Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Meeting the King

So, after the excitement of the exhibition Sunday I was up again at 5am (usual!) to jump around waiting until 9.30am when the kids would arrive to go and see the King Of Cambodia - Preah Bat Samdech Preah Baromneath Norodom Sihamoni, His Majesty the King of Cambodia – to be precise.

I had written to the King a few weeks ago to tell him of the Smile photography project** I had set up. The King is a man of the arts. He studied Fine Arts and Dance in Europe and is very much into artistic pedagogy (basically teaching using the arts). Despite this clear connection to the project I was somewhat doubtful that an audience would be granted so when I was told about 10 days ago I was a bit surprised! Initially the invitation was just for me and the 10 children on the Photo Project but after asking General Van (the Kings aide) nicely I managed to get a further 3 invitations for the Director of CCH and his wife and Brian who is also involved in the Project.

Traditional Cambodia dress dictates a formal long skirt, coloured according to the day of the week and a white shirt. Having been to the tailors earlier in the week my outfit was ready to go. I knew my white shirt from my litigation days just HAD to come in useful at least once....good job I packed it in the 40kg case those 8 months ago!

Unusually for Cambodians the children arrived on the dot at 9.30am. Luckily, I had managed to speak to General Van to be told (roughly) what would happen at 6.30am that morning! The children would line up according to age and gender – I would go first. Ummm – not quite as comprehensive as I would have liked.

Lining up... I got no direction and was concerned at messing up!
So we set off at 10.20am and arrived at the gate which leads to the King’s home at the right hand side of the Royal Palace. We had to get out and the kids had to practice lining up. After 10 minutes or so the gates opened and a police escort took us down the King’s driveway.
In we go....

We got out of the minibus and General Van greeted me. I vaguely remembered him saying the day before (when I was stressed in the tuk tuk and could not hear properly –see post below) that the King would be at the top of the stairs when we got out of the car. He said it was time, the King was ready! And then I realised I was not just walking into a reception area to wait – The King was waiting at the top of the stairs to greet me and the rest of the others after me.

Arriving - the king is the dot at the top of the steps...I hadn't noticed him at this point!

Up the red carpet we went, the General and I. I asked him whether I should do the traditional bow (hands up to forehead for highest respect) or shake his hand. The General said “yes”(!). And before there was time for clarification time then ran out and I as face to face with the King. Well instinct kicked in and my hands were up by my forehead and I was bowing Cambo style. We then shook hands and had a brief chat about how honoured we both were to meet each other and then I went and stood by the picture we had given the King as a gift. The others followed me up in the order they had been told. I then presented the gift to the King. I told him about the child who had taken the picture and a bit about the project. The king thanked us a lot. We all bowed a lot. We all expressed humbleness!

Then I thought that was the end... but no... The King then took us into his home to a ballroom. There 14 plush chairs plus one for the King. I was to go in first and sit by the right side of the King. When we were all seated he thanked us again and then waited for me to speak..... Well this is not the way we do it in England!! I was confused! He did not ask questions but just allowed me to say what I liked!

I told him about the great success of the opening party and how the children had done a 10 week course. I praised the orphanage and the Director and told him he was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and that his vision was to give the children better hopes through education. We talked for about 10 – 15 minutes. During this time I was aware that no one else was getting to speak to I kept trying to speak about other people in the group!

Eventually, the King then moved on to speak to the Director – Sokha and then each of the children – who were quaking in their trainers. Before we went in I asked them if they were scared and they had said “no” and laughed... well they were now!

They addressed the King in Khmer (I spoke to him in English as he speaks French, English, Czech and Khmer). They told him their names, where they were from and about the project (I heard my name many times in the Khmer that was being spoken!).
Here is some still shots of some TV footage
I'm ok, I'm ok
I'll just check...

Yes, I'm ok!

Bow more

The King then proposed a toast. Well at least I think that is what happened as it was in Khmer. He got his juice and said some kind sounding things and looked at me. The said some more kind things in English and then we took a sip. I tried to gulp as much as possible in that one sip!

