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There is a new contemporary art scene emerging in Cambodia, which is pushing the boundaries of traditional culture and form. Young artists are emerging unshackled by the baggage of the past to define a new future for Khmer painting. This has been given extra momentum by new galleries and art venues in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap that are promoting these artists to the wider world. Check out places like the Art Café, Java Café and Meta House (pl08) in Phnom Penh or Damnak Alliance Café and the Arts Lounge in Hotel de la Paix (pi30) in Siem Reap.
Leading lights on the art scene include Tuol Sleng survivor Vann Nath, spiritually inspired artist Chhim Sothy and challenging young Battambang artist Oeur Sokuntevy.
With a tradition of craftsmanship that produced the temples of Angkor, it is hardly surprising to find that even today Khmers produce exquisitely carved silver, wood and stone. Many of the designs hark back to those of the Angkorian period and are tasteful objects of art. Pottery is also an industry with a long history in Cambodia, and there are many ancient kiln sites scattered throughout the country. Designs range from the extremely simple to much more intricate: drinking cups carved in the image of elephants, teapots carved in the image of birds, and jars carved in the image of gods.
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The Culture

Since the glory days of the Angkor empire of old, the Cambodian people have been on the losing side of many a historical batue, tneircSuntry au too often a minnow amid the circling sharks. Popular attitudes have been shaped by this history, and the relationship between Cambodia and its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam is marked by a cocktail of fear, admiration and animosity.
Cambodian attitudes towards the Thais and Vietnamese are complex.
The Thais aren’t always popular, as some Cambodians feel the Thais fail to acknowledge their cultural debt to Cambodia, still teach that Angkor belongs to Thailand in schools and generally look down on their poorer neighbour. 4 Cambodian attitudes towards the Vietnamese are more ambivalent. There is a certain level of mistrust, as many feel the Vietnamese are out to colonise their country. (Many Khmers still call the lost Mekong Delta ‘Kampuchea Krom’ or ‘Lower Cambodia’.) However, it is balanced with a grudging respect for their ‘liberation’ from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 (see p36). But when liberation became occupation in the 1980s, the relationship soon soured once more.
At first glance, Cambodia appears to be a nation of shiny, happy people, but look deeper and it is a country of contradictions. Light and dark, rich and poor, love and hate, life and death – all are visible on a journey through the kingdom. Most telling of all is the nation’s glorious past set against its tragic present.
Angkor is everywhere: on the flag, the national beer, hotels and guesthouses, cigarettes – anything and everything. It’s a symbol of nationhood and of fierce pride; Csiinbodians built Angkor Wat and it doesn’t come bigger than that.
Jayirarman VII, Angkor’s greatest king, is nearly as omnipresent as his temples. The man that vanquished the occupying Chams and took the empire to p greatest glories is a national hero.
Contrast this with the abyss into which the nation was sucked during the years of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot is a dirty word in Cambodia due to the death and suffering he inflicted on the country. Whenever you hear his name, it will be connected with stories of endless personal tragedy, of dead brothers, moth-ers and babies, from which most Cambodians nave never had the chance to recover. No-one has yet tasted justice, the whys and hows remain unanswered and the older generation must live with the shadow of this trauma.
If Jayavarman VII and Angkor are loved and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge despised, then the mercurial Sihanouk, the last of the god-kings who has ultimately shown his human side, is somewhere inbetween. Many Cambodians love him as the ‘father of the nation’, but to others he is the man who failed the nation by his association with the Khmer Rouge. In many ways, his contradic-tions match those of contemporary Cambodia. Understand Sihanouk and what he has had to survive and you will understand much of Cambodia.
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Some fifteen years ago, Mireille Gansel and I were working on an anthology of Vietnamese literature (French translation). We were well into the second half of the 19,th century, the beginning of colonization, and wereuans- lating this poem by Nguyen Khuyen (1835-1909):
"A pond in autumn, cold and desert,
A fishing boat, small and lonely,
Slight ripples crease the turquoise blue water,
A golden leaf drifts in the wind…"
We also worked on Tran Te Xuong (1870-1907) who, with his sarcastic poems, was a thorn in the side of greedy mandarins and time-servers of all descriptions.
