Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Bridges of Battambang

Nestled at the corner of Tonle Sap Lake, Battambang is a Cambodian town in resurgence. Poised between the Thai border, now seeing rail connections into Poipet after the destruction of the Khmer Rouge years, and equidistant to Siem Reap, and the wonders of Angkor Wat, or the capital Phnom Penh. The latter now, as of this month, with the first scheduled rail-link to the coast and port at Sihanoukvile in 30 years.

And amidst the rice basket and forests of Battambang Province is Battambang Town itself rippled by the River Sankhae and its four bridges. The Old Stone Bridge leading to the Governor’s Palace of 1905 built by the previous Thai administration, before French colonial rule took over until 1947 and Cambodian independence. The modern New Iron Bridge linking the river promenades and exercise areas to the hotel and restaurant areas. The Park Bridge through to the Russian market and commercial banks. And the New Stone Bridge to the modern hospital and river ferry to Phnom Penh.

A town now teeming with vitality, with potential listing as a UNESCO Heritage Town and recognised as a hub of the Performing Arts. A resurgence of arts built on the era of chanteuses such as Ros Serey Sothea, the Golden Voice, resonant of Edith Piaf, and Sinn Sisamouth and Pan Ron from the 1960’s heyday blending of traditional Khmer music and electric guitars.

All lost in the Khmer Rouge torture chambers such as S21 Tuol Sleng, a nondescript high school in Phnom Penh and thousands of work camps in the countryside as cities such as Phnom Penh and Battambang were emptied. The UK’s Trade Minister and Creative Industries expert, David Puttnam’s movie The Killing Fields detailing the story of journalist Dith Pran, played by doctor Haing S. Ngor, the first untrained actor to win an Oscar.

The American journalist Sydney Schanberg who worked with Dith Pran and won the Pulitzer prize for reporting on Cambodia for the New York Times, dying earlier this month.

Some of the main rural reservoirs and graves of the medieval wasteland of mud and skulls of the Khmer Rouge regime depicted in the movie are around Battambang.
And beyond the bridges and graves of Battambang, the necklace of 1,000 year old Khmer temples, such as Baset Temple with its pond that never dries, even in the hot season, and Wat Ek Phnom with its 11th century friezes of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, that extend along The Royal Road to Angkor and on into Thailand’s Isaan region.

Such major tourist attractions are breathing life back into Battambang, along with the Creative Industries to the fore are the Phare Performing Arts Institute and circus, now internationally renowned. A somersault from the days when over 90% of artists and monks and doctors and journalists were routinely executed in the drive back to Year Zero, and the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampean with its breathaking views over the province.

Now Battmabang is peppered with graphic design studios, art galleries, a clutch of Khmer and Thai restaurants, social enterprise cafes, artist collectives, and art deco cinemas. And a wealth of visual and creative arts colleges, and universities pulling through a new generation of students.

And a wealth of returning emigres such as Princess Soma Norodom – a Princess Diana figure revitalising the reinstituted Cambodian Royal Family with work on landmines, fashion and textiles and film.

And backing onto the Governor’s palace, and now disused art deco Battambang railway station, is the Bamboo Railway the last vestige of Khmer railways, now a tourist attraction of tank wheels and a bamboo platform, with its shrunken feeder lines into the fields for rice and bricks freight.

But, with the main railway being rebuilt, and the wealth of arts, surely the real bridges of Battambang should be not iron and stone but the flesh and blood of human capital - with greater links between Cambodia and UK?

A dynamic and active British Embassy under Ambassador Bill Longhurst has rejuvenated the UK’s political and diplomatic and administrative links beyond Phnom Penh to towns such as Battambang. Arts and Science links are fostered in depth with the Women in Science series of STEM books of Deputy Ambassador Bryony Mathew (highlighting UK excellence in engineering for railways and trams and tubes/metro), and a tripling of Chevening student scholarships between UK and Cambodian universities.

And a fizzing arts scene is crying out for UK showcases of Ballet and Khon dance at the Royal Albert Hall and Barbican again. Khon Dance is a good-natured Thai and Khmer balletic rivalry for the UN Cultural Heritage status. While Thailand’s Queen Sirikit Textile Museum, OTOP programmes and Bangkok’s futuristic Skytrains, are testament to Thai skill in preserving arts and crafts, and potential with Cambodia, to showcase such priceless fashion designs and silk-weaving expertise that is ripe for the fashion houses of Europe as well as Asia.

Sports Diplomacy too has come on apace with both the Leicester City Premiership win of the Thai-owned club a spur for more than ad-hoc club visits to Thailand by Arsenal and Chelsea and ManU.

And England too, given former England manager Roy Hodgson’s time as a player for not one but 5 Kent clubs from Ebbsfleet to Ashford, must sound the whistle, with the full heft of the FA, to kickoff cohesive sports programmes into Cambodia, Laos and the rest of ASEAN.

The roar of the Thundercastles of Buriram just over the border, winners of the Thai Foootball League’s first ever hat-trick of titles, and Invincibles in never being beaten during a full season must be an ideal lever to ASEAN-wide sports training programmes and exhibition matches and exchanges.

Britain’s excellence in sports whether football, golf, cycling, athletics and the Olympics – both playing and managing, as well as Sports Industries, should be the ideal footprint for Stadium Tours of the Kop and Wembley and cultural exchanges.

