Monday, September 30, 2013

All quiet on the western front

I am alive and well, just very short of time for the past week, having spent two days on the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and another two days locked in a training room. I should have time tomorrow to post some stuff from the past week.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

End of an era

Cafe Fresco staff on their penultimate day before closure - click to enlarge

End of an era as Cafe Fresco on Street 51 in BKK1 closes its doors tomorrow. I've been a regular for my early morning cafe latte and lunchtime grub for a few years and have always received a very warm welcome from everyone. I've seen countless staff come and go, some very lovely, warm, genuine people and I already miss them. We had a tearful farewell this morning and here's some of the Fresco staff pictured above, including some that rarely venture out of the kitchen. I wish all of them well in the future.
Siem Reap is beckoning tomorrow with the Phare circus on the agenda, along with ziplining at Flight of the Gibbon, a couple of nights in luxury at the Park Hyatt, a day of tour guide training and then back home for the weekend.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Posh nosh

Thoroughly enjoyed a slap-up posh nosh do at Restaurant Le Royal, at the Raffles tonight with some visiting journalists from the UK, our Raffles friends Gareth and Noemie and the original 1967 Jacqueline Kennedy heritage menu. I did not abuse my hosts kind offer of the sommelier’s wine pairing selections and stuck to still water all evening. The JK menu was an exact copy of the one the 1st Lady of the US enjoyed on her visit to Phnom Penh in the Sixties, and featured Crème de Volaille, Rissoles au Foie Gras, Salade de Jardin, Médaillon de Bœuf aux Champignons Sauvages and Crème Renversée a la Vanille. It's a tough life and someone's got to do it. Fabulous fare and all the trimmings by Raffles.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Into the light

Sophea Chamroeun with Jimmi B on guitar
Krom launched their second album, Neon Dark, with a gig at Doors last night, to an appreciative audience. Sophea Chamroeun took center stage, with her sister on another engagement in the States, sharing lead vocals with Chris Minko, while Kong Nai made another appearance, having linked up with the group for a couple of tracks on the album. The twelve songs on Neon Dark are available through Monument Books stores.
Sophea shares the stage with master Kong Nai and his son

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Weaponized

The New York Times recently ran a book review of a new novel which might grab your attention, if you are into international espionage. The book is called Weaponized and it's written by Nicholas Mennuti with David Guggenheim and published by Mulholland/Little. Here's the NYT review: “The government’s been listening to all of us for years,” claims Kyle West, the beleaguered brainiac at the center of this freewheeling thriller. And he should know, having devised computer technology that out-Big-Brothers the state at its own surveillance game. Common sense takes leave of uncommon intelligence when, on the lam in Cambodia from Senate subcommittee hearings and civil-liberties lawsuits, West trades passports with a wealthy businessman who convinces him the swap will make all his troubles go away. Fat chance. The stranger, Julian Robinson, thrusts West into a frenetic cat-and-mouse that has Chinese authorities and a C.I.A. specialist in extraordinary rendition nipping at his tail. Where some books nakedly brandish Hollywood ambitions, “Weaponized” plays like a Looney Tunes cartoon aspiring to literature: wiseacre ripostes and slapstick violence trade off with passages of Graham Greene-ish erudition and atmosphere. Phnom Penh, whose “shanties seem to wilt in the heat and lean on one another for support, a series of dislocated shoulders,” comes across as today’s go-to city for Western ne’er-do-wells who long to get lost in the crowd.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Jars and adventure

Peang Boran has five large burial jars still in place
Interesting conversations in recent days. Firstly, Nancy Beavan, aka the Jar Lady, gave a presentation at the CKS offices yesterday evening on her research and study of jar burials in the Cardamom Mountains. Unlike anything else seen in the region, these secondary burials have intrigued Nancy for many years and to-date she has radiocarbon dated them to between the 14th and 17th centuries, at ten sites scattered amongst the Cardamoms. There's little doubt there are more of these precarious cliff-ledge burial sites waiting to be discovered in the remote jungle of that area and she's off on another conservation archaeology expedition pretty soon. The jars themselves came from kiln sites in Thailand but as for the people who were involved in this unusual practice of jar and coffin burials, very little is known. I've already visited the Peang Boran jar site near Chiphat on a couple of occasions and I hope to get to the more extensive Phnom Khnorng Perng site, by helicopter, next month.

Next up was Toby Eastoe of Conservation International, who came in for a chat. They have a conservation program in the Cardamom Mountains at Thmar Bang which sounds like excellent eco-tourism material for the intrepid adventurer and includes trekking, waterfalls, rivers, crocodiles, gibbons and more, if you are heading up that way. He also confirmed that the road from Koh Kong to Pursat - through the Cardamoms via Ou Som - is very good through the dry season for all vehicles and doable in wet season in a 4WD. Previously it was only possible for seasoned motorbikers but now is open for all.  And there was news that pretty soon, if not already, a new military-built road will take you from Koh Kong, along the border with Thailand and up to Battambang province, finally opening up that route. CI also have their own gibbon project at Veun Sai-Siem Pang in Ratanakiri, which I visited myself in April 2012.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sacred Kulen

As if the punishment of my visit to Phnom Kulen in 2000 wasn't enough, just two years later I was back there again, on the hunt for temples and stone animals. March 2002 marked my eighth visit to Cambodia and Kulen was again on my itinerary.
The collection of stone animals at Srah Damrei

Sacred Kulen
The Kulen mountains, the spiritual home of the Cambodian people, beckoned. I was determined to locate one or two of the ancient temples scattered across Phnom Kulen that I hadn't previously visited, as well as the large animal monoliths at Srah Damrei, which I'd heard about but never seen. Rieng picked me up at six-thirty from the guesthouse and en route, we called into a foodshop for coffee and noodles in Pradak village, a couple of kilometres outside the Angkor Park on the road to Banteay Srei. Rieng had already bought my Kulen ticket a few dollars cheaper than the usual $20 price, so we skated past the checkpoint at the foot of the mountain and two and a half hours (and 50 kms) after leaving town, we took a well-earned rest at the collection of stalls at Preah Ang Thom, the large reclining Buddha, on top of Kulen mountain. After fifteen minutes of negotiations between Rieng and the moto-drivers who operate the cartel on top of the mountain, he introduced me to our drivers, Phea and Anchor, who'd ferry us across the Kulen plateau for the next six hours in our search for adventure. Coincidentally, Phea had been a neighbour of Rieng's whilst Anchor ('same same the beer'), like his pal, had lived on the mountain for the last few years after leaving the army.