He then invited me and the others to follow him for an official photograph. Back into the hall we went and posed with me next to the King. He then invited us to receive a gift from him. Again I was first and I was presented with a beautiful Cambodian silver tray. I thanked him profusely for my gift and said it would always remind me of my happy times in Cambodia (oh I am so smooth – but also meant it!). I then waited while the others got gifts. The children got school uniforms and a book, pen and 10,000 Riel ($5) – which is a big deal here. Then off I went again, I was first to say goodbye to the King. More bowing, hand shaking and thanking/honouring.
In we got to the minibus and the King stood at the top of the steps and waved to us with both hands flying in the air for the whole 500m drive to the exit. We all waved back madly!! This gesture for me only confirmed my opinion that I had formed in the last 20 minutes or so. The King is a gracious man with a genuine love for his people. He seemed genuinely happy that we were visiting him and his thanks came from the heart. His eyes said it all. He was delighted that the children had the opportunity and that their futures though CCH were going to be better. He had invited us because he really WAS interested not because he had a hole in his diary. It was awesome (a word which is not in my general vocabulary)!

Me on TV getting my gift

Off we went to Gasolina so that Sokha the Director could see the photos as he had not been able to see them the night before. We then posed for some group shots and showed off our gifts.

From the King to me! and to the children

Me, the director and his wife - Sokha and Dany

A proud teacher at the exhibition with gift!

The King’s audiences are televised and so we were told we would be on TV at 7pm. That afternoon I slept but awoke at 5.30pm to go out to the orphanage to watch my appearance with the kids. At precisely 7pm we were on. Lots of footage of me being the Barang (white one) with the traditional skirt doing lots of bowing. The atmosphere at the orphanage was brilliant. All the kids were screaming/cheering in delight at the images of us all. Then a classic TV moment... During the ceremony I wanted to check whether the kids were still holding their hands together so I looked behind me (where the camera also was). They were still bowing (as I was) so I looked back quickly... The result... a petrified looking me!!!! The still shots from the TV are above!

This was mum’s first visit to the orphanage too. So she got to meet Sina, who was in an excellent mood.

**The Smile Photography Project focuses on documentary photography. The Project seeks to democratize the image-making dynamic by enabling those that have traditionally been the subject of such works to become the works creator. The students therefore have the opportunity to have control over how they and their surroundings are perceived by the rest of the world while simultaneously learning a new skill which can enhance their lives. Ten children (ranging from 10 to 17 years old) from the Centre for Children’s Happiness (CCH) and its sister orphanage CDCC took part in the Smile Project.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Exhibition opening and mum arriving

Saturday was the cumulation of 13 weeks work for me and the children of CCH. Saturday at 7pm was the opening of the SMILE exhibition. With the articule in the Phnom Penh Post and 300 posters up aroung town I hoped lots of people would come...
Getting the pictures out to hang them
I was up at dawn (again) although up and dressed and travelling to Stung Mean Chey to see the children by 6.30am. It had rained in the night again and the air had a very rare fresh feeling! By 11am I had done all the printing for the information tags etc and was at Gasolina manically measuring out the areas with Brian. We worked non stop until 3.30pm hanging, sticking and also covering the pictures with paper so they could be unveiled to the children when they arrived.

Pictures ready to unveil at 7pm

At 3.30pm I jumped on a moto taxi, did my best areoplane impression, to make sure he understood my request to know where I was off to. My mum was arriving from the UK escorted by my husband Fred. 2 things made me smile on the way to the airport (although I was in a good mood already!). First, in front of the military airbase, right by the sign, bobbing in the wind was a massive Micky Mouse shaped red balloon....a great political statement photo could have been taken but I was in a rush. Moments later a small corgi was seen bouncing like a lamb through a patch of lush green grass! With all the billboards by the airport telling you how wonderful a destination Cambodia is the whole thing was totally surreal.
On arrival at the airport the board told me the plane was 1 hour and 35 minutes late. Thereby causing a disaster wave through my tight schedule for the opening of the exhibition. After making plans for Brian to collect the students from my house and resigning myself for a long borning wait I went to the information desk to ask if the flight had left Bangkok yet. I laughed at myself for doing this. I was expecting a shrug if that from the man behind the desk. However, he simply informed me that the plane had in fact landed... confused I went back to the board and sure enough the plane was in - Now that is service!!

