Friday, August 31, 2012

The story behind the story

With the recent release of his debut novel, Ghost Money, set in Cambodia in the mid-90s, I posed author Andrew Nette a couple of questions.
Q. What was your impulse for setting your debut novel in Cambodia?
A. I started writing the book that eventually became Ghost Money in 1996 when I worked for several months in Cambodia as a wire service journalist. I’d first travelled to Cambodia in 1992 while living in neighbouring Laos. It was a desperately poor and traumatised country. The Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths by starvation and torture of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their brief rule in the seventies, were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The government was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical scores and making money. Phnom Penh, the crumbling capital of the former French colony, was crawling with foreigners; peacekeepers sent by the West and its allies to enforce peace between the various factions, and their entourage of drop outs, hustlers, pimps, spies, do-gooders and journalists.The streets teemed with Cambodian men in military fatigues missing legs and arms, victims of the landmines strewn across the country. There was no power most of the time. The possible return of the Khmer Rouge caste a shadow over everything.
When the opportunity arose several years later to fill in with one of the wire services, I jumped at it. As it turned out, from a journalist’s standpoint, my timing was good. Unknown to most foreign observers, the Khmer Rouge has been splintering internally for many years. Partly this was the result of the government’s relentlessmilitary operations. More decisive were internal tensions over the movement’s direction and how best to divide the spoils from the guerrillas’ logging and gem mining operations along the border with Thailand. In August 1996, a couple of weeks before I arrived, Ieng Sary, the former Deputy Prime Minister in the charnel house the Khmer Rouge called Democratic Kampuchea, announced he'd split from the movement and wanted to negotiate with the Coalition Government for amnesty. He claimed he'd grown sick of fighting and wanted to end the war. A more significant influence were reports Khmer Rouge hardliners under Pol Pot had discovered Sary was skimming the proceeds from gem mining and logging operations, and were about to move against him. Whatever the case, both sides of Cambodia's dysfunctional coalition government courted Sary and his not inconsiderable military clout for their own ends. Sary, meanwhile, used his position to stay one step ahead of a prison cell. It was a bizarre, increasingly acrimonious game of cat and mouse that eventually resulted in open warfare between the two coalition partners.
But that’s another story. These events form the backdrop to Ghost Money.
Cambodia fascinated me from the moment I first arrived. The people, the contrast between the anything goes, Wild West atmosphere of Phnom Penh and the hardscrabble but incredibly beautiful countryside. History oozed from the cracks in the French colonial architecture and protruded from the rich red earth, sometimes quite literally in the case of the mass graves that litter the countryside. Things happened every day – terrible events and acts of heart breaking generosity you couldn’t make up if you tried. I always thought Cambodia would be a good setting for a crime story. But I also wanted to capture some of the country’s tragic history, the sense of a nation in transition.In the mid-nineties, the young wanted change, the old wanted stability. In between was another group. Children of the Khmer Rouge era and the civil war that followed, who’d grown up adapting to the rigid economic and political austerity of Soviet Style system. But as the country opened up, a lot of these people were cut adrift.
I was too caught up in the day to day reporting of events and trying to make a living as a freelance journalist to put much of a dent in the book. That didn’t come until nearly a decade later, when one day I sat down and started reading through some old notes. In early 2008, my partner and I quit our jobs and moved to Cambodia for a year with our then two year old. I freelanced as a journalist, did fixing work for foreign TV crews and finished the first draft of my manuscript. A lot had changed. The Khmer Rouge insurgency was over. Sary was on trial for war crimes. The streets of Phnom Penh were full of luxury cars. Tourists could get a shiatsu massage in their ozone neutral hotel, then head out for tapas and cocktails. On another level, a lot hadn’t. The same people still ran things and the methods they used hadn’t altered. The countryside was still poor and beautiful.
Using the skeleton of the plot I developed in the mid-nineties, the basic plot of Ghost Money, a private investigator searching for a lost businessman amidst the chaos of the Khmer Rouge split, came quickly. The main character, a Vietnamese Australian in denial about his background, took a lot longer. For various reasons, the Vietnamese are intensely disliked by many ordinary Cambodians, something I wanted to use to create an even greater sense of tension in the book. Ghost Money is a crime story, but it's also about the broken country that was Cambodia in the nineties, about what happens to people who are trapped in the cracks between two periods of history, the choices they makes, what they have to do to survive.

