Lord Jim at Angkor

peter+essaie+2.jpg“Lord Jim is a silly book; it reads like a story in Boys’ Own” – Graham Greene.

Joseph Conrad wrote : “If you want to know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. But what storm can fully reveal the heart of a man ? Between Suez and the China Sea are many nameless men who prefer to live and die unknown. This is the story of one such man. Among the great gallery of rogues and heroes thrown up on the beaches and ports, no man was more respected or more damned than … Lord Jim”.

P15.jpgPeter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia (no one does dying duck in a thunderstorm better), came to Cambodia to make the movie version. The year was 1964. Screenwriter/director Richard Brooks had bought the rights for $6500 in 1958, and was in love with the story. You know how it goes – Jim, English mate on a merchantman carrying Asian pilgrims on the Haj to Mecca, disgraces himself and so must seek redemption through death in the wild Malay islands.

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Peter O’Toole with Dahlia Lavi

What’s Angkor doing in Malaya? Never mind, this is Hollywood. Cast and crew stayed at the Auberge Royale des Temples, built in 1909 in front of Angkor Wat where today the tourist busses and tuk-tuks park. Brooks spent well over half a million dollars building new air-conditioned rooms. “That hotel!” raged O’Toole in an interview afterwards. “More expensive than Claridge’s! Ten flaming quid a night [$28] and a poxy room at that. Nicest thing you could say about the food was that it was grotesque.”

The stars included James Mason (“Lolita”) and the Kurt Jürgens (“The Spy Who Loved Me”). The heroine was Dalia Lavi, just 16 – she got into the movie business through Kirk Douglas, who spotted her in the street when she was ten and offered to adopt her and take her off to live with him. Her parents declined, but he gave them a generous donation that allowed her to study ballet in Sweden. Director of cinematography, Freddie Young, the cinematographer on “Lawrence of Arabia”, shot scenes in the Bayon temple and Preah Khan (the HQ of the movie villains), at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, and in the surrounding jungles and rivers. And from the look of this very atmospheric still, on the moat at Angkor.

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The temperatures were over 40º Celsius and there were no bars or good restaurants in Siem Reap, Pub Street being still a muddy alleyway (as indeed it still was when I first visited in 2001 – how time flies), but there were lizards and bats and mosquitoes, and dysentery and heat-rash, and snakes hanging from the branches of the trees. One of the crew members was bitten by a cobra and died. The local cops were unpleasant and the officials expected bribes.

There was also Prince Sihanouk, growing ever more anti-American over US support for anti-Sihanoukist rebels. Spontaneous demonstrations were scheduled in Phnom Penh for the second week of March 1964, and a mysterious Frenchman advised the movie-makers to get out early. Brooks rushed the project through, shooting 18 hours a day, and left just before 10,000 people marched through the streets of Phnom Penh shouting the usual slogans and attacking the US and British embassies. Sihanouk himself denounced the recently-departed film-makers as capitalist invaders. As a royal spokesperson later explained:

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For a film producer, even one of real talent, what is Cambodia? The ruins of Angkor… and that is all. So, a run-of-the-mill script is hurriedly written, one or two flashy stars are hired, one adds a mixture of eroticism and violence, advance promotion dwells on the same hold hackneyed themes (…scorpions lurking in boots… the poverty of the people… etc.) and the whole plot is put in motion.

Graham Greene would no doubt nod. Let’s let Peter O’Toole have the final say:

If I live to be a thousand, I want nothing like Cambodia again. It was a bloody nightmare. I really hated it there. How much so you can judge by the fact that after six months in the Orient I hadn’t picked up a single word there, whereas after nine months in the desert on Lawrence I was speaking Arabic pretty well.

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Sources:

•  Andy’s Cambodia

• Dahlia Lavi recalls the making of Lord Jim

• Stills at A Day for All Nights cinema blog

 

 

 

The half-kilometer tower

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The tower is at the very top of the table. Photo from Phnom Penh Post.

Today the first sod will be turned for the construction of a half-kilometer  tall skyscraper in central Phnom Penh. That’s  113 floors of luxury, consisting a 6-star hotel, apartments, high-standard office spaces, and a mall. All going well completion will be in 2019, at a cost of $1 billion. All this despite the fact that relevant ministry hasn’t yet received an application request, let alone granted permission.

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Let us assume that it gets built. One thing on my mind is what happens if there’s a fire? Back in 1999 the Post addressed this question:

Some simple rules dramatically increase survival chances. The first: don’t have a fire between 11am and 1pm or 5pm and 7pm because the firefighters are not available during meal breaks, says their chief.

