby striking ruin that once looked like a Le Corbusier-influenced residence has been restored as a garish villa with little attention to detail. Other structures such as the old post office remain abandoned and derelict. The views from the plateau edge remain breathtaking when the mist is not rolling in, but with 1000 or more construction workers and busloads of local and regional tourists, it seems the atmosphere of old is forever gone.
So should visitors make the trip? It’s a difficult call. It’s more accessible than ever and the views are still as incredible as they always were, but the ghost town feel is history. It is certainly best avoided at the weekend, when it is extremely overcrowded, but it might be of interest to some on a quieter weekday. Until some eco-friendly treks are established far from the madding crowds that throng the new casino, it may be best avoided as there are so many other interesting sights in the Kampot area. The Rose of Bokor is now a thorny issue for exclusive travel planners in Cambodia.
To read about my own first visit to Bokor, have a look at my story from 2000 here.
The former Bokor Palace Hotel

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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sochetra is the man

A quick piece of football news. I know I cover football on my Kingdom of Football blog but it's not every day that the Cambodia national team announce they have a new head coach. The outgoing coach, a South Korean, has been an unmitigated disaster for just under two years. So the football federation in their infinite wisdom have gone local and appointed the country's best-ever striker as the new man in the hot seat. Hok Sochetra was scoring goals for fun for the national team in the 1990s, even though he was usually in a losing team. He's coached local teams before but doesn't have an international coaching record to speak of, so his appointment to lead the Cambodia team into the Suzuki Cup qualifiers in October is a baptism of fire. The senior national team have not played for a year since they lost badly in a World Cup match in Laos. Sochetra's job will be to select and then gel together a team in less than three months, in tandem with his players being involved in domestic and cup matches during the same period. Tough job for an experienced international coach, even tougher for a local coach with no friendly matches lined up and a do-or-die knock-out competition just around the corner. Cambodia's answer to Alan Shearer will need to hit the ground running. I wish him well.