Thirty minutes into the bumpy drive, we passed through Tmei village where red and white painted poles either side of the road denoted where landmines had been found by Halo Trust de-miners. Judging by the position of the poles, the whole village was sitting in the middle of a minefield. The trail ended and the way forward was blocked, so we left the moto's and walked for another fifteen minutes through the jungle to reach the first temple, Prasat Damrei Krap. It consisted of a single large brick tower, very ruined, with sandstone doorways but no carvings in evidence. An example of the sculpture associated with this temple can be found in the shape of a substantial four-armed standing Vishnu in the National Museum. Close by, Phea took us to see two large stone animals, one of which was a reclining elephant and the other, a crouching tortoise, both covered in green lichen. These were not the main animal statues on Kulen, just a foretaste of what was to come. Back on the bikes, we skipped across a series of hard sandstone rock clearings at great speed, and with no apparent trail to follow, which must be impossible in the wet season, before Phea indicated another walk through the forest was necessary. It was 10.30am and we were on the southern edge of the mountain, about eight kilometres from our starting point. The walk took twenty minutes, through the humid forest before Phea announced our arrival at the remarkable Srah Damrei (Elephant pond). It took me a few seconds to realise that on two levels, surrounded by dense foliage, were life-size and larger, stone carvings of a selection of animals. These had been shaped and fashioned out of the natural sandstone rock that Kulen is renowned for. The elephant, on the lower level, was 3.5 metres high and 4 metres long. Looking down on the largest carving were two stone lions, a frog and a cow. It was hot and humid under the forest canopy as we rested surrounded by another astonishing example of ancient Khmer sculpture.
A short distance away, in a small ravine, stood another carved animal, this time an ox next to a small pond, which I accidentally stepped in up to my knees. To make matters worse, as we walked back to the motos, I misjudged an overhanging branch that caught my head a glancing blow. I was hot, sweaty and beginning to lose patience. To calm down, we sat and ate our pork and rice rations, only to come under attack from large red ants. I was glad to be back on the moto's as we criss-crossed the sandstone rock beds and just after mid-day, we stopped to inspect the massive brick tower of Prasat O'Pong. The trail had also wound through wooded areas, sand and waterlogged stretches. Phea, my driver, was a consummate professional. He could handle his moto with supreme dexterity and skill on all surfaces, however as the passenger I had to remain vigilant at all times, remembering to keep my head down and my knees and elbows tucked in. Also necessary for travel of this nature are long trousers to avoid cuts and scratches from the undergrowth and sturdy shoes. Prasat O'Pong is an impressively large structure. Surrounded by forest, it stands tall on a brick terrace and inside the tower were remnants of finely chiselled octagonal colonettes and other carvings. The peaceful scene was topped off by the shrill sound of cicadas all around us and an invasion of tiny bright yellow butterflies as the sun shone.
Half an hour later, we arrived at the foot of a small climb, which Phea called Prasat Rong. Rieng corrected him and said it was better known as Asram Rong Chen, the terraced pyramid temple of King Jayavarman II, where the royal linga was housed and where, in 802, he was declared a god-king to herald the beginning of the Angkor dynasty. For such a venerated location, the site today appears insignificant. Hidden amongst the foliage, I saw remains of a laterite platform and a deep well, topped off by a large square pedestal and seven cruciform sandstone blocks, which appear to have been part of the pyramid. There is no obvious structure such as Prasat O'Pong and its quite impossible to imagine what this sacred temple would've looked like in its heyday. Statues have been excavated nearby and brick debris suggests a tower but nothing of that ilk remains. Turning back towards our starting point at Preah Ang Thom, we stopped at a spot marked by red crosses painted onto tree trunks, signalling the possibility of landmines. However, Phea informed us these were old signs and the mines had been removed and took a few paces into the forest, indicating that we follow. He pointed at the undergrowth, where we spied a large, smooth headstone-shaped block of sandstone with a monkey, an elephant and a flower carved into it. Nearby, was a large hole where another seven headstones were lying half-covered by leaves and mud but devoid of any easily recognisable carvings. These slabs reminded me of seima (boundary) stones I'd seen at Phnom Bok and I later found out that's exactly what they were. The name of the site is Bam Gre although at the time, no-one had an explanation for them or their name. So another Kulen mystery solved.
At 2pm, we arrived at the site of the dramatic 35-metre waterfall and underwater linga and Vishnu carvings, one of the popular places on Kulen for Khmer families to gather, enjoy a picnic and bathe in the so-called sacred waters. Our moto-drivers sat down to play cards with a group of unemployed drivers while Rieng and I made our way to the foot of the waterfall for a barefoot dip in the shallow water and to feed the fish with some of our left-over bread. Signs have now been posted to stop visitors from walking on the underwater carvings, though it didn't stop three small children from jumping off the rope bridge and into the chilly water. Amongst the trees nearby, is an ancient laterite temple known as Krol Romeas (also known as Teck Tlak). On the ground were two sandstone lintels with a fierce fire burning close by as the locals set fire to piles of dry leaves, surrounding the temple in a smoky haze. An hour later, we'd returned to Preah Ang Thom where we thanked Phea and Anchor for their help and expertise in ferrying us across the difficult terrain of Phnom Kulen, paid the agreed rate per moto and began the drive back to the Angkor Park.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kulen Unmasked

The so-called lost city of Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen has been in the international media a lot in recent months, after new laser technology identified the remnants of a city, where only previously a few scattered temples and forest existed. Thirteen years ago in December 2000, I visited Phnom Kulen for a second time, on the hunt for some of the temples that were part of the lost city complex.
The overgrown temple of Prasat Neak Ta

Phnom Kulen Unmasked
The lure of remote ancient temples seen by just a few serious Angkor enthusiasts and the remarkable carvings at Kbal Spean are worth a day of anyone's time in my opinion. I had visited the reclining Buddha, waterfalls and riverbed carvings on Phnom Kulen a year earlier but the isolated 9th century brick temples, built by Jayavarman II, on a separate part of the Kulen mountain range and the River of a Thousand Lingas, proved to be a double adventure worthy of the time and discomfort I had to endure. It was 5am and pitch-black outside when Phalla and two motodubs, Sothea and Lom, arrived at my hotel to begin a day which would see us spend nearly fourteen hours on motos over some of the roughest terrain in the region. We drove through the Angkor Park, stopping at a food stall in Pradak village, just past Srah Srang lake, for some breakfast of soup, coffee and sticky cakes. Our route took us past a military camp at the foot of Phnom Bok and villagers along the rough track waved and shouted 'hello!' as we passed by. Twice we took wrong turns before reaching the wide, red-dirt logging road that surrounds the mountain range and finally the admission hut. It had taken us four hours just to get to this point. The guards were already deeply engrossed in a card game, paying us scant attention but still alert enough to pocket my $20 entry fee with a wide grin. The thirty minute trip to the top was a bumpy ride and notable for the proliferation of black butterflies fluttering in and out of the shafts of sunlight that broke through the forest canopy.
The food stalls at the bottom of the path leading to the reclining Buddha of Preah Ang Thom was our first port of call, where Phalla explained that we needed to change our motos and use two drivers from a group of men sat under an awning playing cards. The temples we were seeking were up to twenty kilometres across the plateau and through difficult terrain, so employing the services of locals, who later transpired to be former Khmer Rouge soldiers, was absolutely necessary. A brief discussion ensued as Phalla negotiated a price and one of the men disappeared inside a hut, re-appearing after a couple of minutes, wearing a green police uniform with his automatic gun slung over his shoulder. His name was Noun Moy and Phalla climbed aboard his moto, alongwith Sothea, who as well as being a moto-driver in Siem Reap, is also a guide, speaks good English and this was his first visit to the temples on Kulen. My driver was Chea Savun, who proved to be an expert driver in very arduous conditions. Lom, our other driver from Siem Reap, remained with the motos and joined the others playing cards.
The gruelling trek began immediately we left the clearing, as a combination of rocks and tree roots made the track a bone-jarring experience from the outset. Often, it was flooded, necessitating a walk through water or the trail was too sandy to be able to drive on. At other times, our path was barely penetrable, with thorny bushes whipping against my legs and arms and twice we got lost and had to retrace our steps. After an hour and a stop to complete running repairs on one of the bikes, we reached the first of the temples, some eighteen kms from our starting point, according to Moy. On a small rise, surrounded by forest and scrub and barely noticeable until we were up close, stood Prasat O'Thma Dap, a sturdy brick-built temple with white stucco still covering much of the structure, including its carvings. Battling my way through the waist-high undergrowth, I circled the temple and saw that three stucco-covered lintels were still in place above the doorways and another lay on the floor nearby. Savun and Sothea were in deep discussion and told me that it was the most decorated temple on Kulen and they believed it was erected in the latter part of the ninth century. Back on the motos and fifteen minutes later, we reached Prasat Chrei, where we paused before exploring the temple, so we could eat our lunch of chicken and rice, with fresh bread. This temple, another substantial brick structure with traces of stucco, was even more difficult to get close to. The vegetation was particularly thick, the red ants pretty vicious and a landslide made the approach a little more than tricky. Lacking the decoration of Thma Dap, Prasat Chrei is dated a little earlier and is more of a ruin, with the temple split in half. In the doorways, I noticed unusually rounded brick pillars and nearby, half-buried in the soil, was a solitary lintel and carved pilaster.
Sothea, Savun, Moy and Phalla inspect clay pots in the forest

