“Shoes” – must-see video

Screen-shot from "Shoe".

Screen-shot from “Shoe”.

From this week’s Phnom Penh Weekly, a (very) short video-movie by Doeurn Chev from the Bophana Centre’s “One Dollar” project.

This film, “Shoes” , focuses on a 13 year old boy, Sophea, who lives with his family in Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building. With the family income below the poverty line, Sophea’s father cannot afford to send him to school. Despite this barrier, Sophea wears his school uniform every day and tries to make enough money to go to school by playing the ‘shoe game’ with neighbouring children. … At times gritty, at times heartening, the videos capture the daily struggle that so many face in Cambodia.

The link to the online video is here. (Why does everyone always call the White Building “iconic”? Seems the place can’t be separated from the adjective).

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Scratching the underbelly: Christopher G. Moore and Vinny Calvino

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 8.03.11 AM(Appears in this week’s Phnom Penh Weekly,  free at all good coffee-shops in Phnom Penh; look also for Kevin Cummings’ review of  Lawrence Osborne’s Hunters in the Dark.)

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The genre of Asian noir seems to be flourishing just now. With established writers like John Burdett, Tim Hallinan and Thomas Hunt Locke continuing to explore the dark side of human nature in Thailand, and Tom Vater, Bob Couttie and Steven W. Palmer setting their adventures in Cambodia, fans of the genre have a wealth of material to choose from.

But head and shoulders above all of these is the Godfather of Asian noir; Christopher G. Moore.

A Canadian and formerly a lawyer, Moore has now lived in SE Asia for 25 years. His first book, “His Lordship’s Arsenal”, was released in 1985 to critical acclaim. Since that first release, he has written over 20 novels, 200 essays and a book on the Thai language as well as other collaborations and editing jobs. But Moore is best known for his Vincent Calvino series, now standing at 13 novels – with a new one due in 2106 – perhaps the first in the genre to feature a Western protagonist in a South East Asian setting.

His writing style has been praised globally, with such eloquent descriptions as: “The Hemingway of Bangkok” (The Globe and Mail), “Dashiell Hammett in Bangkok” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “W. Somerset Maugham with a bit of Elmore Leonard and Mickey Spillane thrown in for good measure”(The Japan Times).

The Weekly sent along Phillip J. Coggan, himself the author of “Sweet Nights of the Naga King”, to find out what makes Moore and Calvino tick.

Ladies and gentlemen, readers and gawkers, inhabitants of the steamy Phnom Penh night; please plug in your ear-buds, because today we have a rare treat, a double interview with Christopher G. Moore and Vinny Calvino, the latter of whom doesn’t really exist except as a fictional character.

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Click on Chris for the link to his author-page on Amazon. Vinny refused to be photographed.

Vinny: I what? Chris, what’s this guy saying?

Chris: Shut up and listen, Calvino, and you might learn something of use.

Vinny: That’s my line…

First, how long have you and Vinny been together?

Vinny: Been together? What’s this guy implying? Chris, if he keeps this up I’m gonna have to do summit. Summit serious.

Chris: Shut up Vinny. Seriously, I’ve been cleaning up your English and related messes for the last 25 years, and now I get nailed with some kind of Brokeback Mountain allegation.

So Vinny never had any real childhood? I mean, he just sort appeared out of nowhere?

Vinny: Hey, now he’s callin’ me an illegal! Serious, Chris, I’m gonna have to do summit about this guy.

Chris: He’s an ex-New York lawyer, who got on the wrong side of a Chinese Triad gang in Manhattan. He was trying to protect a friend, a young Thai guy named Pratt. His turf in Bangkok extends from the shopping malls, to Nana Plaza, Patpong, and Soi Cowboy, to the slums of Klong Toey, the racetrack at the Sports Club, and even the swanky shopping malls. His client list is as thick as a crooked cop’s wedge of notes. The clients are expats who live and work in Thailand: some live the good life on a fat package; others get by day to day on a nickel and dime. They are the kind of ordinary people who have no clue about the culture, law enforcement and justice system or language. A set of non-skills guaranteed to land them in trouble. Cheated or killed. By the time they or their next of kin walk into Calvino’s office they are damaged and look to Calvino to patch them up. In Calvino’s world, most of those who survive don’t go home after one tour of duty. They become addicted to the front. Like Calvino, they volunteer for just one more tour and forget about New York.

