24 February 2013

Siem Reap’s Giant Puppet Parade

The vulture
“Khnhom koeu tmat (I am a vulture),” shout the kids, as they proudly wheel and carry their giant red-headed vulture puppet around the inner city streets of Siem Reap, their little faces beaming with pride, their smiles wide and bright. 

The Giant Puppet Parade, held in Siem Reap every February for the past seven years, is the culmination of months of planning and three weeks of intensive workshops, with kids from local NGOs and staff and volunteers from around the world helping to build the giant puppets, designed by the parade’s artistic director and master puppeteer Jig Cochrane. And this year I was privileged to join in the workshops.

Firstly, let me stress, these are indeed giant puppets – this year’s vulture is perhaps 30 feet long when all its bits, from top of beak to tip of tail, are laid out and, if extended outwards, the wings would flare out approximately 20 feet. And they are made up of many pieces – the vulture has at least 15 main parts, as well as many feather panels that have been added to its body or were flapped about by excited children on parade night.

And the vulture is not the biggest of the puppets, which this year include the Asian cobra, a porcupine, two frogs, the slow loris, a bee and a stingray, as well as our red-headed vulture. These creatures are all endangered and one of the ideas behind the parade is to raise awareness of the rarity of the creatures, both with the general population and with the children. Where possible, the workshops include a talk to the children about the creature they are making and the creatures are also profiled on Facebook.

As well as educating people about the rarity of these beautiful creatures, the Giant Puppet Parade aims to foster creativity and artistic ability, in the artists and volunteers who come from overseas to volunteer with the project, in the young adult artists from the Phare Ponlue Selpak Art School in Battambang, who help to lead the workshops and, most especially, in the young Cambodian children who take part in the workshops.

This year, children from the projects run by 16 local NGOs took part in the puppet-making process. They were mostly from within Siem Reap city, though one group travelled an hour from their rural village to take part, and they ranged in age from perhaps 7 or 8 to their late teens. Some had worked on the puppets in previous years, others were first-timers so needed more help, and all were just wonderful to work with.

The kids taking part in the first weekend workshop came from the Landmine Museum Relief Centre, and many had been the victims of landmine explosions. Some had missing or artificial limbs, some limped badly, but all were happy, constantly smiling and laughing. It was humbling and inspiring to see how well they coped with their disabilities. As well as encouraging their creativity, the Giant Puppet Parade helps to shine some light in their otherwise dull lives, to let these kids enjoy some much-needed fun and excitement.

And the workshops themselves? Each session began with games – Jig is also a master showman and motivator, and very good at creating the right atmosphere, getting people warmed up and the kids laughing with games like “Zip. Zap. Boing.” Then the puppet making began in earnest, starting with Scotch tape to fasten two or three pieces of rattan strips together. These are the basic construction materials of the puppets and the barrel shapes we then built with these strips are the basic building blocks. The barrels can be small or large, thin or fat, and can be added to to make larger structures, like the heads of the vulture and the cobra. We used globe shapes in the same way – circular strips were taped together to form circles, with more and more circles added to strengthen the whole thing.

Next, the kids taped sheets of various colours of tissue paper over the rattan. Then, the whole was smothered in glue – we used industrial strength PVA diluted with water – and more paper added, to cover the Scotch tape, to intensify the colour and to further strengthen the structure – the glue hardens as it dries.

These structures were decorated in a variety of ways – the kids cut slices and slivers out of pieces of square, circular and rectangular metallic paper to make snowflake and doily designs, then glued these on to the shapes.

The porcupine, for example, was basic white, with plain black circles and squares and gold metallic strips stuck on. It’s a very effective way of decorating the whole and the creatures looked stunning when assembled and lit up from within.

Following the week of puppet-making workshops with the NGO kids was another week when staff and volunteers put the finishing touches to the puppets, fastening together their pieces, adding the moving parts, sound and light, and mounting some on platforms and wheels.

On the night of the parade, the kids and staff from their NGOs, guided by the project staff and volunteers, wheeled, lifted and pushed their brilliant creations through the streets of Siem Reap in a haze of wild excitement. This year’s puppets were bigger and better than last year’s, more people came to watch the glorious parade, and the project was a stunning success – a shining example of how a community arts project can provide a creative platform for disadvantaged children to foster and promote self-confidence through art.

