Peace, Justice and Human Rights.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

November, 1974. Battambang, Cambodia.

In November, at the end of the rainy season, we celebrated the reversing of the currents of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River. The country had no king to command the Tonle Sap to reverse direction, but Mai assured me that the waters would subside, thanks to the tidal pull of the full moon. The Bon Om Tuk water festival was not the usual grand ceremony. But people converged on the banks of the Sangker River to see the arrival of the dragon boats to Battambang. Small orchestras of gongs and drums played rhythmically, accompanied by singers and royal dancers, as the boats sailed up and down the chocolate brown river waters.
     A glowing ball of a moon rose behind the tall, green trees that grew on the riverbank. Most of our family gathered there, and I sat wedged in a comfortable spot between Mai and Tha. I was concentrating on digging my toes into the cool grass, when to my surprise, I saw the boy musician, Nary! He walked hurriedly by, toting two baskets filled with coconuts; balanced on each end of a piece of bamboo resting on his broad shoulders. Even with his big straw hat on, I was sure it was Nary. Without thinking, I called out his name.
     He looked over in our direction as I waved. My hand seemed to have a mind of its own. He stared my way but he did not recognize me. I clicked my fingers in the air as if I was playing imaginary finger cymbals, and his face lit up. He remembered our music under the old house back home.         
     "Oh, hello there, you, from Koas Krala!" he called out, stopping to bow his head in our direction.
     I placed my palms together and bowed my head in return. Nary smiled, then turned and continued on his way. I felt my face flush and hoped that no one noticed.
     "Chanra!" said Tha, bringing me back to the real world. "Here come the apsaras!"

The beautiful celestial dancers appeared and enacted their sacred stories, swaying in their bejeweled velvet and brocade costumes, and golden headdresses. A chorus sang about being surrounded by flowers in a garden. The apsaras’ poses and slow stylized movements expressed the wisdom of the ages. We celebrated, forgetting about our country’s problems, if only for one night.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Cambodia's Waters

The Bon Om Tuk Water Festival is one of Cambodia's most important celebrations. It’s a time of thanksgiving to the waters that fertilize the land and bring abundant fish. Bon Om Tuk marks the end of the rainy season. And it honors an amazing phenomenon. The Tonle Sap River is the only river to reverse its direction twice a year. The Tonle Sap River joins the Tonle Sap Lake with the Mekong River. Lake Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The Mekong River enters Cambodia from Laos in the north, runs south across the Kingdom, into Vietnam and to the sea.

                                     wikipedia photos. author: Matti Kumu

The level of the Mekong rises during the rainy season, through October. This causes the Tonle Sap River to back up, and flow to the northwest and into Lake Tonle Sap. The lake quadruples in size. When the dry season comes, the water backs up into the Mekong once again.

                                         photo: Jennifer Phoon

During Bon Om Tuk, boat races are usually held on The Tonle Sap River and around Cambodia. The boat race water festival dates back to the 12th century, as decreed by King Jayavarman and depicted in bas reliefs at Angkor Wat. Crews of 40 or more oarsmen man hundreds of longboats. At night, illuminated dragon boats cruise the waterways under brilliant fireworks displays.

                                                                    photo: Werner Pauwels

At the climax of the festival, the King commands the Tonle Sap to reverse direction and flow to the sea. The river obeys. This coincides with the full moon in November. Sampeah Preah Khae is a ceremony where people gather at midnight to salute the moon.

                                                                                   photo: Frederick Noronha

"Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it." ~Lao Tzu

"Water is the driving force of all nature." ~Leonardo da Vinci

"Thousands have lived without love, not one without water."
~W.H. Auden 

Thursday, September 29, 2011


My mother dreamed about a black diamond, the strongest of gems. It was deep and shimmering, and in the shape of a heart. The black diamond has not always been considered beautiful, but forever rare and enduring, and a sign of good fortune.
          The dream foretold my birth in the small farming town of Koas Krala, in the western province of Battambang, Cambodia. It was the start of the monsoon season, when the rain clouds came in suddenly and the rice paddies in the flat and rich land swelled with water. The great expanses of green fields stretched out to meet the lush surrounding jungles, and the mountains loomed dark in the distance against a backdrop of blue-gray sky.

