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Monday, March 26, 2007

A fishy pleasure

March 24, 2007

I AM at the new central market in Siem Reap, Cambodia, enduring the smell that pervades every market here, from Battambang and Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville on the coast. The odour comes from a red washing-up bowl filled with grey sludge in which float pieces of silver fish. The smell is outdone only by an equally pungent pile of grey paste with bits of rotting fish poking out.
The wet grey stuff is fish sauce, while the other is fish paste, although both seem to be called prahoc; they smell and look awful to the unaccustomed nose and eye.

Prahoc is a vital flavouring in almost everything savoury in Cambodia. So common is it that the national flag, which features the ubiquitous emblem of Angkor Wat, should be soaked in the stuff.

Despite the appalling smell, the sauce doesn't put me off my food. At a market cafe, I find Angkor beer perfectly complements a green mango salad. Inevitably, the salad is made with prahoc, sugar and tomatoes, plus crispy caramelised chips of, yes, dried fish. Not since kipper have I thought dried fish could be this good.

After this entree, I order a main course of amoc, the soup that is Cambodia's national dish. Every local chef has a twist on the traditional recipe but there are only two ways of serving it: in a coconut shell or in a container fashioned from banana leaves. Today we are eating it from the former.

Helpfully, the menu lists the ingredients in picture-book form. It seems we are trying snakehead fish with green vegetables, something referred to as "a kind of gourd", lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and whole piles of other stuff. Most important, the dish contains palm sugar and krachai (or kachai), a sort of rhizome. Oh, and piles of sticky rice. It's absolutely delicious.

The next day at dawn I travel to the village of Chong Kneas. As we arrive, the rising sun peeks through stilt houses and reflects off the surface of Tonle Sap (literally: the freshwater lake). Sprawling across a shallow 3000sqkm in the middle of the country, the lake feeds the river of the same name that joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh. Long narrowboats are weighed down with large catches of tiny fish that are shovelled into wicker baskets numbered in red. We cross the lake to the river, where we see the floating and stilt villages of the fishermen at Prek Tuol.

Everybody is fishing. Teenage boys crouch on the bows of ancient canoes, throwing nets. Fish traps bubble with frenzied occupants. Fishermen operate large traps that look like stick-thin trebuchets. There's no sign of the rare, 3m, 300kg Mekong giant catfish today, one of the hundreds of species that live in this lake. But I can't escape the fact that fish, together with rice, is the national dish.

Indeed, fish represents 80 per cent of the protein eaten here. If a family doesn't have an earthenware jar of teuk trei -- a small anchovy-like freshwater fish -- fermenting away somewhere, the chances are they are out fishing, farming or selling the 400,000 tonnes of it caught annually.

Come September each year, the Mekong bursts its banks here, reverses its flow and sprawls across up to 18,000sqkm. For the Khmer fishing is an ancient practice and the result is those never-ending piles of prahoc. Read more!

Dancing out of the shadows of death

Cambodia’s rich dance heritage was almost destroyed in Pol Pot’s killing fields, but the survivors have staged a remarkable recovery, as audiences at the Barbican can see this weekend, reports Jane Wheatley

Pok Saran was 23 and a talented young dance student at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh when, on April 17, 1975, revolutionary soldiers of the Khmer Rouge marched into the streets of Cambodia’s capital and changed his life for ever. Along with millions of his fellow citizens, Saran was taken to a prison camp in the Cambodian countryside and put to work in the forests and rice fields. The interns were cruelly treated, given very little to eat and many were taken out to be shot. Large numbers died from disease and malnutrition.

The murderous Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, had little regard for life — “To keep you is no gain; to kill you no loss,” he famously said — and in keeping with his so-called Communist ideals ordered that all professional and educated people — particularly those with royal connections — should be eliminated. The Cambodian Royal Family had been enthusiastic patrons of the arts and 80 per cent of performing artists died during Pol Pot’s reign of terror.

Saran knew that at any moment he could become one of them: he lied about his past, claiming that he was a humble amateur, but it was his skill as a flute player that probably saved his life.

“The commander of our camp was a Buddhist and had been the head man of a pagoda,” Saran says. “He was brainwashed by the Khmer and forced to be in charge of the killing fields. When he came back from supervising a killing expedition, he would ask me to play the flute to ease the stress he felt. I think this definitely gave me some protection.” Saran never dared to dance. “I danced only in my head,” he says.

This week he will travel to London as a choreographer for a season of Cambodian dance drama at the Barbican. This is something of a miracle: before 1975, heads of state from all over the world came to watch the famous national dancers of Cambodia, but Pol Pot destroyed his country’s vibrant culture and it has taken a quarter of a century to recover.

In 1997 Fred Frumberg quit his job as an opera director in California and travelled to Cambodia as a UN volunteer to help to rebuild the devastated arts scene in Phnom Penh. Three years ago he formed a production company to put on revivals of traditional dance repertory. “Classical court dance is performed by women,” he explains. “The male form of classical masked dance — Lakhaon Kaol — was not considered sacred in the same way and was not receiving so much attention, so some of the dancers came to me and asked me to find a way they could perform too.”

Frumberg managed to get a grant from the American Embassy — only $15,000 (£7,600), but in Cambodia a dollar goes a long way. “There was nothing documented,” he says. “So many people were dead. We had to go to the provinces and find the elder dance masters, bring them to Phnom Penh to help us with their memories.”

The grant money subsidised the building of the troupe and paid for costumes and sets. Two years ago they gave their first performance and were immediately invited to Bangkok to perform there. It caused a sensation.