Moy and Savun knew this part of the mountain particularly well and they needed to as the trail was barely discernible from the thick brush and undergrowth. Another hour of jolts, bumps and shocks reverberating through my bottom and spine, brought us to a wooded area which Moy told us was called Sam Phou Thlei. On closer inspection, the floor was literally carpeted with broken brown clay pots and carved lids, allegedly booty from a shipwrecked Chinese junk according to Savun, who recalled a centuries old legend. Nearby, they pointed to footprints in a rocky outcrop that the same legend asserts belonged to the same Chinese sailors, while a little further on, carvings of Vishnu in a rockface were covered in moss and difficult to make out clearly. Contact with the local inhabitants was rare on this part of the trip although we did pass through one hamlet of a few houses before we arrived at Prasat Neak Ta. The sky had clouded over and a few drops of rain were falling as we inspected the brick temple, which had lost its roof and was devoid of carvings, but had retained its four walls and was still quite an imposing structure. Prasat O'Pong, located close by, was our next stop, and as we walked to the temple we heard voices in the distance. As the tall brick structure came into view through the trees, so did another visitor and his two drivers and guide. It turned out to be no ordinary tourist as Jon Ortner introduced himself and it was pretty clear from his camera equipment that he was no amateur snapper like myself. In fact he was taking photographs for his book Angkor - Kingdom of the Khmer. After a chat about the Kulen temples and other sites, I scrambled across the undergrowth for a closer look at the impressive Prasat O'Pong before we parted company and back onto the trail for more punishment.
Our driver Moy inspects the wall carvings at Poeng Tbal

We were now well on our way back to our starting point but it was still forty minutes before we reached the last stopping-off point of our trip. Krus Preah Aram Rong Chen was our destination and it was an unusual spot, allegedly the site of the first pyramid temple and sacred Shiva linga, constructed by Jayavarman II in the ninth century, that signalled the beginning of the great Angkor period. A short walk up a hill, took us to the site and it looked anything but the location of a large pyramid temple. Instead, there was a series of small caves where Vishnuite figures were carved into the rockface and two broken sandstone pedestals were in the center of what appeared to be a natural cave-temple. The site is revered by the Khmer people and a permanent military guard is posted nearby to prevent any wrong-doing. We eventually returned to the stalls at Preah Ang Thom just before two o'clock, thanked our Kulen moto-drivers who'd looked after us expertly and left the mountain, seeing lots more butterflies on our descent, this time they were yellow in colour. Back on the logging road, we sped off towards Kbal Spean and reached the parking lot at the site in just under an hour, but by now liberally covered in red dust. Editor's Note: I've subsequently learnt that the cave site I visited and was led to believe was Krus Preah Aram Rong Chen is more likely called Poeng Tbal. The actual site of the first pyramid temple and the birthplace of the Angkor empire is close by but access is much more difficult. A friend, Merrily Hansen, made the trek in 2005 and located an immense three-tiered laterite platform, composed of large laterite blocks with the top tier about 25 metres square. At the very top is a huge sandstone platform for the original linga (which is missing) and a deep well, some fifteen metres deep. The top tier is five metres high, the second tier is three metres tall and a dozen cruciform-shaped sandstone blocks would suggest a massive column existed in times gone by. Undoubtedly, a much revered site seen by very few foreigners in recent years and a well-kept secret until now. 
Accompanied by a guide from the Apsara Authority who came along with Phalla, Sothea and myself to 'keep us safe', a forty minute ascent along a hot and humid forest trail brought us to the fast-running River of a Thousand Lingas. The natural sandstone bridge, from where Kbal Spean gets its name, spans the river at a point where remarkable riverbed rock carvings from the 11th century display a gallery of gods and celestial beings including Vishnu reclining on the serpent Anata, Lakshmi, Rama and Hanuman. Some of the carvings are submerged by the course of the river, others are open to the elements and a few have been chipped away by unscrupulous thieves. The riverbed and surrounding rocks are covered in these engravings and a few metres downstream, there are thousands of sculpted lingas or phallic images, including a large underwater representation of a yoni (womb). A group of workmen were cutting down a tree as we made our way further downstream to a slippery path which took us to the bottom of a 15-metre waterfall and a pool of crystal-clear water. This water, which has been blessed with fertility as it passes over the sacred lingas, then flows down the mountain to fertilize the fields of Angkor. Well, that's the theory. The whole area was serene and undisturbed, apart from the woodcutter's saw and more by luck than judgement, late afternoon seems a good time to visit this ancient site to avoid other daytrippers. Our return to Siem Reap took us past the entrance to Banteay Srei as the sun began to set, reflecting off the red sandstone walls of the temple. The road from Banteay Srei to the village of Pradak, where we'd stopped for breakfast at the beginning of the day, was under major repair and proved to be as much of a challenge for Sothea and Lom as any of our earlier adventures. Whilst dodging from one side of the road to the other to find the least uncomfortable driving-line, as well as avoiding other traffic including 4WD's returning their well-heeled visitors to town after a visit to Banteay Srei, Sothea suffered a puncture. We called in at a nearby house where the disabled husband and his wife include moto repairs amongst their village responsibilities. Word of our arrival soon spread and in no time, a crowd of about thirty neighbours of all ages had appeared and I took photos, played shuttlecock and handed out sweets to keep them amused. It seemed to work. It was just before 7pm when we arrived back in town at the end of a long and thoroughly enjoyable but strenuous day.
The famous Vishnu carving at Phnom Kulen

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Smelling Rumduol

Former Cambodia resident Andy Hill has just published his first novel, The Scent of Rumduol. He wrote it during his years living here and was largely inspired by various events, stories, and experiences during that time. In his words; "It follows the intertwining story of four orphans over a seven year period, while reflecting some of the experiences, and exigencies, that all too many Cambodian children must face, and which you are more than aware of. While it is a tale of stolen childhoods, and not without tragedy, it is ultimately a story of hope and survival. I like to think it also invites us, as guests in that part of the world, to question our own actions and behaviors." The book is available on Amazon Kindle and other distributors. You can read more about the book, the author and more at scentofrumduol. The Rumduol flower is the national flower of Cambodia.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

The End/Beginning

I caught a fascinating documentary on Channel News Asia the other day, as I was skipping through the channels. Sophal Ear is a Cambodian-American academic who wrote and narrated The End/Beginning, a story that traced the route his mother and family members took to escape the Khmer Rouge and into Vietnam. He tells the story of the journey to his own children and part of the narrative is told by his own mother, Cam Youk Lim, through recordings she made before she died. The family eventually made their way to Saigon, then onto France and finally the USA. The 47-minute film was produced in collaboration with Singapore’s Channel News Asia and won a New York Festivals award for international television last year. Sophal Ear has had an internet presence for many years and published his first book at the back end of last year, Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Koh Ker - an adventure not easily forgotten