Our house was built on stilts, about eight feet off the ground and made of wood. A stairway ran up the middle and led to a balcony. The front door opened into the altar room decorated with serene Buddha statues, artwork on the walls and colorful pillows scattered on the floor. Behind that was the big kitchen and dining room, and on the other side, the living room and bedrooms, all divided by curtains. It was the finest house in the village, and so safe then, even as rain fell heavy on the red tile roof and thunder played like a drum roll for the event of my birth.
I came into the world looking to mother just like the black diamond, with dark skin, dark curly hair and a heart-shaped face. I was not a son, but the fourth daughter, seventh if you count my stepsisters.
“This baby is ‘ugly!’” my mother declared, loud enough for the spirits to hear, because superstition says that beautiful children may be taken away.
The midwife wrapped me snugly in a blanket and put me in my cradle that was delicately carved with lotus blossoms, a symbol of purity. Mother slept in a small bed, up off the ground, so my father could put hot coals from the fire underneath to warm her body, like all Cambodian women did after childbirth. Mother believed it would help to retain her beauty. She drank only hot water and wine with herbs that father had been gathering in the mountains.  Mother said I cried a lot, but she was right about the good spirits, because I was born into a happy life.
Mother was named Seoun; I called her Mai. She looked different than most Cambodian women, just a bit too tall, and striking in an unusual way, with wide cheekbones, dark skin and long black hair that she always kept tied up in a knot. She had been orphaned in Phnom Penh at the age of five, which made her quite independent. She always stood upright and proud.
According to our custom, Mai’s marriage was arranged, when she was sixteen years old. My Grandmother Sei was my father’s mother, an influential woman who loaned money to the people of the town to finance their crops. She was exceedingly wise, so of course she chose Mai. Grandmother Sei paid a visit to the house where Mai was living with her brother Mern and his family.
She simply asked, “Seoun, will you marry my son?”
The request took Mai by surprise. She did not even know him.
“He is a good man, and well respected,” said Grandmother Sei.
She was persuasive, and not many people ever refused her anything. Mai felt apprehensive because my father was older.
“Why me?” she asked.
“I know that you are strong and able, and kind enough to take care of my son’s family,” Grandmother Sei said. “And he will build you a big house to live in.”
Father’s first wife had died and left him with three children. Mai, having struggled alone for much of her own life, knew what it was like for children to need a mother. So she made her decision right then and there.
Mai answered, “Yes.” And the deal was done.
Father's name was Chheun; I called him Pok. He was tall and handsome, with strong features and smiling brown eyes. Pok was a wagon builder and he crafted the finest wagons. Everyone in the province knew the Koas Krala wagons by their design.

Pok owned a large farm where he raised cows, pigs, water buffalo, chickens, ducks and lots of fish in a pond. The family hid their gold in a clay pot, buried where the banana tree grew. It was well known that people in Koas Krala had lots of secreted gold, and the name of the town signifies that.
Mao was my parents’ firstborn child. I called her mean Mao because she always wore a stern expression. Cina was the pretty one, and then came Pech, and I was the youngest. My name is Chanra. My father’s daughters from his first wife were Seam, Poey and Tha. They were all married. Seam and Poey lived with their husbands in the nearby city of Battambang. Tha was my favorite sister, a striking and stylish girl. She carried me everywhere until I got too heavy. I followed my sisters to school at the nearby Koas Krala temple, where the monks taught reading and writing. I enjoyed the lessons, mostly because the monks fascinated me with their shaved heads and eyebrows, and their wrap-around saffron robes, especially the youngest monks arrayed in the brightest color. They wore nothing underneath, but I did not know it at the time.

