Cambodian Pop -celebrates a rural idyll

YouTube is a great place to explore the musical cultures of different countries. And the music videos tell a lot about the Zeitgeist of the nation. I remain fascinated at the way Cambodian music continues to balance the urban glam against the romantic version of the rural idyll – a simpler wholesome life for which Cambodia pines.

In its dreams.

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Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda

CAMBODIA PLUS BACK TO WORK MAY 09 140.JPG

Praying for a harmonious, righteous future.

In late 2004, I was working in my New Zealand office when a startling email arrived. It was sent from an internet cafe near Pub Street, Siem Reap where half an hour online cost poor students two dollars.  Back then internet access was not common.

The startling thing about the email was the headline: Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda.

An incident had occurred at Wat Thmey which is on the northern edge of Siem Reap. This is the general scene of the local killing fields; though an international hotel now occupies some of that tragic land. Wat Thmey, because of its location and history has, since the late 1990s, seen a lot of tourist buses.  It is a reflective place to visit I feel, with the stupa containing skulls and bones collected by my friend Savong’s father – pictured above.

But what was the Big Trouble? It turns out a couple of the senior monks were pocketing most of the donations from visiting groups – mostly Japanese and Koreans – and were doing this at the expense of the wider work of the monastery which ran a school, gave homes to homeless children, and trained young monks.

Savong described how a big group of locals had gathered, how angry words were exchanged and how the ‘bad monks’ had been sent packing. A case of village justice I think.

That account quickly unravelled my beautifully stitched together impression of all monks as being very holy people. As with any faith we might care to name; there are bound to be a few bad apples.

Here the lead paragraph from a 2010 story:

Two Cambodian Buddhist monks have been arrested in the popular tourist city of Siem Reap for smoking crystal methamphetamine along with two women in their pagoda.

Or from the Phnom Penh Post, again in 2010.

Phnom Penh – Following the turmoil surrounding the distribution by Bluetooth phone of videos showing several naked women taking their holy bath, the police uncovered more than 300 other pictures in the phone memory of a former monk. The pictures were recovered during a search and arrest made on 26 June 2010. Some of pictures were videos while others were still photos.

In that case the monk was defrocked, (he changed into civilian clothes,) before his arrest.

In 2015 in Phnom Penh six monks were arrested after beating up a mot driver, but charges were dropped. The story is complicated, but the Cambodia Daily account suggests that the driver is the one who started the fracas. He was compensated a million riel.

In 2016 there have been at least three news stories: two very serious cases of rape by individual monks, and just recently a case of 19 young Cambodian monks arrested in Phuket, Thailand for failing to have visas into Thailand, and for soliciting – begging for cash.

Stories like these occur from time to time and rightfully shock the Cambodian community, but unless I’m badly mistaken, the Buddhist church does not cover things up or further victimise victims.

I should end on a note of warning. Not all monks are legitimate. Read this excerpt from the helpful website MoveToCambodia.com

The fake monk scam. Fake monks are usually Chinese and are often (but not always) dressed in brown or mustard-colored robes, unlike the bright orange garb of their authentic Khmer counterpart, and will wear pants underneath their robes. They are usually middle-aged, while most Cambodian monks are in their twenties or even younger. Fake monks don’t usually speak any Khmer and very little English, other than to demand more money. They often wear wooden prayer beads and offer people bracelets or amulets. Fake monks will often collect money well into the night, unlike real monks who only collect in the morning. Perhaps most importantly, it’s reported that they don’t seem to know anything about Buddhism.

Love that last telltale detail!

Another characteristic of fake monks is that they argue and insist you give more than the few riel or dollars you may have donated. They’re big trouble.

For more: Another case of village justice.

 

 

Two years prison – and a vision

You may have read a recent post of mine in which I recalled a recent visit to see a friend in one of the two prisons in Siem Reap. My friend was arrested as part of a police swoop on illegal gambling (common amongst taxi drivers) and for 5 months my friend has waited for a court hearing.  Savong arranged for a lawyer to represent our friend, and this week we heard the verdict: a 2 years sentence made longer than we hoped on account of  a police claim that my friend had been using drugs. Less 5 months served, my hapless friend has 17 more months to serve.

I have committed to help him where I can – topping up his meagre prison rations mostly with some money each month. But my friend passed on another message: that when he gets out he wants a motorbike to help get him started once more.

That’s Cambodia in a nutshell. Your life is turning bad but it doesn’t matter: you have golden hopes for the future. That’s the eternal optimism of my friend, and it was the eternal optimism of his older Cambodian forebears who strove to survive the ugly Pol Pot years. It is raw human hope.