After an emotional reunion Mum was introduced to Cambodia via tuk tuk. It took just over an hour to get through the conjested streets. We arrived home at 5.30pm and the children were early! They were there waiting for us when we arrived. At that moment the Royal Palace decided to call me an to say I was a little stressed would be a small understatement. I was covered in dust and grime, had 10 kids in my house, the King's personal secretary on the phone and my mum trying to lug her suitcase up 3 flights of stairs!!!
All became sorted quicky and after a quick shower we were ready to leave the house at 5.45pm. 16 year old ravuth drove us to the exhibition bar - Gasolina - We arrived and I think it was at this point when the kids saw the place they realised that this was quite a big event. Here my idea of covering the pictures with paper proved to be utterly brilliant(!!) We went around the 28 pictures calling out the kids names and I took off the paper to huge applause and excited cheers of the children. It was very moving. 2 Americans had come early as well and so they witnessed the unveiling and provided our first outsiders views on the pictures. All very positive.

Some of the pictures
With the pictures on display sparkling and a beer in my hand all we needed were guests! I was casually waiting for the British Ambassador to arrive when a reporter showed up. Thinking he was from the Phnom Penh Post (see previous post on their previous article) I went to say hi and introduce myself - It turned out he was from Apsara TV. The TV station owned by the Prime Minister's wife. They were here to do a story on the exhibition! I was then interviewed for my first Cambodian national TV appearance. I am yet to see the results but I think the impression I was trying to create (arty yet professional!) came across!

My TV appearance

They then interviewed 2 children and I asked if they needed any more help - "yes - we need a guest"... Well I had the perfect guest in mind - in the form of my mum. Off she went to make her impression on Cambodia within an hour of landing on the tarmac! The Kemp family do not do things by halves!

The students showing guests around

Once this was over I resumed "ambassador watch" until I spotted His Excellency Mr Andrew Mace. Andrew is in Cambodia as his first Ambassadorship (?) and has only been in the country 6 weeks. I spent some time talking to him before having to entertain other guests and my impression was that he was a genuninely nice person with an interest in the country. I would commend the FCO for their appointment!
The Ambassador, me, Sambo and Thavery - 2 of my students talk about the pictures

We like ambassadors that drink beer with our mums
By this time the Phnom Penh Post had arrived and took some candid shots of the visitors and some also of me - so I am in the paper again (hard life) today with 2 pictures in the Lifestyle section.

It was a busy evening showing people around, taking care of then children and trying to make some sales too! Calendars, coffee table books and prints are now on sale!! Many thanks to everyone who came - and if you are in the country and haven't been yet, the exhibition runs until 28 November. I am very proud of the children's achivements. The pictures look completely professional - and to think they are only 12ys - 16yrs old...and had not taken pictures before. If you are not in the country check out and why not purchase an unframed print! - Posted direct to your door!

With people leaving at about 10pm it was time to have dinner and a large glass of wine before heading home to get ready for the KING(!) on Sunday.......Phew!!... More on the amazing audience with the King later.
Towards the end of the evening...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Closer and closer to SMILE

I thought I was quite well prepared for the exhibition ( but it appears I am not and will spend Saturday finalising slightly more than bits and pieces. I have now picked up my Sampot from the tailors to see the King and I am sooooo delighted with the result. It is a beautiful long skirt in red with a mermaid kick at the bottom (I do not expect male readers to understand...!) It cost a whopping £17 in total... so really, how can you go wrong?

Today the Smile project was in the Phnom Penh Post. A Cambodian national newspaper. Here is a link to the article which is great exposure for the exhibition.

Not sure about all the references to my surname though ... makes me sound like a company perhaps!

My mum is on her way to Cambo land and will arrive on Saturday. I am looking forward to showing her the weird and wonderful ways of the country.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

To add a shallow entry to my blog...

Today, in between rushing to sort out more things for the exhibition I found time to go to Lucky supermarket, the biggest supermarket in town. Look what I found!!

....Its my very own Cambodian version of my favourite cleaning product - Cillit Bang! I thought it was probably a counterfeit version but no!! It appears genuine as usage has revealed that it too is able to strip even the skin off your hands and destroy items around the house in the name of cleaning!! My mum will be able to arrive to a very clean house on Saturday!

...I wonder if Easy Off BAM is contributing to the death of many many squashed rats (the size of small cats) who I am seeing on the roads at the moment... Nah I think that is probably the 4x4s!

Apparently, Easy-Off BAM cleans a penny in 60 seconds, whereas Cillit Bang takes only 10-15 seconds!!!!!!! Vital information I think when comparing the international brands - Its a good job Cambodia does not have any coins!