Vinny: Noo Yoik.

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Slums of Klong Toey, from Silent Tapes, a project by two photographers documenting and helping the people of the Bangkok slums and similar places around the globe. An excellent website – click on the picture for the link.

What?

Vinny: I said Noo Yoik. Dat’s how we sez it in Joysey.

He doesn’t talk like that in the books.

Chris: I had to clean him up. Taught him there’s no joy in Joysey.

And there’s not much in Bangkok either. Chris, what is noir?

Chris: Noir, like porn, has many definitions. You know it when you see it. The characters in noir live under a dark shadow where intimidation and violence are part of the fabric of life. When the outcome is hopelessness, desperation, sorrow, you can be certain you are down a noir road. The powerful forces with the guns are the winners; others yield or are destroyed in their path. A sense of doom prevails. A good example of what represents noir for me is found in Georges Simenon’s novel titled Dirty Snow.

51PUOedFNKL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Cambodia would seem to be the perfect home of noir. In fact you edited a collection of short stories, Phnom Penh Noir?

Chris: I tried to bring together a community of writers and artists in Phnom Penh Noir, publishing their stories, lyrics, and photography. I had the rare chance to work with legendary creative talents like Roland Joffe, James Grady and John Burdett along with a young generation of Cambodians. The best thing about the collection is the diversity of noir tales told through multiple points of view. Truth, mortality, regret, betrayal, and loss play out in these stories, poetry and lyrics.

Do you have any favourites in that collection?

Chris: That’s like picking threads out of an incredibly intricate Persian carpet as favourites. What makes Phnom Penh Noir work is the whole of the anthology creates a small universe of feelings, thought, motives, behaviour, and along the horizon of these experiences you find how storytellers carry history inside their imagination.

Vinny, you visited Phnom Penh, what did you think of our lovely city?

51Kl9XND76L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Vinny: I think you mean Zero Hour in Phnom Penh? That takes me back to 1993. I’ve been to Rangoon and Saigon. Okay, that amounts to handful of times I’ve left Bangkok since I arrived back in the 80s. It does a man good to get shot at in other places. You don’t take Bangkok so personally after that. These places are like Bangkok but not like. Back then it was…

He’s not talking like a cheap Al Capone knock-off any more, Chris! He sounds almost educated!

Chris: Vinny has a NYC side of his brain that does this sumo wrestling thing with the educated side. They flop around inside his muddy skull and after awhile you can’t tell one from the other.

Vinny: Can I go on? Thank you. Phnom Penh in 1993 was dirt back streets where chickens scratched, slums overrun by rats, and UNTAC forces chasing women, ghosts, and drugs.

I especially liked the visit to T3 prison. Chris, was that a real visit?

Vinny: Was it a real visit? This guy is seriously starting to annoy me.

Chris: Keep calm Vinny. He’s not armed. Yeah, the T3 prison scene was based on a real visit with UNTAC officers in 1993.

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Inmates of T3 voting in the 1993 elections, covered by Chris Moore. The prison was demolished in 2000 and replaced by Prey Sar.

And the bit where you eat the dog?

Chris: Dog? I don’t remember eating any dog?

Vinny: Yes you do, it was that little place outside the jail, just a little street stall. I think the Golden Soyra is there now. That Golden Sorya place, that’s noir! We were trying to get on the good side of those Cambodian cops. They served us something brown and I put it in my mouth and all the Cambodians raised their glasses and toasted me, and I asked why and they said it was because not so many foreigners liked dog. Street mutt special someone said. Pratt was with us, he said it reminded him of New York.

Pratt?

Chris: He’s that fair pair of dice in a rigged casino called justice. Forget about climbing Everest. Even pushing a ladder against what looks like a molehill in Thailand requires an experienced Sherpa. And even then an avalanche has been known to bury a man if his chit cup is knocked over.