I have enjoyed and at the same time, endured numerous adventures in rural Cambodia, on the hunt for ancient temples, with close friends like Sokhom. My first visit to the complex of Koh Ker was one such adventure, and one that I will never forget. The report of my trip to Koh Ker, which took place in November 2001, during my seventh visit to Cambodia following my debut in 1994, is pretty matter-of-fact but the pain from the hours spent on the moto was very real, as was the fear I felt as I made my way down from the top of Prasat Thom in the dark, or the rush of excitement I crave when I see temples that few others have seen. My visit to Koh Ker had it all.
The massive pyramid centrepiece of Prasat Thom, some 40 metres high 

Discovering Koh Ker
The journey by moto along Route 12 from Kompong Thom - my starting point for this adventure - to Tbeng Meanchey was gruelling and uncomfortable enough but paled by comparison to the 70 kms of road to Koh Ker. However, more of that soon enough. The tenth century royal capital of Koh Ker had been a magnet for me for a long while after Sok Thea, a Khmer friend of mine blazed the trail there just under two years earlier. In a remote and inhospitable corner of Preah Vihear province, for so long under the control of the feared Khmer Rouge and in an area awash with landmines, Sok Thea's stories had whetted my appetite for a similar adventure and with Sokhom's help, it became a reality. Koh Ker became the centrepiece of the Khmer kingdom in 928 when Jayavarman IV built a series of colossal monuments in a twenty year period of frenzied temple construction. When the capital returned to Angkor, Koh Ker fell into disrepair and has remained isolated and inaccessible ever since. The Koh Ker period of Khmer history is renowned for its architecture and sculpture on a monumental scale and the museum in Phnom Penh has many key pieces on display that prove the point. Recently, the Cambodian government has earmarked the site as a key historical attraction which they plan to develop in a bid to attract foreign tourists, so I was desperately keen to visit the complex before that happens. After our first night in Tbeng Meanchey at the 27 May guesthouse, Sokhom and I rose early and took the road heading west, after breakfast at a nearby cafe. It was just before 7am and little did I know our eventual destination was nearly eight hours away, although Sokhom had an idea as he'd made the trip once before. We immediately got a foretaste of what was to come as the road surface alternated between heavily rutted and sandy and quickly turned into little more than an ox-cart trail rather than a navigable road, once we'd taken a left turn at the village of Thbal Bek. Parts of the track were underwater and we had to detour into rice fields to avoid some of the flooded stretches. Apart from a couple of ox-carts, we saw very few people until we stopped a motorbike rider for directions. Remarkably, Sokhom knew him as an aid worker in Kompong Thom and he told us of the poor state of the road ahead. Three hours into our trek, we arrived at the village of Koulen, at the half-way point, and time for a well-earned rest, while Sokhom brought out his repair kit and tinkered with the engine and suspension. We ate some noodles and quizzed the local policemen about road conditions, safety and other ancient sites in the area. Suitably rested, the track continued in the same vein as before, with the sandy surface making it impossible to drive at anything more than a crawl. The route remained flooded in places and whilst crossing one stream, we lost control of the moto and had to pick it, and ourselves, out of the water. We stopped one of the few ox-carts we encountered, to buy a couple of bunches of bananas, whilst a noticeable feature of the flooded areas was the abundance of brightly-coloured butterflies.
As the trail wound its way through a heavily wooded area, I was relieved that Sokhom had made the trip before as I'm sure we would've got lost. At times, the route ahead was blocked but he somehow found a way forward and kept us on track. The sound of a helicopter overhead suggested some visitors to Koh Ker had decided on the more comfortable travelling option, and who could blame them. My back and bottom were aching and sore, my face was red from the sun and the rest of me covered in dust and dirt. Then, as if sensing my desire to curl up and go to sleep, Sokhom announced we had arrived. Imagine my surprise when he stopped the moto and pointed off to the right, where through the trees I spied a large laterite tower and wall. My tiredness evaporated and my sense of excitement took over as we walked through the light brush towards a hole in the laterite wall surrounding the tower. It was just under eight hours since we'd left Tbeng Meanchey and our arrival at Prasat Neang Khmau, the southernmost temple of the Koh Ker group, was a great relief. The temple itself faces west and is a tall, dark laterite tower inside a walled compound. Through the sandstone doorway with carved colonettes and below a cracked and defaced floral lintel propped up by a large wooden pole, a large pedestal and broken linga litter the inside of the sanctuary. Back on the moto, we covered a kilometre or so to the state temple of the whole Koh Ker complex, Prasat Thom. The eastern gopura entrance was blocked by fallen sandstone columns and vegetation had taken a firm hold around the other sanctuaries and galleries as I quickly made my way through the ruins to catch my first glimpse of the giant sandstone pyramid, that is the complex's crowning glory. Keen to organise our overnight accommodation before the sun went down, Sokhom and I made the short hop to the nearby village of Koh Ker and quickly located the village chief, Yuon. He was only too happy to let us stay at his home for the night, so we dropped off our hammocks and water bottles, booked our chicken supper and returned to Prasat Thom to watch the sunset. While Sokhom took the opportunity to wash off the dust and dirt of our trip in one of the royal ponds, I carefully negotiated the rickety wooden ladders that straddled each of the terraced pyramid's seven tiers. The square pyramid is 36 metres high with the steep stairways on the east side ravaged by time and replaced by the wooden ladders to make access to the summit a little easier. From the top, the view over the surrounding forest canopy with the Kulen mountains in the far distance was simply breathtaking, enhanced by the glow of the setting sun in the west. There wasn't a great deal of room at the top, as I sat down next to some broken carvings of lions and elephants and enjoyed the peace and quiet, noticing a column of smoke rising from the village nearby. At the foot of the pyramid, I could just make out Sokhom in the deepening gloom as I cautiously made my way down the ladders to join him and we returned to the village.