One morning, I offered a piece of manioc to Mireille and she reciprocated in the Vietnamese way by writing this poem:
“Between the song of a solitary sampan
And the screeching laughter of the century past
You offered me a piece of boiled manioc
Bought from an old woman sitting by her shoulder piece
And you told me ‘manioc grows on hills in the midlands;
It’s the rice of the poor’
And we shared the bittersweet root 
Exposed from its brown, cracked skin
Between the song of a solitary sampan 
And the screeching laughter of the century past 
You offered me the hand of your country 
A work hardened hand.”
Manioc came from the valley of the Amazon River. It was first imroduced into Africa and India before making its way, in the 19th century, to Southeast Asia and Việt Nam, first to the southern part of the country.
An understanding plant, manioc simply thrives on the depleted soil of hills in the north as well as on the alum soil of the Mekong delta. It can even adapt to sandy regions along the coast and to old and new alluvial terraces along rivers. It does not need manure of any kind, but it depletes the soil quickly.
In lean years, it is manioc that will replace rice, a more delicate plant that calls for great care. During the past wars manioc constituted the main diet of guerrillas in the jungle. Manioc is prepared in different ways, boiled or grilled. It is preserved in dried slices. From manioc starch are made tapioca, vermicelli and all sorts of cakes. Manioc is also used to make alcohol, glucose and dextrin. It will be an unforgettable experience to try your teeth on a chunk of piping hot manioc while chanting with friends around a blazing fire on a winter night.
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Events Calendar: JANUARY-APRIL

Why not plan your trip to coincide with one of Cambodia’s major festivals? Holidays and festivals take place according to the lunar calendar, so dates vary from year to year. Check the internet (www for this year’s exact dates.
The Chinese inhabitants of Cambodia celebrate their New Year somewhere between late January and mid-February – for the Vietnamese, this is Tet. As many of Phnom Penh’s businesses are run by Chinese, commerce grinds to a halt around this time and there are dragon dances all over town.
This is a three-day celebration of the Khmer New Year, and is like Christmas, New Year and birthdays all rolled into one. Cambodians make offerings at wats, clean out their homes and exchange gifts. It is a lively time to visit the country as the Khmers go wild with water and talcum powder, leaving a lot of bemused tourists looking like plaster-cast figures. Large crowds congregate at Wat Phnom in the capital, but females should watch out for the over- eager attention of young gangs of males. Throngs of Khmers flock to Angkor, and it’s absolute madness at most temples, so avoid the celebration if you want a quiet, reflective Angkor experience.
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The tao of spice flavours Vietnamese cooking

While in Viet Nam, savour spices the way the Vietnamese do, as both indispensable condiments and effective medicines.
First, arm yourself with some fundamentals of an ancient gastronomic philosophy that provides that the culinary art, like all other things, must achieve a balance between yin and yang, the two cosmic elements that regulate the working of the universe. Foods, in the concept of khí (vital energy), have either ascendant or descendant emanations and therefore are either stimulating or sedative in character. Again, from the viewpoint of vi (savour), they are grouped in five categories: cold, hot, moderate, warm and fresh. The protein-rich meat from big wild and domestic animals is considered hot, while aquatic produce and water buffalo meat are classed as cold. Chicken is medium.
To ensure the yin-yang balance, spices are called into play: chilli (yang) for marine produce (yin), salt (yang) for pumpkin (yin), or garlic (yang) for mong toi, a kind of vegetable described as cold. Onion soup (yang) is an effective febrifuge medicine.
Chilli is most widely used, especially in the central and southern parts of the country. You may wonder why. A practitioner of traditional medicine will say that when the inside of your body is hot (yang), your organism will react by secreting cold fluids (yin) to maintain the internal equilibrium. A cold drink in summer provides a temporary cooling effect but will create a hot feeling afterwards. Likewise, the temporary hot sensation produced by chilli (yang) will soon be replaced by a lasting feeling of freshness (yin), which comes as a natural reaction of the body.
In this way, ginger is used to season fish, beef or chicken stew; galingate to neutralise the strong smell of fish and to make rich meat more digestible; saffron to treat fish, eel, snail and frog. The list is infinite.