Q. How much of the plot is based on your real experiences?
A. I don't think any of the plot, as such, is based on real experiences I was involved in. The background to the story is the defection of Ieng Sary from the KR, which happened while I was working in Phnom Penh for several months on one of the wire services. There's lots of little textual details that I drew from my various times in Cambodia. Ditto, I've visited nearly all the places the novel is set several times, Battambang, Pailin. None of the characters in the book are based on people I know. Like most writers I have picked the odd characteristic or look of someone I have met and put it into the book. I am not really all that comfortable basing fictional characters closely on real life people. I just don't think it's ethical.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Unknown faces

Two western men, believed to have died at S-21. On the left is Chris Delance. Photos by Documentation Center of Cambodia
DC-Cam have released the portraits of two western men believed to have been amongst the eleven westerners tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge at S-21 during the late '70s. The two portraits were amongst a cache of photos handed in recently to the staff at DC-Cam. Many of the passport-sized pictures had details annotated to the back, these two did not. That has left DC-Cam with the task of tracking down exactly who these two S-21 prisoners were. They even posed that question to Comrade Duch, in his prison cell at the ECCC headquarters, where he is serving a life sentence for crimes committed as the chief of S-21, aka Tuol Sleng, but he revealed nothing. One of the pictures is believed to be Christopher Delance (now confirmed as the photo on the left) but efforts to get his family to provide confirmation have been met with resistance. The stories of the eleven westerners killed by Duch and his team of interrogators have fascinated researchers and history buffs for many years. An excellent account of the life and times of one of the foreigners murdered by the Khmer Rouge but who didn't actually make it to S-21, Stuart Glass, was published by author David Kattenburg in his book Foxy Lady last year.
Update: I received an email over the weekend from a personal friend of Chris Delance, who confirmed that the photo on the left above was indeed the American, captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge just weeks before they were chased out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese.

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From the archives

S-21 record and photo of Andre Gaston Courtigne
The two photographs of western prisoners taken at S-21 and recently handed over to DC-Cam remain a mystery. DC-Cam are making determined efforts to track down the names of the two individuals and during their investigations, they came across a photo and documents relating to French Embassy worker Andre Gaston Courtigne that had previously not been catalogued. DC-Cam chief Youk Chang said his team found the photograph by chance while sifting through thousands of paper documents at the center, which seeks to preserve the history of Khmer Rouge genocide victims. Courtigne was known to have been one of eleven westerners killed at the Tuol Sleng interrogation center, also known as S-21. But the newly released photograph is the first known to show the Frenchman after his detention. Chang said researchers stumbled on Courtigne's image during a document search aimed at trying to identify two other western prisoners whose photographs were among hundreds donated to the center earlier this month. "This document [about Courtigne] had been in our hands [before we received the donated photographs], but we had to search for it manually because we had not catalogued it yet," he said. The Courtigne photograph was attached to several pages documenting his detention at Tuol Sleng, where the Khmer Rouge killed more than 14,000 prisoners, almost all Cambodians, after interrogating and forcing them to confess to alleged anti-regime crimes. The first page of Courtigne's file shows that the 30-year-old was arrested in Siem Reap in April 1976, when he worked as a French Embassy clerk and typist. It also shows that he was married to a Cambodian woman and had a son and a daughter. The documents listed his birthplace as Maine-et-Loire in west-central France. Below is a translation of that first file page.
1 – Name of origin: COURTIGNE, André Gaston - Alias
2 – Age: 30 Years old Nationality: French Sex: Male
3 – Place of Birth: Village: Rosiers 37 Commune: Andrezé District: Loire Province: France
4 – Ministry and role before Phnom Penh Liberation Day (in 1975): Clerk at French embassy, Typist
5 – Ministry and current role: new farmer, rice growing and herding cows
6 – Father’s name: COURTIGNE Makto Mother’s name: Nil Phorn
7 – Spouse’s name: Chhay Rasy Alias: .
8 – Place of Birth: Village: Phnom Thipdey Commune: District: Kas Kralor Province: Battambang
9 – Current Address: 

10 – Number of sons: 1 Daughter: 1
11 – Place of arrest: Kampong Kdey District (Siem Reap) 12 – Arrested on: Day 15 Month: 4 Year: 1976 House: 7 Room: 9