The temple was made of stone, fit for the Gods, and sat regally in the center of town, facing east. It was enclosed by a wall, next to a tranquil pond crowded with floating lilies. Sculptures of many-headed cobras, or Naga, adorned the balustrades of the pathway leading to the shrine. Its three levels formed a pyramid shape, like a temple mountain. The steep stairs on the tiered base led up to the terrace with an open pavilion, galleries and library, and on top of that perched the central tower. The tall pointed roof looked like a crown with five peaks, one at each compass point and one in the center, topped with a domed cupola. The exterior walls were intricately carved with bas-reliefs of battle marches that showed the coming of the French. They were studded with sculptured columns, each one different from the next.
On a warm day, I looked up at our temple with pride. I felt humbled by its size as I stood in the dappled patches of shade cast by tall mahogany trees growing just outside of the retaining wall. I wore shorts, thong sandals and little else. Vendors sold fruits and vegetables nearby, and the smell of sweet rice dumplings tempted me. I ran to the stairs, and then up and down, and then back up to the railing of the terrace, which was rough in my hands. I made my way around and around the patio, and then through the gilded doorway to the central sanctuary. It was dark, but I could still see the paintings on the walls depicting the life of Buddha one side, and on the other a parade of costumed men and women riding harnessed elephants draped in ceremonial colors. Huge stone figures stood sentinal on each side of the room, and I sought comfort in the half-closed eyes and gentle smiles of those meditating Buddhas. Behind one of them I discovered the perfect hiding place. I crouched there, just as quiet as a statue, concealed and waiting. When my sisters finally came up from the library to find me, I seized just the right moment to jump out, shouting and laughing and shattering the silence. Then I ran back out, down the stairs, and all the way home, just ahead of everyone else, to be the first to claim the rights to the big hammock, the one that Mai had made from coconut fibers, that was hanging in the shade underneath our house on stilts.

Everyone gathered there; my family, our neighbors, friends, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and anyone with a song to sing or a story to tell. My Uncle Jem was a Captain in Lon Nol’s army. He visited us, and told stories about his military expeditions and the fighting in other parts of the country. The war seemed so far away then.
          I preferred to lose myself in the traditional Cambodian music we listened to. It was under the house that I first saw the boy, Nary, playing the khim. He came from a nearby village, wearing a big straw hat, and he rode in on a bicycle with a basket on the back that held the wood and brass khim. It was an elegant instrument for such a boy. He played while sitting with his legs crossed, striking the bronze wires with rubber-tipped bamboo rods. The women danced. I played finger cymbals, called chhing, and watched Nary intently as his lips moved to the music, but he did not sing. He looked happy when he played, even when the songs evoked sadness.

We listened to plays broadcast from Phnom Penh on the radio. One told the legend of the beginning of the Kingdom of Cambodia. A beautiful Khmer Princess met an Indian Brahman, as they both sailed through the watery land. He fell in love at first sight. The Brahman shot an arrow from his magic bow into her boat and she agreed to marry him. Many of the folk stories were tragic, and left me wishing for a happy ending. I favored princess fairy-tales; one in particular about a young lady with many suitors, all trying to marry her for her money. The clever girl lured the men into a room full of her jewels. When each of them stepped up to take one of the valuables, he dropped into a hidden pit of warm mud and sticky rice. That test revealed the greed of the deceitful men. The Princess then married for love.

Springtime was always my favorite time of year, when the dry heat came on and we celebrated the New Year. I would wake up at dawn when it was still cool and quiet, and slip noiselessly out of bed and tiptoe past my sleeping sisters, and very stealthily, skipping the floorboards that creaked, make my way to the kitchen. My breakfast was always a feast of the leftover rice stuck to the bottom of the pot, with lots of soy sauce. Then I would peek outside and take a deep breath of the fragrant early morning air, and look to see if our horse named Samnang, which means lucky, was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. If I came out with a special treat, he shook his mane and bent his head down so I could pet the white star on his forehead.

The barefoot monks came by, chanting their prayers and collecting alms. It was an honor for me to give them food. I made my own rounds of the neighborhood. Next door, I watched the cleaning and pounding of massive amounts of fish, and the preparation of the prahok fish paste. I ran barefoot in the rice paddies, skipping my way down the low earthen dikes that divided the fields into square patterns, where rice grew taller than I was. I usually arrived home dirty and smelling of fish. I played by our pond, under the shade of the fanlike fronds of the sugar palm trees. My sister Tha’s husband helped us get the sugar palm juice, an important job before our social gatherings. He scaled the tall, slender, curving tree trunks with a ladder, to gather nectar from the flowers by letting the juice drip through a bamboo pole and into a jar. By morning the jar would be full of the intoxicating juice.

