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.

Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda

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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.

 

 

Cambodia: phone ownership hits saturation

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The recent Asia Foundation report shows how rapidly smartphones have become part of the social and business landscape.

One of the most precise indicators of progress in Cambodia is the degree of ownership of telephones – and the percentage of those that are smartphones. No data in this crazy dis-aggregated market can surpass that of a well conducted market research study – and the report compiled for the Asia Foundation Mobile Phones & Internet in Cambodia 2015   is a great thorough study that surprised me in a couple of areas. The main points:

  • Mobile phone ownership has basically reached saturation.  99% of adults 18-65 own a mobile.
  • The market is dominated by low-end budget phones as well as by showy high-end phones that convey status, while mid range phones under-perform in this market.
  • Smart phones have doubled in share from 20% of all phones in 2013 to 40% by the end of 2015.
  • Khmer enabled phones are now dominant. They made up 30% of phones in 2013 but now account for 63% of Cambodian phones.

The Khmerisation of mobile –  which was technically enabled just a decade ago, has a profound effect potentially. Instead of adapting around English for texting or for online behaviour, Cambodians can do it in their mother language.

I wonder if this simple fact will dampen the seemingly universal desire among young people to learn English. What do you think?

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For more on modernisation click here Growth of FaceBook in Cambodia or here  The Electric Village.

Smart-phones: on a Galaxy not so far away.

I hope you find this blog useful and interesting. Let us know if there is any Cambodian topic you’d like to see covered.

The Rabbit and the Earthquake. A Cambodian folk tale.

NERVOUS RABBIT

While many Cambodian folk tales feature Judge Rabbit as the smart wise-guy, other tales portray the rabbit as a nervous, less intelligent animal. In this story, rabbit’s nervousness leads to mass hysteria and an encounter with a creature I never expected in Cambodian folklore: the lordly Lion.  I don’t know how this creature from Africa ever popped up in Cambodian folklore, but I guess these tales travelled at some stage along the silk road a thousand years ago.

The other thing that fascinates me about this story is the reference to an earthquake. There have not been many earthquakes in Cambodia, yet everyone knows they can be frightening.

This is my retelling of the story.

THE NERVOUS RABBIT AND THE PALM FRUIT

A nervous rabbit lived under a palm tree near a forest. Like most rabbits he was always listening out for danger.

On this hot afternoon he was sound asleep, when a ripe palm fruit fell down on the ground nearby. The crackling sound as the palm fruit fell on the dried palm leaves woke the rabbit with a start!

palmfruitAlarmed, the nervous rabbit jumped up: “It’s an earthquake!” Without looking behind he began running. There was no time for a backward glance, he had to escape the danger!

The herd of oxen saw him running past at high speed and, chewing on grass, one of them called out: “Rabbit! Why are you running so fast? What’s the matter?” Even the oxen were feeling jumpy now, after all, the rabbit looked totally frightened.

The Rabbit shouted in haste “Brother Oxen! It’s an earthquake! There’s no time to chew! Run for your lives!”

The Oxen began to run too. An earthquake? This could be dangerous!

The oxen and the rabbit soon met the Pigs and Deer. Startled, they too began running, joining the Oxen and the Rabbit. The Pigs heaved themselves forward and put on a burst of speed. No earthquake was going to catch these fat pigs!

When the Elephants saw them running, they too, asked “Why are you running? What is the matter?”

The Oxen told them “Haven’t you heard? The earthquake is coming!” Hearing this story, the Elephants joined them. When they all reached the Lion’s den, the clever Lion, seeing all the panic-stricken animals, stretched his paws and casually asked the Elephants, “What’s up? Why are you running?”

The Elephants were out of breath. “We don’t exactly know for sure. We saw the Oxen running. We heard something about an earthquake.”

So the Lion, lazily shook his mane and asked the Oxen, “Did you guys actually feel the earthquake?”

The Oxen confessed, “Well not directly, no.  We saw the Rabbit running, so we ran after him. He looked very frightened.”

The Lion asked the Deer and the Pigs, and they answered likewise.

