Tag Archives: Cambodia

The Last Post

I have a small suitcase of letters from years gone by that I’ve dragged from one house to the next. They’re almost relics, these letters, written by hand and posted, in a letterbox! How quaint. One day I decided to put sentences from the various letters together, just out of curiosity, to see if the people who had written to me would make up a ‘composite friend’.

The resulting letter had its own strange and beautiful logic and although I knew who had written each line, the letter now seemed to have been written by the universe, to itself and to everyone who lived there. So it is with good stories and good art. They seem to have always belonged with you.

A year has passed to the day since I decided to join the world of online scribblers. It’s also the day that I call it a day. I could tizzy up my reasons for stopping but the reality is I’m getting too lazy to want to write it anymore. I figure it’s better to call time rather than post every six months or so like a stalker with chronic fatigue.

Strangely, the year of blogging ended with exactly the same weather conditions as it began. The rain started as I began writing my last post as if it was just popping in for a quick cuppa. Before I knew it, that rain had settled in with its feet up on the sofa and proceeded to turn on the TV. Then it just stayed the night. Unlike last year when the rain was this relentless, this year I was not doggedly (and dumbly) determined to get to a muddy bog of a music festival. Maybe I’ve learned something. But probably not…

Given this is The Last Post, I’m going to do a recap of some ‘Travels in my mind’ posts. It may be nostalgic indulgence but when was it anything else?

I wrote my first post about my annoying and unwelcome habit of needing to go to events that are sold out and difficult. ‘Travels in my mind’ began  with ‘Shine On, you crazy diamond’ in November 2010, when I shared the fab experience of driving to the inaccurately-named ‘Shine On’ festival in driving rain with my friend K. (who thankfully came to her senses and decided we should leave within minutes of our arrival). On the way home, we were attacked by birds.

The weather also played a significant role in ‘Man on plane, I am sorry’, December 2010,  in which I was returning from a visit to my Dad who lives in another state (physically, not metaphorically). I was on a plane which had been delayed due to storms and it was unsurprisingly, a rough flight. At some point during my visit Dad and I had had a conversation about what kind of funerals we would want – we like to keep the conversation light.  That conversation combined with the bumpy flight had made me quite skittish. I got into a weird and awkward conversation with a salesman sitting next to me, causing me to conclude that (a) sometimes I would rather eat my own arms than talk about work and (b) you shouldn’t talk to strangers if you can’t get away from them.

In February I visited Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, better known as MONA, and embraced its underground architecture and Scorpionic themes of sex and death. I loved the intensity and fun, and intense fun of it. But on a second visit not long ago I realised you never get that giddy first date feeling twice. While there were works I didn’t see the first time, some of which I found confronting and some moving, there was little from my first visit that I found compelling on second view. And on a rare sunny day in Hobart, with a wedding party on the grounds and a new admission fee generating the same old gallery demographic, MONA seemed already bereft of its rock ‘n’ roll patina. Possibly I just wasn’t in the mood. I preferred my friend G.‘s exhibition I went to on Saturday. She had made the most delicate drawings of her old Mum and Dad sleeping, drawings that were softly loving and made you ache with the inevitability of old age and its cousin, death.

For Valentine’s Day, I told a love story – a story of my longest first date. I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was one of the most popular posts. Everyone loves a love story. (Or was it the KISS video? I admit, I watched that video a few more times than was healthy and had to get ‘I was made for loving you’ surgically removed.)

A friend asked me the other night what had been the most popular post. Right up there was the one about my visit to the Tutenkhamun exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. But as I explained to L., my blog must appear in search results when people are looking for information about the exhibition. My Tutenkhamun post continued to attract hits long past the date I posted it – and as I said to my friend, I feel a bit bad because my post about ‘What I’d learned from the Tutenkhamun exhibition’ was fairly glib. As King Tut’s family history featured some intensive interbreeding and he had a cleft palate and a club foot, I wrote that one thing I’d learned was not to horizontal folk-dance with the siblings. To all those students and foreign tourists searching for actual information, I can only apologise.

