Monday, December 12, 2011

The beauty of the Cambodian drags.

They're beautiful, talented and oh so courageous. The first openly out and proud performers in Cambodia. Welcome to the Blue Chilli.


Eigh is our driver, and at times, translator.  He is a lovely man who has been so good to us while we've been here. 


Slum living within a derelict Phnom Penh cinema. 5 year old Bi lives with three other families in one room. Bats chitter away on the vast, high ceiling above while a giant mound of rubbish, home to numerous rats, marks their entry way.   The families are living within one of Cambodia's golden age cinemas (circa 1960s), now derelict.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Last look: North Korea in Phnom Penh

I wrote about this restaurant two months ago. I've been wanting to return every week now for the David Lynch-ian waitress dancing, singing and instrument playing that goes on here every night of the week. Basically, the waitress that has just brought you over your steaming meat soup, (or cabbage pancake if you're me), suddenly appears on stage playing synthesizer and singing all your favourite songs from the homeland.  Everyone is wearing candy coloured, highly flammable frills and perfectly maintained smiles.  I wish I could of filmed this for you, it's the most surreal scene I've ever seen, and all delivered with a sort of dead-eyed charm.

Lunar eclipse

Our last Saturday night in Phnom Penh was spent watching a full lunar eclipse (the last until 2014) and enjoying the charms of the city's infamous North Korean restaurant.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Towards an iron silk road?

On our moto tour of southern Cambodia, we chose to take earth roads where ever possible. It was a necessary treat to leave the roar of the highways for the relative safety of back roads. These red dirt roads defected from the national highways through sometimes grand archways, or trailed off, hidden between homes. Sometimes dusty, other times precariously rutted, these roads are the picturesque, well traveled veins of the provinces.  One such back road, well more of a footpath really, snakes along beside Cambodia's unused railway to cut directly across waterways, villages and fields. 

After 80 years of dubious maintenance and 30 years of war, resuscitation may well be close for Cambodia's unused railway.  Reports from 2010 weave a tale of proposed connections with Vietnam and Thailand, effectively finishing the 'iron silk road' that will for the first time, connect southeast Asia with Europe.  With the help of Australian funding, a functional railroad system will apparently be in place by 2013. At the end of 2011 however, the stretch of railway we followed was but shiny ghost tracks, glinting pink and silver off into the heat and distance. 

Determined to try the narrowest of local roads, we joined a small stretch of Cambodia's 612km unused rail track   We wound our way precariously along a rail-side, foot-beaten track that connects villages to fields, families to commune councils, sellers to buyers.  At times the bikes struggled to bite into the loose gravel, or the shoulder disappeared altogether, leaving us to negotiate space with people passing with livestock and market goods.  

Growing up in NZ, hanging around rail tracks goes against every bone in my body.  In Cambodia the ghost line offers up children wavering in the distance, indistinct in the heat. People and cattle move up and over, cats and chooks explore the lines, yet no trains come.  It will certainly be a different country once the trains start moving again.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Some scenes from the village road a few weekends back. I especially loved the heat, the storm clouds approaching and the absolute flush of green, courtesy of the recently departed rainy season and perfectly offset by Cambodia's red soil. Come to think of it, we'll soon be in the red of the Australian outback!  More photos underneath...

Friday, December 2, 2011

On arriving in Pursat, we were told the one guest house in town was full due to a contingent of researchers that had arrived to measure the amount of malaria around. I don't think the town had ever seen so many strangers on one day! Oh joy, I thought to myself - raging hordes of mosquitos, and I haven't brought with me any anti-malarials.  Layering up my full strength deet insect spray, we were spotted in a house, our 7 person research team distributed across 4 king sized beds with grubby sheets.However, dawn with it a revelation... each of mosquito nets turned such beautiful jewel like colours. 

Under the mountain

My favourite time of day is sunset in Cambodia, particularly so if I am in the provinces. The landscape, which holds such variation in colour already, decides to reflect back the sky's changing colour from the water logged paddy fields like a scaly, iridescent patchwork quilt. Then finally, night starts winning.