I didn't actually get to see much of the parade myself as I was roped in at the last minute to act as number 2 puppeteer on the Hanuman puppet (one of two puppets with their roots in Khmer culutre) and we were the teaser, dancing around at the head of the parade, playing with the crowd, helping build the excitement and anticipation for what followed. So, I'm already planning on being in Siem Reap next February so I can see it all again for myself ... and maybe help out with the puppet making again, too. It was such a brilliant experience. Why don't you come too?

Hanuman and Sovann Macha
The slow loris

18 February 2013

Butterflies and other beasties

A couple of Sundays ago I spent a very pleasant hour or more at the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, about 25 kilometres north of Siem Reap.

Common mime
Not only does it have a large netted garden full of tropical flowers with hundreds of butterflies fluttering around, it also has a butterfly breeding programme. 

Egg-covered leaves are collected from the garden each day and stored in plastic tubs in a small propagation area. Once hatched the caterpillars are fed on their favourite plants – and what wonderful colours those caterpillars are, from the camouflage colour of pale green to the bright red and black stripes of warning.

The butterflies are equally varied, some vibrant reds and oranges, others plain black and white but intricately patterned, some large, others small and delicate. All are species native to Cambodia.

Leopard lacewing

The friendly centre guides share their knowledge of the different varieties, explaining the butterfly life cycle and the peculiarities of each species. They’ll also show you their pet scorpions, and their resident population of stick insects, larger than any I’ve seen before. 

Not a butterfly, a yellow moth
By training the residents to farm butterflies and employing locals as staff, the butterfly centre benefits the surrounding community, as well as helping to conserve the butterflies – a win, win situation!

The mother of all stick insects
Leopard lacewing, from above

Another common mime

A common birdwing that had been killed by a spider's bite
Very soon, there will more common evening browns!

12 February 2013

The Year of the Snake

I may not be in China but there is a significant population of Chinese or, at least, the descendants of Chinese people here in Cambodia, so the weekend saw celebrations throughout the country to welcome in the year of the snake.

In fact, preparations for Chinese New Year started a couple of weeks ago, when decorations began appearing in shops and outside houses. Windows and doors were adorned with red and gold posters, showing messages of happiness, wealth and good fortune, and red lanterns were hung all about.

According to Chinese legend, the colour red is supposed to scare away the Nian, a mythical beast that would arrive on the first day of the new year to eat crops and livestock, as well as villagers and their children. Red also symbolises joy, truth, virtue and sincerity – good qualities to emphasise at the beginning of a new year.

On Saturday I watched a local businessman as he lit a fire in a small firepot outside his office. He burned red and gold paper posters, then a bundle of fake money – or, at least, I assume ti was fake. I doubt even a prosperous man would burn real money and I have seen these same traditions in Peru, where people burnt offerings of small replica cars, houses and money in the hope of obtaining such things in the coming year.

Yesterday, on the first day of the year of the snake, many businesses paid lion dance troupes to perform symbolic rituals both inside and outside their premises, to banish evil spirits and to welcome in good luck for the coming year. The local troupes were doing good business!

My Chinese horoscope for the year of the snake tells me that, if I pay attention to the details this year – ‘measure twice, cut once’ – I will have a successful year, especially professionally. Sounds good to me! 

May the snake bring us all success, good health and much happiness.

07 February 2013

Koh Ker : corker!

The splendid assembly of ruins at Koh Ker are where the capital of the Khmer world was located in the 10th century, when King Jayavrman IV decided, on his ascension to the throne, that the court should come to him, rather than him move to Angkor.

Australian volunteer Donna, Marianne and I visited this magnificent place last Saturday. It’s about a 3-hour drive from Siem Reap, partly on tarmac and partly on dirt roads, currently with many detours around half-built bridges. The price of the air-conditioned car, with driver, was US$90 for the day and the entrance fee – or, rather, the road toll – to Koh Ker was US$10, so it was not a cheap excursion but it was definitely worth the expense.

Once we turned off route 6, the main highway to Phnom Penh, and got out into the countryside, there was burning of the undergrowth beneath the trees throughout the countryside. Whether to clear the land for cultivation or for some other purpose we weren’t sure, but a pall of dense smoke covered the entire area.