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Two sides to every story

A makeshift shrine at Phnom Trung Bat. Photo AP Photo/Heng Sinith. Click to enlarge.
Tomorrow is the International Day of the Disappeared when governments around the globe are encouraged to provide answers to families on the fate and whereabouts of missing persons. None moreso than in Cambodia, where the discovery of an unmarked mass grave recently, created newspaper headlines that have been a constant in the country for the past thirty-odd years. It will never go away. On this occasion, the site is already known, called La Pikhead Phnom Trung Bat, near the village of Dontrey, which was identified by DC-Cam as long ago as 1998 as being a mass burial site of upwards of 35,000 people during the Khmer Rouge era. I visited the site myself in January 2006 whilst I was on a visit to the town of Kralanh and surrounding countryside, looking for ancient temples. It was a pretty desolate place, a large uninhabited area stretching across quite a few acres, little vegetation, no-one living in the area, near the village pagoda, Wat Phnom Trung Bat. It was at the pagoda that I met the group of children in the photo below. Playful, boisterous, without a care in the world and determined to have fun mimicking the barang that appeared out of the blue to play football and pose for photos.
The playful children at Wat Phnom Trung Bat. Click to enlarge.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

In memory of...

As I've already mentioned in a previous post, 5 September is the 1-year anniversary of the passing of artist, human rights activist and S-21 survivor Vann Nath. This coming Saturday (1 September) at the Bophana Center on Street 200 in Phnom Penh, starting at 4pm, will be a screening of two films in his honour. The first is a nine-minute testimony by the painter, in Khmer language, from 2007 about an exhibition of his works entitled Transfer. After that, the Rithy Panh film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine, from 2002, will follow in which Vann Nath provides chilling reminders of what took place in the torture center in Phnom Penh. The version is in Khmer, with English subtitles and lasts one hour 20 minutes. There will be an exhibition in January or February of next year at the Bophana Center in memory of Vann Nath. More details as they are firmed up.

This coming weekend will be my first visit to Siem Reap for what seems like an age. Actually it's seven months but who's counting. It's part-work, part-relaxation and I'm really looking forward to it. The three best hotels in temple town have been more than accommodating. I'll be following in the footsteps of the rich and famous and staying a couple of nights at the former guest house of King Sihanouk, the ultra plush Amansara, whilst La Residence d'Angkor and Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor have invited me to sample their dinner with classical dance performances, which is right up my street. More than generous. I also want to use the time to catch up with old friends inside and outside Angkor. It's about time I got to relive some of that old temple magic that I've been starved of in recent memory. In fact I had an email from author Kim Fay today, busy with promoting her debut novel that has just hit the bookshelves in the States, suggesting that we take time out on her next visit to Cambodia to go on a real temple-hunting expedition together. Now that is a date I can't turn down. I have a couple of remote temples in mind for that adventure. Her novel, The Map of Lost Memories, reaches a climax in the jungles of Cambodia at a remote temple that holds the secret to the Khmer Empire. You must get a copy, it's a fantastic read.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

A face amongst 216

Do you recognise the face on the right? Courtesy of Robert Bloomberg.
The exact likeness of the 216 mysterious faces of the Bayon temple, at the centre of the great city of Angkor Thom in northern Cambodia, has generated debate amongst scholars for many years. Most believe its the face of King Jayavarman VII, the ruler at the time of the temple's construction, or that of the compassionate Avalokiteshvara. Robert Bloomberg gave his own tongue-in-cheek take on the origin when he sent me the above photograph in 2002 with my own face superimposed. "A small tribute to your Buddha nature..." was how he phrased it.

Robert, a musician and filmmaker, is one of the world's leading contemporary stereoscopic photographers who has produced an exceptional and highly-acclaimed body of work with his 3-D shows being presented worldwide. In 2000 he produced the world’s first 3-D Dive-In Theater in Mesa, Arizona, and in 2002 he won awards for his Temples of Angkor show. He was also honoured with a lifetime fellowship from the National Stereoscopic Association and is the Stereo Technical Advisor for the Photographic Society of America.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Debut novel

A Woman of Angkor by John Burgess
Remaining on the subject of novels set in Cambodia, author John Burgess has a 1 November publication date set for his genre debut, an historical story set in the 12th century and the court of the king responsible for the construction of Angkor Wat. To be published by River Books, John's book is titled A Woman of Angkor. Previousl,y John has published the excellent historical record for a Khmer temple which is located in Thailand and which he called Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription & the Enigma of Khmer History.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Ghost Money