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On the inside of the gate it bids farewell with the words: “have a good life.” For me it was a happy/sad visit.

A visit to prison in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Last time I was in Siem Reap, during Pchum Ben (which is the local thanksgiving festival,) I had arranged to meet an old friend that I’d first met in 2004. We’ve stayed in touch mainly through Facebook as well as through my sporadic visits. My friend is a tuktuk driver.

Now, tuktuk drivers have a life that would be recognised by taxi drivers everywhere. Times of busyness punctuated by long periods waiting for a job: for the next flight to arrive, or for the tourist season to pick-up.

As I found in Bangkok, being a western tourist – one becomes an easy mark for tuktuk drivers to do a little side business. In Bangkok the patter goes: “Hey mister, you want ride?”  I shake my head. “You want girl?” No thanks I say.  “Perhaps you like boy?” he tries. I wave him away.

In Siem Reap there seem to be just two levels to the hustle. “You want ride?” And if you say ‘no thanks’ then one is frequently asked: “you want drugs?”  Which I’m told is usually the offer of marijuana. Western backpackers probably generate a lot of business in this respect. Me? I’ve never used dope, though I did unsuccessfully try inhaling on a soggy spliff back when I was a student.

Now back to my friend. We had agreed to meet but he never showed up.

That was unusual, so Savong helped me locate my friend. We asked dozens of tuktuk drivers if they knew where he was. We showed photos. We tried bars where he was known to hang out. Nothing. He had disappeared.

Then word came through from one of the drivers. The police had – in an anti-gambling sting – raided a house and arrested several drivers who were gambling: betting on cards which is illegal in Cambodia. You can bet on kick-boxing, and you can put money on volleyball games, but you can’t gamble with cards. My friend was one of 12 arrested.

Savong phoned a policeman friend and we found out where our friend had been taken: to a prison on the south-eastern edge of town. The  Armed Forces Prison.

Now this is the good prison. There’s another prison in town which is older and with conditions that are, I’m told, far worse.

We went out to visit the next day. The photo above shows me standing on the driveway. Far from being a cold bastion of incarceration, the front entrance looked, well, festive. Silk banners were flying in the hot October breeze. Families, big and small, rich and poor, were turning up to visit. It felt like picnic day.

We registered our names, and handed in our cellphones, then waited in a small shaded waiting room, watching prisoners in their orange clothing which was more reminiscent in this country of Buddhist monks really, than of the standard prison garb we see on TV.  Some prisoners were carrying out light duties – escorting visitors to the meeting room, and running messages for the guards. One young guy, who clearly loved his role, had the task of announcing to visitors when their inside friend was ready to meet.

He proudly exhorted the two of us: “Mister Savong and Mister Duncan! – your friend is ready to see you!”  His enthusiasm was genuinely infectious.

So we went to the meeting room – a long room with half-height walls to let the breeze through, but divided down the centre by a long bench and chicken wire. Visitors on this side. Prisoners, at least 30 of them, on that side. One of them was my friend.

He lit up! After two weeks he’d had no visitors. The police had taken his phone and he has no family – he’s an orphan – so he had no way of knowing if anybody cared.  His face shone like a beacon.  Well, he had a black-eye also, but it was his smile that I most recall.

In Cambodia the law works upside down. If you are arrested you basically go straight to jail and if you have resources, then you can get a hearing to either plead innocence or plead for a lighter sentence. If you have no resources then basically you have to take what you’re given – in this case 3 – 5 years imprisonment. For a card game.

So no wonder he felt some relief. He had not been forgotten. Touching fingers through the chicken-wire we talked and laughed for a few minutes, then we talked about next steps. I’m helping Savong get a lawyer and we’ll do what we can do get our friend out. I suspect a judge will want to see reparation of some sort: money no-doubt.

The visit was unexpected and on one level incredibly interesting and actually enjoyable. Seeing my friend was really valuable and it honoured a promise I made 11 years ago, that I would never forget my friend. These promises are important to keep.

We were given a scant 15 minutes to talk and right near the end I asked him how he got his black eye.

“There is always a fight over food,” he told me. “Every dinner time, there is not enough food. People fight in our cell.”

“How many people in your cell?” I asked him.

“Twenty one brother. And me.”

And that’s the good prison. I hope upon hope that we can get him out soon.