The second: have substantial amounts of cash to hand out because the firefighters don’t put out fires unless paid, say past victims.

And finally: try to live near Wat Phnom or the Ministry of Interior because they are the only two places where fire engines have 24- hour access to water.

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Diamond Island (Koh Pich) fire station.

That, of course, is almost 20 years ago; the new tower will be just over the bridge from Diamond Island, which has 24-hour access to everything and the most modern firefighting equipment in the kingdom. Still, I doubt that even the best-equipped fire trucks in the world have ladders long enough for this. How do mega-towers handle rescue?

Of course, the tower will have all the latest in safety measures – smoke detectors, sprinklers, all that. I have no doubt it will – prestige developments take these things seriously. How does Phnom Penh in general measure up on that front? The Post addressed this much more recently, in 2013:

… fire safety is effectively up to the discretion of property owners … no basic fire safety code exists in practice … [no] policy or … regulations for the safety systems of skyscrapers … 10-storey Basak Tower luxury apartment building on Sothearos Boulevard [has] fire extinguishers [n]o smoke detectors [has] sprinklers on the corridors … [c]orruption … dodgy dealing prevents effective enforcement … many building owners put lives at risk by cutting fire safety costs….

There are plenty of high-rises in town already. “Before, there were never high buildings. Now there are a lot. When there is a fire [in a high building], there will be a big problem.” Read Bennett Murray’s article in the sources, it’s very illuminating.

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People use extinguishers to put out fires, Koh Pich, National Fire Prevention and Extinguishing Day, 22 Feb. 2016 (photo: Phnom Penh Post).

Sources:

• Siv Meng, Government eager to kick-start mammoth tower development, Phnom Penh Post, 13 March 2016.

• Samreth Sopha, Firefighters fiddle as Phnom Penh burns, Phnom Penh Post, 5 March 1999.

• Bennett Murray, Fire protection, a case for alarm?, Phnom Penh Post, 15 March 2013.

 

A distant incident: Phnom Penh, 1955

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Post Office Square today. Post Office on the left, old Police Commissariat at the far end of the square. La Taverne restaurant was behind the tree facing the Post Office – the building still exists and is occupied by a travel agency and a Seeing Hands massage. The Hotel de La Poste has been demolished and replaced by the neo-colonial data management centre of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in the right foreground.

I want you to get a first-hand report of the incident before it gets blown up out of all proportions. Howie, Hap and I had gone to the movie at the American Ambassador’s home. Around ten o’clock we could hear gunfire, explosions and goodness knows what else coming from the direction of the big square in front of the Hotel de la Poste [the Post Office square – the writer and his friends were staying in the hotel].

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Hotel de la Poste, 1955 – (No it’s not; my thanks to Steven Boswell, author of the definitive King Norodom’s Head, who points out that this is definitely not the famous hotel, but an unidentified building that may be in the same general area).

We didn’t think much of it at the time – we just thought it was fireworks. However, on arriving back at the hotel we were just in time to see two big armoured cars leaving the square and hundreds of curious people beginning to accumulate. Two of our fellows who had not gone to the show with us were standing in the doorway of the hotel and here’s exactly what happened:

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Post Office, 1955 – Police Commissariat on far right

These two follows were sitting in front of the “Taverne” [Phnom Penh’s best restaurant, on Post Office square] at about ten o’clock, when suddenly everyone started running for cover. They didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing until a policeman came up and advised them to please step inside the doorway of the hotel as there was going to be a little war in square any minute. Being quite willing to oblige they retired to the doorway and waited to see what was going to happen.

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Police Commissariat today. Slated for redevelopment. There’s a gate on the street on right and it can be entered, but exploration is dangerous.

Well, that was just great!! Shortly after, however, the Chief borrowed some civilian clothes from one of the room boys at the hotel and quietly left via the back door. The whole thing lasted for about an hour, till finally those big armoured cars I mentioned before moved in and put a stop to the nonsense!!! Number of casualties: not one!! The damage was not too bad either, except for some bullet holes in walls and windows of the buildings surrounding the square (the Hotel de la Poste was spared) and a few places where the pavement was chewed up by grenades and mortars.

 

Sources:

Ourmisternixon (The author was a 19 year old Canadian filing clerk attached to the ICC, the UN mission charged with overseeing the peace agreement between the French and the communists at the end of the first Indochinese War.)