And Pratt is a cop who isn’t corrupt? All Thai cops are corrupt, aren’t they?

Vinny: Seriously, Chris, this guy is starting to annoy me.

Chris: Think of corruption as a plumbing problem. Pipes leak. Someone figures out putting bucket on the leak is profitable. Once that happens repairing leaks becomes difficult, if not impossible. And where are all of those pipes? Behind walls with nice pictures on them so you never know they’re there. You turn on the tap, water comes out. The leak doesn’t seem to hurt you. You move on.

 Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.14.30 AMYour latest book was Crackdown, right?

Chris: Came out in March 2015.

I remember there were some Cambodians in that.

Chris: Yes. It’s set in Bangkok but a major figure is a Cambodian named Munny. He’s an illegal migrant, living in a derelict apartment building with about a hundred squatters. The basement is flooded and filled with fish, and the squatters make a living catching the fish and selling them in the market. So they start off, you see, in a condition of communal innocence.

A bit like the Garden of Eden?

Chris: You could say the Garden of Eden in dystopia. But then corruption starts. Some of the squatters form themselves into a council and start imposing rules. Let me read a bit and you’ll see what I mean:

The meeting-calling men referred to themselves as the Eight-Nine Safety Council and made it clear to everyone squatting in the building that from now on they were the ones who ran things …. A couple of men from other floors who challenged them were beaten up. After that no one, including Munny, risked offending the council.

 So society is based on the rule of violence ahead of the rule of law?

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Phnom Penh, behind the Night Bazaar.

Vinny: The rule of law is based, ultimately, on violence, or the threat of violence. That’s half of what noir is about. Those officials with the monopoly over violence figure they can do a lot to improve their own position. About then things start to roll down hill and people get flattened.

And the other half?

Chris: Let me read you a bit more, about Munny’s wife, Chamey, when she tries to buck the system:

The Eight-Niners … set a quota on the number of fish each family could take from the basement pool for personal use. Beyond the quota, residents now had to pay for the fish…. The leaders of the Eight-Niners supplied the fish market from the pool. They also collected a “tax” to pay off the police and the owner. But as the new rules and demands increased, Munny said nothing.

Chamey wasn’t quiet. No one owned the fish in the basement. Anyone could see the massive numbers were sufficient for all to take as many as they wished. She complained, and her discontent reached the eighth and ninth floors. The Eight-Niners didn’t frighten her. They watched her taking fish from the basement, and when they told her to stop, she flashed a knife. She threw her last hundred-baht note at one of them.

“Here’s your tax,” she said. “Now leave me to feed my family.” She earned money frying and selling fish harvested from the basement.

“You owe us one thousand more. We want our money.”

Vinny: That’s just background. But that’s where it starts. And what Chris is saying is that the Munnys of this world matter. You should read that book by that guy Evans. Chad Evans. He just wrote a book about me. Nice guy. You should learn from him.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 11.05.11 AMWhat’s it called?

Chris: Vincent Calvino’s World. One of the points he makes is that there are two ways of responding to the noir. One is Henry Miller’s way – withdraw from public life, create a private world of personal self-indulgence. That’s what old Henry did in Paris. The other way is George Orwell’s way – engage and fight. In Crackdown, Munny is taking Henry Miller’s way, and Chamey’s way is Orwell’s way. Not that things stay like that. Without conflict there’d be no story.

Oh, I don’t like conflict.

Vinny: Sure, buddy. That’s exactly the way the Eight-Niners want it.

Mr Moore, I wanted to ask you about Reunion, because it’s set in Cambodia. What’s it about?

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.44.22 AMChris: It’s an unsentimental story of friendship, one formed in desperation, and nurtured by deception. It’s about the lies that are part of life when survival is in a killing field. Two men, one a journalist and the other a survivor, meet again years later. Both seek redemption and discover that the past, with its lies and deceit never morphs into the truth. This is a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia story that explores friendship and survival, and how peace and justice remain unfinished business.