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Portrait of Savong – October 2004

Svay Savong - October 2004

Svay Savong – October 2004

This photo was taken 10 years ago when Savong was in his early 20s. He is seated in the small temple on the island of West Baray and if I recall correctly, Savong asked me to take this photo, so it was – on those terms – a formal portrait.

The day was a Friday, and on two previous evenings I had taught at the small classroom at his father’s house, and so on this morning I had suggested that Savong and Pin come with me and be tourists for a day: we took a tuk tuk out past the airport and first visited the silk farm, and the we came back via West Baray, catching a small longboat out the island,

It was relaxing, and in my memory we three were the only people on the island, but of course that’s not true because there was a band of blind musicians playing traditional music which set the tone, by turns moving and festive, and Pin, Savong and myself explored the island, and the two young guys also took up fishing off a small jetty. Pin was expert at catching the small pufferfish that would swell up like golfballs which he would line up on the wooden dock, their little gills heaving, and Pin would flick them back into the water where the fish would  jettison away. Swoosh!

While Pin remained fishing, Savong showed me to the small wooden temple, and – taking our shoes off – we entered.

As you can see; incense was burning, and it’s fragrance wafted in the light breeze. We took photos, and as he sat, Savong explained the significance of the cross-legged pose, and showed me how I should hold my hands. There’s a photo of me sitting in the same position as Savong, but it is an awkward facsimile of this photo – me in my black t-shirt, my legs in agony as I try to emulate the lotus position.

But this photo captures the Savong I first met. He is still attending classes at high school, his market-bought jeans are too long and need tailoring – but never mind that. He is devout, determined, and he fixes my camera with a confident stare into the lens.

Soon after this we sat near the musicians and as we watched them play, and listened to their sweet, plaintive music Savong told me about his dream to open a school in the countryside.

“How you think brother?” From everything I had seen in Cambodia to that point, it was a perfect idea.

Pin was still on the jetty with his small bamboo fishing rod. Savong however, had just caught a bigger and more willing fish.

For more about Savong:

Breaking the rice pot – a Cambodian proverb

Cambodians have hundreds - perhaps thousands of proverbs.

Cambodians have hundreds – perhaps thousands of proverbs.

One of the more vibrant Facebook sites  dedicated to things Cambodia  is the group run by expats from around the world – who dwell in Cambodia. Each day the site is populated by a wide variety of comments.  There are the unfailingly  generous  comments from the Rosy guesthouse, and the help wanted  requests  from expats who are finding it hard  to locate  a house to rent, or a hairdresser  who is used to working with the mysteries of European hair.

This week one of the stories that unfolded concerned a Samsung Galaxy notepad  that had been stolen.  Unfortunately for the thief, the photos they took –  as proud new “owners”  of the device –  ended up  hosted  not on the device,  but in the Cloud, and could be accessed by the victim of the theft.

The photos were selfies, and the thief  wasn’t simply anonymous,  a desperate youth,  but an easily recognisable  disabled person. Caught on camera! I gather it took  only 48 hours or less  for the Samsung device to be recovered.

What hurt was  that the thief  had been supported (with food and shelter,) over previous months  by the victim. The English proverb  comes to mind;  ” don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Cambodia has more than its fair share of proverbs as well,  and the proverb  copied above reads something like this:

Taking the opportunity to embezzle from those who help you, through the use of cheap, disgraceful tricks, thinking they are unaware of attempts to cheat them – this is breaking your own rice pot.

Judging by comments  posted on Facebook,  the owner of the Samsung device has been far from alone in their experience.  Others attest to the fact that they too have been ripped off by people they had previously helped.

I’m not saying dishonesty is especially widespread in Cambodia, (the first time I was there  a stranger tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that my wallet was half out of my back pocket, and was at risk,) but l have often wondered  at the immense temptation that many people face. A lifetime is spent scratching for dollars, and  there, within easy reach  is a laptop, or tablet,  or wad of cash – it must surely cross anyone’s mind  that one quick snatch  might be life changing.

Savong and I have discussed this a few times,  and the issue of forgiveness comes up. I’m afraid  that if he caught a thief  he would be less forgiving than I would. Or perhaps simply less soft.  I searched Google  for Cambodian proverbs about the subject of forgiveness,  but so far  I have not found anything quite so elegant as the old European  adage: “To err is human.  To forgive – divine.”

Instead  I see more Cambodian proverbs instructing owners to be careful with their goods, and instructing servants  to avoid the penalties  that come with dishonesty.  Here are two such proverbs:

Stealing may bring profit, but hanging costs far more.

Don’t let an angry man wash dishes; don’t let a hungry man guard rice.