The dance films ‘Pina’ and ‘The Black Swan’  inspired curiosity about the history of the pointe shoe and ballet, in the case of ‘The Black Swan’ (‘Shall we dance? Or just pointe?’, January) and my return to dance class (‘Minding the pees and queues’, August). Going to a performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater was just a visual feast that reminded me of the variety of permutations possible within human movement and all that is good about watching people move through space (‘An assault on the senses’, July).

There was the post about my sensitivity to people’s voices, inspired by the Southern Gothic baritone of Tony Joe White (‘Tony Joe White’s Sonic Boom’, May), in which I pondered whether a person’s voice is merely a product of anatomy or whether a voice reflects a person’s inner being. A Cat Power gig inspired a conversation about the evolution of stage fright and what it must be like to make music (and a living) while being scrutinised under the spotlight (‘A year of the Cat’, January).

In June, I was preparing to head to Bali and Cambodia.  A simple Google search: ‘music in Cambodia’ led to hours of reading about that country’s music scene now and in its 60s heyday. The contrast between the energetic spirit of contemporary bands in Cambodia with the silencing of musicians under the Khmer Rouge was so compelling that I decided to make a radio documentary while I was on holiday. Returning to Melbourne, I wrote another post about the trip, mostly about the first night of the Kampot River Music Festival and a motorbike ride through the hectic streets of Phnom Penh with Jan, German music producer and ex-soapie star (‘Holiday in Cambodia’, July).

A post about the differing recollections that my friend and I had about how an ex-housemate’s life was saved touched on the elusive nature of memory itself (‘Two of these things are true and one is a lie’, September). Yet the best things about writing ‘Travels in my mind’ has been the triggering of memories, however truthful they may be, and the perennial challenge we all share: trying to communicate something of our experience to someone else.

Thanks for reading; thanks to those who talked back. Your comments and encouragement have been so very welcome.

Yep, that’s all there is.

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Photographic memory: the tale of Tuol Sleng

While visiting Cambodia a few months ago, I was asked by an interpreter, who usually worked as a tour guide, whether I had gone to Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21), the former Khmer Rouge prison that is now a museum.

I told her I hadn’t – and was then stuck for words. Should I attempt to explain why I had not gone to one of her country’s major tourist sites? I didn’t want to offend her. “I don’t see the point of misery tourism” would have been the briefest, most accurate – and most graceless – response.  Tuol Sleng was a high school before the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975.  Up to 15,000 Cambodians and some foreigners were taken there and tortured to extract “confessions”, before being killed either at the prison or at the Choeung Ek killing field, 17 kilometres from Phnom Penh. Continue reading

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Brother Number One – an extraordinary film

Since my return from Cambodia, I’ve been living something of a double life. I began a new, part-time job, which has involved getting reacquainted with the culture of the government shared office. There’s ‘Casual Friday’ – the day on which staff who wear neatly pressed shirts and pointy high heels on any other day of the week suddenly arrive in their gardening clothes. There are cheerfully aggressive notes pasted around the kitchen, about cleaning up and taking your food out of the fridge. There’s talk about work/life balance, as if ‘life’ is what’s left over after the 40-hour working week.

Meanwhile, my double is where I was physically three weeks ago. I’m making a radio program about the music that’s being made in Cambodia.  So in listening to the interviews, the music, the sounds and the lovely clucking intonations of the Khmer language, I’ve been regularly transported back there.

Telling this story is daunting. Like every story about contemporary Cambodian culture, it must refer to that country’s darkest time, when nearly two million people died during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The genocide and its effects have shaped Cambodia’s present and will continue to do so for many years.

But it’s not for nothing that there is a stream of therapy – narrative therapy – in which the stories we tell ourselves are reframed, often to give us a greater sense of agency over our lives. Every day we tell ourselves stories to make sense of things. These stories become memories. They become the framework of how we view the world and our place within it. Stories are important.