Additional photos from “A History of Phnom Penh’s Buildings” (Forbes magazine, February 2010 – story by Ron Gluckman, photos by Jerry Redfern).

Prisons of Old Phnom Penh (T3 and PJ)

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Children playing outside T3 prison. Source unknown, found on Dermot Sheehan’s K440 article.

The main jail for Phnom Penh is at Prey Sar in Meanchey district in the southwest – it was outside the city when it was built 15 years ago, but Phnom Penh has grown and now it’s suburban. Conditions there are pretty bad, but before Prey Sar there was T3:

 

Imagine a place so filthy, infested and decrepit that the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to use it as one of their torture chambers, so used it instead as a pigpen…

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Site of T3, Wat Ounalom at top-right corner. Courtesy of Khmer 440 user Lord Lucan.

It was built in 1877, on street 154 between the National Museum and Kandal Market. I can’t work out exactly where, but apparently right behind Wat Ounalom – you turned off the Riverside at Wat Ounalom and followed the yellow walls of the monastery until you reached walls covered in green slime in a dirt street where gutters ran with raw sewerage. It was dire.

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T3 – courtesy of K440 user Lord Lucan

Bad as T3 was, not far up the street, on the corner of 154 and Pasteur was an even worse place. Part of a larger police headquarters, this was PJ Prison, from the French Police Judiciaire.

PJ I can locate more precisely: it was on the corner of streets 154 and 51, just a few blocks up from T3, on the site now occupied by Golden Sorya Mall. To be even more exact, it was on the northern half of the Golden Sorya, the southern half of which occupies the space of an old police building. Read about them in this 2012 article by Dermot Sheehan on Khmer 440.

“Herb Trader”, by Arthur Torsone, is a Westerner’s story from inside T3. According to Torsone he was the patsy  in a covert US operation designed to rig the  1998 Cambodian general election, the one that saw Hun Sen win a convincing victory. This was not Uncle Sam’s desired outcome. Things went wrong, and Arthur ended up in T3. Here’s the Amazon blurb:

41mDgtiQGUL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In 1998,U.S. Agents orchestrated a mission to alter the national election in Cambodia. To secure this victory, one of the biggest marijuana smugglers in the world was drawn into the mission, only for it to go awry when things got personal. Given the authority to alter the election, a pair of Green Beret twins used deception and betrayal for their own gain. The U.S. finds itself at a loss and in a desperate last attempt, they make a sacrificial lamb out of Max, a reefer smuggler from Woodstock. In spite of their efforts to kill him, Max survived and is now exposing the truth in his new book. This riveting true story tells of corruption and treachery at the highest level.HERB TRADER exposes how secure top level government agencies were infiltrated and used by diabolical, self-serving criminals.

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T3 around the time Chris Moore’s Vinny Calvino visited. Courtesy of K440 user Lord Lucan.

In Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, Christopher G Moore has Vincent Calvino visit T3. He gives a very atmospheric description, “a huge colonial cage” built to terrorise and brutalise a subject people, and still serving its original purpose. Women inside with their children (as is still the case at Pray Sar), a hundred shirtless men crammed into a concrete room stinking of urine, decaying food, smoke and sweat (as is also the case at Prey Sar).

T3 was torn down in 2000 after the site was sold to Sokimex, the petrol firm (it also runs the Angkor tourist zone, or did until recently). There was talk at the time that Sokimex would build a hospital on the site, but so far nothing at all seems to have been done. PJ and the complex of police buildings it was part of was also sold off to make way for Golden Sorya Mall; I understand that Golden Sorya itself is now likely to be knocked down and redeveloped in its turn.

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Golden Sorya Mall – PJ prison was at the end nearer the camera. Source unknown, found on Dermot Sheehan’s K440 article.

Ghosts, ghosts. Here’s Bronwyn Sloane, a journalist (journalists are rational types), writing in Tales of Asia in 2006:

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Courtesy of K440 user Lord Lucan.

…[W]e drove past the site of the old T-3 prison one night. Long demolished, the once infamous prison is now a vacant lot in the center of town and the prisoners have long since been transferred to the new Prey Sar prison, miles away from the city.

My daughter, who was born long after the grim, century old, French-built T-3 had been expunged, started to stare very intently out the window. Then she turned to me and asked: “Why are all those sad men in blue pajamas working so hard?” I couldn’t see anyone. To me, the lot was empty. But I broke out in goose bumps and prepared for another round of 20 questions being put to her from curious Khmers.