Monday, October 20, 2008

More preparations for exhibition

Here are the students in my photo class: taking the picture is Thavery. Then there is (Left to right and top to bottom) Ratha, Piset, Ravuth, Sambath, Raksmey, Naran, Srey Neang, Sokunthea, Sambo.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Naga World

As things get closer to the exhibition I have been run off my feet trying to get things sorted. The British Ambassador is now coming so that is excellent news and the posters are up all over town. Today I put them in large tourist areas like the Cambodiana hotel and Raffles. All of whom were very happy to assist. As I was walking/sweating around on my way home I thought I would see if the huge building that is Naga world would oblige with enticing some tourists to the exhibition - Its a large casino. and hotel. I had not been to Naga World before but its not too far from our house and you can't miss it. It is popular with Chinese and Korean - apparently.

I had to clamber over concrete piles to get to the front door - clearly guests are not in the habit of walking. The a massive entrance hall greeted me with a friendly metal detector. As soon as I am in I passed the guards (one of which they have made to dress up in a traditional Cambodian dress which is totally out of place in the monster of a building and only makes the man look ridiculous) I realise that the people in here are not going to want a POSTER anywhere in sight nor are the guests interested in humanitarian efforts - everything is spotless in a nasty, chinz decoration type way. As I was in I thought I would take a look around. All I saw were many many people (at 2.30pm) gambling away on various machines and tables. It was all rather abrasive given the poverty I had just walked into to get inside. The whole thing just made me feel sick. The loan counter inside was also rather depressing. The enterprise is bizarre but given the number of tourists inside it was clearly a money spinner. Yuck. I am glad I left having only appreciated the air conditioning!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Preah Vihear

You may have heard or read in the news that there is something going down between the Cambodians and the Thais at the moment at a border zone. In fact on 15 October things got a little more serious and 2 cambodian soldiers have now been killed and 2 more injured. Reports are that 5 Thais are also injured.
The reason for the stand off is an historic temple - Preah Vihear - a source of national pride for Cambodians. The temple is only accessible from Thailand and the area around it is heavily mined. An international court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but land surrounding it remains the subject of rival territorial claims. So... Thailand and Cambodia both claim they own the area around the temple, which recently became a Unesco World Heritage site. There has been a bit of a military stand off at the area since July but things now have got more heated and violent.

Officials ahve been trying to negotiate a ceasefire but on Tuesday the Cambodian Prime Minister threatened to turn the area into a "death zone" if the Thai troops did not withdraw...
Thais are leaving Cambodia as they have been urged to do by their governement.

The dispute is a little concerning as it could have repercussions closer to the capital. A spat in 2003 over Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple (a Thai actress claimed the ruins were owned by Thailand!) sparked a night of riots in Phnom Penh by nationalists, in which Thailand's embassy and several Thai-owned businesses were torched and looted.

Reuters reported yesterday that the dispute had " triggered a wave of patriotism in the Cambodian capital on Thursday, with many ordinary people saying they were willing to take up arms to protect their country." However, one Cambodian newspaper, Rasmei Kampuchea, Cambodia's largest circulation paper, also ran a front-page government appeal for Thai businesses and people to be left alone in the capital.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sunday is red day...

Royal invitation

Today I found out that the Royal Palace had accepted my request to meet with the King of Cambodia His Majesty Preah Bat Samdech Preah Boromneath Norodom Sihamoni with the 10 chidlren of the Smile photographic project from CCH and CDCC! We meet with the King on 26 October at 11am - the day after the exhibition.

In England, in the small city where I am from there is an entire floor in an ancient department store which can only be described as a "meet the Queen" floor. A floor full of hideous coloured jackets and skirts and so on... There is no such thing in Cambodia. Meeting the king requires a traditional sampot. This is a floor length skirt worn with a white blouse/shirt. I first went to the local silk shop I had been meaning to go to for months but had never got round to and got reams of red silk. The woman at the shop told me that Sunday was red day. In Cambodia each day has a colour. At the Royal Palace formal costume is coloured by the day of the week. This silk was then taken to my favourite tailors - Threads (located behind one of my favourite cafes) and I decided on the style of Sampot. It will be ready next Thursday... The framed pictures should also be ready then too!

