Joseph au Cambodge

Les merveilleuses aventures de votre serviteur au pays des Khmers

26 March 2007


I realize that I never mentioned two important books which I read in Cambodia:
Soth Polin is an important Cambodian writer, who was forced to flee in 1974. He came to France and later moved to the United States. About "L'anarchiste":
Un écrivain cambodgien francophone, inspiré par l’existentialisme sartrien.
Ce livre a été écrit en deux temps. Dans la première partie écrite à la fin des années 60, le narrateur révèle son malaise et son statut de marginal au sein de la société cambodgienne. Dans la seconde partie, exilé à Paris alors que son pays sombre dans l’horreur, le narrateur vire au nihilisme…
Un livre sombre et beau, par l’un des seuls écrivains cambodgiens à avoir connu une reconnaissance à l’étranger.
George Groslier was a French artist, ethnologue and writer. Born in Cambodia, he served there for the French administration. About "Le retour à l'argile":
Claude se rend compte, peu à peu, de la futilité des affirmations occidentales face au Cambodge dont il découvre les richesses dans sa pureté et sa continuité. Sans complaisance, pas plus pour lui-même que pour son milieu, nous accompagnons la remise en question de cet homme.
Roman touchant et en partie autobiographique de George Groslier qui avait séduit les milieux littéraires parisiens de l’époque. Il date de 1928.
Notice the Volume 16, Number 1 issue of the Manoa literary journal, dedicated to Cambodia. It includes the full transcript of Rithy Panh's documentary movie Bophana and an interview with Soth Polin. See also its review in the Cambodia Daily.

I thank my Khmer friends who made lent me these books and recommended my reading them. The abstracts of the books are courtesy of the Medianet Cambodiana database.

08 February 2007

Verified Emission Reduction

Since I traveled twice to Phnom Penh and back and I compensated for only one flight previously, I need to offset my second flight's emissions too.

Matthieu Bommier, in his Master's Thesis, quoted the following four websites as places where individuals can offset their Greenhouse Gas emissions:
It seems a little bit weird to compare the four competitors but I am indeed going to buy something - the capturing of 4 tons of CO2 - so why not choose who I would like to pay for doing so, depending on how much they charge for it and how serious they look?
  • ClimateCare is a UK-based company. It has a very simple and pedagogical website. Their projects seem serious. They evaluate my Paris-to-Phnom Penh return trip at 2,900 kg of CO2 and ask for 33 € to offset it (11 € per ton).
  • ActionCarbone is an association supported by the French Agency for the Environment. Its website is full of information to make people aware of global warming and of how to reduce their emissions but they don't lead any projects themselves, they fund others' projects. A direct fight from Paris to Hanoï (Phnom Penh is not known) is evaluated at 4,052 kg of CO2 and they ask for 60 € to compensate for it (15 € per ton).
  • MyClimate is a spinoff from the ETH (Institute of Technology), Zürich. They evaluate my trip at 3,736 kg of CO2 and offer to compensate for it for 90 € (24 € per ton). They will send me a "MyClimate Ticket STAR" certifying that my flight was compensated for.
  • CO2Solidaire, which I used last time (see my previous post) iss managed by an association, the GERES, based in France. They evaluate my trip at 4,380 kg of CO2 and ask for 106 € to compensate for it (24 € per ton).
The evaluation of the CO2 production is quite consistent between the last 3 websites, while Climate Care has an almost 30 % lower evaluation. This is not really astonishing. But the range of prices for offsetting a ton of CO2, from 11 to 24 € depending on the site, suprises me.

I will be deliberately naive and hope that the prices reflect the efficiency of the different organizations, and choose the cheapest. I will ask them to offset a larger amount of CO2 than the one they computed, though, to be more consistent with the average evaluation and the fact that my flights to Phnom Penh included a stopover in Bangkok or Taipei (the latter case being a very long diversion from the shortest path).

29 January 2007

Bravo for Rithy Panh

Rithy Panh was awarded on Saturday the top prize at the International Festival of Audiovisual Programs, in Biarritz, for his documentary movie Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers in the "Creative Documentaries" category.

I had the privilege of seeing the movie in Phnom Penh a couple of months ago and I am glad that the movie won recognition. Shot in "The Building" of Phnom Penh, the movie captures the life and despair of prostitutes who are at the mercy of their clients, the police and the pimps, drugs and AIDS. In the words of Rithy Panh, the film was an attempt at "Going back over my inability to react when I was faced with something intolerable." Apart from an irreproachable behaviour from our part, what can we do in the face of such misery and injustice? NGO's don't get very good reviews from the prostitutes in the film for affectiveness, and I didn't come back from Cambodia as a big fan of NGO's but my impression was nevertheless that they were a way of saying to the young women: "someone cares". Watching Rithy's movie is also one, I hope the movie will be screened in cinemas and on television. Bravo for Rithy Panh.

French links:
French title:

26 January 2007

Off the Rails in Phnom Penh?

As this article which will probably be the last one on the "Joseph in Cambodia" blog, I would like to write a quick review of Amit Gilboa's 1998 book: Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja.

Before I do that, I would like to thank again all my readers and invite those who are interested in the sequel of my adventures in Cambodia to tune to my new blog: What's Next?, in which I plan to write some wanderings in the Land of Israel...

Amit Gilboa was in Cambodia in 1997, almost ten years ago now. He writes about the country he saw but he was more specifically interested in the decadent foreigners who would come to Phnom Penh for (underage) girls, drugs and, more generally, any way to escape from their miserable lives in their "home" countries. The author acknowledges that he wasn't interested in any of the "professionals" who were in the country at the time, working for NGO's or private companies, only in "lifers" and "adventurers".

Gilboa starts with a useful, and, to the extent of my knowledge, accurate summary of Khmer history.

