Thursday, August 31, 2006 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975 and brought with them a regime of terror, mindless executions and starvation in Cambodia. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum serves as a stark reminder to those dark days of modern Cambodian history.

Originally run as a high school called Ponhea Yat when it opened in 1962, the building was converted by the Khmer Rogue into a detention center in 1975. It was renamed Tuol Sleng which roughly translates to "mound of poisonous trees" in the Khmer language. The buildings were also collectively known as S-21 or Security Office 21. The compound consists of 5 main buildings used to house prison cells, torture rooms, administrative offices and living quarters. The graves of several dead prisoners found by the Vietnamese army when Tuol Sleng was liberated are sited in the far left corner of the image above. The Khmer Rogue executed all surviving prisoners as the Vietnamese approached Phnom Penh.

Rough estimates show about 17,000 political prisoners were interned and executed in Tuol Sleng from 1975 to 1979. A small number in comparison to the estimated 2 million who lost their lives during the short reign of the Khmer Rouge but it is often remembered for the level of brutality committed in such a concentrated space. Killing prisoners was actually discouraged in Tuol Sleng but many inevitably died from the torture and disease which was rampant in the prison. Confessions were usually exacted from prisoners under torture and they were thereafter carted off to the nearby Choeung Ek killing fields for final disposal.

Prisoners were kept in holding cells which came in a variety of sizes. Single occupants were often shackled to the cell walls and in the larger lockups, prisoners had their legs shackled together via a long steel rod pictured above. A shorter rod about 1 meter in length was used for 3 to 4 prisoners while the longer 6 meter rods were designed to hold up to 30 prisoners. The prisoners were secured to the rods on alternating sides and had to sleep with their heads in opposing directions. This example shows how these restraints were used, the picture contains a rather graphic scene. And a painting depicting the arrangement of prisoners within the holding rooms.

Prisoners from all walks of life were subjected to systematic torture within the confines of Tuol Sleng. Many were educated people, politicians, teachers, artists... men and women, young and old, none were spared. Out of the thousands which came in, there are only 7 known survivors. Prisoners were strapped onto bare metal beds and suffered many different forms of torture including beatings, electric shocks and strangulation. Many prison guards were children ranging from 10 to 15 years of age. Most started out timid but grew to enjoy the torture they exacted on the prisoners. Vann Nath was a survivor of Tuol Sleng, saved by his skills as a painter, he was tasked with recording the activities in Tuol Sleng through his paintings. His canvas showed many horrific scenes, prisoner torture, rampant infanticide, and killings. Up till recently, pools of dried blood could still be seen in the torture rooms but this has since been removed.

Immaculate records were kept of each prisoner from the time of entry till execution. Each one was photographed and detailed biographies of their lives recorded from their childhood years. These photographs are now on display, many of the mug shots show prisoners with bewildered and startled expressions. There were many infants amongst those photographed.

Up until 2002, a map of Cambodia shaped out of 300 skulls from prisoners of Tuol Sleng was displayed. Since then, the decision was made to dismantle the map and the skulls respectfully displayed in glass cabinets. This action was supported by many human rights groups as well as the Cambodian government.

My 2 hour visit to Tuol Sleng left me with a deep sense of sorrow. Even after 30 years, the horror of what took place there was still very much apparent. The buildings are left virtually unchanged from the days of the Khmer Rouge, apart from a few modifications to accomodate the exhibition displays. Buddhist monks were conducting rites in the gardens while I was there and this is apparently a common occurence as many locals still believe restless souls roam the halls and corridors of S-21. Do include a visit to Tuol Sleng if you're ever in Phnom Penh, if only to remind ourselves how far the human race has come since then and how much farther we have to go in a world where genocide is still commonplace .

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Thursday, August 24, 2006 

It ain't so bad, being a cow

Having decided to live it up during the first part of our vacation in Cambodia, the Sanguines and a small group of friends checked into Hotel de la Paix, an upscale property located within the heart of Siem Reap. Upon entering the doors of the hotel, it's like descending into a whole different world from the dirt and grime of the city streets. As part of the deal, we were treated to a spa lunch. Wasn't exactly sure what to expect when we showed up, I for one was a little apprehensive when the fixed menu appeared. First question was "where's the meat?", the wholely vegetarian spread wasn't exactly what most of us expected. I think I heard someone say they were allergic to greens.

Anyways, the deli was nearby if anything should go horribly wrong so we proceeded to sit down and steeled ourselves for whatever the sadists in the green kitchen could throw at us.