Blow me down with a feather. Yet another novel is about to hit the streets, or the kindle reader, whichever tickles your fancy, that focuses on Cambodia. Andrew Nette was a journalist in Phnom Penh a few years ago and his experiences have obviously stayed with him as he releases his debut novel, Ghost Money, a crime story set in the capital that infuses its story with Cambodia in the mid-nineties. Tension, suspense, violence, treachery, it's all there, as it was back in the day. Snubnose Press are the publishers. I should be getting a copy anytime soon. Make sure you get yours via Amazon.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Smiling in anticipation

Another Nick Sells magic moment with Rumnea and myself at the comedy club. Click to enlarge.
The camera of Nick Sells, aka Kampuchea Party Republic, captures a couple of comedy club regulars waiting expectantly for the comedians to make them laugh. Imran Yusuf did just that at Pontoon last night. Rumnea and Nick will be seeing more of each other pretty soon, as Rumnea will be joining the KPR crew at the beginning of September.

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Krom soundtrack

In Search of Camp 32 is a documentary film being put together by Australian producer Gaye Miller and friends, to highlight the existence of a long-forgotten and unofficial prison camp during the Khmer Rouge years that could've been responsible for more than 30,000 deaths. It's nearing completion and Gaye has now commissioned local band Krom to compose the music soundtrack to the film. Krom, who've just released their own debut album, Songs from the Noir, have recorded two compositions featuring the haunting vocals of Sophea Chamroeun. Gaye said, "When I tentatively approached Christopher Minko with the idea of Krom composing music for a documentary, I was delighted with the very positive and energetic response. He knew instinctively the type of music that was needed as a back drop to the poignant scenes portrayed. With very little direction, he produced some magical pieces which enhances the mood we wanted to create. I was looking for a unique fusion of modern but distinctly Cambodian music."

Staying on the music theme, The Cambodian Space Project will be landing back in town any day now and will return to Equinox (St 278) for their first gig after more global touring, on Saturday 1 September. Copies of CSP's latest LP can be found at lead singer Srey Thy's newly opened shop, Sticky Fingers, at the Golden Sorya Mall. I am booked to be in Siem Reap that weekend, enjoying the comforts at Amansara, so won't be in the audience.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Yusuf hits the spot

Imran Yusuf in full flow tonight
The Cambodia Comedy Club returned to Pontoon tonight after a mini hiatus. On stage were Canadian Allyson Smith, a former school-teacher turned comedienne who opened the show and kept the audience in titters, rather than guffaws. What I would term a gentle warm-up to proceedings. The show was introduced by local expat Evan Handed, who trotted out the worn-out joke about the German organization GiZ, which he laboured to death on stage. Let's hope we don't have to hear that again. I beg the organizers to bring back top drawer Jonathan Atherton as mc. The highlight of the evening, which dragged on after a late start, was British-Muslim comic Imran Yusuf. With his rapid-fire delivery and testosterone-fuelled chirpy-chappie routine, he got the audience on his side from the get-go and didn't let them off the hook. Even his optimistic, positive thinking shout-outs found a listening ear amongst the crowd. In fact I was disappointed Yusuf wasn't invited back for an encore. Definitely amongst the better of the comics we've seen at Pontoon since it began last December, rivalling the performances of Phil Nichol, Zoe Lyons and Shazia Mirza. More of the same please.
Allyson Smith opened up tonight's show

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Lovely company

The travel club; myself, Linda, Jasmine and Bampenh. Click to enlarge.
Enjoyed an evening of chat and fine food at Aria d'Italia last night. The lovely company was courtesy of our small travel club, formed as a result of travel agent familiarization trips over the last few years. Linda from Khiri, Jasmine from Bayon and Bampenh from Indochina something, hosted at the latter's excellent Italian restaurant on St 310, one of my regular haunts. We haven't met for a while, so it was fun to catch up. Our original fam trips were to places like Banteay Chhmar and the Mekong Discovery Trail and we bemoaned the fact that the fam trips have dried up in recent times.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Traditional theatre


If you are interested in traditional Cambodian theatre then the annual Lakhaon Festival coming up next month could be right up your street. Hosted by the French Institute since 2007, the aim is to keep alive and revive different forms of traditional theatre across Southeast Asia. Chenla Theatre will be the venue for a series of performances with free tickets available at the Institute Francais with performances beginning on 8 and continuing on 9, 12 and 15 September. Incidentally, the first performance will be Lakhaon Niyeay, a piece written and directed by French-residing Jean-Baptiste Phou, one of the stars of Where Elephants Weep.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Unnamed faces

