This post occurred due to a sequence of events that pointed me in the direction of Cambodia and even more so in the direction of a Cambodian band called Krom. Was it coincidence or perhaps a message inviting me to explore and learn more.
How It All Started
In the first instance I recently worked on a Thais Abroad post called
with guest Khun Lek Mayne. During the interview Lek spoke of her early working life on a refugee camp at a place called Aranyaprathet on the Thai / Cambodian border.
Shortly after the interview with Khun Lek I spoke with a gentleman called John Fengler, an American national living in Thailand who told me that he had also worked at the very same camp. I remember thinking that this was quite a coincidence.
Cambodia: Photograph by John Fengler
Next, I saw an article that was highlighting a video trailer about a forthcoming documentary. It was based on a Cambodian gentleman who now lives in Australia named Hom Chhorn. In the year of 1978 and at the age of 6, Hom Chhorn was taken away from his family by the Khmer Rouge and sent to work in a labour camp. That labour camp became known as Camp 32 where 30,000 people were believed to have perished.
The problem with camp 32 was that it was never officially acknowledged as ever existing. Hom Chhorn together with the documentary team set out on a harrowing journey back in time to prove the existence of Camp 32.
Along with the video trailer came this haunting but amazingly appropriate theme music by a Cambodian band called Krom. The sound track for the documentary just totally locked me in.
Cambodia: Photograph by John Fengler
I had seen the Cambodian band called Krom documented in different places on a few occasions, but had never really stopped to take a real look at their music. Where could I find out more? Then I remembered that at least a couple of chapters had been devoted to the band in the excellent book called ” Bangkok Beat ” written by Kevin Cummings. I had read this book a few weeks earlier. Time to revisit.
Finally, the book I am currently reading called ” Crack Down ” by Christopher G. Moore is set in Bangkok, Thailand, but has a Cambodian illegal migrant / talented artist as a main character.
You can only ignore coincidences for so long. The Cambodian connection was calling, in fact Cambodia was calling full stop.
Cambodia: Photograph by John Fengler
To take a look at this in more detail required a changing of the order. I had to start first in a very dark place and with the documentary called ” Camp 32.”
The documentary is based on a gentleman called Hom Chhorn who in 1978 and at the age of 6 years old was taken away from his family by the Khmer Rouge and sent to work in a labour camp.
The problems began three years prior to this in 1975, when a pro communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge rose to power. Under their regime, millions of people were sent to labour camps and anyone found to show any form of resistance to this order, were killed. The four-year horror reign under the Khmer Rouge saw two million people murdered or starved to death and thousands more tortured.
The site where Hom Chhorn was sent to became known as camp 32 by the Khmer Rouge guards. Survivours believe that 30,000 people perished at camp 32. The trouble is, there is in fact no official record of camp 32 ever actually existing. Although going on to create a fine life in Australia, the haunting memories of camp 32 still cut deep for Hom.
Thirty years of nightmares and personal torment see Hom together with the documentary team set out on a harrowing journey back in time to prove the existence of Camp 32, and they do prove it. The documentary theme music is by the Phnom Penh based band called Krom.
The documentary is directed by Andrew Bloggs & Tim Purdie and research by Gaye Miller.
An article about the documentary: The Search For Camp 32
Film Trailers, Excerpts and news for Camp 32
News on the Camp 32 Documentary
The film will be made available for online download and on DVD by early next year, but crew are currently pursuing the international film festival circuit as well. Keep an eye on the Camp 32 facebook page for continued information about the documentary.
Cambodia: Photograph by John Fengler
The Fall Out
On 25 December 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Kampuchea that involved 150,000 troops. The Vietnamese wanted the removal of the the Khmer Rouge-dominated regime of Democratic Kampuchea, deeming it pro Chinese and hostile towards Vietnam. Their objectives were achieved within 2 weeks and the Khmer Rouge removed from power. It was the beginning of a 10 year Vietnamese occupation.
The country became the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1993 and the monarchy were restored. It was not until the mid 1990’s however that the Khmer Rouge organisation was for the most part dissolved and finally surrendered totally in 1999.
In 2014, two Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Kheiu Samphan were sentenced to life in jail by a UN backed court. They were found guilty of crimes against humanity and responsible for the deaths of two million Cambodian (Khmer) people. This was said to be a quarter of the country’s population between the era of 1975 – 1979.
Khao – I – Dang Refugee Camp (Holding Center 20 km north of Aranyaprathet. Known to aid gencies as K.I.D.)
Memories from Khao I Dang refugee camp from two guests who actually worked there.
Khun Lek Mayne: A Thai national, but now living in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
” I finished my degree in Bangkok, Thailand and then in 1979 after college I went to help with a big group of refugees from Cambodia in a place called Aranyaprathet near to a Thai -Cambodian border. We moved the Khmer refugees to a big camp. I was working with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) call CARE International doing Supplementary feeding under a United Nations High Commissioner project (UNHCR).”