I had everything, even a new baby brother. Srey was born, chubby and adorable. Mai was so happy; finally a boy. For whatever reason, her other sons had died; one miscarriage, and another at birth. To ensure that the spirits would not take Srey, Mai dressed him up as a girl. He wore an earring and a dress for the first two years of his life, and became part of our contented family.
     We ate our dinner together after Pok came home from work. He often went to Battambang City for business. I secretly knew that he loved me the most, because without fail, he returned with a bag full of fancy hard candies. He always gave it to me.

     "One piece for everyone…and the rest are all mine!" I announced. 

I did not want to share, especially the green and white ones, which were sweet, and they never spoiled my appetite.      
Mai made the savory B’baw Mouan soup with chicken and rice in a hot pot, the aroma filling the kitchen. I set the table, putting all the food out at the same time in various bowls and platters; with small bowls of fish sauce, soy sauce, salt and pepper, lime slices and chilies.
We were preparing for just such a meal when I first heard the sounds of war in our village. It was June 6th, my eleventh birthday, not a big celebration, but Mai always remembered. Suddenly, loud booming sounds resonated from somewhere off in the distance.
"What is it?" I asked.
I could tell by the look on Mai's face that something was wrong.
"Chanra, call for your sisters, we must go," she said in a strangely calm voice.
"Where, Mai? And where is Pok?"
"Pok is waiting for us."
Mai packed up the food in a basket that she placed in my arms. She steered me to the door and down the stairs. She carried a rolled-up floor mat, a blanket, and Srey in his little dress. Again I heard a loud noise that sounded like thunder. My sisters Cina, Pech, and mean Mao were already coming in from the fields, followed by the horse Samnang. They tied him up under the house as he snorted and stomped his feet. Mai prodded me along as we headed toward the temple. My sisters ran to catch up with us. Usually Mai told us to be quiet when we walked, but she did not seem to notice our loudly clicking thongs. That worried me.
"Pok, Pok!" I called when we got to the entrance of the temple.
My father and some of the other men from town were putting palm fronds and tree branches up against the inside of the surrounding walls, tying them together with vines and barbed wire. Pok waved us under the cover, and I saw some of our neighbors there too. We all sat down, huddled closely together, and for a while heard nothing but the sounds of our own heavy breathing and the low voices of the men keeping watch outside.
And there it was again, still far away, but unmistakable, the sound of explosions. Mean Mao said they were bombs, Cina said they were missiles. Srey cried.
"Have some birthday rice cakes," said Mai, trying to distract us.
We each took one from the basket.  I took one more. We sat on the floor mat, wrapped up in the blanket, in the dark, until at last we fell asleep.
The sun shone brightly when we awoke, and Pok said we could go back home. Everything seemed the same as always when we got back to the house. Mai made a pot of jasmine rice. She set aside enough for our lunch, and then prepared another portion with slices of jackfruit, which she stuck with sticks of incense and  placed on the altar. I  picked some wildflowers growing in the yard and laid them next to the offering. Mai lit the incense and got down on her knees, put her hands together out in front of her, and bowed her head three times. Together we prayed to the spirits of our ancestors.
 Pok went back to work on the shelter, and everyone else did chores as usual. Srey and I watched Mai in the kitchen. I noticed the crease between her eyes that told me she was unhappy. I tried to be helpful and ladylike because she liked that, and she did not have to tell me once not to talk too much.