My 1997 picture of face photos on the walls of Tuol Sleng museum
Two unnamed westerners who died at S-21, aka Tuol Sleng were amongst the 1,242 passport-sized photographs handed into DC-Cam recently, and the documentation center is trying to track down the names of the two unfortunate detainees. Many of the images had names and dates on the reverse, the photos of the two foreigners did not. Youk Chang, the head of DC-Cam, believes they may be Christopher Edward DeLance, seized by Khmer Rouge naval forces whilst sailing off the coast of Cambodia in 1978, and Andre Gaston Courtigne, a former employee of the French Embassy. Chang and his team are trying to trace DeLance's relatives in the States and the French Embassy have also been contacted in an effort to confirm the identity of the two unnamed faces. Surprisingly, Chang says the photos are the first of the imprisoned westerners he had ever seen, even though photos of some of the 11 westerners killed at S-21 have adorned the walls of the prison-cum-museum for many years. Above is a picture I took in 1997 from a wall of photos at S-21, showing three of the westerners believed to have died there. How about questioning the head of the photography team at S-21, Nhem En, now a government official in Anlong Veng, and happy-as-Larry to explain his role to anyone that asks, as to the identity of the men in the pictures.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Disappointment reigns

Chim 'Sva' (which means monkey) Rathanak, one of the forgotten men of Cambodian football, came off the bench to chip a delightful goal with the final kick of the game to seal a 1-1 draw in Phnom Penh Crown's last match of the regular domestic season. It was a cracking way to bring the curtain down on the club's most unsuccessful league campaign in memory and is one to quickly forget. They finished 5th and missed out on the end of season play-offs. Having got used to winning championships and cups, the Crown admirers have had to settle for a series of poor performances and reversals this term, the like of which they've not witnessed for a long while. And they will hope they don't have to witness again. It's a bit like Liverpool or Arsenal falling from grace in the British game. At one point, these clubs were invincible. Clubs that are expected to do well and to be challenging for top honours, failing to come up to scratch. Crown shot themselves in the foot when they sacked nine of the nation's best players on the eve of the new season. Finding replacement players of the same quality isn't an easy task to manage in Cambodia, and so it has proved for Crown. Even with the ultra-successful Englishman David Booth at the helm, Crown have not been able to repeat the feats of the past two seasons to capture a third successive league title. The optimists will point to the fact that they are in the finals of the AFC President's Cup again, with a trip to Tajikistan next month, but the team will need to move mountains in terms of their performances to be able to beat the best of Asia's third-tier league champions. But it's been a learning process for everyone. Football has a way of kicking you in the teeth when you think you are on top and running away with it. And rightly so. You can never guarantee success, that's afterall what makes football so adored the world over. It's unpredictable and on any day, David can beat Goliath. Crown will be hoping for some of that magic to rub off on them when they head for the Tajik capital in four weeks time. Anyone got a lucky rabbit's foot going spare?

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Amlak's in touch

Amlak Tafari and author in Birmingham Sept 2005
It's always a pleasure to hear from my musical friends around the globe and one of the best bass guitar players in world reggae music, Amlak Tafari, dropped me a note yesterday. Though based in Birmingham, UK, Amlak is almost constantly on the road gigging with Steel Pulse, they are in the USA next week after finishing a few dates in Europe, but also manages to spend his spare time mentoring and has done a number of music workshops and motivational engagements in a variety of education institutions and correctional facilities around the world. He asked me if I had any ideas for doing projects in Cambodia or the surrounding region. If anyone has a plan, let me know. Amlak is well-known in the reggae world for compering/hosting shows and festivals in addition to his undoubted talents as a bass player, having joined Steel Pulse in 2005 after experience with Pato Banton, Wailing Souls, Musical Youth, Culture and Luciano.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Bursting at the seams

Getting the aroma of the suki soup at Luk Luk BBQ
Any spare time has been spent reading Kim Fay's debut novel The Map of Lost Memories over the last few days, little time for anything else, but tonight I took a break. And headed for the Luk Luk BBQ restaurant, on Street 118 near Samaki market, despite the drizzle in the air. The restaurant is owned and run by long-time friends of mine, who I've known for a decade and more. Luk Luk is their latest venture, already running a restaurant in Prek Leap and the Silver River Hotel in town. Rumnea took over with the ordering as she went for the suki soup option, which is enormously popular in Cambodia these days. The restaurant was bursting at the seams and Sam told me that its been the same since they opened a couple of months ago. It was Rumnea's third visit in as many weeks. The lady behind the food preparation is none other than Auntie Vourch, who gets her own meritorious mention in my To Cambodia With Love guidebook for her magnificent Khmer chicken curry. She promised me that on my next visit, she'd whip up one of her curry specials just for me. Now that's what friends are for.
Rumnea is a big big fan of suki soup
Auntie Vourch and some of the Luk Luk catering crew