The Cambodian prison uniform worn by inmates of T-3 consisted of a simple medium blue smock and pants with a white stripe around the edges. And that uniform, I have to admit, looks a lot like a simple set of blue pajamas.

 

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T3 prisoners participating in the 1993 elections, showing their voter ID cards.

 

 

Cambodia by night and by water

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Asia by night – the dark bit in between Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City is Cambodia. I found this at The Diplomat, and have now lost is again, but ultimately it’s from the NASA collection on Flickr, which is a collection of absolutely stunning photos.

What else? how about this map of what Cambodia (and Asia) will look like if all the ice melts. Forget that Diamond Island condo, folks…

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Life in jail, Cambodian style

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Watchtower at Prey Sar

On Khmer440, that gift that keeps on giving, we have a poster currently serving a term inside Prey Sar, Phnom Penh’s unlovely jail. An inside source. (I do love a good pun).

Some background: Prey Sar (“White Forest”) opened for business in 2000, replacing an older jail dating from colonial times called T3 (meaning prison number 3, T being the initial for the Vietnamese word for jail – T1 in Vientiane, T2 in Saigon, T3 in Phnom Penh). If you folks out at Prey Sar think that’s bad, be grateful, be very grateful, that T3 has closed.

So anyway, our man in the forest came online and was promptly disbelieved – nobody is supposed to have access to the Internet at Prey Sar, said the scoffers. True, they’re not. Signals are jammed.

[T]he whole area is heavily jammed. First test they did was a joke. Their first generation of jammers where sending waves that were bouncing on the walls and we could still easily get a signal by moving patiently a modem around until finding a good spot. They installed new jammers a while ago and it got much worst. Close to impossible to get a 3G signal. But still, some days the signal goes through : strength of jamming seems to be highly irregular like anything in Cambodia.

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No connection to the poster, just a random photo from the Internet. The blue uniform is out of date – current ones are orange.

What really interests me is his description of life behind the walls. Prey Sar was built to accommodate a few hundred prisoners and now has four thousand. Problems with water, food, and money. And he mentions, without being asked, the Nigerians:

Loads of Nigerians here. Advice to the black population reading me : get out of the country or you’ll end up here. The basic cambodian have no more respect for the proles farmers than for the blacks. Basic dumb racism. They arrest one drug user or dealer and put all his friends and family in jail even if they did nothing wrong. The prison was built for a few hundred prisoners and we are close to 4k now. Living in 40×175 cm at best. Non stop noise, dirtiness like you can’t even imagine it. Insect the size of thumb dead in the “soup”. Dirty rice served in stinky buckets filled with a shovel, etc, etc. Paradise on earth I tell you.

But still, I’m here for 9 years and things got better. We have very little water, but clean. Electric power for 5 to 20 $ depending on the bloc chiefs (prison is a huge dirty business and after stealing your house, your land, your bank account, your freedom, etc. they suck you dry every month of everything your family or wife can send to help you, literally : survive. And believe me, it’s not easy.

The Nigerians are in for drugs. Westerners are in mostly for sex crimes I guess, though some are rather unexpected – one for bag-snatching. They say that in Western jails a quarter of the prisoners are sociopaths.
The poster says he’s a Khmer who travelled abroad – from a good family, apparently. For a given value of “good”, of course. I have no idea what he’s in for, and I suspect it’s the sort of question you don’t ask. I sort of hope he’ll find this blog and give us a comment…
Also read Save A Life: Foreign Prisoners.com – but what about the Cambodians?
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The first monk’s tale (Wat Preah Yu Vong)

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 3.48.13 PMWat Preah Yu Vong is one of my favourite monasteries in Phnom Penh, not least because it’s utterly atypical. The main gate is on Norodom Boulevard south of Independence Monument. The gate is never closed, and indeed can’t be closed, because only the decorated arch remains. It gives on to what looks like, and is, a network of narrow residential alleys. I’m told the alleys are unsafe, the haunt of drug addicts and petty criminals, but it looks peaceful enough at mid-morning, a time when evil-doers are still in bed.

Once upon a time Wat Preah Yu Vong was just like any other monastery, neither particularly famous nor particularly obscure, housing the normal number of monks in the normal complement of buildings. Everyone, monks and nuns and temple boys and cats, lived happily together until fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. The Khmer Rouge were the enemies of religion, and the monks of Wat Preah Yu Vong, like all others, were disrobed and sent to labour camps, where no doubt most of them died.