“Hmmmn,” said the Lion. And he turned to face the Rabbit. “This earthquake.  Just how serious was it?” All the animals looked at the rabbit. They waited for his reply.

“I’m not too sure, myself. While I was sound asleep under a palm tree, I heard the sound of the earth breaking up.  It was a sharp crackling sound. I was afraid and began to run.”

“So you heard something but didn’t actually feel anything?” asked the Lion. “You didn’t feel the ground move beneath you?”

“No,” admitted the rabbit. “But the sound I heard; it was pretty terrifying.”

Arching his back and standing up, the Lion spoke: “All of you, come with me.” And slowly, swinging his tail, he led all the panicky animals to Rabbit’s palm tree. He showed them the cracked palm fruit lying on the ground. “There’s your earthquake,” said the Lion.

The embarrassed animals gave the Rabbit a sound rebuke and slowly went back to their own places.

Teen sex in Cambodia – a challenge to local standards

nightclub cambodia-7Nightclub – Phnom Penh.

Cambodia is a very conservative nation when it comes to teen-sex; and that is quite amazing when you consider the sheer youth of the nation. In the West a series of sexual revolutions took place when the post-war generation hit their teenage years around a time we conveniently refer to as Woodstock. Teen-sex, or extra-marital sex became normalised, and one usually explains that in terms of demographics, the boom in numbers of teenagers, the media and increasing media freedom – as well as a drift away from formal religion. Economic and transport freedom – teenage ownership of cars – further loosened the strict standards that may have been laid down by a previous generation.

In Cambodia the underlying recipe is the same, but on steroids. An exploding population of teenagers, a conspicuous rise in transport freedom and nightclub venues aimed at young singles, the rise of western-styled media – all must be straining the Buddhist standards that remained intact despite the experiment conducted by Pol Pot to shut down the influence of family and of religion.

I first considered this dynamic when I visited, strangely enough, a crematorium in Bakong, back in 2007.  The pillars of the main structure were painted by monks who had depicted in their mural the cycle of life: on one pillar, infancy. On the next, childhood and the school years. And so on, until the last pillar which depicted old age. It was a piquant elegy about life and death, as poetic as any scripture.

But what caught my eye was a piece of graffiti, written in English on the pillar depicting a young man and woman in love. “I miss you,” it said. “I miss you so much.”

Who had written this? Surely this was the message from a young person: who else would write in English, a private language in the traditional Bakong village neighbourhood? A boyfriend, perhaps, had died. Or a girlfriend. The ache of that graffiti message was palpable. A last farewell at a crematorium. A plea through the gates to eternity.

Is teenage love common I wondered.  Are there millions of Romeo & Juliet stories being played out in towns and villages throughout Cambodia?  Does society frown on teenage love?

Recently I saw some figures from the official, Government sanctioned Demographic & Health Survey which is an amazingly comprehensive public health document. In it are the figures for median age for first intercourse – for females and for males.

The median is the age by which 50% have had sex, and for women age 25-29 their median age of first intercourse was 21.4 years. It is almost 21 in the rural areas, and closer to 24 in the big cities.

This age is more or less steady compared to the median age reported by women 30-34 (20.9)  or 35-39 (20.3) or 40-44 (19.9) or 45-49 (20.6 years.)  It varies slightly with regard to educational attainment or wealth level.  Those with a low education for example, report having has first sex around 2.6 years earlier.

For men the figues are more or less the same though generally 6 months later than females. Age 22 is the median age for first sex.

Another measure: at age 19, some 83% of females have never had intercourse and at that age 93% of males have not had sex.

In the USA, by contrast; and here I lift directly from Wikipedia:

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the year 2007, 35% of US high school students were currently sexually active and 47.8% of US high school students reported having had sexual intercourse. This percentage has decreased slightly since 1991.

My country, New Zealand has an unenviable record for teen pregnancy which is regularly cited has the highest incidence in the world. The NZ online Encyclopaedia Te Ara reports figures from 2001 and seems quite pleased that ‘less than 20% of 13-year-olds’ have had sex.  That’s a figure that would make Cambodians shake their heads in dismay.

Since the late 1960s most New Zealanders have had their first sexual experience during their teens and outside marriage.