The warfare that was once just part of Uncle Jem’s military tales had reached the outskirts of our village. The communist fighters were called Khmer Rouge. They wore all-black outfits, with red scarves so bright we could see them lurking by the edge of the nearby jungle. Sometimes they would come into the village looking for one particular person. We heard that a man was taken away, an artist. The soldiers said they needed him for a special job. Pok suspected that it was because he was of Chinese descent. We started spending most nights in the shelter, along with the other villagers. When darkness fell, the sounds of gunfire always seemed a bit closer. Mai told me to imagine that we were playing hide-and-seek in my favorite place. But I suddenly felt too old for that, and the grand Koas Krala temple was different too. The shelter stretched out along the inside of the surrounding wall like a train, each family had their own space. The men had strengthened the refuge by covering it with a mixture of mud and hay, and a layer of bamboo, thorny branches and barbed wire.
When we emerged from the shelter early in the morning, I always pretended that everything was fine.
"You are all lucky I got you into the hiding place, or you would be dead," I said merrily, skipping along. "And do not worry about farming because I did all of your work while you were sleeping!"
My family always pretended to believe me.
One day, as I jumped over a yellow ribbon in front of our house, I saw Tha and her husband riding up in one of Pok’s wagons, pulled along by two lazy water buffalo, kicking up dust from the dirt road as they approached. I dropped the ribbon and ran out to meet them. I did not notice the soldiers coming from the other side until they were very close to the wagon, and stopping it. They carried guns over their shoulders. Their black uniforms looked just like pajamas. The boys appeared to be young, not much older than myself, and I thought I recognized one of them as a peasant from a nearby village who had gone to the hills.
The tallest boy, with his red scarf wrapped around his head, called out to Tha and her husband, "Can you show me the way to the next town?"
Tha’s husband pointed in the right direction.
"Get down from the wagon and show us," the boy ordered.
I had never heard a young person address someone older so impolitely. Tha’s husband was a doctor; well educated and respected. Tha bravely threw her shoulders back, took her husband’s hand and headed off with him, followed by the boy soldiers.
I waited on the stairs of our house all day for their return, my eyes fixed on the road. I liked Tha's husband because he was always so patient with me, taking the time to give me water buffalo rides, steering me around the yard in circles. I waited some more. Mai told me not to worry, but the fact that she was praying did not reassure me. 
Just before dark, I spied Tha returning, looking very small in the distance and bent over like she was carrying a heavy load. She came back alone. I ran to her, and when I put my arm through hers she was shaking. 
"He is gone from this earth," was all that she could say.
That night in the shelter I asked about death. Mai told us what the Buddha said to his disciple Ananda.
"When they die, nothing will remain of them but their good thoughts, their righteous acts, and the bliss that proceeds from truth and righteousness. As rivers must at last reach the distant main, so their minds will be reborn in higher states of existence and continue to press on to their ultimate goal, which is the ocean of truth, the eternal peace of Nirvana."

Her words and the sound of her voice comforted me. But I felt sad because I knew that Tha’s husband would never return.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Finding Peace In Cambodia by Jerry Edling

The first thing you notice is the haze. It is thick enough to transform the sky into a soft lens through which the reddening sun descends over the Mekong River. Hundreds of people clamber onto a mountaintop structure at the Angkor Wat complex to view this spectacle every day. The sun descends into the river like a languorous flatboat, disappearing from view before it reaches the horizon. Watching the sun descend is an awe-inspiring spectacle, but the grand finale is tantalizingly shrouded from view.
photo: Frederick Noroha
Sunset over the Mekong River is a metaphor for Cambodia. This country’s brilliant but turbulent history is gradually coming to light through the haze of time, but the finale is shrouded in questions. This is a land of kings and the Khmer Rouge, a place in which visions of a brighter future have led to both splendor and savagery. Cambodia is coming to grips with both.

Tuol Sleng Prison, or S-21, is a former high school nestled among the row buildings and Humphrey Bogart shutters of Phnom Penh.

It is the crucible of a vision that went horribly awry, the place where the Khmer Rouge brought all the “counterrevolutionaries” and the innocents who allegedly didn’t share their vision of an egalitarian peasant society.

To walk into S-21 is to be reminded that it is part of very recent history. Victims of land mines, robbed for life of their mobility by the paraphernalia of war, cluster around the front gate of S-21; and only the most callous of souls could fail to part with a few riel to ease their suffering in some small way. Tour guides are available at S-21. They are as patient and attentive as the tuk-tuk drivers who take visitors on bone-jarring trips around Phnom Penh. They recount the atrocities that were committed at S-21 with what can only be described as professionalism. It is strangely comforting to hear their factual accounts of the ordeals of the prisoners who unwillingly made their homes here, comforting in the sense that facts and honesty are the best palliatives for pain. And this was a place of unimaginable pain from the moment the prisoners arrived.