I saw an extraordinary documentary as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Brother Number One tells a tragic and deeply moving story that began during those darkest years of Cambodia’s history.

The title refers both to the moniker that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot bestowed upon himself and the position in the Hamill family held by one of his victims, New Zealander Kerry Hamill, the first-born of five children.

At 26 years of age, Kerry Hamill set sail from Darwin, heading to Asia on one of those long journeys of discovery through the hippy belt.  He sailed through Indonesia with a new Australian girlfriend and his Canadian friend, Stuart Glass. Thankfully, his girlfriend Gail returned to Australia, with a plan to meet Kerry in two months’ time. In the film, there is a photo of Kerry and Gail on board the yacht, smiling and suntanned. Kerry, a good looking man, looks like he’s having the time of his life. After Gail left, Kerry and Stuart picked up an English crew member, John Dewhirst, who was on his own adventure far from his home in the Yorkshire dales.

It was August, 1978. The men were sailing past Cambodia when a storm blew up around them. They had been at sea; they were young and innocent; it was the pre-Internet days – so they did not know of the horror the Khmer Rouge was unleashing on the people of Cambodia.  They headed to the island of Koh Tang to shelter from the storm.

Then, a boat appeared and began firing shots at them. Stuart Glass was killed. Kerry and John were taken captive and transported to the Tuol Sleng (S21) prison in Phnom Penh. Few who entered Tuol Sleng as prisoners left alive. More than 12,000 people were tortured and killed there – including Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst.

The documentary, made by New Zealander Annie Goldson, traces another journey from New Zealand to Cambodia – that of Kerry’s youngest brother, Rob Hamill. Thirty one years after his oldest brother arrived under arrest, Rob Hamill arrived in Phnom Penh to seek answers about his brother’s death and to testify at the trial of Comrade Duch, the Commander of Tuol Sleng.

Rob Hamill is an Olympic and trans-Atlantic rowing champion. The film builds a picture of him as a dedicated family man – dedicated to the siblings of his birth family and his late parents, Miles and Esther – and to the family he has made. The film also reveals him to be a man of incredible courage and resilience. In trying to find answers about what happened to his brother, Rob interviews survivors of Tuol Sleng and the prison photographer who takes a ghoulish pride in the quality of photographs he took of every new arrival. In court, Rob’s victim impact statement will affect the sentencing of Duch, so in the presence of the man responsible for his brother’s murder, Rob has to articulate his family’s terrible pain. In addition, Cambodians and others associated with the trial remind Rob that he is one of the few who will have the opportunity to testify. All those whose loved ones were tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng have been waiting for justice for more than 30 years.

The Hamills were a close family, from Whakatane, a little town on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island. When Kerry disappeared in 1978, people overseas could only contact each other by letter. The family endured months of silence before they found out what had befallen Kerry. How could they possibly conceive of this fate for their son and brother?

To say that this is not an easy film to watch is a great understatement. A major element of Brother Number One’s efficacy is Rob Hamill’s lack of self-consciousness about being filmed. It means you are going with him on this journey. There is one scene in which Rob reads the ‘confession’ to being a CIA spy that his brother Kerry has fabricated after months of being tortured, a letter that will lead to his death. His brother’s statement is funny. Kerry used coded words that only his family would understand. At this point, you realize how special a person was Kerry Hamill, who would have comprehended that he was signing his death warrant, but had the chutzpah to write a letter that would make his family laugh.

Brother Number One is a fine example of how one person’s story can illuminate a dense and complex narrative. Through Rob’s communication with people in Cambodia – including the translator – whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, one gains an understanding of this country’s history post World War II and how the dark years of the Pol Pot regime continue to affect Cambodians today. With the trial of Pol Pot’s lieutenants happening now, the screening of Brother Number One is timely and shows how difficult it is for the legal system to deliver peace and restitution, especially 32 years on.