Oh right. Chris, I wanted to ask you something really personal here, if that’s all right.

Chris: Sure.

How can I become a noir novelist? I mean, if I had the right table to work at, and all that. Bought myself a black beret, lightweight trenchcoat. Can you teach me?

Chris: It’s not that easy…You could join the Bangkok Noir Authors Facebook page that I just launched with 8 other authors. That might be useful.

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And Vinny, just one last question for you.

Vinny: Shoot.

Vinny, in Chad Evans’s book about you, he calls you “an existential bachelor” with a self-made moral code. What does he mean by that?

Vinny: That does it. I’m really gonna do summit about this guy right now!

Chris: I wouldn’t worry, Phil. There’s nothing to worry about in the analogue world. We are all digital in the expressions of our emotions, right? To be on the safe side, it would be wise to keep your precise location to yourself while in Bangkok. Sit with your back to a wall. That’s always a good precaution whether in New York or Bangkok. You just never know.

VINNY: At last Chris said summit that I can agree with. I mean that last sentence.

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Smile.

Buddha prophesied Jesus (not)

What is this pernicious nonsense? Who’s producing it? And why pick on Cambodia? (the narrator is obviously Indian). Apart from being profoundly disgusting it’s also interesting – is it being used in Cambodia? What would Cambodians think? But I don’t think the target audience is Cambodian – it’s in English. So who is the audience? No idea.

Are Cambodians afraid of foreigners?

This is a post from a blog that I stumbled across on a blog called It’s Adventure Time, and it’s by Molyka Rom (“Molly”), who describes herself as “a communications manager and a Cambodian lifestyle Blogger/writer.” That’s about all I know. She sounds intelligent, vivacious, and young – and makes me feel very old. And to my surprise, she says that Cambodians are scared of foreigners. Intimidated by them. Maybe resent them a  little. I’ll just give highlights – read the full post here.

Molly’s words begin now….

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Will there be time that Cambodia can actually do things by themselves? If you asked me whether I am Cambodian. Of course, I am Cambodian, and because of that, I am very frustrated how Cambodian are always scared of foreigners, and do everything to satisfied them– even though it means we’re the owner of the land?

…Deleted a few paras about a video telling what fun things foreigners can do in Cambodia – like, shoot guns; Molly is pretty impressed and wishes she could do this too…

…In Cambodian perspective, we think that foreigners are cool, fun, friendly, adventurous, handsome, beautiful, crazy or even dangerous and scary! …

In Cambodia, we like to serve foreigners. By serve here I mean, we’re in favor of foreigners, and allow them to do things that they wish to. We think that foreigners mostly from the developed countries; therefore, they’re rich and educated and creative (while they are actually not, sometimes). So, we mostly accept the opinion from them whether it is bad or good.

Cambodian are kind. We try to bargain thing for foreigners. We help foreigners when they ask us to help or even offer some help without asking. We try to speak English to them because we thought that it’d be beneficial for us to practice more English until some of us here do not use our language properly because mostly we just forget how to use it well, since everything is available in English. Everywhere here in Cambodia always has English language available. If you go to coffee shop here, you might not find a menu in Khmer. It’s just full English. And it doesn’t make sense in a way when we try to call it in Khmer language. For example, instead of calling in Khmer way of Strawberry Smoothies “Strawberry kalok”, we just call it “Strawberry Smoothies” just like foreigners when we order things in the coffee shop. …

Some Cambodian young people think that it’s always cool to hang out with foreign friends. Why? Because we can do reckless thing that we cannot when we hang out with only Cambodian friends.

(My comment: reckless things? What reckless things? I never deliberately do reckless things. Maybe just dumb things because I don’t know any better. Are Cambodians under the impression that foreigners are being thrilling wen in fact they’re doing dumb things because they don’t know?)

We are always treated well when we’re with foreign friends, and despite whatever we do, it’s always fun to be with foreigners because no one will actually judge you the way they judge us when we’re with Cambodian friends. Old people here might not like it, but to young people having foreign friends are like the coolest thing ever.