Aromatic herbs, raw and seasoned with nuoc (fish sauce), make Vietnamese cuisine even more special. The famous hung lang (peppermint) from a suburb of Ha Noi imparts an unforgettable flavour to dishes of duck, dog and pork; hanh hoa (spring onion) enhances the taste of any preparations; ran mm (coriander) is also used for a purifying bath on the eve of Tet because of its light fragrance; la he (scallion) accompanies noodles and minced shrimp; cat die (chrysanthemum cononarium) is a must for fish in rice soup: guava and sycamore leaves act as antidotes in the consumption of raw fish or fermented pork.
Last but not least is nuoc mam, a distinctive feature of the Vietnamese cuisine. Prepared variously with garlic, lemon, vinegar, pepper, chilli and sugar, it offers a whole gamut of delicious sauces to go with any dishes on a lavish table.
Spices also lace the national language. Ginger and salt refer to conjugal fidelity. “Here’s a plate of ginger and salt,” says a folksong. “Ginger is hot, salt is salty; we’ve tasted them all, so let’s not part.” Chilli implies disillusionment or jealousy. Saffron evokes cowardice: “Bullies are flushed in the face when they are strong. Beaten, they become yellow like saffron.”
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Country fare lands in urban restaurants

There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven.
Ecclesiastes 3
There was a time in Viet Nam when country dishes couldn’t be found on respectable restaurant menus in urban centres.
But this is no longer true.
In fact, many restaurants are cashing in on Vietnamese looking to get a little old fashioned cooking known as đặc or specialties.
Originally, the term was used to denote particular dishes or products from specific regions according to the Dao Duy Anh Vietnamese Dictionary. One could call cinnamon grown in Thanh Hoa Province, oranges native to Vinh, glutinous griddle-cakes prepared in Quan Ganh or even shrimp paste produced in Hue dac san.
Using this term in a restaurant is a recent trend, if I’m not mistaken. At least I don’t remember roast duck, the pride of Tu Hung Lau Restaurant, being called a speciality 50 years ago. Neither was the incomparable pho served along Bronze Street or the delectable stuffed pancakes available only on Cathedral Street.
According to my history books, the new meaning of dac san was imparted during a time of social change in the north when people could only get food from ration centres run by the State.
In the wake of doi moi, renewal process, adopted by Viet Nam in 1986. life began to improve and eateries opened up everywhere.
Northerners could now eat and drink to their hearts content, as their southern brethren were wont. It was then, during this time of celebration and abundance, that traditional dishes, known as dac san, made their way into modem restaurants.
First to hit the menu were spring rolls, imperial pate and bird’s nest soup. Next came steak using imported Australian beef, pizza, Russian salads, Cantonese noodles and other international specialties once only available to a few, well-off folk.
Chefs and cooks began to mix ingredients that had never been combined before. Spring rolls could now be served with mustard instead of the traditional nuoc mam, fish sauce. Pho, a dish that used to be unique to each street comer became standardised.
"It’s stupid to pay triple for a bowl of industrialised pho" complained a friend from Berlin who came for a visit.
In a time of plenty, the coming of country foods is a welcome sign because of their hearty flavours that are devoid of fast food and western influences.
Plain, simple dishes farmers consume daily are now advertised as specialties. One can sample rice, boiled or picked vegetables, fish, shrimp, paddy crabs, clams or mussels just about anywhere.
Rice, cooked in a small clay pot, retains all its natural flavour and the slightly burned layer at the bottom is quite tasty because of its crispiness.
One restaurant offers a side dish consisting of butter-fried paddy crabs a long with banh da, roast pancakes. Another favourite dish for Hanoians is boiled cabbage seasoned with a pasty mixture of fish sauce and duck eggs. This, accompanied by nom, assorted bitter-sweet vegetables and banana flowers, is pleasing for even the most difficult palate.
Given time, these popular dishes from humble roots may someday be included in foreign dictionaries just as pho, nom and nuoc mam already are and be identified with Vietnamese culture everywhere.
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The damned waterpipe

"Tempted by a puff of Lao tobacco, as much as by a mistress 
One would dig up the buried waterpipe."
                                        (Popular song)
It is all about a kind of pipe – the water pipe – preferred by fanners in northern Viet Nam for their thuoc lao, a special kind of home-grown tobacco.
The pipe is made out of a sufficiently big length of bamboo of about thirty centimeters (thirteen inches) provided with a wood bowl near the lower extremity.