 Brother Number One is showing again as part of MIFF this Saturday, August 6, at 1.30pm.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

There’s also a Brother Number One website.

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Holiday in Cambodia

Back in Melbourne, I’ve got a cold and the heater is up to 11. Three nights ago, I was sweating under a mosquito net, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of pre-dawn in a rural village in Cambodia. A monk broadcasting from a dodgy PA system; roosters crowing; the chuckling of geckos and the sounds of sleepers nearby, their rustling and snoring carrying through thatched walls.

I’m listening to the dance mix of a song by Srey Thy of  The Cambodian Space Project and it’s reminding me of one of the favourite journeys of my holiday in Cambodia. (Am only just getting that Dead Kennedys song out of my system, by the way.) Among the forms of transport I took on my travels – a speedboat, horse and cart, plane, bus, car, tuk tuk and truck, my favourite by far was a motorbike driven by Jan Muller, AKA Professor Kinski, German ex-soapie star, music producer and long-time resident of Phnom Penh.

“I don’t have helmets or lights but don’t worry – I’m a good driver,” he said, as we headed into the peak hour traffic of the Cambodian capital. He was right. He was a good driver – which was handy, as I was juggling a backpack of recording equipment, a handbag and soon enough, a six-pack of beer. Later, as he steered us expertly past tuk tuks, other motorbikes and the bruising four-wheel-drives of the Cambodian nouveau riche and foreign NGO workers, I asked him about his earlier television career. ‘I forgot to ask you about the character you played,’ I said over his shoulder. Jan took a sip from his can of beer while making a left turn into oncoming traffic, which only served to increase my confidence in his driving ability. ‘Oh you know, I was in the soapie for seven years, so everything that could happen to a character in a soapie happened. I went blind. I turned gay. I was arrested for punching a Nazi in the shoulder…’ ‘Punching a Nazi in the shoulder’? Imagine that sentence in a German accent. Then imagine me trying not to giggle too much, so I didn’t have to explain that accident at the hospital. ‘I was OK with the beer and the bags and the no lights and the no helmets but the ‘punching ze Nartsi on ze shoulder’ made me fall helpless to the road…’

I’d first chatted with Jan by email before heading to Cambodia and had called him the day before at 11am to arrange a meeting. ‘Stephanie! Why are you calling me in the middle of the night?’ I was confused. ‘Are you in Germany?’ ‘No, I’m in my mezzanine bed in Phnom Pehn.’ ‘Are you a vampire?’ I asked. ‘No. We made a big party last night.’ This would be a Tuesday. His band Dub Addiction played the first night of the first music festival in Cambodia – which was held at the south-western riverside town of Kampot. K., J. and I flew in to Phnom Penh from Kuala Lumpur, meeting H., who’d been in Vietnam, at the airport. K. and J. went off to spend the night in Phnom Penh, while H. and I were picked up by our Kampot guesthouse host and driven straight there, which was supposedly a three to four hour trip but our driver, with hand stuck to horn and pedal to metal, made it there in two. The festival had ominous beginnings, with a bunch of older expats snap-frozen in the 60s playing overly loud blues and rock covers featuring the solos of eternity.  It was like Buddhist training, except you could buy jugs of gin and tonic.

The venue, another guesthouse on the Kampot River, was full of young expats, all flirting furiously, fuelled by cheap beer and the jugs of spirits. By the time Dub Addiction finally laid down a bassline, the place was literally heaving with bodies and the humid air was weighty with hormones and the promise of sex in a foreign land. I remembered that I was there partly to record the music for a radio doco and had been sending emails for weeks in order to arrive at precisely this place at precisely this time. H. and I finally gave up the papasan chairs we’d been coveting all night to join the throng on the dance floor. Have a listen to Dub Addiction’s Out in the Streets:

The whole scene reminded me of Darwin in the late 80s, when two entrepreneurial musician arts administrators put together the Northern Territory’s first Indigenous rock festival. The organization was kind of patchy, as was the sound quality. Yet the enterprise had a refreshing rawness and the diamonds in the rough shone that much brighter. It was huge fun.