(Editorial comment: So we’re a force for social dislocation? Is that a good thing? “Cool” has a lot to answer for.)

We try to adopt the Western behavior and attitude, but again this actually depends on people. So, I cannot say that everyone is like that. Well, some Cambodian may try to influence our culture to foreigners by teaching or showing around what Cambodian like to do. Like I said, it’s actually depending on what kind of people they are.

But since we’re kind, helpful and everything doesn’t mean foreigners can do thing as they want. I mean, excuse me if this post offend to anyone that might come across this post, but I believe as foreigners, yes, our country is a paradise to you. Everything is cheap, you can do whatever you want with the cash you have, but at least show some respect to the culture, to the country and to the people here. Take aside foreign tourists, but what frustrated me the most that urges me to write this post since the beginning is that I wonder why Cambodian people let foreigners dominant over our land in terms of everything.

(Like, for example, riding your motorbike with no clothes on.)

This afternoon I check one resort in Kompot where it is soooo beautiful and surrounding by mountain, beach, all those beautiful scenery on Facebook. Then, I saw a post where there is a Cambodian asking “Can Cambodian stay there too?” I cringed a little bit.

(Only a bit?)

Why are you scared of them? … They might be weird but there’s nothing to scared about them. I am just frustrated and sometimes unsatisfied how we always serve foreigners, provide them good hospitality, and please them in any way, while Cambodian never actually get to do this themselves. Or even worse, some services treat foreigners better than Cambodian who actually want to experience thing just like foreigners do. I can say it is unfair, literally unfair to Cambodian to not to experience beautiful, fun and weird things or activity just like foreigners do.

I notice that whenever there are a lot of foreigners in any place, say restaurant or in any place that have foreign dominance, Cambodian will cringe away, and just never involve in it. They will be very awkward and do not know what to do in there. Or just, I don’t know, acting weird, and just go to find other place. They DO NOT like to go to a place where foreigners dominant. But again, as Cambodian, I feel it is not fair in a way that foreigners can do much more in Cambodia than Cambodian can do to the country.

(To understand the next bit, it helps to know that Molly is a student of media – she wants to be a doco film-maker).

Expats here get pretty famous and have their face in every social events here just by creating something new and different. Their name can actually boosts up to the sky without trying hard. (Sorry if it offends to anyone while reading this). But it is true. We understand that Cambodian is still young in everything, and that the human resource is still lacking. Therefore, we still depend on foreigners to take lead in every project. This is sad in a way that Cambodian people still prefer foreign services. For instance, in education system, some people prefer to have foreign teachers …. Or just say, they’re creative and open-minded. I, myself, also prefer to study with foreign teachers, too. … And this case does not apply only in education system, but almost every sectors –name it, private sector, NGO sector etc.

Most of leading, professional media institutions are dominant and organized by foreigners, when it’s actually about Cambodia. It is really sad in a way that foreigners know much more than we Cambodian do because we do not dare to take a giant step to see what behind the story of the country, or have a courage to do so because of some pressures that I shall not mention. But, in my opinion, I just want to see Cambodian actually do thing by themselves without the need of foreign assistance. And, while saying this I hope that when Cambodian actually do things by themselves, they can do as good as foreigners do. Creative, professional with good quality. Once we have this qualification, I hope we can actually enjoy things that foreigners can enjoy here. To be able to go and see nice resort, eat in good restaurants, have fun partying the way we want without being judged just like what foreigners do to our country, and prove that Cambodian also have people who are open-minded and have the quality that is independent enough not to bother foreigners to advise on it. It’d be fun, wouldn’t it. However, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that I hate foreigners or wish to make Cambodian hate against foreigners. I always appreciate foreigners who try to provide us assistance and bring a better change to Cambodia where we’re in need of help. But this post is to remind Cambodian people to actually have a confident to themselves to speak up, and make things happen. Or just, being more independent.

