Sunday, December 27, 2015

New Christians Celebrating Christmas in Cambodia

By: Olivia Harlow
Produced & Edited by: Olivia Harlow 

At last Sunday’s annual Christmas-themed church service at the Phnom Penh Church of Christ, Christmas lights decorated the stage, teens reenacted the Bible’s Nativity scene, and a preacher dressed as Santa flung candy into the air.
The congregation was packed with hundreds of Cambodians and several expats. One of the attendants was 24-year-old Phally Ken.
Ms. Ken, who started attending church services in 2013 and was baptized this July, is one of many Cambodians who recently converted to Christianity and celebrated Christmas for the first time this year.
“This Sunday is the first time Christmas has meaning to me,” said Ms. Ken, adding that although she’s attended church for two years, this is her first “real” Christmas. “This year I feel it, I am thankful for it.”

Cambodians gathered after school at the Phnom Penh Church of Christ on Christmas at a party that included various games, dancing, and a massive Christmas feast. 

To celebrate, Ms. Ken—who currently works full-time as a hotel receptionist and part-time as an English teacher—made paper snowflakes with her students, bought herself champagne and chocolates, and attended multiple Bible studies this week with friends.
Additionally, on Christmas Day, she attended a party at church, with dancing, games, a huge feast and a gift exchange.
Ms. Ken said she used to be Buddhist, and that when she first started attending church, she was still unsure of her religious beliefs. She explained that because she comes from a family with “no love”, the compassion she found in the church helped her to feel whole.
After speaking with different pastors and studying the Bible more closely, Ms. Ken said that she became convicted.
Sothea Ket—unlike Ms. Ken, who no longer visits pagodas or practices Buddhism—said that although he too attends the Phnom Penh Church of Christ and considers himself Christian, he also still believes in Buddhism.
“Both Christianity and Buddhism are the same in some ways. It’s interesting. For me, it’s not picking which one is better. It’s whichever one helps me and gives good advice for my life,” he said, adding that he feels rejecting Buddhism altogether is ignoring his cultural roots. “These people who are pure Christian become Western. You know, Asian culture is Buddhist.”
Uong Vibol—former pastor and founder of the National Christian Churches Network Council of Cambodia—doesn’t religiously practice Buddhism, but agrees that it’s important to appreciate its cultural aspects.

Cambodians teens participated in a dance contest at the Phnom Penh Church of Christ's Christmas party. 

“I think it’s part of Cambodian culture. We are Christian, but still Cambodian,” he said, adding that he believes practicing in worship is much different than practicing culturally. “For me, as a learner and seeker, although Buddhism is not the true God, he is a good philosopher and a good teacher.”
In recent years this attitude towards Buddhism and Christianity in Cambodia has become much more accepted, yet according to Khon Dara—Deputy Director of Ministry of Cult and Religion—only about 2 percent of Cambodia’s population identity as Christian.
That said, Mr. Dara explained that very few churches—all within Phnom Penh city limits—existed in Cambodia in the 1990s, and today there are over 1,397 registered churches nationwide.
According to Mr. Vibol, the number of Christians has also increased since the 1990s, when only about .075 percent of Cambodians were Christian.
Mr. Vibol has been an active Christian for 30 years now and said that recently he’s personally witnessed about two or three people be baptized in his church community each month.
“More people open their heart and understanding today, especially young people,” he said, adding that he sees children and teens getting more involved in youth groups and Bible studies. “They come to understand Christianity, sharing the Gospel, and they still have a choice. They choose it.”
Even though the number of Cambodian Christian believers remains relatively small, their faith is strong.
“I am not broken in heart anymore,” said Ms. Ken, adding that she used to not know the meaning of happiness. “I was born again. God is so awesome. He can do everything.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Selen Gulun Piano Performance

By: Olivia Harlow
Produced & Edited by: Olivia Harlow

Pianist, Selen Gulun—the first Turkish musician to perform in Cambodia—played at Doors last night, where she wowed the audience with her original jazz melodies.

The 43-year-old contemporary songwriter from Istanbul started playing the piano at age seven, dabbling in various genres and exploring compositional techniques ever since.
Though her educational background focused mainly on jazz and classical forms, she claims that her music is very improvisational and doesn’t necessarily fit into one label.

“I like to write every form of contemporary music,” said Ms. Gulun, who has worked with symphony orchestras in London, jazz bands in Mozambique and electronic groups in Austria. “I’m trying to use the language of the 21st century really.”

However, according to Ms. Gulun, being a professional musician in the modern world isn’t always easy.“If you’re a musician, it’s a crazy life,” she said, adding that she’s dealt with a myriad of obstacles related to being a jazz-focused female composer. “Somehow though, you have this courage, just because you love it so much.”

© Olivia Harlow 2015  

Since 2006, she has released five albums, with “Answers” (2010) making #6 and “Baska” (2013) making #4 on top jazz charts in Tokyo just last year. 

An album that she recorded with Italian artists earlier this year is meant to release in 2016, along with her latest album titled “The Women’s Matinee”—a collaboration with three Turkey-based female musicians and various instrumental contributors, honoring the life of a dear musical friend who was raped and murdered earlier this year.