Khun Lek Mayne – Khao-I-Dang (KID)
” My job was to provide food for pregnant women, children under 5 and supply baby food for one year, lactating mothers and some of the more elderly people. I also helped to provide food for patients in 7 wards in a camp hospital. By the way the camp where I was working was featured in the movie called “The Killing Fields.” I was there when they were actually making the movie. I also helped build a big kitchen complete with a stove with 250 refugee workers. We didn’t pay money to the refugees, but in goods that themselves and their families could use. ”
John Fengler: An American national, but living in Thailand.
” I worked at camp Khao-I-Dang in 1983. It was ran by the UNHCR and administered on the ground by the Royal para military unit, called Task Force 80- commonly known as ‘the Black Shirts.
The ‘border’ by the way, was fluid as it was an active war zone, and ebbed and flowed in its I believe 11k width. Mortar shells often fell near or in the camp, and it was raided nightly by the Khmer Rouge for goods, as well as ‘recruiting…..’ Boys to re supply their army.”
John Fengler – Khao-I-Dang (KID)
Khun lek said, ” That’s absolutely correct it was called Khao-I-Dang which actually means ” spotty mountain. I was still there in 1983 at CARE Section 7 Supplementary feeding programs. There were lots of volunteers, many organisations and thousands of people working there. However, there were not many Thais working in the camp.
I remember once that I had mortar shells from the Khmer Rouge land in my field kitchen ! We operated with radio or walkie – talkie in order to monitor the situations. Sometimes though, the situations were so bad and so close to each other that we had to run to a bunker. This was during the day time. All pots, pans and food gone, but we started again the next day.”
Khun Lek Mayne- Khao-I-Dang (KID)
John informed me further that, ” What was profound for me, among many things, was that you know these weren’t ‘just farmers’,. This was the entire society, or what was left of it; doctors, lawyers, artists, engineers etc. we all worked with them, bonded with them- but at the end of the day..literally at the end of each and every day, the internationals packed up, mandatorilly, and moved to the safety of the Western quarter in Aranyaprathet. The nightime was when the incursions would happen, and the Khmer Rouge would raid the camp for supplies, fresh ‘recruits’, whatever they wanted really. And in the morning we’d go back to see what the night had wrought.
One of the most powerful images to me to this day,was when I first got there ‘fresh off the boat, white and squeeky clean, all these kids, from 4 to about 12, would follow me around joyfully, physically pressing themselves against me, trying to get coins or candy or sell horrific hand drawn cards with Khmer Rouge atrocities painted on them. All the kids so cheerfully laughing at/with me whenever a mortar would fall not too far away. It was heartbreaking to see them so inured to war, and to be able to laugh at my fright, as this was all so commonplace for them.
Each evening after all the aid workers left the camps for the relative sanctuary of their respective organizations housing, we all had to fuel our vehicles and park them tail in, for rapid egress as the border and shelling were fluid and changed often.I still park that way to this day.”
Khun Lek went on to say that ”In 1995-96 we had a repatriation program that sent them all back home to Cambodia. ”
Khun Lek together with her English husband continued and still continue to this day their valuable work in various countries. Khun Lek said, ” My husband remembers the name of Camp 32 and was in Cambodia in 1981- 82. During that time, some people talked about Camp 32, but we had no idea where it was. The reports were very much along the same lines, that people worked in the rice fields all day with very little to eat and some eventually died of hunger or sickness. It was so horrible the things that happened to them. ”
Khun Lek Mayne- Khao-I-Dang (KID)
Lek said, ” We have moved to many countries over the past 30 years with UNHCR. Our diplomatic courier took us to Pakistan , Somalia, Ivory Coast , Liberia, Sierra Leone then back to headquarters in Geneva and Vienna for Eastern Europe. Finally, we ended up here in Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina!”
” As a regional representative for the Balkans. We are currently very busy with all the refugees from Syria that came in from Greece and Macedonia. We were supposed to retire last year but we still carry on for the moment. ”
Khun Lek remarked on how she enjoyed the Khmer music whilst working at the camp. I too have a fondness for the music of South-East Asia myself. I must admit though that my knowledge base is more on the music of Thailand than that of Cambodia. I especially enjoy some of the older and more traditional music.
The camp 32 documentary theme music had in deed locked me into the video trailer. I felt as though it was calling out for me to follow. It felt as though I was traveling through a very long passage way of flash glimpses into the pain, sorrow and horror of those four years. The theme music was addictive, wonderful but haunting at the same time. I visualised coming out of the long passage way when the music stopped and struggling for air. The music had undoubtedly and brilliantly done it’s job.
The music was by Krom…. ah, that band again. I needed to find out more about Krom, but where do I start? Then I remembered the book called ” Bangkok Beat.”
In ” Bangkok Beat ” written by Kevin Cummings, a couple of chapters are devoted to the Cambodian Noir band called Krom. One chapter was an interview with lead singer Christopher Minko and the other chapter was about when Krom came and played in Bangkok on a three night run during December 2014.
The Music of Krom
Members of the band: Christopher Minko, Sophea Chamroeun, Sopheak Chamroeun, Jimmy B, James “Mao” Sokleap and Gabriel Mancini.
Genre: The MEKONG DELTA BLUES / NOIR
Photograph by Anya Minko
After finally walking into the Krom music world for a browse, it’s three day’s later and I’m still browsing. Okay granted, they are not full days, but there’s the start of an addiction that keeps me returning.