For the rest, ten years ago, Paris or New York probably looked very much like today, but the country he describes is definitely not the one I saw in 2006. And I was fortunate enough to have the company of NGO workers, professionals and students rather than "lifers" and "adventurers". So I cannot corroborate most of the things he describes. I didn't read the book as a total stranger either, because I could picture today's situation ten years earlier and deem what he writes (his accounts of corruption, political assassinations and the 1997 coup, prostitution, etc.) likely as the roots of today's situation - only worse.

I was nevertheless taken aback by the chapter entitled "Khmers". There are interesting remarks in that chapter on the character of Cambodians but the tricky part is the idea that no foreigner could ever understand nor get to know intimately the Cambodians. Just because it has never been done (among Gilboa's acquaintances) doesn't prove that it cannot be done!
More seriously, the way it was put, was shocked. It's true that for foreigners, in-depth intellectual contact is not easily made with Cambodians. Western and Khmer cultures have indeed very little in common. But even if very few people do so (I have probably met no more than four or five Westerners who spoke a perfect Khmer), it is possible to learn the language thoroughly and immerse oneself in the Cambodian culture.
The question is a sensitive one as even Cambodians who have lived abroad have sometimes a hard time being accepted as "real" Cambodians by their countrymen upon returning, so my opinion is not definitive either.

Overall, the book is full of fascinating anecdotes and useful bits of information and I was glad to compare an account of Cambodia in 1997 with my own. Thank you, Fabien, for recommending it to me and offering it to me as a farewell present!

17 January 2007

RDV France-Cambodge

Salut à tous,
S'il y en a qui sont à Paris et qui veulent se joindre à nous, il y a un petit meeting de phnom-penhois ce dimanche à 18h du côté de St Michel, m'écrire pour plus de détails (que je n'ai pas encore!)

15 January 2007

Heureux qui comme Ulysse...

Dear Friends,

When I left for Cambodia a year ago, day for day, I vowed that my last post upon coming home safely, with the help of God, would be entitled « Heureux qui comme Ulysse », after the poem by Joachim Du Bellay which I quote here:
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison,
Et puis est retourné, plein d'usage et raison,
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge !
This poem (and the song it inspired to Georges Brassens, see below) are what translate the joy of having travelled, seen, experienced, and still have the privilege of coming home to a warm welcome by one's parents. It's my "Veni, vidi, vici" in less martial terms...

Obviously I underestimated the fact that the foreign country becomes a little bit your home too (I know there is a contradiction with my previous post in saying that), that I made friends which I would be sad to leave.

In this mixture of joy and sadness, let me express how privileged I feel to have had the opportunity to travel through this journey safely and live so many determining events which will shape my future. I would like to thank all those whom I've met in Cambodia and on my trips, with a special merci du fond du coœur to my colleagues and close friends, several of whom accompanied me to the airport yesterday in very touching move.

Before concluding with the song from Georges Brassens, I would like to say to Sabine that wherever she is, I will always remember her fondly and cultivate her memory.
Heureux qui comme Ulysse
A fait un beau voyage
Heureux qui comme Ulysse
A vu cent paysages
Et puis a retrouvé après
Maintes traversées
Le pays des vertes allées

Par un petit matin d'été
Quand le soleil vous chante au cœur
Qu'elle est belle la liberté
La liberté

Quand on est mieux ici qu'ailleurs
Quand un ami fait le bonheur
Qu'elle est belle la liberté
La liberté

Avec le soleil et le vent
Avec la pluie et le beau temps
On vivait bien contents
Mon cheval, ma Provence et moi
Mon cheval, ma Provence et moi

Heureux qui comme Ulysse
A fait un beau voyage
Heureux qui comme Ulysse
A vu cent paysages
Et puis a retrouvé après
Maintes traversées
Le pays des vertes allées

Par un joli matin d'été
Quand le soleil vous chante au cœur
Qu'elle est belle la liberté
La liberté

Quand c'en est fini des malheurs
Quand un ami sèche vos pleurs
Qu'elle est belle la liberté
La liberté

Battus de soleil et de vent
Perdus au milieu des étangs
On vivra bien contents
Mon cheval, ma Camargue et moi
Mon cheval, ma Camargue et moi
(Courtesy of

09 January 2007

Parting from Cambodia

How long before I feel the need to come back?

You always know what you lose, never what you gain.

So why am I leaving?

The main thing is that I'm not at home here. Even though I was warmly welcomed by almost everyone, even though I can live here very comfortably my daily life, even though I love the places, the people and the way of life, I'm too different to feel at home here. My culture, my religion, my values are all different. The country's history, the country's political system are not mine. And I have a hard time with the country's current direction (or lack thereof?).

Don't get me wrong, I was glad to be here, and to discover the Khmer culture. Even with regard to values which differ from mine, I respect them. In many ways I felt much better here than in France, and I'm not sure France's direction (or lack thereof) is better! But, were I to choose to stay in France, I would be entitled, as a citizen, to try to bring the country in the "right" direction, which I'm not entitled to do here. My work's sole legitimacy was to be part of a project initiated in Cambodia by two Cambodians.

Other reasons for coming home are related to family, the wish to work on something new again and to discover yet new countries, cultures and ways of life.

I hope this post is not an anticlimax to my dear readers and friends. That everyone understands one may love a culture and a way of life without wishing to make them his.

Before my programmed flight home, I went to visit the temples in Angkor one last time. Ta Prohm was imposing, Preah Khan complex and beautiful, Ta Keo impressive in its unfinished state, Ta Nei mysterious in the absence of a single visitor. In the sunset, the Bayon, completely devoid of visitors too, was frightening and, last but not least, Angkor Wat was enigmatic as always while I tried to decypher its bas reliefs.

All the best,