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tribute to Vann Nath

Vann Nath in a quiet moment at Tuol Sleng/S-21
On 5 September, it will be the one year anniversary of the passing of Vann Nath, painter and Tuol Sleng/S-21 survivor. I received an email today asking if I wanted to take part in an exhibition as a tribute to the man, scheduled to be held at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh in January 2013. I can think of a million people better suited to pay tributes to such a gracious and dignified individual but I will certainly support the event, where the artists' personal tributes will be sold and part of the proceeds will go towards completing a monograph about Vann Nath. His wife, Kith Eng and family are still running their restaurant, Orchidee, at 33B, Street 169, Mittapheap Street in Phnom Penh if you wish to support the family with your custom. Vann Nath is no longer with us but he will never be forgotten.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

More names revealed

One of the victims photographed on entry into S-21 in Phnom Penh
Frickin heck, there have now been 38 Cambodians shot to death by the Thai army in the first half of this year, after they allegedly crossed the border in search of logging opportunities, most of which is for rosewood timber. Eleven deaths were reported last year but that figure has been dwarfed by the increased incidents by the Thailand border patrols, who've injured another ten and arrested 194 people. I know its a long border that runs between the two countries, around 800 kilometres, and that patrolling it must be a nightmare but by anyone's reckoning that is a high death rate between two nations who I thought were talking to each other again.

An intriguing arrival the other day at DC-Cam, the documentation center that collects evidence of the Khmer Rouge crimes committed in Cambodia during the 1970s, was a collection of 1,242 passport-sized photographs. Each picture showed a new arrival at the Khmer Rouge's notorious prison Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, and have notes scribbled on the back about each person's identity, some with dates. The cache were handed to DC-Cam by a woman who worked for the government in the decade and more after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Before the United Nations arrival in Cambodia in 1992 to organise elections, all government ministries were apparently ordered to destroy records of the Khmer Rouge regime. The woman chose not to burn the photos and had kept them hidden ever since. An estimated 14,000 prisoners were sent to death at S-21 but only around 5,000 photos have survived. This new set of pictures should help identify many victims and bring some closure for family members. The names of those identified will be added to a book that DC-Cam is compiling listing people confirmed to have died under the regime. It has collected nearly a million names already.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Thumbs up for Van's

Entryway into Van's Restaurant
I forgot to mention that I enjoyed my first meal at Van's Restaurant on Friday, courtesy of Malai and the team from Amansara, the plushest hotel in Siem Reap. Van's is the renovated 150-year old former Bank of Indochina, located within Post Office Square. With its original floor tiles, wooden panels, high ceilings and unmistakable flavour of bygone colonial days, the specially-chosen menu was excellent and the service impeccable. I even took a glass of wine, my first wine-tasting for more years than I can remember. I've been to Van's before, with its former bank vaults now decked out as offices, but I've never sampled the food. It was worth the wait. Seeing film director Rithy Panh amongst the restaurant's patrons was a reminder of the news, earlier in the day, of the passing of one of the leading lights of the golden era of Cambodian cinema in the 1960s and 70s, director and producer Yvon Hem.

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

So close for Davin

Sorn Davin at last year's Asean Taekwondo championships
The television commentators thought that she deserved it. The competition judges thought otherwise. It was a tough call on Sorn Davin, Cambodia's flag-bearer at the Olympics opening ceremony, who just missed out on what could've been the biggest upset of the whole London Games. It was that close. Her opponent from Mexico, Maria Espinoza, was the reigning gold medalist from the last Olympics but looked uncomfortable against the taller and leggy Davin. The 3-2 victory for the Mexican in their  preliminary round of the women's +67kg Taekwondo was solely down to her aggressive body punches but the head kick that Davin's coach had claimed, took an age for the judges to decide on video replay, before they denied the 20-year old Cambodian a three-point slice of glory. As we waited for the judges, the television commentators both agreed that Davin should get the award, but for whatever reason known only to themselves, the judges disagreed. And Davin's moment of glory went up in smoke. The margin between victory and defeat will never be closer. Davin has already made her mark in her chosen sport, winning both silver and bronze medals at the SEA Games and taking gold at last year's Asean Taekwondo championships held at the Olympic Stadium.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Comedy comes back