Phnom Penh fell again, this time to the Vietnamese and renegade ex-Khmer Rouge, on 7 January 1979, a date that continues to be celebrated as Victory Day. Traumatised Cambodians began making their way back to the city, searching for lost families and lost homes or simply for food. The first to arrive squatted in whatever houses they could find; if the true owners returned later they could either fight for their rights or just move on. Mostly they moved on. People began living in parks, along the river, and wherever else they could find a place and build a home from sheets of tin and plastic. One of these was places was the abandoned Wat Preah Yu Vong.

A former nun named Koma Pich made her home in the preah vihear. Koma Pich was the chul rup (human vehicle) for a boramey spirit, or in other words, a shaman. She installed her gods (meaning their statues) in the preah vihear and offered help and advice to anyone in need, which in those days was practically everyone. Her performance as a shaman was electrifying, and so great was the respect in which she was held, and so entrenched her position, that when monks returned to the wat they were unable to expel her. The vihear was simply divided in half, the monks on one side and Koma Pich on the other.

At first the government placed severe restrictions on the monks, not even allowing them to leave the monastery for the daily alms round, but time and the political tide were on their side. By the late 1980s religion was being viewed with official favour again, and the head monk asked the authorities to give back the temple. The authorities agreed, and Koma Pich packed her gods and vanished from history.

With the vihear back in their hands the monks installed new Buddha images (the originals had disappeared, nobody knew when or where) and painted scenes from the life of Buddha on the walls so that it became a proper temple again. But the grounds remained overrun with squatters. They’d subdivided the monastic buildings and built them into their houses, turned the paths into alleys, planted gardens and set up teashops, and generally transformed Preah Yu Vong into an urban village. Even the chedey, the shrines for the ashes of the dead, had disappeared inside people’s living rooms, ghosts or no ghosts. The monks tried to buy up the houses, but the price of real estate had started to rocket, the monks were poor, and nobody wanted to sell.

And that’s where things remain today, a single ornate roof sheltering a handful of monks floating over a sea of quite solid little houses.

Wat Preah Yu Vong now has just nine monks, a very small number for a monastery in Phnom Penh, and its history was told to me by one of them, Thach Panith. As his mixed Vietnamese-Khmer name indicates, he’s Kampuchea Krom, meaning an ethnic Khmer from southern Vietnam, although his parents settled in Cambodia long ago. They placed him in a village monastery as a temple boy when he was very young because they couldn’t afford to feed and educate him, and he liked the monastic life and became a novice at the age of 15. Eventually he became a full monk, graduated from Buddhist high school, and moved to the capital and Wat Preah Yu Vong. He’s now studying archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts. He enjoys the subject and wants to study more and use his knowledge to benefit society.

When he gets sick he prays to Preah Put (the Buddha) and to his dead parents. Belief in spirits and the ancestors, he says, predates Buddhism, and the people can’t forget them. For this reason he doesn’t criticise people who follow different religions or who believe in spirits, and he can’t say these people are bad or wrong, because he’s met people who say they’ve seen the mrieng kongveal and the chumneang pteah, although he never has himself, and he thinks they spoke the truth for them. He enjoys the life of a monk, the prayer and study and meditation, and has no thought of leaving the monkhood.

Pralung Pheakdey (“Spirit of Honesty”) is different. He’s 23, and he’s been a monk for six years. An orphan of sorts, he was brought up by his grandmother in a village in Kandal province and entered the monkhood because he wanted to earn merit for his lost mother, and also because a kru told him that his mother would come back if he became a monk.

His mother disappeared when he was eight years old. He can’t remember her, but people in the village have told him she might have gone to Thailand to look for work. He can’t remember her face. His father divorced his mother about the time he was born. He knows his father but has never spoken to him and doesn’t want to. His father, he says, was irresponsible, gave him life and then abandoned him. He’s not certain if will be a monk forever, because he doesn’t like public speaking, and monks have to do a lot of public speaking, such as giving sermons.

One final point about the urban village of Wat Preah Yu Vong: it’s northern edge runs along street 308, which is rapidly becoming hipster central for a certain segment of the expat community. One of the best pizza places in town is there, and an entire alley off 308 and within the Preah Yu Vong village is now lined with extremely stylish bars. Real estate values here really should rocket, but they can’t because nobody has valid land titles – they’re all squatters.

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Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds, out in August at a bookshop near you, provided you live in Cambodia. If you can’t wait to hear more about monks, you can sneak a preview look at the Second Monk’s Tale and the Third Monk’s Tale.