The visitor to S-21 is shown pictures of new arrivals with numbers safety-pinned to their chests. It is impossible not to cringe when viewing these photographs and to wonder what sort of zeal or “patriotic” fervor could lead one human being to cause so much suffering in another. But the pictures only tell part of the story. The leg irons that kept the inmates shackled like doomed cattle still litter the cold concrete of the cells. Those hard, unforgiving floors provided the bedding for the inmates, who slept in their underwear while shackled to the wall or to iron bars and were served two spoonfuls of weak porridge every day.

Prison life at S-21 had an eerie regularity. Prisoners were tortured twice a day. How frustrating it must have been for the inmates to gaze over the wall at the city as they were walked to the post where they were hung upside down. When they passed out, their heads were dipped in filth so putrid it woke them out of unconsciousness. After their ordeals they returned to their cells, which did not always provide any respite from torture, as the still-visible blood stains silently attest.

S-21 is a grim place; and yet, there is a sense of peace about it, a peace perhaps born of its origins as a high school but more likely arising out of the reverent spirit that pervades it. S-21 is a shrine to the innocents, the powerless folk who are simultaneously history’s victims and its soul. About 17,000 people entered S-21. Eight are known to have survived.

There is no peace at the Choeung Ek Killing Field, located several kilometers from S-21.

Here the visitor is shown a tree where the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide were killed with makeshift weapons while a loudspeaker blared music to cover their screams and where children were bashed to death against the trunk for sport.

The Killing Field is pock-marked with mass graves that stand empty, dug up like so many craters of the moon. 

At the center of Choeung Ek stands a commemorative stupa that serves as the final resting place for so many, its gilded spires reaching to the sky as if to ask why.

These are disturbing images, to be sure. It is a testament to the resilience of the Cambodian people that they are confronting this period of their history so forthrightly. Cambodia is a young country with an ancient history. According to the World Factbook, its median age is 22.9 years. Most Cambodians know the Khmer Rouge only as history, not as part of their own lives. But history dies hard. It is still on the lips and in the memories of older Cambodians who, like the stupa at Choeung Ek, reach out and ask why. Younger Cambodians are following their lead.

It is that resilience that lingers in the memory of the visitor and that buoys Cambodia toward a future filled with hope. The essence of Cambodia is that it is rooted in place. The dominant image on its flag, for example, is Angkor Wat; and its 500 riel note is adorned with the images of both Angkor Wat and a modern bridge. This is a country that draws its strength from places rather than abstractions, in contrast to the United States, for example, which is rooted in an idea. Norman Rockwell paintings capture the essence of the American spirit: a man rising to a point of order at a town meeting, a woman uncovering a turkey at the Thanksgiving table, a soldier returning home from war. Angkor Wat captures the essence of Cambodia: regal splendor in the forest and a sense that it is possible to build something that will endure for generations to come. 

photo:Molyda Szymusiak

Given that Cambodia is rooted in place, it is, perhaps, significant that Angkor Wat faces west, toward the sunset. Is it possible that somewhere in the haze that shrouds the future Cambodians will be able to glimpse the lasting peace they deserve?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Chanra!


My mother dreamed about a black diamond, the strongest of gems. It was deep and shimmering, and in the shape of a heart. The black diamond has not always been considered beautiful, but forever rare and enduring, and a sign of good fortune.

The dream foretold my birth in the small farming town of Koas Krala, in the western province of Battambang, Cambodia. It was the start of the monsoon season, when the rain clouds came in suddenly and the rice paddies in the flat and rich land filled with water. The great expanses of green fields stretched out to meet the lush surrounding jungles, and the mountains loomed dark in the distance against a backdrop of blue-gray sky.