Canadian comedian Allyson Smith
The Cambodia Comedy Club has been quiet as a mouse since the end of June fiasco when one of the comedians failed to turn up and the other died on his arse. So the next session, which has just been announced, will be interesting in terms of the quality of the comedic imports and whether the gig will continue to attract an audience, having moved the slot to a Wednesday night. 22 August from 8pm at Pontoon (tickets at $8pp) will see two comics take the stage, compered by local Aussie expat Evan Handed. Flying in will be fast and furious Imran Yusuf from the UK, who is fast earning himself a reputation as a leader amongst the up and coming young comics on the circuit. Joining him will be Canadian Allyson Smith, a teacher-cum-comic, who has spent most of the year delivering laughs in the UK according to her website. You can always check out their performances on YouTube or their websites to see if their style looks inviting enough to get along to Pontoon later this month.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Signs on the Mekong

Spit pig roast sign in Kratie
A fascination with hand-painted street signs has prompted Sam Roberts to put the pick of his collection into a book, Hand Painted Signs of Kratie, 100 pages long, which he hopes to self-publish in the next couple of months. His focus will be limited to those signs he has located in the riverside town where he lives, Kratie, along the Mekong River. He will translate the signs that he selects to put in his book as well as including an essay on how the signs fit into everyday life in Cambodia.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Back in the swing

Detail from one of Hour Seyha's Children of the Countryside paintings
I have been absent from the multitude of art exhibitions that have been cropping up around Phnom Penh in the past couple of months. Nothing sinister behind my absence, lethargy was perhaps the main reason. So tonight I got home from work, jumped in the shower and headed for the Romeet Gallery on Street 178 to get back into the swing of things. It didn't work. I found myself looking at the exhibitions by two young Cambodian artists, running side by side, but found little of interest in the artworks in front of me. They literally said nothing to me, if that was the intention of the painters. I read the blurb about Hour Seyha's Children of the Countryside and Nget Chanpenh's During the Dark exhibits but failed to find any inspiration in their paintings. Contemporary and abstract artwork of this nature, either works or it doesn't. For me, it didn't. I left the exhibition after looking at each painting twice to ensure I wasn't missing something. I wasn't. Just a personal opinion of course and I would say that I prefer art that is more finely detailed, such as Chhim Sothy's traditional works, or completely bonkers like Sokuntevy Oeur's weird and wonderful creations. However, I'm sure the artists will take little heed of my ramblings, with prices ranging from $300-500 per picture according to the exhibition catalogue. Roll on the next exhibition.
Another Hour Seyha painting using layers of circular lines

An exaggerated face of a family member by Nget Chanpenh in his During the Dark exhibition

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Movie history

Movie history with Hanuman's replica Rolls-Royce Twenty. Click to enlarge.
Movie props are big business. You just have to look online to see how much items from Hollywood films can fetch on the movie memorabilia market especially if the prop (the correct term is theatrical property) was a central element in the film or 'screen-used' which is the usual film-speak for categorizing the item's value. One of the biggest movies made in Cambodia, shot in 2004 and directed by French film director Jean-Jacques Annaud, was Two Brothers, a family-focused story of two tiger cubs who get split up in the temples of Angkor and reunited at the film's end, with their various adventures in between. A feel-good film for the kids, though it also showed off Cambodia's temples and countryside in glorious Hollywood colour. One of the more memorable props from the film was the bright-yellow replica Rolls-Royce Twenty car that was made from scratch by the prop team here in Cambodia. It's not an original of course, it's a reproduction of one of the best cars of its generation in the 1920s, but at a fraction of the real cost. The replica car - which was featured prominently as the car of the resident French Administrator in the story - has now been spruced up and is on show outside the HanumanAlaya boutique hotel in Siem Reap, where it can be rented for trips around town or the nearby Angkor temples. A piece of movie history that can be shared by everyone.

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Monday, August 6, 2012

New arrival

Hardback copy and publisher's blurb
Just received a delivery from DHL this morning. They did well because the sender didn't put my correct address on the package or my telephone number. But DHL still managed to call me and arrange delivery. I was impressed. I was also happy with what's inside the package. Kim Fay's debut novel, in hardback, The Map of Lost Memories, published by Ballantine Books. I'll be having a long lunch hour today to get stuck into reading it's 326 pages.