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Friday, July 6, 2012

Svay Chek adventures

Painful on my feet in Svay Chek (2001)
I simply don't get out of the office enough to be able to enjoy the type of adventures that I used to get up to on my annual visits to Cambodia. Take November 2001 for example, my seventh trip to Cambodia. I'd already been to the massive complex of Banteay Chhmar for the first time on this trip and I wanted to explore some of the forgotten Angkorian temples that lay outside the main Angkor complex. So I teamed up with Kim Rieng, my moto-driver and part-time policeman, and we headed out to the village of Svay Chek, some 25 kms northwest of Angkor. It was already 9.30am and Rieng had been at work for a couple of hours when I rang him, he made his excuses and left, collected me from my hotel and we stopped by the main ticket booth to get the thumbs up to our trip without paying the normal entrance fee. Our route took us past Angkor Wat, through Angkor Thom and then just past the western entrance to Preah Khan, we took one of the World Food Program roads due north, stopping from time to time to ask directions.
An hour after setting off, we drove into the village of Svay Chek and were confronted by a sizeable crowd of villagers milling around a large Cambodian Red Cross lorry. To find out what was happening and to locate the temples I knew were nearby, Rieng and I sought out the commune chief and moments later, Man Poeun appeared and introduced himself. He explained that each household in the village would receive two sacks of rice to supplement their meagre food supplies, and that he knew of three very old prasats that we could visit within his commune. However, he was concerned about my safety and said that his local police chief, who he introduced as Ith Raksmei, would go with me. I thanked Man Poeun, who proudly posed for a photograph before we took a short ride to Raksmei's home, which also doubled as the village's convenience store, for him to don his police uniform.
With the three of us on Rieng's moto, we left the main track and headed out across the rice fields towards a wooded area in the distance. Ten minutes later, we left the moto and walked through the forest for a few hundred metres before we came upon the first of the ancient temples, which Raksmei called Prasat Sampou (the 'ship' temple). It was quite a substantial laterite temple, much larger than I expected and in fairly good nick. A Rahu lintel was still in situ above one of the two entrances at either end, while along just one side of the elongated structure was a series of sandstone windows. Rieng, who is a qualified guide for the Angkor temples, guessed it was built in the tenth century and as we were leaving, I spotted a second lintel on the ground, hidden under a bush. Back at the moto, Raksmei told us about an original Angkorean bridge, Spean Thma, that was nearby but was inaccessible as that area was still under water, a result of the rainy season which had ended the month before. We retraced our route back to the village and were joined by another uniformed policeman, named Veng, who had his AK-47 slung over his shoulder and was riding his bicycle. Raksmei explained that before venturing to the next two temples, even the police chief felt safer when accompanied by an armed colleague - his smile didn't exactly fill me with a great deal of confidence when he told us that banditry had been an occasional problem in recent years.
A few kilometres later, we left the moto at the home of another off-duty policeman called Houng, who also joined our party, which now numbered five. As we walked through a combination of field, bush and then forest, Houng led the way and used his scythe to good effect to cut a way through the undergrowth. Often the path was under water, detours were necessary and it was thirty minutes before Raksmei announced we had arrived. "Hello to Prasat Kpok," he shouted. The forest was so dense, it was impossible to see the temple from distance unless you were literally standing in it. The main structure had a sandstone shell with laterite foundations with a tree and its roots engulfing one side and a single poor quality lintel still in place. Closeby was a series of seven smaller brick towers, all in various stages of ruin. Taking photographs was proving difficult for two reasons, firstly the light was poor under the canopy of trees and shade and secondly, those infamous temple guardians, the Cambodian red ant (ang krang) was making sure I didn't stand in one position longer than a few seconds. Boy, do those ants pack a powerful bite. We were also joined by a cheerful old gentleman, who claimed to be the guardian of the temple and proceeded to hack away at the vines and branches obstructing our view with his machete.
It was now midday and the overhead sun was streaming through parts of the forest covering, making the walk to our final destination, Prasat Phnom Dei, a hot one. Houng and Raksmei deliberated on the best way to approach the temple, again hidden in dense forest, as our way was blocked by waterlogged meadows and trails. They both agreed that fording the flooded track was the only answer, so off came my shoes and socks, as we waded up to our thighs through parts of the route. Whilst their feet are hardened to such conditions, the broken branches and debris underwater made it a painful experience for my delicate soles, much to my companion's amusement. We also crossed two deep streams by balancing along a precarious tree branch that doubled as a bridge while Houng continued to hack a way through the almost impenetrable forest. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the temple, located on a small rise, but still deep within the wood. Prasat Phnom Dei consists of three brick towers inside a large laterite wall with an entrance tower. It was difficult to make out the true layout of the temple but up close, it was clear that its remote location hadn't stopped the looters from stealing or defacing some of its treasures. Two Rahu lintels were still in place but had suffered at the hands of the robbers, while other lintels lay broken in pieces on the forest floor. Inside the entrance tower, Rieng noticed a large stone stele, which after scraping away the moss, revealed an inscription in Khmer which the robbers had either missed or decided was too heavy to carry away. These inscriptions usually tell the story of the temple's construction but none of us could decipher the ancient text.
On our return trek, Raksmei confirmed that landmines were not a concern despite the whole area being under Khmer Rouge control until 1993, but that snakes and scorpions were a threat. He also gauged that we'd walked around seven kilometres since we'd left the moto, no mean feat in the heat and humidity, not to mention the various obstacles in our path. After re-negotiating the flooded trail, streams and undergrowth, we stopped for a brief respite with a small group of farmers who were threshing rice and shared some of their palm wine and cooked rice with us. We continued our walk back and whilst following the mesmeric clip-clop of the sandals directly in front of me, I failed to spot a few branches at head height, so beware of making the same painful mistake. Arriving back at Houng's home, I thanked him and Veng for their sterling efforts and we moto'd back to Raksmei's house-cum-shop to meet his family, to catch our breath and taste his homemade palm wine. It was now mid-afternoon, so Rieng and I said our goodbyes and returned to meet some friends at the Angkor temples. Another adventure completed.
PS. A National Geographic documentary later captured the rescue of the stone stele at Prasat Phnom Dei by the head of the EFEO conservation team at Angkor, as he heroically drove into the forest on his trails motorbike, found the stele and had it transported back to Angkor. You can read more of my 2001 adventures here.
My temple helpers. LtoR: Houng, Veng, Rieng, Raksmey, guardian

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

A slice of Italy

In comparison to my underwhelming dining experience last night at Romdeng, this evening's restaurant choice, Aria d'Italia, was considerably better, albeit even more noisy. I suppose you can't have everything. The food was far superior in every way; the tuna salad starter hit the spot and my ravioli bolognaise did the trick, tagged at the end by tiramisu. I'm not a particular lover of Italian food, and must be one of the few people that find pizzas a turn off, but tonight's fare was excellent. It's a cosy little place, on St 310, with indoor and outside seating. We were squashed between a large Khmer family party and a group of visiting Japanese businessmen, but to be frank, the food was so good, I hardly noticed the high decibel level. The owners are Khmer, so are the cooks as far as I could tell, but they seem to have got the Italian flavours off to a tee. Well worth a visit.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My Romdeng experience