First up was this vile looking concoction with what seemed like a 200 word description in the menu which included the history and herbal properties of ginseng "stimulate the immune system; and; stimulate appetite (as well as sexual appetite)"... woohoo! I have to say, it tastes better than it looks or smells. That extra shot of vodka did the trick.

With the energizer out of the way, the beet carpaccio showed up. From a distance it really looked like slices of beef carpaccio. I'm one of the few folks who actually like beetroot, partly due to a beetroot (yes, beetroot) diet which I embarked on a couple of years back. Accompanying this purple wonder was the tomato salad, which damn, was pretty good too. I suspect that both dishes were given generous doses of olive oil, which I'm a sucker for as well.

The watermelon dessert didn't sound quite exciting when we saw it on the menu but hey, like the rest of the dishes it was quite excellent. Juicy and sweet, flavored with mint and accompanied by a scoop of mango sorbet, it was served ice cold (plate and utensils too). I didn't quite care for the organic green tea that came along with it though... perfumed with freshly plucked pears... yeah right.

We topped it off with a rather strong coffee ice cream. Wasn't part of the menu but the nearby deli had an irresistable spread of frozen delights that no human could resist after such a healthy lunch.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006 

Katie Reider

Watching Dawson's Creek over again, one episode after the other on dvd is like experiencing a smorgasboard of musical treats. Unlike many other shows, each episode features a unique soundtrack. Imagine 6 seasons, with about 20 episodes per season, and about 7 songs in each episode... that's almost 900 songs in total, detailed stats are available here.

"Just Because" lo-fi sample
Click on image

It was in season 2, episode 9 where I discovered Katie Reider. Her sensual whisper of a voice radiating with the simple guitar accompaniment on "Remember" struck me immediately. Thanks to the iTunes music store, I was able to listen and ultimately downloaded both "Remember" and "Just Because" from her acoustic album Simplicity. "Just Because" has been on repeat play ever since and I think it's on its 35th play at the moment. Thought I'd share this little gem I found, I've included a lo-fi sample of "Just Because", click on the image to listen.


Saturday, August 19, 2006 

The children of COSI

I've been contemplating work in the missions field for a while now and apart from serving as a photographer in church, I haven't had a real go at an overseas mission trip. An earlier attempt at joining a church planting mission team to Cambodia 3 years ago ended in failure when I came down with dengue fever two weeks before leaving. Like many other churchgoers, I was initially apprehensive about serving. This was primarily due to uncertainty as to how I could contribute and whether I could devote enough time to make that contribution in an effective manner. I eventually found my calling when I picked up photography again some 3 years ago. Prior to this year, I've been focusing on work closer to home and my church but since then, the trips I made this year to Calcutta, India and Kupang, West Timor to photograph humanitarian organisations have convinced me that there are many areas in great need of help through publicity in the form of images.

The Methodist Missions Society (MMS) is the missions arm of the Methodist church in Singapore. One of its many concerns includes the Community Outreach Services-Immanuel Children's Village or COSI for short. COSI is located in the Ang Snoul district of the Kandal Province in Cambodia. It's a 45 minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh and set in the middle of a farming community.

I was presented with an opportunity to visit COSI a couple of weeks ago and decided to see what I could capture with my camera. If you feel compelled to contribute to MMS and its various causes, please visit their website or email them at MMS is currently in greater need for people to step out of their comfort zone and enter an area of service although funds would be greatly appreciated as well.

COSI is an orphanage catering to 6 to 18 year old kids. There are currently 117 residents which is close to the maximum capacity of 120 residents. It serves as a shelter and school to all the residents. A young student picks up her homework after grading by her teacher.

Classes are taught in both English and Khmer, and in various disciplines such as language, mathematics and sciences. COSI is currently understaffed and is in need of more educators and administrators. It is currently run by a full time missionary from Singapore who teaches and acts as an administrator. Under her charge are a handful of teachers and general staff, some double up as house-parents to the children.

Kids will be kids, paying attention to the photographer instead of lessons. Most of the children in COSI would not have had an opportunity at education if they had not been brought in. Many rural families are not able to afford education past a rudimentary stage and children are often required to help out in the farming work from as young as 8 years of age.

Many of the children form close bonds while in COSI. Most have lost their parents or were given up by families too poor to raise them. When COSI first opened their doors 6 years ago, there were initially more boys than girls. Cambodian families tend to prefer females as they are deemed more useful at household chores and as such tend to give up their boys instead. The ratio has somewhat equalized over the years although the orphanage still shelters a slightly higher number of boys.