As I jumped in my car to meet with a client, I could still hear Mama Blue a Krom song playing in my head and that’s where it stayed for most of the day. Occasionally Mango Madness, Monsoon Sadness another Krom song would start to kick in. It would have been nice if my mind would have played them in an orderly fashion, but I guess we’re just not wired like that. Oh by the way, that’s another terrific track The Wire by Krom…. I love that one.
However, there was a Krom song I’d heard that raised the hairs on the back of my neck, but I just couldn’t keep the tune in my head without the song actually being on…. well not yet anyway. I had to return home to find the tune again. I can tell that age has started to kick in as I couldn’t remember the name of the track. Further more, my one and only skill, that being organisation had on this occasion failed me as I hadn’t written the name of the track down. After a strong word with my self I remembered that these lap top things have history.. Aha.
I find the song and have another strong word with myself as the title is really not difficult to recall at all. I hit the play button and instantly enter into a secret world a world where time and reality both cease to exist. I like that immensely. The combination of the song, the talented artists and the feel for the culture is mighty powerful. If I play the song again then I can stay in the secret world.
Now I’m good to go as they say. The song is locked into my head and I even remember some of the lyrics – that’s the English lyrics though.
Photograph by Anya Minko
I wait in orderly fashion at the ATM machine queue with the song buzzing nicely around my head. I am back in reality, but managing to stay in the secret world with my borders patrolled and fighting off those reality intruders. It’s a strange business when you’re in a happy and singing type of mood – intruders can be kept at bay. All of a sudden I had this urge to belt out the chorus line at the top of my voice, but I managed to get control of myself. It seemed somewhat inappropriate singing about Cambodia in an ATM queue to an audience in the south west of England. Further more, the lady in the song has the voice of an angel. I too have the voice of an angel, but it’s more…. Hells angel and I couldn’t put them through that. With the correct choices made I’m on my way and the song remains with me for the rest of the day.
I briefly played with the thought of wondering what happened to that punk rocker. The one with green hair found at concerts pogoing ( i.e. jumping up and down) to ” Clash City Rockers ” and ” Tommy Gun ” by The Clash or ” 5 Minutes ” by The Stranglers. I’m now more likely to be found in a tranquil setting listening to a Sunday afternoon of live Jazz at Check Inn 99 when in Bangkok or singing along to a Cambodian love song by Krom. Not only that, but the green hair has been replaced by very little hair. Oh, how things change.
Seriously though, Krom are a breath of fresh air with a totally unique sound and through their music they bring to light issues that need continually addressing. Not many would address them though, Krom do.
Photograph by Jonathan Van Smit
Read all about Krom here as Kevin Cummings the author of ” Bangkok Beat ” interviews the leading band member Christopher Minko. Everything you need to know about the band is covered in the interview.
More on Krom
Krom have 2 albums released to date. The first album is called “Songs from the Noir ” and the second album is called ” Neon Dark.” There is a 3rd album that is close to completion with an expected release date of early 2016. A couple of links below to keep you up to date with the work of Krom.
I’ve been harping on about what a cracking good read ” Bangkok Beat ” by Kevin Cummings is for a while now, but don’t just take my word for it. This is a terrific Review of Bangkok Beat by Paul Dorsey in the Sunday Nation.
With regards to Crack Down written by Christopher G. Moore, I’m not going to tell you anything about that as I’m presently reading it. Recently though at the end of September 2015, ” The Phnom Penh weekly ” sent Phillip J. Coggan to interview author Christopher G. Moore.
In the interview they talk about Cambodian connected books written by Christopher G. Moore such as Crack Down, Zero Hour in Phnom Penh and Reunion. They also run the rule over a book of short stories called Phnom Penh Noir which was edited by Christopher G. Moore.
The interview is called Scratching the underbelly: Christopher G. Moore and Vinny Calvino.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot – Vinny popped along as well. It’s a really good interview.
This was a different type of post from my normal type, but one I learnt an awful lot from. I was out of my depth a bit as usually I am far more comfortable talking about culture, language and travel. If somebody would have said can you knock up a compilation post on music, history, books, preview a documentary and memories of Cambodia, I would have stared at them blankly. Thailand …. I quite probably could do.
However, there was no need to worry as I was out of my depth, but with armbands. So a few thanks are in order. Thanks to Khun Lek Mayne and John Fengler for all the marvellous information and memories about camp Khao-I-Dang that they gave me and for some terrific photos.Thanks to Tim Purdie for taking the time in giving me information about the Camp 32 documentary. Thanks to Christopher Minko for navigating me through the music of Krom and paving the way for me to talk to director Tim Purdie. Thanks to Bangkok Beat author Kevin Cummings for allowing me to link to his excellent interview with Christopher Minko and for his chasing around on my behalf in several areas. Thanks to Christopher G. Moore for bringing the Camp 32 documentary and the music of Krom to my attention.
I’ll now wander back across the border in blog terms, but leave the last words to Krom…. they say it best.
Have I put this in already? Sorry, but it’s darn good.