The glorious rattan art of Sopheap Pich

17 05 2017

Pich Sopheap sculptures. IMG_0413 IMG_0418


Some nice Cambodian lamps

18 06 2012

… Cambodian rock….

21 05 2012

The sounds of 1960s Phnom Penh swung into Hong Kong this week with retro rock ‘n’ rollers The Cambodian Space Project. The band put on a show to a small midweek audience in a humid room of the Fringe Club, but I was glad to be there as singer Srey Thy let loose her powerful voice, shimmied sixties style and performed graceful Khmer dance moves. She had a shy charisma, made all the more notable when bandmate Julien Poulson introduced her background as an improverished villager and survivor of abduction into the sex trade.

The band do great, soulful renditions of Khmer pop classics as well as original songs and one Western cover:

A band to watch out for!

Hippie hippie shake

9 05 2012

Guess who is coming? Phnom Penh hipsters and pre-Khmer Rouge rock revivalists “The Cambodian Space Project” will play Hong Kong’ Fringe Club on May 17th. See you there!

Australian TV commercial

13 10 2008

Dunlop Volleys ad

Its in Khmer. I love the bit where he is riding on the cows!

Miss ya babe

6 08 2008

See you back in Tokyo soon!

Cambodia – the year of living dangerously

6 08 2008

2008 was an odd time to be visiting Cambodia. For so long Southeast Asia’s Heart of Darkness,  Cambodia is now on the verge of a transformation.

Since it emerged, dazed and broken, from the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge years, Cambodia has become more and more popular with visitors bored by Thailand, on the lookout for somewhere with “edge”. It was off-the-beaten track, a backwater, an adventure. It was also an anarchic Wild West where the law meant little, and anything went.  People went there to eat marijuana-laced “happy pizzas” (well, you still can, I can “happily” confirm) and throw hand grenades at live cows at tourist shooting ranges, and molest dirt-poor local children, as much as to see the haunting ruins of Angkor Wat. It was one of those shady, in-between places of the world, where anyone’s darkest secrets and desires could be played out for a few dollars a pop.

Now, Cambodia is on the brink of a boom that will change everything. In the last few years, visitor numbers have soared and mainstreamed. The pristine coastline along the South of the country is being eyed for mega-resort development geared towards turning the beaches there into a ” new Phuket”. The former Thai PM, Thaksin, has announced an investment in a plan to build a whole new city . Even more astonishingly, according to a recent article in the Guardian, some 40% of the country has been sold off in the last 18 months (!!!!!) to international developers, often displacing local residents and communities.

When I was there, Phnom Penh was in the middle of constructing its first real skyscraper, with others on the way (including one vulgar, Korean-funded 42-storey twin tower complex plated in gold). They will transform the city, now a gracious little capital of 1920s French colonial villas, and gardens of bouganvillea. 

I took a peek in a real estate agent window while I was there – one of those nice, roomy  (but not outstanding) villas now changes hands for a million US dollars, in a country where many earn less than $2 a day.

Our 2005 guidebook (actually Antje’s – cheers Antje!) said there were no ATMs in the country. In 2008 they were plentiful, with many from the Australian ANZ bank.

Our guide at Angkor Wat told us there would be huge demonsatrations that week at plans by another Korean firm to introduce an electric train taking visitors around the ruins, putting the hundreds of tuk-tuk drivers out of business who make a living ferrying about visitors. He was angry. “Who is going to benefit from this?” he asked “Not Cambodians”.

And thats the crux. Who will benefit from this boom? Its hard to argue that the old days were better, when tourism in Cambodia was dominated by sexual predators, drugfiends and dubious adventure seekers (admittedly, all still present in diluted form). Sure, something of the romance and the mystery has gone – but if that puts food on the table for the millions of needy, its a mean point. But will all this development, all this change, actually help anyone? As our guide pointed out – what will ordinary Cambodians,  not the tiny elite, not the multinational companies, get out of it? The signs are not good.

I felt like I was seeing something that will very soon be gone, but I couldn’t say which way the wind would blow, for better or for worse. But there was a tangible sense of a country on the brink.

My first taste of these contradictions was Poipet -the notoriously lawless, and dangerous, border city with Thailand. Famous for scams, rip-offs and intimidation, I was nervous before I set foot there and my first impressions did nothing to improve my mood. Its a brand new, built-from scratch settlement of flashy Las Vegas-lite casinos, where wealthy Thais go to gamble (at a minimum $US 1,000 stake) . And yet its red mud streets are crowded with gaunt, begging children and  filthy-looking men pushing huge carts filled with nothing but plastic bags, and limbless derelicts riding in wheelbarrows.

Children tugged at my sleeves for coins. A woman walked past – rich – with four other women around her holding up umbrellas to protect her from the sun in each direction, following her around like a little retinue. Such is the value of human labor here, you could hire four people to carry your umbrella.

(Later at Angkor Wat, we would see tourists who handed their camera over to their private guide and had them take all the pictures, before handing the camera back. Imagine – not even taking your own holiday pictures! It seemed like the same kind of thing).

We were stuck in a bottleneck at immigration, while slimy touts hovered and the grey sky rumbled menacingly – then opened. The red dirt roads turned into rivers. We bargained for a car to take us the three hours to the next town of Siem Reap, and as every guidebook and website had warned, got mercilessly ripped off – 40 US dollars each (in a party of four) , as opposed to the 48 baht (less than one Euro!!!!!!!!) that the precious six hour rail journey had cost us in Thailand.

But it was raining, and we were trapped in this hellish city and in no position to argue, and they knew it. The “road”  was unpaved and uneven, with potholes so deep that at times the water came halfway up the car doors. We passed herds of scrawny zebu cattle, and miserable-looking peasants on bicycles, wet to the bone, and saw two cars by the side of the road, having just slipped off. There were no shops, no farms even, just a scrubby flat savannah on either side of the muddy dirt track.

So imagine my surprise when we arrived in Siem Reap to find – not a dour border town – but a lovely little provinicial city of wide (paved!) streets and gardens and brand spanking new, attractively designed resort hotels, one after the other after the other – whole neighborhoods full of them, with lovely terrace restaurats and pizza joints and cozy little cafes and concerts of gamelan-like Khmer music. It seemed another world. We found a guesthouse – a roomy, spotlessly clean room with TV, bathroom and aircon was 10 dollars – and tried to take it all in.

Well, if this was the brave new world for Cambodia, surely it was an improvement? If this is  what tourism would do to the country, I thought, bring it on!!!!!!!!!!