According to Ms. Gulun, women’s rights issues and a passion for international travel heavily influence the majority of her songs.

Thus far she has toured to 18 countries— including Mozambique, Japan, Serbia and Cambodia just this year—giving her the opportunity to work with various musicians across the globe and travel to far off places that intrigue her wanderlust spirit.

“That’s why I come here actually—my passion to come to Cambodia,” said Ms. Gulun, adding that she’s wanted to visit the “Kingdom of Wonder” since she was a little girl.
During her two-week visit to the country, Ms. Gulun said she hopes to meet local musicians and experience as much as possible.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know what is driving me here. That’s the excitement. I will find out!”

Ms. Gulun will play again tonight at Chinese House at 7:30, where she said she will most likely play various jazz standards and sing more than she did yesterday evening.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Hope For Endangered Giant Mekong Catfish

By: Olivia Harlow
Produced & Edited by: Olivia Harlow 

The Mekong Giant Catfish has low-set eyes, a silvery gray scaleless body and a yellowed white stomach. Endemic to the Mekong River and one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, the Mekong Giant Catfish lives a threatened existence, vulnerable to dam construction, overfishing, and habitat destruction.

Rarely seen, this massive fish–capable of reaching a record 10 feet in length and 650 pounds—was listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered in 2003; and according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) there may be only a few hundred left in the wild.

On November 9, this giant fish was found and tagged for the first time this year in the murky brown waters of the Tonle Sap by a team of biologists, including Nat Geo Wild’s “Monster Fish” host, Zeb Hogan, who has studied the species extensively for many years.

Mr. Hogan—who was coincidentally in Cambodia doing research at the time of this catch— said that adult Mekong Giant Catfish are only seen during very specific times of the year in equally specific locations. He added that compared to counting terrestrial animals, tracking fish populations from large ecosystems like the Mekong is very difficult.

“What we do know is that in the late 1800s, thousands of Mekong Giant catfish were caught each year. In the early 1900s, there are reports of hundreds being caught each year. And recently we hear reports of less than 10 caught per year,” he explained.

Youk Senglong, Executive Director of Fisheries Action Coalition Team, clarified that these fish used to be eaten for food, “because those people do not understand.” He added that many people back then used to care more about their income than the importance of protecting the species.

Mr. Hogan said that fish catching often serves as a proxy for abundance, “So, IF catch is related to abundance, then giant catfish has declined by 90-99 percent in the last century.”

Mr. Hogan explained that giant freshwater fish in other parts of the world, including the Yangtze River in China, have completely disappeared. “Unless there is someone monitoring the populations, the same thing could happen on the Mekong,” he said, adding that the Mekong Giant Catfish already teeters on the brim of extinction.

Mr. Hogan said though some people may not care about one species’ potential extinction, this declining population reveals a much bigger issue.

“The Mekong Giant Catfish is symbolic of the health and integrity of the Mekong River,” he said, explaining that this specific body of water is one of the most biodiverse on Earth. “The extinction of the Mekong Giant Catfish would be an indication of declining river health and a red flag for the millions of people who depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods.”

In addition to warnings of the area’s fragile environment and loss of sustainability exists a spiritually related problem.

Traditionally revered among Buddhists, the Mekong Giant Catfish, or “pla buk”, is considered a sacred creature.

“Cambodian people, in particular fishers, believe that this kind of species is the king of other fish,” said Mr. Senglong, adding that Buddhist religion requires that the fish not be killed. “This species also brings other fish to fish. So, if the fishers catch and eat the catfish, the fishers will never [have] chance to catch other fish.”

Mr. Senglong added that when he was young, fishermen would conduct a special ceremony for the fish. “[There was] music and sprinkling perfume,” he explained.  “The role of Buddhist monks and other religious followers is important to educate the fishers not to catch and eat.”

Thach Sophanara, Director of Laboratory at the Fishery Administration Department, said that this kind of ceremony occurred before the fish was set free on November 9, fishermen sprinkled perfume over it for good luck. “Cambodians believe they can wish for something or for good luck with these fish,” he explained.

But unfortunately, this “lucky” fish is experiencing anything but luck.

The Giant Mekong Catfish requires long stretches of open water in order to migrate and environmentally specific conditions to breed, but according to Mr. Hogan, human intrusion and the building of dams have disrupted these patterns.

“The main threats are incidental catch, habitat fragmentation because of dams, and habitat degradation—primarily dredging, rapids blasting, and reduction of flooded forest habitat,” he explained.

Additionally, although it’s now illegal to fish this particular species, enforcement in Southeast Asia’s more secluded areas is minimal.

“The difficulty of enforcement in remote areas is because when they fish Giant Mekong Catfish, they transport into Laos,” said Mr. Sophanara—who was also present at the catch on the Tonle Sap. “Also, we don’t have budget for patrol or to educate them.”