Our house was built on stilts, about eight feet off the ground, and made of wood. A stairway ran up the middle and led to a balcony. The front door opened into the altar room, filled with statues of Buddha, artwork on the walls, and colorful pillows scattered on the floor. Behind that was our big kitchen and dining room, and on the other side, the living room and bedrooms, all divided by curtains. It was the finest house in the village, and so safe then, even as rain fell heavy on the red tile roof and thunder played like a drum roll for the event of my birth.

I came into the world, looking to mother just like the black diamond, with dark skin, dark curly hair, and a heart-shaped face. I was not a son, but the fourth daughter, seventh if you count my stepsisters.

"This baby is ‘ugly!’" my mother declared, loud enough for the spirits to hear, because superstition says that beautiful children may be taken away.

The midwife wrapped me up in a blanket and put me in my cradle that was delicately carved with lotus blossoms, a symbol of purity. Mother slept in a small bed, up off the ground, so that my father could put coals from the fire underneath to warm her body, like all Cambodian women did after childbirth. Mother believed it would help to retain her beauty. She drank only hot water and wine with herbs that father had been gathering in the mountains. Mother said I cried a lot, but she was right about the good spirits, because I was born into a very happy life.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Come To Life

The water lily springs from the muddy depths of the pond. Blossoms burst out above rich purple-green leaves floating on unclear water. Petals bloom in pink or white, as symbols of purity and creation. The delicate flowers inspire harmony and spiritual awakening. Rise up.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Black Diamond Prologue


The once serene Cambodian forest had become a terrifying place to be, with more deadly anti-personnel landmines scattered indiscriminately along the path we walked to escape our blighted land. Daylight was fading fast, and the world turning blue around me. It was nearly impossible to see the telltale threads connected to some of the mines that detonated when tripped, sending shrapnel everywhere. The pressure of an unlucky footstep would trigger other landmines, obscured by heavy vegetation. I looked for them vigilantly though, as we trekked single file toward the Thai border. Reaching our destination remained in the hands of fate. We were precariously close to leaving Cambodia.

Without warning, from up ahead, I heard it, that dreaded sound of a muffled explosion. My heart sank. I stopped and looked up. But all I could see was the canopy of tall trees, thick hanging vines and bamboo surrounding me, and reaching above me to the sky, blurred by my tears.

I said a prayer to the God spirits, and forced myself to take another step. My feet fit into the footprints of the others in front of me. Then I took one more step, and then one more.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Road to Freedom

The film 'The Road to Freedom' is based on the true story of photojournalists in Cambodia during the Vietnam war.

We are introduced to Sean Flynn swimming with a young Khmer beauty on a sunny day in Phnom Penh. We share a tender moment with them in his hotel room, all white sheets and warmth on bare skin. We know that Sean Flynn has it all.

Sean, son of actor Errol Flynn, could have followed in his father's footsteps. He had a Hollywood career of his own, and the same dashing style. But he close a different path, and an assignment in war-torn Cambodia. Flynn's photos captured the people and their lives. He lived dangerously to get them.

Sean Flynn and cameraman Dana Stone venture out into the Cambodian countryside to investigate the shadowy presence of the communist Khmer Rouge. On motorcycles, they travel through lush jungles, rice paddies and remote villages. The tranquility of the Khmer landscape is disturbed by death. A family is slaughtered, their lifeless bodies scattered. A child is left alone, crying in the road. Everyone fears the soldiers dressed in black with red scarves.

The Khmer Rouge takes the two journalists captive. We fear for their lives at the whims of young recruits, and ugly men upholding the ideals of an unknown authority. We miss Stone's wife, just like he does. We treasure the bonds of friendship they make. We feel their hope and their will to survive. And we too want the world to know about the emerging horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Flynn and Stone escape, but there is nowhere to run. They find a mountain temple and some words of wisdom. The Khmer Rouge finds them again.

No one knows the true fate of Sean Flynn and Dana Stone.

                                                                     Sean Flynn and Dana Stone

Sean Flynn pursued his dream, or mission, or whatever it is that drives us to get the story told. 