While burning a pinch of thuoc lao by means of a straw, the smoker, usually sitting on his haunches, will take a long drag through an opening at the upper end, which produces a bubbling sound as the smoke comes out from below several centimeters of water (and is denicotinised in the process, it is argued).
Sometimes, the smoker will feel very high and will collapse near the fire, losing some of his hair to the flames. This usually happens in the morning when, still sleepy, one tries the first smoke of the day on an empty stomach. “Damn this water-pipe!” — one will curse with all one’s love for the dear pipe.
The water pipe accompanies farmers to their fields. It has its place in every village home. At a small roadside inn in the shade of a secular banyan, the pipe gives exhausted travelers a revigorating moment, especially when the smoke is washed down with a bowl of piping hot green tea.
Beside the popular water-pipe, the pot-shaped porcelain pipe and the cylindrical inlaid wood pipe with a long, curved reed stem will look like aristocrats because, in fact, they are part of the paraphernalia of a well-off person, or, as in the old days, a mandarin, who would always be accompanied by a foot-soldier bearing his pipe, the symbol of his authority.
Years ago, if farmers in the plain were forced by circumstances to settle in the mountains, which they hated to do, they would smoke thuoc lao to protect themselves from the “malevolent air” of those upper regions which was said to be the cause of fever!
This practice, according to some scholars, gave rise to the wide spread habit of thuoc lao smoking, a habit so strong that not a few young Vietnamese students today can be seen smoking their water-pipes in Moscow or Berlin.
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Christmas with Hanoians

Christmas, observed since the fourth century, has adopted certain practices of heathens in celebrating the winter solstice. In return it has been adopted by “heathens” in Ha Noi for over half a century now.
Early on Chirstmas Eve large crowds of both Catholics and non-Catholics coming from as far as the suburbs despite the cold weather, usually severe around this time of year, will converge on the parvis of St. Joseph Cathedral, built in the heart of the city in 1886, or mill about in surrounding streets. The young will take the occasion to show off in their modish clothes, to flirt or simply to have a good time. As time wears on everybody will try to get a place inside the cathedral for the Midnight Mass.
And to think that for a Vietnamese a century and a half ago to venture inside a Catholic church would mean to invite upon himself punishment of the worst kind. History has covered some ground, indeed.
Catholicism has a rather painful history in Vietnam, perhaps because of its “original sin.” Europe’s colonial expansion and the “discovery” of new lands in Asia in the 16th century helped a great deal to extend Christ’s Kingdom. Unfortunately, evangelisation was often heavily involved in colonial enterprise. The Romanex Pontifex encyclical of 1455 in fact consecrated the separation of the Spanish sphere of political domination from the Portuguese one.
The Dominicans and Franciscans began to arrive in Viet Nam in the 16lh and early 17th century. But it was the Jesuits who succeeded in forming a core of some 30,000 converts in 1650. Meanwhile French priests from the Paris Foreign Missions had managed to dislodge the Portuguese preachers.
In 1627 one French missionary. Alexandre de Rhodes, arrived in Ba Lang, a village in Thanh Hoa province. One day as he was preaching the World of God to villagers who gathered at the beach to watch his boat, the French missionary saw Lord Trinh Trang passing by. He came up to meet the ruler and presented him with a watch and a book on mathematics. He was then allowed to preach and, in just two months, he made 200 converts.
The new faith, however, was in conflict with native beliefs and customs. It prohibited the worship of ancestors, the consumption of votive offerings and the practice of polygamy. The Catholic Church claimed the entire terrestrial empire to the Pope, to the detriment of the Vietnamese King, Son of Heaven. In this way Catholicism failed to become an integral part of the Vietnamese social organism, contrary to the case of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. That was why it was banned again and again.
Things went from bad to worse during the second half of the 19th century when the Church joined hands with the French invaders. The colonial administration and the Catholic hierachy worked hard to turn the Catholic community against the rest of the population in the movement for national liberation. This deplorable situation, as typified by the case of Ngo Dinh Diem, was maintained by both the French and Americans throughout the Two Indochina Wars.
But there were patriotic Catholics as well. They fought in the ranks of the resistance, preparing for the return of the Catholic community to the fold of the nation. Thus, since the liberation of South Viet Nam in 1975, Christmas has been celebrated in a spirit of national reconciliation.
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