At the top of a much smaller ladder, Yuon welcomed us into his two-roomed bamboo home on stilts and introduced us to his wife, five children and brother. As headman of the village, his home is one of the largest in the hamlet and under the slatted verandah, where we hung our hammocks and mozzie nets and an hour later ate supper, was his collection of family animals including two dogs, chickens, pigs and piglets and tied up closeby, two oxen. Yuon's wife served up our supper of chicken, rice and vegetables as we all sat cross-legged in a circle under the naked flame of a lighted torch, with Sokhom translating the conversation. It was just before 8pm when we thanked the family, the flame was extinquished and we climbed into our hammocks. Any thoughts I had of falling asleep were forgotten as the family continued with their chores in complete darkness, a Khmer language radio was switched on and under the house a fire was lit and neighbours stopped to chat. It was another two hours before everyone settled down for the night, leaving the occasional animal sound and the creaking of the bamboo structure as the final sounds I heard before I fell asleep. Awakened first from my slumber by a crowing cockerell at 3am, two hours later the whole village erupted into a similar morning chorus that signalled the start of the day. Sokhom and I arose and in the glow of a lighted torch - the village had no electricity, or water-pump for that matter - we ate the remainder of the previous night's chicken with the family, thanked them for their hospitality with handshakes and a small payment in riel and paused for photographs. Sokhom's moto had aroused considerable interest as no-one in the village owned one and a farewell party had gathered to wave us off at 7.30am, as we returned to a deserted Prasat Thom for one final look. The early morning dew and fine mist gave the temple an eerie feel as we clambered across the broken entrance gopura and reached the large tower known as Prasat Kraham ('red temple'). Broken statues and pedestals littered the floor of this massive structure and the mist lifted as the rays of the sun pierced the tree cover and highlighted a headless apsara on a doorframe. Dense green vegetation throughout the complex restricted exploration to the main pathways as we ambled past a series of nine small identical brick towers with weather-worn lintels and colonettes in situ, and made our way to the giant terraced pyramid at the rear. The unsteady wooden ladders didn't fill me with sufficient confidence to attempt another ascent of the tower, so we retraced our steps, investigating a few broken lion statues, more lintels and carvings amongst the ruined structures.
Our final visit to Prasat Thom lasted an hour before we headed back out of the complex, past faded Danger!! Mines!! signs on our left and the remains of a laterite wall in the wooded undergrowth on our right. I signalled to Sokhom that a wall usually meant a temple, so we parked the moto and went to investigate. The brush was waist-high but not too thick as we traversed the wall and headed for a clump of large trees. A ruined brick gopura with broken carved colonettes signalled the entrance to another temple but the vegetation was simply too dense for us to inspect the large laterite temple any closer without a machete or scythe. Frustrated, we returned to the moto as I checked my map and decided that this must be either Prasat Bak or Prasat Chen, most likely the latter. There are believed to be up to 35 major monuments in the Koh Ker group and we'd only just scratched the surface. Our village friends were unaware of the location of the other structures as much of the land surrounding their village was potentially mined and unsafe even to collect firewood. I'm sure the Koh Ker group has many more delights to offer the adventurous traveller once the mines have been cleared and the land has been made safe and with the government earmarking the site for development, that might be sooner than later. Koh Ker is already attracting a small trickle of visitors, as we were told a group of five motorcyclists had spent a night camping at the main temple the night before we arrived. The route back to Sroyang, where we stopped for running repairs, was as bad as I remembered it. The sandy track, tree roots and stumps posed as many problems as the waterlogged sections but it was a slippery slope that undid Sokhom as he ended up knee-deep in mud and his moto submerged underwater. Fortunately, I managed to jump off the back of the bike at the last moment. We eventually completed the first half of the trip back to Tbeng Meanchey (TBM) in four hours, with a noodle and petrol stop at Koulen, accompanied by loud music bellowing out from loudspeakers, celebrating a wedding party next door. Three hours later and with my bottom and back in agony, we arrived back at TBM. Covered in dust, I was grateful for the cold shower I had after booking into the Mlop Trosek guesthouse and the beef and chicken meal at the Mlup Dong restaurant as I reflected with Sokhom, what a wonderful adventure the trip to Koh Ker had been. It was a tough test for the two of us on his moto, my aching bones were testimony to that, but Sokhom had once again come up with the goods when it mattered. I can't speak highly enough of my resourceful friend.
The village chief Yuon, is holding his young son as his family pose for an early morning photograph alongside Sokhom (left, wearing cap)

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Friday, September 13, 2013

My first look at Beng Mealea

Today, the temple of Beng Mealea, outside of the main Angkor Park, welcomes coaches of tourists walking on wooden platforms to see the temple in the jungle. Back in 1999, on my fifth visit to Cambodia, it was virtually unknown and ripe for my kind of adventure. So, here are my recollections from my first-ever visit to Beng Mealea.
Beng Mealea - almost completely overgrown
Discovering Beng Mealea
Its not often you get an opportunity to seek out and discover a new temple, still very much in its natural state. The renowned Ta Prohm at Angkor gives the visitor a glimpse of what to expect, but in reality it bears little resemblance to the real thing. For my last day in Siem Reap, Sok Thea, a Khmer friend and fellow adventurer, eagerly suggested breaking new ground by visiting Beng Mealea, more than forty kilometres east of the main Angkor complex. Abandoned for years due to the civil war and the presence of the Khmer Rouge, and left to the mercy of Mother Nature, the temple is a contemporary of Angkor Wat in its age and floor plan but sees almost no visitors whatsoever. It proved to be one of the highlights of my whole trip.

The day's adventures began at 7am when Thea and our two moto-drivers, In Sokea and Pov Lom collected me from the Freedom Hotel. We stopped at the market to buy some bread and water to complement our fried rice and chicken and then we were on our way, east along Route 6 towards Roluos and beyond. The highway was busy with pick-up trucks full to overflowing with goods and passengers kicking up blinding dust until we came to a traffic jam at a broken bridge. Resourceful as ever, Thea motioned us to the front and we quickly sneaked our Honda Dream bikes over a hastily-arranged but shaky plank of wood across the gaping ravine. After an hour, we stopped at Damdek market to buy a few more provisions - cigarettes and sugar - and left the main highway. Our new route was of the red clay variety but in reasonable condition and we made good time along the palm tree-lined and heavily populated track. As the houses thinned out the road became progressively worse until we were forced to either dismount to ford flooded parts of the track or balance precariously on recently-erected plank bridges, where small boys requested a few hundred riel to cross. It was just passable by moto but the recent rains had made it impossible for anything other than a durable four-wheel drive vehicle to make the same trip.

The valuable work of the British de-mining charity HALO Trust was evident as we finally reached the village of Beng Mealea at ten. A broken naga head and a small ruined bridge signalled we were close to the temple complex, so we stopped to ask the whereabouts of the temple's conservator, Chheng Chhun, who quickly appeared and was obviously pleased that we'd followed the correct protocol and requested his guidance. We were also joined by a scruffy-looking group of five soldiers, one of which, the youngest, was carrying an AK-47. Chhun suggested they tag along to ensure our safety. We'd arrived at the southern causeway of the massive temple complex, a rival to the monumental scale of its sister temple Angkor Wat but on a single rather than pyramidal level. Built in the late-11th and mid-12th century under the rule of King Suryavarman II, Beng Mealea has been out of bounds to all but the most adventurous traveller until very recently, so our excitement was mounting as we crossed the 45 metre-wide moat and walked along the overgrown southern causeway towards the temple, flanked by decorated naga heads in good condition and a broken balustrade, although our goal was hidden from view by the dense vegetation. 

The bridge and cruciform terrace in front of the blocked southern entrance was in ruins and gave us a foretaste of what the remainder of the temple would be like. We walked fifty metres to a gap in the eastern enclosure wall and following the sprightly 70 year-old Chhun, we climbed over the broken outer wall, hopping across fallen sandstone blocks, scrambling along ledges and clambering through small passageways to take a breather on the top of an inner gallery. All around us, the vegetation had taken a firm stranglehold on the walls and buildings and it was almost impossible to make out the formal structure of the temple. What we do know is that Beng Mealea is composed of three large enclosing walls, each with four gopuras (or entry towers), as well as cloisters, corner pavilions, courtyards, galleries and library buildings.

I was expecting to see little more than ruins but substantial areas remain intact, whilst others are little more than a clutter of fallen debris overgrown with vines, roots and greenery. Chhun led us, and our five army guardians, on a circuitous route, our path often blocked by fallen masonry, but there was plenty to see with decorated lintels, frontons, cornices and apsara carvings in abundance and galleries, supported on one side by a sturdy back wall and on the other by a row of pillars as can be found at Angkor Wat and the Bayon, although the bas-reliefs much in evidence at these temples, are absent at Beng Mealea. Skirting around the collapsed main sanctuary, we exited the temple by the overgrown eastern causeway so we could visit the three royal pools, full of water but covered with lotus and water-lillies, at Srah Keo, Srah Baykriem and Srah Svay Kong. As we were inspecting one pool, allegedly the home of a crocodile, two ox-carts appeared out of the forest and Thea excitedly jumped onto the last one for a ride back to the southern entrance, where we rested and shared our bread, sugar and cigarettes with Chhun and the others to thank them for their company.