The temples were impressive, spread out over quite an extensive area surrounding a large baray (reservoir) that we circuited but couldn’t actually get close to. We started at Prasat Thom, which initially seemed quite ordinary and was much ruined, though we did find a fine statue of a bull’s head. Apparently, Koh Ker is renowned for its massive statuary, but most has now been removed to the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Prasat Thom had an extensive moat, where I photographed some lovely tree reflections, and was relatively quiet, except for the little daughter of the temple warden, who became a cheeky and noisy character once spoken to, echoing our hellos, singing loudly and pinching both Donna and Marianne on the bottom. Luckily, she soon ran off into the bushes, as the peace and quiet of Koh Ker was a major attraction – it is one of those places where you can hear the leaves fall! And we only saw two other groups of two tourists here and no more all day – fantastic!

A big surprise presented itself at the back of the Prasat Thom complex, where there is a huge, quite well-preserved seven-tier pyramid. The guidebook said you could get great views from the top but, in fact, the old wooden staircase was blocked off and was missing several rungs. The guide said we could climb it for $5 – a cheap suicide! The guide also said there were landmines so we made sure to stick to the well-trodden paths but, in fact, I think it was safe enough as there were ‘mine clearance’ signs at all the various sites here.

On the other side of the baray, the first three ruins were towers with linga shrines inside. Linga are large, phallic blocks of stone, fertility symbols that you are supposed to caress for good luck. I stroked my hand around the head of one – though I’m not sure exactly what sort of luck I should expect.

Prasat Krachap had an impressive outer gateway, with large scroll-like decorations above the pediment – the influence looked almost Chinese. There were also several columns with Sanskrit engravings in good condition and a couple of quite well preserved pediment reliefs.

Prasat Banteay Pri Chean was interesting. Large rectangular columns splayed outwards, seemingly in imminent danger of collapse, though they may well have been like that for centuries; there was one tower with nicely engraved red sandstone columns and pediment, and the tall ruined tower at the back seemed almost burnt inside – their stonework was very black.

The three towers at Prasat Chrap were similarly black inside – cremation towers, perhaps? – and hundreds of tiny yellow butterflies fluttered around them – I imagine them being the souls of the dead. The place did have a slightly spooky feel to it and the burning nearby only added to the eerie atmosphere. A few moments of drama followed when the scrub fires flared up right next to the road as we drove to the next temple. Defying the danger, we leapt out and took photos of the tall flames.

Next came Prasat Damrei – we christened it ‘Damn right’! At first we thought it was a single tower but, tucked off to one side through the trees was an enclosure where we found another tower with some lovely, almost intact elephant and lion sculptures. Elephants adorned three corners of the platform and one lion guarded the front entrance. Elephants were also carved in the pediment panel.

Prasat Neang Khmau was a single blackened tower but here the blackened stone was on the outside, so perhaps the discolouration is caused by something other than burning. I’ll need to investigate further.

Last, but by no means least, was Prasat Pram, a glorious place for the huge strangler figs that almost entirely encased two of its five towers. The destructive power of these trees can be impressive and they have caused huge damage to so many temple structures from the Angkor civilisation but here the two trees seemed almost to be holding the towers together. Their roots were amazing to behold. Prasat Pram was a splendid temple to finish off a magnificent, if incredibly hot and dehydrating day exploring the ruins at Koh Ker.

05 February 2013

Hope for Anlung Pi

For most of his young life Togh Main was a Buddhist monk living in Siem Reap. Then, in his twenties, Togh decided his path was to help his fellow countrymen towards a better life.

In 2005, he teamed up with another monk, Rathana Nn, to start a school for the most poverty-stricken children of Siem Reap, aiming to give them free education for a chance at a better life. Sadly, Rathana Nn was killed in a car accident in April 2007 but I’m sure he would be proud of what has been achieved by the Volunteer Development Poverty Children School (VDCA) that he co-founded. You can see the progress for yourself on their website.

In 2011, Togh decided he needed to do something for the people living in his home village of Anlung Pi, about 25 kilometres from Siem Reap. Another school was planned and, in August that year, the first concrete was poured. After much hard work by supporters, volunteers and staff, the school finally opened on 21 January 2012.

