30 March 2013

The Cambodian Circus: Phare Ponleu Selpak’s 'Eclipse'

The lovely low-cost lighting at the entrance (with full moon)

I went to the circus last Wednesday night! It was a night out with my work colleagues here in Siem Reap, Cambodia and a wonderful treat.

The circus is a product of the Phare Ponleu Selpak Art School in Battambang. It has only recently begun operating here in Siem Reap and, for want of funds, presents its show outdoors under the stars – not a problem in the dry season but impossible in the rainy season, so they are currently fundraising for a big top.

As it says on the circus webpage, by going along to a performance, and perhaps giving a small additional donation, you will be helping to build an indoor performance facility so the shows can continue when the rains come to Siem Reap, as well as helping to support the careers of these young performing artists, and the wonderful creative and vocational programmes of the Phare Ponleu Selpak Association.

I was amused by their pricing structure: the price for children is based on their height, not their age: ‘Ticket is priced at USD 15.00 for adult and USD 8.00 for children lower than 120cm and free of charge of infant lower than 80cm.’

At the moment the circus features two different shows: we saw the one called Eclipse. The signage at the event gave this description: ‘Steeped in the culture and Cambodian popular beliefs, Eclipse is a tale about discrimination. A young man, who suffers from being rejected because of his difference, prays for divine intervention. The gods transform him into a very attracting [sic] woman, suddenly getting a lot of attention, until a mysterious plague begins to consume all the villagers …’.

As may be obvious, this is more of a Cirque de Soleil type of performance that the more Western tradition of ringmaster, animals and clowns. There were none of those at Eclipse but there were jugglers and acrobats galore! The troupe consisted of perhaps a dozen young Khmers, of whom two were young women and the rest very fit and agile young men. A full range of acrobatic skills was used to illustrate the Eclipse storyline and, though what speech there was was in Khmer, it wasn’t necessary to understand the words as long as you had first read the story brief.

It was a vibrant, energetic and, at times, spectacular performance, which my colleagues and I enjoyed immensely!

24 March 2013

Beng Mealea

Volunteers Donna and Jill and I have had dinner together several times now and did so again Friday night, at the Red Piano, made famous by the patronage of Tomb Raider Angelina Jolie. Jill mentioned that she had a tuktuk booked to take her to Beng Mealea the next day and asked if we wanted to go along. 

I’d been before but agreed immediately to go again. I haven’t been doing much with my weekends recently so the chance of a long tuktuk ride out of the city and of flexing my IndiAnnie instincts clambering about amongst ancient ruins was impossible to resist. Donna hesitated as she was feeling weary after a long hot week at the volunteering coalface and, in the event, decided more sleep was preferable.

Not me! I set my alarm for 6am and got an early night, excited at the prospect of an excellent day out. Soon after 8 the next morning, I was at Jill’s hotel and we set off with Mr Ong, her favourite tuktuk driver, at about 8.20. Riding down national route 6 is always interesting, if a trifle scary with all the crazy drivers weaving madly in and out but Mr Ong proved capable and cautious, and saw us safely there and back for the very reasonable sum of US$35.

The road to Beng Mealea takes you down route 6 about 25kms to the town of Damdek, where you turn left and head out into the countryside through, at this time of the year, the bone-dry stubble of rice fields and an assortment of small settlements. The hot wind blasted my hair into the most unflattering of styles; I smiled and waved at small children playing by the wayside and women sitting gossiping outside their wooden shacks; I savoured the ubiquitous smell of wood smoke and used my ever-present krama to avoid choking on the equally ubiquitous red dust; and I snapped photos of locals perched precariously atop trailer-loads of wood or squashed four to a motorbike, plus shopping. These are some of my favourite things about Cambodia!

The entrance fee to Beng Mealea is just US$5, unrivalled value for the three hours we spent exploring. Most tourists probably take just half that time, but Jill turned out to be a like-minded soul, a Classics scholar like me, fascinated with ancient architecture and keen to explore every nook and cranny.

The name Beng Mealea means ‘lotus pond’ but the only flowers I saw in the 45-metre-wide moat that surrounds the site were water hyacinths. The tourist approach is across this moat from the south, along a causeway bordered by long balustrades representing the bodies of the seven-headed nagas that guard the causeway entrance. The south gate itself is blocked by fallen masonry, but authorities have constructed a series of wooden steps and walkways that carry the visitor into this masonry maze, up and over stone walls and cloisters to the rooftops and first floor levels so you can get an excellent idea of the layout of the temple complex.

One of the nagas, with the south gate in the background

Looking back out through the south gate from inside the complex

It is large – approximately one kilometre square – and has been greatly ravaged by weather erosion and rampant vegetation, with tree roots and strangler vines prising apart the massive stones, causing them to tumble into large mounds like some giant’s abandoned Lego. Nothing has been restored so you can get a good feel for what all the Angkorian temples would have looked like when first reclaimed from the jungle.