Before I started to write this post, I thought to myself whether my post will boost up some nationalism or cause any controversy since this topic is very debatable. This post is not to raise the hate against foreigners or whatsoever, but I just write what I have in mind, and whether or not you agree or disagree with this, feel free to give your argument or click like or share it to your friends to know about it, I don’t know. And this is it. 😀

The fourth Buddha

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PMThis is the opening section of my book Spirit Worlds, which, Buddha willing, will be out in October. Look for it in Monument, Cambodia’s bookstore of choice. (It will also be available in Thailand and India, even Australia, but where I know not; it will not be available on Kindle, because the publisher says he doesn’t trust these newfangled inventions).

So: it opens, as you see, with a review of the story of the Buddha. And what could be more fitting, seeing as everyone knows Cambodia is a Buddhist country.

Except it’s not. It’s a mix of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism, which is what makes it so fascinating. You can never be bored in Cambodia. That mix is what I’m trying to explain, or at least illustrate: I want everyone to share my fascination. Anyway, on with the Buddha…

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The Buddha becomes a Christian: Saint Josaphat, a charming medieval German illustration from the Getty Center in California. The blog whence this comes has some interesting links, including to the patron saint of hangovers – those medieval monks thought of everything. Click on the image.

According to Buddhist belief there have been many Buddhas (“enlightened beings”) in the immensely long history of the world, and the world itself has gone through an immense number of cycles in which it is created, destroyed, and re-created.

Siddhartha Gautama was the fourth Buddha of the current cycle. His life was practically identical to those of the previous three: divine birth into a princely family, a sheltered upbringing followed by renunciation of the world, the search for enlightenment and its attainment, the teaching ministry, death, and attainment of Nirvana. The life of the fifth will be practically identical again.

There are curious similarities between the life of the Buddha and the life of Jesus as described in the gospels, including an Annunciation, an Immaculate Conception and a Temptation. Scholars believe these are largely coincidental, although it’s a fact that in the first millennium the Buddha’s story made its way from India to medieval Europe, where he became Saint Josaphat  (from Bodhisattva, ‘Seeker of Enlightenment’) with his feast day on 27 November.

(See here for the legend of Josaphat and Balaam in the rather archaic English of the Golden Legend, and here for a review of a book called “In Search of the Christian Buddha”).

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The Buddhist cosmos: the right-hand panel shows heavens above (gold), mountain of the gods in the middle (blue), world-continent surrounded by four islands, one of which is Jambudvipa, the Island of the Jambu Tree, the only land where humans live. Below are the hells (red). The left panel shows a top view, looking down on the top of the mountain of the gods, with the four continents in the surrounding ocean – Jambudvipa is the blue one, the sun and moon and stars circle round Sumeru, and the cosmos-filling ocean surrounds all. The blog whence this comes has many additional versions of the basic map – click on the image.

A Bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, a heavenly being who has the power to take human form and teach others the way to salvation. The Bodhisattva who became Siddhartha dwelt in the ‘heaven of the delighted gods’, where a single day is four hundred earthly years and a lifespan is four thousand heavenly years. When the time his birth on Earth arrived the gods of all the heavens gathered before him ‘with hands joined in adoration’ and asked him to be born so that living beings could learn the path to wisdom and enlightenment.

The Bodhisattva identified Jambudvipa as the best continent for his birth, Bharat as the best of lands, and Kapilavastu, city of the Sakyas, as the best of cities. He then searched with the all-seeing gaze of a Buddha for a woman who was chaste and modest and of the highest moral standards, one who through a hundred thousand reincarnations had accumulated merit and fulfilled the Ten Perfections. Such a woman he found in Maya, wife of Suddhodana, king of Kapilavstu.

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Queen Maya’s dream of a white elephant – the ultimate origin of the Southeast Asian cult of keeping royal white elephants. Click for the source.

Queen Maya dreamed that the guardian-gods of the four quarters of the universe transported her to the sacred Lake Anotatta on the summit of Mount Meru, whose waters contain the elixir of immortality and will be the last to dry up on the last day of the world. There the heavenly guardians bathed her and led her to a canopied bed strewn with flowers, and the Bodhisattva entered her womb in the form of a white elephant with six tusks. At the moment of the divine conception the ten thousand worlds quaked, the blind saw, the dumb spoke, the lame were made straight, and showers of blossoms fell and lutes and harps gave forth music without the touch of human fingers.