So, when I visited last Friday, the staff and students of the Anlung Pi Free School had only recently celebrated its first birthday. And what a wonderful place it is, with two classrooms, a library, a kitchen and dining area, and a large area for vegetable gardens. Happy, smiling children were singing ‘Baa, baa, black sheep” in the first classroom we came to so, of course, we joined in, and a selection of other songs followed, in that and the other classroom.

We had a tour of the gardens, where a small team of older boys were digging the holes for fence posts to enclose their large field and stop wandering cattle and other beasties from eating their crops. The gardens are a new creation and only a small area has so far been planted – it’s difficult breaking in this rock-hard ground by hand and they can’t afford machinery or even a cow to help. It’s fertile enough though – already shoots of Morning Glory were sprouting, just 3 days after being planted. And some older girls were making tiny plant pots from palm fronds and sowing them with tomato seeds, so I’m sure they’ll soon be enjoying a crop of luscious tomatoes as well!

From the school, it was a short walk to Siem Reap’s rubbish dump, where as many as 30 of the local families scavenge each day, in an attempt to earn a living (see my previous blog for more on their hellish existence).

We then walked on, zigzagging our way across the now-barren rice fields to another glimmer of hope for the people of Anlung Pi. Here, amongst a smattering of huts, lies the field that has recently been purchased for VDCA by Alison and Alan, retired teachers from England, who have dedicated their retirement to helping the people of Cambodia.

They’re an inspirational couple! When they’re not in Cambodia conducting free teacher training with local NGOs, they’re back home in England fundraising for Cambodia, by giving presentations about the poverty of the people here.

When Alan and Alison saw the plight of the families who live at the dump, they knew they had to help and decided they wanted to offer those families a better place to live. On their plot of land, they plan to build at least 6 houses and have a central area of vegetable gardens where the families can grow food for themselves. Incredibly, each house will cost just US$3000 – if only I had that amount spare, I would pay for one today! If you want to help, with even a few wooden boards for the floor, you can donate through the VDCA Virgin Money Giving page. Already, Marianne and Narong and their Water of Hope Association (see an earlier blog) have committed to providing two wells for this new development – fantastic!

Togh (right) with a family who will soon receive a new house

It was an emotional day – from the delight of hearing the smiling children singing their cute songs, to the harrowing sight of the dump and its resident families, to seeing the joy on the faces of one of the families who will hopefully soon be living in a new house. Meeting Togh was inspirational – one dedicated person really can make such a difference – and seeing the result of Alan and Alison’s efforts just made me resolve to do more for my fellow men and women and children.

So, who wants to help me raise the money to buy a house?

For any Americans reading this post, Togh and his VDCA project are supported by the great folks at Project Enlighten and you can make a donation through their 501(c)(3) US-registered charity by following this link.

PS. When I returned to New Zealand in July 2013, I downsized apartments and was able to use a little of the profit to pay for a house for one of the families from the dump at Anlung Pi. It is one of the best things I have ever done in my life!

03 February 2013

Apocalypse now!

A couple of days ago I visited Siem Reap’s rubbish dump, not somewhere most traveller’s go … nor would they want to. It’s like a scene from hell: hot, from the sun and the constantly burning fires, and smelly, from decomposition.

Sadly, this disgusting place is home to several families who earn their living from scavenging amongst the rubbish, for plastic bags and bottles and aluminium cans that can be recycled. Revolting as this may sound, they also find the occasional food scraps that can be boiled up for dinner.

I’ll let my photos show you what I saw, and my next blog will tell how there’s now a glimmer of hope for these poverty-stricken people.

Beyond this beautiful field of water hyacinths, you can see the smouldering dump
The heat from both the sun and the constantly burning fires was stifling
Our group treads a careful path through the rubbish, and some local kids tag along
Home sweet home?
Plastic bags ready for collection by the recyclers
The boys found a glossy magazine and stopped to read amongst the fiflth
A child of one of the dump families ... they follow their parents on to the dump itself

This family doesn't even have a hut ... they just live under this tree
She protects herself as much as possible from the filth and toxic fumes
Can you imagine being a child in this place?