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My stomach at Phnom Rung

Chilling out at Prasat Phnom Rung, northeast Thailand in November 2009
I need a personal assistant. I am one of the most disorganized people I know. I still haven't posted a stack of pictures from my first-ever trip to northeast Thailand, more particularly the Isaan area, in November 2009. One of the best temples I visited was obviously Prasat Phnom Rung, one of the prominent Angkorian temples that dot the landscape in that region. Here's a couple of photos of me (and my exceedingly fat stomach) at Phnom Rung. Beautifully kept temple, no litter, no people, no hassle. There are more to follow, but with my organisational skills, I have no idea when they will see the light of day.
Posing, with my enlarged stomach, on the causeway leading up the hill to Prasat Phnom Rung

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Headline robbery

Bai Ling on the set of Age of the Hobbits
Regrettably, even the rich and famous, though I've never heard of her, are not immune to the bastards who rob and steal with impunity on the streets of Phnom Penh. Chinese actress Bai Ling, in Cambodia to film the mockbuster movie, Age of the Hobbits, was a victim of a tuk-tuk robbery the other day. This is what she said about it on her Facebook page:
"I am so fucked in Cambodia, something so bad just happened to me, I am crying and so mad but there is nothing I can do!!!!!!! This just happened now, when I was on the tuktuk, some one in a motor bic drive by took my bag just like that and so fast drive away run away, which I have everything in it, everything that mean anything, my passport, my credit card, my blackberry, my driver license, my money, my local phone and my camera....... everything that is valuable that I have lost!!! I am so mad and so sad, don't know what to do, cause I have to go back to China to see my Parents, but I don't have passport, and I have also to get a vise too to China, and its the weekend........I supposed to go to Angkor Wat in the morning, but how can I go now????"
The actress is no stranger to media headlines. Her Wikipedia entry reads like a typical Hollywood rap-sheet of how to remain in the public eye, a lot of it based on showing off as much flesh as possible in Playboy Magazine and in her movie and tv appearances. However, I've been robbed in my own apartment so my sympathy goes out to anyone experiencing the same emotions. It ain't a nice feeling. 

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Friday, August 3, 2012

As proud as punch

Cambodia's pin-up girl - Hemthon Vitiny
The Olympics are filling every television screen around the world except in Cambodia, so the internet is coming into its own to keep everyone informed as to the magic as it happens and today was just such an event. The pin-up girl of the six-strong Cambodian team competing at the London Olympic Games, Hemthon Vitiny, took to the stage, well the pool actually, in qualifying heat 3 of the 50m freestyle for women. Not only did she power home second in her heat but she knocked a full second off her personal best time, but sadly that didn't make an impression on the Olympic clock, which timed her in 57th place out of 73 competitors. And her thirty seconds of fame were over for another four years. She's still only 18 years old, this is her second Olympics and she can feel proud as punch that she raced faster than she's ever raced in competition before, quite literally swimming the race of her life.

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Filippi's ramblings

Jean-Michel Filippi's new book
Author, linguist, historian and easy winner of any brain of Cambodia contest, Jean-Michel Filippi popped into my office this week for a chat, which reminded me that I have not provided any information about his recent publication, Strolling around Phnom Penh. 150-pages and published by Kam-editions, the book is on sale at Monument, priced $20, in English and French. Included are 116 maps and photographs, interwoven amidst seven strolls through specially chosen sections of Phnom Penh, in which the author writes about the history, politics and architecture of the capital, adding his own anecdotes and observations. It is not meant to be an exhaustive guidebook of the city and purposely fails to include many of the most obvious tourist landmarks. Stroll 1 takes in the old European/French quarter around Post Office Square, while following the path of the De Verneville Canal that surrounded the French area and back to Wat Phnom is the course of stroll 2 for example. Other routes look at the period and vestiges of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum in the 50s and 60s and so on. For readers, it's a walking tour through history that is an invaluable personal guide as the city's skyline and older buildings change and disappear forever under the march of so-called progress.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Buffet benefits

Cheap Khmer lunch buffets have been on the lunchtime agenda for the last couple of days. Colleagues at work are keen to sample the fare from a growing number of buffets that are on offer around the BKK1 area and yesterday we tried Bloom Bloom and today it was the turn of Restaurant 294, on the corner with Street 63. The latter won by a smackdown in wrestling terms, offering a far greater selection of tastier food and judging by the bums on seats at lunchtime today, it's not exactly a secret amongst the office workers in the area. All for $3 as well. That's the limit my colleagues are seeking, or maybe they can stretch to an additional dollar, but cheap and cheerful is their motto. I of course am just along for the ride, and the food. Onwards to the next buffet.

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