Queen Maya awoke and called for her husband, who sent for his Brahmin priests. The Brahmins, when they heard the dream, said: “Be happy, O king, O queen, for a divine being has chosen to be your son. If he lives a life in the world he will become a World Ruler; but if he chooses to renounce the world, he will become a Buddha.”

The pregnancy of the Buddha’s mother lasted exactly ten lunar months. When the time for the birth approached she set out for the home of her parents with an escort of companions and servants, and as they passed the Lumbini Garden the queen commanded that her litter be set down so that she could enjoy the flowers and shady trees.

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Queen Maya gives birth to the Buddha in the Lumbini Garden, attended by servants and gods. The infant immediately takes seven steps, signifying his dominion over the cosmos, and at each step a lotus springs up. Wat Ketanak, Rossmore (a Sydney suburb).

In the sweet-scented paths she reached up to touch the blossoms of a sal tree, beloved of the god Vishnu, which bent its branch down to her hand. On the full-moon day of the month of Vesak, standing upright and grasping the branch of the sal tree, she gave birth. The gods Indra and Brahma took the child from her side and the infant stood and took seven paces, a lotus springing up at each step. Looking about the entire universe he proclaimed:

Chief am I in the world,

Eldest am I in the world,

Foremost am I in the world,

This is the final birth,

There is no more coming to be.

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Birth, enlightenment and nirvana – the three landmarks of the Buddha’s career. The walls of Cambodian monasteries and shrines are encyclopedias of the life of the Buddha.

The anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, which is also the anniversary of his Enlightenment, death and Nirvana, is called Visak Bochea in Khmer, and is celebrated on the full-moon day of the sixth lunar month, which falls sometimes in April and sometimes in May. Visak Bochea is a time for gaining merit. The day begins with a pre-dawn assembly at the local monastery at which religious flags are raised and hymns chanted in praise of the Buddha, his teaching and the institution of the monkhood. Monks give sermons reminding the faithful of the way to salvation, Buddha images are washed and offerings of flowers and candles made, alms are given to the beggars at the gates, and birds and fish are released. Particularly important and impressive celebrations are held at the former royal city of Oudong, north of Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh itself the Royal Palace and the shrines on the Riverside by the Mekong are illuminated, and at Angkor there is a particularly impressive son-et-lumiere show.

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Visak Bochea at Angkor – Telegraph, AFP/Getty.

Ancestral voices: the Leper King

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Sdach Kamlong the Leper King – the statue from the Terrace of the Leper King at Angkor, now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. From cathyandgarytravelpages.com, which has some very nice photos from the museum (click on the image for the link).

In the late 19th century French archaeologists at Angkor discovered a statue of a squatting, bare-chested man, his right hand apparently once holding a rod or similar object, on a terrace next to the Bayon temple. Presumably it had been there for centuries, as the terrace was used in ancient times for royal cremations and perhaps for judgements. The statue, according to its inscription, was Yama, the god of death and judgement, but the local villagers were worshipping it as Sdach Kamlong, the Leper King, who, as legend has it, was Preah Thong, the Indian prince who married the naga princess and was first to rule over the Khmer people.

Preah Thong was warned by his wife’s father, the naga king, not to build a four-faced tower in his city, but he ignored the warning. Using the magical power of the four faces he captured the naga king and imprisoned him inside the tower, but the serpent escaped and sought to kill him. Each dealt the other many grievous wounds, but Preah Thong eventually dealt the fatal blow, although he was stained by the naga’s venom. The dying naga warned him not to remove the poison, but Preah Thong washed his body, and so was stricken with leprosy as a visible sign of his deed.

Seeking to cover up the murder from the naga’s daughter, Preah Thong killed a monk, thinking he could be reincarnated in the monk’s healthy body. This was a crime even worse than killing his father-in-law, and his outraged courtiers banished him to the forest, while his city became the haunt of monkeys and tigers. Eventually, after many trials, he was cured by the power of the sacred waters of the Ganges (the Siem Reap River) and restored to his city and throne.