Khmer tourists won’t initially rival the record-breaking 1M inbound UK tourists to Thailand, or indeed Thailand’s 30M visitors. But the Kingdom of Cambodia’s 4M tourists will certainly grow as will the 4M Vietnam tourist trade and 4M Myanmar tourism.

While Thai inbound tourists to UK are already the 3rd highest spenders after the Chinese and Arabian gulf states – and c.8k Thai students in UK against only 17k Malaysia students and 89k Chinese students creating the basis for deeper university links as well as sporting events.

Twin town programmes are under-nourished in Cambodia with Battambang suffering from the rather non-descript links of Stockton in California or Germany. Potential that could be grasped in East Kent with Canterbury and its cathedral or Dover and its epitome of Englishness the White Cliffs of Dover or the Arts and Tourism shift of Ramsgate, plus the existing French and Belgian and Danish links. And Kent’s 4 universities, 400 schools – 40 in Thanet alone – and dozens of language schools and sixth form colleges.

There is time. The Sankhae still flows smooth and silent through the centre of Battambang.

Past the bustle of the market. The evening breeze rustling though bolts of silk as the market closes and balcony shutters are thrown open, whispering down through the trees from the far Highlands of Vietnam.

A Golden Voice of Khundrum melodies competing with Vietnamese tunes and the lilting refrain of the song Pleiku you are so lovely that sadly no longer rings true.

The Sankhae flows past Restaurant street, Pub Street and the collection of glinting trophies from the coffee championships of Cambodia routinely won by the baristas of Battambang, and past Gallery Street.

Past the Time to Think arts installation on a riverboat by artist Khchao Touch.

Two fishermen waist-deep in the current of lotus flowers waiting for the occasional catfish.

The air thick with the scent of malaria coils and incense and steamed rice and dumplings.

The Sankhae flows on past the parade of monks in their orange robes in the still morning air, past the twilight glow of the evening joggers and petanque players, as the moon comes out and shines on the Bridges of Battambang.

Time for Change

* Sincerity article: Thai Foreign Minister, Khun Surin Pitsuwan and Thai-UK trade:

* Sincerity article: Soda Wars go pop

* Surin Charity: Malaria a brief thought:

* Sincerity article on Coca-Cola:

* 21st century Britain agenda article:

* No Tobacco Day Smoking Sincerity article:

* EK Remedial points 2016:

* EK strategy 2016:

* Time for a Free Economy article:

* Surin restaurant review: top Thai restaurant in Kent:

- Surin Thai restaurant the best Thai restaurant in Kent and one of only 45 of any cuisine in Kent according to KM:

Tim's Titbits:

* nice to see "Lord Fraud" Hannigfield having his fake expenses claims court case overturned by Parliament - and where is Lord "Grabafee" Grabiner and the fraudsters of One Essex Court? Silence only reigns now for GlickQC and the Ali Bongo barrister Guy Hollingworth and their fraudulent firm.

* a parking kerfuffle in Ramsgate with the PCSO's not quite sure about parking on the prom or BBQ's - silly me, of course you should park on the prom and pedestrian zone... the TDC litter chaps doing a good job of picking up the mess, and TDC's parking wardens now active on seafront and town centre parking.

* Kent Police seem to have gone off in a huff and retreated into the police stations or their IT isn't working - no sign of PCC improvments for The Boy Scott running what appears ot be another police department staffed by cops rather than credible scrutiny on behalf of the publc. Mind you the lawyers running the consultaion on the Nemo/National Grid pylons have gone off in a huff too with only silence not explanations. Some consultation - barely better than leaving the documents in the council basement for a day with a days notice before rubberstamping them approved.

* Speaking of which it seems the 2 Stolen Valour elections are on: announced on Friday and nominsations close...this Friday. For an election in 3 weeks or so. After 2 weeks of delay and 9 months without councillors. Another weak Kent election designed to reduce public involvement. The Election Commission specifies 19 working days for candidates nominations. Too difficult for TDC it seems along with the previous elections frauds. Useless. Simply refuse to stand or vote. We're already at some of the lowest-ever turnouts of 20% or less.

* an East Kent Supercouncil in the offing which is not bad as long as it's not mere rebadging. Many of the councils have failed to promote and protect East Kent and are over-stuffed and over-paid. A review of existing staffing and salaries etc would be useful as a basepoint.

* excellent news to see Ramsgate marina's historic Slipways announced as a refurb to a working port rather than a twee tourism building - the good folks of Hornby and the latter need support for elsewhere in the town.

* Terrible news with Live Animal Exports resuming with the SS Joline junkship - and large cargo/tanker ships berthed off Margate and its Blue Flag beaches rather than tied up in port.

* Disappointing to hear too of unnecesarily tighter immigration controls on Thai chefs into UK - dampening down the burgeoning Thai cuisine and restaurant scene in UK (UK's 3rd most popular cuisine). Time too for KORA the Kent Oriental Restaurant Association.

More later:

* Trident
* PM and Cabinet and Corbyn
* Thor mercury: Flint arrests and prosecutions underway
* Infratil directors of Wellington NZ's worst airport
* Shan heroin and Colombia cocaine
* South Sudan UK evacuation
* Jordan refugee camps
* Dreamland going bust?
* the foolish 750 houses for Manston initial plans given mega-developments at Ebbsfleet New Town and ThamesGateway2050, the latter with Lord Hezza oversight


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