A tour to the Melbourne Arts Festival followed and then the invitation to the Barbican. The presenters in each country pay for the dancers to come because there is no government funding. “The Government won’t even pay for passports,” Frumberg says. “A passport costs $100 — a lot of money for a dancer who earns $22 a month.”

Lakhoun Kaol is a dance drama based on tales from the Indian epic of Ramayana , in which gods and monkeys battle demons and ogres. Saran is responsible for the choreography of the giants: “The dancers do not have any extra height,” he explains. “They must represent their superhuman power, strength and arrogance just with their movements.”

His colleague Proeng Chhieng is the artistic director and a monkey specialist. “When I was a small boy I loved the monkey’s crazy antics,” he smiles. “It was all I wanted to do, so I became an expert in the role.”

Chhieng’s grandmother had been a celebrated dancer at the royal palace. “My sister and I lived with her and she would take us to the palace to watch while she trained the young dancers,” Chhieng says. By then the Queen had decreed that the monkey roles should be played by men as they required special acrobatic strengths. The boy Chhieng was entranced. “When I was eight years old I donated myself to the palace to be trained as a classical dancer.”

From the age of 9 he was travelling abroad to perform with the company, and in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh, Chhieng was studying new dance techniques in Korea. When he returned to his native country, he found that his family had fled the city and soldiers were in charge. “I stayed in Phnom Penh with other students,” he says. “We grew vegetables to stay alive and kept our heads down.”

When the Cambodian Army came to liberate the city in early 1979, Chhieng and his fellow students were taken by the Khmer soldiers to hide out in the forests; by the summer he had managed to escape and trekked to Kampong Thom province, where he had heard that there was a small community of dancers, survivors of the killing fields. They were led by the

charismatic Chhang Phon, an elder master and respected dance teacher who was determined to rescue the traditional repertory that had once been his country’s pride and joy. By the mid1980s Saran, Chhieng and others had returned to Phnom Penh to the revived Royal University of Fine Arts to form a fledgeling dance company. There was no money for culture from a crippled national economy — the dancers were paid in kind — but they were back in business.

Twenty years on they have built up a company of 47 and a stunning repertory that is placing Cambodia firmly back on the international stage. The full piece lasts eight hours but Barbican audiences will be treated to an 80-minute episode called Weyreap’s Battle, in which the monkey king Hanuman and his forces rescue King Rama from the evil tyrant Ravena. “It is powerful, action-packed stuff,” says Frumberg, “full of acrobatic flair, often comic with translated narration.”

Frumberg was speaking from Greece, where he is directing the opera Nixon in China. He is gradually weaning himself away from his role as a fundraiser and impresario for Cambodian dance. “They’re on the international radar,” he says. “It was all about capacity building; they can fly by themselves now.”

Weyreap’s Battle is at the Barbican, EC2 ( 020-7638 8891;, from Friday to Sunday.

Artists who fought the system

Maya Plisetskaya Her father was killed in Stalinist purges and her mother imprisoned, but that didn’t stop the Bolshoi Ballet’s prima ballerina from defying the Soviet authorities, particularly when she refused to let them ban her sensuous performance in Carmen Suite.

Bertolt Brecht Fled Nazi Germany for the USA, only to find himself up before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities after the Second World War. He ridiculed his interrogators and left for Communist East Germany.

Arturo Toscanini The conductor resisted Mussolini and refused to let Il Duce’s portrait hang in La Scala. He absconded from the Wagner festival at Bayreuth after Hitler had come to power and eventually left for the USA in 1937.

The Plastic People of the Universe Jailed for the combined sins of having long hair, liking the music of Frank Zappa and using an English name, the Czech rock band became a symbol of freedom.

Yungchen Lhamo The “Tibetan Madonna” fled her native country from Chinese repression and crossed the Himalayas barefoot. Blessed by the Dalai Lama, she has now performed with Sheryl Crow, Peter Gabriel and Annie Lennox.
Read more!

Cambodia mulls over restricting access to Angkor Wat Temple

By Yusof Sulaiman l eTN Asia

Cambodian officials are reportedly mulling over measures to restrict tourist access to Angkor Wat Temple, in an effort to prevent its further deterioration. The ravages of nature over time and the water table have taken a toll on the UNESCO listed World Heritage site, putting some at risk and further weakening their “structural integrity,” said experts from UNESCO.

Once a sleepy village, Siem Reap, where the site is located, is now a town booming with hotels, restaurants and continues to attract new investments in tourism.

Officials estimate that up to a million tourists visited the Angkor Wat temple complex in 2006, an increase of about 40 percent over the previous year.Every day up to 5,000 people climb the steps, putting the site under the strain of wear and tear. Tourist numbers to the ancient Khmer ruins have grown faster than the town can keep pace, according to published reports. "Large tour groups often do a quick stop to see the temples, but do little else," remarked a tourism official. "They hope to see everything within the one and a half day in their itinerary."

"The large number of people wandering around by themselves has caused a lot of problems," said Khin Po-Thai, spokesperson for the World Monuments Fund in Siem Reap.

According to UNESCO’s Dr. Sheldon Schaeffer, building and construction works have added to the risk of damage to the actual monuments. “Water supply to the golf courses and hotels may affect the water table at the temple sites, further weakening the structural integrity,” he said.

Temple officials are thinking about limiting access to the temple compound on a daily basis using a reservation system. "If the tourist numbers go unchecked, Angkor Wat will be gone just because we want to please the tourists," added Po-Thai.. Read more!