Our temple tour had lasted just under two hours and I was exhausted. The heat inside the temple complex was stifling and the ever-present red ants had feasted on my ankles but the experience was memorable and not to be missed for anything. The dense vegetation had made it almost impossible to take any meaningful photographs but the feeling of discovery was quite overwhelming and perhaps akin to what Henri Mouhot must've experienced in the middle of the 19th century on seeing Angkor for the first time. We weren't the first to visit Beng Mealea, but it certainly felt like it.
The library at Beng Mealea
We left a little before mid-day and retraced our steps back towards Route 6 and Siem Reap. Before we reached the populated stretch of track and after negotiating the flooded parts of the route, we stopped to devour our fried rice and chicken at a village meeting house erected by the NGO, Carere. For dessert we played a game of foot shuttlecock with our drivers, before continuing on our way, acknowledging the waves and shouts of the adults and children, still unused to seeing a foreigner in their neck of the woods. At the Roluos turn-off, we took a right fork along a new road for at least five kilometres and as Phnom Bok loomed large in the foreground, veered onto an unmarked track towards our second destination of the day, the 11th century temple ruin of Chau Srei Vibol.

Again, the route was bumpy and pot-holed and at times, the track had been washed away by the rains. We negotiated the flooded parts, passed through tiny hamlets and groups of waving villagers and across a broken sandstone naga bridge at Spean Thmor, before arriving at an active pagoda, Wat Trach, and the laterite outer wall of the temple. Thea and myself walked up the hill, similar to Phnom Bakheng but not nearly as steep, to the ruined temple buildings at the top, housed alongside the shell of a modern temple, where orange-robed monks from the wat below were constructing a roof. At least three major sandstone structures, a sanctuary and two libraries, are easily identifiable with decorative carvings on the doorways and cornices and a couple of broken lions flank the steep eastern entrance gate. We walked around the outer wall to the southern and western gopuras and outbuildings with some damaged lintels and frontons before returning to our motos where the wat's head monk was waiting to offer us fresh coconut milk. I couldn't resist a photo as we thanked him for his generosity and continued our journey back to Siem Reap, stopping briefly at Chbar Chin, where the laterite foundations of an Angkorean temple form the base of a small Buddhist wat, arriving back at the hotel at 5pm. Ten hours on the back of a moto and I was in desperate need of a hot bath, but the day had been a major success and one to remember for a very long time to come.
A welcome committee at one of the hamlets en route to Chau Srei Vibol

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Island Divided (2001)

I visited Cyprus, a popular destination for British holidaymakers, in 2001 and wrote this piece for my website.
Looking across no-man's land from the Lidras Street observation post

Cyprus - An Island Divided
The majority of tourists visiting Cyprus are blissfully unaware of the pain and division that has haunted the island since 1974. To most, the image and experience of Cyprus is one of sun and sand, the snow-capped Troodos Mountains and exquisite frescoes housed in Byzantine monasteries. For the island's inhabitants its a different story altogether. After gaining independence in 1960, peace between the Greek and Turkish communities was already fragile with the Turkish minority, representing 20% of the population, retreating into ghettos and enclaves after sporadic violence and harassment. In their defence, the Turkish army launched an invasion of northern Cyprus in July 1974 and occupied the northern third of the island, leaving thousands dead or wounded and huge numbers of refugees fleeing to their respective sides of the divide. That division of Cyprus has remained to this day. Whilst the south has enjoyed international recognition and a booming economy boosted by tourism, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has found life a lot tougher and depends on its sponsor Turkey for its economic survival. Separating the two factions and running almost the length of the country and dividing the island's capital into two is the Green Line, also known at the Attila Line - a buffer zone maintained and patrolled by the blue-bereted peacekeepers of the United Nations. Talks of a reconciliation between the two sides have stuttered and stalled on many occasions and feelings still run high, fuelled by recent incidents like the deaths of the three Deryneia Martyrs in 1996.

This was the background to my visit to the island's capital city Nicosia, or Lefkosia as it's called today. The holiday rep at my hotel in Pafos had whetted my appetite when he told me that crossing the Green Line wasn't a good idea as I might not be allowed back. That statement immediately sparked my thirst for adventure and I set off early one morning with my wife in our hire car to cover the 150 kilometres to see for ourselves. Our first stop in the capital was the 11th floor of the Woolworths department store on Lidras Street, where telescopes gave us a bird's eye view across into the northern half of the city. At the end of the street, an observation platform allowed us to peer into the buffer zone to see a street with rubble-strewn buildings and rolls of barbed wire, left as it was in July 1974. On foot, we followed the Green Line westwards, punctuated by a series of UN bunkers, roadblocks, a wall of sandbags and oildrums and signs forbidding photographs and stopped at the Holy Cross RC church, isolated inside the buffer zone and guarded by a solitary UN soldier. Nearby is the only spot on the island where you can legally cross into the north on a day excursion, at the site of the old Ledra Palace hotel. As we approached, my wife's nerves became a little more frayed when we encountered up to fifty wailing Cypriot women, dressed in black mourning clothes and holding pictures of loved ones still missing since the 1970s.The stern-faced Greek Cypriot border guards made little effort to disquise their disgust at our desire to cross as they slowly copied details of our passports onto a list and pointed at a sign that instructed our return by 5.30pm. It was a few minutes past eleven o'clock. Leaving the checkpoint, we walked quietly along a connecting road, the ruined Ledra Palace hotel on our left, now used as a billet by the UN (who have 1,500 personnel on peace-keeping duty on the island), and desolate waste ground to our right. Two female UN soldiers nodded their hello as we completed the 300 metre walk and checked into the Turkish police control building. A few minutes later and the form-filling formalities completed, we were in northern Cypriot territory and we began breathing normally again. No real hassle at all but a mixed feeling of excitement and unease nonetheless, heightened by the soulful wailing of the widowed Cypriot women we'd left at the border post as we crossed no-mans land.

For the next four hours we walked around the old city, along narrow passageways and empty streets, enjoying the friendliness of the people, soaking up the atmosphere and visiting a few notable attractions including the soaring minarets of north Nicosia's most prominent landmark, the Cami Selimiye Mosque. Its a working church with a strong French Gothic style but it was empty as I stepped inside and removed my shoes for my first look inside a mosque. Next door is the sixth century Byzantine church ruin known as the Bedesten and nearby is another ornate Gothic church, the Cami Haydarpasa. Undergoing restoration work is the Buyuk Han, a rare example of a Middle Age inn, known as a caravanserai. Although closed, the foreman invited us in to look around before we finished off our tour with a ten minute walk to the Turkish (Mevlevi Tekke) Museum, the former home of the mystical Islamic sect known as the Whirling Dervishes. They are famed for their spinning, trance-like dance which flourished for 700 years until they were banned in 1930. Returning to the old city, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe in the pedestrian zone and listened to a rock band playing an open-air concert. One unusual aspect which gave us a few jitters north of the divide was the distinct lack of female shoppers. Instead, large groups of young Turkish men were much in evidence, either standing on street corners or wandering aimlessly and appeared to be army conscripts in civilian clothes. With an hour to go before the border closed, we made our way back towards the crossing point via the quiet back streets where buildings have been left unoccupied, others are bullet-scarred and in ruins including a church and the Roccas Bastion, where Turkish Cypriots can look through a barbwire-topped fence into the southern half of the city and what for them is forbidden territory. The smiling faces of the Turkish police were in stark contrast to the dour look on the faces of the Greek border guards as we returned to the southern half of Nicosia via the long and eerie walk past a lone UN soldier on sentinel duty midway between the two factions. The wailing widows were still massed just past the guardroom and we were handed a flyer asking if we knew of the whereabouts of Pavlos Solomi and Solon Pavlos Solomi, missing since the morning of 15 August 1974 and the beloved husband and 17 year old son of the old woman who'd handed us the poster. Her name was Panayiota Pavlos and she told us that 1,588 people are still missing from that time, their fate unknown and the encounter was a poignant reminder of the human face of the division that still separates Cyprus today.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Krom album release