Romdeng's pool area. Pic courtesy of klutzychef
Hard to believe but until this evening, I hadn't visited the good-cause restaurant Romdeng since it relocated to Street 174 quite a while back. Teaching former street youths is a meritorious reason to take your custom to Romdeng and it's up there as the top-frequented eatery in town. It is also housed in a lovely restored colonial villa. But does it cut the mustard with its quality of food, well that's another question altogether. Sat on the terrace next to the small pool, a large group of birthday well-wishers making lots of noise immediately behind me didn't augur well. The popularity of the restaurant meant there was no-where else to sit. So it was a case of put up and shut up. The former street children who've been given an opportunity to learn hospitality skills buzzed around the tables, refilling glasses every thirty seconds, re-positioning napkins, etc. It wasn't exactly the quiet, romantic and personal experience that I would've required if I was accompanied by a girlfriend. As it was, I wasn't, so it didn't matter too much. I surveyed the menu, with a few meal options obviously shipped in from the provinces to the city, ie. friend spiders et al, and pursed my lips. I wasn't blown away, let's put it like that. I decided against being too creative and picked what the menu called their 'famous fish amok', which turned out to be pretty mundane I have to say. I've tried amok in many eateries across town and this one would've been lost in mid-table, to talk in football parlance. Whilst mosquitoes feasted on my ankles - the staff admitted they'd forgotten to put out the mozzie coils - the overall experience didn't make me want to rush back anytime soon. I would certainly suggest Romdeng is worth frequenting at least once, especially for visitors, but for me, I'll give it a while before I make my return.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Lost Rock and Roll

A documentary film that has been seven years in the making is nearing the finishing post. Where have I heard that before? Don't Think I've Forgotten is the brainchild, or would that be an excruciatingly long labour of love, of  director John Pirozzi. A feature length spotlight on Cambodia's musical heyday of the 1960s and 70s, DTIF will be full of never-before-seen archival footage and insightful present-day interviews, as well as scene recreations and animation. So I understand, though I'm still waiting to see. I recall in 2009, Pirozzi told me that he hoped to release the film in the middle of that particular year. And here we are three years later. One film that Pirozzi did finish and release was Sleepwalking Through The Mekong featuring the band Dengue Fever. That was a great taster for the music as it's played today, but DTIF will show it during its prime. When it's finished. But I can't talk...it took me four years to finish my book, To Cambodia With Love. Projects that you invest so much time and effort and passion into, are sometimes the hardest things to let go.

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Little fighters

A Siamese crocodile hatchling
Enjoyed an interesting conversation today about critically endangered Siamese crocodiles, which can be found in their highest numbers in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, though they used to exist throughout Southeast Asia. Efforts by Fauna & Flora International alongwith local communities in places like the Veal Veng marsh appear to be reaping rewards, with numbers on the increase and poaching all but eradicated. Still there are believed to be no more than 250 adults in the wild. Period. That is a dangerously low number, so breeding programs to increase numbers are an urgent necessity. One such program exists at Phnom Tamao Zoo, just outside of Phnom Penh. There are carvings of these crocodiles on the temple walls at Angkor and as such they have a spiritual connection to the indigenous population in the Cardamoms. The Veal Veng marshlands and surrounding areas represent a significant percentage of the global population of these creatures, possibly up to 60%, so the work of FFI and the community warden patrols are imperative if this species is to survive and flourish. More power to their elbow I say. If you need another nudge towards viewing these plucky little freshwater fighters more favourably; there are no known records of Siamese crocodiles ever intentionally attacking a human.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Freedom

Vann Nath, translator Priya and myself (holding camera) during filming for The Trap
Meta House held an evening devoted to freedom, which kicked off a month of events on the same topic that included a photo exhibition from veteran war photographer Tim Page, who has been documenting a land titling project that aims to provide Khmer families with titles to their own property. My main reason to attend was to watch the premiere, albeit under cover of darkness and not advertised, of Tim Sorel's controversial documentary, The Trap of Saving Cambodia, a phrase coined by Elizabeth Becker during one of the film's interviews. The camera follows NGO leader David Pred who is trying to put a global spotlight on troubling issues facing this country: forced evictions; corruption on a massive scale; the underground trafficking of women and children. The film asks are the World Bank, the United States and China funneling billions of dollars in aid to a government with little or no accountability? Tim Sorel had initially set out to look back at Cambodia thirty years on from the end of the Khmer Rouge period, but found his focus changed dramatically when he witnessed what happened at the Dey Krahom evictions. He wants his film to serve as a wake-up call to the world, and forces us to question our role in what is really happening in this beautiful, tradition-rich corner of Southeast Asia. Included in the film are interviews with David Chandler (who calls Prime Minister Hun Sen a thug), Elizabeth Becker, Youk Chang, the late Vann Nath, Joseph Mussemelli and Robert Petit. I had a small part in helping Sorel with some of his interviews including Vann Nath at Tuol Sleng and classical dance icon Em Theay (which was cut from the final 26 minute edit) and made the final credits.
Photographer Tim Page talks about his land titling experiences

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