In addition to classes, the children also learn about agriculture by working in a small field for an hour in the evenings.

The children help out with chores around the compound, everyone will have their turn at cleaning, cooking and washing laundry.

COSI relies entirely on public funds to operate. The monthly budget of about US$8,000 goes to food expenses, staff salaries, diesel for the electric generators, teaching supplies and a range of other needs. Though not a large sum, considering all this supports 117 residents and more than 30 staff members, there is always a need for more. Once funds and additional human resources become available, there are plans to create another orphanage and school in other provinces.

The Emmaus Women's Centre is located within the grounds of COSI and serves as a shelter for displaced women. Here they are sheltered and equipped with skills such as sewing and dressmaking so that they might be self-supporting.

Most of the boys spend their free time around the football pitch, several hours a day.

Some of the girls sharing their stories. Many are heartwrenching tales of single parents leaving their families, parents killed in accidents or suicide, abandoned by their families... the list goes on. Their tales all end on a similar note, one which speaks of the happy times spent in COSI and the prospect of looking forward to a brighter future.

Catching a ride to the padi field. Most of the kids willl spend their entire childhood within the confines of COSI though there have been some who have chosen to leave as they could not adjust to the regiment required of their stay in the orphanage.

Accomodation is basic with the boys and girls living in separate housing. The rooms are organised into "houses" with about 16 children in each house under the care of a set of house-parents. Outside the classroom, the children are under the foster care of their house-parents who often act as mentors and provide guidance and discipline when needed.

The children rely on donated toys and clothing. There's always a ready need for more. Many are deprived of toys which more fortunate children would take for granted.

In prayer during evening vesper service. It was heartwarming to watch as the children sang hymns and shared unreservedly amongst themselves.

My time spent in COSI was but a short one though it was enough to witness the abundant grace of God at work amongst the children and community of COSI. And as mentioned in the beginning of this post, there is always a call for more volunteers come forth and offer their time and services, whether full or part-time, to help out with a range of activities like teaching and maintenance. Not just in COSI but also with many of the other social concerns under the umbrella of the MMS. Again, please visit the MMS website for details and contact information if you feel that calling within yourself.


Sunday, August 13, 2006 

Old Market, Siem Reap

A short holiday was in order and the Sanguines packed their bags and headed for Siem Reap, Cambodia. And instead of showing you the over-photographed Angkor temples, I thought of featuring some other sights of this growing city instead. The Old Market (Phsar Chas) was but a short hop from our hotel and the promise of bargains had Mrs Sanguine all excited. I of course tagged along with my trusty Canon.

Dried meats often feature in Khmer cuisine and especially popular are the many different types of dried fish. Trei ngeat can be found in salads and porridge and I found it to be more flavorful than the dried fish used in chinese cooking.

I was quite surprised to find tortoises being sold openly in the market. They are quite popular and considered a delicacy of sorts. Cambodia farms tortoises and exports them worldwide, sometimes illegally. This poor creature seems to be looking for a way out.

Yellow noodles, found in most asian markets.

I always enjoy visiting wet markets when I travel. This one especially reminded me of the times when my grandmother dragged me off to Joo Chiat Market when I was a kid. Grimy floors, dark interior, vegetables laid out all over the floor, flies, blood... it was almost like being a child once again.

More images from our Cambodian trip to come when I get around to editing them. Still in a holiday mood...

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Thursday, August 03, 2006 

A vadai with your meal?

Lunch today was at Annalakshmi Janatha, one of my all time favorite indian vegetarian restaurants which recently moved to its new premises on Amoy Street. I was there getting shots for a project I'm working on and decided to get down and dirty with the grub... how to pass on a fine meal after savouring the sights through the viewfinder eh?

And out of sheer coincidence, a blogosphere acquaintance popped into the restaurant for a lunch meeting. She was subsequently roped in to become my unwilling restaurant patron model. The picture shows her attacking the buffet line for the 4th time. Careful, those vertical stripes will accentuate undesired body parts.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006 

Uniquely Singaporean 1

Uniquely Singapore, a tagline coined by the Singapore Tourism Board to promote this island state as a travel destination.

The image above probably isn't one you'll typically find associated with tourism but it sure is a habit unique to some Singaporeans, as far as I can tell. It involves sticking a Vicks Vapor Inhaler up one's nose for a prolonged period of time in full view of everyone else, a menthol high if you will. I've always been of the opinion that if it's something to do with your nose, do it in private.

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