Two schools represent distinction with a big difference

IMG_5604The complex in the photo above was called S-21 by the Khmer Rouge.  Today it is known variously as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia.

The facility had been converted from a public high school to an incomprehensibly brutal prison in 1975-79, when up to 2 million Cambodians died.  Of the 14,000 ordinary citizens believed to have been incarcerated there, only seven survived the starvation, inhuman living conditions, torture and outright execution.

Toul Sleng is a 10-15-minute walk from my home, and I have occasion to pass by regularly.  It is wholly visible from the roof of my 15-story building.  Seeing it Continue reading

Advertisements

Cambodia hardly is a hotbed of the visual arts, but. . .

img_4126

Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, Phoeurng Sackona, spoke warmly about the artist Sopheap Pich, standing at her left, in front of the sculpture called Big Being.

No one would describe Cambodia as a vital center of the visual arts in Southeast Asia.

While there are art schools and art exhibitions, the output does not tend to be memorable. (When it comes the visual arts, I find photography to be the most accomplished.)

One reason must be  Continue reading

Holiday unknown to me gives access to French Embassy

french-6

The imposing main building of the French Embassy greets visitors just inside the gate.

An annual series of events around the world under the umbrella of European Heritage Days had escaped me until this year, but last Saturday’s activities in Phnom Penh allowed me and hundreds of others to enjoy access inside some otherwise private international venues.

I learned about the possibility of seeing the French Embassy only the day before by reading a one-inch item in a local English-language daily.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about also being able to tour the British ambassador’s residence, UNESCO offices and a restored colonial-era building where the high-end Van’s restaurant operates.  (I had dined expensively at the restaurant once and have felt no need to return.)

Still, visiting the French Embassy proved to be notable for Continue reading

Why so much violence in this officially Buddhist nation?

1374652479

In guest post, the writer explores the Khmer Rouge’s violence and violence today.

This illuminating post is published verbatim with the permission of journalist and novelist Philip J. Coggan, whose blog is the source and is well worth following.  If you are in Cambodia, you also likely will appreciate his new book, Spirit World, available at Monument Books.

Here is the big question: how and why did a Buddhist nation produce one of the 20th century’s worst genocides, and one which is marked by so many horrific instances of cruelty and savage violence? A whole chapter in my book Spirit Worlds is devoted to this and for my answer I relied heavily on Alexander Laban Hinton’s Why Did They Kill?. This article therefore stands as a sort of review of Hinton’s book, which is essential reading for all those who want to understand Cambodia.

At one point in my book I remark that underneath the Cambodian smile there lurks Continue reading

Hats off to exceptional international film festival

Opening night of the Cambodia International Film Festival. Source: CIFF/Vann Channarong

Opening night of the festival at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theater. Source: CIFF/Vann Channarong

The Sixth Annual Cambodian International Film Festival Is a Hit

Despite my expressed vow to avoid writing during the holidays, I was so captivated by the sixth annual Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF) that I had to share with you my enthusiasm about the event, which was held in disparate Phnom Penh locations Dec. 4-10.

Not only was the festival organized with the precision of a three-star restaurant kitchen, but the quality of most of the films I caught was dazzling.

There reportedly were more than 130 from 34 countries in all, none costing more than $1 for admission, and I cannot explain why this was the first festival I’ve attended.  Only jet lag and ignorance of the screenings kept me from seeing more than the eight or nine (four in one day!) that I caught last week.

Cambodia International Film FestivalAngela Jolie Pitt, Continue reading

Evil former Khmer Rouge official, 82, gets royal sendoff

The cremation of Cheat Sim occurred at the top of this structure.

The cremation of Cheat Sim occurred at the top of this structure, completed over two weeks.

Chea Sim was only president of the ruling party in Cambodia, yet he was remembered last week in a ceremony befitting a head of state following his death at 82.  The day of the funeral, June 19, was declared a national holiday; however, it was not strictly observed.

There were pomp, circumstance and elaborate decoration at his cremation in a park in the center of Phnom Penh.

Unfortunately, Continue reading

Phnom Penh street names sound strange to these ears

Except for the boulevards, few drivers

recognize street names anyway

rue 6Long-time residents who can navigate Phnom Penh’s miserable traffic with assurance often fail to remember the names of the streets that they travel.  (Farther down, more about names that bring me up short, and there is a pretty big hint above.)

By “long-time residents,” I include bicyclists and pedestrians as well as most of the numerous tuk-tuk operators and motodops who clog corners in search of passengers and then cruise our thoroughfares when they get lucky.

I frequently come upon tourists and transporters with heads together puzzling over laminated maps that seem to offer little help.  An address Continue reading