Perceptions that teenagers are having sex earlier and earlier, and that more of them are doing so, are unfounded. In 2001 less than 20% of 13-year-olds reported that they had had sex. The likelihood of sex rose with age, and about 50% of those aged 17 and over reported having sex.

Compared to Western figures, young Cambodians are relatively chaste. However there is concern that this picture is volatile, and with more blatant sexualised media, and more teen freedom (money and motorbikes) not to mention the changing social architecture thanks to mobile phones and social media: these are the seeds of a big change ahead.

These issues are of concern to directors of NGOs that educate and care for students. My friend Savong has recently published an updated ‘rules of behaviour’ for students under the care of his organization. Savong makes it quite clear that students need to refrain from forming girlfriend/boyfriend relationships that derail the students’ progress through to higher education.

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For an article on child labour in Cambodia, click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Cambodian Movie – In the Life of Music

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I love film, and I love music so I’m excited by the prospect of an upcoming Cambodian movie that uses a famous Sinn Sisamouth song to tie-together three parallel stories set at pivotal times in Cambodia’s recent history. Sisamouth was the legendary pop vocalist who was adored by Cambodian fans in the 60s and 70s but was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Today his music is still revered – a vibrant reminder of the unquenchability of love and of culture.

The film IN THE LIFE OF MUSIC is the creative child of the up and coming female Khmer/American Director Caylee So who is clearly tracing the footsteps of her parents with this drama; her first feature film.

I looked up the movie’s website and here’s what it says about Caylee:

Caylee So was born in a refugee camp in Thailand on September 17th 1981, just after her parent’s escape from the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. When she was just three years old, her family immigrated to the United States. She grew up in Northern Virginia where she spent most of her youth.

In 2000, soon after her high school graduation, Caylee joined the US armed forces and served in the Virginia Army National Guard for the next eight years. There, she wrote for a little column called Caylee’s Corner, a newsletter that was sent out to friends and families of deployed soldiers.

In between tour of duty, Caylee attended Northern Virginia Community College where she discovered her love of writing fiction. She later transferred to George Mason University to pursue a degree in creative writing. Creative writing led to theatre, and theatre led to film; all mediums that had one thing in common: they all captured stories.

In 2011, Caylee was awarded the Zonta’s Women in Film grant for Most Promising Young Filmmaker. In 2012 Caylee received her MFA in Film Production at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, having won the Best Picture and Best Director at her school’s Cecil Awards that year.  She is also the winner of the Director’s Guild of America’s 18th annual Best Female Student Director award.  She is the co-founder of the 1st Cambodia Town Film Festival in Long Beach, CA and the winner of the Linda Mabelot’s New Directors/New Visions Award.

3 Chapters; 3 Generations; 3 Worlds: Changed by a Song.

Directed By: Caylee So / Sok Visal
Written By: Caylee So / Dane Styler
Produced By: Caylee So / Neardey Trinh

In the Life of Music tells the story of how one song “Champa Battambang,” a song made famous by Sinn Sisamouth (the King of Khmer Music), plays a role in the lives of three different generations. It is a feature narrative told in 3 chapters during 3 different decades, depicting the lives of people whose world is inevitably transformed by war. It is a powerful intergenerational tale that weaves through 38 years of Cambodia’s ever-changing landscape.

Chapter One: The Song of Love (1968)
In the small village, a group of musicians ride into town to give a rare impromptu fundraising concert, igniting profound excitement and wonder from all the townspeople. Bearing the burdens and responsibilities of traditions, two strangers: CHY, 16, and PHALLY, 15, seeks to overcome their obstacles, and find a way to attend the concert, a concert in which music and love will be forever intertwined.

Chapter Two: The Song of Death (1976)
Mith, 40’s, a famous singer now living under the terror of the Khmer Rouge Regime, struggles with surviving his own legacy.

Chapter Three: The Song of Birth (2007)
Hope, 26, a singer, songwriter, journeys to Cambodia, the place her mother calls “home” where along the way, relationships will be tested, and one’s quest for identity will give voice to a generation who must reconcile the past with the present in order to shape the music of our future.