Little is known of Beng Mealea’s history or why it was built at such a distance from the main Angkor temples near Siem Reap, but its architectural similarities with Angkor Wat have led archaeologists to surmise that it was built by King Suryavaram in the early 12th century. Although it was primarily a Hindu temple, it also has some Buddhist carvings amongst its ruins. Few of the sculptural reliefs are in good condition but it is possible to make out scenes from the Hindu myth of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, apsara dancers can be spotted amongst the confusion of stones, and a lion’s feet sit alone, forever disconnected from their owner.

At approximately 75kms distance by road, Beng Mealea is far enough from Siem Reap to be spared the hordes of tourists that can nowadays spoil the Angkor Wat tourist experience, though the busloads have begun to invade here too. Luckily, it is still possible to find a quiet spot to marvel at the wonderful variety of butterflies fluttering around the stones, to linger while small lizards do battle over their territory, and to try to imagine what this enigmatic place was like in its heyday.

One word of caution … don’t wander off the well-trodden paths here. A sign near the entrance declares that 438 anti-personnel mines and 809 UXOs (pieces of unexploded ordinance) have been cleared from the area in the past 10 years but the work is ongoing!

09 March 2013

It’s a sign: Cambodia

Following the riotous success (over 300 people have read it!) of my earlier blog about the interesting and intriguing signs I discovered in Peru (see It’s a sign: Peru), I feel it is time to share some of the treasures I have tripped over in Cambodia!

This first one I like as much for the splendid colour of the portable household shrines awaiting sale to local customers as for the sign itself, which is quite plain but contains a good message for us all. ‘Slow down … and smell the roses!’ we might say in the West. Here it’s ‘slow down … and buy a shrine.’

What can I say? Is this good roadside advice? If this were in New Zealand, I might think it was referring to our most famous bird, the kakapo named Sirocco, who attempted to shag the head of a photographer while being filmed by the BBC for an endangered species documentary back in 2009. Perhaps Cambodia has a similar randy bird!

Is it a tree? Is it lightning? No, it’s the sign for winding roads ahead. This one I just like for its lovely curves. Our winding road signs in New Zealand are just so boring, so lacking in design flair, so devoid of curvaceousness compared to this little beauty. And the road going up the mountain to the Bokor Hill Station, near Kep (see The ghosts of Bokor Hill) really was like this with a series of long sweeping curves to the top.

I ask you, could a pharmacy be more aptly named? When something has made you go ‘ouch’, this has to be the perfect place to come for a remedy.

I can’t think of many people who would want to sleep in a church at night, unless they thought they were being haunted or chased by the devil or were seeking asylum of some kind. Obviously, it's okay to sleep here during the day though.

Now, I’ve heard of organisations and businesses being fairly specific about the type of work they do, but this one takes the cake! And, in case you’re in any doubt at all that they will actually service more than one window, they have two signs stressing the point.

This is my absolute favourite of the signs I’ve seen here so far. Not the top part of the board – after all, you can get your hair coloured, your nails cut and a shave in countless places. It’s their bold claim about the clarity of their communication that tickled my fancy.

To finish, I say ‘thank you’ in Khmer. One of the most important words to learn in any language and here beautifully spelled out above a shop in Kampot. Ogun for stopping by my blog!

03 March 2013

Elephas maximus: lord of the jungle

Elephants can be seen everywhere here: large stone ones guard the entrances to pagodas, armour-wearing ones carry men to battle in the temple carvings and there is even an Elephant Terrace amongst the ruins of Angkor Thom. Elephants feature in Cambodian myths, they frequently appear in the designs woven in textiles, their statues adorn many public buildings, and live ones give rides to tourists.

However, I’m not sure that riding elephants is an ethically or morally correct activity for tourists here, as the poor beasts are often not well treated, according to Jack Highwood who runs the Elephant Valley Project. The project, in the northeastern province of Mondulkiri, is home to 12 elephants that Jack has rescued from locals, though, in this case, the mahouts often accompany their elephants to the sanctuary – being paid to care for their elephants at the sanctuary provides an alternative income for these local people.

The Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom

The indigenous people of northeastern Cambodia still actively work with elephants, using them to haul logs from the jungle, periodically harvesting their ivory for sale to the Vietnamese, and, latterly, using these majestic beasts to carry tourists on treks to local tourist attractions.

Sadly, these elephants are frequently mistreated. The methods used to render them safe around tourists are nothing short of torture, designed to crush their spirits, and they are often overworked and undernourished – elephants need to eat for 15 to 20 hours each day just to maintain their body weight, impossible if they’re out trekking with tourists all day.

According to 2006 statistics, there are just over 200 elephants living in captivity in Cambodia and between 200 and 300 wild elephants. The Cambodian jungle does, in fact, provide an ideal habitat for the elephants and large areas of dense and seemingly remote forest still remain here. However, even in these remote areas, the elephant population has been decimated by ivory hunters and by the prevalence of landmines.

Elephants as temple decorations
My organisaton, Globalteer, provides volunteers and financial support to the Elephant Valley Project, which I hope to visit in the coming months. If you care about elephants, don’t be tempted to ride them. Instead, spend a week or two helping to care for them – bathing them, feeding them and helping to conserve their forest environment. I’m sure that would be a much more satisfying experience.

A temple guard at the ruins at Koh Ker