This gig at the Doors on Saturday 21 September will launch the new album from Krom, Neon Dark. CDs available from Monument Books outlets in Cambodia.

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Tenth anniversary

Founder Fred Frumberg (left) next to Belle at Java Cafe
Java Cafe was full of young dancers tonight, there to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Amrita Performing Arts with a photo exhibition and lots of birthday cake. Amrita have been involved in producing a variety of classical and modern performances, both in Cambodia and overseas for the past decade, though in recent years they have concentrated on contemporary dance. Founder Fred Frumberg gave some background on the company during a welcome speech and Belle, Cambodia's best known contemporary dancer, put into words, both English and Khmer, as to what dance and Amrita meant to her. Listening intently nearby were a host of young dancers, nearly all of whom are products of the classical training received at the Royal University of Fine Arts and who have expanded their repertoire with contemporary work under the umbrella of Amrita.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Jury Prize

Well, blow me down with a feather. The road movie-cum-love story, Ruin, won a special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday night. Shot on a shoestring budget in Cambodia with Cambodians Ros Mony and Sang Malen as the film's two main actors, the prize was awarded in the festival’s cutting-edge Horizons section. Well done to all concerned, including our own Kulikar Sotho who was co-producer for the film. Meanwhile, Mony had to rush back from Venice to finish off filming scenes from The Last Reel in Battambang this weekend, under Kulikar's direction, her debut as a feature film director.

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Leftovers

Solo photo, in contemplation
These are the last two leftover photos from the CamSports magazine launch from the camera of Kampuchea Party Republic. I promise. Taken at the Sofitel a few days ago.
PPCFC staff with CamSports girls. Back Row: Lidwina and John. Front Row: Sam, myself and Dary.

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Poland for the weekend (2003)


The sign above the entrance gate to Auschwitz : Arbeit Macht Frei ('Work shall set you free').
Krakow (or Cracow, take your pick) in Poland was the choice of a long weekend for the three Brouwer brothers and their respective partners (Paul and Vivien, Tim and Andrea, myself and my ex-wife), on our first joint venture abroad in July 2003. A beautifully preserved city centre with its engaging medieval 'old quarter', its near neighbour is the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, responsible for the deaths of over 1.5 million people, mostly European Jews, during the Second World War. The contrast between the two locations is dramatic though the latter is the destination that will leave an indelible stamp on all of us. Auschwitz, located in the Polish city of Oswiecim, began life as a concentration camp in 1940 for political prisoners but quickly outgrew itself and the far more substantial Birkenau, located 3 kms away in the village of Brzezinka, took over as the primary killing machine as the Nazis stepped up their plans to exterminate the Jews. In both camps are the remnants of crematoria, gas chambers and prisoner barracks. Auschwitz is the more compact museum with well-preserved blocks housing various exhibitions portraying the history of the camp, whilst Birkenau is spread over 400 acres and was the largest camp in the whole Nazi system in terms of the area it covered, the number of barracks, and the number of prisoners held at any one time. Its the site where you begin to get a sense of the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. More later.
The flight time from Heathrow to Warsaw, the Polish capital, was a little over two hours, as our group of six looked forward to sampling some of the renowned indomitable Polish spirit with our planned visits to Krakow, Auschwitz and Warsaw. On arrival at Warsaw's international airport, we took a taxi directly to the main railway station in time to catch the lunchtime express train to Krakow, some 2.5 hours south of the capital. The Polish countryside was green and lush for the most part though the towns we passed through contained more than their fair share of drab, featureless concrete flats and office blocks, daubed with that colourful graffiti that you find alongside railway tracks everywhere these days. The train itself was comfortable, we had our own compartment, we were served sandwiches and hot drinks and it ran on time. A promising start to our Polish adventure. At Krakow's railway station, we were picked up by Jon, our driver with an excellent command of English, and delivered to the Campanile Hotel, located on the edge of the old town. The hotel was new and comfortable and just a few minutes from the main square of the city centre. After freshening up, we walked into the busy pedestrianized Rynek Glowny square to mingle amongst the early evening festivities, pavement cafes, cellar bars and restaurants, teeming with locals and tourists. Over the next two nights we sampled the local Polish fare at two atmospheric cellar restaurants, whilst spending a few daytime hours touring the key attractions in the city centre. In the middle of the elegant facades and impressive period houses surrounding the main square is the 16th century Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, that now houses a trading centre with numerous stalls, cafes and a small museum. Nearby are the impressive St Adalbert's Church and the Gothic St Mary's Church, with its twin spires dominating the square. We climbed the taller of the two towers, which was exhausting and where a tune is played by a trumpeter every hour, for a glorious view over the city. A walk through the tree-lined park known as the Planty took us to the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill. This former seat of the Polish kings was swamped by hordes of tourists eager to see its Renaissance style State Rooms, gold-festooned Church, gorgeous tapestries, paintings and period furniture. We also took a tram to the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, which is undergoing a revival and whose inhabitants were taken away to concentration camps in the 1940's. Krakow has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site and its easy to understand why.
An early morning start took us the 70kms to the city of Oswiecim, better known as the location of the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. With Vivien staying in Krakow to sample the shops, it left the five of us to explore the massive museum site of Auschwitz-Birkenau at our leisure. We hired a guide, Pieter, who spoke impeccable English and watched a short film before entering the original site, under the sign that encouraged the prisoners with 'work shall set you free'. Nothing could be further from the truth. Near to the entrance gate is the spot where the camp orchestra played as new arrivals filed in and just around the corner is the assembly roll-call square and gallows. Over 30 two and three storey blocks house a series of exhibitions, some of which have been given over to specific countries whilst others tell the Auschwitz story in graphic detail using photographs, written and material evidence. Although Pieter gave us a respectful running commentary, we walked at a slow pace and said little, even to each other, as we saw the evidence of these crimes against humanity, particularly in Blocks 4, 5 and 6 which contain displays of human hair, artificial limbs, spectacles, suitcases, pictures and stories of the children, medical experimentation and much more. Next to the 'wall of death,' where thousands of prisoners were executed, is the camp's own prison where severe punishments and death were meted out including the first experiments with the deadly gas, Zyklon-B. A group of around fifty children, all of them draped in the blue and white flag of Israel, passed us as we made our way solemnly to view the gas chamber and crematorium, which housed two reconstructed ovens, and finally the gallows where the camp commandant, Rudolf Hoss was executed in 1947. We sat down on a wooden bench to catch our breath and absorb what we had seen and heard. Although I'd seen television documentaries about the treatment of Jews and other prisoners, witnessing where it actually took place, seeing the evidence at first-hand and hearing the stories, made it much more real, and emotionally draining. Though I'd visited S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison in Cambodia, the scale of the Nazi operation at Auschwitz overshadowed even that shocking factory of death. Pieter then tried to prepare us for our next stop, Birkenau, by telling us that the second camp to be built was considerably larger, containing over 300 buildings and four large crematoria and gas chambers. His warning proved to be true. The drive to Birkenau took just a few minutes and Jon dropped us off at the rear of the camp, near the Monument to the Victims, and by the ruins of two crematoria and gas chambers, destroyed by the SS trying to conceal their crimes. We walked along the railway tracks that had been used by the deportation trains delivering victims, often directly to the gas chambers. We visited the brick and wooden barracks and the main SS guard tower, where the view allows you to see the whole prison complex and to begin to appreciate the enormous scale of what took place there. We came to the end of our tour and thanked Pieter for his part in helping us to understand what we'd seen. For me, I'll never forget my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Before returning to Krakow, we took the opportunity to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine, not my cup of tea but quite a remarkable tourist site nonetheless. In operation for hundreds of years, we had to climb down 378 steps to the first underground level and led by Mila, our guide, we visited a series of chambers, rooms, lakes and chapels, hewn from the saline rock and housing a variety of salt carvings. Easily the most impressive was the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga. We used the lift to return to the surface and onto the last leg of our return to Krakow, just ten kilometres away. Up early next morning, we bade farewell to Krakow to return to Warsaw by train, and booked into the rather plush Bristol Hotel, about ten minutes walk from the Polish capital's 'old quarter'. I split from the others to investigate on my own and headed for the reconstructed older part of the city, which like the rest of Warsaw suffered severe devastation during the Second World War. Today, with its cobblestone streets and colourful houses, the heart of the old quarter is the market square with its cafes, restaurants and street artists while closeby and worth a visit are St John's Cathedral, the Royal Castle and the Barbican Gate. I was keen to see what remained of the Jewish Ghetto, so studied the map and headed for the area where over 400,000 Jews were herded together and later killed or transported to concentration camps. What remains today is a series of memorials squeezed amongst the concrete apartment blocks that include the 1944 Warsaw Uprising shrine in Krasinski Square with two groups of sculptures, the memorial park dedicated to the Heroes of the Ghetto, a sculpture near Gdansk Station commemorating those that perished in the Siberian gulags and an outstanding though intimate museum, Pawiak, on the corner of Jana Pawla II street. A dead tree with commemorative plaques signals the entrance to the museum on the site of a former prison and is definitely worth a visit. Back at the hotel, we returned to the old quarter as a family group for our final evening meal and unanimously agreed that our extended weekend had been a great success.
A birds' eye view of Rynek Glowny Square in Krakow.