After the gig, we dragged ourselves away to our waiting tuk tuk driver who motored us along the muddy, potholed road back to our guesthouse on the other side of the river, with barely any light but the half-moon and an eerie green neon in his tuk tuk to guide him. We drove past houses on stilts and rice paddies, still with the driving rhythms and Khmer rapping of Dub Addiction’s MC Curly in our ears. K. and J. would be joining us the next day for the longest day of the festival, which was being held in the grounds of our guesthouse. It was late,  so I tipped our driver generously, inadvertently guaranteeing his availability at any hour of the day for the rest of the weekend.

Kampot River Music Festival could have been sub-titled The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. At least on Saturday, we four had home advantage. If a band pushed rudely past the boundaries of good taste (and I’m not naming names), we could retreat to the verandah of our bungalow or take a swim in the river. Many of the bands were fusion bands of Khmer and ‘barang’ (foreigners), playing intriguing hybrid forms of old Cambodian songs. A few were just your average cover bands made up entirely of expats. People could buy tickets for Friday night separately but weekend tickets were $30, which excluded most Cambodians and – so we were told – foreigners earning local wages. The number of tickets was capped at 100, for capacity reasons. There were some mutterings about the cost from several musicians but the organizer assured me that this was a first-time arrangement. Next year the festival would be bigger, allowing the economy of scale to kick in.

The highlight was the headlining Cambodian Space Project, with the charismatic Srey Thy at the helm. A song about the ‘kangaroo’, which I think was  written by Thy for her Australian partner, Julien Poulson, was dedicated to the four Australians who’d come all the way to Kampot, Cambodia, for the festival. Not being particularly nationalistic, we danced kind of self-consciously and were startled as a non-Australian guest came confidently bounding past us onto the dance floor from stage left, paws held aloft.

We got talking to some of the many French band members at the festival and to Mark and Chris, from Yorkshire and San Diego respectively, now living in Kampot and playing music with two talented locals in a band called Kampot Playboys. We saw them play the final gig of the festival the next afternoon, at a nearby guesthouse which had a pool. Listening to their peculiarly hypnotic brand of homespun Khmer folk mixed with Americana, while floating in the pool in a rubber tyre, was definitely another festival highlight.

Later, we met up with the band at singer/guitarist Chiet’s bar in Kampot before moving on to the bar Art Bar Craze (ABC), a cute French-run place. H. and I had come across Ann, who runs the bar with her husband Johann, the previous day, as we were looking for somewhere to have lunch. Ann was sitting outside the bar, enjoying a plate of gratin dauphinois and green salad. ‘We are not open until later. I was just finishing the last of the gratin dauphinois for my lunch. It is so delicious,’ Ann said, in an outrageous French accent. ‘That was kind of cruel,’ I said. ‘But we’re definitely coming here for dinner after the festival tomorrow.’

I wondered how we would get home from the ABC. I didn’t fancy a dark stumble along the long, muddy road home. Somehow, it was nearly 4am on Monday morning and Kampot’s not the kind of place where you can call a cab. As we rolled out of the bar, Ngo, the driver from Friday night, emerged, smiling and sleepy-eyed, from his tuk tuk, where he’d been napping, awaiting our departure. So the final night of the Kampot River Music Festival ended pretty much like the first, bouncing through the potholes past rice paddies and wooden houses on stilts, our faces lit like a B-movie, in leery green neon.

Spooky!

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Bali and Cambodia, here I come

The best ideas soon take on a life of their own and my, they are sociable creatures. As soon as they leave your head, good ideas are off gallivanting. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of something sparkly as your good idea disappears around a corner and makes its way into a welcoming world. So it is that a conversation with my friend K. at last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival has evolved into 40 or so people descending upon Ubud, Indonesia, this week to celebrate K.’s 40th birthday. Continue reading

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