"You know he heard the drums of war. Each man knows what he's looking for."~The Clash 'SeanFlynn'

'The Road to Freedom' is directed by Brendan Moriarty.
The film stars Joshua Fredric Smith as Sean Flynn.
Scott Maguire portrays Dana Stone.
Tom Proctor plays Francias.
Nhem Sokun is Lim Po and Kanilen Kang is Mean.

                                                                      Rising star Joshua Fredric Smith

This post is dedicated to Tim Hetherington. Recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have shined a light on the dangers faced by reporters covering wartime events. Tim Hetherington, Oscar nominated director of the Afghanistan war documentary 'Restrepo' died this week as a result of a mortar attack in Misrata, Libya. His photos evoked an emotional response to the realities of war.

R.I.P. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Day to Remember

IT WAS APRIL of 1975, a time of warm days and the Khmer New Year. I wondered if the Songkran goddess had descended to earth; I did not prepare any gifts to offer. The festive mood of people celebrating the three-day Chaul Chnam feasts resounded through the neighborhood. They shouted for King Sihanouk. I heard blasts that I thought were part of the revelry, but they sounded a lot like gunfire. I ran to the front gate and spotted an ice cream vendor on a bicycle with a cooler on the back. My grandfather snoozed in the hammock.
     "May I buy an ice cream on a stick, Grandfather?" I called out to him.     
     It almost looked like he was nodding. I took that as a "yes," and stepped out to flag down the ice cream man. That is when Khmer Rouge soldiers caught my attention, as they passed by at the end of the street. They rode in the back of big trucks, flashing bright red scarves hanging from their necks, worn as a belt or wrapped around their heads. I stopped and stared, forgetting all about ice cream. The soldiers looked young, like pure Khmers with dark skin. They carried guns, M-16 rifles and AK47’s, but they were smiling and celebrating victory. People lined up along the avenue and cheered as they passed by. Our neighbors were hanging white bed sheets from their windows. A man ran by waving a white flag and hollering.
       "The Battambang army has surrendered to the Khmer Rouge!"

Who could have ever guessed the atrocities that would follow that fateful day. In the next four-and-a-half years, an estimated two million Cambodians died at the hands of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime.

Never Forget.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Khmer New Year/Chaul Chnam Thmey

The Cambodian New Year is celebrated for three days, after the end of the harvest in mid-April. Chaul Chnam Thmey marks the beginning of the year on the traditional Khmer calender. This is a time for feasting, games, and offerings.

As a part of the ritual of buong suong, dancers recreate the battle between the legendary figures of ocean goddess Moni Mekhala, protector of the waters, and the spirit Ream Eyso, controller of storms. They are the origins of thunder and lightening. It's hot and dry in Cambodia this time of year. The New Year is at the height of the hot season just before the monsoon rains wash away the dust and bring nourishment to the land.

Welcome the Songkran goddess, believed to descend to earth. Maha Songkran is the first day of the festivities, signaled by the drum or bell of the Buddhist temple. People light candles, burn incense and offer thanks for the teachings of Buddha. For good luck, wash with holy water.

Virak Wanabat is the name of the second day, a day of prayer and forgiveness. Give to charity and remember ancestorsNeither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds.

The third day is Tngay Leang Saka, a time for water splashing. Bathing of elders ensures their good advice for the future. Cleansing the Buddha statues symbolizes the water that is crucial to life. It brings longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity. 

"If you are courageous enough to risk everything for being alert and aware, enlightenment is going to happen."~Buddha

Happy Khmer New Year! Sok Sabay, Chnam Thmey!

At the very least, clean your house and eat some noodles!

Thursday, February 3, 2011



Ancient Khmer women had power. The 12th century Temples of Angkor are adorned with bas-relief carvings of  apsaras and devatas. Devatas are guardians of the religious shrines, their images of grace and beauty immortalized in stone. They wear crowns, elaborate hair styles and jewelry, and form sacred hand positions. The apsaras, or celestial dancers, enact stories, swaying in their bejeweled velvet and brocade costumes and golden headdresses. The apsaras' poses and slow, stylized movements express the wisdom of the ages. According to Hindu legend, apsara goddesses came from the ocean of milk, and held sway over both mortal and immortal men. Many questions about these classical deities remain unanswered.