These photos were taken from a moving car as we traveled deep into remote Pursat. We were on our way to a once poor village, booming now due to new logging industry from the virgin jungle that crouches, waiting, up the mountain behind.  If you like, have a look at each photo by opening them in a new tab - the sunset-scapes feel painterly.  The moving car contributes to the feeling of brush strokes, and the sky is smudged with grey.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hello, you are the reason I am here.

Portrait of a young man wearing a Facebook t shirt. He's never used it before but has heard about it through the Khmer love songs on the radio.

He'd like to have the resources play around on the internet, go to university, make a bit of money, have a say in his country's future.  Some of the basic stepping stones towards this outcome will hopefully be put in place by the project I'm working on which aims to bring youth closer to a more participatory civic life.   Which means they will be able to change the rules. For the better.

Impassable? I think not.

The road to a remote village at the foot of the Pursat mountain range.  We made it though...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hello Lady Penh

This is a child of Wat Phnom, Temple hill, where the city's namesake came to pray - Lady Penh.  This is a  boy who came to play with us, in the sun, with a leaf.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Friday night, PP style.

Friday night revealed more interesting layers of Cambodian evening entertainment.
Ian, the scriptwriter on our project and host for the night, has spent several years living in Cambodia with his family.  In this time he has written several feature film scripts - and in the process of researching these, has grown a base of knowledge on Cambodian society's comings and goings. With Ian as our guide, we headed off into the warm night.  

First stop was a North Korean-owned and run restaurant. I wasn't aware of this, but these restaurants exist all over Asia. They serve several purposes apparently - to earn foreign dollars and launder any questionable income (see this article).    They also feature a strong team of hand picked talent from the homeland. 

In the past there have been moments of defection from the pretty waitresses shipped over to entertain the custom - causing the restaurant to shut its doors until an entirely new shipment of women can arrive.  The staff, talented, shining examples of North Korean womanhood, are drum playing, synchronized dancing, run to the door, adieu paying waitresses of immense talent and beauty.  No words could describe their particular recipe of bounce, steadfast smiles and karaoke bestowed upon their patrons.   

The night we were there found the AC system broken down, causing beads of pristine sweat to dot their perfect brows.  Regardless of the no camera policy, they allowed us to take their photographs in front of the many majestic painted murals that decorate the incessantly lit space.  There are no dark corners. 

The food was excellent, and I spent the rest of the time not eating, mouth agape in wonderment at the spectacle laid out before me.  No, I didn't partake of the dog soup, and instead delighted in spicy squid, Korean pancake and ice cold Angkor beer.   The groups of men around us grew ruddier, the ladies looked more weary, although they did do a sparkling job of keeping up the energy.  Where do they sleep I wonder?   The threat of defection must keep them under tight wraps. 

After dinner Ian had more to show us.  Onwards we went, to 'The Rock'.  No guns, no grenades, no knives.  I did however have a camera that I promised to not use in order to keep it on my person.  We were lead into the largest neon lit building I've yet to find here.  Walking over a water feature bridge, beautiful Khmer girls clasped their hands together in greeting and bowed.  Suited men guided us by torches into a massive antechamber of darkened booths. 

Taking our seats - the night was still young - the carpark had not been packed with four wheel drives yet - we sat back and listened to the crooning songs from the live band and endless line of singers- old, new, young, country, city.  The audience would leap up and dance and sit back down again.  Perhaps because we were the only barangs there,  a completely out of place bruce willis film began playing on a screen high above - reference to tits and guns - subtitled in English floated across the space.   The next song intersection, the audio visual material grew weirder - an 80s how to tango instructional film took its place while the band readied itself again for more Khmer pop.

Downing our drinks, Ian showed us around the rest of the massive building - VIP karaoke rooms hid muffled sounds, doors opened on lines of women sitting in benches, waiting to play hostess if the patrons required it.  Back further was a hotel you could book rooms by the hour, a movie cinema where you could get mid film massages and a now closed casino. Oh yes, and a sauna and jacuzzi for men.   Corridors and corridors of doors to rooms, dotted frequently by bowing staff.  Heading back into the familiar realms of the song hall, the beauty and surprising 60s influenced khmer pop rang on… 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

View from the bungalow

Drinks with new friends at the delightful floating bungalows - owned by a fellow Kiwi, the lovely George.

Hello summer

Can you feel the balmy Mekong heat?