Mr. Sophanara said that fishermen rarely pay close attention to the types of fish they catch when they cast nets. “Fishermen never understand when it’s [the fishes’] season and what kind of fish they are catching,” he said. “They just leave their nets in the Tonle Sap, but they don’t know that impact.”

He added that many fishermen in other Southeastern countries continue to catch and sell the species in local markets, which is out of Cambodian control.

According to the WWF and Mr. Hogan, these social and economic developments make conservation work in the Greater Mekong region urgent, yet challenging.

Fortunately, last Monday, scientists found hope.

On November 9, the Mekong Giant Catfish— also known as the “royal fish”—was caught and tagged, proving its doubted presence in Cambodia.

Mr. Hogan then dove ten feet with the seven-foot long fish, ensuring that it returned safely to deeper waters.

“[I tried] to direct it to deeper water where it normally swims and is less likely to be caught again in a net,” said Mr. Hogan. “The fish seemed strong as I released it, so I hope that it will recover from being captured and continue its migration.”

(Additional Reporting Sek Odom)

Puppet Show Links French Modernism With Cambodian Tradition

By: Olivia Harlow
Produced & Edited by: The Cambodia Daily
Handmade leather and paper puppets, 2 meters tall, crinkle their way across the stage, dancing in sync with the music to tell the tale of a boy with only one eye who cannot hear, and his twin sister, who has one ear but cannot see.
This will be the scene on stage at the Institut Francais in Phnom Penh on Saturday night, when French theater group Compagnie l’Aurore and Phnom Penh’s Kok Thlok artists’ association present the fruits of their first collaboration, a show that gives traditional Khmer shadow puppetry a modern French twist.

The production—“Un Oeil, Une Oreille” (“An Eye, An Ear”)—which premiered last week in Battambang City, is a story of separation and reunification, the story of two children, one of whom experiences the world only through sight, the other only through sound.
“It’s a mythology story about two children separated when they’re born and then trying to join all their life,” explained performance director Francois Dubois of Compagnie l’Aurore, which is based in the southern French town of La Reole. “At the end, they will succeed, but they will be different persons.”
Mr. Dubois’s production uses the contrast between the “ear” and the “eye” to meld auditory and visual elements, as well as an interplay between French and Cambodian influences. Taken as a whole, the show is a bid to modernize one of Cambodia’s oldest art forms, one that is struggling to find a foothold in a world of television soap operas and Facebook.
Sbek thom—a traditional form of Khmer puppetry dating back to the Angkorian era and recognized on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage—uses flat, intricately carved leather figures to tell stories of ancient deities from behind illuminated white screens.
After first witnessing the Kok Thlok artists practice sbek thom in Phnom Penh four years ago, Mr. Dubois was inspired to play with the art form and integrate it into his own work.
To see the rest of the story, see:

Cambodia's Kite Festival Sticks to Tradition

By: Olivia Harlow and Buth Kimsay
Produced & Edited by: Olivia Harlow

On November 12, hundreds of colorfully designed, handmade kites flew over Koh Pich around 8 a.m. as part of the 19th annual Khmer Kite Flying Festival.

The event, organized by the Ministry of Culture, observed 49 kite flyers release large, vibrant bird-shaped and airplane-shaped kites into the air. The kites—made from plastic, paper and bamboo and decorated with detailed drawings of elephants, tigers, and water buffalo—were constructed using traditional techniques.

Over 2,000 years ago, Khmer people built kites from hard bamboo and tree leaves, flying them at the end of the rainy season in hopes that ancestor spirits would bless the farming period. Because of continued agricultural success throughout the Angkor era, Khmer people continued kite flying, holding annual festivals in honor of the harvest. During war, the yearly celebrations came to a pause, but in 1994 tradition was revived and has persisted ever since.

Today, the most traditional Khmer kite, “Khleng Ek”—which translates to “kite musical instrument”—is still flown. These kites use a sounding bow, which creates a buzzing, musical noise when met with wind. 

In this year's competition, a panel of judges evaluated kites based on their flight ability, aesthetic, and sound, offering cash prizes, flowers and trophies to the winners.

Him Vibolphal, Director of Culture Development at the Ministry of Culture and member of the judging panel, explained, “We judge on three things: design, stability of flight, and sound. If the kite makes seven different sounds, it is good.”

First place winner, 37-year-old Yen Sina from the Kompong Thom province, said he not only enjoys creating and flying kites, but that he thinks it is important to introduce the art form to those who know nothing about it. “I want to show the Khmer kite to other people living in Phnom Penh and other provinces who have never seen a Khmer kite,” he said.

According to Mr. Vibolphal, many more people attended this year’s festival than in the past, giving flyers such as Mr. Sina greater exposure and increased competition.

“There are many kite flyers and many kinds of kites this year,” said Mr. Vibolphal. “We announced the kite competition in advance this year, which is why we have more competitors than other years,” he explained. According to Mr. Vibolphal, flyers all the way from northeastern regions came to compete.

“I come to compete here, because I want to have fun. It was so much fun, and I’m very happy that I am the first winner,” said Mr. Sina.  “Khmer kites are our heritage, so we should take care of it.”