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Base of the Terrace of the Leper King – there’s a modern copy of the statue on top of the terrace. From brianholihan.com (click image for link).

The legend of the Leper King and the abandoned city is an allegory of the fall of Angkor and a hope for national salvation. However, the story is certainly older than the fall of Angkor, for the medieval Chinese traveller, Zhou Daguan mentions that a king of Angkor once fell victim to leprosy.

The statue is now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, where worshippers ask for health and prosperity and for protection from danger. It’s especially popular with students from the University of Fine Arts next to the museum, and special ceremonies with offerings of flowers and fruits and music are held at New Year and Pchum Ben (the festival of the dead).

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

According to popular belief the Leper King was Yasovarman I. This cannot be true, for the following reasons: (1) There is nothing to indicate that the statue represents a king or a leper or even that the terrace was its original home; (2) there is no evidence that Yasovarman or any other Khmer king was a leper; and (3), Yasovarman’s capital was somewhere else and the terrace wasn’t built till long after his death. (The acerbic note comes from my source, a rather mysterious but apparently well-informed pdf file by someone who goes by the single name of Sokheoun. Sokheoun is a stickler for facts, one of which is fascinating: it seems that, deep inside the Bayon temple at Angkor, there’s a series of bas-reliefs illustrating the Leper King story).

The myth of the Leper King is very much alive and well. Here’s some Cambodians discussing it on khmerconnection in 2009. The version of the legend someone gives here is slightly different from ine, but that’s how it goes with legends. Note the way they join the dots between the legend and modern politics:

Cambodia is curse until the true ruler of the kingdom reclaim his thrown and crowned king..

actual crowned king not select nor picked out…

Current king is king but has not wore the crown. It is said who ever wore the crown and not the true ruler lightning will strike you to death..Many high ranking politic and royal has tried but fear it. Even Hun Sen tried but the door close on him trying to enter…

(Yet another version of the story here – again an attempt to find “real” history hiding in a legend. Legends are poetry, the truth they contain is poetic truth, as the folks on khmerconnection have grasped).

(Last thing I have to say on the subject, promise There were once three Leper King statues in Phnom Penh, but now there are only two. Number One is of course the statue in the central courtyard of the National Museum, a national icon filled with magical powers. This is the original from the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor, Number Two is outside Wat Ounalom on Sisowath Quay, and receives worship on the four holy days each month as well as major festival days. This is a copy, donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodia Peoples Party. Number Three was nearby, on the Riverside on the other side of the road. It used to have quite a lot of worshippers, but it’s gone now, replaced by a sewerage plant. Like Number Two it was a copy, but it was donated by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a political opponent of the government).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

The Peak: Luxury in the Phnom Penh clouds

The-Peak-Cambodia-v2-624x723It’s called The Peak, and was launched in Singapore on 13 August. Here’s what they’re saying:

  • 55 floors
  • Clad in stylish bronze, a definite color of luxury.
  • 500 units in each tower.
  • Integrated Shangri-La Hotel
  • Top quality finishing
  • Listed and reputable Singapore Developer
  • Excellent Rental Yield
  • Superb potential capital gain
  • Low Cash Outlay (Deferred Payment Scheme Available)

Estimated completion date 2020. I’m not sure exactly where it will go, but I think it’s the vacant lot on this satellite shot, running along Hun Sen Boulevard. That means it fronts Naga casino (on the corner) and the Foreign Ministry, with Diamond Island not far away. (Diamond Island is “Exhibition Street” and “Theatre Street”, and it also is slated for some very flashy apartments).

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Location on Hun Sen Boulevard

They describe it as an oasis of luxury in the clouds, but it reminds me more of an island in an ocean. A self-contained world where you can eat, drink, have fun, shop (“five levels of retail excitement at your doorstep”), and generally ignore everyone who can’t afford to join you. From time to time you get in your Lexus and cruise over to another and very similar island, without wetting your feet in the waters of ordinary people’s lives. This is not just Cambodia, this is the world.