The railway spur leading to the main guard tower of the Birkenau extermination facility. Prisoners called it 'the Gate of Death'

These railway tracks took newly-arrived Jews straight to the gas chambers

Pawiak Prison museum

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Red carpet

Ros Mony and Sang Malen in Venice by Giovanni Cosmo/Istituto Superiore di Fotografia
Two photos of Mony and Malen on the red carpet in Venice. Their film, Ruin, was premiered a few days ago at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Shot entirely on location in Cambodia, the two actors attended the premiere on their first trip to Europe. Find our more about the film here.
Mony and Malen in Venice - Picture by Yahoo images

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

With the snapper

Sam, Liddy, Rumnea, myself
Taking a moment away from the camera, Rumnea is snapped by her Kampuchea Party Republic boss Nick Sells, in this photo from last night's CamSports magazine launch at Sofitel. Also on hand were Phnom Penh Crown head coach Sam Schweingruber, physio Lidwina Niewold and press officer, oh that's me.

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Caught by the snapper

Some of the PPCFC team at the event: Back Row: Pheng, Ka, Narin, Sokumpheak, Borey, John, Dary. Front Row: Morslim, Makara, Phearun, me
Photos from last night's launch of the new sports and lifestyle magazine, CamSports, at the Sofitel Hotel, courtesy of the event photographers Kampuchea Party Republic. It just so happens that Rumnea was the one taking the pictures. Ace snapper and hard worker.
Sam, Yaya, me and Chhi

With PPCFC Academy coach Dary

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Magazine launch

The launch of the new monthly sports magazine, CamSports went swimmingly well tonight at the Sofitel, with a busy program of events to keep the guests entertained including traditional boxing, stick-fighting, cycle tricks and football target practice with the Phnom Penh Crown football team. Free flowing drinks and snacks and an absolute ton of event photos by Kampuchea Party Republic were eagerly gobbled up by the invited attendees to celebrate the birth of the 56-page sports and lifestyle magazine, published in the Khmer language. It's the successor to the former 855 magazine.

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Leng Pleng Mix

The Cambodian Space Project are stuffing as many appearances on home soil as possible before they head off for a tour of Indonesia, the Australian outback and to record another album. They have just returned from Battambang and Siem Reap and will be playing at tomorrow's Leng Pleng Mix - the official launch party for the Leng Pleng app - by the people that keep us all updated on what's happening in the local music scene each week. The party is at The Village from 7.30pm, it's free and as well as CSP, there will be an eclectic bunch of other local artists covering the whole range of music that Leng Pleng caters to. CSP will play their last gig before they depart at FCC on Saturday (7th) from 9pm onwards.

Staying on the arts theme, Java Cafe will host an exhibition of images from the past decade of productions by Amrita Performing Arts. It starts on Monday 9th at Java from 6.30pm and there will also be a talk from founder Fred Frumberg and Belle, the contemporary dancer who has been involved in many of Amrita's most memorable productions.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

On the red carpet

Ros Mony (left) and Sang Malen before their departure for Venice
Today is a very special day for two young Cambodians. For Ros Mony and Sang Malen their normal world will be flipped upside down as they step onto the red carpet at the 70th Venice Film Festival in Italy for the premiere of their film Ruin. I've watched part of the film and its an uncompromising, dark and gritty tale, which the two actors filmed in two tranches of three weeks, a year apart, with the directors filming scenes almost at random and writing the script to a storyline that changed constantly as they went along.
The press release to accompany the film tells us more:
RUIN is an impressionistic fable - the story of Phirun (Ros Mony) and Sovanna (Malen) - two lovers inexplicably drawn together who escape a brutal and exploitative world of crime and violence in modern day Cambodia. Fleeing Phnom Penh after a murder, they travel deeper into the jungle. As their vulnerable love ebbs and flows along their journey, they wake from the trauma of their former lives and unleash a violent rage upon the world. Love and death intermingle as they travel deeper into the abyss - their world strangely transforming around the two young lovers on the run. Executive Producer of Ruin is Kulikar Sotho of Cambodia’s Hanuman Films. Ruin is its first co-production. Lead actor Ros Mony had a small role in Wish You Were Here, on which Cody worked as the line producer in Cambodia. Lead actress Malen is a circus contortionist discovered by the filmmakers in Phnom Penh. Amiel Courtin-Wilson said: “To be selected for the 70th Anniversary of the oldest film festival in the world is an absolute honour - especially with such an uncompromising film.” Michael Cody said: “It's an absolute delight to have Ruin selected for such a prestigious festival, and particularly exciting given that it's the first Khmer language film ever to screen at Venice.”
Postscript: You can see images of the two actors and the film's directors on the Venice red carpet at Gettyimages.

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