Progress on exhibition

We are making good progress for the SMILE exhibition that is due to open on Saturday 25 October in PP. The course in photography is now over and I have had the best pictures printed large and they are now with the framing gallery....

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Olympic stadium

Earlier in the week I went to the Olmpic Satdium with Brit, a photographer from the US (who I mentioned below). She has manged to send me these pics which are nice to have as often I don't get many photos of me. Brit's website is
Thanks Brittni!

I was trying to get this child to smile for me - he was selling peanuts. He did smile eventually when he was in control of my camera!

This man was training to be a doctor and we had an indepth conversation about giving money to begging children.

A trip to Kandal province

Today was the final day of photo school for the students from CCH and CDCC. In just 2 weeks time their exhibition will be launched at Gasolina.

I was struggling to find a fun and interesting place to take the students. I had a few ideas and suggested a few of these to them whilst shuttling from the classroom (my living room) to the Kitchen to make coffee for them. Then they came up with a far better idea.... Some of the children at CCCC and CCH have one or both parents. They could have ended up at the landfill in PP for all sorts of reasons. One of the students is lucky to have 2 parents who are alive and living with a brother and sister in the province called Kandal. She asked if we could make the hour journey there... why not.

We tried to go by share taxi (a mini bus) but by 8am they had all left for the day. However, our tuk tuk driver was willing to go the distance. So... with 9 of us in 1 tuk tuk: 1 sitting by the driver, 1 sitting on the floor, 6 sitting properly and 1 sitting on my lap, we were on our way. It took about 2 hours to get to our destination.

Monks crossing

We turned at a road I had seen before on my way to Wat Opot - the HIV hospice (see previous post). Once we turned off the national highway we made slow progress on a mud track - on either side were luch green rice fields and palm trees and then finally a massive lake full of water lilys and lotus flowers. We stopped here to pick some lotus flowers and to stretch our legs from the tuk tuk. A wat was being built in the distance. At the moment it is just a concrete shell but when it is complete with orange and yellow tiles on its roof it will complete a picture perfect scene of Cambodian countryside.

The student's 5 year old brother

We reached the student's home and met her mother and father who were surprised and very pleased to see her as they had no idea she was coming. By western standards they had nothing. A wooden house on concerete stilts with an area underneath with a space for eating and for animals with a single room above for sleeping. The family had a few chickens and cows and also have a field for growing potatoes.

We started by touring some of the houses in the neighbourhood. People were amazingly friendly. It was particularly nice to see old people - in Phnom Penh older people do not really have a presence. Many of the people had not seen a white face before - I particularly freaked out small children - I managed to make 3 children sob with fear! The younger children were also petrified of the cameras... The older children were enhanting anf screamed in delight at having their first picture ever taken. The student's brother was 5. He had never had his picture taken before. He laughed so much every time he saw his photo.

He is such a beautiful child and so happy and content. As we ate our luch, kindly prepared by the student's parents, I took more pictures and more and more children turned up to have their picture taken and to laugh at the results. I held various village babies and had my picture taken!#

me and babies - They stopped crying for a photo in the end!

After lunch we went for a walk in the potato field and then the rice paddies. We passed lots of local people... lots of advice for the barang (foriegner) - I shuld be wearing a hat... I must be hot (yes it was BAKING in what was probably 36 degree (or more) heat!) etc etc. It was great to see the chidlren running and jumping in the potato field... we then walked to the rice fields, meeting more people on the way. Then, we got to a stream. In the dry season the stream is probably a road but in the wet season it was a stream that reached my knees. Roll the trousers up, feet in the mud, walk across. The children were just chucking themselves in enjoying the break from the searing heat.

We made our way becak to the family house and came across a thing I had never seen before. A man who tours villages with a machine that makes rice cakes. These are not normal rice cakes but a long tube of rice cake. The rice goes in one end of the machine and out it spirals from the other end like an out of control hose pipe - into a sack. The woman buying it gave me some and it was delicious! - warm, fresh rice cake.

The children gave me so many wild grasses and flowers I ended up with a big bunch
We then started to make our way home. The sister and brother of One of the other students with me lived in a house on the way home. We stopped to see them too - just briefly. I made another child cry!!

Finally, we stopped at a school where all the kids ran about in excitement and all came out of their classrooms to say hello.